Tag Archives: Chekhov

Breaking the rules. Making the rules.



I caught this quote board image in my Twitter feed last week. Though I believe Landau is referring to her work with devised theater, where the givens are largely negotiation among collaborators and the various texts they bring into the rehearsal room, I think the idea about the play-world being “an entirely new universe,” “invented from scratch” and “belonging to this piece and no other” is still applicable to processes that start with the givens of a published script.

As Jeff has mentioned multiple times in rehearsal, there are going to be very divergent opinions on this production and what we’ve “done” with Chekhov. But there’s a key preposition in that phrase, “done with Chekhov.” We have invested our attention into his words and the world they make possible in full view of acres of past productions all the way back to the first collaboration with MAT. We have taken our cues from that history and responded to the new, specific context of our production. There will be those who might call it sacrilege. There will be those for whom this production will be transformative. And even those for whom this production will be their first experience of the play/playwright. All we can do now is trust that the investments in textual study, historical research, physical training, and collaborative character building will pay off in ways we know, we hope, and we can answer for.

Contemporary Chekhovian writers in the news. With accolade and with sadness.

Last week, recently retired Canadian author Alice Munro became the 13th woman in the history of the 110 year-old award to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for her impeccably crafted short stories.


Photo of Munro by Andrew Testa to accompany the announcement of her 2009 win of the Booker International Prize.


Immediately, I was struck by the number of news reports announcing a win for “The Canadian Chekhov.” Here were some of the reasons given by other Canadian writers in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press.com for the moniker:

Munro has stayed in Canada throughout her career, and is beloved for writing about its culture, landscape and small-town characters in a way that makes them feel universal.

Quick note here — remember I’d noted a couple of rehearsals ago that Chekhov and Ibsen shared many parallels in their career paths? One very specific divergence was time spent working/writing abroad. Ibsen wrote many of his major plays (between 1862 and 1891) while living in Germany and then Italy serving a self-imposed exile from Norway whose theater community he felt did not adequately compensate his talent. Chekhov, by contrast and despite the benefit it might have been to his health, rarely traveled outside of Russia. From what I’ve read 1891 marks his first extended trip abroad to France and Italy. He returns to the south of France in 1897 for health reasons but does not make an extended stay or regular pilgrimages to warmer climes after that. While he moves from his country estate in Melikhovo to Yalta for his health in 1899, his tuberculosis worsens to a point where he is order by a doctor to go abroad. He finally makes that trip to Germany in 1904. It proves to be too late and he dies and returns home to Russia in a coffin.

[Munro’s] first collection of short stories, 1968’s “Dance of the Happy Shades,” won a Governor General’s Literary Award as did her ’78 collection “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Munro’s long list of honours also includes two Scotiabank Giller prizes and the Man Booker International Prize. Her fiction has also been regularly featured in the New Yorker, and her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” was adapted into Sarah Polley’s acclaimed film “Away From Her.”

“I think in some ways, the short story form that she uses almost belies her power,” said [David] Bergen. “She’s conquered the form, absolutely, and it’s immeasurable.

“A short story is incredibly difficult to write and also it takes up a lot of energy, and what has always amazed me about her is that when she puts 12 short stories into a collection, basically what she’s done is write 12 novels. And as a writer, you know that she’s taken up a lot of her power and focus and introspection to come to those stories.

“It must be draining, but she does it beautifully.”

[Joan] Barfoot recalled reading Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women” when she was young and recognizing the spirit of the “rocky-souled” characters and geography.

“Her work does the whole world. It’s not Clinton-Wingham, or little places in B.C. It’s everywhere,” she said.

“She has a way of writing sentences that take a long time to read a short story, because you have to stop every other sentence and say, ‘Ah’ to yourself. She writes very capacious short stories.

“I’ve written several novels that could fit nicely into one of her short stories, probably. They are impeccable.”

[Wayson] Choy said he was first introduced to Munro in the ’60s at the creative writing school at the University of British Columbia and “could tell that this was only the beginning.”

“I just had that feeling. You read one story of hers and you think you’ve read a novel,” he said.

“The characters become one complete and collected community, and that’s the community of neighbours and people we know.

“She truly is our Chekhov.”

If you’ve never read any of Munro’s work, some stories to start with include “Lives of Women and Girls” (1971), “The Love of a Good Woman” (1998), and “Dimension” (2006).

On a sadder note, another writer, this one who was a Professor of English and the Blackburn Writer in Residence at Duke (brought to the university through the suggestion of Theater Studies’ own Professor Michael Malone) and who unexpectedly this weekend at the age of 62.

Duke University Photography.

Duke University Photography.

Oscar Hijuelos, the first Latino author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for his 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love), was remembered in today’s The New York Times, which quoted Michiko Ka­ku­tani’s review of that award-winning novel with this passage:

In­deed, Os­car Hi­jue­los’s re­mark­able new novel is an­other kind of Amer­i­can story — an immigrant story of lost op­por­tu­ni­ties and squan­dered hopes. While it dwells in bawdy de­tail on Ce­sar’s sex­ual es­capades, while it por­trays the mu­si­cal world of the ’50s in bright, pri­mary col­ors, the novel is es­sen­tial­ly el­e­giac in tone — a Che­kho­vian la­ment for a life of missed con­nec­tions and mis­placed dreams.

Kakutani is a critic who continues to see Chekhov in Hijuelos’ work, writing in a 2002 review of his A Simple Habana Melody.

Like so many of Oscar Hijuelos’s lovelorn, melancholy people, Israel Levis, the hero of ”A Simple Habana Melody (From When the World Was Good),” is a Chekhovian character, haunted by missed connections and unfulfilled dreams. He also emerges as a spiritual cousin of the two brothers in the author’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1989 novel, ”The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love”: like Nestor Castillo, he is a shy, introspective man, holding a torch for a woman from his long-ago past; like Cesar Castillo, he eventually misplaces his love of music and his love of pleasure, allowing regrets to define his life.

Dean Patton sent out a note marking Professor Hijuelos‘ passing that notes the flags in front of the Allen Building will fly at half mast this next week in his honor. Like Chekhov he is gone much too soon. Like Chekhov we are blessed with a treasure trove of his work that will live on and on.

And not the fun kind of absurdities either.

One need hardly amplify Chekhov’s indictment of the naturalistic theatre…The naturalistic theatre has conducted a never ending search for the fourth wall which has led it into a whole series of absurdities. The theatre fell into the hands of fabricants who tried to make everything “just like real life” and turned the stage into some sort of antique shop.

Meyerhold on Theatre. Trans. Edward Braun. London: Methuen, 1969: 30.

Would this study change Chekhov’s mind about academics?

In a study published yesterday in the journal Science, social psychologist researchers from The New School for Social Research in NY have found that reading literary fiction (as opposed to popular or non-fiction writing) has a greater impact on a subject’s understanding of emotional nuances, which, in turn, improves real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others. The study summary published in The New York Times‘ “Well” blog opens with a paragraph that immediately leaped out at me and might have caught your attention as well.

Reading Chekhov for a few minutes makes you better at decoding what other people are feeling. But spending the same amount of time with a potboiler by Danielle Steel does not have the same effect, scientists reported Thursday.


In the study, […] people who read excerpts from literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Alice Munro, Wendell Berry) scored better than people who read popular fiction (Gillian Flynn, Rosamunde Pilcher, Mary Roberts Rinehart) on tests asking them to infer what people were thinking or feeling – a field that scientists call “Theory of Mind.”

People who read literary fiction also scored better than people who read nonfiction (in this case, pieces published in Smithsonian Magazine, like “How the Potato Changed the World”). Interestingly, when subjects were asked, they said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much as popular fiction.

And in two experiments, some participants read nothing at all before taking the tests, yet performed as well as the participants who read popular fiction. Both of those groups made more mistakes on the tests than literary fiction readers, reported the researchers, Emanuele Castano, a psychology professor, and David Comer Kidd, a doctoral candidate.

“It’s a really important result,” said Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research. “That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.”

Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Darwin College, Cambridge, said, “I would have thought reading in general” would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading is remarkable. I think it’s going to generate a lot more research and I hope it’s going to generate some discussion in education.”

The report of this study’s findings raised a few questions for me, not the least of which being what’s the need for data to reinforce a point that English majors, their professors, and book lovers have argued for ages? I almost immediately answered that question with a reminder about the new Common Core standards being implemented in American schools, especially the addition of attention on non-fiction texts, which has been met with consternation (some from teachers, much from conservative politicians) about whether this shift will diminish the time spent teaching literature. Of course, since Chekhov wrote across genres (short stories, plays, articles, and what could be classified as early ethnographies) maybe he’s the key to bringing these different factions together. He’s already triumphed over the academics he lampooned in his pieces by becoming such a revered object of study for so many. On the other hand, I love imagining what kind of story he’d make out of this research, those who conduct it, and those who use its data for news reports and public policies.


Let us now praise Carol Apollonio

I want to thank Professor Apollonio for coming to last night’s rehearsal and re-rooting us in the Russian context of Chekhov and Uncle Vanya. As I said at the start of rehearsals, as a production dramaturg one is constantly hoping to become enough “expert” to support the work until the next play, the next period, writing and performance style when one quickly gathers a different sent “expertise” as she moves into the next project. So I am utterly grateful for the support of scholars like Professor Apollonio and John Wright (who came in last week to work with us on pronunciation) for providing expertise that is grounded in years of focused research and direct experience with our playwright and his culture and language.

It’s especially gratifying to be able to fact-check some of the more oblique references within the text. For example, learning that the Russian root of Yelena’s name means “lazy”, reminding us to consider that the absence of Sonya’s mother is the long-range catalyst for events in the play itself, and how Chekhov casts beauty and love in the figures of Yelena and Sonya.

I also thought of two moments where my own reading felt less than secure given the many layers of translation (language, time period, & culture) Baker’s text has gone through. So I sent Carol a follow-up message after last night’s rehearsal, and I’m very glad.

I first asked her about that moment early in Act I when Vanya goes on his first tirade about the professor (pg. 31) and he quotes from an unknown source:

With tired minds and furrowed brows/We write ode after ode/Not for ourselves/And not for the praise we’ll never hear.

I’ve been operating as if Vanya is quoting the Professor’s own hackneyed writing especially as he follows this line with “I feel sorry for the paper.” But Professor Apollonio informed me

Vanya quotes (inexactly, but recognizably) an 18th-century sentimentalist writer Ivan Dmitriev [from Jules — forgive the Wikipedia link but all the other materials are in books or behind paywalls]. These are the 2nd and 3d lines from a satirical poem mocking sycophantic (and boring) ode writers of his day (from the collection “At Second Hand” [Chuzhoi tolk]). “These writers slave away at their writing, but their hard work is not appreciated.” Your translation gives the basic meaning. The quote itself has a more stuffy and archaic feel (“having strained our minds, having furrowed our brows, with zeal we write…”), so the actor could feel free to lay it on thick. Since the professor writes academic prose, not poetry, the quote adds a thicker layer of bitterness and satire by referring to odes from 100 years ago.

So I got the basic purpose of Vanya’s quote correct but not the reference. Vanyas please make note of this change.

The second question — attention Phil — was in reference to a quote slung by the Professor himself at the end of Act IV when he’s parading himself out of the house. He says,

He who dwells in the past shall have his eye plucked out.

In this case it didn’t seem to be the Professor’s own prose that he was quoting but I was unsure if it was referencing material from known poet or writer. I’d been operating under the impression that it might be a kind of folksy saying or proverb and Professor Apollonio confirmed that reading:

it’s a Russian idiom. Your translator has rendered it fairly literally–but of course it’s hard to make this line work. The basic meaning is “let bygones be bygones.”

And that information just adds to the irony and irritation I think we’re encouraged to feel for the Professor as he leaves the scene and the estate. He’s so full of forgiveness for all the disaster his presence has largely set into motion. Not quite as ire-inducing as the “Do something with your lives” line. But close.

Again, a massive thanks to Professor Apollonio. If you have have other questions that dawned on you after last night or if you have them about translation context or cultural context, feel free to email her directly at flath@duke.edu or email me and I’ll pass the query along. You can also catch her “What Would Dostoyevsky Do” columns in The Chronicle every other Tuesday.

Composition under Culture Ministries and Culture Monies

Has anyone been following moves in Russia’s parliament over the summer, passing regressive anti-LGBT legislation? With the Winter Olympics in Sochi approaching in a few months, there’s been greater visibility and push-back regarding these laws from some in the international community and many in the LGBT community. LGBT citizens and activists within Russia have had a difficult if not impossible time recently in a country that has never been welcoming or liberal where LGBT rights were concerned. The reason I mention this is that there’s a new film about one of Russia’s favorite musical sons — Peter Tchaikovsky — being financed, in part, by the government. One of its main goals appears to be to refute or at least deny evidence about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. This weekend, The Guardian [London] ran this story about the effort to straight-wash Tchaikovsky’s biography.

Russia’s culture minister has denied that composer Peter Tchaikovsky was gay, discarding what has long been regarded as historical fact. Vladimir Medinsky claimed that there was no evidence to suggest the 19th-century composer was anything other than a lonely man who failed to find a suitable woman to marry.

Medinsky was asked about the composer’s sexuality after news emerged that a film biopic of Tchaikovsky being made with Russian government funding would ignore the composer’s sexuality. The script was apparently revised to remove references that could have made it vulnerable under Russia’s controversial new “gay propaganda” laws.

The film’s screenwriter, Yuri Arabov, denied that Tchaikovsky was gay, and told the newspaper Izvestiya that the composer of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty was “a person without a family who was stuck with the opinion that he supposedly loves men”.

“Arabov is actually right – there is no evidence that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual,” said Medinsky, when asked by the Interfax news agency if the climate of homophobia in Russia was forcing film-makers to censor the issue.

Historians, however, say there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

“In the case of Tchaikovsky his homosexuality is so well documented by his own writings and the writings of others that it is simply ludicrous to suggest otherwise,” said the author Konstantin Rotikov, who has written a history of gay Saint Petersburg. “It’s a historical fact. History doesn’t change just because we are trying to push a certain agenda today.”


I bring this story to your attention for a few reasons. One, because of the great affection (though no love affair) that existed between Tchaikovsky and Chekhov. Chekhov engraved this portrait of himself to the composer and dedicated a collection, Gloomy Stories, to a man who he regarded second only to Tolstoy in genius, an admiration he described in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother). Chekhov even invokes Tchaikovsky’s music in Act III of Three Sisters, when Veshinin hums the melody from the opera Yevgeny [Eugene] Onegin. They even discussed collaborating on an opera, Bela, with Chekhov serving as librettist, based on Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time (1839-41). Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky died from cholera (1893) before that project could begin.

Two, because last night Queer Nation staged a protest inside and outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera where a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin starring two Russian performers opens the season. This choice of action drew this response from the Met’s general manager, from which I thought this quote was particularly telling in any discussion of art and social justice:

But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.

Three, I turn to Tchaikovsky’s often disputed (and not just in Russia) personal life and the required revisions, absences, refusals in the new film as an example of state censorship that Chekhov dealt with (though under different historical circumstances) when writing plays. Before the [Moscow] Art Theatre was created as a private company, Chekhov had to submit his work to the Imperial Theatre Committee, which functioned as a government censor that would evaluate work, submit recommended and required changes, and assign it a state-subsidized public theater/company for performance. (The Lord Chamberlin’s Office served in this capacity in British theatre until 1968 and you can find out more details about other nineteenth-century theater censorship systems in the The Frightful Stage: Political Censorship of the Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Robert Justin Goldstein, Berghahn Books, 2009.) By the time he had to decide whether or not to “give” Uncle Vanya to MAT or send it through the regular state system, the decision, according to his biographer Donald Rayfield, was made for him by the censor who “took umbrage at the play’s aspersions on a professor and demanded changes.” (Anton Chekhov: A Life 487).

All of this to say that it is easy to see how government imposed control on artists constrains, coerces, and sometimes radically, sometimes incrementally changes the how, what, and why of an artwork (even of an artist’s own history). Commercial interests operate in much the same way though their networks of influence are less visible and, one might argue, more insidious. We usually reserve the cry of “censorship” for government imposition of value(s), for a public entity’s or official’s intrusion on an artist’s process or product; however, the marketplace itself (and all the structural components of that marketplace, which includes people and capital) shapes who makes and the what, how and why that gets made. Certainly we decry the market’s influence when we see sequel and sequel or remake after remake cranked out of Hollywood; however, theater seasons make their programming choices based on similar calculus. Even in the non-profit world, money and patronage drive the production machine. Don’t forget, the MAT was able to offer Chekhov a free(r) space for dramaturgical invention but that freedom was made possible by the wealth of patrons and fellow artists particularly Stanislavski who had significant income from cotton mills, a fact that would later come to constrain his own freedoms after the Russian revolution.


Women who don’t traffic in realism.

I take the title of this post from Ben Gassman’s January 2013 article in American Theatre titled “Knocking Chekhov for a Loop,” in which he examines the resurgence of Chekhovian tones, themes and characters in new work from American women playwrights who, as he quotes Kristen Kosmas, “don’t traffic in realism.” I’ve put the full article on the course materials page, but I wanted to draw your attention to two quotes as we look ahead to tonight’s discussion of Chekhov in the late 20th/early 21st centuries and we consider the workshop process with Kali and how to carry that work further into the next stages of blocking and text-centric rehearsal.

Chekhov’s characters don’t respond to each other–they struggle to say what they mean and aren’t quite able to. Nor do they listen. They reach for each other or verbally push each other away. They trip over their words. They get stuck between themselves and the possibilities beyond themselves. The conversational veritas and communicative disintegration that Baker emphasizes with her students [at NYU] is essential to her own Vanya and also galvanizes the current new works by Satter [Seagull (Thinking of you) with Half Straddle Theater] and Kosmas [There there].


Because Kosmas is fearlessly intuitive as a writer, and lullingly defiant as a performer, we are never quite sure where Karen’s [the protagonist of There there] mind will lead us. She says things we can’t allow ourselves to say. [Suzie] Sokol‘s Arkadina from Seagull (Thinking of You) puts this sense of indirection and equivocation another way: “I just don’t know what I actually want, or, I’m not going to admit it in a super real way.” Which is the kind of double-speak that could use an irreverent translator. My attempt: ‘I think I might want this, and I’m trying as hard as I can to be clear about it.’ What’s more Chekhovian than that?


Chekhov, Vanya, and Tragicomedy.

Is Uncle Vanya a comedy or tragedy? A melodrama or new realism? Realism or absurdism?

Short answer: Yes.

For evidence to support this claim, I turn to Verna Foster’s 2004 book The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. I was reading her discussion of Chekhov and tragicomedy as you all were in warm-ups for Kali’s workshop on Friday and given how much duality we’ve discovered and are actively courting with this production, Foster’s arguments seemed all the more compelling. I’m going to offer some of her observations about Chekhov as part of a first wave of tragicomedies in the 20th century sprinkled with some observations you all have been making in workshop, posts, and resonances from text we read aloud last Tuesday.

Please to enjoy.


[I]n each [play from Ibsen, Chekhov, O’Casey and Synge that she analyzes] the tragicomic arises from the gap between illusion and reality. Generally the major characters are comic in their fantasies, tragic in the realities of their lives. In Renaissance tragicomedy, by contrast, it is illusion that is tragic (the apparent danger of death), but the true state of things is comic. […] In modern tragicomedy it is the characters, not the audience, who may sometimes be spared the full consciousness of the tragedy of their existence. Hjalmar Ekdal in The Wild Duck, for example, may think himself tragic, but his tragic self-image is actually part of his comic fantasy, and he remains unaware of the real tragic contours of his life to which the audience bears witness. (119)

Foster argues that Vanya is a central comic character who perceives himself as tragic. (Thomas, this is part of what I was thinking of on Friday when we talked about whether Vanya really believes he could have been in the ranks of Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky.)

For Vanya, his pain is real, but his grandiloquent sense of what – “normally” —he might have been is ludicrous, as he himself immediately realizes: “But I’m talking nonsense.” […] Chekhov …transforms the melodramatic gunplay in Uncle Vanya into comedy that underscores both Vanya’s ineptitude and his painful awareness of his own insufficiency. (127-8)

I was particularly taken by Foster’s attention to how Chekhov pays attention to natural and social environments in building the tragicomic tension and its expression. (The notion of dependency that can have sour undertones also reminded me of Jamie’s cabin fever post.)

Chekhov’s tragicomic vision of life is grounded in his dramatization of realistic social communities comprising person of varying personality, age, and social status brought together (usually on an estate) by ties of family, friendship, and dependency. […] [In the Act 3 shooting scene of Vanya] Chekhov underscores the complex emotional effect he creates through his use of an ensemble of voices: Serebryakov’s pompous selfishness, [Yelena’s] desperation, Telegin’s comic irrelevance, Sonia’s quiet unhappiness, and the old nurse Marina’s wise belittlement of the behavior of her employers: ‘The geese will cackle for a while and then they’ll stop. (128)

And, back to my first post about how much I think Beckett echoes Chekhov just in a different register:

Anticipating Beckett, Chekhov expressed the classic tragicomic insight of modern drama that our awareness of time passing is tragic but the way we pass time is often farcical. (130)

That perspective on time and (dis)satisfaction reminded me of a monologue from Andrey we did not read last Tuesday from Three Sisters. It follows immediately on the heels of the scene between Irina and Tuzenbach that we did read. Here it is:

ANDREY: Oh, whatever happened to the past, when I was young and happy and intelligent, when I dreamed wonderful dreams and thought great thoughts, when my life and my future were shining with hope? What happened to it? We barely begin to live, and all of a sudden we’re old and boring and lazy and useless and unhappy. This town has a hundred thousand people in it, and not one of them has ever amounted to a thing. Each one is just like all the others: they eat, drink, sleep, and then they die …. more of them are born, and they eat, drink, and sleep too, and then because they’re bored, they gossip, they drink, they gamble, they sue each other, the wives cheat on the husbands and the husbands lie, they pretend they don’t see anything or hear anything, and the children end up just as aimless and dead as their parents. (313, Schmidt translation)

But for Foster, Chekhov’s characters lack of/inability to communicate is the result of self-absorption not the result of the kind of turn inward that is required of characters who inhabit a laid-waste Beckettian landscape. In both circumstances, it is the disconnect between what is said vs. what is meant or what is not said, we get tragicomic tension where “the text is funny but the subtext is not” (Foster, 134).

Chekhov writes tragicomedy at its most realistically subtle, achieving his effects through subject, telling juxtapositions, and the orchestration of an ensemble of voices recognizable to his middle-class audience. At times the tragic seems barely perceptible, but it is always just below the surface of the ordinariness of the lives Chekhov depicts, providing in Andrei Bely’s word an ‘aperture into Eternity.’ (135)

Picking up on the Bely connection, I found an abstract from a UNC-Chapel Hill slavic scholar, Jenya Spallino-Mironava, for a 2011 conference paper “Less is More: Tracing the Development of Chekhov’s Art of the Unspoken” in which she looks at the differences between Uncle Vanya and The Wood Demon in terms of their very different use of pause and silence. Spallino-Mironava writes:

[The contrast in the scripts] suggests that pauses in Chekhov evolve from serving mainly to create the impression of “life as it is,” in the realist tradition [The Wood Demon], to bringing what Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko termed the lyrical “undercurrent” (“podvodnoe techenie”) to the fore and becoming “apertures into Eternity,” in the words of Andrei Bely [in Uncle Vanya]. While realistic in their very nature, pauses in mature Chekhov can be seen as holes in the lattice of life, as breaks in the fabric of the text, which allow the transcendent undercurrents of human existence to come forth from just below the surface of the ordinariness of life portrayed.

More on “ordinary” action and character development in upcoming post.



a Chekhov to bind them

Apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the amazing work done with Kali in last Friday’s workshop. I’ve also been reading a lot from directors and actors (past and present) about their impressions about the playwright and his work, thinking specifically about how the Moscow Art Theater basically emerged as Chekhov’s theater, even though he worked with them for only the last 4-5 years of his life (since he died at age 44) and from that union of playwright and an emerging theater company grew so much of the structure, vocabulary and tone of we use in acting and playwriting study and practice today. To that end I wanted to share some observations about ensemble building from Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen collected inThe Cambridge Companion to Chekhov (2000).

Nunn on gathering a group (which included McKellen) to work on The Three Sisters:

I could see that there was great value in doing a Chekhov; actors know that working on a Chekhov play is like to be a democratic experience and that everybody is required to provide an equal amount of contribution and initiative. The Chekhov play becomes ‘company-forming’ material. (102)

McKellen on his “next” Chekhov project:

I’m going to do Dorn in The Seagull this autumn [1998] at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, with Jude Kelly directing. That play is so essentially about theatre people that a company of actors can bring an awful lot of their own lives to it, even though it was written a hundred years ago and in another country. We’re going to set up a company of actors who can do three or four plays one after the other. As usual, in those circumstances, Chekhov immediately springs to mind as a very good way of binding a group. The major joy of Chekhov is the group that does it. Also, every detail of the relationships between the characters, whether they speak to each other much or not, is very clearly present in the text. It’s very easy and quick to read what the situation is, which isn’t true of Ibsen, for example. Chekhov is a wonderful friend to the actor. (131)

Astrov would be proud

From today’s Boston Globe story “New England Sees a Return of forests and wildlife

"Across New England, areas like the Swift River Valley (above, left, in the 1880s and in 2010) in Petersham have seen their forests, once cut down and cleared for farmland, replenished in the 21st century."

“Across New England, areas like the Swift River Valley (above, left, in the 1880s and in 2010) in Petersham have seen their forests, once cut down and cleared for farmland, replenished in the 21st century.”

“New England is undoing many excesses of the industrial age,’’ he said in an interview. “Stagnant waters aren’t just stirring — they are finally starting to flow fast. Fish are swimming freely to their ancient spawning places. Great birds are again bold in the sky.’’

Wetlands throb and slither with rejuvenated life. Rivers are quickening even in notoriously compromised corners of the region — the herring run on the Acushnet River in southeastern Massachusetts, for example, has rocketed from a few hundred fish to many thousands.

And bald eagles are soaring in skies that have not borne eagles for decades.

“Until 10 years ago, there were zero bald eagles — none — nesting in Vermont,’’ said John Buck, migratory bird project leader for the Vermont Wildlife Department. “Now there are 14 nesting pairs, hatching about 24 chicks. That sounds small, but it’s a big jump.’’

Chalk it up to taller trees, cleaner water, and plenty of prey, according to biologists.