Tag Archives: Chekhov

Drawn from/of the land

Perhaps it’s only fitting, given the prevalence of Chekhov’s plays on New York City stages in the past couple of years, but just a few weeks ago, the New York Times published this feature about Chekhov’s Melikhovo estate and the museum on/of its grounds tended so carefully (through turbulent times) by a devoted curatorial staff, especially Kseniya A. Tchailkovskaya who has worked at the estate for over 40 years (Marina?).

A couple of photographs and a section about the feel of the place when Chekhov was in his heyday caught my attention, esp. as I look at some of the place names referenced in Vanya which are thinly transformed references to the very real places and people that surrounded him and his working life (as playwright and doctor).


"Many artifacts came from the later Chekhov home in Yalta, enabling visitors today to get a full glimpse of a cramped family home in the late 19th century."

“Many artifacts came from the later Chekhov home in Yalta, enabling visitors today to get a full glimpse of a cramped family home in the late 19th century.”

When the Chekhovs lived here, she said, they entertained, gardened, painted and made music — the dacha pastimes of generations of Russians able to afford them. The playwright’s brother Aleksandr was a keen photographer, and scene upon scene of guests and family line the walls of the main wooden house, alongside works by renowned Russian artists — and visitors — like the painters Isaak I. Levitan and Vassily D. Polenov.

Chekhov, besides writing and taking part in the estate’s gostoprimstvo, or hospitality, also worked as a doctor, preparing his own medicines. He was always ready, Ms. Tchaikovskaya said, to treat even the poorest patient.

Chekhov’s guiding principle in doing so, she added, was “hasten to do good,” a maxim of Dr. Friedrich Haass, a revered chief doctor of Moscow prison hospitals in the 19th century.

Chekhov’s altruism and the modest proportions of his estate are a far cry from the all-out materialism and bigger-is-best mantra of oil-rich Russia today, where millions are still poor but millions of others are consuming as never before.

Perhaps the writer felt bound to serve not just because of his medical training but also because his own father, Pavel, started life as a serf, winning his freedom only at age 16.

"Chekhov’s country estate, which he bought at age 32, is where he wrote “The Seagull” and many other works."

“Chekhov’s country estate, which he bought at age 32, is where he wrote “The Seagull” and many other works.”


The pared-down setting and the rehearsal props are reminiscent of Our Townbut Thornton Wilder used those devices to keep the audience aware that they were watching a play; Gregory and Malle use them, paradoxically, to show how little the details of setting matter when the details of character are worked through and profoundly right. At some point in the first act, we stop noticing that we’re not watching a fully designed production—or if the thought does occur to us now and then, it’s as an emissary from the real world pinching us to remind us that this is a movie of a rehearsal of a play, before we forget again and are swept up in the emotional turmoil of the characters’ lives. The key item in the movie for exploring this notion is the “I  New York” coffee cup on the dining room table, an anachronism that becomes merely part of the fabric of the setting, imbued like everything else with the indolent, unsettled atmosphere of this Russian country estate. This interaction of late-twentieth-century New York actors with a turn-of-the-century Russian text acknowledges both and celebrates the tension between them as well as the overlap. That’s why the music we hear behind the opening and end credits isn’t, say, a balalaika melody but a marvelous jazz score by Joshua Redman. The point is that Uncle Vanya speaks as powerfully to contemporary Americans as it did to Russians at the sunset of the age of the czars. The magnificence of the performers, perhaps the most extraordinary group of actors ever gathered to bring Chekhov’s play to life, confirms it.

From Steven Vineberg’s review of Vanya on 42nd Street “An American Vanya” as packaged by Criterion Collection for DVD release. The bolded section reminded me a bit of our conversation after the viewing of Gregory’s film last Friday and how this production seeks to invest the audience deeply in the complex inner worlds of these characters paradoxically (perhaps) as a way to open a window into the very constructed process of making those characters. To be both transparent and immersive … that is our challenge.

Experimental Parameters

As promised, a list of the parameters of our experiment that I read aloud at our Friday, Aug. 30th class meeting.

    1. Theater is a space of imagination, thoughtfully informed by worlds, times, and experiences outside its space.
    2. Within Uncle Vanya characters’ realities are driven by feelings and their ability/inability to be articulated through language and action.
    3. The purpose of character teams casting is to offer actors a chance to unlock a shared, yet separate, understanding of complex characters by making specific, detailed choices born in the space where language and physicality meet. This approach offers an audience the chance to pay close attention to character construction through actor performance.
    4. We seek to disrupt our audience’s nostalgia about historical realism by focusing their attention on our fabricated world within the walls of Sheafer. We are offering the audience a glimpse into the process of constructing theatrical reality — just as the characters seem to be processing the notion of “how did I get here?” in their lives. Everything is transparent and open but not improvisatory, simplistic, or unprepared.
    5. Baker writes of her approach to the text,

The goal was to create a version that would make Chekhov happy; to create a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play’s first productions in the provinces in 1898.

We seek a similar, lofty goal: to create a version that appears as something new, unseen before and yet ultimately recognizable and relatable to our contemporary Duke University audience.

And a few of the items Jeff mentioned about performance conventions:

  • We will be thinking about Chekhov’s vaudevilles and the swing of the pendulum in his major works between farce and trageey; laughter and tears.
  • Some characters will be broader in their performance than others based on their actions and given circumstances.
  • Audience members (both on and off-stage) are always aware that we are watching a rehearsal/performance of the play (as in Vanya on 42nd Street).
  • Music is used for transitions and, in vaudeville terms, interludes (possible song & dance moments).
  • Character teams work together, helping each other prepare for their chance to tell the story.
  • Age will be achieved with costume, props, movement, voice. Not makeup.