Tag Archives: Duke University

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.

Alleviate Astrov’s workload. Get your FREE flu shot!

I’ll let the enclosed poster’s slam on my doctoral alma mater go without fuss in order to take advantage of its information and remind you of the need to stay healthy not only for your work on Vanya but for a better semester overall. There are four more opportunities this month to get a free flu shot. Remember the “flu season” pretty much = entire school year. There are other wellness resources on campus and basic steps you can take that tend to the whole you: keeping hydrated, getting good sleep, eating well, and emotional self-care. Just chalk this post up to the Marina in me. “You’re such a special … special cast.”


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.