Emporarily eclipsed by the giant figures of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, the self-effacing Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is now again attracting our attention. Without belittling in any way the significance of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Goncharov or Turgenev, I would like to note that ChekhovТs place in Russian literature is positively unique. Consider: he started to write later than these titans and was, in fact, a lonesome figure, separated from them, even from Tolstoy, who was quite nearby, by a kind of space. That distance was to Chekhov a perfectly tangible reality.
Later something like this happened to Maxim Gorky, Ivan Bunin, Alexander Kuprin, and Symbolist writers. No one could extend a helping hand to Chekhov, understand him, assist him in his secluded literary work. He therefore had to become a literature unto himself, in order to be a worthy successor, in the new historical era, to the great creators of Russian classical Realism.
Understandably, this calls for a novel look at the eternal problem of literary continuity, tradition, and creative interconnections. It is not enough to say that Chekhov learned from Tolstoy, Turgenev, and even Goncharov whom he described as Уan outdated and tedious writer.Ф Indeed, he learned from all of them, but every time he borrowed from them something distinctly Chekhovian, and achieved a strikingly different result, unlike anything by Tolstoy or Turgenev. Chekhov had a rather different task, that of artistic summing up of Russian life and classical literature.
From this perspective, the issue of his predecessorsТ influence on Chekhov appears somewhat more complex than it is occasionally portrayed. His interest in them is obvious, but it is far from uni-dimensional, being extremely serious and prompted by the special place of Chekhov the artist in Russian literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, thus described by Tolstoy: УAs an artist Chekhov is not to be compared with the Russian writers before him Ц Turgenev, Dostoevsky, or myself.Ф
ChekhovТs literary activity consisted precisely in defending the classical tradition at a time when Russian Realism was in a crisis, in raising the artistic image to the heights where it was beyond the reach of the Уeroders,Ф in renovating and establishing the realistic creative method among the fin de siecle disarray and decadent laxity. This method he made panoramic to embrace the whole of the greatly changed multi-faceted Russia. To accomplish that, he did not merely have to carry on with what Leo Tolstoy and Turgenev had begun: he had to step aside and begin from scratch, that is, with reassessment and revision, while never losing sight of the Russian classicsТ reference points.
Hence the seemingly inexplicable harshness of his judgments on the classical heritage. Chekhov does not reject this heritage, nor does he call it into question. He surveys Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky from a certain historical distance and borrows from them only that which is viable and necessary, above all the principle of realistic reflection of Russian life and its portrayal through artistic images. In ChekhovТs letters, everyone, not excepting Gorky, is charged with conservatism in matters of artistic form.
Chekhov sought, and achieved, a new kind of personage, image, and detail; he simplified the language of his prose and plays giving it maximum capaciousness and expressiveness. Unexpectedly, he restored lyricism to epos, and in his prose and plays he managed to give expression to a certain mood from within the plot, through a deep-lying, constantly sensed subtext and aptly noted detail.
The result of his quest is also known; it was reflected in TolstoyТs comment on Chekhov: УRemarkably, he does not imitate anyone and follows a path all his own.Ф Chekhov himself was more succinct: УI am exempt from billetingi.Ф He was referring to his former mild fascination with Tolstoyism, but Chekhov could justly say the same about every other great writer he was compared to. As for his literary contemporaries, he failed to find in them Уthe chief element of creativity Ц personal freedom.Ф
Yet it is hard to accept the view that Chekhov characters are atypical on principle. That is wrong. They are precisely types, typical people in typical circumstances, in terms of EngelsТ famous formula. Otherwise Chekhov would not be a realist Ц and who would want to read him? In fact, not only was he, and still is, avidly read, but is the best-loved of Russian writers.
УIn Chekhov Russia fell in love with itself. No one else managed to express its collective type as well as he did, not only in his writings but even in his face, figure, manners, and, it seems, his way of life and comportment,Ф wrote the philosopher Vasily Rozanov. It is another matter that Chekhov devised a new typifying method; he showed that both the Russian characters and the circumstances of their being had changed to become more complex and multiple; that was his discovery acknowledged by all, Tolstoy included, for he made use of ChekhovТs findings in Haji Murat.
Chekhov is an artist of another age and another Realism, one who said these significant words: УWe all are the people.Ф His characters, his Уtypes,Ф are therefore also different, capacious, based on sudden contrasts, bold blending of contrasting colors, positive and negative traits which normally go to make up real human types with their Уfluidity.Ф
It may be pertinent to look back once again on the beginning of ChekhovТs literary career, when the young author of The Steppe was compared to Turgenev and expected to display the Turgenev kind of skill, sense of measure, types and ideals, down to producing a Turgenev novel. P.N. Ostrovsky, the brother of the great playwright Alexander Ostrovsky and himself not without literary talent, thus explained to Chekhov those expectations: УOver the years a lot of things have occurred: the entire former society makeup has changed; the former estates have utterly disintegrated abandoning their typical, sound life modes; the middle class has numerically grown almost tenfold; the educated proletariat has emerged; people feel life in a new wayЕФ
It seemed that what was needed was a new social artist who would write a new Rudin and On the Eve, and eventually also Fathers and Sons. But Chekhov the prose writer even then saw that TurgenevТs method was no longer up to the dramatic changes occurring in Russian life and people, which called for a different set of qualities in a writer: a novel vantage point, a new narration technique, a new way of character drawing, and a new prose style. That was why he said: УOnly the gentry knew how to write novels.Ф
The novels and characters of Tolstoy and Turgenev were no longer able to absorb in full new RussiaТs multi-sidedness, to give this motley shapelessness an artistic form, to discover its collective type. It was important to convey the public mood, the ideological and emotional atmosphere that was the living environment in which those very dissimilar people lived.
After all, the Russia of Chekhov was populated not only by radically altered Rudins and Bazarovs, but also the likes of Belikov, Ionych, Darling, and hundreds of other perfectly typical creatures that did not fit in the old УtypologyФ; even on the declining gentry estate the place of poetic, lovely Liza Kalitina (her faint glow can be detected on the tragic figure of Nina Zarechnaya) had been taken by the fairly mediocre Ariadne, Arkadina and Ranevskaya, educated merchants, wealthy engineers, and factory-owners. That was why Chekhov, when talking of TurgenevТs novels, types and descriptions, observed: УSomething else is needed.Ф
Chekhov possessed a very different skill: УI will describe life for you truthfully, that is, artistically, and you will see in it things you did not see or notice before: its deviations from the norm, its contradictions.Ф The writer says Уtruthfully,Ф not Уbeautifully,Ф Уartfully,Ф or anything like that. His artistic skill of a prose writer is unquestionable, yet people said of him, with reason: УThe way Chekhov paints life wonТt let you see art behind it.Ф
For Chekhov, this is not just his own creative principle, but also a feature of any genuine, unpretensious literature. ChekhovТs Уartistic reproductionsФ were at times ruthless (Gooseberries, The Man in a Case, Ionych, Ward No.6), at times kindly (Darling, The Bride, The Lady with a Lapdog), but they were always artistic and therefore always truthful; in them the then Russia was present in all its multi-faceted diversity and never failed to recognize itself. УIn ChekhovТs stories, in some one of them at least, the reader would always see himself and his thoughts,Ф Tolstoy used to say.
In effect, Chekhov the lyricist, totally unexpectedly for Tolstoy the epic writer, creates an epos of his own, a whole world densely populated with hundreds of characters. УHis entire work is a rejection of monumental epic forms, and yet it encompasses the boundlessness of RussiaФ Ц this is what German writer Thomas Mann said of the Chekhov Realism that succeeded TolstoyТs ethical epos, DostoevskyТs УideologicalФ novels, and TurgenevТs social-psychological ones.
Russia of those days not only recognized itself in ChekhovТs writings, but came to love itself; suffice it to recall the words of ChekhovТs younger contemporary writer Korney Chukovsky: УYou look up from a Chekhov story you have been reading, then glance through the window and out there you see a sort of sequel to what you have read. Every resident of our town, to a man, was to me a Chekhov characterЕ I have never seen such perfect identity of literature and life.Ф
Here ChekhovТs УlesserФ prose is praised for the same thing as were Ivan TurgenevТs novels before it: exhaustive, utterly realistic depiction of Russian life in ChekhovТs times. Yet this realism unexpectedly displays an admixture of the wonderfully subtle lyricism of the Chekhov play that detected and displayed the tragic poetry of the mundane. Young Chekhov started by publishing his pieces in humorous magazines, but soon his readers saw with perfect clarity that a major, sad artist had entered Russian literature, bringing with him his merciless real truth.
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Chekhov was the grandson of a serf and the son of a petty bourgeois who kept a grocery shop in Taganrog and went bankrupt. The boy went to the local grammar school; when his impoverished family, fleeing from creditors, was forced to move to Moscow, he started to write plays, and in 1879 entered the Medicine Department of Moscow University.
In 1880 he published his first humorous piece in the magazine Strekoza (Dragonfly). He worked at a district hospital. In 1884 Chekhov graduated from the university, opened a surgery, his stories appeared in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and eventually he published his first collection of short stories. Also, about that time the young doctor started displaying early symptoms of a lung disease.
In St. Petersburg the young writer met the prominent man of letters and influential publisher Alexei Suvorin, and started printing his writings in SuvorinТs popular newspaper Novoe vremya (New Times). His play Ivanov was staged in Moscow in 1887.
In 1888 his long short story The Steppe came out. The Imperial Academy of Sciences awarded Chekhov the Pushkin Literary Prize for his collection of short stories In the Twilight.
In 1890 he went to Sakhalin Island to study and describe the life of convicts and exiles there, as well as the islandТs nature, and returned by sea via the Indian Ocean; after that Suvorin and Chekhov traveled about Europe.
Then he helped starving peasants, settled on his estate of Melikhovo, engaged in public activity, treated patients during a cholera epidemic, and by 1893 had completed his book Sakhalin Island.
ChekhovТs fame grew, his prose collections were a great success, and Suvorin republished them over and over again; Chekhov met Leo Tolstoy.
By 1896 his play The Seagull had been written and staged; at the same time Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya, a thoroughly revised version of his old comedy The Wood Demon.
As his lung condition worsened, Chekhov was forced to go to France for treatment. In 1898 he started building a house in Yalta, the Crimea; his play The Seagull premiered at the Moscow Art Theater. The writer developed a close relationship with Maxim Gorky, Ivan Bunin, and Alexander Kuprin.
A. F. Marx Publishers started issuing ChekhovТs complete works. In 1900 he was elected honorary member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, and went abroad.
The next year the Moscow Art Theater staged The Three Sisters. Chekhov married Olga Knipper, an actress of the theater.
In 1904 the Moscow Art Theater premiered The Cherry Orchard.
On July 2 Chekhov died of consumption at the Black Forest spa of Badenweiler.
Chekhov is an acknowledged master of УlesserФ prose forms, the short story and the long short story; his achievements and discoveries in this field enabled him to create innovative plays where the obvious criticism of social and human faults is coupled with poeticism, lyrical boldness, and depth. He never wrote a novel, nor were the times conducive to that.
In ChekhovТs lifetime he was often criticized for a lack of world outlook, profound original ideas, and social ardor. But the writer was familiar with, and showed in his prose and plays, all of the philosophical ideas, social beliefs and artistic quests of the age in progress, from Tolstoy and Tolstoyism to leftist revolutionary democracy, decadents, Symbolists, Gorky, revolutionaries, liberals, and conservatives.
If you wish to see a collective portrait of the Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the century, it is enough to read ChekhovТs short stories and to see his plays. But the writerТs other characters Ц clerks, officers, merchants, peasants, workers, landowners, tramps, aristocrats Ц are an excellent complement to and clarification of that portrait. The number of these characters in ChekhovТs prose and drama reaches a stunning 8,000; 2,350 of the characters have names. And all these people are necessary to the writer, each playing a role of their own, each having their place in the mosaic.
So Chekhov had not only a deep understanding of and judgment on these phenomena: he had his own opinion of every one of them, that is, he possessed an original worldview, which he did not expound anywhere directly leaving it to his personages and to the very material of life.
Such is his method of realistic depiction of contemporary Russian people and their far from ideal daily existence Ц a method free from intrusive philosophizing, tendentious rhetoric, and journalistic moralizing. Occasionally Chekhov was taken to be a new edition of the severe satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin, on the strength of his allegedly ruthless castigation of the boorish Sergeant Prishibeev and the somewhat sleazy schoolmaster Belikov, or his angry chastisement of doctor Ionych grown fat and insensitive. Sometimes the author of My Life was viewed as a writer of lyrical eulogies to RussiaТs twilight and social stagnation, someone who wistfully bemoaned a failed life, grieving together with his sad characters in lifeТs dead end, by the wayside. That is, Chekhov was confused with Vikenty Veresaev. Chekhov meanwhile thought something very different about himself: УIs it for us to judge?Ф
ChekhovТs subtle humor was sad; his gentle unostentatious realism, which nevertheless left no stones unturned in its creative analysis of life, showed the post-reformii Russian life of the time in its disunion, loss of energy, will, high pathos, beauty, and foundations, in the erosion and debasement of every genuine feeling, demotion of public and personal ideals: УWe have plenty of doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, lots of people are literate now, but there are hardly any biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, or poets. The entire intellect and energy of the soul have been expended on satisfying transient needs of the momentЕ Rural life in Russia is much the same as it was a thousand years agoЕ There is no more serfdom, but capitalism is on the increase. And at the height of the liberation ardor, as in the times of the Tartar invasion, the majority feeds, clothes and protects a minority, itself remaining hungry, ragged and unprotected.Ф
It is not Chekhov himself but his characters who say that, naturally, yet the general mood and impression of something badly amiss, of overall drabness, oppressive boredom, painful anguish, failed life, numerous harsh incongruities, misunderstandings, and absurd mistakes one gets when reading ChekhovТs prose have a hidden power of artistic conviction, so that it suddenly dawns on the reader that this is precisely the truth and that it is not nearly as obsolete, alas, as one might wish. Otherwise Chekhov plays would not be running in our theaters with such success. Yet this writer also noted and appreciated the amusing and the funny side of life.
ChekhovТs short stories are part of every school curriculum. But their simplicity is deceptive; only through slow, careful reading and comparison of these seemingly unsophisticated and amusing tales can their hidden depth and disquieting truth be sensed.
Take ChekhovТs best-known story The Man in a Case (1898) that originally appeared in the liberal journal Russkaya mysl (Russian Thought). The name of its protagonist, teacher of Greek Belikov, instantly became a byword for cowardly behavior and indecision, and still is that, while his trademark whine УYou canТt be too carefulФ is a truly immortal catchphrase. His characterization through personal belongings and furniture is a work of genius; every Belikov possession was kept in a case of some sort, from penknife to coffin that finally became the perfect really safe case for the constantly scared teacher. He is afraid of the sun, wind, rain, his superiors, town gossip, women… A pair of galoshes, an umbrella, dark glasses, an overcoat and a warm jacket even in summer, a stuffy bedroom shaped like a box, a curtained bed Ц that man spent his life in a case so dear to his heart, and even after death remained in one Ц a protection against feared reality. BelikovТs timid mind, too, hid in the case of official instructions and bans, and tried to impose on others the same limits and boundaries.
And then it suddenly transpires that the abject coward and sneak is an awful tyrant; he oppresses others by passing on to them his fears and doubts, he creates an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, spying, slander, and gossip at school and in town. Belikov УpropagatesФ his own kind, stifles any initiative, any bold idea, any free act; yielding to his persistent nagging and intimidation, people gradually sink in the ooze of provincial trivia and pharisaic interdictions. His lazy and indifferent superiors, too, are compelled to reckon with him. The comic schoolmaster in galoshes clutching an umbrella suddenly assumes the awesome dimensions of a terrible symbolic figure, driving the whole town into the confines of a life case imagined by his sick mind, and that case becomes the life law for too many around. This is the oppressive despotism Russia is no stranger to; moreover, a despotism that is reactionary, prohibitive and for that reason alone unwise, although Chekhov showed through his energetic and УideologicallyФ cruel Lida Volchaninova (The House with the Garret, 1896) that liberal despotism with its meager selection of mandatory Уpositive,Ф УprogressiveФ ideas is just as bad. Here ChekhovТs humor turns into powerful satire of great profundity and truth of artistic generalization, outlining not only the human type and character, but a social phenomenon as well.
Chekhov subjects his personage to the test that is fairly common in Russian literature Ц encounter with a woman, Varenka, jolly, vivacious and outspoken; the pathologically timid Belikov simply cannot endure this rendezvous, this onslaught of reality and threat of marriage (which brings to mind GogolТs Marriage and GoncharovТs Oblomov).
He dies of fear. The man in a case has been unmasked. We suddenly discover Belikovs around and within ourselves and recoil in horror. The quick-tempered Ukrainian Kovalenko, VarenkaТs brother, rightly says about their school: УThe atmosphere here is stifling, poisonous. Do you call yourselves teachers, pedagogues? YouТre nothing but a pack of place-hunters. Your school is not a temple of science, but an inspectorate of mores, thereТs a sickly smell about it, like in a policemanТs booth.Ф The teacher becomes an overseer, a petty and stupid stickler for formality. The funny story of a petty official uncovers a great and serious truth about Russian life that is Уbleak, tedious, meaningless, neither forbidden in one circular nor sanctioned in another.Ф And this discovery by Chekhov the short-story writer made The Man in a Case one of the best pieces of fiction in Russian and even world literature.
But a question that suggests itself, however strange on the face of it, is this: УWhat and who is this Chekhov story about?Ф Is it really just about Belikov? Could one humble Уman in a caseФ be responsible for all the Уleaden abominations,Ф to quote Gorky, the dreariness, boredom and general mess described in ChekhovТs prose and drama? What has he done to deserve castigation? DidnТt Belikov punish himself by making his lonely life so very abject and barren, by filling it with constant fear and doubts? The reader laughed at Belikov, but in the end felt upset.
Read the story carefully, especially the funeral scene: it is both comic and unspeakably sad; you will feel sorry for this absurd little man in the coffin who has finally found the perfect case to protect himself against disturbing life. And Belikov was not really painted all black; he is touchingly na?ve, he knows and loves the Greek language he teaches, and most important, he is lonely, and thatТs the source of all his ugly character features. The little manТs death failed to change anything in the dull life of the Chekhovian town and its residents: УThings did not become better.Ф Observe the typically Chekhov turn of phrase: BelikovТs colleagues buried him Уwith a great pleasureФ hoping that now they could enjoy freedom, spared his oppressive watch, but they do not need freedom, their life remained the same.
ChekhovТs story is about fear. ItТs the fear a weak person without principles or ideals feels in the face of the disturbing, irritating Russian life that frightens him with its unpredictability. The man in a case would like to hide away from life. This means that the writer takes up the eternal Russian theme of Oblomov, but he treats it differently. All those bans, circulars and cases protected the timid and inactive Belikov from external influences. And УBelikovismФ is the guiding principle of the life and politics of major public figures and whole political epochs, e.g., the famous powerful Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, a man of some literary talent, extremely intelligent and well educated, but so afraid of unpredictable Russian life that he endeavored to crush it with numerous petty bans, restrictions, slander, censorship, circulars and decrees. One can also recall Education Minister Sergei Uvarov who proposed Уputting Russia on iceФ for half a century or so.
Later that was called by a single word, reaction. But reaction is always a defense, the creation of yet another layer of protective casing; this kind of passive policy is from the outset doomed to failure. Russian despotism is a national disease of Уthe land of slaves, the land of mastersФ (as Mikhail Lermontov referred to Russia); it spoils peopleТs nature and ruins lives, making both miserable. It is wrong to fear life and crush any dissent or initiative; the right way is to live a full life and let others live, too Ц such is the message of ChekhovТs sad and amusing story The Man in a Case.
The story Gooseberries (1898) is about the Russian dream. In a country where nature is so inclement and the peopleТs existence is so lusterless, hard and sad, a person tends to put his or her secret hopes for a better life into a dream. Like life, like man Ц like dream. ChekhovТs story therefore begins with the Russian scenery, a picture of vast open spaces: fields, meadows, country-estates, a river, low hills, and beyond, a railroad and a town. ChekhovТs characters Уfelt a surge of love for this plain and thought how vast and beautiful their country was.Ф But then it started raining heavily: УIt was wet, muddy, bleak, and the expanse of water looked cold and sinister.Ф The conversation turns to the anguish that engenders dreams.
A poor clerk at a government office, who was afraid of everything and everyone, but who had been born and grown up on his fatherТs estate, dreamt of purchasing a little estate of his own somewhere on the bank of a river or the shore of a lake where he would eat delicious soup made from his own cabbages, grow a garden with paths and flowerbeds, and in that garden there would be gooseberry bushes. For several decades the civil servant scrimped and saved, and he married a middle-aged plain-looking widow because she had money.
His dream and money turned him into a weirdo, while his unloved wife the would-be landowner drove to an early grave by his tight-fisted heartlessness. At long last the man bought the coveted estate, planted twenty(!) gooseberry bushes and started to live the life of a country gentleman. His dream had come true. He was happy. But the Chekhov story says: УThere was always a tinge of melancholy in my conception of human happiness.Ф The timid clerk, another Уman in a case,Ф turned into a smug man of property and even outwardly was faintly resembled a pig: УAny improvement in his condition, anything like satiety or idleness, develops the most insolent complacency in a Russian.Ф The ex-clerk uttered pompous Gogolesque phrases, like УI know the peopleЕ The people love me,Ф etc. He munched with great relish the gooseberries Ц hard, sour, but they came from his own garden. Even at night he would get up to take a gooseberry from the plate. He was tearfully happy, pleased with himself, his estate and his life. His dream and happiness are as absurd as his bizarre name Chimsha-Himalaysky. Meanwhile life around him continued as before: УJust look at this life Ц the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality of the weak, and all around intolerable poverty, cramped dwellings, degeneracy, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lyingЕ We neither hear nor see those who suffer, and the terrible things in life are played out behind the scenes.Ф
Both the dream and its embodiment, and the very happiness of the clerk are petty and ugly because society and man are far from perfect. This reduction of a dream to the planting of oneТs own garden seems especially shocking against the background of the Russian landscape, the limitless expanses of a great country Chekhov paints at the beginning of the story.
Having made his dream reality, the man, instead of improving, has become much worse; he is monstrously indifferent to the misfortunes, ills, sufferings, and poverty of others; he is content to gorge himself on sour hard gooseberries from his own garden. The very notion of dream and happiness has been distorted. To achieve this pathetic complacency, the clerk spent decades yearning, dreaming, depriving himself and others, instead of simply living with gusto. A life is lost and debased, a whole destiny ruined, the manТs abject happiness is blind, and his dream is humiliatingly shallow.
Chekhov argues with Leo Tolstoy and advocates of the Уsimple lifeФ idea, saying: УIt is commonly said that a person needs no more than a couple of yards of land. But it is a corpse that needs a couple of yardsЕ A living person needs not a couple of yards, not an estate, but the whole earth, all of nature, where he would have enough space to reveal all his qualities and features of his free spirit.Ф
A genuine dream cannot be born of unconscious anguish, it cannot exist, in PushkinТs words, Уwithout divinity, without inspiration,Ф it is alien to complacency and vapid selfishness: УThere ought to be a man with a little hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, disaster will overtake him Ц sickness, poverty, loss Ц and nobody will see it, just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortunes of others.Ф Chekhov was just such a Уwriter with a little hammerФ who reminded people of others and real life.
Ionych (1898) is one of the longer Chekhov stories approaching in size and subject the long short story, and is markedly different from The Man in a Case and Gooseberries that were an extension of his early humorous pieces. Here the very characters are different; they are not drawn with a sharp quickness, as Belikov was, but are described in thorough, graphic detail, and in movement; the plot is built on different principles Ц the story covers an entire life. Ionych is traditionally assumed to be straightforward satire, but it is really a complex work in terms of its artistic judgment, it is lyrical and filled with wistful philosophy. It is a stepping-stone to ChekhovТs long short stories like УThe GrasshopperФ and lyrical plays like The Three Sisters.
It is a trivial enough story that played itself out in an ordinary provincial town to an ordinary zemstvo doctor, Dmitry Ionovich Startsev, or more familiarly Ionych. There is nothing unusual about this life story, and yet showing through it are sadness and a sense of failure, frustrated hopes, and pity for the man who gradually lets himself go, forgets his former self, his younger years and love for others. Satire canТt do very much here, it looks somewhat out of place. Who is to castigate whom for all this tedium? After all, it was not just Ionych whose life had failed, but virtually the whole of the town, his friends, patients, the Turkin family and his coachman Panteleimon. Dr. Startsev, later to become Ionych, is one of the Уnew peopleФ as are many other Chekhov characters and indeed their creator himself. He is the son of a sexton (i.e. a cleric of the lowest, poorest order), a first-generation member of the intelligentsia, part of the third estate only just born in post-reform Russia and rapidly expanding. He had to work hard for everything he achieved, using every opportunity to make money by coaching schoolboys and living as frugally as he could.
The job of a zemstvo medical officer is at the bottom rung of the medical career, poorly paid and implying strenuous work at a village hospital. There is a significant detail at the beginning of the story that is pure Chekhov: the young doctor goes to town to relax a bit and do his shopping Ц on foot; he has not yet obtained a team of horses. And his daily toil is hard indeed; he canТt find any spare time to read new books and articles on medicine. Startsev is the only doctor in the area, apart from him the tiny hospital has only a medical attendant and a few nurses; he is constantly called in to attend patients, he has to perform all the operations himself. But he cheerfully walks to town to seek happiness and culture; he sings songs, he is young and full of hopes, he fancies that the future belongs to people like him, the honest and hard-working intelligentsia.
In the town the doctor encounters an aristocratic family of the Turkins renowned for their talents. They are wealthy landowners, but they do not live on their country estate; instead they run a species of culture salon in their city home. The family talents are varied and mutually complementary. The father is the life and soul of the party, the town wit and orator. The mother diligently writes lengthy novels. The daughter is pretty and plays the piano with panache. It is among them that the young doctor expects to find cultural support, an intellectual environment and even love. As a rural medic he has great hopes for the town and its intelligentsia, its club, library, concerts, and touring theater companies.
None of these hopes are destined to materialize. The Turkins soon reveal the limited and mediocre nature of their famous talents, which indirectly points to the general irreversible decline of gentry culture (an important thought in Chekhov). Turkin Sr. all his life cracked jokes that were shallow, repetitive and flat, reproducing the clich?s from low-grade humor magazines. His wifeТs absurd novels about the fantastic love affair of a young countess and an itinerant artist were wildly unrealistic and invariably began with the hackneyed phrase in poorest taste: У СTwas bitter coldЕФ
It was rather less obvious in the case of their accomplished daughter Kitty, a charming pianist with whom Dr. Startsev fell in love, of course. One often hears the view that if the doctor had married Kitty, he would not have turned into the fat and greedy Ionych. But a close reading of the Chekhov text does not bear this out: the description of her labored and inexpressive piano playing that suggests total absence of musical talent, her dry, impassive replies to the doctorТs passionate declaration of love, her conviction that she is a gifted musician and will eventually become a famous pianist, her stupid practical joke, entirely in the style of her fatherТs insipid wit, when she made a nocturnal date with Startsev at the cemetery Ц all of this points to a mediocre, unkind and spoilt nature. She would have made a poor wife for a village doctor, and as an intelligent man, Startsev saw this, thinking: УIf the most gifted people in the whole town are so mediocre, what is to be expected of the town itself?Ф
The town turned out to be the usual Chekhov kind. This is how a similarly dreary, dingy town is described in ChekhovТs long short story My Life: УI could not understand what for and how all those sixty-five thousand people livedЕ In the whole town I did not know a single honest soul.Ф No one went to the local library, no one read anything; in the club there was nothing except dancing, gossip, card games and debilitating daily drinking. Any attempt of StartsevТs to start a serious conversation or a friendship with the locals invariably drew an angry and obtuse response. УAnd meanwhile, these ordinary people did nothing, nothing whatever, and interested themselves in nothing, and it was impossible to find anything to talk to them about.Ф So the doctor withdrew into a private world, stopped trying to talk to them about serious matters and visit them socially, but took to staring into his plate in silence; he drank expensive French wine at the club, played cards, and found pleasure in counting and taking to the bank the money his patients paid him. He was now rich, bought first a pair and then a team of three horses, started buying houses, and turned into the greedy insensitive Ionych. Then everyone in the town began to treat the doctor with respect and something akin to awe.
This ordinary life story with a sad ending is often taken to be a mockery of Ionych who is said to typify the changes in a good man under the degrading influence of a lowly environment. But there is no УdegenerationФ in ChekhovТs story. The young doctor is intelligent and well educated, full of hopes, he longs for a pleasant, quiet, cultured life. His love for Kitty is strong and sincere, he can feel keenly the poetry of life and passion, and this is borne out by the wonderful lyrical scene at the cemetery, a masterpiece of ChekhovТs subdued poetry. Lovelorn Startsev becomes a poet and says to the shallow girl sorely lacking in soul power: УIt seems to me that no one has ever yet described love faithfully, indeed it is practically impossible to describe this tender, joyous, torturing feeling, and whoever has experienced it, if only once, will never try to put it into words.Ф
But Kitty is not worthy of this anxious feeling, and the doctorТs heart no longer fluttered nervously, the light in his soul had gone out: УHe was so sorry for his feelings, for this love of his, that he felt like sobbing or bringing his umbrella down with all his strength on the broad shoulders of Panteleimon.Ф Later, too, he lost none of his power of intellect and observation, and listening to yet another literary creation of Mrs. Turkin, he thought: УIt is not the person who canТt write stories who is mediocre, but the person who writes them and is unable to conceal the fact.Ф
Dr. StartsevТs hopes were never realized, no one helped him find the right place and the right path in life; everything proved a deception Ц the decaying culture of the gentry, the lazy, cunning burghers, and unrequited love. All he had left was the hard daily work of a doctor, full of responsibility, and the money he was paid for that work Ц and this is precious little even though it ensures welcome independence (incidentally, his big private practice and high fees suggest that Ionych was a good doctor). He failed to make his life attractive, interesting, and cultured, to start a family, or acquire like-thinking friends. The fire of his young soul was extinguished; as the years went by, his heart, that had once known how to love, grew heavy, the silt of indifference engulfed everything, and nothing could or needed to be brought back. Chekhov said of people like that: УIndifference is the paralysis of the soul, a premature death.Ф Ahead there is nothing but loneliness and old age.
Dr. Startsev did not submissively turn into a fat, unfeeling Ionych, but deliberately withdrew into his shell, into a case, hiding his keen mind and talent; he started to live like everyone else, without futile struggle and loud protests. But at heart he still hated and despised all those lazy nonentities, the tenacious silt of their banal living; the townspeople sensed that and called him a Уhaughty Pole.Ф What kind of satire is that? This is a tragedy, the classic daily Russian tragedy: УHow unkindly, in fact, Mother Nature plays jokes on man, and how painful it is to see this.Ф There is no moralizing, no guiding idea, still less criticism of Ionych. Chekhov is no satirist, ideologue, or mentor. His story has a feeling of failure, of defeat that develops wave-like (the flame burnt brightly, died down, was rekindled, and finally went out), and through the doctorТs story Chekhov gives a general picture of Russian life and expresses its general mood. Here profound sadness and disappointment, the collapse of intelligentsia illusions unexpectedly merge with faith in man and his bright future concealed in the subtext of Ionych.
Dr. Startsev, like the Russian intelligentsia as a whole, suffers defeat when confronted with Russian reality, and canТt change a blessed thing in it, but we see that this is a kind, sincere, pure man who has principles and ideals, is capable of feeling and wishes everyone well. Indeed, he is a failure all round, but Vladimir Nabokov who said this of him wrote a true epitaph for all such people: УThe typical Chekhov character is an unsuccessful defender of the human truth who has taken upon himself the burden he is unable either to bear or to drop. All Chekhov stories are an endless succession of stumbles, but the person who stumbles in them is someone who is gazing at the starsЕ Such people could dream but could not rule. They ruined their own and other peopleТs lives, were stupid, weak, fussy, hysterical; but behind all that in ChekhovТs texts one can discern this: blessed is the country that has managed to produce such a human type.Ф
Through these people the author expresses his hope that the country and the nation will revive, that they will acquire genuine spiritual culture and material well-being. This hope does not in the least cancel out the inevitable criticism of the intelligentsia and the common people. ChekhovТs works about the latter, such as УThe Peasants,Ф УThe Peasant Women,Ф and УIn the RavineФ make truly frightening reading, but in his long short story ФMy LifeФ he says of the Russian peasant: УHe believes that the main thing on earth is the truth, and that his own and the peopleТs salvation is in the truth alone, and so more than anything in the world he loves justice.Ф
So when accused of pessimism and a touch of gloom, Chekhov was always surprised, saying: УSome pessimist, me! How can I be a pessimist, if my favorite story is УThe StudentФ?Ф He considered this very short four-page work of his to be the most finished and accomplished. The short story УThe Student,Ф written in 1894, is very pithy even though there is hardly any action in it. The very title is deliberately misleading, for the student in it is not a university rebel and atheist, but a seminary student, son of a sexton, who knows and understands Holy Writ. After a day out hunting, he is walking home, and the scenery around is desolate, gloomy, cold, with a piercing wind blowing. This is the eternal Russia that never changes: УExactly the same kind of wind was blowing at the time of Hrorik, and under Ivan the Terrible, and under Peter the GreatЕ then too there was the same cruel poverty and hunger; the same hole-ridden thatch on the roofs, ignorance, boredom, the same wilderness around, darkness, feeling of oppression, all these horrors did, do, and will exist, and another thousand years will not make life any better.Ф
By a bonfire in a kitchen garden the student encounters two peasant women and tells them the gospel story of St. PeterТs betrayal of Jesus, his suffering and bitter sobbing. Unexpectedly the downtrodden illiterate women completely understand the ancient parable and take it close to heart, and one of them bursts into tears for she understands how the apostle suffered and sobbed bitterly on just as cold a night having thrice denied his Teacher whom he loved. An invisible thread stretches from the cold, chaotic Russia to the Jerusalem of the Gospel: УThe past is tied to the present by an uninterrupted chain of events, one proceeding from anotherЕ The truth and beauty that guided human life there in the garden and at the high priestТs court, have continued unbroken to this day, and apparently have always constituted the main thing about human life and generally on earth.Ф
This sad story is suddenly filled with a youthful expectation of an unknown, mysterious happiness that will finally give sublime meaning to this hard, cheerless life making it delightful and wonderful. ChekhovТs characters, even if they do not see the light far ahead, always sense that it is there and know that they must move toward it through the gray routine of life and daily failures. For Chekhov Russian life was an eternal book with an open-ended finale; he mourns the past, laments or mocks the present, and looks hopefully into the future. The best proof of that is the faith-filled story УThe Student.Ф
The Sadly Optimistic Comedy
The name of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is among the best-known in the history of world theater. The International Drama Festival has been named after him. ChekhovТs plays are staged and performed in his native country and the world over; without them actors cannot study the famous Stanislavsky System. Through his plays staged by StanislavskyТs Moscow Art Theater the author of The Seagull raised the Russian art of drama to unprecedented heights, and it has since acquired global significance. The Chekhov theater lives on and is still the main guiding star and unattainable model of drama as the art of the spoken word.
However, at first the Chekhov theater was neither understood nor accepted by the theater community or the educated public. The Seagull flopped at the Alexandrinsky Theater, and this was merely the better known episode in this tide of misunderstanding and rejection. The public was used to the grandiose staging of imperial theaters, to the lively plots of French plays, elegant comedies, vaudevilles and operettas. Theaters and audiences liked intricately spun plots, a skillfully and originally expressed authorТs message, witty repartees and monologues addressed to the public.
None of that can be found in ChekhovТs plays. Or rather all these drama techniques and elements in them have been transformed into something entirely different and given a different role.
The playwright himself used to say: УThere is no need for any kind of plot. Life has no plots; everything in it is mixed, the deep with the shallow, the great with the paltry, the tragic with the comic.Ф
This principle of Chekhov prose construction applies to his plays as well, to their plots and characters.
The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1896), The Three Sisters (1900), and The Cherry Orchard (1903) made the basis of the Chekhov theater and have since been part of the world drama repertoire. But to give them full credit on the stage, a special cultural institution had to be created Ц the Moscow Art Theater (MKhT).
At the Source of the Lyrical Drama
The innovations of Chekhov the playwright were unexpected, unusual and initially above the theater of the day. Even the brand-new, advanced Art Theater took some time to understand and appreciate his plays devoid of the customary well-outlined characters, clearly expressed conflicts, or a developed plot.
After the authorТs first reading of The Three Sisters to the MKhT company in 1900, the actors were puzzled; they said there was no acting stuff in it, nothing but a barely sketched plot, a rough draft of action, and vaguely outlined characters. Only later, in the course of working with the playwright, did they realize that the real action of ChekhovТs lyrical drama was unfolding in the depth, in the hearts and souls of people: УThe entire meaning and drama of man is within and not in outward expression.Ф These words by Chekhov epitomize his understanding of drama as a verbal art; the author should show on the stage not an outer plot, but the dramatized life itself, a life that has been exhausted, is coming to an end, and has lost all energy and meaning. In The Three Sisters Chekhov, as it were, is summing up this life that must not be. The three Prozorov sisters, Moscow-born daughters of a general, live in a provincial town and are longing to return to Moscow, because their life that is slowing down, rapidly losing purpose and meaning, lacks any forward movement, a genuine wealth of feeling and action, lacks love, family and life work; instead, there is nothing but petty daily tragedies, hurts, disappointments, and a shattering of every youthful illusion invisible to all. The monologue of their unfortunate spineless brother Andrei in Act Four speaks convincingly and eloquently of the dull colorless life that the pathetic philistine residents of their town are leading. УA Russian person is extremely prone to lofty thinking, but tell me why in real life he aims so low?Ф That is what Colonel Vershinin, who is in love with Masha and is himself an unhappy family man, wants to know.
Daily life in ChekhovТs plays slowly grinds people to dust while losing all purpose and becoming unbearable, absurd and ludicrous in its paltry vexing nuisances. Vulgarity embodied in the wily and despotic philistine Natasha is stifling the sisters in their own home, advancing on them aggressively, revealing their defenselessness in the face of life.
Time goes by; Olga, Masha and Irina cry, age, wilt, are wearied by the monotonous daily routine, and their dream gets increasingly remote and faded; the trivial events that irritate them do not add up to proper action, are nothing like full-blooded life. УIt is as though everyone were asleep,Ф Vershinin complains, himself unable to make Masha happy. Life is receding, and so are dreams and love.
All the romantic relationships in the play are frustrating, the marriages are unhappy, even Irina, tired and despondent, fails to marry the plain, miserable and unloved Baron Tusenbach and break out of this sticky ooze that is their daily life. Masha, who has married self-complacent, narrow-minded teacher Kulygin, says at the end of the play that life is generally a failure, and the sisters do not know why they live. She is a virtuoso piano-player, her sister Irina is fluent in Italian, but these accomplishments are wasted in their town, and are looked on as something weird and unnecessary. УWe, the three sisters, have not had a beautiful life; life choked us like noxious weeds,Ф Irina replies to her starry-eyed suitor, the dreamer Tusenbach. Likewise unhappy is the old lonely doctor Chebutykin huddling miserably by the side of the troubled family nest of the Prozorov sisters. УWe experience no happiness, nor ever have, we merely wish for it,Ф Vershinin says by way of summing up.
The characters in The Three Sisters keep talking about the future, about the magic change for the better in peopleТs lives in three hundred years. And the viewers understand how deeply unhappy they are now and how profoundly they disbelieve that their dull and pointless existence can change in the foreseeable future. The sistersТ every thought and dream involve their native Moscow, light, joy, the images of their parents, the spring of their once happy life. Their endless speeches about the need to work suggest that they do not believe this happiness is possible. Work, according to Irina, turns out to be devoid of poetry and ideas. The Chekhov personages no longer have anything to talk about; their family conversations disintegrate, they talk at cross-purposes, dialogues become monologues about future life; everyone is saying their own lines. Their life is slowly dropping into some obscure precipice. УNothing is done our way,Ф Olga complains. Hence the hysterical outburst of the despairing Irina: УThrow me away then, throw me away, I canТt take any more!..Ф
This loss of lifeТs meaning and will-power result in the sistersТ unwillingness and inability to resist the aggressive and vulgar despotism of Natasha, who is gradually taking over their house and in full view of the town making their brother Andrei unhappy and laughable. They despise her, but all the time they yield and retreat. It is all confusion in the Prozorov sistersТ household, and their very house has ceased being their property; the once close-knit and cheerful young family is no more. The vindictive loser Soleny kills week-willed dreamer Tusenbach; the wretched philosopher Vershinin leaves with his battery, but life goes on. УOne has to live on,Ф the abandoned Masha says through tears. It is obvious that this kind of life in unbearable, it has exhausted itself, and will soon end. But this is something Chekhov spoke about in another of his lyrical dramas, the comedy The Cherry Orchard.
The Cherry Orchard is more than the crowning glory of ChekhovТs playwriting. In this comedy the author sums up all his achievements and observations of life; here the impact of his prose is clearly felt Ц the typical Chekhovian blend of the lyrical, sad and funny, of comedy, satire and tragedy. In this play Chekhov says goodbye to the whole of the receding old Russia, aware how utterly impossible its further existence is now that it has been fully exhausted. He knows and loves this Russia, he has devoted his entire life and work to describing it, but he has a presentiment of her imminent end and this he predicts in The Cherry Orchard. All of Russia is our cherry orchard, as the playТs young and ardent heroes say poetically, but the thuds of the pitiless ax against the roots and trunks of the cherry trees in blossom become the blows of fate. Chekhov devotes his prophetic comedy to the impending tragedy, and so he writes his play in defiance of every rule of the drama art.
Chekhov used to say that there was little action in his plays. Depends on the kind of action you mean. The author himself spoke of two kinds: УLet everything on the stage be as complex and at the same time as simple as in life. People are having dinner, just having dinner, and while they are at it their happiness is formed or their lives are ruined.Ф The Cherry Orchard has external action revolving round an external plot Ц the sale of the estate, mortgaged many times over, to cover the huge debts run up by the kindly, happy-go-lucky and eccentric landowner Ranevskaya. The action is very scanty in play-writing terms, it has no sudden twists or tragic problems, because from the first it is clear that Ranevskaya cannot possibly pay the debts that have been accumulating for decades, and so the cherry orchard will be sold. Which it is in the end. Obviously, the author deliberately slowed down the action in order to show the general disarray, apathy, inability, and even unwillingness of the characters to settle their life problems, to save their last common possession, the cherry orchard.
Alongside all that, though, there is also the inner action that shows through in the play Ц the general drama of Russian life at an age that engendered countless individual dramas and suffering. It develops precipitously, unexpectedly and inexorably, and the general sense of impending doom constitutes the inner psychological meaning of ChekhovТs play. This kind of drama can be felt within every Cherry Orchard character, in their soul, including that of the young, lucky, rich man Lopakhin who has finally purchased this poetic nest of gentlefolk, the dream of his life. Like earlier Chekhov plays, this one also has love affairs, but every single one of them is unhappy. Love fails, and so does life. CharlotteТs words Ц УDo you think you are capable of love?Ф apply to any one of them.
When these people meet, when their diverse personal dramas collide and are revealed in most unexpected forms around the death of the cherry orchard, the emotion-rich, subtly lyrical inner action of ChekhovТs play comes into its own, expressed in music and the strange sounds portending disaster. It grows out of the second layer of The Cherry Orchard, out of the famous subtext, out of the waves and flow of feeling. The contrast between the two kinds of action is the basis of the complicated psychological texture of the drama, which its author called an amusing comedy. The Chekhov theater is lyrical, which does not mean that he does not reveal the truth about his characters or the true tragedy of being. The authorТs subtle stage directions tactfully help this happen.
The playwrightТs skill is in his ability to bring together within his playТs artistic space all those people who are do dissimilar, coming as they do from different cultural and social worlds and even historical epochs, from faithful bonded slave Firs to УNew RussianФ capitalist Lopakhin and progressive student Petya Trofimov. Their personal dramas are interconnected. And the playТs composition center that unites them all is the impoverished nest of gentlefolk, the cherry orchard. The estate will be sold, former life will end, and the former ties between people will disintegrate. That is why the meaning, the overtone of The Cherry Orchard is the general nervous expectation, and that is why there is not much happening here, not much external action. This is compensated by the playТs rich lyricism, its hidden poetry, the music of fine feeling that is not expressed directly, but is constantly sensed on the stage, rendering The Cherry Orchard a poetic drama with a deep subtext.
The estate with the cherry orchard has owners Ц Lyubov Ranevskaya and her brother Leonid Gaev. These are members of the gentry, imperial RussiaТs richest ruling class; their wealthy aunt in Yaroslavl is a countess. But there are no traces left of the erstwhile imperial grandeur in the play (there are references to Paris in it, but no mention of RussiaТs two capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg), and the only aristocratic thing about the estate owners is inherent idleness and GaevТs utter helplessness in practical matters or his sisterТs reckless extravagance, which combined to achieve the ruin of their home.
For all their obvious faults and comic features, their tendency toward starry-eyed rhetoric, they are kind and intelligent people, heirs to sublime culture and immense life experience of many generations; their judgments are at times precise and shrewd. Consider: Gaev, gas-bag though he is, keenly feels the poetry of the cherry orchard, he characterizes his sister very aptly, and utters one of the key phrases of the play, an accurate diagnosis for himself and other characters: УIf too many remedies are offered for a disease, that must mean the disease is incurable.Ф As for Ranevskaya, she rightly reproaches the eternal undergraduate and starry-eyed babbler Petya Trofimov of chronic idleness, ignorance, and failure to understand what love is; she equally aptly observes when talking to Lopakhin: УIt is not plays you should watch, it is yourselves you should look at more often. How drab your life is, what a lot of pointless things you say.Ф But the essence of these characters is their total inner exhaustion, head-in-the-clouds impracticality, and absence of willpower; these are no longer determined masters, still less powerful rulers Ц they cannot and do not want to fight for their aristocratic status, their interests, culture, position in society, their estate, and cherry orchard mortgaged many times over that has aged even as Firs has done and that no one wants any more, because cherries yield fruit once every two years, and even then no one wants to buy them. Deep down Ranevskaya and Gaev are not sure that this fight is necessary, they no longer have landowner gentryТs interests, no class claims on power and property.
ChekhovТs play lacks the usual drama conflict, there is no struggle in it, because the owners of the cherry orchard do not have an irreconcilable class enemy Ц their chief enemies are themselves. The educated young merchant Yermolai Lopakhin, son of one of their serfs, likes his former masters and sincerely wishes to help them; he tries to talk them into building profitable dachas in place of the poetic but useless cherry orchard, and promises to lend them a considerable sum of money for the purpose. Does not look like an enemy, does he? Unexpectedly for himself, he buys other peopleТs family estate at the auction, at a loss for himself, exclusively to satisfy his social pride, as a token of his victory and success. But the tearful words he says to Ranevskaya mean a world: УHow I wish all this were over, and our graceless, unhappy life changed in some way soon.Ф
The rich manТs seemingly good fortune, too, falls under the shadow of general failure cast by this life. This is no winnerТs speech; Lopakhin does not feel lifeТs master, even when he buys the coveted estate without originally intending to. The businessmanТs project is not all that practical either: today wealthy dacha customers may be plentiful, but tomorrow there may be none at all. His entire commerce is tottery and dubious; Lopakhin, who has suffered enough at the hands of his business companions, employees and workers, confides in Petya Trofimov: УIt is enough to start doing anything at all to see how few people are honest and decent.Ф Work and money-making to him are rather a means of forgetting things, filling the void, escaping from distressing life (there is some similarity to GoncharovТs Stolz here). Chekhov calls Lopakhin a gentle man, he is lonely, and in fact he has little use for this big money and vast estate. The romance between the young businessman and Varya, the diligent young mistress of the house and RanevskayaТs adopted daughter, is likewise a failure.
The other characters in The Cherry Orchard are even less like masters of life. Landowner Pishchik is up to his neck in debt and is constantly borrowing money to pay interest. The affected maid Dunyasha (УIТm such a delicate girl, I love them sweet wordsФ) is a perfect match to insolent, semi-literate male servant Yasha, who despises his mother and his country and canТt wait to get back to Paris and gracious living. The absurd office clerk Yepikhodov, a walking misfortune, has read philosopher Buckle he has no earthly need for (УI am an advanced person, I read various remarkable booksФ), but is utterly unfit for real life. The exalted damsel Anya and dreamy student Petya Trofimov, yet another generation of Уnew people,Ф with their lofty talk and dreamy fantasies, bear little resemblance to can-do individuals capable of changing this colorless life; meanwhile they suggest naively that the bankrupt Уfathers,Ф the hapless owners of the cherry orchards, repent, accept a deal of suffering for the sins of the past, and read various improving books.
It is worth noting dialogues, an extremely important element of the play. Normally people on the stage talk to each other, ask questions and answer them. That is, there is verbal action that continues and explains the events of the plot and beefs up the characters. ChekhovТs dialogues are more like monologues; each character, oblivious of others, is saying something entirely his own. Governess Charlotte, a wretched, lonely, misunderstood creature, amuses her masters by circus tricks and utters a significant phrase: УI am dying to talk to someone, but thereТs no one to talk toЕФ Meanwhile, there are lots of people around, and each is offering an eager account of their failures and problems while interrupting and refusing to heed others. As for 85-year-old Firs, he simply does not hear anyone, and his prophetic lines never penetrate the minds of others. The romantic monologues of enthusiastic, innocent Anya and dreamer Petya Trofimov are directed into nowhere, into the void, and sometimes are positively ludicrous, for the lines УI can do without you, I can walk past you, I am strong and proudФ are pronounced by the eternal undergraduate, Уmangy gentlemanФ who has just had a stupid fall off a ladder.
ChekhovТs inner action and lyrical Уdrama of moodsФ are born of this cacophony, mutual misunderstanding, complaints, tears, of deliberate or accidental admission of oneТs failed life. But there is no gloom or oppressive tragedy in them; a chunk of former life in which everyone existed in unrelieved grayness, bored and suffering, is over, and the people are happily shedding old burdens turning their minds toward the future where each will exist by themselves and follow their chosen path. The old life and the old world are now impossible.
ChekhovТs play ends with a ball on the ruined and sold estate; its ex-owners, the new owner and their guests are cheerfully saying goodbye to the hard, bleak past. УThe last act will be merry, and the whole of the play is merry and light,Ф Chekhov said, and he called The Cherry Orchard a comedy. His play is indeed full of humor, comic turns and genuine fun, while the inevitable wistfulness of parting with the unhappy but dear world of the cherry orchard, with old Russia on its way out, is tender, which makes ChekhovТs drama an optimistic comedy. This is something contemporary theater critics could not and would not understand, ascribing to the author of The Cherry Orchard alternately Уoptimistic pessimismФ and Уpessimistic optimism.Ф
And yet one has to distinguish in it a light (if not light-minded), abstracted attitude of the characters to historic, fatal, irreversible changes in their own and RussiaТs destiny from the authorТs deep sorrow that permeates the whole play and is expressed in the final scene by the appearance of dying old Firs forgotten by all. Showing through the comedy is tragedy, but it is the playТs author who notices it, and with him Ц the audience. Here, too, ChekhovТs deep sorrow is coupled with hope and faith.
As for ChekhovТs characters, they are still unaware that they are protagonists of the starting historical drama. The source of this even, inescapable Chekhovian sorrow should be looked for not only in the levity, helplessness and historical lack of will of the playТs characters, but also in the fact that together with those Уpeople of the past,Ф to the sound of autumnal violins, a great country is sinking into non-being Ц a country that took centuries to evolve and that produced such great writers as Anton Chekhov.
i This metaphor needs explaining. In Czarist Russia, troops could be billeted in private residences, except those whose owners were exempt from this duty by status or special order. (EditorТs Note)
ii The reference is to the 1861 reform Ц abolition of serfdom in Russia. (EditorТs Note)