The other night I went and saw some Chekhov. That’s right, the Russian master dramatist who either doesn’t get done often enough or doesn’t often get done well.
When I think of Chekhov I always first think of the head of the acting program back in college. For Jean Scharfenberg Anton Chekhov was in a constant battle for top dog playwright, but always won, no matter how much she loved Shakespeare or Albee or Williams. And thinking of Chekhov this way makes me think of the incredibly strenuous, fear producing projects she put students through.
“Ok,” she’d say, “At the end of the scene you have to be able to walk out that door and kill yourself. Now begin!”
When it was my turn we had barely begun when I was interrupted, and she began stressing the depth of the stakes for these characters, how infused the fears and desires were, and before we could start the scene again we ran out of time. “There’s not enough time to do it now. We’ll start with you two tomorrow.”
Relief and anxiety hit me at the same instant, and then one of my classmates whispered as we left the room, “She’s going to eat you alive.” I’m pretty sure I returned to my dorm and immediately threw up.
The next day, I survived.
I remember years later watching birds trying to fly over a very gusty Lake Superior early one morning, and suddenly feeling as if I truly understood Nina for the first time and could, perhaps should, play her.
But those are about Seagull, my favorite Chekhov.
What we saw the other night was Uncle Vanya, perhaps the origin of the stereotyped idea that Chekhov works exist solely of sad people sitting around the room talking about how miserable their lives are. This, pretty much, is the story. After all, in the end almost nothing changed.
Almost nothing. That’s the brilliance of his writing.
It’s not the individual parts, the different acts or even French scenes within. It’s the culmination of the whole experience. It’s the gathering storm and pressure of time that creates the lives of his characters. It’s the subtle yet profound effect life has on us. The pay off with Chekhov is in the end.
Almost nothing changed for so many, and yet everything changed for Sonja. Vanya fought the good fight, and still in the end, “we’ll send the same amount as before” and returns to his pauper life. Changed if only slightly in the realization of his fate.
And yet: “You’ve never known a day of happiness in your life” is one of the most hopeful lines in the play.
Only a genius like Chekhov could make that work.