Moscow, Moscow, Moscow

I got a phone call last week from an old friend. His wife was in the hospital after undergoing a heart operation and he wanted to let me know that she was doing fine. I’ve known Ray for over two decades, a period that encompasses his three marriages, a few girlfriends, and three or four career changes. When I first met him, though, he was a wasp-waisted 23-year old theater arts graduate with thick black hair and a passing resemblance to a young Omar Sharif. A real character, too, always sporting a pipe, creased trousers, oxfords and a fedora.

At that time I imagined myself something of a writer and was going through my play writing phase (ye gods, is there any art form I've yet to embarrass myself in?). So Ray and I teamed up. We organized a small theater troupe and staged a dozen or so productions over the course of four or five years. We really threw ourselves into the work: acting, writing, directing, building sets. We also rather pretentiously fell in love with the ideas of the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky and read everything we could get our hands on about the Moscow Art Theater. We even began to teach the Stanislavsky system (or what we understood of it) to bored housewives, teen age kids, and the various misfits and lost souls who constitute community theater.

Ray and I were awfully full of ourselves in that way twenty-something young men can be. We were contemptuous of any other way of staging a play. There were a lot of pompous late night discussions about theater after we had closed a show or gone to see a local production (most of which we deemed an affront to art). We would sit behind a little house I was renting at the time, staring up at the night sky, and idly dreaming about productions we intended to mount: an adaptation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night, Ray's cutting of Shakespeare's Henry V and an original work he had written about the Weimar Republic.

There was also a comedy I was working on called Moscow, Moscow, Moscow. It was about a big shot New York director who returns to his small hometown in the midwestern hinterlands, gets arrested and is sentenced to community service directing a local production. Using a cast of well-meaning provincials, he decides to stage Chekhov's Three Sisters, a play about cultured Russians trapped in the hinterlands and hungry for the sophistication of Moscow. The play's title was taken from a line in Three Sisters. At the end of Act I, one of the sisters, Irina, expresses her longing for something other than her dull, dreary backwater of a life. Alone on stage as the curtain falls, she closes her eyes and groans, "Moscow, Moscow, Moscow!"

I remember once watching Ray direct an actor who was attempting to play a middle-aged man. He told the actor to imagine a taut string running through his body that held him firm and upright. In response to this direction, the actor stiffened his spine and threw back his shoulders. “Now imagine,” Ray said holding his fingers over the actor’s head like a pair of scissors, “that your string has been cut. Just let your midsection fall and settle into your hips.” The guy’s shoulders rolled forward in surrender to gravity and he settled into himself.

I am reminded of this almost every morning when I stand before the mirror. Along the way, I suppose, everyone gets his string cut. It's certainly true for Ray and I. These days he teaches and directs high school plays in a small southern town. He’s lost the fedora, gained a paunch, and no longer resembles Omar Sharif. When his hair finishes turning gray, he’ll look something like a bespectacled, middle-aged Mark Twain.

Two years ago Ray's wife phoned and told me he was feeling low about an upcoming birthday, so I bought a plane ticket and went to visit him. He seemed fine when I met him at the airport and, indeed, the entire weekend. You had to get through half a bottle of scotch to find the depression. The night of his birthday, we watched Bergman’s Wild Strawberries on DVD and then and sat in his den talking about the people we used to know when we ran that absurd little theater company. Some were dead now: Ray’s mother, a failed clothier, a soused actor who had a nutty wife. Some we hadn’t seen or heard from in years. Eventually the morbidity of our talk combined with the whiskey and Ray began to tear up.

“What difference has any of it made?” he asked.

“That's the wrong way to look at it,” I said.

“But was any of it worth the effort?”

“Sure,” I said without much conviction. I told him that he and his mother had meant a lot to me. They had encouraged me to go to college, even drove me to a bank where I took out my first school loan. I said some other stuff about the importance of his friendship and the students he had influenced, but I don't think he was buying it. As I said, this wasn't the first time Ray and I had sat up late talking, but it may have been the first time we did not discuss some future dream or project.

In our younger days, we often talked about how we wanted things to be in art, literature, theater, love. We didn’t have any of those kinds of discussions during that visit. Much of the time we didn’t talk at all. I wouldn't say we have reached the age of bitterness or regret. We've just come to realize that our lives would likely turn out the same way if we lived them over again, so what really is there to say?

A few years ago, too, I visited Moscow. I was with a group of professors from the college, but I broke off on my own and wondered away during the standard Kremlin tour. It took me a while, but on a well-kept side street I found the Moscow Art Theater. So there I was after all these years standing at the place where Stanislavsky and Nemirovich Danchenko had staged Chekhov's plays. I couldn't help thinking about Ray and all the big plans we had made on those warm summer nights. Excited, I walked into the lobby and asked if I could take the tour. The woman smiled and tried to tell me something in severely broken English. It took me a while to understand her, but eventually--mostly through pantomime--she was able to make clear to me that the theater was closed for fumigation.


Radostina said…
Who are your favourite Russian authors (other than Chekhov)?
Professor Quest said…
Hmm... well, Tolstoy, of course, whom I devoured as a teenager, but also Turgenev and Dostoevsky (though for some reason I've never gotten around to reading "Brothers Karamazov"). Then there's Isaac Babel. There's also Nabokov, but he mostly wrote in English. I do have a collection of his short stories that was originally written for the Russian ex-patriate community in Berlin.
Last month, too, I read an absolutely heartbreaking novel called "Everything Flows" by Vasily Grossman. There's also a very funny young American writer who was born in St. Petersburg but left when he was a teenager: Gary Shteyngart, who's written "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and "Absurdistan," both of which are laugh out loud funny.

Every Russian I meet extols the virtues of Pushkin, but poetry loses something in translation. Speaking of poets, while I was in St. Petersburg I also paid a visit to the apartment of Anna Akhmentova and was deeply, deeply moved by her life story. I've also read some criticism (mostly written by westeners): The Icon and the Axe by James Billington is a seminal work on Russian literature, and of course "Russian Writers" by Isaiah Berlin. And I would also say that Stanislavsky's "An Actor Prepares" is a marvelous primer on artistic creativity even if you aren't an actor. It certainly had an impact on me.
Professor Quest said…
Aaaaarg, that should read "Russian Thinkers" by Berlin and Anna Ahkmatova.
TXC said…
I believe I know the Ray being discussed here, though not nearly as well as you. Nevertheless, your essay certainly hits home. I'm of the same cohort, and spend quite a bit of time wondering if anything has been worth the effort. Or, perhaps, more to the point, shouldn't I have put in more effort earlier?

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