Thursday, August 18, 2011

Birch Trees and Samovars

A few times a year, but especially in summer, I become fixated on reading a single author or watching films from a single director.  Late last month I went on a Jean-Pierre Melville binge and watched all of his stylized French gangster films back-to-back.  That burned itself out and now I've been over-dosing on Chekhov.  Watched The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard over the past few days.  And one thought keeps occurring to me: Chekhov should not work on stage, but somehow he does.

Ostensibly a naturalist playwright, Chekhov's characters have always struck me as anything but natural.  Who stands around hour after hour discoursing on wheat or philosophizing about what the world will be like in 200 years?  The clunkier English translations must be hell for actors to perform.  I've always heard, too, that non-Russians usually fail to see the humor in Chekhov, which means they lard up the play with too much angst and seriousness. Who knows?  Maybe all those mannered, tortured pauses are meant to be funny. 

But even in bad productions, Chekhov somehow works.  Something powerful cuts through awkward translations, self-indulgent acting or sententious directing.  The plays dispense with traditional 19th Century rising plots and dramatic climaxes, which is not to say they aren't climactic.  People's lives are thwarted and smashed about, often quite cruelly, and it all happens over tea in the garden. The conflict comes from characters interlocked by misunderstanding and mismatched desires.  Villains, in as much as they exist, are not so much villainous as obtuse, heroes are self-defeating. 

And then there are those speeches, those long disquisitions on this that or the other.  Watching Vanya on 42nd Street yesterday afternoon, I was struck by the way David Mamet had stripped his translation of the stiltedness one finds in many English versions.   It was like watching bare-bones Chekhov.  Wallace Shawn even captures Vanya's comic ludicrousness.  It's a great production, but I was no less affected by Laurence's Olivier's 1971 production of The Three Sisters, which is heavy on the angst and stilted dialog.

What makes Chekhov work in my opinion is that you begin by observing the characters, judging them, looking at the screwed-up-ness of their lives and self-sabotaging desires, but by the end you find yourself identifying with them.  Vanya is an ass, but you like and pity him for all that, which is often how you feel about yourself. 

And there it is.


T.B. said...

Excelent description ,fill the same way .

Frida said...

indeed! denis leary is primetime uncle vanya.

just came off of mike leigh binge - british kitchen sink dramas - see "nuts in may" and "abigail's party", among others

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...