Thursday, August 18, 2011
Birch Trees and Samovars
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.
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