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Chekhov's Plays: An Opening into Eternity.

Things are slipping away. Forests are flattened in the name of progress, vulgarians are at the gate, hardly anyone feels easy about the future and, more than ever, better parties seem to be happening at someone else's house.

And I'm forever in the mood for Anton Chekhov. Richard Gilman has subtitled his welcome analysis of Chekhov's plays An Opening Into Eternity, but--at the risk of being another of his loathed sociological ideologues--I'm constantly moved by how specific that "eternity" feels today. Gilman, Yale professor and former drama critic of this magazine, makes a deeply persuasive case for the universal humanity of Chekhov's characters and links the innovation of his historically underestimated craft all the way, bless him, to Beckett.

Is it really too literal, however, to notice that we're just three years short of a century from the 1899 premiere of Uncle Vanya, our decade's own Chekhovian obsession, the one in which Astrov, the disillusioned doctor, asks early in the play, "What are people going to say...a hundred years from now?... You think they'll admire us for the way we live?"

Are we guilty of what Gilman calls a "cliche of social and situational analysis" to feel somehow complicitous with the Russian at the end of the tumultuous turn of his century? Between 1895 and 1904--the years Chekhov (who was to die of tuberculosis at 44 in 1904) wrote his four late great plays--the Lumiere brothers were inventing movies, Roentgen discovered the X-ray, Marconi received a transatlantic radio message, the Wright brothers flew. Information superhighways, indeed.

Can we separate Chekhov's time from an idea of future that hovers over his people with such a beguiling yet melancholy promise of transformation and helplessness? Behind his characters' futile attempts to imagine past their own inertia--Olga's tentative belief in progress throughout Three Sisters, Trofimov's pathetic zeal for a liberating future in The Cherry Orchard--we sense the author pulled between his own desire to share some kind of hope for the future and his inability to ignore what we know now about decay.

In other words, can't Chekhov be for all eternity--but especially for us? Of course, all humanity suffers the recognition of its mortality (the life cycle supersedes only the food chain in my hierarchy of very big mistakes). Is it merely fluke or fashion that, in the past two years, Vanya has been courted around Hollywood like a Jane Austen character with a dowry? Michael Blakemore filmed him in the Australian outback, Anthony Hopkins brought him to Wales and, in the wonderful Vanya on 42nd Street, Louis Malle let loose Wallace Shawn, Chekhov and a brilliant ensemble in a crumbling old theater palace in Times Square.

That magnificent ruin of a theater, not incidentally, has been bought by Disney and--anyone hear axes cracking in the cherry orchard?--will reopen next spring as a center for theme-park musicals. As Gilman writes in one of many remarkable observations, pivotal Chekhov characters often pass "beyond illusion: love will not save me, work will not ennoble me, the future won't rescue the present."

Gilman's point here is not that Chekhov's characters are driven toward spiritual suicide. On the contrary. Just as Disney, in its awful sanitized way, is probably rescuing a street incapable of relocating its original civility, the Chekhovian journey "beyond illusion" is more complex than the weepy sentimentalism the playwright himself abhorred. Chekhov, of course, thoroughly perplexed a century of directors by insisting The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were comedies, complaining bitterly that Stanislavsky's Cherry Orchard made him "into a cry-baby or into a bore."

In fact, his idea of the comic--as in the comedy of the ordinary human horror show--must be part of what makes Chekhov speak so intimately to modern audiences. Here he is, a master of our mixed emotions, exquisitely humane yet brutally honest, and (despite Sonya's pie-in-the-sky platitudes at the end of Uncle Vanya) a secular man whose decency is rooted in the absolute everyday.

His characters are filled with ironic combinations of foolishness and noble sadness; they can simultaneously be arrogant and self-mocking, bored but seldom boring. They are fading intellectuals in the provincial countryside, yearning for Moscow or culture or the better party of someone else's life. They are disappointed gentry among servile but increasingly aggressive peasants, stuck by time and place and their own squandered selves, achingly worthy yet incapable of better lives. Young men want to be famous writers, famous writers can never be famous enough. Young girls want to be great actresses, great actresses want to be young. There is usually an idealistic but disenchanted doctor visiting--Chekhov was, after all, a practicing physician--and just about everyone adores the wrong person.

Maybe we love him best because, as an utterly ruthless but noncoercive psychologist, he recognizes no heroes, no villains, nobody to blame, just people who, as Gilman deliciously describes them, "don't so much cause each other pain as participate in a mutual incapacity to prevent it." They endure what Chekhov calls the "subtle, elusive beauty of human grief."

Gilman can get pretty defensive on the subject of Chekhov's reputation as a miniaturist, railing against "tiresome assertions" about the Russian's bittersweet delicacy of mood and atmosphere, opinions Gilman hits as "nebulous and soft-minded in the extreme." And don't even think of saying "ineffable." We have always assumed that Chekhov requires no aesthetic bodyguards, but then again, Gilman may perceive academic threats more realistically than we do. Indeed, even Robert Brustein, who called Chekhov the "gentlest, the subtlest, and the most dispassionate of all the great modern dramatists," suggested, well, that our man may not belong in the truly revolutionary pantheon with Ibsen, Strindberg and Pirandello.

Gilman wisely brings up Henry James's extraordinarily Chekhovian observation on Ibsen's Hedda Gabler--that it offered "that supposedly undramatic thing, the portrait not of an action but of a condition." Then, since James apparently never knew Chekhov's work, Gilman takes the leap himself and lands with dazzling precision and grace on the terrifying conditional territory of Samuel Beckett.

The minute we read Gilman's subtitle to his Three Sisters chapter--"I Can't Go On, I'll Go On"--the natural connection is electric. Suddenly, clearly, the play is not about sisters who want to go to Moscow but about sisters living while not getting to Moscow. The Cherry Orchard is not about the loss of the trees but "about living while having to give up the trees." To live is to endure, which, at its purest, is festering in the viscera of so much twentieth-century drama. As Gilman says, in Endgame and in Waiting for Godot, as in Uncle Vanya, the "inescapable fact is that there's nothing much to do."

Of course, Chekhov is, as we say, an easier sit than Beckett. Americans prefer their theater to have small domestic stories attached to their existential conditions, not to mention people who have recognizable families, identifiable birch trees and working samovars. But just as Beckett's dear, dear Winnie of Happy Days cheerfully greets the new day up to her waist, then up to her neck in sand, Chekhov's sisters, buried in small-town mediocrity, cling to plans about Moscow as if intentions were oxygen. We are, according to Gilman, in "as pure a state of noncontingency as it's possible to find in a play until Beckett, several generations later, will write as though Chekhov, his more full-bodied, perhaps more `humane' ancestor, were informing every line."

Gilman does not speak about the opportunities Chekhov has left for actors, but his thoughtful and passionate analyses of the plays bring memories back alive. I think, for example, of gifted young men I've seen--David Hyde Pierce at the Guthrie in 1984, Kevin Spacey at the Kennedy Center in 1985, Ethan Hawke on Broadway three seasons ago--trying out the febrile pronouncements of Treplev, son of the diva actress Arkadina in The Seagull, lovesick about both love and art, crying, with all the ridiculous and adorable impatience of youth for new theatrical forms, "New forms!...or nothing at all!"

Was Chekhov making new forms or making fun? Both, naturally. Gilman, working from letters, diaries and stories as well as the plays, marinates us in the facts and feelings of what he calls--another lovely phrase--"seditious loops of technique...a sly, subtly organized frustration of our expectations." Despite the ostensibly realistic settings of people in their bourgeois estates, all decisive dramatic action happens offstage. Struggles are internal, thus seldom linear. "Facts don't generate the drama; if anything, it's the other way around." This, as Brustein put it, may be "revolt by indirection," but revolutionary it definitely is.

Gilman is certainly capable of turning an infelicitous phrase, such as his description of Chekhov's "notional presences" in Seagull or the "amorousness toward the invisible" in Vanya. We forgive him these spasms because he immediately elaborates with such acuity and grace. By notional presences, he means the mingling themes of art and love; the other is being "in love with the not-to-be-expressed."

Gilman is also guilty of romanticizing the woman thing in the plays. This is sweet, but not especially helpful. "On the whole," he writes, "men in Chekhov need more, they move more disconsolately within their finiteness, they wish more hungrily to be delivered from the responsibilities of self." Since Nina, Sonya and the sisters better "outlast the loss or failure of love, remaining more or less intact," Gilman implies that Chekhov ascribes to women some greater strength to endure. In fact, Chekhov's gloriously complicated women--what rich roles he left for actresses--touch me in a very different way. That admired resignation to their particular "finiteness" seems a result of having been permitted so many fewer concrete options in life. They do not have an inherent superiority at enduring, they've simply had more practice at it.

Chekhov, while hardly a pamphleteer, was a clear-eyed participant in the real world. The educated son of a grocer and, as Gilman reminds us, the grandson of a serf, he made more money from his writing than from his medical practice with the poor. He denied his own tuberculosis as long as he could. In 1890, he even traveled across Siberia to study harsh conditions in a prison for deported convicts; he later published a study of his findings.

That generosity is everywhere in Chekhov's dealings with his characters. How truly satisfying to learn from Gilman's careful selection of letters that the writer he describes as having "perhaps the most exquisite sensibility of all" also lived with it. Chekhov's list of what he called his "holy of holies" included intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and "the most absolute freedom imaginable--freedom from violence and lies no matter what form [they]...take."

To Chekhov, one of the best things about art is that "it doesn't let you lie. You can lie in love, politics, and medicine, you can fool people and even God--such cases do exist--but you can't lie in art." Such honesty also made him ask, "Am I not fooling the reader, since I cannot answer the most important questions?" The important questions are meant not to be answered, but this rare spirit had to keep needling himself about them anyway. Little wonder that Gilman is so disgusted with "sociological interpreters" who deny that Chekhov's sufferers are "out of the reach of therapy or civic planning." Chekhov, once a voice of pre-revolutionary Russia, then used as the prophet of Communism, is now--in an unforgettable Vanya I saw by the State Theater of Lithuania--considered the poet of Soviet resistance.

Whichever "eternity" was claiming him at the time, it is clear today that his is the theater's voice of humanism. Gilman gives us a shocking fact of life, an aside that cannot help but put us in one of those yearning frames of mind. Though Chekhov died before our century really began, his sister Maria lived until 1957 and his wife of just three years, actress Olga Knipper, did not die until 1959. Both were 93.

We know what the twentieth century has made of Chekhov. How Chekhovian never to know what he would have made of us.
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Author:Winer, Linda
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 6, 1996
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