This video is the trailer by theatre group Oostpool in the Netherlands, about their performance of three short plays by Anton Chekhov from Russia.
Chekhov lived from 1860-1904. So, he died one year before 1905, the first twentieth century attempt at revolution in Russia. Yet, tensions in Russian society which would ultimately explode into revolution, are reflected in Chekhov’s work. The orchard, Chekhov’s last play, is about conflicts between aristocratic landowners, capitalists and peasants.
Governments sometimes try to paper over internal conflicts by wars, trying to focus all anger on external enemies. In the beginnings of wars, accompanied by waves of “patriotic” hysteria, they may succeed in this. However, in the long run, governments starting wars often undermine themselves. When Chekhov died in Germany in 1904, the Russo-Japanese war had already started. One year later, that war ended in defeat and revolution. The imperial autocracy barely survived it, for the time being.
World War I, started in 1914, in the end drove away rulers like the emperors of Russia and Germany who had started it. During the war, ultimately the internal fault lines, superficially papered over in 1914, sharpened. Not only the fault lines mentioned in Chekhov’s Orchard. Also fault lines within the ruling aristocracy itself.
The first two Chekhov plays of 15 February, both written in 1888, are about conflicts between noble landowners; though not about people as high on the social pyramid as the imperial court. At the end of both plays, it is probable that a man and a woman will marry each other. Throughout most of these plays, however, the future married couples have sharp, potentially even lethal, conflicts. It leaves spectators with the question whether the marriages will really resolve the quarreling.
The first play was A Marriage Proposal. A thirty-something landlord thinks it is time to marry, and asks his neighbour for his daughter’s hand. Soon, the prospective bridegroom gets in noisy tumultuous quarrels with his prospective in-laws, about the border between their properties, about hunting dogs, etc. However, the daughter fears becoming an “old maid” with the social stigma sticking to that in aristocratic circles, even more than marrying a man she disagrees with sharply. And landlord Stepan Stepanovitch Chubukov fears the male equivalent of this stigma (though maybe a bit less than future bride Natalia). So, the play ends with conflicts papered over by an engagement to be married.
The second play was The Bear. Again, one of the two main protagonists is a young woman on an aristocratic estate. This time, her male antagonist is not her neighbour; also not her father, or her husband (she is a widow), but a short-tempered creditor landlord. Their quarrel on the money escalates to the point where they stand back to back with loaded guns for a duel to death. Just before the deathly exchange of bullets, the creditor realizes he really is in love with his debtor.
I had seen this play before, long ago. I think that the actor playing creditor Smirnov then did not play anger and misogyny as convincingly as the Oostpool actor. There were, if I remember correctly, slight differences in the translation. At one time, Smirnov asks sarcastically: “How am I supposed to address ladies correctly? Maybe in French?” From the earlier performance, I then remember the sentence “Je suis très enchanté [I am very delighted] that you are not giving me my money!” On 15 February 2015, I did not hear the “très enchanté” sentence.
The third play by the Oostpool theatre group was the monologue On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco. The only role is not an aristocrat, but an elderly man from the petty bourgeoisie, Chekhov’s own family background. The protagonist is supposed to lecture on the harmfulness of tobacco, though he smokes himself. During the play, he says hardly more about tobacco than that it is “basically a plant”. Instead, he decries his own failed, miserable life.
After the third play, the audience gave the players a standing ovation.
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