Five Plays by Anton Chekhov

Five Plays: Ivanov, the Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and the Cherry OrchardFive Plays: Ivanov, the Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and the Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently, it’s possible to interpret these plays as “a boisterous romp round the samovar” rather than “unrelieved gloom.” (back cover blurb) Since this is my first real experience with anything by Chekhov (aside from reading his short story The Red Violin a few years previously), I will bow to the greater wisdom of that unknown blurbist and assume that there is humour here, somewhere. Maybe if you see them live it’s more obvious? Maybe it helps if you’re a Russian from the late 1800’s? Seriously, though. Even the comedy ends with a death. There are comical characters, to be sure. Ridiculous ones. Oftentimes I felt they leaned more towards so sad it was funny? Or almost funny. Or just sad. Regardless, don’t pick up a stack of Chekhov’s work on a day when you’re feeling down and questioning your life’s purpose. These plays are not designed to elicit a sense of the imminent, hopeful destiny. They’re almost dark, and when I think about it it’s strange that they’re only almost dark rather than completely black. It doesn’t hurt that all his plays are quite short; four acts each. Despite their endings you often get a sense of things continuing in the character’s lives beyond the curtain fall. And as I sit here trying to figure out what has made these works endure for over 100 years now, and what drew me to them past the point of gloomy resignation to actual enjoyment (around Act 4 of Uncle Vanya), I realize all I’m doing is eliminating what I don’t think it was. Not how relatable the characters are (they’re really not. Does anyone actually know people who act like this?). Or the richly detailed writing, the action packed scenes:

NINA [stares into his face]. Let me look at you. [Looks round the room.] It’s nice and warm. This used to be the drawing-room. Am I very changed? -The Seagull, Act Four (112)

Nothing like the passion of two long-separated, ill-fated lovers finally meeting again. This isn’t the kind of stuff dreams are made of. Maybe his plays are popular because they give directors lots of room to play with? You can stage the same play one year as a drama and the next as a comedy? (Actually, that sounds like it would be quite challenging to pull off. I would like to see that.) This is what Chekhov did. He wrote things that were easier to define by what they weren’t than what they were. The leftover bits after the high drama and romance have been swept away, and there’s only the average nincompoop standing around with a confused facial expression. Similar to ourselves, but still foolish enough to feel slightly superior to. Recognizeable, but not bitterly so. In a way, reading one of these plays brings a special kind of relief. You may have messed up once or twice before, but you’re not as bad off as one of Chekhov’s characters.

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