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Sunday, August 28, 2005

chekov part ii zia

Zia Mohyeddin column

Notes towards the understanding of Chekhov Part II

When you think of the beginning of The Three Sisters, with Olga describing the past, and the ending of the play, again with Olga talking of the future, you cannot help thinking that it is a musical structure. The themes and counter-themes -- with refrains -- weave in and out to create a symphonic work. (I am, of course, assuming that you have seen the play, or read it). Olga's last speech, part of which I have quoted, winds up and rounds off the story of The Three Sisters much as the close of a symphony.

Uncle Vanya is the least well-known of Chekhov's four dramatic masterpieces (The Seagull, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard are the better known). It is a remarkable play, not least because it exists in two versions. The earlier version, The Wood Demon, is an immature draft.

It is only when you have read both versions that you are able to discover the direction of Chekhov's development as a superb craftsman. The Wood Demon is a melodramatic farce. It tells the story of three couples; a pompous, vain professor and his young wife, Helen; Khrushchov, a local doctor nicknamed The Wood Demon because of his passion for forestry, and Sonya, the professor's daughter by his first marriage; and a young man and woman named Fyodor and Julia. Then there is George Voynitsky, the brother of the professor's first wife, who was later named Vanya. The action consists to a great extent in the banal crisscrossing of amorous interests.

The plot of The Wood Demon centres on property. The estate is the dowry of Voynitysky's sister, the professor's first wife. The present owner is the daughter from the first marriage, Sonya. The professor who has sponged off his in-laws all his life, calls it "our estate" and declares his plans to sell it so that he and his young wife can live in style in a Finnish villa.

It is the shock of this proposal, coming on top of his discovery that the professor in whom he has so long believed is an intellectual fraud -- coming on top of his infatuation with the professor's wife -- that drives Voynitsky (Vanya in the later play) to suicide, which is pure melodrama.

But for the initial situation, Chekhov revised everything in Uncle Vanya. Vanya does not shoot himself; he fires his pistol at the professor and misses. Helen does not run away from her husband. He decides to leave and she goes with him. Astrov (Khrushchov in The Wood Demon) does not love Sonya; he and she live in isolation. The hapless Vanya is neither dead nor in a condemned cell; but he is not happy.

The four people who emerge as protagonists in Uncle Vanya are different from their prototypes in The Wood Demon. Sonya still loves Astrov but her love is not returned; they resign themselves to a life of labour without love. The framework of the play is the attractive pattern of arrival and departure; the action is what happens in the short space of time between the arrival of the professor and his wife in their country estate and their departure from it.

The big moment, the climax of the play when the professor announces his intention to sell the estate (death knell for Vanya who has sweated all his life to pay off the mortgage) is, in fact, an anti-climax. Vanya's futile attempt to shoot the professor does not make the professor change his mind because he had begun to change it already. The old routine resumes its sway. The dramatic irony is that things that all these years seemed to be so, are really so, and will remain so.

Chekhov's characters do not dream only of what could never be; they dream of what their lives actually could have been. Astrov who moves us because we can readily feel how fully human he might have been, how he has dwindled under the influence of country life from a thinker to a crank. He says to Helen in the last scene:

"It is strange somehow -- we've got to know each other, and all at once for some reason -- we shall never meet again. So it is with everything in the world."

If Vanya is the ruin of a man of principle, "Waffles", the pseudo-intellectual, is the parody of one. Uncle Vanya is about youth and age, innocence and sophistication, feeling and apathy, use and waste, freedom and captivity, life and death. Other dramatists too, have tried to encapsulate these concepts (antithesis, if you like) but none has been able to weave them in with such subtlety and irony.

Uncle Vanya is a battleground of two conflicting impulses -- the impulse to destroy and the impulse to create. Vanya's destructive passion reaches a pseudo-climax in his pistol-shots culminating in bitter resignation. Astrov's creative passion has found no outlet. His ending is the same as Vanya's -- isolation. In this funny-peculiar world the destructive passions do not destroy and the creative passions do not create.

Chekhov's plays are made up of a series of family gatherings, tea-drinking, arrivals, departures, meals, dances, casual conversations. What makes his plays seem most formless is precisely the means by which he achieves a strict form. He presents his action not in a centralised manner, but obliquely, indirectly.

The arrival and departure is one of the most indispensable elements of a Chekhov play. In The Cherry Orchard it gives him a fine dramatic opening and an ending of great poignancy. In The Seagull it provides him with a magnificent climax in the third act and helps him to heighten the suspense in the last. And in Uncle Vanya it enables him to contrive a most moving anti-climax.

Chekhov created a kind of recognition which is all his own. In Ibsen, the terrible thing is that the surface of everyday life is a smooth deception. In Chekhov, the terrible thing is that the surface of everyday life is itself a kind of tragedy. Nobody's future at the end of the play is as good or bad at it might be; nobody is conclusively loving or hating. Chekhov avoids the black and the white, the tragic and the comic. He is a master of halftone, and the tragicomic.

Chekhov's theatre is psychological. The fate of his characters is unsettled because that is Chekhov's view of truth. Nobody dies; nobody is paired off. His view is that life knows no ending, happy or tragic. I read somewhere that Shaw once congratulated Chekhov on the discovery that the tragedy of the Hedda Gablers is, in real life, precisely that they do not shoot themselves.



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