Monday, May 11, 2009

Chekov / Three Sisters; The Cherry Orchard

So I wrapped up my Chekov plays last week. The last two are pretty impressive, but I think I would have enjoyed them more on the stage. This is particularly true of Three Sisters, where remembering which sister was which would have been easier with visual cues. Among the things I liked about the play were, as usual, its pointlessness--Andrew marries, but doesn't change much; Irina almost marries but her husband dies; Masha's affair comes to nothing and her husband's love is unfazed by it. No one ever makes it to Moscow!

Mustaches also play a role at the end of the play, which amused me--Masha's husband does an imitation of someone with a fake one. As usual, the characters emphasize their irrelevance, as in Vershinin's comment:

Yes, we'll be forgotten. Such is our fate and we can't do anything about it. And the things that strike us as so very serious and important, they'll all be forgotten one day or won't seem to matter.

I find this ironic because none of the characters seem to think anything is terribly important in the first place! There's also an unresolved debate in both plays and some of the others about whether or not working for some unspecified time in the future where everyone will be happy is a good thing or not. Nobody disagrees about the short term, though, as in Masha:

All our hopes have come to nothing. Imagine thousands of people hoisting up a huge bell. Then after all the effort and money spent on it, it suddenly falls and is smashed to pieces. Suddenly, for no reason at all. That's how it's been with Andrew.

Of any of the plays, The Cherry Orchard seems to have the most complex and interesting characters, especially Lopakhin, who is enthusiastic about saving the Ranevskys, who through their own idiocy are losing their childhood home and its famed cherry orchard. Eventually he buys it himself, and can't help a bit of uncharacteristic gloating:

I've bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren't even allowed in the kitchen. I must be dreaming, I must be imagining it all...This is all a figment of your imagination wrapped in the mist of obscurity.

This is a bit of social commentary on Russia after the freeing of the serfs and the rise of a new middle class (or so I gather--my Russian history is derived entirely from the introduction!). The sudden drop in social status of the family is highlighted by the change in pronoun.

The finale scene wherein the family says goodbye to their home is pretty moving, especially in the last sequence where the stage is essentially abandoned after a last, sudden outburst of emotion from Mrs. Ranevsky and her brother as they are forced to leave; the way it's constructed and its suddenness could be shocking and intense. This is a repeat of one of the early scenes, where we are looking at an empty stage and only hearing conversations of characters as they enter the room. I am very eager to see The Cherry Orchard performed somewhere!

The most fascinating aspect of the last two is the use of sound. In Three Sisters you have the sound of a gunshot indicating the death of Irina's wife, but this knowledge is not immediate, and the characters don't initially react to it. The fact that the audience hears it and knows about the duel between Irina's fiance and another soldier would create a dramatic situation as the characters on the stage essentially go on about their business of discussing nothing. More mysterious is this strange sound of a string breaking that is heard in The Cherry Orchard. It's referenced as a real sound, but the one explanation (a mine rope breaking far away) is very weird. It is the last sound we hear in the play, combined with the chopping sound of the cherry orchard finally being pulled down and right as the old servant Firs, a representative of the old life, dies on a chair on the empty stage. The sound highlights the loss of the situation, as does the chopping, which really brings it home.

I'll end on a lighter note--Chekov's characters must have faucets on their foreheads, because they cry at random all the time. Everyone will be talking normally, and then suddenly a line is to be said "though tears" or while "crying." And then the next line is back to normal! Strange. I'm not sure exactly how it works on stage, but maybe it emphasizes what's already apparent, the sudden bursts of emotions in Chekov's characters that seem to vanish as rapidly as they appear.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Chekov / Uncle Vanya

I read Uncle Vanya yesterday and subsequently tackled the first half of Three Sisters; I think I'll finish all the plays instead of moving on to another book. After this I guess I'll be fairly thoroughly versed in Chekov.

Uncle Vanya continues the trend of largely irrelevant plots that I noted in The Seagull. What we have in this play is another collection of bored aristocrats--an outdated writer and his family. The latter includes his current wife and his children by a previous wife, along with Uncle Vanya himself, his brother-in-law. All had been enamored with the good professor until late in life and are now disillusioned. The most bored character seems to be his wife, Helen, but everyone complains of a wasted life, from Vanya to the doctor, Astrov, who on the very first page complains of being overworked. He also says one of my favorite lines:
Look at this, I've grown a huge mustache. An idiotic mustache. I've become a freak....Somehow I don't feel things keenly anymore. I don't want anything, I don't seem to need anything and there's no one I'm fond of.
We hear what might be echoes of Chekov's own voice speaking through Astrov, complaining of the destruction of the wildlife and forests in Russia in the name of progress, though lives don't seem to be improving because "people have found the struggle for existence too much for them...they haven't the faintest idea of what they're doing." He also complains of the brighter people who "go in for all this brooding and morbid introspection, all this whining..." Ironically, he's got the longest diatribes in the whole play!

So I find him the most interesting character. Vanya is the pinnacle of brooding and morbid introspection, but at least this time it doesn't lead to suicide. Instead, he points his pistol at his brother in law and tries to kill him, but somehow misses multiple times! The almost complete lack of interest in this attempted murder displayed by the other characters is a lot more shocking than the event itself! Thus all the passions in the play seem momentary. Astrov, who is at random moments obsessed with the professor's young wife, does these crazy leaps from intensely professing his love (at one point even assaulting her) and then immediately dropping all the passion.

This one seems like it would be interesting to see staged. The ending is especially interesting. Nothing is resolved. Uncle Vanya and the rest will continue working pointlessly for the professor they no longer esteem, and everything will go back to the way it was. As the play ends they sit at a table working to manage their farm for the old man, looking forward to nothing but a life of drudgery in the future. It seems like a decidedly anticlimactic ending.

I'll probably wrap up these posts by Wednesday or so. Now I feel like randomly choosing my next reading material. Drumroll, please...It will be...Romain Rolland's Jean-Christoph. Thanks to for making the decision. It's a long book and I just bought it yesterday. I also know absolutely nothing about the author or the book so it will be fun to go in knowing nothing. Actually, the edition I have is from 1938. That tells me I might be sneezing from dust as I read it, so I guess I do know something.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chekov / The Seagull

The Seagull on its title page proposes to be a "comedy in four acts," but only the last three words seem to be accurate. The plot involves an neurotic aspiring artist Constantine, his actress mother, and some assorted romantic entanglements. I agree with the introduction that Chekov's plays are not without plot, but I'd say the plot really doesn't matter much because you can rapidly surmise the romances won't come to much and ultimately the outcome isn't very important.

I thought this play was a bit less interesting than Ivanov, but very similar in the sense that its characters are equally obsessed with their own misery. Constantine in particular emphasizes his incompetence. Even the most upbeat character in the play, the writer Trigorin, emphasizes that his life will be summed up on his tombstone as "not as good as Turganev." Probably the most interesting aspect of the play is associated with its title: the seagull which Treplev kills for his love Nina. Nina (and I) don't make much sense of this supposed symbol from Treplev's perspective, but Trigorin later runs with it and uses it to represent a woman after she meets a man who "wrecks her life for want of anything better to do." In this case, it's reflective of the relationship that develops between Nina and Trigorin until the latter becomes bored.

Constantine, presumable speaking for Chekov, pontificates at length (perhaps too much length!) about the nature of writing, the theater and the need for Russian authors to move beyond their current rut. He mentions the addition of dreamlike elements on the stage, but this seems like it couldn't be further from the direction Chekov heads in his later plays. I already read those a year or two ago but I'll probably read them again...maybe not this time around though.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Chekov / Ivanov

I like Chekov's plays because they tend to be vague and resist easy discussion. Ivanov was his first notable play, and concerns an angst-ridden government official, his dying wife and other assorted woes. Actually, the dying wife isn' much of a woe because he no longer loves her and her death allows him to marry the daughter of a friend. What's clear is that Nicholas is entirely self-centered, but obsessed with his own inadequacy including his selfishness. He describes his life as a void, saying he once worked hard and did not feel tired but now he "[does] nothing and think[s] of nothing" but is tired in "body and soul." A sense of tiredness and boredom pervades the whole play. The second act is a dinner party that involves primarily a group of old ladies talking about Nicholas and others behind their backs while complaining about their boredom, while a waiter perpetually fails to bring requested refreshments. Even the comedic figue of Kosykh, who tells endless stories of bridge games, seems entirely hollow. The phrase "boredom" appears all over the place.

Nicholas makes for an odd hero, and it's never quite clear whether all the negative stories (e.g., that he married his wife only for the dowry that never arrived and is involved in other schemes) are true or not. They evidently convince the doctor Lvov, who despite being the only honest and seemingly upstanding character of the play is portrayed in a deeply negative light and his judgments directly results in Nicholas' abrupt final suicide. I'm not sure what Chekov wants to say by this heroic inversion, yet it feels oddly natural.

I don't have many other reflections worth nothing. The translation is garbage. It's the Hingley version for Oxford Classics and is buried in tiresome Britishisms..."old chap" and "old boy" and so on. When I read a play, I try to envision it in my mind, but it's hard to mentally picture this play being performed by Russians as a consequence of the translation. I also very much enjoyed some of Nicholas's self-aware (if self-absorbed) speeches saying how he can't even "write bad poetry." He sounds like an unhappy teenager, frankly.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Hello. When I was in elementary school and had to do book reports, we were always required to create "reading reflections" as we read. Of course, 90% of the time I did not reflect while I read and instead I wrote them all later. I even wrinkled the paper to suggest I had written them while reading, though I don't know why that would necessarily be convincing.

Anyway, I read a lot of books but find I have trouble remembering what I thought about them later, so I'm starting a blog where I'll post some thoughts as I read. They will very in length, quality, and profundity; the frequency of posts will also vary greatly. Mostly this is a tool for my own use and reference, but I might as well make it public for other people to enjoy.

Note that I typically read randomly. Literally...I have a large library and I use a random number generator to pick what book to read. Otherwise, I might never get around to reading some things. In general, if I pick a novel I'll finish it. If it's short stories or plays, I'll read some or all, but I feel free to quit and pick something new. My library is pretty wide ranging, but it's mostly fiction in a broad sense, including mythology and that sort of stuff. There's also some history, letters, speeches, essays, and the like, but I think it all falls under the heading of "literature."

I hope someone derives enjoyment out of this and, more importantly, it proves useful to me!