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.

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