Thursday, January 26, 2006

More on Chekhov

Devilvet (see blogroll) commented on my post below entitled "Chekhov and Condemnation." He writes:

"After more thought, I'm sort of confused at the point of this story or more accurately, how this story proves your point. What you see as accepting, gentle nature...I see as pandering. When I read this story I see a tale about three women who are asking difficult questions that they don't fully grasp, and the person they come to for enlightenment or enabling, giving them an out. 'Ladies you aren't as interested in geo-politics as you should be, so let's talk about candy.'"

He asks more questions, which I will address anon, but let's start with this one. When I read Gorky's story, I see three women who have come to visit the Famous Author and are trying to talk about things they think he would want to talk about -- things that are "important." Chekhov relieves them of this necessity and puts them at their ease by asking them about something they all enjoy: candied fruit. For me, an important phrase in the story is: "And all three began to talk with vivacity, revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and subtle knowledge." To me, Chekhov understands that the world can be revealed in many ways, and that candied fruit is as good as geopolitics. When we use the word "pandering," to me we are creating a strict hierarchy of value that says that certain things are important, and others aren't, and that life's truths can only be found through the higher subjects. I'm not certain I agree. It seems to me that his desire is to talk to the ladies about something that they are truly interested in, and to communicate with them from within their own place of enthusiasm.

Devilvet goes on to ask, "what in this Gorky story as you've laid it out has to do with Chekov the dramatist?" It seems to me that many artists would not have made the effort Chekhov makes here -- they would have stayed within their own area of interest and expected the ladies to come to them. There is value to that, to encouraging the ladies to step beyond their comfort zone. But there is also value to starting where someone is comfortable and exploring the "subtle knowledge" that can be found there, and perhaps building a bridge to another part of the forest from there.

When I read a Chekhov play, I don't see him judging his characters. Even characters like Natalya in The Three Sisters, certainly a bitch on wheels, is portrayed sympathetically in the first act, and that colors how we view her for the rest of the play. He allows his characters to "speak their own language," and he relates to them from where they live.

Allison Croggon comments, "When I think of Chekhov the artist, I think of the Chekhov who despised his audience and spoke of "iron in the blood". I'm sure he was a charming human being (quite sure, when I read his letters) - but I also think he was as hard as nails." I suspect we all see the Chekhov we want to see, but for me the key word in her comment is "also" in the second sentence. He is a both/and not an either/or. He wanted to show people how dreary their lives are, while he also believed in their ability to improve. He did not paint rosy pictures, nor did he fail to see the faults of his characters and his audience, but he also did not refuse to see their generosity, their vulnerability, their heart. In my Modern Drama class, we read The Cherry Orchard right after we read A Doll's House, and I sometimes think that is too bad, because if you read Chekhov while still wearing Ibsen's powerfully judgmental lens, you often miss the point of Chekhov's play. You simply judge Ranevskaya and Gaev -- "Why don't they take action? Why are they so infuriating in their impracticality?" -- and you miss the sadness, the emotion, the contradictory feelings that are a part of their actions. Or inactions.

As Allison notes, Chekhov's "great speeches wound," and this is certainly true. But there are other moments (often moments that occur right before or right after the wounding) that heal. When Lopakhin fails to propose to Varya, it is one of the most painful scenes I have ever witnessed, because you simultaneously can sense the longing of these two people for each other, and the inability to make the leap of faith it takes to connect. It hurts, and you understand as well.

Allison quotes Nietzsche to the effect that there is health in the "ability to stare into the abyss of catastrophe," and this is undoubtedly true, and Chekhov certainly was able to do this. But he reported back what he saw in such a way that the abyss seemed understandable, if no less frightening. Nietzsche, like Ibsen, looked at the world with hard eyes; Chekhov, I would say, looked with soft eyes. The eyes of a friend, not of a judge. I value both ways of looking, for different reasons. And I admire Chekhov's way, because I often lack it myself.


Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. I don't know that you can make an awful lot of the fact that Chekhov was certainly a courteous man (sometimes, not always - there are different views to Troyant'ssentimental hagiography, a view that is close to Gorky's description here).

Bu I do agree totally, Scott, that Chekhov never judges his characters. It's what I see as part of his moral toughness - for he is deeply moral, in a way that I find fascinating and moving. He never gives you a villain to hiss and a hero to cheer for, a "clear moral framework" as I've heard it described elsewhere. But this refusal to be seduced by easy moral standards can't be reduced, as it so often is, to a sentimenal gloss that, say, everyone has a heart of gold... Behind the plays is a fierce and angry condemnation of the hypocrisies of Russian society, a soul-destroying pettinesses that literally kills people. And behind that is a perception of existence that encompasses the knowledge that there are wounds that do not heal. Even, say, in the most ideal of societies... Actions are taken, words are said, that can never be taken back, and people suffer their consequences for the rest of their lives. That's because Chekhov never abstracts the human out of his plays - the hard won knowledge that some of his characters gain (Vanya, Nina) can't be weighed in the measure against its cost, which in some cases is everything.

I think Chekhov had a profoundly tragic insight into the fragility of human beings. I do think Beckett is unthinkable without Chekhov's example.

ohwhybother said...

didn' chekhov bemoan the fact that the MAT turned his comedies into maudlin tragedies?

chekhov wrote comedies. and i think he did judge his characters, harshly. they were laughable in their inability to articulate feelings, actions, to be fully self-aware. he was mocking those who wallow in comfort.

comedy allows one to judge man's folly without having to take responsibility for it. i could be a good theater blogger and annotate the various hilariousness of the seagull or cherry orchard, but in each play are characters who refuse to change. it's cruel emotional slapstick; they fall down, and get up and still hit the banana peel.

but then again, i suppose this is the true genius of the man. he can be either.

i hold that he's the funniest playwright i've ever had the pleasure to have read.

Alison Croggon said...

Chekhov is, I think, widely misunderstood because people (like Stanislavsky) seem to think that a man with a profoundly tragic view of existence can't also be funny. Tragic is not a synonym for maudlin. Nor is it incompatible with comedy; in many ways, tragedy and comedy things are not opposites at all. And I really disagree that he judges his characters. He simply presents them, and leaves the rest to the audience.

Btw, I meant to say, Scott, that I also agree with your point that Chekhov saw the importance of the seemingly trivial: that the immense questions of existence are expressed through the unimportant or mundane details. (Again, if I may say so, like Beckett).

Scott Walters said...

I agree, Allison, there is no sentimentality in Chekhov. His attitude is not, as you say, that "everyone has a heart of gold," but rather that "everyone has a heart." I'm not certain that, say, Ibsen shares this outlook.

I also agree that his characters can be wounded deeply and permanently -- Nina, of course, being a prime example. And the wounds are caused by other characters. No heroes and villains.

ohwhybother is also right: there is an almost slapstick element to the plays. Madame Ranevskaya blasts Trofimov to such an extent that he rushes away in tears...and promptly falls down the stairs. Comedy and tragedy butted against each other.

That is the genius, it seems to me: to see the pain and the comedy in every situation, like the picture picture that changes from a beautiful young woman to an old one depending on how you look at it.

But to see comedy is not to sit in judgment.

heyimback said...

Moreso than tragedy, it is.

Tragedy asks us to shudder at Macbeth's spectacle. To take responsibility for his sins, as they are our sins. And to feel for this man, who deserves his fate.

The gut-puncher in MacBeth (i don't know why i'm bringing him up specifically) is when he is told his wife is dead, and that all is lost. And he realizes he is doomed, that perhaps he made a number of very poor and selfish decisions.

MacBeth becomes comic if he never realizes this and sallys forth unrepentant. An unwise fool.