[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
Anton Chekhov (1904)
Limited Editions Club, New York, 1966. Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Lajos Szalay; introduction by John Gielgud. Blue capeskin spine with gold embossing; boards covered in intricately worked scarlet and black silk; signed by the illustrator.
A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life. Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not stilted.
Chekhov has for some a kind of spare astringency that makes him something of an acquired taste – rather like oysters. But, as with Ibsen, you can for a nominal sum get the BBC collection of all his plays delivered in your home by theatre royalty. For example, there are two versions of The Cherry Orchard. The first comes from 1962, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Peter Hall’s first season with the company. The cast included Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench and Ian Holm. Beat that for a cast – any time, any purpose. The second comes from 1981, when Judi Dench then played the part played by Peggy Ashcroft in the first – and won the BAFTA.
Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but worked as a writer, writing short stories of the first rank, and plays. The citation above shows his innovation that is essential to our modern theatre. His fame now as a playwright rests on four plays.
The Sea Gull, like The Master Builder of Ibsen, reflects the struggle between the older and younger generations. It was booed on its first outing in St Petersburg in 1896. It would take the profession a long time to come to terms with the understated subtlety required of the actors Uncle Vanya depicts the rights of passage from youth to old age. (The BBC set has versions by David Warner (with Ian Holm) and Anthony Hopkins.) The Three Sisters shows intelligent and educated members of provincial gentry losing hope. The Cherry Orchard is an elegiac treatment of the passing of the old order. It is like The Leopard of Lampedusa, especially in the version in the Visconti film.
The literary career of Chekhov lasted less than twenty-five years and was cut tragically short by his death from tuberculosis in 1904. Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov steered away from politics in his work, and Tolstoy correctly perceived, for one who had dreadful ideas about theatre, that the gift of Chekhov was universal: ‘Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life. And the worth of his creation consists in his – he is understood and accepted not only by every Russian, but by all humanity.’ People say the same of Tolstoy – somehow his very Russianness is what makes him so indelibly human.
In the Introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Sir John Gielgud says:
In his plays, he uses a variety of natural sound effects, while his naturalistic dialogue alternates between long silences, sudden bursts of chatter, pause, and gaps in conversation. He takes care to emphasize the exact time of day or night, the season of the year, filling in every detail with the accuracy and passion of one of the great Dutch painters, and evolving with exquisite delicacy, in both atmosphere and dialogue, the tone and mood of the situation he is contriving, the exact moment of truth that he looks for in every scene…..His genius for orchestration is unsurpassed…..
The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov, his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature, the capacity of his characters for acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship, his passion for selective detail – these qualities seem to bring out in a company of players the very best, most generous side of their art and skill.
In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky (Peggy Ashcroft) and her brother Gaev (Gielgud) are landed gentry whose country estate has to be sold because they cannot pay their debts. Anya is Madame’s natural daughter (Judi Dench) and Varya (Dorothy Tutin) is an adopted daughter. Lopahin comes from a serf background but is the ultimate in nouveau riche trying to get the owners to subdivide to solve their problems. Trofimov (Ian Holm) is the eternal student with an eye for Anya and similar optimism for the future. Firs (Roy Dotrice) is a butler old enough to be part of the furniture. Yasha is a young student, and the dark side of the future, a taker. Other characters supply light relief, but it is a mystery how to see or play this piece as a comedy – at least as that word is generally understood. The whole house is like a commune, but the owners just drift about in their own bubbles immunized from the reality that we call the world. They leave the orchard for the last time forgetting the old servant as the world will forget them. The final text before the curtain is: All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the axe far away in the orchard.
Sir Lewis Namier was fond of saying that the English aristocracy could live with money – the French and Russian could not, and they went under. This régime was not just ancien, but defunct. This play is as close to the Russian as the French, but before it. Trofimov prefigures the Russian, but Chekhov could not have foreseen the horror that would be brought to Russia by an arrogant intellectual who had never been one of the people.
The Three Sisters can be hard work. Olga knows she is doomed to spinsterhood. Masha made a big mistake in marrying Kulygin, a thick teacher and crashing bore, and is ready to have an affair with Vershinin, a weak, unattractive, boring colonel who is married. Irina, the youngest, dreams of getting out of the provinces to go back to Moscow, as do they all. A young baron who has no brains at all is pursuing her but he runs foul of a psychopathic snob called Soleni who makes clucking sounds to annoy others, including the audience. The brother is a failed academic who becomes a drunk and a gambler, and loses the house. He marries a rolled gold five star bitch who alienates everyone. All this is the subject of a commentary from an old doctor who is mad, and who giggles compulsively, and breaks into ditties (as does Masha). A lot of them speak of work; none of them knows what the word means. No character is level or pleasant; most operate on you like a nail on a blackboard; you do not get relief from irony or humour as in the other plays; it can therefore be a hard night out.
Let us conclude where we began. When Chekhov’s body was returned from Germany to Moscow for burial, the mourners found that they were following the wrong casket. They finally found the remains in a dirty green freight truck marked ‘For Oysters.’ Maxim Gorki wrote: ‘Vulgarity was Chekhov’s enemy. All his life he had contended with it. It was vulgarity he had mocked and depicted with a dispassionate sharp-pointed pen…And vulgarity avenged itself upon him with a most abominable little prank…the dirty green blotch of that freight car seems to me nothing else than that huge grin of vulgarity, triumphant over its wearied foe.’ Like Chekhov himself, the incident was nothing if not Russian.