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Theater | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Simple, inspiring, misread

In Chekhov's work, some directors see despondency; others, slapstick. But it's in his smooth mingling of comedy and tragedy that he transcends categories.

February 12, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

If great actors can't convince us with their deft clowning, what director can? When Meryl Streep literally performed cartwheels in Mike Nichols' hammy version of "The Seagull" in Central Park a few years back, one could only wish that she had been encouraged to reach into her capacious bag of accents and pull out a slightly more serious tone for the humorously histrionic Arkadina, the fading actress whose unbridled narcissism contributes to her oedipally challenged son's eventual suicide. And though critic Walter Kerr liked Streep's earlier zany turn as Dunyasha in Serban's 1977 Lincoln Center staging of "The Cherry Orchard," he reported that "she had to work hard, too hard, to establish a level of gagging we're certainly not accustomed to [in the play], and some of her extravagances -- crashing to the floor in a faint after a single kiss -- fell as flat as she did."

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The delight in the quotidian

IN a curious essay that followed his own adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard," David Mamet argues that Chekhov was writing not just comedy but farce. Taking his point a step further, he describes the work as a set of "review sketches on a common theme." (Fortunately, he picks a good one -- "frustrated sexuality.") But hilariously accident-prone as the action is (there's everything from a bumbling clerk's squeaky boots to a professional student's stumble down a flight of stairs), the only thing more boring than a ponderously distraught staging of the play is one that tries to pass it off as "Monty Python's Moscow Circus."

Clearly, the traditional categories of tragedy and comedy are too limiting for Chekhov's genius. The author himself chose various designations for his four major plays: "comedy" for "The Seagull" and "The Cherry Orchard"; "drama" for "Three Sisters"; and the beguiling "scenes from country life" for "Uncle Vanya." Yet these distinctions, which have nothing at all to do with happy or unhappy endings, blur as you experience the works' unrestricted energies.

In an essay on Proust, the great German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin observed that "all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one -- that they are, in other words, special cases." Chekhov's specialness lies in his delight in the quotidian, the everyday to-ing and fro-ing that by degrees etches a tenuous destiny.

"What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart." These oft-quoted words of Chekhov's hold the secret to the duality of his vision. Yet to understand the slippery way light and dark interact in his work, it's useful to recall the unique background Chekhov brings to his dramatic art.

Chekhov started writing humor pieces for the newspapers while studying medicine in Moscow and continued to churn out farcical one-acts throughout his career. (He was revising the stand-up monologue "The Evils of Tobacco" while working on "The Cherry Orchard.") All of his plays are shot through with broad comic turns, yet directors who confuse the comedy of Chekhov's vaudeville sketches with that of his great plays do the playwright a great disservice.

To understand his dramatic imagination, you'd be better advised to examine his short stories. Just as you can't separate the poet from the playwright in Shakespeare, so you cannot isolate the author of "Three Sisters" from that of "The Lady With the Pet Dog." After all, it was through his stories that Chekhov developed his mastery of the pianissimo drama, the anti-melodramatic style that Richard Gilman brilliantly analyzes in his book "Chekhov's Plays: An Opening Into Eternity." Given the coincidence-heavy, crescendo-driven claptrap that dominated the 19th century Russian stage, Chekhov's discovery of new suppleness in the form is astonishing if not in fact revolutionary, as critics like Gilman have claimed.

The short story can be defined as a record of emotion. Eudora Welty, a master practitioner herself, observed that a "story behaves, it goes through motions." By this she implied that it wasn't a description of a feeling but an enactment of the feeling's shifting course.

This notion serves Chekhov's dramaturgy, which is full of movement although it's often been considered static for failing to properly climax in knot-tying endings. What Chekhov offers -- and what is really at the heart of all great theatrical comedy from Shakespeare to Beckett -- is a sense of the ongoing rhythm of life, the fact that no matter the gales of laughter (or streams of tears), another day will punctually follow. Comedy, unlike tragedy, is all about second chances, which is why the heartbreaking loss of the country estate in "The Cherry Orchard" also spells potentially thrilling beginnings for everyone, and not just the self-made businessman and former peasant, Lopakhin, who bought it out from under his aristocratic betters.

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