Not all that Keen

John Bayley

  • Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by V.S. Pritchett
    Hodder, 235 pp, £12.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 340 37409 8

It is likely that The Cherry Orchard was suggested by Chekhov’s story ‘A Visit to Friends’, which he did not include in the collected edition, and which concerns a family in dire financial straits (Chekhov knew them) who pin their hopes on a shrewd and successful young lawyer friend. He will marry their daughter and somehow get them out of the mess. Naturally cynical and self-absorbed, the young man is nonetheless sentimentally attracted to the daughter. But it would be a mistake. Feeling a bit ashamed of himself, but not much, the young man gets up and sneaks off into the night.

Chekhov’s plays emerge naturally from his stories, which is why he always disliked the attempts by Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko to turn them into ‘theatre’. Theatre is always itself, self-contained in the speeches of the actors and actresses, and Chekhov wanted his plays to run away into life like water through a sieve, rather than remain insulated on the stage with its careful climaxes and anti-climaxes. He hated the building itself and used to sit in gloomy silence at the back when the actors and director were discussing how to play a scene. When Stanislavsky called The Cherry Orchard ‘a truly great tragedy’ Chekhov muttered that it was not even a drama – it was a farce.

He was being disingenuous, of course. What he meant was that he didn’t like the stage, though he was happy with the money and reputation it brought him. Like the young lawyer of the story or Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, he didn’t want to get involved: he preferred to disappear into the woodwork of life, not stand out in the responsibility of limelight. Socrates in the Symposium says that comedy and tragedy are the same; and tragic farce is a cliché today, sealed off by all the usual theatrical devices. How Chekhov would have hated ‘audience participation’! His plays turn the theatre from a public into a private place, where the actors are alone as if each were playing his own story, and the audience as if they were reading it. The play necessarily goes against every public production of it, as Chekhov must have known; and it must have amused him, as he was amused by the natural theatricality of the half-German actress Olga Knipper, whom he eventually married. Like all stage people, Olga showed off about life, and Chekhov loved her deeply but a little derisively. She wrote to him asking what was the meaning of life, and he replied that life was like a carrot, which was a carrot, ‘and no more is known.’

The provenance of Chekhov’s plays is not unique. Shakespeare’s begin and in a sense end as stories; Henry James could not write for the stage, but produced tales and novels which have taken to it in a way which would have startled and perhaps discomposed him, even though he claimed in his Notebooks, after his own theatrical debacle, that the disaster had at least helped him to find the key which would fit ‘both the narrative and the dramatic lock’. Chekhov had no need to look for it. In what is by far the best study yet of the ways his stories and plays work and got written, V.S. Pritchett shows how simply and naturally Chekhov gravitated to the stage while remaining all the while a story-writer. No more than his hero does Pritchett contrast or separate the two.

Himself one of the best of modern short-story writers, Pritchett not only understands from the inside the story’s own process, but how it can lead to a play. This gives his book its originality as close criticism, which is never self-preoccupied or over-insistent. There is a wonderful economy about it. Short as it is, it says everything, both about the man and his art, giving the taste of Chekhov more subtly and comprehensively than the longer and laborious books about him. Communing with the feel of his places and people, Pritchett perceives that Chekhov’s utter lack of sentimentality, even of ‘sentiment’, comes from the way he lets people present their own version of themselves. The cast of Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya communicate by talking to their own images, which somehow coalesce into dramatic movement. Of The Cherry Orchard Pritchett says: ‘The matching of time present and time past gives the play the density and intricacy of a novel; the play is the most novelised of Chekhov’s plays because the people talk it into existence and because no one listens. It is a farce because the people are a disordered chorus, who have lost their gods and invent themselves. They are a collective farewell, and that is what moves us.’ The implicit comparison with a Greek chorus – time-honoured emblem of dramatic unity – is extraordinarily revealing. There is a parodic element involved. But people cannot parody themselves. That is why Sonya’s silly speech at the end of Uncle Vanya is so unself-conscious and so moving. ‘We shall hear the angels, we shall see the heavens covered with stars like diamonds. We shall see all earthly evils, all our sufferings, vanish in the flood of mercy which will fill the whole world, and our life will become peaceful, gentle, sweet as a caress. I believe it ... we shall rest.’

Chekhov when young was quite prepared to write orthodox plays in the Russian style, plays in which, as he once put it, if there is a pistol on the table in the first act it must go off in the last one. The stories gradually revealed the innerness of his own late method, which was certainly not based, as a modern playwright’s would be, on any conscious intention or theory. In an ironic way, he is present himself in his plays – for instance, as the efficient peasant and property-speculator Lopakhin, who will buy up the Cherry Orchard, and who evades all attempts to trap him into marriage with Madame Ranevskaya’s ward. Chekhov, as Pritchett says, ‘admired this self-made man’, and sharply warned Stanislavsky that he must not be played as the traditional grasping vulgarian of a stock stage part. Pritchett intuits that Chekhov himself had ‘an unusually low sexual temperature’, and was adept at turning the advances of girls who pursued him into mildly romantic friendship. A particularly relentless lady, Lydia Avilova, was pacified by being put to work hunting up the early stories through old newspapers and magazines, so that they could be assembled for a collected edition.

Chekovian things from his own plays or stories were apt to happen to Chekhov. I remember reading that the end of The Cherry Orchard, with old Firs, who is thought to be in hospital, accidentally left behind in the shut-up house, was suggested by an occasion when Chekhov found himself shut up in the theatre, everyone else having gone home. When he was dying of TB in January 1904, at the time of the premiere of The Cherry Orchard, he was persuaded against his will to appear briefly in the theatre, in celebration of his 25 years as a writer. A journalist wrote of him standing awkwardly in the middle of the stage, ‘stooping and fidgeting with his hands, in a short-tailed morning-coat and rather short trousers’. He looked so ill that someone in the gallery kindly called out, ‘Sit down,’ but no chair could be found on the stage. After his death at a German spa, the body was brought home in a goods wagon labelled ‘Fresh Oysters’, and his funeral got mixed up with that of a general killed in Manchuria, some of Chekhov’s few mourners following the wrong procession, which was led by a military band.

A profound optimist and believer in human improvement, Chekhov was none the less in love with the insignificance of event, its failure to rise to any occasion. The Russian Jewish philosopher Shestov, who wrote some of the most perceptive criticism of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, remarked that Chekhov’s men and women were best-off in an impasse, situations from which there was no way out being best-suited to human need. Gurov and Anne in ‘The Lady with the Dog’ end up in that position, which is also one brought about and continued by their love. Like ceremony, love cannot bring things off. When Olga Knipper finally got him to the altar Chekhov besought her not to have a wedding party: ‘I have a fearful dread of the congratulations, and the champagne which one has to hold in one’s hand while smiling vaguely.’ Olga in Three Sisters remembers her father’s funeral. ‘He was a general and commanded a brigade. All the same, not many people came.’ Firs has the same mournful relish: ‘We used to have generals and barons and admirals at our dances in the old days, but now we send for the post-office clerk and the stationmaster, and even they are not all that keen to come.’ Firs’s ‘we’ is good, expressing more than solidarity with his owners. We are all in the same boat and not all that keen on life.

And yet, as Gorky noted, and he was a great admirer, Chekhov does not deserve the reproach made at the time that he had ‘no philosophy’. A severe reproach, because Russians demand philosophy from their writers. Gorky maintained that in ‘showing that men do not know how to live’ Chekhov’s passionate sympathy with them ‘glows all the brighter’. There is a lot in that. Gorky was a preacher, but he understood how great art could give a message without preaching. As a doctor, and a reporter on the prison island of Sakhalin, Chekhov was more in the thick of things than most writers are. His work has immense variety too, and yet his best stories have a kind of delicacy and hesitancy which is a particular trademark. As Pritchett shows, their inner self is revealed as if in silence, often not till after the reader has put the story down and is thinking of something else. ‘The Steppe’, which first gave Chekhov his reputation as a writer with power and poetry, is the simplest of narratives, but what gradually emerges is our identification with the boy who is travelling to school, and who fears life and the future, and with the vast, calm, comforting indifference of the land and time around him. In one of his last stories, ‘The Bishop’, Chekhov identifies with the famous ecclesiastic who falls ill with typhoid at Easter, and as he dies attains the feeling of ‘insignificance’ he longs for. His peasant mother has come to visit him, and as he stands in the church, already ill, giving out the blessing and the palms, she approaches him ‘with a kind joyful smile’, an old woman looking like his mother, whom he has not seen for nine years, ‘and tears flowed down his face.’

That ‘nine years’ is a typical Chekhov touch. The Bishop dies and is forgotten, except by his mother, who lives with a son-in-law, a deacon, in a wretched little town, ‘and when she goes out at night to bring her cow in, and meets other women in the pasture, she begins talking of her children and grandchildren, and says she had a son who was a bishop, and this she says timidly, afraid she may not be believed. And indeed there are some who do not believe her.’ It is a Chekhov ending, like that of another late story, ‘Three Years’, in which after a terrible time at home the rebellious young girl Nadya ‘in a lively cheerful mood left the town, for ever, as she thought.’

What gradually emerges from the grim tale ‘In the Ravine’ is the strength of the unfortunate creature Lipa, whose baby has been murdered by a jealous and predatory housewife, and who is reduced to an abject state but remains cheerful, sustained by thinking ‘Where is the baby’s soul now?’ rather as Natasha in War and Peace asks the strange question when Prince Andrew dies: ‘Where is he, and who is he now?’ ‘The Lady with the Dog’ ends with the lovers sure they will find a solution to their insoluble problem, as if their ‘story’ was leaving them at that point to get on as best they can with life. In ‘Gusev’ Chekhov remembered coming back from Sakhalin across the Indian Ocean, and allows the fevered imagination of his ignorant invalid soldier to take over, as the imagination of the boy takes over in ‘The Steppe’. Then Gusev dies, and the voice of the story switches in a weird manner to the objective. As Pritchett says, Chekhov becomes the corpse plunging down in its sea-burial. Gusev, ‘after sinking sixty or seventy feet, began moving more and more slowly, swaying rhythmically, as though he were hesitating.’ A shark and its pilot-fish investigate, and in the story Gusev never quite reaches the bottom of the sea, although the shark that has ripped his canvas shroud and released the weights is frightened by their falling out, and makes off.