Book Shelf THE STACKS

Tenderness

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On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some cherry varenye
for a Russian playwright’s birthday.
** Linger to ponder a mid-career disaster and a theatrical diamond.
** Savor a last ½ cup considering a creative stage-to-screen adaptation.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

STT-68

First Sip:

And now I forgive everything:
the munching, the muddling about
after the corkscrew, the slovenliness,
the long talking about nothing that matters.

I forgive it all almost unconsciously,
with no effort of will.
As though Sasha’s mistakes were my mistakes,
and many things which would have
made me wince in old days
move me to tenderness


The explanation of this forgiveness
of everything lies in my love for Sasha.
But what is the explanation of the love itself,
I really don’t know.


– Anton Chekhov

Every year the doctor plants new wood plots…
He says that forests adorn the earth, that trees teach a man to
understand the beautiful… and so man there is gentler and tenderer.

– from The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
(photo by Prof B)

.


Slice of Cake:

In childhood I had no childhood.
– Anton Chekhov1

His grandfather was a serf.
His father was a grocer
who went bankrupt.
Yet Anton Chekov was able to
not only get through high school, but also start medical school.

His family was poor;
his father was harsh and his mother despairing.
Yet the family remained close.

Young Chekhov (left)
with brother Nikolai

Moscow 1882
(photo by R. J. Thiele)

Chekov, his sister, four brothers, and
his mother all sang in the church choir,
which was directed by their father.

Chekhov’s mother was a storyteller.
She loved telling her children about her adventures
traveling all over Russia as a girl with
her cloth-merchant father.1

Our talents we got from our father,
but our soul from our mother.

– Anton Chekhov1

While at medical school, Chekhov made extra money
by working as a tutor, and—following
his older brother Alexander’s example—by writing
humorous stories for popular magazines.2

As he gained medical skills, he began treating
people who couldn’t afford to pay for medical care.

He also became his family’s main breadwinner.

Medicine is my lawful wife;
literature is my mistress.

– Anton Chekhov9
letter to his editor A S Suvorin
September 11, 1888


With encouragement from other Russian writers, Chekhov began
taking his writing more seriously. His style became innovative.2

Six principles of a good story:

1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a
political-social-economic nature.

2. Total objectivity.

3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects.

4. Extreme brevity.

5. Audacity and originality. Flee the stereotype.

6. Compassion.

– Anton Chekhov3
letter to his brother
May 10, 1886

Chekhov decided to quit medicine and become a full-time writer.
He wrote hundreds of stories, and became well known throughout Russia.

In 1888, at the age of 28,
Chekhov won Russia’s highest literary award,
the Pushkin Prize for Literature.

Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life…
Chekhov has created new forms of writing,
completely new in my opinion…
Chekhov has his own special form,
like the impressionist painters.

– Leo Tolstoy

According to translator Richard Pevear,
Chekov often claimed that he was not at all political—
Yet he broke off all ties with his his longtime editor, Alexei Suvorin,
over a public and very political trial in 1899 called the Dreyfus affair.2

Chekov also claimed that he never wrote about himself—
Yet he was constantly incorporating aspects of himself and his family in his writing.3

Here is a passage that, to me, sounds heartfelt and self-revealing,
…and perhaps autobiographical?

What aristocratic writers take from nature gratis,
the less privileged must pay for with their youth.

Try and write a story about a young man—
the son of a serf, a former grocer, choirboy, schoolboy,
and university student, raised on respect for rank,
kissing priests’ hands,
worshipping the ideas of others, and giving thanks
for every piece of bread, receiving frequent whippings,
making the rounds as a tutor without galoshes


Enjoying dinners at the houses of rich relatives,
needlessly hypocritical before God and man
merely to acknowledge his own insignificance—


Write about how this young man squeezes
the slave out of himself drop by drop and how,
on waking up one fine morning, he finds that
the blood coursing through his veins
is no longer the blood of a slave,
but that of a real human being.

– Anton Chekhov9
letter to his editor A S Suvorin
January 7, 1889

Eventually, this grandson of a serf made enough money
to buy a house and land south of Moscow, near the village of Melikhovo.
Chekhov then brought his parents and siblings to live there with him.4

Today the house is a museum of Chekhov’s life, a library of his work,
and a theater that produces plays inspired by his stories.5

.

Happy 162nd Birthday
** Anton Chekhov
**

– born January 29, 1860
in the port city of Taganrog,
southern Russia

.


Linger Awhile:

I’ve found more clouds of gray
than any Russian play could guarantee
.

– from But Not for Me
lyrics by
Ira Gershwin

Portrait of Anton Chekhov
by Osip Braz. 1898

Been thinking this week about the plays of Anton Chekhov—
what I’ve learned from them and how they’ve helped me improve my own plays.

In Russia, Anton Chekhov is known almost exclusively as a short story writer.1
In the West, Chekhov is known mostly for his plays, especially his last four plays:

The Seagull (1896)
Uncle Vanya (1897)
The Three Sisters (1901)
The Cherry Orchard (1904)

Chekov is not a playwright everyone enjoys.
Audience and actors alike seem to either love his plays—
Or want to sleep through them.
As the Gershwin tune notes, sometimes all the clouds seem gray.

It’s interesting to me the
number of actors I know who don’t like Chekhov.
They tend to be frustrated that ‘nothing happens.’
But then, those actors were mostly extreme extroverts,
and Chekhov seems the soul of introversion.

– actor Thomas Elliott

There’s a famous story about The Seagull on its opening night.
It was in Petersburg in October 1896 and it was a disaster.
The audience booed.
The lead actress was so intimidated she lost her voice.
Chekhov, who’d been sitting in the audience at the beginning of the play,
hid out backstage during the last two acts.10

The very next day, Chekhov wrote to his editor to saying he’d never write a play ever again.
(But—just four days later—he wrote again to say, “Now I am ready to write another play.”)9

So what happened on that opening night in Petersburg?
Were the actors too wooden and melodramatic?
(That’s what Chekhov said.)
Was the pacing too slow and undramatic?
(That’s what some in the audience said.)

My theory is that the plots of Chekhov’s plays are
precisely orchestrated, yet look absolutely random.
And no one was quite ready for that.

It is as if Chekhov’s characters
willfully ignore the plot…

Their blithe obliviousness to what threatens their lives can
be frustrating to audiences who expect a neat package
where an action is confronted and resolved:

Chekhov’s first audiences did not
know what to make of his plays.


– Milton Ehre1

As translator Milton Ehre writes: Chekhov’s insight was that we reveal ourselves
in the ordinary moments of our daily living.

After all,
in real life, people don’t spend every moment
in shooting one another, hanging themselves,
of making declarations of love.
They do not spend all their time saying clever things.

Let everything on the stage be just as complicated,
and at the same time just as simple, as in life.


People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner,
and all the time their happiness is taking form,
or their lives are being destroyed.


– Anton Chekhov1

In any case, the Petersburg production of The Seagull
closed after just five performances.1

Two years later, The Seagull re-opened in Moscow, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski.
Finally, the innovative playwright was matched with an innovative director, and
the Moscow production was an enormous success.

To rehearse and
act in Chekhov is intensely rewarding
The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov,

his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature
his characters’ acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship—
those qualities bring out
the very best, most generous side
of actors’ art and skill.
– actor John Gielgud
1977


Anton Chekhov is my favorite playwright.

Yet I’ve only gotten to see one of Chekhov’s plays on stage. But I saw that one twice.
The most recent time was in Tucson in 2013. And it was a wonderful production.
But even better was the first time.

Back when I was living in New Zealand,
I took a community education class about Chekhov
and part of the tuition fee included a theater ticket to see
a local production of The Cherry Orchard at the end of the semester.6

What a fabulous way to see a play!
With a bunch of people who love theater, and who all just spent four months
studying Chekhov in general, and The Cherry Orchard in particular.

I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra.
He was bedridden due to illness

He took my hand and said,
in a still energetic, old man’s voice,
‘You know, I hate your plays.

Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider
your plays even worse than his.’

– Anton Chekhov
about visiting Leo Tolstoy7
(It seems Chekhov loved telling this story,
and laughed every time.)


Here are 3 things I’ve learned about playwriting
by reading Chekhov


Chekhov’s
Gun

This is Chekhov’s famous axiom about writing.
The idea is that you don’t want to introduce any story elements
that are not later developed.

One must never place a loaded rifle
on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.
It’s wrong to make promises

you don’t mean to keep.
– Anton Chekhov
in a letter to a friend
November 1, 1889


The Audience’s
Arc

Chekov is very good at managing our expectations and manipulating what we think will happen.
In this way, he heightens the impact of what does happen.

This is beautifully shown in The Cherry Orchard:
The first person we see onstage is Lopahin.
It’s late at night.
Lopahin comes in with a book in his hand; he orders tea from the maid; and so
naturally the audience assumes that this must be the master of the house.
Later we realize that no, this a neighbor who is waiting up for the family to arrive on the train.
Even later we find out Lopahin is the only one with money enough to buy the failing estate.
In other words, when we first see him, he isn’t master of the house. Yet.6


Chekhov’s
Diamond

The most important thing I learned from studying The Cherry Orchard is something I call Chekhov’s diamond. The image is that there is a theme, like a gem, in the center of the story. And every character and every scene comes at that central theme from a different angle, illuminating a different facet of the diamond.

The central theme in this story is ‘All is unsettled.’ Change is coming and no one in the family is ready for it, or can settle down to make a plan of action.

Everyone is forgetful, everyone is falling asleep on the job, or is too distracted to think straight. Even the dialog is unsettling. Lopahin reminisces fondly about his poor father who kept a little shop—then says his father punched him and made his nose bleed. He says his father had been a peasant—but now here he is: a rich man, well-dressed. ‘But for all my money, a peasant I was, and a peasant I still am.’ It’s unsettling. Literally. The settled order has been shaken up, and will be replaced, and reordered.

Firs:
In the old days,
forty or fifty years back, they used to dry the cherries,

soak them, pickle them, make jam too, and they used—

Gaev:
Be quiet, Firs.


Firs:
And they used to send the preserved cherries
to Moscow and to Kharkov by the
waggon-load.
That brought the money in!
And the preserved cherries in those days were soft and juicy,
sweet and fragrant…. They knew the way to do them then….


Lyubov:
And where is the recipe now?

Firs:
It’s forgotten. Nobody remembers it.

– from The Cherry Orchard
Act One
by
Anton Chekhov
translated by Constance Garnett

.


“Half Cup More”

Secondly, can you imagine it—
I am writing a play… It’s a comedy…
Four acts, landscapes (view over a lake);
a great deal of conversation about literature,

little action, tons of love.

– Anton Chekhov9
letter to his editor A S Suvorin
about writing The Seagull
October 21, 1895

The best movie version of a Chekhov play
is an excellent—and very unusual—film called Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).

The stars are Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn.
The director is Louis Malle.
The screenplay is by Andre Gregory, who used
the David Mamet adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

The movie opens with actors gathering an abandoned, splendid-but-decrepit theater,
built in 1903, and located on (you guessed it!) 42nd Street in New York City.
They actors and director look around, and chat, and then before you realize it,
they’ve begun the play.

“The Professor gets up at twelve, the samovar is kept boiling all the morning,
and everything has to wait for him.
– from Uncle Vanya
by
Anton Chekhov8

My favorite scene in this movie is between two women:
the young wife of an old man and her adult step-daughter.
They talk about wanting to break from the past, to become allies,
and to open their hearts to each other.

Yeléna:
Sonya, how long are you going to go on being short with me?
We’ve done no harm to each other. Why should we be enemies?
Don’t you feel – it’s enough?


Sonya:
I – I wanted to.

Yeléna:
I did too. Well, let’s not be angry anymore then.
Drink with me. Out of the same glass.


Sonya:
I wanted to make it up for a long time, and I felt ashamed.


Yeléna:
You’re angry with me because you think I married your father for money.
If you believe in oaths, I give you my oath on this:
I married him for love. He was a famous man, a man of learning.
And I was captivated by it.
And it was not real. The love was not real. But I thought it was real.

At the time I thought it was real, and I’m not to blame.
But, Sonya, ever since our wedding day, you haven’t stopped accusing me.


Sonya:
I accused you?


Yeléna:
You did. I saw it. In your eyes.

Sonya:
We’ll have no more of that.

Yeléna:
You mustn’t look like that on people. It doesn’t suit you.
And we must trust. How can we live if we do not?

– from Uncle Vanya
by
Anton Chekhov
Act Two
adapted by David Mamet

.


Take-Away Box

Chekhov said that his favorite of all his short stories was The Student.3

Chekhov also said in a conversation with fellow-writer Ivan Bunin:
How can people call me a pessimist after reading The Student?

Here’s an excerpt near the end of this very short short story.
See if you can spot the optimism.

Now the student
was thinking about Vasilisa:
if she wept, it meant that everything that had
happened with Peter, on that dreadful night

in the garden, had some relation to her.

If Vasilisa wept,
and her daughter was troubled,
then
obviously what he had just told them—
which had happened nineteen centuries ago—
had a relation to the present, to both women…
to himself, to all people
.

If the old woman wept,
it was not because he could tell the story touchingly,
but because Peter was close to her,
and she was interested with her whole being
in what happened in Peter’s soul.


And joy suddenly stirred in his soul,
and he even stopped for a moment to catch his breath.


“The past,” he thought, “is connected with the present
in an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other.”
And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain;
he touched one end, and the other moved


Truth and beauty
which had guided human life there in the garden

went on unbroken to this day

And a feeling of youth, health, strength
and the inexpressibly sweet expectation of happiness,
mysterious happiness, gradually came over him, and
life seemed to him delightful, wondrous, and
filled with lofty meaning.

– from The Student (1894)
a short story by
Anton Chekhov
translated by Richard Pevear &
Larissa Volokhonsky

.


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
.

You Can Read More…

—————————-
notes & footnotes

1.
from the intro to Chekhov for the Stage
by Milton Ehre

2.
A young 26-year-old Chekhov was introduced to Alexei Suvorin
after receiving a very scolding fan letter
from an eminent writer named Dmitri Grigorovich,
(a man who, decades earlier, also had a hand in promoting
a young
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing career).

In the letter, Grigorovich told Chekhov
that he was a very good writer, capable of serious work, and that
he needed to stop writing fluff under a pseudonym.

Chekhov wrote back to Grigorovich:

Until now
I treated my literary work extremely frivolously, casually…
I can’t remember working on a single story for more
than a day… All my hope lies in the future.
I’m still only twenty-six. I may manage
to accomplish something yet.

After this exchange of letters,
Grigovich introduced Chekov to Alexei Suvorin,

and Suvorin became his editor,
basically for the rest of Chekhov’s life…

…Until, the Dreyfus affair.

Chekhov believed Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been falsely accused,
and he met with the Dreyfus family to offer them his support.
Suvorin, on the other hand, printed
anti-Semitic remarks about Dreyfuss in his magazine.
This outraged Chekhov, and the two had
a major falling out that lasted for years.

3.
Richard Pevear
in his introduction toSelected Stories
of Anton Chekhov’
(2000)

4.
A Chekhov Lexicon
by William Boyd
The Guardian
3 Jul 2004

5.
Chekhov State Library & Melikhovo Estate Museum
https://www.moscovery.com/melikhovo-estate-museum/

6.
Back when I was living in New Zealand,
I took a community education class about Chekhov
and the class was timed so that we could all go together to a
local production of The Cherry Orchard at the end of the semester.
(I hope to find the notes somewhere,
and be able to credit the professor for his insights.)

7.
from The Book of Life (1922)
by Peter Gnedich, who quotes what Chekhov
told him about Chekhov’s last meeting with Leo Tolstoy

8.
The photo is of
my daughter’s samovar
, which her
great-great grandmother (and namesake) carried
while immigrating from Russia to America in 1915.

9.
I cannot thank Project Gutenberg enough.
It makes searching through texts so painless.
Project Gutenberg is powered totally by donations & volunteers.
https://www.gutenberg.org/

It was on ProjectGutenberg.com that I found
three letters Anton Chekov wrote about the “Seagull disaster,”
(including two from the very next day, and one written five days later,
after taking some castor oil and a cold bath…)

N.B. The Seagull premiered
on October 17, 1896.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Stop the printing of the plays.
I shall never forget yesterday evening…
I am not going to produce the play in Moscow.
I shall never either write plays or have them acted.

– letter to his editor A. S. Suvorin
Petersburg, October 18, 1896

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I am setting off to Melihovo…
Yesterday’s adventure did not astonish or greatly disappoint me,
for I was prepared for it by the rehearsals—

and I don’t feel particularly bad.
– letter to his sister
Petersburg, October 18, 1896

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
You say that I was in a funk
How did I show funk?

Yes, my vanity was stung, but you know it was
not a bolt from the blue;
I was expecting a failure, and was prepared for it
.

When I got home I took a dose of castor oil, and had a cold bath,
and now I am ready to write another play.


I have had a letter from Mademoiselle Veselitsky
She expresses her sympathy in a tone as if
one of my family were dead. It’s really quite…nonsense…


– letter to his editor A. S. Suvorin
Melihovo, October 22, 1896

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

10.
Letters of Anton Chekhov to His Family and Friends
with Biographical Sketch
(1920)
translation by Constance Garnett
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6408/6408-h/6408-h.htm

STT-68

sky-t-tray.us
© Kelly J Hardesty 2022

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