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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Chekhov, Consumptive and Laughing

Photo: Viktor Vasiliev

By Carol Rocamora
“My darling, how hard it was for me to write that play.”
So wrote an ailing 43-year-old playwright named Anton Chekhov, when he sent The Cherry Orchard (coming to the BAM Harvey Theater Feb 17—27) to his wife at the Moscow Art Theatre in October 1903. Whereas each of his previous plays had taken him only weeks to write, this one took him almost two years. It would be his last.

Chekhov’s first symptoms of consumption came in 1884, the year he graduated from medical school. He ignored the warnings. “It’s probably just a burst blood vessel,” he wrote dismissively, plunging into work. During the next year he would practice medicine, write 100 short stories, and experiment with vaudeville.

But the symptoms persisted, with hemorrhages in 1886, 1889, and 1897—when the official diagnosis came. His doctors banished him to Yalta, “my hot Siberia,” as he called it, far from Moscow and the Russian countryside that he loved. Even in decline, he managed to write three of his four masterworks: The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), and The Three Sisters (1901).

The idea for his last play came to him in late 1901, but he didn’t begin work on it till the summer of 1902. His wife Olga Knipper (the Art Theatre’s leading lady) was recovering from peritonitis after a traumatic miscarriage, and Stanislavsky offered the grieving couple his estate for the summer. Depressed, Olga begged Chekhov to write another play for the company. “I have the title—'The Cherry Orchard,'” he replied (recalling his beloved trees at Melikhovo, his abandoned dacha in the north). A motley assortment of guests and servants—including a strange governess, a clumsy footman, and a lively maid—were also summering there, and Chekhov, the great observer of human behavior, began assembling a cast of characters in his imagination.

Still, he procrastinated. Throughout the fall and winter, he distracted himself with a rewrite of On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, his favorite monologue. Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko (the Art Theatre’s co-founders) wrote letters entreating him to finish the play—but to no avail. In April 1903, he came to Moscow to be with Olga, offering the excuse that he was blocked. “Anyway, I can only manage six or seven lines a day,” he wrote, as his illness progressed.

Then finally in mid-September, back in Yalta, he sent the finished play to Moscow. The company read the script, and Stanislavsky telegrammed him, ecstatic: “The author is a genius… How we wept!”

Stanislav Nikolski and Polina Prikhodko. Photo: Viktor Vasiliev.
“Wept?” Chekhov replied, bewildered. “But The Cherry Orchard is a comedy!” He barraged the company with letters, giving detailed instructions on how to play each role. Alarmed by reports of Stanislavsky’s direction, Chekhov insisted on coming to Moscow to attend rehearsals, sick as he was. “He wants a train in Act II?! Frogs and corncrakes?! Stanislavsky must be stopped!” he wrote Olga, enraged at Stanislavsky’s habit of drowning his plays in irritating sound effects.

On opening night, January 17, 1904, they dragged him up on stage. He was so weak that he could hardly stand, and could not control his coughing. Deeply moved, the audience and the cast (including Olga as Ranevskaya and Stanislavsky as Gaev) applauded him. He died 5-½ months after the play opened. He was 44.

“Good bye old life, hello new life!” cries Anya in Act IV, as she exits into the unknown. The Cherry Orchard offers Chekhov’s farewell to the Russia he knew. The decline of the landed gentry, the emancipation of the serfs, the rise of industrialism, the emergence of the middle class, the ineffectiveness of the intelligentsia, the seeds of revolution—all the great changes he saw in his lifetime are incorporated in four defining acts, as his characters deal with the present and face a future Chekhov would never live to see.

Lev Dodin, inspired interpreter of Chekhov’s plays, has dazzled audiences with his productions at the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg and around the world. His celebrated Platonov played at London’s Barbican Center (2007), while his passionate Uncle Vanya (2010) and haunting Three Sisters (2012) were performed to great acclaim at BAM, which welcomes the return of Maly Theatre from Feb 17—27.

Carol Rocamora’s translations of Chekhov’s complete dramatic works, as well as her biography
Anton Chekhov: A Life in Four Acts, are published by Smith & Kraus.

Reprinted from January 2016 BAMbill.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful tribute to the artist and this play, Carol. The Cherry Orchard is one of my three favorite, non-Shakespeare plays.


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