Anyone who’s ever acted in a Chekhov play … or seen a Chekhov play … or worked on a Chekhovian monologue … or did a scene from a Chekhov play in scene study … KNOWS how difficult he is.
When it’s done right? There is nothing better. Chekhov is absolutely glorious.
When it’s done badly? You twitch in your seat, wondering: “Why the hell is this playwright so hard to do???”
I saw The Seagull in Central Park … starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marcia Gay Harden … directed by Mike Nichols … and it was one of the most satisfying and wonderful theatrical experiences I have ever had. (One of the reasons was that I slept overnight ON THE GROUND in Central Park with hundreds of other people, in order to get tickets. I curled up in the dirt for Chekhov.) But what I loved about the play was how FUNNY it was. Meryl Streep got a laugh on every line. But … with no hamming it up. Philip Seymour Hoffman was the only one who was “doing Chekhov badly”, and I normally like him, but he fell into the Chekhov trap. His character kills himself at the end of the play. It should come as a shock, even if you know the play. But Hoffman, from his FIRST SCENE, was telegraphing to us in the audience: “I am going to kill myself.” It was pretty bad. It made him look like an amateur actor. But the rest of it? God, when you see Chekhov done with a sense of joy and life, you feel like there has never been a better playwright.
The people in Chekhov’s plays are stuck. They want a better life. They dream of release, of joy. Think of the three sisters in Three Sisters, dreaming of Moscow. The trap in Chekhov is to play it like this:
— We are doomed to be disappointed. We will never get to Moscow. Life is dreary and meaningless. Oh, woe is me. My dreams will never come true. I am sad.
NO. This is WRONG WRONG WRONG.
Chekhov was a man full of life!! He called most of his plays “comedies”. The three sisters FULLY BELIEVE they will get to Moscow. It is the driving force of their lives. It is not a pipe dream. It is REAL.
When it doesn’t come about by the end, you should be left with a dull sense of tragedy, heartache, sadness. But only because they had dreamed so big, and believed it so fully.
I’m writing like this because there’s a new production of The Cherry Orchard here in New York, and I winced when I read the first paragraph of the review:
To laugh or not to laugh. To cry or not to cry. The debate about evoking the proper measurements of humor and pathos in the plays of Anton Chekhov will endure as long as they are produced, which is to say as long as civilization endures. The new staging of “The Cherry Orchard” that opened last night at the Atlantic Theater Company, directed by Scott Zigler, settles the question, evenly if dubiously: it fails more or less equally at eliciting laughter and tears.
You must not play Chekhov carefully or preciously. It sounds as though this may be a precious and careful production – eager not to step on toes, eager not to discredit Chekhov … and in their caution, they have not pleased anyone.
The review closes with a paragraph that I find to be so RIGHT ON. It is what I have experienced myself, when working on Chekhov (which it cannot be underestimated: he is TOUGH) … and what I have experienced when I have seen unsuccessful productions:
Strangely, Chekhov’s plays have a way of disintegrating entirely when they are presented in ineffective productions like this one. Despite our affirmed knowledge of this dramatist’s artistry, we find ourselves mystified, staring at a stage full of ill-defined characters hurling sighs, gripes and non sequiturs at one another. Where did all the genius get to?
So true. Chekhov’s plays rely on the acting. Unlike Shakespeare where, even if the actors suck, there is still that LANGUAGE. The language transcends bad acting. Chekhov’s language does not. It depends on absolute truth and honesty from the actors. If there is self-consciousness or self-importance or unspecificity in the performances – the language disappears. You feel like you have never loved the play before. You look at it and think: “Why on earth do people care so much about Chekhov?”
It’s an interesting problem, and one of the reasons why Chekhov can be so satisfying. If you nail Chekhov? If you “do it right”? The glory of the language flows forth in a way unrivalled by any other playwright. An odd thing. Meryl Streep, in her unbelievably terrific performance, made acting in Chekhov look like the ONLY thing an actor should EVER do.