The Difficulty of Playing Chekhov

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.


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.

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16 Responses to The Difficulty of Playing Chekhov

  1. siobhan says:

    As one who, (ahem), did her thesis on “Three Sisters”, I can totally attest to the funniness of that play. Funniest things:
    1. “Madam, if that baby were mine, I would fry it in a skillet and eat it.” –Solyony
    2. When the school teacher tries to “cheer up” Masha and wears a fake beard? oh it’s just so sad that it becomes so very funny. And for some reason he keeps it on, even while Masha is weeping away.
    3. I have a personal affection for the reviled Natasha since I played her–but her total ineptness at social skills in the first act is hysterical. My favorite thing was the awful outfit she wears to the party in the first act. in the stage directions, Chekhov describes it so garishly.

  2. red says:

    HAHAHA Poor Natasha.

    That was a very good production, Siobhan.

  3. Play Time

    Sheila is posting on the difficulty of playing Anton Checkov. I’m afraid (he said, turning red in the face) that I am completely ignorant of the matter myself, having never read nor seen a Checkov play, but I know Mom…

  4. John says:

    Hmmm. I’ll try to find something in Russian about this. Somehow, I suspect that in Russian the language carries the actors a little farther than it does in translation.

  5. red says:

    I don’t think it has to do with the translation at all. I think it has to do with a too-literal interpretation of his deep words. Chekhov had problems with Russian productions of his plays, particularly Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky went straight for the tragedy and completely missed the comedy. Stanislavsky put on a production of, I think it was The Cherry Orchard – which Chekhov calls a comedy – and Chekhov was horrified.

    Where was the laughter, the light? Why all the moaning and angst and sadness? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY PLAY was Chekhov’s response to Stanislavsky’s direction.

    If someone says “I am so sad” in Chekhov, the tendency is to play it in a sad way. That kills the feeling of the piece. It becomes boring. So when someone says, “I need to laugh”, an actor tends to say it as they are laughing. Boring. In Chekhov, someone saying “I am so sad” is just as likely to be dancing around a room, laughing hysterically, or saying it nonchalantly.

  6. red says:

    Oh, and I have also heard quotes from Russian actors saying that, for whatever reason, British productions of Chekhov tend to really NAIL it. They GET all the different levels instinctively. The humor, the sadness, the hiding of sadness …

  7. Bernard says:

    Isn’t the whole point of any play to project some realization that more is going on than what the words alone would indicate?

  8. red says:

    Bernard – I guess you could say that. But for whatever reason, doing it in a Chekhov play is really really challenging.

  9. Bernard says:

    Ugh. I meant to agree that it seems far more interesting (and revealing) to see a character smile and say “I am so sad” than to have him frown. We know what the words ‘mean’. But what does the character mean by saying them?

  10. red says:

    Oh, I totally agree.

    I mean, if you think about how you behave in real life … and that’s what Chekhov is trying to capture. I remember laughing absolutely hysterically at the wake for my uncle, when I was a teenager. My cousin Lisa and I were snorting so hysterically about something STUPID that we had to leave the funeral parlor.

    It’s not that we weren’t SO SAD about our uncle passing … it’s just that in the middle of the grief, something really funny happened.

    Unimaginative productions of Chekhov completely miss that. I guess – unimaginative acting in general miss that. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Seagull – which was an otherwise terrific production. Everyone else seemed shimmering with life … he dropped and moped about the stage until honestly I couldn’t wait for him to commit suicide, because I wanted him to stop moaning.

  11. tee bee says:

    Nice subject! From a diehard Chekhov fan, even.

    It’s as true to say how hard Chekhov is to nail as it is difficult to explain how to appreciate the humor and honesty – I’d perhaps say lack of complexity, or no subtext awareness. Unless you’ve studied the Russians from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, you’ll probably fail to understand that conflict and character’s attitudes do not track.

    For example, there’s a 1999 film version of the Cherry Orchard that seemed so promising, but was excruciating because some key person – director, producer, key actors? – could not grasp the Russian sentiment – all things are possible if we continue doing what we should be doing, no matter how diametrically opposed the means and ends are. [And yes, I am totally jealous of you getting to see that production of the Cherry Orchard.]

  12. Kate says:

    Interesting post and very timely for me, having just done 3rd preview of Uncle Vanya.

    I’m curious about this production of Cherry Orchard, having done the show 3 times–once in a great production, once in a shitty prouction and once in an okay production. I actually do think that translations matter, mainly because I was lucky enough to work with the late Paul Schmidt (Wooster Group), whose translations are amazing. ( he also has a published edition of his translations of Rimbaud’s poetry, and, incidentally, saw Meryl Streep play Dunyasha and thought she was atrocious.) PI think his translations are amazing primarily because he was both an actor as well as a Russian scholar and did the translations himself. Most people have someone who speaks Russian translate it literally for them and then tinker with it. This sucks. You need someone who can capture the idiom, not to mention the essence and feel of the culture, of both langauges. The translation of this Uncle Vanya I’m doing is by Brian Friel (same one they used for the famous Vanya with Simon Russel Beale that I wish to God I’d seen.)
    I agree with you about the traps–playing the tragedy, playing the SUBTEXT with such alarming weight that you talk about the weather with such import and significance that it looks like the Marx Brothers’ parody of Strange Interlude. But I have yet to meet anyone who has a recipe for how to do it right. All I can say is I know it when I see it.

  13. Kate F says:

    Another thing (I liked Siobhan’s comments about her favorite lines from 3 Sisters.) My favorite line from that play is “I’m staying for lunch.” Brilliant.

  14. red says:

    Kate – I actually bought Paul Schmidt’s translation on your recommendation and I totally agree. Amazing.

    But my point still stands: Translation is certainly part of the problem for those who do not speak Russian. Some of the Chekhov translations I have read are very stilted and self-conscious sounding.

    But still: Chekhov himself complained that the great Russian director didn’t “get it”, and completely missed the comedy in the plays. Stanislavsky apparently over-burdened the productions with realistic details (real birds flying by, cherry blossoms fluttering from fake trees, etc.) – and Chekhov was like: all very well and good, but WHERE IS MY PLAY???

  15. kate says:

    I know, I know all about his distaste for Stanislavsky. I love it. He thought he was pretentious and totally masturbatory. Hilarious. He reportedly said that in his next play, if Stanislavsky was going to have anything to do with it, then he was going to have to write an explicit stage direction: “as far as any outdoor scenes are concerned, there are NO MOSQUITOES here!” He was sick to death of the “naturalistic” approach of slapping away all those imaginary bugs. So funny.

  16. red says:

    hahaha so funny!

    Then there is also the rumor that by the end of his life, Stanislavsky gave all that stuff up and said to actors, “Oh what the hell. Just be charming up there.”

    hahahaha I have no idea if this is true – but I love the story anyway!