Commentary: How Anton Chekhov became the playwright of the moment

·9 min read
Portrait of the Russian writer Anton Chekov circa 1890-1904.
Portrait of the Russian writer Anton Chekov circa 1890-1904. (Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The hectic rhythms of this age are not those of an Anton Chekhov play. Yet the Russian writer is very much in evidence right now.

More consumed with questions than with answers, Chekhov's plays depict human beings rather than heroes or villains. Life is captured in plots in which not much seems to happen yet by the end everything is changed.

All of this runs counter to our sensation-seeking, moralizing, politically divisive zeitgeist. But theater artists, filmmakers and novelists, drawn to the interior richness of Chekhov's dramas, have discovered not only the timeliness of his untimely work but also its aesthetic pliancy and openness.

Suddenly, Chekhov seems to be everyone’s favorite collaborator. And many of us are beginning to remember that, despite our differences, we're still at heart introspective Chekhovian characters.

A new production of “Uncle Vanya” is underway at Pasadena Playhouse under the direction of Michael Michetti. The translation, a partnership between playwright and director Richard Nelson and the veteran team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, had its 2018 premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe in a supple, compact and exquisitely intimate production that made it seem as if we were eavesdropping on the characters.

I doubted after that revival that I would ever again have such an emotionally intense experience of “Uncle Vanya,” but then I saw “Drive My Car,” this year's Oscar winner for international feature film. Co-written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the movie (streaming on HBO Max) is adapted from Haruki Murakami’s story of the same title from his collection “Men Without Women.” Chekhov’s play figures prominently and gives the film its soul.

The protagonist, Kafuku, is a middle-aged actor mourning the death of his unfaithful wife. He’s been invited to direct “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, a city resurrected from ashes. Kafuku, a shell of his former self, has performed the role of Vanya before and learned his lines through a tape his wife prepared of the script. Revisiting Chekhov in Hiroshima slowly brings him back to life.

Hamaguchi directs with exemplary restraint. The story's movement is subterranean. We observe a haunted Kafuku conducing rehearsals; we listen along as he replays his ghostly "Vanya" tape in the car to and from the theater; and we watch him reluctantly open up to his young female driver, who also happens to be drowning in complicated grief. Together they enact offstage the meaning of Chekhov's play.

“Uncle Vanya” has been described as Chekhov’s most spiritual work. Vanya, a middle-aged manager of his family's country estate, and Sonya, his unmarried niece, have sacrificed themselves for the sake of Serebryakov, Sonya's father, who was married to Vanya's beloved dead sister. A crotchety retired professor, Serebryakov has returned with Elena, his stunningly beautiful and much younger second wife, throwing the household's dull routine into chaos.

Vanya falls under Elena's spell, as does Astrov, the doctor with a passion for both environmentalism and vodka whom Sonya unrequitedly loves. Rejected as a lover by Elena and enraged when Serebryakov announces that he wants to put the estate up for sale, Vanya feels that he has wasted his life. His anger, once farcically discharged, turns inward and his thoughts are set on death. The play is a study in learning to bear failure and futility, if not for oneself then for those loved ones, like lonely Sonya, who has enough sorrow without the addition of her uncle’s suicide.

Surviving disillusionment without succumbing to despair, persevering after dreams have been shattered, finding the will to keep going when all that appears ahead is a succession of monotonous days — “Uncle Vanya,” now that I think of it, may be the perfect play for our pandemic-scarred moment.

Gary Shteyngart recognizes this connection in his recent novel “Our Country Friends,” which takes place just as COVID-19 is sweeping the world. Set in a private bungalow-colony in New York's Hudson Valley where a group of friends has holed up during the pandemic, the book, which includes a backyard performance of "Uncle Vanya," is Chekhovian in its essential framework.

The dramatis personae of the novel are listed at the start, with shorthand descriptions normally reserved for plays. Sasha, a novelist worried about the fate of a television deal that would allow him to hold on to his bohemian country property, and his psychiatrist wife, Masha, are the Russian-born hosts of an extended reunion that brings to the fore questions of endurance. How, the novel asks, can the characters move forward with a modicum of grace in the wake of betrayal, defeat and the suffering that is inherent in the human condition?

“The tragic poet writes from a sense of crisis,” the distinguished drama critic Eric Bentley contended. “The comic poet is less apt to write out of a particular crisis than from that steady ache of misery which in human life is even more common than crisis and so a more insistent problem.”

In a magnificently Chekhovian aside, Bentley adds, “When we get up tomorrow morning, we may well be able to do without our tragic awareness for an hour or two but we shall desperately need our sense of the comic.”

Catastrophe, as many of us have come to realize during these difficult last years, offers no protection from the assaults of daily living. Even in a deadly pandemic, pets get sick, couples break up, heart attacks occur and fender-benders ruin an afternoon.

With his compassionate humor, Chekhov neither indicts his characters nor lets them off the hook for their myopic concerns. His plays are a tonic reminder to artists across disciplines that lives are lived not in headlines but in passing moments. Big things occur in Chekhov. Houses are lost, guns occasionally go off and people die. But the focus is on muddling through.

Chekhov's artistic vision offers a corrective to the Twitter metabolism of our increasingly virtual culture. Nothing, it turns out, is more powerful than our effect on one another. Other people may drive us crazy, but it is for their sake that we find the stamina to go on living. "Uncle Vanya" is a bleak play, but it's also a genuinely consoling one.

Rachel Cusk’s recent novel “Second Place,” another pandemic-era tale set in a bucolic backwater, acknowledges a debt to “Lorenzo in Taos,” Mable Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay with her in New Mexico. But the story of a narcissistic artist — in this case a painter — who arrives as a guest of honor and dishonorably wrecks the precarious equilibrium established by a writer mother, her daughter, their significant others and a wildcard guest evokes “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s masterly comedy about artists in love.

Cusk's refusal to let her story's brewing clashes reach any melodramatic conclusions also suggests the influence of "Uncle Vanya." Perhaps I'm reading Chekhov into the novel, but the ironic interplay of creative personalities and egos makes it impossible not to think of "The Seagull," which is enjoying its own turn in the spotlight.

A new adaption by director Yasen Peyankov simply called "Seagull" is nearing the end of its run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. And New York's inventive downtown troupe Elevator Repair Service will be doing its own “Seagull” this summer in a version that, according to the company's website, “reimagines Chekhov’s classic drama by blurring the line between a play and a frank chat with the audience.”

This is a strategy that was recently deployed in the Wilma Theater's flamboyant deconstruction of “The Cherry Orchard” adapted by Russian director Dmitry Krymov in conjunction with the Hothouse Company. Characters tromped through the audience with their luggage and a few spectators were called to the stage to help with a necktie and participate in a volleyball match. Yes, volleyball was played in a production that was unapologetically, though not gratuitously, anachronistic.

“The Cherry Orchard” dramatizes a societal shift between the land-owning gentry and the descendants of serfs, who are ready to capitalize on their initiative and seize what was hitherto withheld from them. It’s no surprise then that in a period of momentous historical transition artists would be drawn to experiment with this seismic play.

In “The Orchard,” opening later this month in New York, Ukrainian director Igor Golyak presents a hybrid production that includes an immersive performance at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and a separate interactive experience online. The cast, which includes such stage luminaries as Jessica Hecht and Mark Nelson, features Mikhail Baryshnikov as both Anton Chekhov and Firs, the elderly servant who’s left behind when the estate is ultimately auctioned off.

Chekhov, of course, is rarely absent from the repertoire, but I can’t remember when he's been so adventurously present. Many of these offerings have been long in the works, but something is palpably in the air.

Michetti said that he has long wanted to do “Uncle Vanya" and jumped at the chance when Pasadena Playhouse presented him with the opportunity. Extrapolating from his own interest, he offered a compelling explanation for this sudden proliferation of Chekhov.

“The pandemic has led many people to reassess their lives, to decide whether they’ve made the right choices and to see if there might be another chapter for them,” he says. “So many things have shaken us up. The world as we knew it changed. For those in the theater, the entire industry was taken away. This really felt like an opportunity to answer the call to look at our lives, a very Chekhovian thing to do.”

Michetti calls the Great Resignation “the very stuff of Chekhov.” Certainly, his characters are forever contemplating roads not taken or abandoned. What the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips calls “the unlived life” is the one that invariably seems to preoccupy them most.

But the plays don’t hector or propound moral lessons. Instead, they depict how we exist in time, as critic Richard Gilman astutely observed. They show us the way we try to escape an unsatisfying present through speculative fictions about how our suffering will eventually be redeemed through requited love or satisfying work or, failing those, God's mercy.

Chekhov saw this tendency as human, all-too-poignantly human. His art doesn’t seek to correct but merely to point out that as we're dreaming of better days our real lives are quietly unfolding.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.