Monday, August 24, 2015

The Complete Plays by Anton Chekhov, translated by Laurence Senelick

Chekov was an astoundingly prolific author, “publishing as many as one hundred and sixty-six stories between 1886 and 1887 while practicing medicine.” He’d been writing for magazines, newspapers, and periodicals since 1879 when he entered medical school, hoping to supplement his family’s meager income.
”On a visit to St. Petersburg [in 1885], Chekov had been embarrassed by the acclaim that greeted him, because he recognized that much of his output had been hasty and unrevised. ‘If I’d know that that was how they were reading me,’ he wrote his brother Aleksandr, on January 4, 1886, ‘I would not have written like a hack.’”
If Chekhov became more considered in his writing, his production never flagged. Senelick’s glorious contribution to scholarship on Chekhov includes some works never before translated, but also gives us a thorough understanding of the evolution of Chekhov as a dramatist.

The “Untitled Play” included first in this volume is one Chekhov wrote while still in high school. It suffered innumerable rewritings, unsuccessful submissions, tearing up (!) by the author, but survived because Anton’s younger brother Mikhail had made two copies: one was kept in a safety-deposit box. It is remarkable for its length: there are only four acts, but the first act has twenty-two scenes, runs for fifty pages, and hosts twenty characters, not including the servants. “It’s interest,” Senelick tells us, “lies primarily in its being a storehouse of Chekov’s later themes and characters: the cynical doctor, the cynosure attractive woman, the parasitic buffoons, the practical housewife, and the failed idealist.” The themes are reworked again and again: “most intricately reworked of all, the threat of losing the estate to debts was to become the connecting thread and constitutive symbol of “The Cherry Orchard.””

But pieces of that first play has provided material for playwrights and directors including “A Country Scandal,” “A Provincial Don Juan,” “Ce Fou Platonov,” “Fireworks on the James,” “Wild Honey” (Michael Frayn version), “ Player Piano” (Trevor Griffith’s version), and “Platonov” (David Hare’s version), among others. It makes one laugh, the riches to be mined in a failed play by a man, boy really, who had never before written a play meant to be performed on a stage.

Senelick includes in this collection “all the plays performed during [Chekhov’s] lifetime and posthumous works, performed or not.” He includes variants to the plays, some edited for the censor, some because the play didn’t need the extra words. But with the variants we can see the process of creation and distillation. Senelick did his own annotations and translations, and gives reasons for his word or phrasing choices. The plays I have seen performed do not use his words, but I think the sense comes through in any case. A play must have a little flexibility, though I think Senelick is right when he says that in some cases exact words must be used as written, since sometimes a word or a phrase is repeated like a chorus, meant to develop the meaning of a play over time for the audience.

What a rich experience it must be for students at Tuft’s Fletcher School to have someone direct their plays who knows so much about how a play has come to be, how it has been performed, and how it has been modified. It can't be often that a director has such a deep background in scholarship.

Anyway, included in this volume are short monologues, including one that is my very favorite, entitled “The Evils of Tobacco.” Senelick gives two versions of the monologue, each placed roughly chronologically when they were published. One is very early in Chekov’s “stage” career, and another version, continually revised over the years, is placed at the end, right before “The Cherry Orchard.” Successful professional comedians perform endless versions of the same monologue until they have it pared to its funniest and most striking essentials, and it seems Chekhov did the same here.

The piece is a miracle of parody: a distinguished educator is asked to give a lecture on a popular topic for a charity benefit. Shortly after his introduction, the lecturer merely mentions the word tobacco and is sent off onto a tangent of several minutes. He brings himself back with an exceedingly brief, boring, and overly scientific couple sentences about tobacco and veers off topic again, ranging into the territory of his health, his preferred food choices, and how his marriage is going. It is short, and it is masterful--the result of a long career thinking about, writing, and staging humorous pieces. Do not miss this.

The biography of Chekhov at the beginning of this volume is notable for its depth of knowledge and understanding of Chekhov’s oeuvre. It is short and assured, and gives information that is indispensable for a greater understanding of how, what, and why Chekhov wrote.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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