Chekhov: The Major Plays

“I love my country and its people, I feel that if I am a writer it is my duty to write about them, about their sufferings, their future, and to write about science, the rights of man, and so on…”

~The Sea Gull

“On the whole I love life, but our narrow provincial Russian life…I cannot endure.”

~Uncle Vanya

This is one of those books where I kept jotting down things I wanted to mention in my comments, which is perhaps why I’ve delayed posting about it (I finished Tuesday). How to synthesize all the major issues (which overlap a fair amount) without neglecting the individual identities of the plays?

My knowledge of Russian literature is relatively sparse–The Brothers Karamazov, A Doll’s House, and I think a Chekhov short story (“The Lady and the Dog”?) of which I have very little memory. But the culture seems to have produced a certain outlook of which Chekhov and his characters are already aware. The Major Plays includes his five full length works (his others are one-acts).

Ivanov centers around the growing despair of the titular character, and was to me by far the flattest of the plays. There seemed to be little actual development, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters. The Sea Gull tentatively explores the lure and reality of fame, both writing and acting. Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters, though ostensibly about love and family, expand more fully on his earlier theme about the role of work. Finally, The Cherry Orchard reflects on the changing landscape and way of live in Russia as evident in one family.

Despite the distinctions of  “comedy” and “drama” all five have a pervading sense of–well, not necessarily tragedy, but strife. The characters feel the acute threat of poverty even though for the most part they are middle-class landowners rather than peasants. There is death, suicide, and more than enough unrequited love to go around. Personally I couldn’t help drawing occasional parallels to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Ivanov compares himself to Hamlet, and The Sea Gull also has many minor elements in common with it–an angry young man, a play within a play, a mother with a roving eye, a girlfriend driven mad. In the later plays the secondary characters such as servants are fleshed out more, giving the works much greater depth.

Unlike Shakespeare, however, Chekhov draws his characters and scenes from everyday life. Each of the plays centers on a small middle-class family and the characters who revolve around them–learned men, young beautiful women, doctors. They all have similar hopes, and instead face similar realities. By the end of the play everyone is jaded, forced to accept their lot. One character in The Cherry Orchard philosophizes that this suffering is their necessary penance for their families’ having spent so long enslaving serfs.

Fittingly, any non-romantic suffering centers around work. Many characters are plagued by a sense of listlessness; Irena  in The Three Sisters seeks the antidote in a career but find no fulfillment because her work lacks meaning. Others like Vanya see the labor as something that has consumed them, a lifetime of effort with little reward. For his niece Masha, young but already hardened, work is a way to escape the sorrows of an empty personal life. Another character blends these thoughts in his own outlook, that work must be endured in the hope that it will one day bring to descendants the happiness that has eluded him.

Work is by far his most pervasive theme, but Chekhov’s characters philosophize on various other topics as well. They look to the past, and see how they have succeeded in destroying the beautiful landscapes and the fortunes of their fathers. They look to the future, in the hope that their efforts at improvement are not in vain. And they look to themselves, displaying outbursts and depth of feeling that have built over a lifetime and come to a head during the events of the plays.

I saved the introduction to let myself formulate my own thoughts first, so I’m interested to see what the experts have to say about him. At some point I should look for more of his short stories, as well.

This is for the “Strange” category of the 9 for 09 Challenge, as I don’t often read plays (though I’m not sure why). It’s also a classic and a translated work (this edition by Ann Dunnigan), though I’m not using it for either of those challenges.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 5:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You have to be in the right mood for plays. Plus, if it’s one that hasn’t been made into a movie or one that is not produced often enough, it’s hard to visualize.

    I have a book of Ibsen plays that I haven’t touched yet.

    Thanks for being part of 9 for ’09 challenge.

  2. […] The Major Plays, by Anton […]

  3. […] also read Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg (Danish) and a book of Chekhov plays (Russian) for other challenges, as well as the Japanese manga Emma by Kaoru […]

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