TLS, May 04, 2007
by John Stokes
Hell Behind the Laughter
This new collection of nineteen short works for the theatre, six of them translated for the first time, may act as a modest corrective to the brilliantly accessible English productions of Chekhov's major plays that we have so much enjoyed in recent years. Some are fantasies - men on the moon looking down at earth, talking animals - but most are farce, that pan-European genre which takes its themes from local indignities: adultery in France, snobbery in England. The Russian version, to judge by Chekhov's contribution, has much more to do with despair, demoralization and the blues. This is truly another country, populated by bored bachelors, woeful widows and perennial drunks, where violence and greed are never far from the surface. In Chekhov's scenes of provincial life, the touchpapers for comic mayhem tend to be quarrels over land and money, strategic alliances (usually marriages) and a sense of personal failure that lies, as one character has it, "beyond self ruin".
For two of the best-known pieces, the dramatic trigger is anger itself. In "The Bear", rage leads contrarily to love as a couple embark on a duel only for the man to find himself carried away by the woman's irresistible aggression. In "The Proposal", rows about ownership of a meadow almost lead to the end of an engagement. Characters, male and female alike, collapse in hysterics, are overcome with choleric fury, suffer palpitations, dissolve into tears. Insults escalate, bad temper weighing against real or, more likely, imagined bad health so that language takes on the same feverish quality as the ailments that tease the frustrated body.
It is a cruel truth that the lives of the downtrodden make for the best stand up.
Two versions of a much revised monologue, "On the Injuriousness of Tobacco", a pastiche public lecture, are provided. The first dates from 1886: the speaker, owner of a girls' school, drifts helplessly away from his (absurd) topic by confessing problems with his thirteen unmarriageable daughters, his difficult wife, and his financial crises, all the while succumbing to an asthma attack.
By 1902 and the sixth version, Chekhov has given his hapless invention a look ("long sideburns, no moustache . . . an old worn dress coat") and a whole series of facial agitations and awkward gestures. Still unable to finish his lecture, he now quotes his wife's insults verbatim, betrays his own superstitious beliefs about the very number thirteen, and rips off his hated coat only to put it back on again. Not only has the sketch become a minor drama, complete with replayed dialogue and an increasingly complex relation with the audience, but the facade of the speaker's self-importance is now entirely undermined by his capacity for self-destruction. As with the British monologue tradition -Frankie Howerd or Max Wall, say -the audience is invited to share in the speaker's secrets only to be repulsed if they get too close.
How much these revisions owe to lessons learned from work on the full-length plays is perhaps a question for Russian scholars. It's surely the case that we can learn about the hinterland of those masterpieces from the environments Chekhov created as backdrops to farce. And, in fact, there are parallels and echoes with the plays we know best: outbreaks of fire (Three Sisters), distant railway lines that promise illusory escape (The Cherry Orchard), murderous attacks that come to nothing (Uncle Vanya). There are oddly inconsequential moments - a postman enters a tavern, downs a drink, pays and leaves without saying a word - and characters frequently talk to themselves. Above all, as in The Seagull, there are realizations of the failed, anti-climactic theatricality of life itself. With help from an ageing prompter, the equally ageing actor of "Swan Song" performs solitary scenes from Ha