As one sign of Chekhov’s greatness, his very name is invoked (in adjective form) to assess the work of others. But even while Chekhovian has been called into service on numerous occasions—in recent years, for example, to epitomize such disparate playwrights as Lanford Wilson and Beth Henley, or a bit earlier to position Lillian Hellman and Neil Simon—it remains hard to define what “Chekhovian” really means.
Approaching the difficulty more directly, we see just how deeply ifs rooted throughout the century. In The Russian Point of View, her discussion of Chekhov’s stories, Virginia Woolf circled the horizon like some breathless but grateful eagle that had visited the top of the mountain, before pouncing on the problem by submitting that Chekhov “raise[s] the question of our own fitness as readers. . . . We need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.” In the same vein, Howard Moss refers to “the vagueness [that] is typical of our relationship to Chekhov in English.” Contemporary playwright Corinne Jacker claims, “We still can’t do Chekhov successfully most of the time. We don’t know how to listen to him, and we don’t know how to show what he’s saying to the audience. Eighty years and we still can’t hear this great artist.”
What are we to make of this towering, enigmatic figure of world literature who has left behind over 4,000 letters, 588 short stories, and a handful of plays? Though there are only seven full-length plays, and thus far only four that seem to matter, there are those who feel Chekhov is second only to Shakespeare. (Tolstoy felt Chekhov was Shakespeare’s superior; but, as Ian McKellen summarizes it, Chekhov is “every British actor’s second-favorite playwright!”) To complicate the already confused situation, it took 50 years since his death for his writing to be published in a coherent fashion; and that 20-volume edition, completed in 1950, was in Russian. It required an additional 30 years for his oeuvre to be collated in its entirety, comprising a 30-volume edition. Such an undertaking has yet to be performed in English.
In England Chekhov was slow to catch on. In 1912 we find John Palmer taking his peers to task by exclaiming, “Chekhov’s career in London is disgraceful for all concerned. As one of the most celebrated European dramatists he could not be altogether ignored by the various societies whose mission it is to discover for their members the acknowledged masterpieces of dramatic literature. Nevertheless, Chekhov’s first appearance was not in London, but in Glasgow . . . The Seagull.” Though Desmond McCarthy was a champion of Chekhov as early as 1914, by 1917 Leonard Woolf offered an iconoclastic view in the New Statesman, suggesting that, “The precision of Chekhov’s realism masks the mental stammer which afflicted him when he contemplated life.” In 1920 Shaw, who was notorious for considering himself Shakespeare’s better, challenged his readers to “Compare my play Arms and the Man with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and if you do not at once perceive that the Russian play is a novel and delicate picture whilst the pseudo-Bulgarian one is a simply theatrical projection effected by a bag of the oldest stage tricks, then I shall form a very poor opinion of your taste.” But in all deference to Shaw’s more characteristic hubris, he would later dismiss Chekhov’s four most important plays as “fascinating dramatic studies of Heartbreak House.”
Accounting for Chekhov’s stature in the intervening years remains a puzzle—something only a Chekhov could begin to sort out. He is generally perceived as fiercely apolitical, but his guileful 1890 journey to expose the conditions in the penal colony on Sakhalin Island and his public statements regarding the Dreyfus affair are both famous instances of his taking a stand. Still, the grandson of a serf, he never battled for any of the political causes that drew his peers from one type of injustice to another. To all evidence, he enjoyed his lifelong practice as a doctor, and he also resented it, for the time it denied him to write more. While he generally considered himself unworthy of the supreme literary reputation he quickly achieved, he was wounded by the frequently poor critical receptions his plays initially received. According to some reports, he was unusually outgoing and cheerful, while others portray him as solitudinous and pensive.
Perhaps the most cogent statement was presented by Ronald Hingley in his 1976 biography, A New Life of Anton Chekhov: “That human personality is ultimately an enigma this enigmatic genius has demonstrated again and again in his works. Is there any reason why we should expect him to have contravened his own norm in his own life?”
Now we have a newer and more felicitous biography by Henri Troyat: Chekhov, translated from the French by Michael Henry Heim and recently issued by Dutton. As others are finding it, Troyat’s accomplishment is a paragon of casual biography. Shrewdly assimilating others’ legwork and building on their findings, Troyat avoids appearing academic—his version of Chekhov’s life reads more like a novel than the scholarly work that it is.
While Troyat does nothing to disturb the previous less than consistent views of Chekhov, he emphasizes two aspects of his life as a powerful subtext suggesting Chekhov was deserving of sainthood. During his youth, he suffered his father’s notorious tyranny—including daily beatings supposed to build moral character. Yet Chekhov (unlike his brothers) never spoke ill of his father nor relinquished his youthful respect for him. As we knew before, Chekhov became not only the family breadwinner but also the adviser to his five siblings and both his parents. In addition, he suffered the hideous side-effects of a long-term bout with tuberculosis, which ultimately killed him in 1904, at the age of 44.
The most interesting secondary figure in the Troyat biography is neither Chekhov’s severe father nor his adoring sister, but Lydia Avilova, a wouldbe paramour. Five years Chekhov’s junior, Avilova was already married and the mother of a year-old boy when they met in 1889. Her sister’s husband was the owner of a St. Petersburg newspaper, one of the many that published Chekhov’s stories. In one respect, she strikes us as a Frieda who failed to leave her husband and run off with D.H. Lawrence. In another, she seems as much a literary curiosity as Carrington was for Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury circle.
Curiously, Chekhov’s response to Avilova’s affections alternates between neglect and enticement—mostly in correspondence. As Troyat summarizes the relationship in its late development, “The oddest of Chekhov’s epistolary relationships remained the one he kept up with Lydia Avilova. On the one hand he refused to acknowledge much less accept her love; on the other he seemed unwilling to cast her off once and for all.”
In retrospect, it is easy to dismiss Avilova’s passion for Chekhov as exploitation. An aspiring writer herself, she would have seized the opportunity to meet Chekhov when he was 29 and already a prominent literary artist, as Troyat implies. But in doing so, he does not sufficiently clarify why Chekhov nurtured her affections to the degree he did. And reading Avilova’s adoring memoir, Chekhov in My Life, a chapter-by-chapter description of the 15 years of their meetings, intrigues, and correspondence, one is struck not only by her naiveté but also by Chekhov’s well-documented attentions.
What might be a key to this most peculiar literary relationship surfaces not in the biography but in Chekhov’s first play, written at least 10 years before meeting Avilova but not discovered until 1920—16 years after his death—when it was found as a manuscript without a tide. Troyat notifies us that this text, usually referred to as Platonov (after its scoundrel/hero) but with a number of titles over the years, was actually a first draft. Chekhov’s final version of it was presented to the Little Maly Theater in Moscow by Chekhov’s brother Mikhail. Upon learning of its rejection, Chekhov impulsively destroyed the text and, as far as can be ascertained, apparently forgot that this earlier draft even existed.
In its most recent incarnation, Platonov, projected at seven hours though never produced in its entirety, has surfaced in a shaved translation by Michael Frayn, titled Wild Honey. Running for two hours, it has closed after a mere few weeks on Broadway, following a far more successful run of over a year in London. While the production, and particularly Ian McKellen in the lead role, were justifiably reprimanded for trivializing the text, Frayn’s script was not criticized.
Seeing the play shortly after reading Troyat’s biography, one notices remarkable similarities between Chekhov and his first dramatic protagonist, Platonov, conceived by Chekhov probably when he was a medical student. Though it may seem ludicrous to speculate on the author’s own behavior during his later life, on the basis of a character created during his youth, there is compelling evidence suggesting Chekhov was capable of either predicting or determining his own fate.
Platonov is presented as a shameful cad pursued by the four main female characters within the play. We learn from Troyat that, at various periods in Chekhov’s life, “All the women more or less in love with him knew one another and despised one another under the most friendly of exteriors”; also that Chekhov “was not averse to the idea of several young women lusting after him. He called them his ‘squadron’ and himself their ‘admiral.'” In another instance, Troyat writes, “The preliminaries were what interested him most in love; he saw them as a self-sufficient game.” And even later he tells us, “If Chekhov borrowed a good deal from the lives of others for his work, ‘The Lady with the Dog’ shows he could also borrow from his own experience. For was he not thinking of himself when he wrote: ‘He always seemed to women other than what he was, and they loved in him a man who instead of being himself was someone created by their imagination, someone they had eagerly sought all their lives; even later, when they saw their mistake, they went on loving him. And not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, and he went on meeting women, having affairs, and parting, but he had never loved; call it what you please, it was not love.'”
If, as Frayn and others have suggested, Platonov is reminiscent of Hamlet, then his indecision is most noticeable in relation to the various women who vie for his affections. This theme of the passive-aggressive roue also emerges later in The Seagull, when Trigorin, the elder novelist, is reluctantly seduced by the young romantic heroine. In Wild Honey, Platonov is besieged by four types of paramours: a virgin, a widow, a married woman, and his own wife. It’s too tidy a package not to have been deliberately chosen by Chekhov to represent every conceivable type he could fit into his story. But to compare Platonov’s romantic behavior—his chronic vacillation between seduction and submission—with Chekhov’s own throughout his life as described by Troyat, is to assume that Chekhov had determined his own fate by prefabricating his own character. It’s as if he practiced the life he conceived when he was 21 (or possibly even younger) for an older, fictitious character. A more logical explanation may be that he instinctively recognized who he was and then proceeded to fulfill his destiny. In any case, there is much to suggest that Wild Honey is autobiographical in a curious, anticipatory way—and that it deserves far more attention than it’s received thus far, as a result of Frayn’s accomplishment.
If Platonov is the epitome of a scoundrel who invites countless affections without really delivering, it’s hard not to notice other implications figuring in Chekhov’s life. Despite Frayn’s contention, in his introduction to the published version of Wild Honey, that the main character Platonov “is not really like anyone else at all; he is not even remotely like his author,” the play not only confirms the similarities but suggests still other autobiographical connections that, as far as I can tell, have not been detected before.
Regardless of the outstanding question of when the play was written (either when Chekhov was 18 or 21), Chekhov obviously had his provincial experiences in mind.
Two of Chekhov’s three brothers escaped the family and their strict paterfamilias by moving to Moscow while Chekhov was an adolescent. Some years later, Chekhov’s father also stole away to Moscow, abandoning his wife, his daughter, and his son Anton. (Interestingly enough, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, and as we learn now from Broadway Bound, Neil Simon, were all “abandoned” by their fathers—perhaps the trauma that makes for lifelong drama.) Chekhov’s mother and his sister followed the father to Moscow within a few months. But Chekhov, who was 16 at the time, remained behind on the family homestead, though it meant living as a guest in what used to be his parents’ house. He did not move to Moscow himself until three years later.
A special reading of Wild Honey—a title Frayn lifted from his translation of the text—suggests that through Platonov, Chekhov projected himself into a hypothetical future. Platonov’s incubus is his feeling that his potential for greatness has rotted, unstimulated by his “godforsaken” “mudhole” of a relentlessly provincial town, Moscow as panacea is broached in the last scene, when it is waved before Platonov like a carrot by the wealthy widow Anna, who tries to regain him by offering to sponsor his settling there.
In accord with such a reading, Chekhov’s first play becomes his creative self-justification for moving to Moscow. As Troyat’s biography makes exceedingly clear, Chekhov’s life always exhibited a remarkable wanderlust. While Troyat preserves Chekhov’s reputation of appearing content and even self-effacing, his well-documented urge to be precisely where he wasn’t belies some of his famous complexity and enigma. Even during his final months the tedium would overcome him, and he would make the long journey from Yalta to Moscow, despite his frail and failing condition.
The seeds for at least this aspect of his life were planted in his first dramatic fiction, through which he seemed to have exorcised his possible, provincial future. Bearing in mind that Chekhov was roughly 21 when he wrote the play, this notion of autobiographical projection appears confirmed when Platonov, 26, claims in the first scene, “I wonder you recognized me. The last five years have ravaged me like rats [at] a cheese. My life has not turned out as you might have supposed.” Later he despairs of his situation further: “I shall be the same when I’m forty, the same when I’m fifty. I shan’t change now. Not until I decline into shuffling old age, and stupefied indifference to everything outside my own body. A wasted life. Then death. And when I think of death I’m terrified.”
In his response to the recent Broadway production, Frank Rich rhetorically asked, “Mr. Frayn picked the tide ‘Wild Honey’ because of the play’s hothouse erotic tensions, but where is the spark between Ms. Walker (or any of the women) and Mr. McKellen?” The play itself, like so many of Chekhov’s later works, is essentially a treatise on boredom; and all of Platonov’s halfhearted trysts with his “women” are to ward off the tedium they all share. In the midst of widow Anna’s maneuvers, near the play’s end, to win back Platonov’s affections, she learns that her stepson’s wife is having an affair. With whom, she wonders, could it be? “There’s no one in this miserable little place to be in love with! There’s only the doctor. She’s not in love with the doctor! There are only a few elderly landowners and a retired colonel and . . . oh, no!” A process of elimination instantly leads her to suspect Platonov, but she is so desperate to occupy her time that she will not permit anything to interfere with her own designs.
Such is the context and the subtext—conveying the boredom in the romance seems as integral a part of the play as it was of life. As Graham Greene observed in response to Tyrone Guthrie’s 1941 production of The Cherry Orchard, “Chekhov’s work is not young: it is as old as the strange land from which it emerged . . . twisted by sickness, boredom reels towards Yalta to die.”
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