I used to hate Chekhov.
You’re not supposed to say that if you’re a theatre major. But I totally did. I kept it on the down-low, along with other things I hated that I was supposed to like (Death of a Salesman, anything by Tennessee Williams, and King Lear) or liked that I was supposed to hate – such as Hamlet, which is so good that it’s a cliche to talk about how good it is, like someone who tells you their favorite movie is Citizen Kane. Yes, Citizen Kane is a brilliant movie. But when people say it’s their favorite movie they sound like jerks. And usually, if you push hard enough, they’ll cave and you’ll find out their REAL favorite movie is Blazing Saddles or something and they’re just too ashamed to admit it. It’s the same with Hamlet. If someone asks what your favorite Shakespeare play is and you say Hamlet, they look at you with pitying theatre-major eyes like you’ve just fallen off the back of the hay truck and Hamlet is the only Shakespeare play you’ve ever read. Or heard of. Or seen the Mel Gibson movie of. But in my life I have taken a total of seven classes where I had to read Hamlet and I have written five different theses on Hamlet and I have read or seen nearly every other Shakespeare play at least once and directed two of them, so when I say Hamlet is my favorite, it really is because it’s my favorite.
Anyway, so, Chekhov.
In high school and college I thought Anton Chekhov was the most boring and tedious playwright in all of God’s creation. I have since come to realize that not 100% of my issues with Anton Chekhov are Anton Chekhov’s fault. The problem, frequently, is in translation. Lots of playwrights I admire have written great plays but crap translations of Chekhov. For example, Carthaginians by Frank McGuinness is a stunning play and everyone should read it. But Frank McGuinness’ translations of Chekhov make me want to die. It’s not his fault. He’s Irish. Chekhov is Russian. They identify with each other on a cultural level, in terms of binge drinking and families with histories of depression. Good for Frank, I guess. Those aspects do come off as alarmingly realistic. But overall, bless Frank’s cranky Irish heart, the translated plays are a total snore.
Here is the extent of my positive feelings towards Chekhov, up to the present. When I was in college, my friend Chris McElwain – perhaps the funniest person I’ve ever met – wrote a weekly comic for the student newspaper that was called “Chekhov and Sandwich.” It was an old-timey portrait of Chekhov, and a picture of a sandwich with a bite taken out of it, and they would have bizarre existential conversations with each other, and I wish I had saved them all because they made me laugh all the time. I don’t know how he came up with that idea, except that he thought Chekhov was hilarious because of his gratuitous use of the word “millet,” which at the time Chris thought was a very funny word.
When I was working at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, they launched a four-year Chekhov project, and when I found out about it, I sort of wanted to die. “We’re going to remount all four of Chekhov’s major plays!” they said. “It’s all so terribly exciting!” I was working in PR so I had to feign that level of enthusiasm in everything I wrote and said, but secretly I hoped the whole idea would get shelved because I knew I would not be able to escape sitting through them and I would be bored or depressed out of my mind.
So we kicked off with Uncle Vanya, which is the Hamlet of Chekhov plays – the one everyone at least kind of knows. I couldn’t tell you who wrote the translation, and if it was Frank McGuiness I’m gonna feel pretty stupid (but I don’t think it was, I think it was new). Anyway, I went into it prepared to fall asleep, but I LOVED it. Part of it was a stellar cast – including Oscar-winning actor William Hurt, and A.R.T.’s artistic director Allen Nause, one of the best actors I’ve ever known and the loveliest kindest man in creation, who, random side note, brought me back an olive-wood rosary from the Holy Land when he went overseas to direct an Arthur Miller play in Israel, even though I didn’t work there anymore. I told my friend Katy, “I should send him a thank-you note telling him that that’s the rosary I used at my mother’s funeral rosary!” and she was like, “Yeah, I don’t think that’s the kind of information you should put in a thank-you note.” Anyway. What was I saying? Oh yeah. Great translation, great cast, etc. For the first time in my life I wasn’t watching Chekhov and feeling bored. This is good news. Here’s the bad news – I was still not capable of actually ENJOYING myself. Let me explain.
The people in Chekhov’s plays make me want to walk up onstage and smack them upside the head. They infuriate me. Let’s take Chekhov’s Big Four: Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Seagull, and The Cherry Orchard. Every single character in all four of these plays annoys me. They whine. They lounge around the house and daydream but then do nothing with their lives. They have ill-thought-out secret affairs. They live in small towns and hate it but won’t leave. They’re materialistic but they also spend money badly. They complain all the time. They are all, every single one of them, like six inches away from actually having a happy fulfilling life, and they just can’t get it together. It’s excruciatingly frustrating. Are the plays well-written? Yes. Are the ideas good? Yes. Is Chekhov the Father Of Modern Drama? Sure. But I can’t handle the people. They seriously make me want to tear out my hair.
I had the same response last night to A.R.T.’s fabulous production of Three Sisters. I’m sitting there like squirming in my seat with frustration and irritation and impatience. Hey sisters – quit complaining and buy a train ticket to Moscow instead of moping about how you’ll never get there. You know WHY you’ll never get there? Because you just sit around all day whining about it. Hey Vanya – quit hitting on your brother’s wife. She obviously doesn’t like you.
Here’s the deal with Chekhov. People who like bleak modern American short stories, or indie movies about depressing families or relationships, these people dig Chekhov. Girls like me, who prefer either A) Jane Austen or B) Harrison Ford blowing things up, we dig Chekhov slightly less. We have far less patience for the kind of annoying frail and flawed characters that he writes.
I was sitting there last night, watching a stellar cast perform a brilliant new translation of Three Sisters written by Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts, in a world premiere for my A.R.T. friends; I was there when they first started working with Tracy on getting this project together and I was so proud to see it come to fruition with such an amazing group of people. It was lively and funny and fast-paced and entertaining and sad and human. It was very, very good. But it was still making me boil with frustration inside my own skin at how pathetic these people were.
As I was watching, it occurred to me that my frustration with Chekhov characters is actually a reasonably accurate barometer of all the problems I have with real living human beings. I get impatient when I feel like people are making stupid choices. I secretly would like nothing more than to be able to stop the play, walk into someone else’s life, and say, “Do this instead of that, and your life will be fixed.” I am excessively judgmental and easily frustrated. This doesn’t come up in Shakespeare because you have some linguistic and narrative distance; yes, Hamlet is an imperfect character with some relatable flaws – indecision, family drama, college student angst. Yes, Beatrice and Benedick, the squabbling lovers from Much Ado, are delightfully and lovably imperfect characters (and the forefathers of everything from Tracy & Hepburn movies to modern sitcoms). We get that they’re not one-dimensional perfect beings. But for some reason, their flaws don’t get under my skin. I think it’s because of the language; with the exception of a handful of moments, you can’t forget that you’re watching Shakespeare. But with Chekhov – with a good, fresh, lively, modern translation of Chekhov like the one you will see if you hit up Artists Rep’s Three Sisters – these feel like people that you know. It was incredibly contemporary. There’s a young woman whining about how her go-nowhere job is beneath her level of intelligence and doesn’t feed her soul, which is a complaint that my fellow liberal arts college graduates are quite used to hearing from our friends. There’s an angry young man who’s all “Fight the system!” until he decides to settle down and get a grown-up job. There’s a bossy young wife who won’t shut up about how magical and perfect and cute her kids are, until everyone around her just wants to barf. I feel like I KNOW these people. And that’s why A) the plays make me twitchy and B) it makes me wonder if I’m secretly a spectacularly un-compassionate person. It’s their realism that makes me uncomfortable. I think, if I’m going to say that Chekhov is my least favorite dramatist, I’m going to have to look myself in the eye and admit that the reason isn’t Chekhov’s fault; it’s because he reminds me that I need to be more forgiving and accepting of the people around me, less judgmental of their stupid decisions, more patient with their flaws and foibles, and more loving all around.
I feel like Chekhov and I are getting to a place where our relationship is like, he’s that friend who knows you really well and it kind of annoys you because he calls you out on all your crap and doesn’t let get away with anything. Like, every time you tell a story and maybe SLIGHTLY exaggerate the details for dramatic effect Chekhov’s all like, “That’s not true, I was there.” Or you’re complaining about some annoying person on the bus who kept talking really loud, and Chekhov’s like, “Dude, YOU do that.” Or you’re getting dressed to go out and you’re like, “What do you think?” and he’s like, “It doesn’t look like you washed your hair.” Or Chekhov will be telling you a story about a room full of people in Russia with totally human and relatable problems and you’re all like “This play is boring,” and Chekhov’s all like, “Do you really not like it because it’s boring, or do you not like it because you know that in real life you’d be really mean to these people and that makes you uncomfortable?” and you’re like, “Oh. Yeah, okay, it’s the second one,” and Chekhov’s like, “Ha! Called it!” and you kind of resent him the rest of the day.