Reading Chekhov plays on the page for book group

Anton_Chekhov_with_bow-tie_sepia_imageAbout once a year, our book group feels adventurous and decides to read a play rather than a novel or non-fiction title.  Last year we read The Weir by Conor McPherson which was rather wonderful. This year we decided to plump for some Chekhov and as the plays are short to read we picked The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, and as a bonus threw in Ward 6 (Alex’s favourite) for anyone who had access to his short stories as a contrast.

Now I saw and remember enjoying an RSC production of The Seagull in 1991 at the Barbican with Simon Russell-Beale in his breakthrough serious role as Constantin, Amanda Root as Nina, Roger Allam as Trigorin and the late Susan Fleetwood as Irina (Arkadina). Russell-Beale said of this production:

seagullI had the most wonderful time in Stratford. It was very formative and a very important part of my life. They were very good because I started off as a comic actor and Terry Hands picked me out to do a Chekhov play, The Seagull and that changed the whole course of my life”. (full interview at the British Theatre Guide)

The Seagull was Chekhov’s second great play (1896), and it was the first to flaunt Chekhov’s modernistic devices and also has a small play within a play. As it starts, Constantine Treplev and his uncle Sorin are discussing a little play starring neighbour Nina (with whom Treplev is in love) for when his mother arrives at her brother Sorin’s country estate. Treplev is worried that Irina won’t like the play…

Treplev: [Laughs] You see, Mother doesn’t love me – to put it rather mildly. She likes excitement, romantic affairs, gay clothes – but I’m twenty-five years old and a constant reminder that she’s not so young as she was. She’s only thirty-two when I’m not around, but when I’m with her she’s forty-three, and that’s what she can’t stand about me. Besides, she knows I’ve no use for the theatre. She adores the stage.

Yeah! Like you wrote a play which will be performed specifically for her approval. Grow up Treplev and stop moaning.

The problems really become apparent when young Nina falls for Boris Trigorin, Irina’s current squeeze who has come with her – he’s a famous writer. This, together with Irina’s flighty luvviness is enough to eventually send lovesick Treplev over the edge in an off-stage melodramatic denouement in the final act.

I can’t say that The Seagull leapt off the page for me, despite having seen it – and I can’t remember the actual shooting of the Seagull, a heavy-handed metaphor if ever there was one, in the play at all!

So on to The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s last great play (1904) and we have a crumbling country estate in which they are having to sell off the much-loved cherry orchard to make ends meet and which no doubt someone will parcel up into smaller plots.  The family all arrive from the station for one last gathering before the sale.

It starts off with everyone talking about different things at the same time:

Gayev: The train was two hours late. Pretty good, eh? What price that for efficiency?
Charlotte: (The Governess) [to Pishchik (an estate-owner)] My dog eats nuts too.

… and it continues for virtually the whole play in this vein.  There is a slight narrative drive, but it’s mostly the family bickering or talking over each other, with some moments of melodrama to punctuate the conversations…

Varya: Two telegrams came for you, Mother. [Picks out a key and unlocks the fold-fashioned book-case with a jingling noise.] Here you are.
Mrs. Ranevsky: They’re from Paris. [Tears them up without reading them.] I’ve finished with Paris.

Admittedly, she did have a hard time in Paris being abandoned by her lover.

There was more to enjoy in The Cherry Orchard than The Seagull.  Gayev, who is Mrs. Ranevsky’s older brother is always going off into little reveries about billiards in the middle of his speeches, ‘Pot the red in the middle.’ (reminding me of Ron Manager in The Fast Show – ‘jumpers for goalposts’). I also liked Firs, the old retainer who is about eighty and ‘ready to die’ – in fact I preferred all the servants in general to the land-owning families in both plays.

OWC ChekhovChekhov’s striving for a modern, naturalistic way of speaking in his plays didn’t work on the page for any of us in our book group. They’re ensemble pieces with no one character dominating for the most part, and that adds to the rambling feel.

I had expected the plays to comment more on their subject matter – particularly, to misquote Jonie Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, the potential ‘paving of paradise’ if the cherry orchard was uprooted and parcelled off. However, that didn’t happen, life just went on, no opinions as such were aired.

I had opted to read Ronald Hingley’s translations from the mid-1960s for Oxford World’s Classics, which are ‘acclaimed for the accuracy and ‘speakability’ of the translations.’  We all read different editions, but essentially had the same reactions to the texts.

However, those that had access to his short stories, sadly not including me, reported that Ward 6 was great and very different to the plays.

Chekhov was renowned as a short story writer, so I shall definitely search some out to read in the future.  As for his plays – it’ll be the theatre for me!

 

0 thoughts on “Reading Chekhov plays on the page for book group

  1. It really interesting to hear about your experience of reading these plays as I’ve often wondered whether to return to the source material of a favourite theatre production. Possibly not for Chekhov if your (and Harriet’s) experience is anything to go by.

    • It’s an interesting exercise – sometimes it works, others it doesn’t. We’ve read a variety of plays over the years – Shakespeare, Shaw etc but these were overtly comedies or tragedies, not stories of ‘normal’ life – and were fun to read. The Chekhov was too natural on the page for me to get much out of The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard was more fun.

  2. Years ago as a student, a book group I attended decided to read Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. It was awful and we all hated it. However one of the group was a drama student. So a few weeks later he brought some of his drama student friends and they read it out aloud – and we all loved it! Power of the spoken word I guess!

    • Reading aloud does help – If our Book Group hadn’t been discussing the play over our Christmas curry, maybe we could have done a reading – but that doesn’t go well with bhajis and parathas!

  3. I saw The Seagull a few years later I think at the National and I think with Helen McCrory? I s’pose having done a lot of Shakespeare “on the page” and other plays at school through GCSE and A-level, and being an impoverished student, I grew up more used to seeing plays in words than in real life. Seeing it in real life still feels like a bonus.

  4. That production of The Seagull with Simon Russell Beale and Amanda Root was fantastic – I can still remember it – and you are right, the plays are ensemble pieces. Also the humour in Chekov’s plays is always such a surprise: there’s that typical “Russian” ability to be tragic and self-mocking at the same time, which is so much the more painful and haunting. .

    • Reading the background in my edition of the plays, I note that Stanislavsky, of the ‘Method’ starred as Trigorin in the first successful production of The Seagull (after its initial flop) but Chekhov found him still not naturalistic enough!

  5. I read The Cherry Orchard a few years ago, and although I enjoyed parts of it, I really felt I was missing something by not seeing it performed. Some of the scenes seemed like they would be really funny acted out, but it was hard to get the rhythm of the speech when reading it in print. I’d really like to see a production of it, because I could see how it might be really good with the right actors.

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