Monday, November 29, 2010

Chekhov: The Major Plays by Anton Chekhov

genre: stage plays

This book consists of five different plays. As I read each one, I just wrote down my thoughts:

Ivanov: a disillusioned landowner is fed up with his life. Really, he just over-thinks everything and has given up on trying to be happy. There is a lot of fussing over Ivanov and his choices - ever since his marriage to a "Jewess" who gave up her family and religion to be with him, he's gone emotionally downhill. There is a lot of men crying in this play and if I had to give it a theme or a point, I think it's that other people and the outside world can't really make up for our own lack of effort at happiness. I could be TOTALLY OFF.

The Sea Gull: We're in the countryside with a group of artists and wanna-be artists. No one is happy with their lot - if they are already an artist, their work consumes them and disappoints them. If they aren't, they can't imagine how they will be happy until they are an acknowledged artist. I appreciated several interesting passages, some quite thought provoking, on writing and the passion of writers. There's a lot of selfishness, though, and there isn't a character to balance that out - we're all most intrigued our own self-interest. The book claims this play is a "comedy," but, um, I didn't find really anything funny, so it might have a different definition of comedy than I do.

Uncle Vanya: In this story, we've got a gouty old professor, his very young second young and a bunch of the family and friends of his first wife (as well as their daughter). The professor and his wife are from town, sort of sweeping in and creating a bustle of needs at the estate that is run primarily by the brother-in-law and the daughter. So many relationships to keep straight, it was one of the puzzles of this play for me, to keep everyone straight (oh wait, that has happened in every play). There is unrequited love and disillusionment (HERE are the themes!), but also some forward-thinking, environmentally aware characters. I liked that there was discussion in this play about Russia and Russians and hard it is to rise above the drudgery of life there. This was a more interesting, faster read than the other two for me, although things are wrapped up almost too nicely in the end.

The Three Sisters: living in a provincial town with their brother, Olga, Irina and Masha begin the play remembering their recently deceased father, eager to begin a useful life of work, culture and purpose. The army regiment in town provides most of the rest of the cast, infusing the environment with prospective lovers and philosophical conversation companions. Of course things do not go well for the sisters – I’ve just recognized the trend in Chekhov’s plays and didn’t expect giddy happiness for them, but of all the characters I’ve read about so far, I liked these sisters the best. They seem to sincerely care about each other and while they get desperate with longing for what they once had, they don’t give up on each other. Their sister-in-law is a malicious character, slowly sucking the marrow out of their household. I would recommend reading some critical analysis of the play, because that made it even more meaningful – there’s a fascinating disintegration of the sisters and their brother, a sad reflection of the disintegration of cultured Russian society at the time. I liked reading this one a lot.

The Cherry Orchard: along the same theme at The Three Sisters, we're at a provincial estate run by the adopted daughter of a woma, Luybov, who along with her brother Gayev has squandered all the wealth of their ancestral home and its famous cherry orchard. What is to be done to pay the bills? While Luybov and Gayev are rather blase about the issue, others on the estate (and those who are interested in its possibilities) are frantic to decide its fate. One character in particular, a perpetual student great friend of Luybov's daughter Anya, has a tendency to get philosophical about the situation and I really loved his observations. In one rather long speech, I felt like he dug into the crux of all of Chekhov's plays when he talks about the failings of the Russian intelligentsia, their lack of work ethic or interest in really doing something about their affairs. In another speech that I REALLY loved, he waxes eloquent about the sad history of Russia's serfs and how so much of the beauty in Russia was built on the backs of slave labor. In this play, there are more characters who see that just because the orchard might be lost, it doesn't mean we have to give up and shoot ourselves (certainly a twist of Chekho's usual theme) - we can find work and be loved and have other adventures out in the wide world. Of course, other characters are not half so optimistic, and I wouldn't say its a happy play, but it felt more like it went full circle, where I could see the depth of it without having to have someone else tell me. I'd love to see it performed.

SO. I read five plays! Holy cow. I have officially decided I would like to try reading more from that land of Russia, what a different vein of experiences than my own and what a different way of looking at the world. Reading plays is NOT easy, but it helps that there is a list of characters at the beginning that you can refer to for all those tricky Russian names :) Honestly? It's not for the faint of heart, but it really is worth it, I think, to immerse yourself in provincial Russia for a while and to wonder how you would deal with a world where it seems like you are constantly hitting your head against a brick wall and everyone around you is doing the same dang thing. Could you stay true to your wife/husband/fiance? Could you work through the stress without succumbing to constant philosophizing or complaining? Hard to say, but interesting to think about.

8 of 8 for the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge 2010


Okie said...

I've had Chekhov on my reading list for soooo long. I really need to get around to reading something.

Of this bunch, which would you recommend starting with?

Corinne said...

The Three Sisters. Then the Cherry Orchard. Good luck!

Okie said...

Thanks. :)

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