Friday, October 19, 2012

It is work without poetry, without meaning

IRINA. How tired I am!

TUZENBAKH. And every day I'll come to the telegraph office and walk you home. I'll do it for ten years, for twenty years, till you drive me away . . . [Seeing MASHA and VERSHININ, delightedly] Oh, it's you! How are you?

IRINA. Well, I'm home at last. [To MASHA] A lady came just now to telegraph to her brother in Saratov that her son died today, and she couldn't think of the address. So she sent it without an address -- simply to Saratov. She was crying. And I was rude to her for no reason. Told her I had no time to waste. It was so stupid. I must rest. I'm tired.

TUZENBAKH [with a smile]. When you come from the office you seem so young, so forlorn . . . [a pause].

IRINA. I'm tired. No, I don't like telegraph work, I don't like it.

MASHA. You've grown thinner . . . [whistles]. And you look younger, rather like a boy in the face.

TUZENBAKH. That's the way she does her hair.

IRINA. I must find some other job, this does not suit me. What I so longed for, what I dreamed of is the very thing that it's lacking in, . . . It is work without poetry, without meaning. . . .

Chekhov's play "Three Sisters" wrestles with the Big Existential Question: What's the point of life? None of the characters can claim to be happy; all of them have thwarted ambitions or are trying pitifully to either extricate themselves from some situation they've become entrapped by, or to find a way to take their minds off of their entrapment (affairs, alcohol, gambling, etc). Meanwhile, a discussion continues across the length of the play about how the future will be better, that living as an unhappy but enlightened person now will bring about widespread happiness and enlightenment in the future, in two hundred or three hundred years. Nobody seems to be convinced or comforted by this argument. Meanwhile, the town has caught fire and while some people proclaim the value of labor, others see the emptiness of most wage earning positions, and at least one person observes that laborers, when they grow old and are no longer able to earn their keep, should be put out into the country like old horses or cattle, "good for nothing now." All of this from the Chekhov who was accused during his lifetime of avoiding any social issues in his writing.

Chekhov was actually a great and consistent social writer, it's just that he never preached or drew conclusions for his readers. We all fall short, Chekhov shows us; we are all flawed and selfish but that doesn't necessarily make the whole project of humanity worthless. I won't attempt to sum up Chekhov's philosophies, because likely I just read them how I please.   Anyway, behind all of the "a man and a woman and a reason to be unhappy" in "Three Sisters" there is an interesting argument taking place, an argument whose solution is impossible to find because it takes place in an unknowable future. We can only guess and hope and keep moving. The characters in Chekhov's play are always at risk of stopping, putting down their things and refusing to live another moment. We can see why: to strive forward into the future is exhausting, but I think that Chekhov sees refusal to go on as true defeat. So we must go on, as Beckett so cheerfully put it. Unlike Beckett, Chekhov isn't mocking us. We must go on, and we ought, if nothing else, love each other as companions in the same impossible struggle.

MASHA. If only we knew. If only we knew. [curtain]

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