Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Like A Sixth Finger

VERSHININ. You read English then?

ANDREY. Yes. Our father, the Kingdom of Heaven be his, oppressed us with education. It's funny and silly, but it must be confessed I began to get fatter after his death, and I've grown too fat in one year, as though a weight had been taken off my body. Thanks to our father we all know English, French and German, and Irina knows Italian too. But what it cost us!

MASHA. In this town to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury! Not even a luxury, but an unnecessary encumbrance, like a sixth finger. We know a great deal that's unnecessary.

VERSHININ. What next! [laughs] You know a great deal that's unnecessary! I don't think there can be a town so dull and dismal that intelligent and educated people are unnecessary in it. Let's suppose that of the hundred thousand people living in this town, which is, of course, uncultured and behind the times, there are only three of your sort. It goes without saying that you cannot conquer the mass of darkness round you; little by little, as you go on living, you'll be lost in the crowd. You'll have to give in to it. Life will get the better of you, but still you'll not disappear without a trace. After you there may appear perhaps six like you, then twelve and so on until such as you form a majority. In two or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, marvellous. Man needs such a life and, though he hasn't got it yet, he must have a presentiment of it, expect it, dream of it, prepare for it; for that he must see and know more than his father and grandfather [laughs]. And you complain of knowing a great deal that's unnecessary.

MASHA [takes off her hat]. I'll stay to lunch.

From "Three Sisters"

Very likely all of this has been said before, but: I'm reading the collected plays of Anton Chekhov, in translations by Constance Garnett. I've seen "Uncle Vanya" performed once, a long time ago, and I read "The Cherry Orchard" when I was a teenager, which was an even longer time ago than the "Uncle Vanya" performance. Which is to say that I had forgotten pretty much everything I knew about Chekhov's plays; all I had was a sense that they were sort of abstract and not realistic. In the last year or so I've read eight volumes of Chekhov short stories and novellas as well as a collection of 400 or so of his letters, so while I'm no expert on Chekhov, I claim a pretty solid familiarity with his stories and I've read at least some of his own writing about writing including being a playwright. All of which left me somehow unprepared for "The Seagull," "The Cherry Orchard" and the first act of "Three Sisters," which is how far into Collected Plays I've gotten so far.

It goes without saying that the plays are different than the stories, because a play is of course a script, meant to be acted out before an audience. But that's not really the difference I'm confronted by here. The movement of characters within the plays is the same sort of character movement you see in Chekhov's stories and novellas, and the indeterminate endings where people have moved from one form of sadness to a different form of sadness are also there in the plays. So that's all familiar Chekhovian territory. What is really different is the dialogue. I suppose that's an obvious sort of observation, plays being essentially dialogue. I have no familiarity whatsoever with 19th-century Russian plays aside from Chekhov, so I don't know if Chekhov's way with dialogue was innovative or if he was just writing plays the way Russians did at the time. I do know that Chekhov read a lot of plays that were being performed at the time (he spent most of his final years at Yalta and I think that the few plays he actually saw on stage during that period were his own), and he was familiar with the tragedies of Shakespeare. So he wasn't an outsider coming to the form, either.

What's different about Chekhov's dialogue in his plays, as compared to dialogue in Chekhov's stories, and compared to the expectation of realist prose I had when I sat down with this book, is that Chekhov's characters often make long speeches in a poetic vein exposing their inmost thoughts and emotions. Since you don't have a narrator in a play to tell you what people are thinking, the only way to get at it directly from a character is to have the character speak it, yes? And you might point to the soliloquys in Shakespeare's plays, where folks bare their souls and admit all sorts of things. But in Shakespeare, the soul is bared to the audience only; rarely (or ever; I can’t think of an instance) is there another character directly addressed. However what you'll find in Chekhov are characters who will make these philosophical, confessional, poetical speeches in a room full of people, usually family and friends but yes, even in front of strangers, and the high-flown soliloquy is treated as if it's everyday speech. That's different. That's not realism.

So I had to just accept that this was how Chekhov wrote and get on with reading the plays. I provisionally forgave Anton Pavlovich for this until I came to my senses and realized that Dr Chekhov knew what he was doing and that the clumsiness was all mine. I think that upon closer inspection you'll see that characters treat these confessional poetical speeches as everyday speech because they are in fact internal monologues, they aren't by and large actually heard by the other characters. If they are, they're brushed aside the way in real life when someone says “I'm unhappy, you know,” we don't really engage with that statement, especially among families and friends. So Chekhov has invented a form of speech which combines the internal monologue with the external dialogue, but he doesn't place any markers in the play to let us know where the boundaries are between these two forms of speech. At least, that's my theory today. Maybe I'm still feverish. I've not been well, you know.

And no, the dialogue quoted above from "Three Sisters" doesn't illustrate my point. I posted it before I knew I wanted to write about Chekhov's use of dialogue, because I read that scene at lunch and it made me laugh, nearly out loud.

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