My Five Days With Chekhov:
The 2012 International Anton Chekhov Conference, Chekhov Museum, Yalta/Crimea
By Frank Gagliano
THE DRAMATIC QUESTION
There is always a dramatic question, of course. And the dramatic question, from the moment I arrived in Yalta was this: “Would they understand it?
On 23 January 2012, I received a letter from Alexander Titorènko, Director of the Anton Chekhov Museum in Yalta, Crimea, inviting me to give a reading/performance of my play, MY CHEKHOV LIGHT, at the 2012International Chekhov Conference (Apr 23-27).
My friend and former colleague Pavlo Bosyy, had arranged this. Pavlo is currently the resident designer at the Ukraine Kirovohrad Regional Theatre, and had designed the massive Chekhov exhibition at this year’s Chekhov Conference.
Sometime in February — and in addition to being asked to give the reading/ performance of “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT” — I was invited, as well, to deliver the Conference’s Keynote Address.
I delivered the Keynote address on 23 April, and gave the reading/performance
of “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT” on 26 April. In between, I got to meet a variety of splendid, learnèd, generous, warm-hearted, world-class Chekhovian’s, on the very site where Chekhov lived many of his final years and where he wrote his masterpieces, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, and where he suffered, and died from, tuberculosis. Sitting in the garden Chekhov himself planted, I was able to love the man, not only as I had all my life, through his plays, but through his trees.
I had met Pavlo Bosyy at West Virginia University in 2005. I was Benedum Professor of Playwriting (since retired) and Pavlo was on a one-year interim appointment as faculty stage designer. This is what I wrote about Pavlo then, on my Web site (www.gaglianoriff.com/page/UKRAINE):
Pavlo —who, to me resembles, in aspect and energy, Mickey Rooney playing Puck, in the MGM movie version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — was a voracious reader and had read my play, “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT.” He’d heard about a recent “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT” reading/performance I’d done at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre and invited me to perform the piece as part of an exhibit of American stage design he was mounting in Kirovohrad, Ukraine. I quickly accepted. For two reasons: 1) The Ukrainian Orange Revolution had moved and inspired me, and I wanted to meet the people who had achieved what seemed like a political miracle—and 2)
because I wanted to continue to keep “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT” alive, this time in a (for me) brand new culture.
Now, once again (because of Pavlo), this time in Yalta, in April of this year, 2012, I had a chance to keep MY CHEKHOV LIGHT alive once again; and, because of my work on the Keynote Address, I needed to revisit the master’s masterworks in a new way, and discovered, as a playwright, how his plays —the techniques of them—affected the writing of “MY CHEKHOV LIGHT.”
This is how Pavlo, in his own words, set out his goals for the 2012 Chekhov Museum exhibit.
I tried to show the importance of the Chekhov legacy in the English- Speaking Western Theatre world. Thus, I first collected numerous books, documents, photos, programs etc., and sent them all to the Chekhov museum in Yalta. This collection included items from my personal archive, from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (the latter sent a huge collection, which included programs and souvenir booklets and production photos of ALL the Chekhov shows they did).
The exhibit consists of these sections:
-The tour of the Moscow Art theatre to the States, 1922-23
— Michael Chekhov (including the manuscript of his book “Actor is the Theatre” (1936, apparently still NOT published!)
— Translations of Chekhov
— Chekhov at Broadway and regional theatre (the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, Lithuania – if toured to the States)
—Chekhov at academic theatres (including “Kolonists” by Steven Dykes and “Chekhov in Yalta”)
— Besides the stuff that I collected for them, I also utilized several items from the Chekhov Museum’s own collection.”
Pavlo’s exhibit was brilliantly and clearly laid out on the walls of a room adjacent to a larger room, where the Conference was to take place (the permanent exhibit in that larger room, had been devised by Alla Hanìlo, about whom, more later). The Michael Chekhov material in Pavlo’s exhibit, later in the week, was to help me with the main problem I was facing as I worked on the reading/performance of MY CHEKHOV LIGHT. I would give the reading/performance in the large Conference room.
From the stop where the little city bus left us off, at the top of the hill, I looked down on the Chekhov Museum on the left and the Chekhov estate
on the right. I had not realized that the Chekhov estate was so large, his garden so extensive.
I had noted in my Keynote address that actually being on Chekhov’s estate would probably make me do strange things; perhaps, when seeing the actual desk on which Chekhov wrote The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, even singing an aria to it.
It turns out that the desk had been moved from Chekhov’s estate into the museum and was now on permanent display there. When I entered the museum and the desk was pointed out to me, I merely touched it: An emotional moment, to be sure (and through tears, as Chekhov might have written in his stage directions), but devoid of external theatrics.
Then, while Pavlo dealt with details of his exhibition, I strolled down into Chekhov’s garden.
There really are times when something mystical happens, touches you —“your soul,” the Russians might say. Just being in that garden was one of those times for me.
A little while later, during a lunch break, Alla Hanìlo would make palpable the mysticism.
But first: Short, preliminary speeches by dignitaries were to be given before the Conference proper was to begin. I was asked to say a few words, as a teaser to the actual Keynote Address I would make, after lunch. This is
what I said (Pavlo translated):
“I am delighted to be here, in Yalta, at the Chekhov Museum, welcoming you to the 2012 International Anton Chekhov Conference.
“I am a playwright, and, later in the week, I will be giving a reading/ performance of my play, MY CHEKHOV LIGHT. I will not comment here on my play: I will let it speak for itself. But I will say this: That had I not
encountered Chekhov when I did —I would not have had the courage — nor would I have found the technique needed — to write, MY CHEKHOV LIGHT.
“Later in the day, I will explore this further in my Keynote Address: “Searching for Chekhov, This Traveler Comes Home.”
“For now, I simply want to say hello and to welcome you here, and to acknowledge the following Conference personnel: Mr. Alexander Titorènko, Director of the Anton Chekhov Memorial Museum in Yalta, for inviting me; Alexei Zubarev, Associated Director; and Yulia Dogopòlova, Academic Secretary; LinaTitorènko, Chair of the Marketing Department, Marina Ardiukova, principal curator of the Museum Collection, and to my amazing colleague, Pavlo Bòsyy, for his exhibit and for arranging my participation here — and to you all, for this honor. Thank you and, again. . .welcome.”
As I listened to the speeches, in Russian, (Pavlo leaning over and translating each gist), I began to look around and cast Chekhov plays in my mind’s eye productions from the Russian types around me (physical types, of course, I did not know the actual characters).
I was particularly excited about one speaker, who was my image of the perpetual student Trofìmov, in The Cherry Orchard. He was an intense young man, dark suit, wearing glasses, and with darting eyes, apparently questioning, with some passion, some finer point in the exhibit and eliciting some annoyed vocal responses from the participants. I loved it. I was part of a conference of engaged participants.
LUNCH AND ALLA HANILO
In the garden, Alla Hanìlo, a wiry little white-haired dynamo (partial to red or pink knit sweaters, cream colored turtle necks), led Pavlo and me to the green garden bench where Chekhov often met with Gorky and Bunin and Leo Tolstoy. Alla had been with the Chekhov estate and Museum for 65 years, starting in her teens, as a docent and assistant to Anton Chekhov’s sister Maria (Masha) Chekhova. Alla is now 84 years old.
Later in the afternoon, when I got through with the Keynote speech, Alla promised she would give me a personal tour of the Chekhov Estate. Meanwhile, Alla pointed out all the trees that Chekhov himself had planted in his garden and told stories of how Chekhov, after he died, had been betrayed (in a petty way) by Gorky and Bunin (The Moscow Art Theatre, under the Soviets, became The Gorky Theatre, for awhile). Alla told about the famous Russian actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky, one of the great Hamlets of his day in the Soviet period. Smoktunovsky met Alla just before he started working on a production of Chekhov’s early play, IVANOV.
Apparently, as part of Smoktunovsky’s actor preparation, it was very important for him to know whether Chekhov was religious or not. The Soviets kept insisting that Chekhov was an atheist, so Alla told Smoktunovsky that Chekhov, as well as Chekhov’s entire family, did have faith. I believe Alla got that from Chekhov’s sister, Maria (Masha) Chekhova, and showed Smoktunovsky some kind of hard proof.
Later I was interviewed and asked what I thought about the Chekhov-As- Atheist matter (This seemed to be a major question for some of the participants). I said I didn’t know, saw no mention of it in any of Chekhov’s writings about organized religious matters but that, judging by his intense love of nature and his compassion for the sick and poor, that Chekhov seemed very spiritual, very Christ-like. That seemed to satisfy everyone. Satisfied me.
Alla also told me about a Hamlet play Chekhov had co–authored with someone else. The script, if it ever got finished, was lost, but Chekhov’s notes on the play exist (his handwriting authenticated). Apparently Chekhov wanted to create a piece about a mediocre company, producing HAMLET in a kind of “NOISES OFF” approach. Alla got the Chekhov/Hamlet notes to Pavlo, who will translate them for me.
That green bench would be my anchor during the five days of the Conference; I’d return to it again and again. I was truly at my calmest there. From that bench, I could look down the pebbled path and see the grove of bamboo that Chekhov had planted (one of a number of bamboo patches) and that amazed me. There were all kinds of trees he planted in that garden — perhaps hundreds —but somehow, that one exotic touch — the bamboo touch — enlarged his spirit for me.
A woman named Olga Spachil also talked to me about the magic of that garden.
Mrs. Spachil spoke English very well and taught American Literature at a school in Krasnodar, Russia. She had children and grand children living in the United States and told me that another superb garden of a literary master — one she had visited —is the garden of the American novelist and short story writer, Eudora Welty. I should visit Welty’s garden, she suggested; In Jackson, Mississippi. Welty, of course, was a great lover of Chekhov, and had been influenced by him.
One of the nice byproducts of a literary Conference is that you are often reintroduced to artists you’ve ignored over the years, until the enthusiasm of one participant sets you on that artist’s trail again. Soon as Olga mentioned Eudora Welty, my mind shot back to an undergraduate classroom at Queens College, NY, where I was taking a playwriting class with the American critic John Gassner and, for some reason (perhaps because her story is in the form of a dramatic monologue), Gassner read Welty’s Why I Live at The P.O. to the class — about an hilarious dysfunctional Southern family— and Gassner laughed so hard, he almost fell off his chair. (I am already in the process of re-reading the stories of Eudora Welty — just re-read Why I Live at The P.O, in fact — and was laughing harder than ever, only with a Chekhovian sadness hovering over Sister’s monologue).
I read the Keynote Address to the Conference participants in English. Pavlo translated each paragraph into Russian.
In the last section, where I talked about bits and pieces of dialogue from the many Chekhov characters that had articulated and defined emotional peeks of my life, I had Pavlo translate each line. Which put the brakes on, and gave a better, more dramatic, landing to the address. Which was well received. I did not think I had come up with anything original but, judging by the responses from the speech, it was the emotional content that touched the participants. As a playwright, of course, I tend to think of anything I put out there as a dramatic monologue, revealing an emotional voice on an emotional journey. And it is the emotional content that the Russians seemed to respond to in that address. This emotional connection was also to be my salvation during the performance of MY CHEKHOV LIGHT, later in the week.
One woman latched onto my brief section in the Keynote Address about Chekhov’s musical structure of the plays (again, not a new area in Chekhov criticism), which impressed her, because her life was influenced by “The Institute of Rhythmology,” that, as I understand it, dealt with Rhythm as the basis of life, and was founded by Evdokia Marchenko. Later, in MY CHEKHOV LIFE, of course, I would put out there Professor Peter Paradise’s attempt to fuse his Chekhov light with the rhythm of the Universe. The prospect of confronting my play later on in the week with that kind of content, excited this Rhythmology woman.
Besides the emotional content of the Keynote Address — emotional, because of my being moved by merely being there on the master’s turf — the address dwelt on a few of the traditional techniques of drama that Chekhov used in his plays, but often subverted: the soliloquy and the classic obligatory scene, to mention just two techniques I dealt with.
Had I more time, I think I would have added what I call, the blatancy factor, that is also a common denominator in all great drama and that Chekhov renders repeatedly, because the internal pressures in his characters are volcanic — blatant:
LEBEDEV: . . .You’re a murderer and a vampire and a thief and an adulterer. . . IVANOV: That’s all nonsense, now I’ve got a headache. LEBEDEV: All because you think a lot.
IVANOV: I don’t think at all.
(from THE THREE SISTERS)
MASHA: In this town to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury. Not even a luxury, but some kind of unnecessary appendage, like a sixth finger.
** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
TUSENBAKH: . . .There’s just one thing, only one —you don’t love me! IRINA: It’s not in my power! I will be your wife, true and obedient, but love — no, what can I do? . . .
(from THE CHERRY ORCHARD)
DUNYASHA: My hands are shaking. I’m going to faint.
LOPAKHIN: You’re really delicate, Dunyasha, too much so. You dress yourself like a lady, and your hair is fixed up the same way. You can’t do things like that. Better remember who you are.
** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(from ON THE INJURIOUS EFFECTS OF TOBACCO)
NYUKHIN: . . to run without once looking back. . .Where too? It doesn’t matter where . . . if only to run away from this rotten, vulgar, cheap life, which has turned me into an old, pitiful idiot, to run away from this stupid, petty, malicious, malicious, malicious money-grubber, from my wife, who
tortured me for thirty-three years. . .
(from IMPURE TRAGEDIANS AND LEPROUS PLAYWRIGHTS)
TARNOVSKY: . . .What you want is for my play to curdle the public’s blood. . .for my soliloquies to be so powerful they’ll snap off the lights. . .
You can land on any page in any Chekhov play and you will confront a blatant outburst. Fascinating. The idea of subtext seems to have been invented by Stanislavsky to deal with the Chekhov play. And yet the Chekhov character says what he/she feels and hides nothing. There is no subtext. Not really. On the other hand, what goes on in the ellipses and pauses — that is something else.
It’s my belief that the dialogue in any good play — certainly any great one — should have a built-in projectile quality that the actor merely latches onto (well, not merely, perhaps, but essentially) and rides out to the audience. The internal pressures in Chekhov characters are so great that that projectile quality is always present. Amazing, that a very great short story, non-blatant, impressionist, should—when he pivots to the stage— so easily pressure his many stage characters into total blatancy: The sign of the born dramatist.
It is also my belief that the writers of what, back in the 1970s and 80s, were called poetic realists, and who looked to Chekhov as their model, got it all wrong. They seemed to think that Chekhov was about nothing happening on stage — and fashioned pieces of interminable talk and minor mantras in a few events that they spun out over many beats. Chekhov, of course, keeps detonating dramatic events—but he often does so offstage—and, in any case, it is his blatancy that keeps the internal pressure cooker in each character cooking, and the play, as a result, chugging along— journeying on.
Besides the blatancy exploration in an expanded Keynote Address, I think I would explore, as well, the Chekhov play as an example of The Theatre Of The Absurd. Joyce Carol Oates wrote a brilliant essay on the subject. And,
while first (as I mentioned in my Keynote Address), I had been intimidated by the Chekhov play because I could not see how the master did it — I was also attracted, even back then, to something I recognized — something of my view of the world — characters who were alienated and talked past each other. The critic Richard Gilman writes that the German’s have one of their foot-long words for such a technique: Aneindervorbeisprechen. Gilman also claimed that the famous pauses in Beckett and Pinter owe much to Chekhov’s example. I agree. I know I certainly do — did, especially in MY CHEKHOV LIGHT.