By Richard Pevear, Little Comedies Co-Translator
In a famous disagreement over his last play, The Cherry Orchard, in 1903, Chekhov, who was displeased with Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of it, insisted in a letter to the director’s wife, the actress Maria Lilina, that the play was “not a drama, but a comedy, in places even a farce.” Stanislavsky himself wrote back that it was “not a comedy or a farce, as you wrote, it is a tragedy . . .” I can very well imagine, however, that if Stanislavsky had staged it as a comedy, Chekhov might have insisted that it was in places even a tragedy. As the reader of this collection of his one-act plays will discover, such generic ambiguity was characteristic of Chekhov’s theater works from the beginning.
Of the seven one-act plays collected here, Chekhov subtitled four as “jokes.” The other three are labeled one “a dramatic sketch,” one “a dramatic monologue,” and one simply “a play.” He referred to them at times as farces or vaudevilles, and often spoke dismissively of them, but as a playwright he took the joking seriously. They were written for the most part between 1886 and 1891 – that is, before the 1896 premier of The Seagull, the first of his four “canonical” plays: Swan Song in 1887-88, The Bear in 1888, The Proposal in 1888-89, The Tragedian In Spite of Himself in 1889, The Wedding in 1889-90, and The Jubilee in 1891. The one exception is On The Harmfulness of Tobacco. His work on this monologue stretched across seventeen years, from the first version of 1886, through at least five revisions, to the final version of 1903 (the one included here), which he called “a completely new play with the same title . . .” It was not something he simply tossed off and forgot, as he sometimes liked to pretend.
Owing to its multi-cultural population, there was a rather lively theater in the provincial town of Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, where Chekhov was born in 1860. His first visit to the theater, at the age of thirteen, was to see a production of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta La belle Hélène, and the event stayed with him. Three years later he was already trying his hand at playwriting. By 1878 he had written some one-act farces and a full-length play entitled Fatherless, none of which have survived, though the full-length play may have become the sprawling and unfinished Platonov (1880-81). He also began to turn out an enormous number of short prose sketches, which he published in various weekly humor magazines. This work helped him to support his family – elderly parents, four brothers and a sister – who by then had all moved to Moscow, where he joined them and entered medical school in 1879, graduating in 1884.
During those years, Chekhov published three collections of stories, the third of which, In the Twilight, was praised by important critics and was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Prize in 1888. Even before that, however, his work had been noticed by Fyodor Korsh, founder in 1882 of the first private (and fully electrified) commercial theater in Moscow. Korsh’s aim was to attract a younger audience, to produce both light entertainments and works from the more serious dramatic repertoire of Russia and Europe. In 1887 he commissioned a full-length play from Chekhov, who was glad to accept. Judging by the books of stories, Korsh no doubt expected a light comedy; what he received was something else, entitled Ivanov. Chekhov wrote the play in less than two weeks and was pleased with it, as was Korsh, but he was not pleased with the incoherent production, nor was most of the audience, and the show was quickly taken down. That was in November 1887. On February 19, 1888, however, Korsh premiered Chekhov’s one-act “dramatic sketch” Swan Song, and in October of the same year came his production of The Bear. Both were highly successful, The Bear especially; by March of the next year it had been staged in some sixteen towns all over Russia (Chekhov liked to call The Bear his “milk cow”). The Proposal had its opening on April 12, 1889 and was also a great success; on August 9, 1889 it was performed at the summer residence of the emperor Alexander III in Tsarskoe Selo. In 1890 Korsh premiered The Wedding. But A Tragedian in Spite of Himself was first staged only in 1899 and The Jubilee not until 1901, after The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters.
The aesthetics of Chekhov’s plays are already present in his earliest one-act sketch, Swan Song. Also present is the memory of his first theater experience fifteen years earlier in the playhouse of Taganrog: the central character of the sketch, the actor Vassily Vassilyich Svetlovidov, has just played Calchas, a character from La belle Hélène, and is still wearing his costume when he wakes up drunk in the now dark theater. Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, co-founder with Stanislavsky of the Moscow Art Theater, noted of Chekhov’s one-acts: “The beauty of these ‘jokes’ lay not only in their hilarious situations but in the fact that their characters were real people, rather than vaudeville types . . .” The plays are based not on comical situations and stereotyped characters, but on the reactions of ordinary people to the comical situations they find themselves in. For the first time in his life, the old actor Svetlovidov looks out into the darkness of an empty theater. He describes it as “a black, bottomless pit, like a grave with death itself hiding in it . . . ” In On The Harmfulness of Tobacco there is also a theater, this time not empty but filled with an audience that has come to hear Nyukhin’s lecture, which he never gets around to giving, on the harmfulness of tobacco. In both cases, the play also addresses the actual audience directly: we are there in the dark theater when Svetlovidov looks out at us; we are there hearing Nyukhin avoid giving his lecture. As Chekhov’s contemporary, the Russian novelist and playwright Leonid Andreev, observed about one of his plays: “We have ceased to be onlookers, ceased to be ourselves with our programs and binoculars, but have turned into characters in the play.”
Chekhov’s one-acts have since been performed, translated, adapted all over the world. In Japan, as early as 1909, The Proposal became the second production of the new Free Theater, where modern Japanese theater began. Russian stagings and adaptations also went on constantly, perhaps the most famous being 33 Swoons, Vsevolod Meyerhold’s combining of The Bear, The Proposal, and The Jubilee, produced in 1935 at his theater in Moscow. To this day these brief plays continue to be grounds for exploring the essence of Chekhov’s fascinating and elusive dramatic art.
– Richard Pevear