How Chekhov became a great storyteller
Chekhov wrote many unremembered plays, mostly farces and vaudevilles. And then at the end of his life he produced four masterpieces. These four plays are often misinterpreted as depressing, psychological 'mood' plays with no action. In fact, Chekhov hated the idea that his characters had been misunderstood as cry babies. And they are far from being pure mood plays. A close study of Greek tragedy had revealed to Chekhov a secret formula that underpins these plays. He created a new way of showing dramatic action. Those techniques learned from Greek drama made him a great original storyteller of the stage.
It was Stanislavsky who turned Chekhov's plays into the stereotype of Russian misery. He directed the first productions of Chekhov's last plays, and famously produced The Cherry Orchard as a tragedy rather than a comedy, against Chekhov's wishes. This view of Chekhov as misery dramatist was so pervasive that one of Gershwin's 1930 songs has the lyrics: 'With love to lead the way/I've found more clouds of grey/Than any Russian play could guarantee.'
Chekhov saw it all in different terms.
All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are.' The important thing is that people should realise that, for when they do, they will most certainly create a another and better life for themselves.
As well as a statement of intent about his writing, this could serve as coda for the final plays. This is the struggle for hope and change, not relentless despair. The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg did a production of Vanya at the Haymarket a couple of years ago. It worked exactly to this principle and produced an astonishing, fresh version of what has otherwise become a somewhat hackneyed play that is encrusted with the tradition of English gloom. When Chekhov is unencumbered by misinterpretation he is astonishing and un-categorisable.
Chekhov was trying to elevate the status of theatre and playwriting. He was trying to create a theatre that showed life as it is and life as it should be. At that time Russian theatre was facile, producing entertainment pieces and little else.
His answer to this problem was what David Magarshack, in his excellent book Chekhov the Dramatist (US link), calls plays of 'indirect action'. This is often thought to mean Chekhov's plays lack plot or drama. We know this is absurd when we think of the sheer number of guns that are fired. Lives are often upturned, ruined or entirely reformed at the end.
Because the late plays are evocative and poetic (Magarshack explains that there are undertones in the original Russian that we cannot achieve in translation), action is achieved through tension. Often the play begins with one of the main characters in a state of high anxiety. Action is also induced by offstage characters, such as Nina's parents, in The Seagull who lurk in the wings like the Greek gods. There is always dramatic tension between the main and subordinate characters. It is difficult to keep track of all the love triangles in The Seagull.
To create this blend of evocative and active, Chekhov distilled five key elements from the Greek tragedies:
arrivals and departures
These elements are his story telling tools, and they give the four great plays their vitality.
At the end of The Seagull Konstantin tells us Nina's backstory, filling in the months between Act III and Act IV. There is a whole play in what he relates. She ran away from home, lived with Trigorin who used and abandoned her, had a child that died, started and persisted with her semi-failed acting career and is now staying at the inn in the town. By combining this story with the evocative dialogue and the mood of the scene, Chekhov makes this natural rather than staged. The actor playing Konstantin has to do a lot of the work 'with the tone of his voice and with his eyes,' as Chekhov says. But what drama, what plot.
The way Chekhov structures the messenger story leads into the next element: arrivals and departures. At the end of Act III Nina had been desperate to leave with Trigorin. The way they go on and off the stage has the mechanics of a farce, though it is a scene of tension and excitement. This makes Nina's entrance now, after Konstantin has relayed her story, all the more poignant. And all the more dramatic. Last time she had entrances and exits she was wide-eyed about the man who subsequently used and abandoned her. She returns as a different woman. She is re-entering and starting again.
That is the reversal, the crucial feature of any dramatic story. At the start of the play they were both naive. Nina was the country girl, the aspiring actress, the young dreamer. Konstantin was the revolutionary new artist. Nina messes up Konstantin's play, and foolishly pursues her infatuation with Trigorin. Konstantin descends into a Hamlet-like obsession with Trigorin because Trigorin is his mother's lover.
The reversal makes us realise that Nina was really trying to be something whereas Konstantin just wanted to impress his mother. Nina returns with wisdom. 'I'm different now. I've become a real actress.' Konstantin, of course, has not changed. He is still selfish. Seeing her like this shows Konstantin that he has no purpose. Nina tells him, 'what matters is knowing how to endure.'
But Konstantin has no clear aim and cannot endure. Her new state makes him realise he is a failure, a decadent obsessed with dreams not reality, which is why he kills himself.
The Seagull is a story about what it takes to succeed as a creative artist. The many love triangles that Chekhov strings up between the characters are sometimes played as the main thrust of the action.
The real story is about self-endeavour.
Konstantin says to Nina, 'You've found your road. You know where you're going, but I'm still whirled about in a maze of images and dreams.' The characters who don't know what they live for are disappointments, nuisances to other people, ridiculous figures. That's the blurred line between comedy and tragedy that sets the tone in Chekhov.
It's also why the ending is ambiguous. Konstantin is a ludicrous tragic figure. But Nina is comic. She has a happy ending. Like Chekhov said, she creates another better life for herself.
Chekhov's plays are so effective because he replaces crude plot with subtext. But he still builds the action, with the tools of tension, interruption, entrances and reversals he found in the Greeks. Rather than import their tragedies to modern Russia, he used those tools to tell stories that challenged the bourgeois assumptions of his audience.
These characters are 'all ordinary people', which is why Chekhov encouraged the actors in the original productions to be 'as simple as possible.' His lesson for us is that we have to choose what lives we will lead. Are we Konstantin? Or Nina?