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Chekhov says that beauty brings a sense of loss; that the possibility of happiness is too far removed. Life can give you a little, but beauty has a way of disturbing you because you can't have it all. It isn't easy to define this kind of unhappiness, but he explores it in the plays. Chekhov has no theory of life to explain things like Shaw or Ibsen or Strindberg. But he is perhaps the greatest author in the understanding of human beings. He understands that the human life is lived inwardly. Chekhov in Russia is considered greater even than Tolstoy. I would say that he is my favorite author.
He criticized himself right down to the depths. He said, "I'm a cheat, I'm a liar, I don't love anybody, I'm a lousy writer." He is constantly battling with his apathy and need for self-approval. You meet characters in The Seagull who have that apathy but who have the ambition to fight through, the will to struggle for something better. The individual he admires most is the one who at least tries. In Chekhov you get an understanding of the man or woman who makes an effort. It can be a weak effort--there is a kind of fragility in it--but they make it. "I'm going to work, I'm going to change my life." It doesn't have to be strong, it doesn't have to be large, if even for a moment they can see, "I have to push myself ahead a little bit."
There is great weakness in Chekhov's people. He doesn't have a lofty sense of man, in his time, with dignity. "What difference does it make? I'm defeated. To hell with it. Give me a drink." Most men of his society have given in. Chekhov has a feeling that the great past of the Russian intellectual is over. He says, "I am living in a moment where I have to sell things to support my brother and sister." He himself writes stories to sell, and then he writes a play to sell, and then he says, "I have to write and sell more."
Ibsen says society has to be changed, it is corrupted by false values. Strindberg teaches you something else. Chekhov doesn't believe in a philosophy, doesn't believe in God. Uncle Vanya doesn't believe in anything. If you believe in communism, it is better than believing in nothing. But Chekhov has no thesis. That is one of the things that makes his characters dissatisfied with their lives. He doesn't have a world view that you discuss when leaving the theater.
Chekhov was preoccupied with studying man despite the fact that life had lost its bigger meaning, which made him able to smile at certain things instead of scream. He is interested in man. Most audiences find this close to their heart--the fact that he is close to the inner meanings of human emotions. He sees the world for beauty but does not think it is full of great significance. That is lost and he knows it. It is our loss, but we can't help it. He felt no obligation to explain life, but to put it down as he saw it truthfully. He was able to see what other writers before him had seen but did not understand. He put it down for the world to understand: man as he functions as an individual, with the suffering inside.
Chekhov stopped preaching at an early age and became an observer. His understanding of life brought out the empathy he felt for people and you feel as actors when you do the play. The compassion Chekhov brings out universally is why he is so much more played than other writers. Chekhov is an artist you understand if you think of him as a man whose art is expressed best with no words, like painting or music. You feel Chekhov the way you feel music or realize a painting. It is not the words, it is something without words that comes through to us, because it is on a human level. The experience is inside. He presented the life around him as it was lived physically and inwardly. The times were turbulent, and Chekhov chose to show with truth and precision the hopeless longing that one felt in one's heart.
Uncle Vanya makes no point. Chekhov said a play need not make a point. At its best, it might suggest one. He wanted to provoke a mood rather than communicate an idea. He reached that part of the soul which is touched by the arts that speak without words. He studies man in a world full of beauty and wonder and sorrow. The real theme of Chekhov is the destruction of beauty in the world, which is always very sad.
What makes Chekhov different from any other writer? Why did an entirely new system of performance have to be worked out because of him?
The introduction of Konstantin Stanislavsky into Chekhov's life and plays was an intrusion on the whole realistic theater. You cannot work with plays anymore unless you do it. From now on, you must come with a complete understanding of what the character is experiencing. You cannot come onstage and look for the experience on the set. You can only come on after you have injected into the character his essence that you find from the external things.
In Chekhov, minds don't mesh. One character does not know the other. That is Chekhov. He puts people together who don't understand what is going on in each other.
Once I was taking a walk in Venice on a very hot day--men with their shirts off, working-class. I saw a man walking in front of me, sweating. I said, "Gee, from the back of him, I would have said he was Stravinsky." I slowed up and looked when I passed. "Jesus, that is Stravinsky!" It didn't occur to me he could ever look like that. It doesn't occur to you that a guy in a sweaty shirt is Stravinsky.
That's how Nina feels about Trigorin in The Seagull.
I am trying to tell you that from the beginning in every relationship there is a superficial misunderstanding as well as a misunderstanding in great depth. Never do two people understand each other on the same plane. In modern acting, don't come in and expect the set or the lines to give you the play. They will not give you the play in Chekhov.
You have to come in with a past for your character. You have to match up with what doesn't mesh. You have to bring what's in you to the lines. You must know how Chekhov builds a character, a relationship, a scene.
Chekhov couldn't have done it without Stanislavsky because he is the kind of a writer who puts so much into the past of the character that unless the actor knows how to understand that past he can't get the present or know what's going on on the stage. Each character comes in with his former life. You can't come on and expect the stage to feed you without knowing your past.
Trigorin in The Seagull, for example, is modeled very much on Chekhov, who wrote, wrote, wrote. He wrote hundreds of stories. He wrote five hundred jokes a week in the beginning because he had to make money in the joke papers. One time Chekhov was sitting with a very unimportant journalist named Potapenko and he noticed an ashtray. He said, "Tell you what, see that ashtray? Tomorrow there will be a story about it." And there was.
The reason most actors can't play Chekhov is because they think, "These people are Russian, they are different, they are strange." But Chekhov creates them and the play in such a way that makes it possible for you not to follow so much the plot as the people themselves. Read the play to see what the differences between these people are. Their actions are human. People live life, not a play. We live, "I went there and now I'm here at a class and then I'm going home and out to dinner." It is not a play. We don't live a play, we live a scene at a time.
So Chekhov doesn't write a play where this scene connects with that one, and that scene connects with the next. He writes this scene and it is perfectly disconnected from the next scene. If you can understand that, you can understand Chekhov.
It is worth understanding.
Chekhov lived into 1905, when the first tremendous revolution was put down. The political ferment was all around--enormous socialist and anarchist and nihilist political movements. Tsar Alexander was assassinated. There was a complete police state. The serfs had been freed in 1863, but they made them pay for their land and there was no money to pay and so there was chaos.
In Stanislavsky's and Nemirovich-Danchenko's realistic production method, the first priority is that the director and the actor must understand the social situation of the time of Chekhov's plays. What was it? The Communists, left-wing social democrats, right-wing radicals--all kinds of radicalism is in full swing. In twelve years you have the Bolshevik revolution. It is incredible. We are dealing with a moment when the revolution is right there.
The key word is "transition"--from one way of life to another. If you can't make it, you go under. Many people went under when the revolution came along. You think you can play Chekhov without understanding this social situation? But you don't. You have to be told or you have to get it on your own.
Get it on your own. Read.
Oh, well, I'll tell you, because I want you to love me. Isn't it awful that I am begging for your love? On second thought, I take it back. Don't love me. I don't give a goddamn whether you love me or not. I give a goddamn about the plays.
I was so absolutely committed to the plays and the period that there were always twenty books about Chekhov and Tolstoy on my bed. There I was in bed with Tolstoy and Chekhov and all this history. I said, "I can't see anybody for two weeks. I can't answer the telephone." It's crazy. When you are working on a playwright the social situation is so strong that it gets you.
Chekhov is very close to today because everything is in such flux. Tolstoy and the kings and queens and Count Nekhlyudov--all that is gone. It is a changeover into the middle class. The Cherry Orchard is the middle-class buy-up of the land. In The Three Sisters they have nothing left, only one old nanny. There is a change coming.
This aristocratic class is not democratized. When someone comes in from the outside who doesn't fit, like Natasha in Three Sisters, it is a shock, it is like thunder to them. It is like being at a lecture Einstein is giving and having some kid say, "What the hell are you talking about?" You can't have that.
Chekhov doesn't deal with anybody's mind that he doesn't respect. He doesn't deal with the working class or the peasant class. He can't deal with the mind of the working class because they have no mind. If you work ten hours a day in a factory, your mind is not to be relied on. This might be very disillusioning.
I wasn't a Communist myself, but I was awful close. My generation was very much a part of class structure and we wanted much more for the worker. But we didn't want him to become the President. We didn't think it would go that far. Terrible actor, that Reagan. I better not talk about politics. I have already testified in Washington. I was on the blacklist of those big senators who were saying, "You are betraying this country." Chekhov's people all have a point of view because they are in a political moment. We are in a political moment, too. We go down and have tea, but we know that money is being raised for the next war. All right. I better not talk politically anymore.