sometimes witty book reviews
I knew nothing about Anton Chekov (1860-1904) when I found this book except that he was famous for writing plays and that they were important. I decided not to look up his Wikipedia article or read this edition’s introduction by Ronald Hingley until I had read all five of the plays that the Oxford University Press had printed here together. I am very glad I made these decisions.
Chekov wrote dozens of plays and short stories but they were rarely published in anthologies until after his death (please someone correct me if I’m wrong). The plays included in this OUP edition are translations of Ivanov (1887), The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1900), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Who the characters are, what their respective struggles happen to be and exactly who dies and how is really not the point of these works. The point is exactly the pointlessness of it all. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, Chekov always writes about ‘the same nice people, the same utter futility’ – I like that.
In the words of my darling Virginia Woolf, ‘these stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers.’ When I did finally read Hingley’s introduction I completely agreed with Chekov’s thoughts on the plays, they’re comedies. Dark, whimsical, satirical, slow-burn comedies. Hingley and most theatre scholars I am sure would disagree and call them great masterworks on the human condition. I say they can be both.
Bear in mind that these are plays, not short stories. Having not been in or read a play in several years I was a little rusty, but you soon get the knack of it – much like Shakespeare. I’m sure much of the significance is lost to historical obscurity and in translation from the original Russian. I can imagine Chekov’s work reveals many more layers of meaning and delightfully subtle humour to the dedicated scholar.
Look, just have a go. It’s all a bit vague and melancholy, but when you start seeing the humour, irony and the magnificence of Chekov’s laconic dialogue these five plays really are quite remarkable.
Reading suggestion: Sip some sort of ye-olde vodka based drink while reading. Occasionally, rise from your chaise lounge and go to the window to look up at the overcast sky.