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History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Russian Realist

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Anton ChekhovEdit

Anton Chekhov was the dominant playwright of late 19th century Russian theatre, 1901

The dominant playwright of the Russian realist school was Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), whose main play in the 19th century was "Дядя Ваня" (Uncle Vanya, 1899), characterized like the rest of his mature plays by tragicomic characters ridden with anguish and purposelessness, some of whom with great hopes that their life, contrary to what seems, has not spent in vain, but serves as a harbinger of humankind's future happiness. Gruber (1977) took issue with the notion that Chekhov's plays are plotless. Instead, "Chekhov structures the action of his plays to create an illusion of inaction. In the plays of Chekhov, as in real life, the future is only vaguely felt. Chekhovian drama...presents the fate that we expect to issue from dramatic action is repeatedly denied, even as each separate act is 'undramatic' not because he portrays his characters' inner lives, nor because his plays are unified by emotion and not plot... Chekhov is undramatic because he does not cultivate in his plays the sense of impending destiny we normally expect of the dramatic illusion." (p 512)

On Chekhov's plays in general, Williams (1965) commented that "there is no modern dramatist whose characters are more consistently concerned with explicit self-revelation. All his plays might be described as plays of confession." (p 132) Thompson (1942) further related that "nobody in a Chekhov play seems to forward the action, such as it is. On the contrary, each character spends his time in egotistical self-absorption or hopeless yearning. Characteristically the dialogue is not about something to be done or faced, but is rather a series of self-revelatory monologues cut up in alternate speeches. One's interlocutor interrupts momentarily but scarcely disturbs one's train of introspection or reminiscence. These people do not listen; they merely think aloud. As their thoughts flitter from one thing to another, they change the subject without warning. At times they fall silent (a most revolutionary thing for the stage of Chekhov's time). Just as their minds wander on and off the subject, so their bodies wander on and off the stage without apparent dramatic occasion. They seem to be living their inconsequent and will-less lives before us."

In the view of Gassner (1954), life in "Uncle Vanya" "simply rusts away. And, what is truly important, these lives did not deserve to rust away, because they are rich with sensitivity and with the capacity for service. Vanya, who might have gone out into the world and advanced himself, fixed his life to the false star of a pedantic brother-in-law from whom he expected great things. Unhappily, he is too gentle and too isolated in the provinces to start a newT life once he realizes that he was not serving humanity by relieving the professor of economic burdens. He is left with nothing except his fierce longing: “If only one could live the remnant of one s life in some new way.” He knows only that “we must make haste and work, make haste and do something” if life is not to become unbearable...And Vanya’s dream is expressed even more strongly by the district doctor Astrov who is in despair because in the whole district there are only two decent, well-educated people, himself and Uncle Vanya, both of whom have been swamped by “the common round of trivial life . . . with its putrid vapors*” Astrov cannot even do justice to his profession, fighting as he does alone and without adequate means and preparation against a typhus epidemic. “Those who will live a hundred or two hundred years after us, for whom we are struggling now to beat out a road,” he wonders, “will they remember and say a good word for us?” The play is thus both a personal tragedy (or tragi-comedy perhaps) and the drama of a shipwrecked generation." (pp 516-517)

"Uncle Vanya"Edit

From left to right: Artem as Telegin, Lilina as Sonya, Raevskaya as Maria Voynitsky, Constantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) as Dr Astrov, Olga Knipper (1868-1959) as Elena, Vishnevsky as Voynitsky, Moscow Art Theater, 1899

Time: 1890s. Place: Russia.

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Astrov, a country doctor, attends to a retired professor, Alexander Serebryakov, master of an estate, mainly under the management of Vanya, the brother of his deceased wife, and Sonya, his daughter by this previous marriage. Vanya complains that the order of the household is disrupted by the arrival of the professor. He virulently criticizes himself for misjudging the intellectual quality of his former brother-in-law in front of Astrov, having wasted twenty-five years at the service of a charlatan, to which Vanya’s mother mildly objects. In contrast, Vanya only has praises for the professor's present wife, Elena. After noting that Alexander has no physical ailment as such, Astrov criticizes the idleness and indifference of country life, particularly the mismanagement of the environment. Vanya declares his love for Elena, but she rejects him. Late that night, Alexander complains to his wife of breathing problems and old age. Because of her father's complaints, Sonya sends for Astrov again, but the professor, suddenly feeling better, nonchalantly leaves without seeing him. Elena is distraught by discords in the house, Vanya by lost hopes. In his view, he met Elena too late, and the professor is not the genius he first thought he was in his youth, having accomplished nothing of worth. Concerned with their own woes, Astrov and Vanya drink heavily. Sonya scolds Vanya for it, convinced that the only way out of their doldrums is by working. Sonya also laments Astrov's heavy drinking in a tone suggesting love and concern of him, to which he appears unaware. Sonya meets Elena to resolve their past differences, but both are fixated on their own problems. Elena is unhappy about her marriage, Sonya hoping to marry Astrov. The following day, Alexander calls for a family meeting. Aside with Elena, Vanya urges her to break free from her husband, but once again she rejects him. Noticing Sonya's love for Astrov, Elena proposes to sound him on his feelings towards her. When she does so, Astrov reveals he has no amorous passion for Sonya whatsoever, laughingly concluding that this question is meant to sound his eligibility for her own passion towards him. Astrov kisses Elena as Vanya pathetically enters with a bunch of roses. More distraught than ever, Elena begs Vanya to use his influence on her husband so that the married couple may leave the house immediately. As the retired professor enters, Elena briefly signals to Sonya Astrov's negative response. Alexander proposes to sell the estate, at which, Vanya, crushed, asks him where does he propose he and Sonya should live. Vanya casts in his former mentor's teeth his ingratitude, for it is he and Sonya who have managed his estate. Angry words are exchanged and Vanya quickly leaves the room. Alexander follows to placate him, but a pistol shot is heard whereby Alexander returns, chased by Vanya, who fires again, misses, laughs at himself, and sinks into a chair. Later, Astrov demands that Vanya give him back a vial of morphine, enough to kill a man, which he relunctantly does after Sonya's intervention. Agreed to leave the estate, Alexander and Elena bid everyone farewell. As so many times in the past, Sonya and Vanya are left to take care of house accounts. She believes that personal salvation comes through work and that eventually they will "find rest".

Ivan TurgenevEdit

Ivan Turgenev described the pains of unrequited love in country life. Photo of the author by Félix Nadar (1820-1910)

An important precursor of Chekhov's plays is "Месяц в деревне" (A month in the country, 1855) by Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883).

"A month in the country"Edit

Mihail loves Natalia but is not loved in return. Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) and Olga Knipper (1868-1959) at the Moscow Art Theatre, 1909

Time: 1850s. Place: Russia.

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A wealthy landowner and bachelor friend of the family, Mihail Rakitin, spends much time in the company of Arkady Islayev's wife, Natalia. When Mihail questions Alexey, the recently hired tutor to their son, about his past life, he mentions once translating a French novel without even knowing any French at all. A neighbor of theirs, Afanasy Bolshintsov, owner of over three hundred serfs, asks the advice of their family doctor, Ignaty Shpigelsky, concerning a possible marriage between himself and Vera, orphaned ward of the Islayevs. Should this be accomplished, Afanasy will give him three horses. Ignaty introduces the subject to Mihail, who, in turn, does so to Natalia, who dislikes the idea, considering the man a "stupid creature". Of greater importance to himself, in view of his love of her, Mihail notices Natalia's infatuation for Alexey. When Natalia questions Vera about her feelings for Afanasy, she miserably answers: "I'm in your power, Natalia Petrovna." Natalia assures her that she will not be forced into this marriage. Then she learns that Vera loves the man she loves herself, Alexey. A worried Mihail selfishly advises Natalia to dismiss Alexey. Instead, Natalia seeks to find out whether Alexey loves Vera. He does not seem to. Meanwhile, Ignaty courts Lizaveta, another family friend, and seems to make some headway there. Vera discovers that Alexey does not love her and also that Natalia loves him and perhaps plans to marry her off to Afanasy after all. To Alexey's astonishment, Natalia declares her love to him, but she hesitates on whether he should leave the house, finally deciding she cannot have him go. Meanwhile, Arkady notices Mihail's attachment towards Natalia. A sad witness to Natalia's love of another, Mihail decides to leave. Also unable to live any longer with Natalia, Vera questions the doctor about Afanasy, who assures her he is most kind-hearted and "like dough". To Natalia's grief, Alexey, uncomfortable with his position as the recipient of his mistress' love, decides to leave the house as well. Mihail grits his teeth while Arkady expresses his gratitude for this sacrifice to their friendship. Lizaveta is also free to go, having agreed to marry Ignaty, most glad at obtaining the horses.

Leo TolstoyEdit

Leo Tolstoy wrote about greed and murder in the peasant class. Portrait of the author by Ilya Repin (1844–1930), 1887

Of great interest in Russian literature is a gritty peasant play: "Власть тьмы" (The power of darkness, 1886) by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). The play, Goldman (1914) commented, "is a terrible picture of poverty, ignorance and superstition. To write such a work it is not sufficient to be a creative artist: it requires a deeply sympathetic human soul. Tolstoy possessed both. He understood that the tragedy of the peasants' life is due not to any inherent viciousness but to the power of darkness which permeates their existence from the cradle to the grave. Something heavy is oppressing them — in the words of Anisya — weighing them down, something that saps all humanity out of them and drives them into the depths. 'The Power of Darkness' is a social picture at once appalling and gripping."

Concerning the character of Nikita, Hamilton (1920) commented that "he drifts through life along the line of least resistance. He is not deliberately vicious; yet he is impelled from crime to crime by influences that are stronger than himself. The germs of sin are fructified within his soul by the power of darkness." (p 152) To Wilson (1927), Matryona is "a memorable character, repulsive, hypocritical and callous, yet in a queer, perverted fashion devoted to her son." (p 191)

Gassner (1954) concluded that "if the play derives its strength from the marvelous naturalistic portrayal of the culprits, it is the totality of effect that is important. The play is a tragedy of sin and expiation, and it takes the Russian drama beyond Ostrovsky in one important respect: it adds the dimension of humanitarianism to the stark photography of life." (p 506)

"The power of darkness"Edit

Illustration of "The power of darkness" from Russian Theatre, Brentano's, New York, 1922

Time: 1880s. Place: Rural Russia.

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Nikita, a laborer on Peter Ignatitch's estate, is forced by his father to marry Marina. Anisya, Peter's wife but Nikita's lover, weeps at these news and feels betrayed. "My old man will die one of these fine days, I'm thinking; then we could cover our sin, make it all right and lawful, and then you'll be master here," she says, consoling herself. Matryona, Nikita's mother, observing their embraces, is content merely to say: "What I saw I didn't perceive, what I heard, I didn't hearken to. Playing with the lass, eh? Well,- even a calf will play. Why shouldn't one have some fun when one's young?" She is against the marriage, preferring Nikita to keep his well-paid position, and so she buys poison so that Anisya may use it on her husband, at which the latter pays her back. Matryona's husband, Akim, finds a job in town cleaning cesspools and prefers to have his son stay at home, all the more so because otherwise he will wrong Marina if he does not marry her, but Matryona calls her a common slut and her son suggests in a roundabout way the same. Marina accuses Nikita of deceit, knows he does not love her any more, and knows whom he loves at the moment, at which he brutally sends her on her way. As Peter is being slowly poisoned over the course of several months, Anisya's anxieties grow because she does not yet know where her husband hides his money. He may give it to his sister, Martha. While tea is prepared, Matryona assures the suffering Peter he will obtain a fine burial service. As Matryona helps him into the house, she feels the money on his person, so that Anisya succeeds in retrieving it and gives it to Nikita to bury. She then re-enters the house and comes out screaming. Matryona rolls up her sleeves to lay out the body. As Anisya wished, Nikita becomes the new master, but he quickly becomes enamored of Anisya's step-daughter, Akoulina, and squanders on her the money his wife killed for. He puts on airs with Akoulina and throws money at Akim, who finds such doings filthy, but nevertheless keeps the money. Akoulina quarrels with Anisya and accuses her of murdering Peter. To settle the quarrel, Nikita pushes Anisya out of the house, but after a while calls her back and gives her a present. Even more disgusted at such doings and considering he is heading for ruin, Akim gives back the money to his son. Several months later, Akolina is about to give birth as Matryona tries to arrange a marriage for her. Since she is unmarried, Anisya and Matryona plot to get rid of the baby, asking Nikita to dig a hole in the cellar, which he reluctantly does. Anisya retrieves the newborn wrapped in rags and throws it for Nikita to take care of, who is surprised to see it still alive. "Be quick and smother it, and then it won't be alive." she says. "It's your doing and you must finish it." Nikita comes out of the cellar trembling and upset: "How the little bones crunched under me!" he exclaims. He imagines he hears it whimpering still. In mortal conflict, he chases Anisya about with the spade. "How can it whimper?" asks his mother. "Why, you've flattened it into a pancake. The whole head is smashed to bits." During Akolina's wedding ceremony with another man, Nikita feels unable to give the blessing. Instead, he ties a rope around his neck. Matryona removes it. Anisya invites him back to the party. As they go, he picks up the rope again, but one of his laborers hangs on to it laughingly and drunkenly till he gives up. On entering the room with the guests, he falls drunkenly and declares: "Christian Commune, I have sinned and I wish to confess." Very much alarmed at the beginning of this speech, Matryona says her son must be taken away. Despite her intervention, he confesses to Akim's joy to the murder of Peter and the baby, which Akoulina confirms to have borne. He says he did everything alone.

Alexander OstrovskyEdit

Alexander Ostrovsky described the vehement conflicts between a mother, her son, and his wife, 1870s

Another dramatist of interest is Alexander Ostrovsky (1823–1886), author of "Гроза" (The thunderstorm, 1859), like the above a play of social criticism. He wrote 48 plays in total from 1847 to 1884, including one more major one: "Лес" (The forest, 1871).

"The thunderstorm"Edit

Dukoy deviously robs Boris of his inheritance. 1920 picture of the merchant by Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927

Time: 1850s. Place: Kalinov, Russia.

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Being an orphan, Boris is the recipient of his grandmother's will whereby his uncle, Dukoy, a merchant, is to pay him and his sister a fair share of her fortune provided he shows proper respect for his authority. But Dukoy takes advantage of the situation by pretending never to be satisfied and thereby keeps the money for himself. In the Kabanov household, Marfa is unhappy about the way her son, Tihon, handles his wife, Katerina, too softly in her view. Tihon does not understand why he should foster fear in his wife. "Why should she fear you!" she exclaims. "What do you mean? Why, you must be crazy. If she doesn't fear you, she's not likely to fear me." Katerina confesses to Varvara, Tihon' sister, that she is in love with another man. Varvara promises to help her. "No, no, that must not be," she says. "What are you saying! God forbid!" She fears a storm is brewing. "Don't talk of not being afraid," she says. "Everyone must be afraid. What is dreadful is not it's killing you, but that death may overtake you all of a sudden, just as you are, with all your sins, with all your erring thoughts. I have no fear of death, but when I think that I shall be brought all at once before the face of God just as I am here, with you, after this talk,- that's what is awful! What I had in my heart! What wickedness! Fearful to think of!" Varvara guesses correctly that Katerina loves Boris. As Tihon prepares to leave on a two-week journey, his mother mentions some specific recommendations. "Lay your commands on your wife, exhort her how she is to live in your absence," his mother insists, "and then when you come back, you can ask if she has performed everything exactly." Varvara steals the garden-key from her mother, so that Katerina can meet her lover in the summerhouse and delivers at the same time a message to Boris that he must be near. While waiting for her, he confides to a friend, Kudriash, that he loves a married woman. Kudriash guesses who it is. Katerina meets Boris, veiled. "Do you know that never by any prayer can I be free of this sin, never again?" she asks. "Like a stone it will lie on my soul, like a stone." But yet she is determined to go on. "If they lock me up, that will be my death. And if they don't lock me up, I will find some way to see you again," she adds. As they retire together, Kudriash meets Varvara. They kiss and yawn. When Tihon eventually returns from his journey, Marfa notes how unhappy Katerina appears. A storm is on its way and Katerina is afraid. Tihon says that being afraid of storms is a question of temperament, to which Marfa comments: "The heart of another is darkness." When Boris suddenly appears for a visit, Katerina shrieks. After he leaves, she reveals to her husband and his mother in the thunderstorm that from the first night and every night of his voyage, she went out with Boris. "Well, son! You see what freedom leads to," says Marfa triumphantly. "I told you so, but you wouldn't heed me. See what you've brought on yourself!" Tihon tells a friend it is not his fault, but his mother's. He still loves her, cannot hurt her, only giving her a few blows now and then at his mother's bidding. Meanwhile, Dukoy orders Boris away to Siberia. Varvara flees the house with Kudriash. Tihon then learns that Katerina has disappeared. By chance, Katerina finds Boris and asks to go with him, but he, being dependent on his uncle's will, says he cannot. Her condition is miserable, her husband's kindness being worse than his blows. They go their separate ways. A bystander notices a woman in the river. As a fearful Tihon heads in that direction, his mother holds him. When Katerina's corpse is carried in, Tihon blames his mother for her death, crying out to her ghost: "It is well with you, Katia, but why am I left to live and suffer!"

"The forest"Edit

Trouble starts when Raissa Gourmyskaia wants to sell her forest. Larix gmelinii forest, Kochechum River, Evenkiyskiy Avtonomnyy Okrug, Russia

Time: 1870s. Place: Russia.

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To reduce her expenses, a rich widow, Raissa Gourmyskaia, plans to marry off two of her dependants, Alexis and Axinia, to each other, although neither love the other. To augment her revenues, she intends to sell part of the forest surrouding her estate. A prospective buyer is found: Ivan Vosmibratof, who arrives to negotiate with her along with his son, Piotr, who secretly loves Axinia as much as she loves him. Raissa has already sold one part of the woods to Ivan for 1,500 roubles but cannot find the receipt. Before her properties are discussed, Ivan asks whether she agrees to a marriage between his son and Axinia. She immediately refuses, but agrees to let go another part of the woods for 1,500 roubles. Ivan's assent to this proposition is rather vague. After sounding out Axinia about the proposed marriage with Alexis, Raissa finds her unwilling and defiant. Unexpectedly, Raissa's long-lost nephew, Guennari, arrives, in dire straits as a failing actor, along with a fellow-actor, Arkadi, also fallen on hard times. She finds their visit to be a wearisome load on her finances and hopes to be rid of both. When Ivan returns, Raissa discovers she has lost her receipt again. Nevertheless, she gives him a certificate stating she has received the entire sum of 3,000 roubles. Ivan takes the certificate and to her dismay hands over only 1,800 roubles, the sum he pretends to have agreed to until Guennari arrives and intimidates him into yielding the correct sum. Piotr needs his father's consent to marry Axinia. Ivan agrees provided that they obtain 2,000 roubles as a dowry. Thinking he is rich, Axinia begs Guennari to give her the money. Instead, the actor proposes to turn her into an actress. One day, the housekeeper anounces to Raissa that Axinia has left the house. "Perfect!" she exclaims. With her gone, Raissa all the more boldly flirts with Alexis. But when he kisses her and takes her familiarly by the waist, she cries out: "Are you crazy?" Nevertheless, she makes him her steward. No longer wanted, Guennari prepares to leave the house. Raissa gives him 1,000 roubles, only part of the sum she owes him from long ago. As Axinia prepares to follow the actors, Piotr succeeds in reducing his father's demands down to 1,000 roubles, which Guennari yields to so, that he and Axinia can marry.