Anton Chekhov by Laurence Senelick (auth.)

By Laurence Senelick (auth.)

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Even when Chekhov begins with a hackneyed ploy, he manages to instill fresh vigour into it through well-observed characters, and, perhaps less apparent in translation, juicy dialogue. Conflicts arise from breakdowns in communication, the misuse of ordinary units of meaning. The device of a business-like conversation going off on a tangent and seldom coming horne is a time-honoured one in Russian comic literature: it is practically the underlying principle of Gogol's narrative technique. A character in Gogol's first version of The Inspector General, the ancient military man Rastakovsky, rambles on interminably about past campaigns; Chekhov revives the device in the deaf naval officer of The Wedding.

Partly it is a question of technique: twenty years later Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard is as 'depraved' as the heroine of The Fumes of Life, with her caIlous lover and her chequered past. But Chekhov keeps the sensational events offstage, while he shows us other, more everyday facets of her character. The most popular dramatist of Chekhov's day was the prolific hack Viktor Krylov, notorious for crass sentimentality. When Chekhov'sIvanov was in rehearsal in 1887, Krylov offered to doctor the play to meet acceptable stage standards, in return for a fifty per cent cut of the profits.

In the final version, it is Fyodor who undergoes a rather sudden and unconvincing conversion to simplicity and sensitivity, while the Professor remains unyielding to the end. Khrushchyov the Wood-demon 7 lends his name to the play, not because he is the pivotal figure but because his epiphany in the last act is the summation of the play's meaning. There's a wood-demon lurking in me, I'm petty, untalented, blind, but even you, professor, are no eagle! And at the same time the whole county, all the women see me as a hero, a progressive, and you are famous throughout Russia.

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