Reading Chekhov—Human Poetry in Time of War

By Stuart Mitchner

I think of National Poetry Month as a celebration not only of poems on the printed page but of poetry in the largest sense, as a metaphor encompassing everything from a stunning sunset to the power of the human spirit mounted against a humanitarian crisis like the one consuming Ukraine . As it happens, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), one of the foremost poets of the human spirit, was born an easy drive from the razed port city of Mariupol, where hundreds of men, women, and children perished during the bombing of the theater in which his plays were regularly performed.

Chekhov the Ventriloquist

A Washington Post story on the bombing of the Drama Theater of Mariupol imagines Chekhov weeping at the spectacle of such “savagery perpetuated in Russia’s name.” Uncle Vanya might weep but surely not Chekhov. I prefer to imagine him as an enlightened ventriloquist speaking furious, hard, enduringly relevant truths through characters like Dr. Astroff in Uncle Vanya. His speech in the first act could almost be shaped to fit the occasion, as if he were bravely tending to the survivors: “Such dirt there was, and smoke! Unspeakable! I slaved among those people all day, not a crumb passed my lips, but when I got home there was still no rest for me; a switchman was carried in from the railroad; I laid him on the operating table and he died in my arms under chloroform, and then my feelings that should have been deadened awoke again, my conscience tortured me as if I had killed the man. I sat down and closed my eyes… and thought: will our descendants two hundred years from now… remember to give us a kind word? No, they will forget.”

Chekhov’s Poetry

In a November 1888 letter to his chief correspondent AS Suvorin, Chekhov, then 28, refers to a poet’s article about his work: “he calls me a poet, he styles my stories as ‘novelli’ and my heroes ‘failures’.” Referring to one such character, “How is he a failure? He believed in God, he had enough to eat and he had the gift of composing poetry…. One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.”

In fact Chekhov’s human poetry
transcends the story form, the drama, and the language barrier, whatever the translation. And there are flashes of his poetic vision of life throughout Constance Garnett’s translation of his letters from her. Writing from his summer home in Sumy in August 1888, he says of a road in the Caucasus: “I have never seen anything like it in my life. It is not a road, but unbroken poetry, a fantastic story written by the Demon in love with Tamara.”

In the letter to Savorin, he writes of “a Siberian kitten with long white fur and black eyes” that “takes people for mice: when it sees anyone, it lies flat on its stomach, stalks one’s feet and rushes at them….I imagine the thought of being more terrifying than anyone in the house affords it the greatest delight.” Of literary society: “If we had critics I should know that I provide material that to men who devote themselves to the study of life I am as necessary as a star is to an astronomer.” Of his two professions of him: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other.”

His Literary Godfather

Writing from Moscow in October 1899 to Alexey N. Pleshcheyev, an elderly poet whom he called his literary godfather, Chekhov declares, “I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist . I should like to be a free artist and nothing more…. I regard trade-marks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they may take. This is the program I would follow if I were a great artist.”

Acting as Poetry

You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, … always hopeful of romance and adventure.

—Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)

When I think of the poetry of acting, of the actor as a free artist, Charlie Chaplin comes immediately to mind. He was born on April 16, 1889, the same year Chekhov was writing The Wood Demonreworked ten years later as Uncle Vanyawhich made its debut at the Moscow Art Theatre, with Konstantin Slanislavski directing as well as playing the part of Dr. Astroff. While Chaplin is not among the renowned actors who have appeared in Uncle Vanya over the years, a list that includes Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave, he was there in spirit when Peter O’Toole made his entrance in the title role of the production my wife and I saw at the Bristol Old Vic.

Chekhov’s stage direction for Vanya’s entrance is simple enough: “Enters from the house. He has been asleep after dinner and looks rather disheveled. He sits down on the bench and straightens his collar.” While the right costume can make anyone look “rather disheveled,” the instant O’Toole crept limply, brokenly, Chaplinesquely into view, he delivered the character. It was a “To Be Or Not To Be” of benignly disordered body English. As he took several breathlessly unsteady steps forward, everything about him, every inch, was skewed, untuned, amiss, his face in a transport of uneasy lassitude, eyes lost, at sea in a dream world, the sort of loser you can’t help hoping will carry the day into the end; you feel for the actor and character as one being, you’re on their side, they have you. The applause that erupted the instant O’Toole made his gracefully ungainly entrance may have been a tribute to the movie star ten years after Lawrence of Arabia (1963), but when the ovation soared toward a cheer, it was for the Vanya he’d delivered without a word, the dreamer, the closed poet, cosmic victim, fool, and indolent prophet. It was as if Chekhov himself had slyly taken the stage. When Dr. Astroff asks if he has any news, Vanya says “I don’t do anything now but croak like a raven.” When the beautiful woman he’s hopelessly in love with says what “a fine day it is” (played by Chekhov’s future wife, Olga Knipper in the Moscow production), he says, “A fine day to hang oneself.” The play has barely begun and you already know Vanya is its embattled Hamlet.

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov would likely have mixed feelings about the popularity of the theory he expounded to a friend in 1889: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Chekhov was true to his own theory of him a decade later when Vanya fired twice and missed his human target, Professor Serebrakoff.

Like Keats’s “chameleon poet” who “has no identity” but is “continually in for and filling some other body,” Chekhov inhabits both Vanya and Dr. Astroff, whose views have the most in common with his own. In his Act I conversation with Vanya, Astroff expounds on the destruction of the forests: “The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever….It is, on the whole, the picture of a regular and slow decline.”

Silents in the Metro

According to the March 9, 2022 Guardian, a woman who works at Kyiv’s national film archive said the city authorities had started showing some of its collection in metro stations, used by locals as shelter from Russian artillery. They were screening silent films and cartoons, and although Chaplin is not mentioned, it’s hard to imagine the program leaving out his tramp of him, the Little Fellow who waddles into the sunset after many battles, wins and losses, jaunty and undaunted.

The same story goes on to note that “concerns have been raised about the fate of a small museum devoted to Anton Chekhov in Sumy, in north-eastern Ukraine, where the Russian playwright spent time as a youth in the late 1880s. Fighting has been reported close to the museum.”

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