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Cambridge Companions Online

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The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov
Edited by Vera Gottlieb, Paul Allain
Book DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521581176
Online ISBN: 9781139000147
Hardback ISBN: 9780521581172
Paperback ISBN: 9780521589178
Chapter
3 - Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre pp. 29-40
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521581176.003
Cambridge University Press
Cambridge Companions Online Cambridge University Press, 2006
3
ANATOLY SMELIANSKY
Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre
Chekhov's relationship with the Moscow Art Theatre is a story in itself,
and quite a tangled one at that. It is the story of how Chekhov's theatre
came into being and Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko's struggle to
master the poetics of his drama. It is the story of how even in the
dramatist's lifetime the Chekhov canon evolved into a theatrical strait] acket
from which it became necessary to break free. It is the story of the deep
divisions between theatre and dramatist involving the most fundamental
questions concerning the art of theatre: the precise genre of Chekhov's
plays; his view of character and his attitude towards the whole historical
development of Russia itself. In an attempt to console Stanislavsky after
Chekhov's death, Nemirovich-Danchenko said: 'We had already lost
Chekhov with The Cherry Orchard. He would never have written anything
else.'
1
This merciless verdict expresses all the tension that existed between
Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre.
After Chekhov's death, his plays began to be perceived in the light of new
theatrical developments. The MAT's productions of Chekhov started to
break free, not from Chekhov himself, but rather from the style of the
'theatre of mood' and from the detailed naturalism that had only recently
brought fame and success to the young company. A few words should be
said about this naturalism, which was to come under attack not only from
Meyerhold but from Stanislavsky himself (which was how the two men
came together and established the Studio on Povarskaya Street in 1905).
The techniques of the early MAT are well known. The audience of
Treplev's play (in The Seagull) casually sitting with their backs to the
audience; Astrov swatting mosquitoes in Uncle Vanya; the evening half-
light in the house of the three sisters; the crackling of logs in the stove; the
chirping of a cricket; a single candle-flame; the sounds of the fire; hushed,
non-actorish voices, the child's abandoned chair on Ranevskaya's estate -
all of this combined to create a powerful sense of the flow of life. Hence,
the effect of the so-called 'fourth wall'.
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ANATOLY SMELIANSKY
The early MAT revitalised the art of acting, made a cult of the pause, the
subtext and the constant interaction of characters. There emerged the
concept of the ensemble and a psychological style of acting. The produc-
tions of Chekhov at the MAT gave birth to a new Russian audience,
shaping its tastes and expectations. This is arguably one of the most
important aspects of the theatrical reforms that were initiated by the
company.
Chekhov changed the scale of what is called 'an event' in drama. He
changed the very object of theatre: instead of 'the drama in life' 'the drama
of life itself became the focus of his compositions. He deliberately
obscured plot, refused to express his own ideas through the dialogues and
monologues and coldly distanced himself from his characters, not identi-
fying with any of them. In the words of Pasternak, he inscribed his
characters into a landscape and took their words, together with the air in
which they were uttered - an impressionist technique. Chekhov gave up
teaching and preaching - those main elements of Russian high classical
literature. His narrative motifs contain not a single resolution or even a
clear explanation. It is impossible to understand why the three sisters never
got to Moscow or why Ranevskaya couldn't save her estate. The most that
can be said is: life's like that. His characters are defined by the 'out-of-joint'
world that gave rise to new causes and effects in both life and in drama.
Chekhov expressed this change of viewpoint in a brief note: 'Now they
shoot themselves because they are sick of life, and so on. Previously, they
did it because they had embezzled public money.'
Each of Chekhov's plays at the MAT had a different 'lifespan': the
shortest was that of The Seagull, which survived for only 63 performances;
Uncle Vanya was performed 316 times, and Three Sisters 229. The one
which lived longest was The Cherry Orchard, which ran right up to the
October Revolution and then was revived in 1928, resulting in a total run
of 1,209 performances. The play and the production became a metaphor
for 'moving house'. When Olga Knipper-Chekhova decided to leave Russia
in autumn 1920, she wrote a letter to Stanislavsky in Moscow. Instead of
going into long explanations, she used one of Ranevskaya's lines: 'Life in
this house is over.'
The Revolution was to change the approach to Chekhov for many
years. Furious attacks by the 'leftists' (in 1920, Mayakovsky wrote that
'Chekhov and Stanislavsky stink'), coincided with fundamental changes in
the organisation of the Moscow Art Theatre. Talking to actors in 1919,
Stanislavsky stressed the importance of rhythm in Chekhov: 'There was a
time when our productions of Chekhov were appallingly bad. Incredibly
long pauses, ponderous rhythm, dreary tempo. When we perform
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Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre
Chekhov like that, we reduce him to the ordinary, to a Chekhov "general-
isation".'
2
But it was the rhythm of history, not of theatre, that had changed. When
the Civil War ended in 1922, Stanislavsky and the MAT went on tour to
Europe and America. Sitting in his hotel room in Berlin, Stanislavsky wrote
back to Moscow saying how difficult it had become for him to play the old
Chekhovian characters: 'Acting the scene where Vershinin says goodbye to
Masha in Three Sisters, my mind is confused. After what we have been
through, it is quite impossible to be moved because an officer has to leave
and his lady has to stay behind. I am not enjoying Chekhov. On the
contrary, I would prefer not to be acting in his plays.'
3
This letter was
addressed to Nemirovich-Danchenko, who had stayed in Moscow, keeping
an eye on events in the Revolution's new capital. Shortly before the
company was due to return from America, Nemirovich-Danchenko sent
them a series of warning letters - the main message, according to
Nemirovich himself - being memento mori:
I want to shout to them across the ocean: what repertoire?! Uncle Vanya is
out of the question. Three Sisters should not even begin rehearsal, considering
the content [in the context of the Civil War, the play was believed to
sympathise with the 'officer class'] and the ages of the performers. The Cherry
Orchard will not be allowed. I mean that they won't allow a play which is
seen to lament the lost estates of the gentry. And it won't stand an updated
('welcome new life') treatment. Ivanov is completely out of tune with this
positive, 'cheerful' epoch.
4
Those were the specific circumstances which had to be taken into account.
The archives contain Nemirovich-Danchenko's note, dated 1925, when, in
an effort to respond to the challenge of the times, the MAT staged Trenyov's
The Pugachev's Revolt. For Nemirovich, the production of this play
signified the voluntary rejection of a quarter of a century's accumulated
experience. The rejection was categorical: 'It is necessary to exclude from
the MAT repertoire . . . works of literature that are unacceptable for the
present day (for example, all of Chekhov's plays, at least in their old
interpretations). '
5
The Cherry Orchard was restored to the repertoire in 1928. Yury
Sobolev wrote: 'Everything that could be done to somehow freshen up the
play was done. This was especially true of the tempo of the first act where
there is now much more laughter than before . . . The elegiac mood of the
last act was somewhat toned down.'
6
Such 'revisionism' altered the essence
of the MAT. Time itself had corrected 'the mood' of The Cherry Orchard.
Other productions in the thirties (as distinct from the MAT's, of course),
placed Lopakhin at the forefront, interpreting him as an entirely 'positive
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ANATOLY SMELIANSKY
hero' who takes an axe to the cherry orchard. In the late thirties,
Nemirovich-Danchenko, by this time without Stanislavsky who had died in
1938, presented a new version of Three Sisters which in many ways served
as a polemic with the original turn-of-the-century production. In a letter to
Maria Knebel,
7
Nemirovich formulated his directorial interpretation and
ideas, aimed at dispelling the MAT's acting cliches. Amongst these was the
'exaggerated and distorted use of the device of "the objective" (the style of
intensive interaction with a partner which Stanislavsky had invented at the
beginning of the century, as a means of overcoming the practice of directly
addressing the audience and ignoring one's on-stage partner, which was
habitual in the Imperial theatres). Nemirovich went on to criticise 'a
drawn-out tempo' (here, as we have seen, he was in agreement with
Stanislavsky); 'talking inaudibly to oneself (for the sake of poorly under-
stood simplicity) and sentimentalism instead of lyricism. In opposition to
such cliches, Nemirovich-Danchenko proposed new directorial techniques
for Chekhov: a clearly defined 'core' for the production i.e. a new 'super-
objective' with a fully understood and sustained subtext, 'robustness',
poetry, simplicity and genuine theatricality.
8
In achieving his ends, Nemirovich as director proved to be quite a
virtuoso. A new poeticised Chekhov emerged, complete with an avenue of
birch trees, and with 'the yearning for a better life' as the firm core of the
production. But even this directorial masterpiece was subject to the limita-
tions imposed by its time. Nemirovich ruthlessly cut a number of motifs
from the play, the result being that its Chekhovian symphonic quality was
lost. Thus, in the final scene he shortened the cynical yet infinitely mean-
ingful line of Chebutykin that prefigured the Theatre of the Absurd: 'If only
we knew', and Chebutykin's 'Tarara-boom-deay', lines not belonging to
two different plays but to the one play by Chekhov with his acute
perception of the meaning of life, his harshness and restraint - qualities
that were to be in such demand after the Second World War and after the
death of Stalin, when a new generation of directors would take over.
In the post-war years, the tradition of Chekhov at the MAT became
shallow and meaningless. Michael Kedrov's 1947 production of Uncle
Vanya (assisted by Litovtseva and Sudakov), was an attempt to interpret
the play in the optimistic spirit of Socialist Realism. The only redeeming
feature of this well-intentioned but wholly imitative production was the
splendid performance of Boris Dobronravov in the title role. Devoid of any
ensemble work, it was a mono-play, or solo performance, that threw the
theatre back to pre-Chekhovian times.
The most popular of the MAT revivals was The Seagull. There was an
attempt to make a jubilee production of the play to mark Chekhov's one
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Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre
hundredth birthday in i960, directed by Stanitsyn and Rayevsky, but it did
not stay long in the repertoire. Boris Livanov's 1968 production, on the
other hand, ran for many years even though there were really no new ideas
in it. Stanislavsky would have described its style as 'ordinary Chekhov'.
Partly as a riposte to Livanov's romantic and 'ordinary, generalised'
Chekhov, The Seagull was produced in the late sixties at the Sovremennik
(Contemporary) Theatre,
9
which had begun as the MAT studio-theatre,
and which remained linked to its origins in a strained and fractious
polemical relationship. The director was Oleg Yefremov who shortly after-
wards became Artistic Director of the MAT, a post he has now occupied for
thirty years. For this reason it is worth taking a closer look at his first
serious encounter with Chekhov. In his work on The Seagull, Yefremov
identified certain cunning qualities in this 'inspired and heretical play'. This
play can start a theatre - but it can also finish it off. The Seagull marked the
end of Yefremov's work with the Sovremennik.
The Seagull at the Sovremennik reflected the situation at the end of the
sixties when 'The Thaw'
10
came to an end, and when Soviet tanks entered
Prague. Chekhov's text, seemingly completely irrelevant to these events,
nonetheless responded to them. The death of 'the common ideal' set the tone
for the production. Chekhov's text was flooded with all the mutual recrimi-
nations, disappointments and hostilities that had accumulated over the
previous years. Yefremov turned the author of The Seagull into a lampoo-
nist, bored rigid by intellectual conversation and critical of writers and
actors who talk a lot and do nothing. Yefremov imparted to The Seagull the
ideological confusion and despair that typified the late sixties. People had
stopped hearing or listening to each other. All they did was strike attitudes,
make scenes and squabble. And dig for worms for fishing from the flower-
bed that the designer, Sergei Barkhin, had installed in the middle of the stage.
At the MAT Yefremov avoided Chekhov for nearly seven years. Perhaps
he was discouraged by the failure of his Seagull at the Sovremennik. He
returned to him again in 1976 with Ivanov.
The play - about human decay - which had been so out of tune with the
'cheerful' epoch of the early twenties, now proved to be exceptionally
appropriate to the 'stagnation' of the 1970s. In the MAT production, this
stagnation was polarised by using two basic colours, black and white.
Hovering in the 'background' are the uncouth and useless young guests in
Act Four, called 'cavemen, troglodytes' by Lebedev, attacked by Sasha in
Act Two and described by Lvov as: 'Those wretched people. Vultures, birds
of prey. They only come to tear each other to bits.' These and the constant
motif of the 'gooseberry jam', combined with Misha Borkin's bumptious-
ness (performed by Vyacheslav Nevinny) - were all meant to counterpoint
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ANATOLY SMELIANSKY
the lofty confessional tone in which Innokenty Smoktunovsky
11
performed
the title role. The situation, with Ivanov's apparently unmotivated depres-
sion, suddenly revealed its 'long-term' meaning. Such complete emptiness
of the soul, the 'disease' which Chekhov rated worse than syphilis or sexual
impotence, was presented by Smoktunovsky with frightening lyrical pro-
fundity.
This MAT production followed another Ivanov, directed by Mark
Zakharov at the Lenkom Theatre, with Yevgeny Leonov in the title role.
Instead of presenting a 'Russian Hamlet',
12
Leonov made him just an
average intellectual, not the Ivanov - but one Ivanov, 'the million and first',
as Alexander Kugel once described him. What was important was the
typicality of this remarkable actor; Leonov's human dimension matched
that of everyone in the audience. In contrast, Smoktunovsky performed
precisely the 'Russian Hamlet', an extraordinary man, of undoubted
strength, but sick from the common disease of the times. His Ivanov
suffered and agonised, unable to define a place for himself either in life or
in the space of the MAT stage. Significantly, it was the arrangement of the
space, designed by David Borovsky, that physically conveyed the nature of
the disease, the desperate but unsatisfied desire for fulfilment that Smoktu-
novsky tried to enact. The designer furnished the actor with a bare stage
enclosed by the colonnaded facade of the manor-house, with the autumnal
garden casting the sombre shadows of its leafless branches on the walls.
Thus Ivanov acted in a space that looked devastated, as though pillaged,
where he literally could find no place for himself, or even anything to lean
on. At first the actor rejected this spatial solution, fearing that in this play
about everyday life he would be left exposed, without support or cover.
The director insisted and in the end the protagonist's anguish in the empty
yet claustrophobic space powerfully conveyed Chekhov's perception of life,
which caused him once to observe that in Western Europe, people die
because their space is cramped and suffocating, while in Russia they die
because the space is an endless expanse, in which a little man has no way of
finding his bearings.
13
'The land looks at me, like an orphan', Chekhov's
character repeatedly says - and Smoktunovsky conveyed this feeling with
exceptional inner strength.
In this Ivanov, his former fellow-student, Lebedev (performed by Andrei
Popov) looked guiltily into his eyes, trying to comfort Ivanov and explain
the nature of his malaise, mumbling something about the milieu 'eating you
up', embarrassed by the banality of his own words and trying to dispel his
unease with the inevitable shot of vodka, served unerringly on cue by his
manservant. Smoktunovsky conveyed a distinctive spiritual paralysis,
caused by a sense of meaninglessness, of eternal emptiness and stagnation.
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Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre
Those, like Lebedev who can drink, get drunk. Those, like Borkin, who can
get carried away by some idiotic project, get carried away. Those, like
Count Shabelsky (splendidly performed by Mark Prudkin) who take
pleasure in perpetrating some vileness or other, even at their own expense,
do so. Ivanov can do none of these things. All he can do - is capitulate. So
Ivanov accepts death as deliverance. The only time in the production that
he smiled was when the emancipated girl, madly in love with him,
attempted to awaken him to a new life by repeating silly words she had
read in books. At that moment he somehow became fully aware of the
shamefulness of his situation and took his own life. We did not hear the
shot. Quite simply, the guests - the 'barbarians' in Lebedev's house,
assembled for the wedding breakfast, drew back, and on the floor in the
middle of the stage we saw the dead man.
In 1980, ten years after his Sovremennik Seagull and four years after
Ivanov, Yefremov returned to The Seagull. As we have seen, in the
Sovremennik production, the flower-bed with worms had boldly replaced
Chekhov's 'enchanted lake', the trees and even the air that Chekhov's
characters breathe. And now, ten years on in his life and in that of the
MAT, Yefremov took a fresh look at the play. For the first time in his
directorial career, he introduced the concept of transcendent nature which
alters the scale of human conflicts. The intellectual debates no longer
interested the director but gave way to the drama of life itself. In 1970, The
Seagull was interpreted as a pamphlet; in 1980, the predominant motif was
that of reconciliation, understanding and forgiveness.
The Seagull marked the beginning of Yefremov's long collaboration with
the stage designer Valery Levental. He responded to the new attitudes
towards life and towards the theatre, which for Yefremov were always
indivisible. The Seagull was designed by him as a symphony of light, a
dance of curtains in a flickering space. Chekhov's characters became part of
the landscape, like trees or clouds; they lived amidst nature, dissolved in it
and died amidst the beauty of its indifferent world. The main sound effect
was the seagull's cry, but it was not so much poetic as oppressive,
disturbing, expressing the theme of an endless circling in search of some-
thing that might comfort the soul.
For the first time since coming together ten years earlier, the MAT
company performed as a perceptible ensemble: Lavrova as Arkadina,
Vertinskaya as Nina, Smoktunovsky as Dorn, Andrei Popov as Sorin,
Myagkov as Treplev, Nevinny as Shamraev, Kindinov as Medvedenko -
these were actors capable of understanding the Chekhov that Yefremov
was in the process of rediscovering for himself. There was no lack of
opportunities to act. In contrast with the Sovremennik production, at the
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ANATOLY SMELIANSKY
MAT Yefremov wanted to make every character heard. He immersed the
'words, words, words' in the glittering foliage. True, these characters of
Chekhov were garrulous, so garrulous that they did not even notice
someone dying: in this production, Sorin (Andrei Popov). But despite all
the disillusion and loss, the motif of faith amidst decay was gaining strength
- the kind of faith that is fed not by love or hatred, but by an understanding
of the basic reality of life as an insoluble drama.
The director and designer moved the pavilion-theatre downstage -
making it a further animated 'character' in the play. This pavilion func-
tioned with a rhythm of its own, at one moment advancing to the very
front of the stage, and the next dissolving into the depths of the autumnal
park. In this pavilion, the theatre of Kostya Treplev and Nina Zarechnaya
came into being. By the end of the play it looked devastated, the wind
blowing through the cracks in its walls and ruffling the tattered white
curtains. Anastasia Vertinskaya as Nina Zarechnaya repeated Treplev's
monologue but this time not as the empty phrases of an apprentice writer.
Kostya Treplev's death brought out the real meaning of the abstruse lines
about the world-soul, people, lions, eagles and partridges. And these lines
were spoken not by a provincial girl, but by an 'actress' with a capital 'A'
who had walked her path of suffering and reached the source of the
symbolic visions. The idea of merging material matter with the spirit
achieved a real human dimension. To carry one's cross and keep the faith -
that was said not only of Nina Zarechnaya.
In an odd way, Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre accompanied not
only the profound changes at the theatre itself but in Russia as a whole.
Uncle Vanya was premiered in February 1985 and on 30 April it was seen
by the newly elected General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev. He saw a
Chekhov who, in his own way, summed up the consequences of a
'constrained' life. The motif of creative patience became central. Yefremov
did not attempt to turn Uncle Vanya, with his complaint 'I haven't lived',
into a hero. (How could he not have lived when by definition his life was in
fact itself life?) As Astrov, Yefremov was embedded in the daily trivialities
of existence - and struggled to break out. The MAT stage revolved,
revealing the interiors of the house. Astrov took to drink and there was a
brief respite when his soul became free - and everything around him was
turned upside down. The undistinguished Herr Professor Serebryakov
(played by Yevgeni Yevstigneyev) continued to tyrannise his wife and
indulge his whims, and then the storm broke. And as a consequence the
confessions came flooding out. One person was drinking, another was
praying, rendered helpless by unrequited love, while yet another was
suffering from lack of self-fulfilment. And together, they made up all
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Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre
human life. Levental had placed the house upstage against the background
of an autumnal landscape in the style of Levitan.
14
When the stage was
plunged into darkness, we suddenly noticed through the mist a faint light
suspended above the dewy ground. It was a small window in a house on a
distant hill. The light shone dimly in the darkness, but it shone invitingly,
showing the way. Such was the end of the performance, premiered on the
very eve of changes that were to transform not only Russia but the entire
world.
On 7 May 1985, Gorbachev telephoned Yefremov to give his reactions
to the production, saying that he had liked Astrov and that he had found
Uncle Vanya simply heartrending. Then he said how much there was to do,
that they should meet to discuss the problems of theatre, and that in
general it was time 'to set the fly-wheel in motion'. Could he have imagined
then where that fly-wheel would end up? I happened to be in Yefremov's
office during this conversation, and Yefremov seemed to be speaking in his
usual manner, making no attempt to flatter his caller. After hanging up, he
suddenly wiped the sweat from his brow. Seeing my surprise, he smiled
guiltily and paraphrasing Chekhov, said: 'You know, it's hard to squeeze
the slave out of yourself.'
A later production of Chekhov at MAT was Three Sisters. It opened in
February 1997 during the preparations for the MAT centennial. It bore all
the signs of an attempt at 'summing up'. It was as though Yefremov was
replaying all the main themes of his productions of Chekhov, beginning
with the fate of 'home' - and ending with the theme of patience and
submission to the merciless cycle of life. This time, Levental located the
house of the Prozorov sisters in a kind of cosmic sphere which changed
colour four times: from the white of spring on Irina's name-day to the
sombre blue of winter; from the red suggesting the fire to the rusty colour
of the autumnal final act. These symbolic changes of colour reflected the
rhythm of life that carries the characters from hope to despair. The closing
scene of the three sisters bidding farewell to the departing officers was
tragically expressive, and choreographed almost like a ballet. The sisters'
arms interwove as they tried to hold together in a circle, but some invisible
force drove them apart and broke their embrace.
Yefremov learned Chekhov's most important lesson long ago, one that is
now being experienced acutely by the whole of Russia. He grasped his
objectivity, his detachment from any ideology, doctrine or political label.
The age of ideologies that crushed human beings is receding. And Chekhov
now stands revealed to us in all his strange, disquieting profundity.
In contrast with the 1940 production of Three Sisters, Yefremov's 1997
version lacks any optimism, any signs of poetic exaltation. The strains of
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ANATOLY SMELIANSKY
i Moscow Art Theatre production of The Three Sisters at Brooklyn Academy of Music,
January 1998. Sets and costume by Valery Levental, directed by Oleg Yefremov.
the march as the regiment leaves the town very quickly give way to
Chebutykin's nonsense song. But even his 'Tarara-boom-deay' doesn't
embrace the entire expanse of life. The full stop in this production is not 'If
only we knew', but the dancing image of the vanishing house. This house
that has so stubbornly resisted the change of seasons, retreats upstage,
dissolving in the darkening autumn landscape. The sombre, threatening
music of Scriabin develops and reinforces the mood of departure. It is as
though this play, born at the turn of the century has half anticipated the
latest turn of events. In the play Vershinin philosophises that 'in the past',
mankind was busy with wars, campaigns, raids and victories, 'but now' it
is all gone and there is nothing to fill this vast empty space . . .
At the end of the twentieth century, Russia finds itself again in this 'vast
empty space'. We are trying to fill it. At this time of spiritual hiatus,
Chekhov is truly a 'constant companion'.
NOTES
1 Letter from V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko to K. S. Stanislavsky, after 26 July
1904, from V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, Selected Letters of V. I. Nemirovich-
Danchenko in Two Volumes, Moscow, 1979, vol. n, p. 378.
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Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre
2 K. S. Stanislavsky, Collected Works of Stanislavsky in 8 Volumes, Moscow,
1974-82, vol. v, p. 134.
3 Letter from K. S. Stanislavsky to V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, October 1923,
Berlin, from Collected Works of Stanislavsky, vol. vni, p. 29.
4 From a letter by V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko to Olga Bokzhanskaya on 9
March 1924, from Selected Letters of V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, vol. 11,
p. 304.
5 MAT Museum, Archives of V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko.
6 See Chronicles of the Life and Works of Stanislavsky in 8 Volumes, Izdatelstvo
VTO, Moscow, 1973, vol. IV.
7 Maria Knebel (1898-1985), actress, director and teacher. Studied at the Studio
of Michael Chekhov in 1918, and then at the Fourth Studio of the MAT. In
1924 she became a member of the MAT Company, with whom she played many
roles, and worked on many different productions of the MAT, such as Kremlin
Chimes and Difficult Years. In 1950 she left the MAT to work as director of the
Central Children's Theatre. She also taught at GITIS (The Russian State Theatre
School). See chapter 15 in this volume: Selected Glossary.
8 Letter from V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko to Maria Knebel, April 1942. From
Selected Letters of Nemirovich-Danchenko, vol. 11, p. 536.
9 Yefremov worked at the Sovremennik Theatre from 1956 to 1970.
10 'The Thaw' is the term generally used to describe the end of Stalinist terror with
Stalin's death in 1953, and the major speech at the 1956 Party Congress by
Khrushchev in which he exposed and condemned many of the excesses of
Stalinism, and the end of the long winter of Stalin's regime. With the destruction
of 'The Prague Spring' in 1968, the period of 'The Thaw' came to an end. 'The
Thaw' as a metaphor was first used by Ilya Ehrenburg in his story of that name,
published in the magazine Znamya in 1954.
11 Innokenty Smoktunovsky is perhaps best known in Western Europe and
America for his brilliant performance as Hamlet in Gregori Kozintsev's film of
1965.
12 The theme of 'Hamlet' runs throughout much of nineteenth-century Russian
literature, drama and criticism. The use made of Hamlet was of a character
incapable of taking any action about anything - whether his own life, or the
needs of his society. For a detailed discussion of this major theme, see Ivan
Turgenev's essay of 1858, 'Hamlet and Don Quixote'. For another example of
Chekhov's (comic) use of the theme other than in Ivanov, see the short story 'In
Moscow' (1891) or the dramatised version 'A Moscow Hamlet' in A Chekhov
Quartet, trans, and ed. by Vera Gottlieb, Amsterdam, 1996. Ivanov has his own
point to make about himself as 'Hamlet' in Act Two, Scene VI in Ivanov - and
about himself as Don Quixote in Act Four, Scene IX.
13 See chapter 2, note 4 in this volume. This is an important reiteration of a major
theme and perception of Russian life and Russian philosophy, as reflected in
literature and drama. See chapter 2 for specific examples in literature.
14 Isaac Levitan (1861-1900), landscape painter and friend of Chekhov's artist
brother Nikolai. They shared holidays at Babkino, the estate in the countryside
of Moscow Province on which the Chekhovs bought a holiday cottage. Levitan's
landscape paintings capture the essence of the Russian countryside, the seasons
and country life. It was when out hunting with Levitan that Chekhov may well
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ANATOLY SMELIANSKY
have got the idea for The Seagull. As he wrote in a letter to his publisher
Suvorin, on 8 April 1892 from his estate at Melikhovo: 'Last night we went out
shooting. He shot a snipe and the bird, wounded in the wing, fell into a puddle.
I picked it up: long beak, big black eyes, and beautiful plumage. It looked
astonished. What should we do with it? Levitan frowned, closed his eyes, then
begged me in a shaky voice, "My dear friend, hit his head against the gunstock
. . . " I said, "I can't." He went on shaking, shrugging his shoulders, his head
twitching, and begging me; and the snipe went on looking at us in astonishment.
I had to agree with Levitan and kill it. One more beautiful delightful creature
less, while two idiots went home and sat down to supper.'
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