"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chekhov, Hamlet, and India

From the Introduction to Chekhov Five Major Plays, translated and edited by Ronald Hingley: 
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, like Chekhovian heroes, fails to take decisive action.  But is not the main drive of Hamlet concentrated on eloquently demonstrating this very failure? Then again, just as Shakespeare manipulates Hamlet, so too the Greek tragic poets manipulate their heroes….Chekhov, by contrast, seems content to meander inconsequentially.  He almost seems  to allow his characters to take over, and rarely does he appear to manipulate them.  In Chekhov nothing at all – not plot line, nor characters, nor even the very capacity to dither – is ever heroic, wholehearted, and concentrated.
 George Calderon, his early translator into English, was therefore right to call the plays “centrifugal”, by contrast with other “centripetal” dramas (like Hamlet).

This is a very interesting point, and after having read Hamlet, Macbeth, and the Histories, Chekhov seems tame - primarily because none of the characters take action; they let action happen.  They muse and reflect, but there is little emotion attached.  Hamlet's expression of his doubts are certainly as philosophical as those of Vershinin or Trofimov, but they provoke emotional responses - emotional actions, such as Hamlet's frustrated, angry outbursts at his mother. 

I think if I had read Chekhov first, I might have come to a different conclusion - that these are early Existentialist plays where life has no meaning, and the only human action in the face of this meaningless is non-action; but I still would not have liked them...would not have the visceral reaction to them as I do to Shakespeare.

Which leads me to another thought - action within a Hindu context.  Hinduism is very prescriptive and ordered; and there are rules which govern most aspects of life - when you should get up, perform your ablutions, pray; when and whom to marry, etc. At the risk of seriously oversimplifying, the highly structured order which governs action was created in order for one to focus on spiritual evolution.  The world is illusion, after all, and therefore providing a context and structure which enables the individual to tune out or ignore the extraneous is rational and sensible.

Therefore the actions implicit in the above are really non-actions - they require no deliberation and cannot cause internal conflict.  "It is your duty to speak", said a Hindu colleague of mine when I remarked that no one in the audience seemed to be listening to a word that I was saying, "and it is their duty to be in the audience.  Listening is another matter altogether".

When I first arrived in India, I was given an old Ambassador car, the workhorse of the Indian fleet.  It had a lawnmower engine, tractor steering, no firewall to speak of, a grinding shifting mechanism, and brakes slowed you, not always stopped.  I knew my sitar teacher, my guru as I called him, was very unhappy that this rich American was driving an Indian car; and when my company finally upgraded my transportation to a Volkswagen, he smiled and said, "Ahhh....As it should be".

So I came to appreciate non-action as a legitimate response to the world.  I think I would find much of this purist Hindu belief eroded after all this time and after the successful incursions of the West which India fought so hard to keep out; but since I left India over 35 years ago, that's all I have.  In any case, it all came back to me when I read the criticism of Chekhov - that there was a third way.  There was the heroic and tragic actions of Shakespeare and Aeschylus; the non-heroic, existential actions of Chekhov; and the spiritual "non-action" of Hindus.

This is perhaps not a bad lens through which to read theatre which I am no doing (in between Shakespeare, I have read Moliere, Ibsen, Chekhov, Wilder, Albee; and am about to read Gogol and Gorky).

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