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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tennessee Williams and Chekhov


Tennessee Williams revered Chekhov, especially The Seagull, and wrote his own version of the play called The Notebook of Trigorin

Before reading this review from The Independent (London) 2008, I re-read The Seagull, and drew my own conclusions about why TW liked the play so much. 

Here, then, is a London review (in italics) of a relatively recent production with my comments annotated:

The two main female characters of The Seagull also had much in common with Williams's archetypal woman and girl. Arkadina is similar to his domineering mother, Edwina, full of deluded grandeur, and Nina, whom Constantin loves and whom Trigorin seduces, recalls Williams's fragile sister, Rose, who inspired Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire….

I don’t agree with the reviewer here.  Arkadia may be like his mother, Edwina, and the closest dramatic representation of her is Amanda in Glass Menagerie.  However Amanda and Arkadia are very different.  Arkadia is if anything more like the Princess Del Lago of Sweet Bird of Youth, an aging actress looking for continuing recognition and acclaim and perhaps even love or some kind of mothering affection that she feels for Chance near the end of the play when she realizes, in a mini-epiphany, that she can care for someone other than herself.

Arkadia in a way is reminiscent of Mrs. Venable of Suddenly Last Summer, who has this incestuous love for her son, Sebastian; but it is Constantin in The Seagull, who has the stronger feelings and attachment to his mother than the other way around. Nevertheless she says to her son:

My dear, my reckless boy….you’re mine, mine.  This forehead’s mine, these eyes are mine, this lovely silky hair’s mine too.  You’re mine, all of you….I’m the only one who appreciates you, I’m the only one who tells you the truth, my wonderful darling….You won’t desert me, will you?

So, Arkadia is certainly responsible for encouraging the clinging relationship of her son to her, but she does not exhibit an “unhealthy” love in any other way.  She certainly does not travel around Europe with him, dominating and monopolizing his time like Mrs. Venable with Sebastian.

Nina is somewhat reminiscent of Laura in Glass or Alma in Eccentricities of a Nightingale in that all three women love or at least have a fantasy love for an elusive man; but Nina is stronger – she deliberately leaves her small town and follows Trigorin to Moscow.  She eventually returns after an unhappy relationship, but comes home as a refuge, probably temporary, rather than the the total emotional and psychological retreat of Laura or the promiscuous fugue of Alma.

I see nothing of Blanche in Nina; and Trigorin did not seduce Nina.  She left because she was unhappy with the tame pursuits of Treplev and feeling constrained as an actress with the provincial character of the town.  She returns unhappy and “tired”, but she is not the defeated, totally disillusioned person as Laura or Blanche.

Williams's resentment of the overbearing woman who demands love but doesn't give it emerges in an Arkadina who, rather than sumptuously self-absorbed, is blatantly exhibitionistic and cruel. When, in this version, Constantin presents his play on a makeshift outdoor stage, Arkadina actually climbs onto it and, declaring that it is dangerous, tries to stop the "worthless" play. Later, while denying her son and brother the money they need to live with dignity ("my son is handsome enough to be attractive in rags"), she prattles about her Paris hat, a necessity for "an actress in my position," and says she would rather appear naked than in costumes that displease her...

Once again, this seems off the mark.  Williams never in his memoirs or other confessions, ever held the resentments of his mother suggested here.  Yes, she was as conservative and demanding of him as the pastor fathers in his plays, but she was not the overbearing woman who dominated his life.  Amanda, Laura’s mother, was the same way, and she certainly reflected the character of Edwina – she wanted, through her conservative views, to protect her daughter.

Arkadia is simply not the overbearing character described in this review.  She is eccentric, but far more self-serving and egotistical (as The Princess Del Lago) than overbearing or domineering.  

While the relationship between Arkadia and her son, Treplev, is reminiscent of TW and perhaps the most characteristic of all, as I mention above, it is more the problem of Treplev than his mother – she is not out to destroy, denigrate purposefully, than she is trumpeting her own successes or validating her own greatness.

This new, fiercer Arkadina is matched by a Trigorin who bites back. When Arkadina claims that she meant to help Constantin by being truthful, Trigorin retorts, "Since when could you take truth?" He tells everyone that the bottle on her dressing table, labelled "elixir," is actually hair dye. Trigorin's sex life is also more complicated. When Arkadina fears that he will leave her, she tells him that she has come across a love-letter and a sexy photo from a "a long-haired youth," but that his secrets "will remain my secrets... until the day you betray me."

The implications that Trigorin is bi-sexual suggested here may be reaching a bit far; for it is clear that he has strong heterosexual feelings both for Arkadia and especially Nina.  Arkadia is simply playing whatever card she can to keep Trigorin.  She is not Blanche or Maggie who betrayed homosexual lovers and destroyed them.

Crocker [Director]is less interested in that aspect than in what he feels is a legitimate addition to Trigorin's personality: "In The Seagull Trigorin is weak and submissive, he doesn't himself understand why he stays with Arkadina. Here he has a more highly developed feminine side, he's bisexual, and she is given a hold on him."

Don’t agree at all.

Besides the sex and verbal violence, there's an elegiac, even despairing tone to much of the writing. The lake takes on a greater symbolic weight of death and mystery: "What the lake tells us is what God tells us – we just don't know his language." The most extraordinary change is the ending, which not only goes beyond the point at which Chekhov stopped The Seagull, but alters the nature of its reality, suddenly dissolving the separation between actors and audience.

"It's one of the things that most excited me about the play," says Crocker. "It goes into an entirely different dimension." It is a moment in this story of people who love and destroy one another which sums up what Williams described as his "longing... to bring [Chekhov] more closely, more audibly to you", when we can almost see him reaching out his hand.

There is a great difference between the writing of Chekhov and Williams.  Many critics have noted that Chekhov has a flat, prosaic style, which engages the reader/audience progressively, but has none of the theatrical (some say melodramatic) turns of Williams.  I prefer Williams, perhaps because he is closer to my culture and times, but more so because there is more connection between his characters as I have suggested above, more explicit emotional reasoning.  It is not at all clear to me why Treplev should have committed suicide.  There was nothing compelling about his frustrations with his writing (he apparently was not as good writer, not as good as Trigorin at least, and knew it, and should have accepted it); nor his pursuit of Nina – if there are any dubious sexual relationships in the play, the Nina-Treplev one is the one most notable.  Trigorin is no real mystery – full of himself at the beginning, and presumably at the end (we lose sight of him).  I have discussed Arkadia at length above, and find her less interesting than any of Williams’ women.  Doctor Dorn might be a Val who is the sexually attractive male, but nothing is made of it.

The other love relationships appear more like a Shakespearean comedy without the wit and pith.  Yes, as one character comments, everyone is struggling with love – Arkadia for Trigorin, Masha for Treplev, Nina for Treplev and Trigorin, Polina for Dorn – but nothing ever really happens.

There is more to the Williams-Chekhov literary relationship – symbolism, staging, etc; but I will write more about their thematic similarities in a later blog.

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