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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Chekhov And Tennessee Williams–All About The Women

When asked who were his three favorite playwrights, Tennessee Williams responded, “Chekhov, Chekhov, and Chekhov”.
Williams’s reverence found full expression in “The Notebook of Trigorin,” his “free adaptation” of “The Seagull,” which had its premiere in Canada in 1981 and is being presented for the first time in New York in a production from the Attic Theater Company that opened on Wednesday night at the Flea Theater.
In a note preceding the text Williams paid tribute to Chekhov as a “quiet and delicate writer whose huge power was always held in restraint,” and acknowledged that he himself possessed “quite different qualities.” He ended his humble defense of his adaptation by implying that Chekhov’s distinctive voice might need a little amplification to be properly heard by American audiences: “Our theater has to cry out to be heard at all.” (From Charles Isherwood,  NYT “One Playwright’s Ode to Another, 5.8.13
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At first Williams’s reverence seems perplexing; and it is perhaps because he realized that his dramatic vision was far different from that of Chekhov, he felt he had to gussy up the original. None of Chekhov’s characters are as eccentric as Williams’.  There is no Mrs. Venable, Laura, Alma, or Blanche.  Chekhov’s language is simple and straightforward, with few of the operatic passages of Williams.  The pace of his plays is slow and deliberate, and very little happens while he deliberately constructs character and drama.  The dénouement is rarely dramatic.

The suicide of Treplev in The Seagull or Tuzenbach’s death in a duel in Three Sisters are almost second thoughts.  Treplev is often morose and obsessed with his own existential crises, and despite his history of attempted suicides, few take him seriously. Tuzenbach is an idealist and philosopher who is enamored of the transformative power of work.  He sheds his military uniform (a symbol of the upper but idle classes) to become middle class; but he is never impetuous and willing to die over principle; and he is more interested in impressing his love, Irina.

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For Tennessee Williams on the other hand violence is essential to many of his works.  In Suddenly Last Summer  Sebastian is cannibalistically eaten by street urchins.  Orpheus Descending ends in brutality as Val comes to a savage end at the hands of jealous and angry townspeople. Chance Wayne is castrated at the end of Sweet Bird of Youth.

In Chekhov, the elaborate web of friends and lovers simply comes apart in the end.  When the cherry orchard is cut down (The Cherry Orchard) Mrs. Ranevsky simply leaves.  She has refused to compromise to keep her estate (she could have stayed if she had been willing to let developers subdivide the property of the orchard) and accepts its sale. At the end of Three Sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina wonder philosophically about their fate and finally dismiss their idealistic dreams of returning to Moscow, but there is no explosive conclusion to the play.  Olga says:
In time we shall pass on forever and be forgotten.  Our faces will be forgotten and our voices and how many of us there were…
In Uncle Vanya Sonya shares the same sentiment:
Well, it can’t be helped.  Life must go on.  And our life will go on, Uncle Vanya.  We shall live through a long succession of days and endless evenings. We shall bear patiently the trials fate has in store for us.  We shall work for others – now and in our old age – never knowing any peace; and when the time comes, we shall die without complaining.

All of Chekhov’s plays are restrained, evenly paced, and moderate. Whereas the characters of Tennessee Williams and their passions are always central – his plays are very human dramas – those in Chekhov speak frequently to illustrate a point.  His major plays are about social contrast – the upper class, the bourgeoisie, and the peasants, perhaps best presented in The Cherry Orchard. Mrs. Ranevsky and her family are aristocrats and landowners; Lopakhin is the business middleman who negotiates the sale of the orchard; Dunyasha and Firs are the servants who get left behind after the sale; and the peasants work the land.

Chekhov also writes about life in cosmopolitan Moscow and the closed and conservative small towns of the rural areas. A major theme running throughout his major works is the value of work.  Perhaps anticipating the Revolution in 1917, Chekhov illustrates the transformative nature of work.  In The Cherry Orchard Trofimov praises the value of work as an atonement for Russian slavery (serfdom before 1861).  In Three Sisters the value of work is presented in detail.  Chebutykin says he is proud to say that he has never lifted a finger. Vershinin explains that only through work and individual enterprise can future generations be better off – work is our contribution to them, he says.  Even only a few people in each generation rise above indolence and social apathy, the future can be bright.
Astrov in Uncle Vanya says:
People should be beautiful in every way….but there is something wrong about a life of idleness…
At the same time, and like many other of Chekhov’s characters  he is unsure about anything. Contrary to Vershinin’s optimism, Astrov is as pessimistic as is Tuzenbach:
As you well know, I work harder than anyone else around here, the most awful things keep happening to me and there are times when the whole business really gets me down.  But for me there’s no light shining in the distance.  I don’t expect anything for myself anymore and I don’t care for other people either.
There is an undercurrent of social commentary in Tennessee Williams.  He was always suspicious of the world outside his plays – it was avaricious, dangerous, and crude.  Compared to Belle Reve, the Desire neighborhood is rough and without any beauty.  St. Louis, as viewed from the fire escape of the apartment of Laura and Amanda (The Glass Menagerie), is just as ugly and threatening.  The inner worlds of Laura, Alma, and Blanche are destroyed when they try to go out into the outside.  As fragile and illusory though they may be, these fantasy worlds are preferable to the dirt, grime, and predation of the real one.

Yet one does not think of Williams as a social critic.  It is the characters that are memorable and enduring.  Maggie the Cat, Blanche, Serafina, Mrs. Venable, Laura, the Princess Del Lago dominate the plays. We can never ignore them and take time to reflect on anything more than their personal dramas. They are the plays. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is perhaps Williams’ most realistic play, a lot like the earlier works of Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman in which family dynamics – power, money, influence – are center stage.

Big Daddy is the wealthiest man in Mississippi and his children are very aware of their inheritance when he dies.  Maggie, too, knows that she will achieve her goal – the wealth, status, and social acceptance she never had in her earlier years.  Although she may love Brick in her own way, she is very insistent in reforming his profligate ways so that he can be the principal inheritor and manager of his dying father’s estate,  The play is much more about moral failing, principle, honesty, love, and ‘duplicity’ than family and society.

Chekhov and Williams also differ significantly in their approach to drama.  Williams is a lyrical playwright (he always said that he was a poet, first and foremost), and Chekhov is not. While eloquent, his characters do not – with some exceptions – inhabit poetic worlds.  Nina and Irina (The Seagull) are both actresses, but even at their most poetic, are grounded in Chekhov’s social themes. When Nina talks to Treplev about acting, she says:
I’ve come to see, that in our work – no matter whether we’re actors or writers – the great thing isn’t fame or glory, it isn’t what I used to dream of, but simply stamina.  You must know how to bear your cross and have faith.  I have faith and things don’t hurt me so much now.  And when I think of my vocation, I’m not afraid of life.
Here is but one of Tennessee Williams’s lyrical passages which illustrate character in a far different way. Blanche (Streetcar Named Desire) is talking with her sister, Stella, about her life at Belle Reve, their childhood home, after Stella had left for New Orleans:
I, I, I took the blows in my face and my body!  All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard! Father, mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big with it, it couldn’t be put into a coffin.  But had to be burned like rubbish! You just came home for the funerals, Stella.  And funerals are quiet, but deaths – not always.  Sometimes their breathing is hoarse, and sometimes it rattles, and sometimes they even cry out to you, “Don’t let me go”, as if you were able to stop them! But funerals are quiet with pretty flowers.  And, oh, what gorgeous boxes they pack them away in.  Unless you were there at the bed when the cried out, “Hold me!”, you’d never suspect there was the struggle for breath and bleeding.  You didn’t dream, but I saw! Saw, saw!
So what, then, did Williams see in Chekhov? First, he could understand the emotional trauma of being uprooted from the past. The characters of both playwrights look to the past in romantic and unrealistic ways.  The desire of Amanda to go back to Mississippi or Blanche to Belle Reve is expressed in the same passionate way by Olga (Three Sisters):
It’s eleven years now since Father got his brigade and we all left Moscow.  I remember it so well.  It was early May, as it is now, and in Moscow everything was in blossom, it was warm and there was sunshine everywhere.  Eleven years ago, but I remember it all as though we’d only left yesterday. Heavens, how marvelous! When I woke up this morning and saw the great blaze of light and knew that Spring had come – I felt so happy and excited, I felt I just had to go back to Moscow.
Second, he shared with Chekhov an uncertainty about the outside world. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, everything was unsettled, and little was secure.  The revolutionary ideas soon to become institutionalized – a classless society, the value of work – were entering the consciousness of the upper class.  Intellectuals, writers, and actors like Trigorin, Treplev, Nina, and Irina were explicit in their unease. Life was changing but they were not prepared to deal with it.  The world of St. Louis and New Orleans was very different from the small town environment of Columbus, Mississippi where Williams grew up.  He longed for a return to a much more settled, predictable, and comfortable life; but understood that America was changing.

Third, and most importantly, Williams could identify with Chekhov’s women. Olga, Masha and Irina (in Three Sisters and The Seagull), and Nina are the most compelling, interesting, and complex characters of Chekhov’s work.  The men are either overly intellectual, pompous, or insistently practical.  We have little sympathy for either Treplev or Trigorin who spend much of their time lamenting their fate or pondering the nature of art; but relate to the emotional struggles of the women. Being torn from Moscow and dreaming about a return has nothing to do with the modernization of Russia or the class distinctions so common there.  It has to do – as in the case of Blanche – with deep personal ties.

Williams could certainly sympathize with Chekhov’s women because they had to settle for inferior men. Masha settles for Medvedenko much as the women in Shakespeare’s Comedies do. Rosalind, Beatrice, Isabel, and many others dance rings around the men in their lives, but end up marrying them.  In all four plays – The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard – the merry-go-round of relationships keeps turning. Everyone is infatuated with everyone else; but there is no satisfaction in any supposed love. Women and men both have too idealistic a notion to truly appreciate and love anyone else.  Whereas this disillusionment in Chekhov comes in part from social expectations, in Williams it is out of the pure, individual fantasy of his characters. 

Chekhov’s women are unhappy and have been so for years, and they have become resigned to their fate. One has little patience with these women because of their philosophical acceptance of their lot.  On the other hand we admire Tennessee Williams’ women because they are courageous and strong to the end.  Blanche is a heroic figure because she refuses to give in to what she knows is a depraved and ugly world; and eventually does not have to because of her madness.  Alma also never gives up her dream of love, and her final discarding of convention – she becomes a prostitute – is less acceptance of her fate than a a defiance of it.

We can never enter the mind of Laura, and understand why she is so reclusive, afraid, and timid. She has the courage to step out of the world of her glass menagerie and at least attempt a relationship with The Gentleman Caller.  Although she is courageous in this attempt, but doomed to failure from the start.  Alma does the same – she is idealistically and unrealistically attracted to the young doctor across the street, but love with him could never be possible, because of her inability to cross over from fantasy to reality.  Blanche is looking for love, but can only manage a perverse submission to Stanley and a tepid, last-ditch attempt at securing the unappealing Mitch.

Williams admired Chekhov, then, for his women and an understanding of their desires and struggles. He admired him for his sense of inside-and-outside, fantasy and reality, and the present and the past.
Tennessee Williams is both a lyrical and symbolic playwright. Symbols are common in his writings - the menacing garden of Mrs. Venable in Suddenly Last Summer; the fire escape and the glass menagerie in The Glass Menagerie; and the cat on a hot tin roof in the play of that name.

Chekhov also used symbolism in his work.  The seagull is present throughout the play of that name – a bird that Nina resembles but Trigorin has killed because ‘he had nothing else to do’. Moscow itself is a symbol of all that is elegant, sophisticated, and upper class; and the cherry orchard is a symbol of a beautiful and disappearing past.

Chekhov is a difficult playwright to like, perhaps because there is no bombast, melodrama, or eccentricity.  Above all, these drawing room period pieces are too much about life in general, society, and philosophy to be compelling.  Patience is required for Chekhov. By comparison Tennessee Williams is a page-turner.

A number of critics have noted this.  In his book The Chekhov Play Harvey Pitcher notes:
Emotions in the usual sense of the word are at least as conspicuous by their absence as by their presence.  Love, hate, rage, jealousy – passions of one kind or another: these are in short supply….Rather are the prevailing moods low-key, desultory, and inconsequential…Never embroiled in tempestuous passions, chiefly engaged in the desultory monitoring of their lives, they tend to offer from time to time torpid running commentaries on their own biographies. (From Introduction to ‘Chekhov: Five Major Plays’ by Ronald Hingley)
It is still not clear to me why Tennessee Williams considered Chekov his biggest theatrical influence.  As he admitted in his reflections, above, Williams felt that the Russian needed a American remake that only he could give – more juice, more passion, and perhaps most of all, more happening – but in so doing he inevitably did damage to the deliberate, reflective nature of Chekhov’s vision. 

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