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The Idea of a Definitive Production: Chekhov in and out of Period* J. L. Styan The first duty of a director is to be loyal to his author. Or is it? It may be that this is one of those golden rules to which lip service is paid too easily. Perhaps his first duty is to “interpret” author to audience, thus showing a more responsible loyalty to both parties and doing the play real honor. Especially if the author is dead and the audience is alive, in another place, in another time, with another set of beliefs and traditions. Here is surely an issue for students of comparative drama: how are we to regard the notion of “a definitive production,” a phrase used not as a pejorative but as praise? Michel Saint-Denis’s production of Three Sisters for John Gielgud’s company at the Queen’s Theatre, London in 1938 received, in the Stanislavsky tradition, eight weeks of rehearsal instead of the usual three or four, and was thought by Gielgud to be “one of the most perfect examples of team-work ever presented in London”1 and by Laurence Olivier to have been the “definitive” production in English.2 There is talk in similar terms about Olivier’s British National Theatre production of Uncle Vanya, presented at Chichester in 1963 and transferred to the Old Vic in 1964. There were early assumptions of the same kind about the Chekhov productions of the Moscow Art Theatre. And no doubt each of us has his image of a definitive production of these plays. The issue becomes acute in the case of Chekhov, whose carefully ambivalent attitude to life as reflected in the major plays has regularly teased directors and audiences in this century. The teasing is especially brilliant in the last moments of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, while central characters in The Cherry Orchard, like Trofimov and Lopahin, seem deliberately to invite a choice of readings. In the end Chekhov leaves the spectator’s own insight to unify the disparate elements of his plays. * Parts of this paper will appear in Chekhov in Performance, to be pub­ lished by Cambridge University Press. Grateful acknowledgment is made to the Press for their permission to use the material. 177 178 Comparative Drama By comparison with The Seagull, the “plotting” of Uncle Vanya is simple. But this simplicity does not lend the play any quality of conclusiveness, and it is very much in doubt whether, as Eric Bentley has maintained,3 Vanya, Sonya and Astrov are seen to grow from ignorance to self-knowledge. It is more true to say that it is the spectator who receives his education at their hands: the inconclusive ending calls for completion in the mind of the audience. For Act IV of Uncle Vanya closes on a wholly reflective curtain, anticlimactic in spirit, one belonging to “an autumn evening and very quiet.”4 After the explosion of Act III, this tone is maintained throughout the act, and Sonya’s final assertions, far from being a prophetic, optimistic and uplifting expression of hope and faith, are shot through with the implicit doubts of one who seeks to console herself for her servile mortality with the merest intimations of im­ mortality. In a context of Chekhovian irony, broad moralistic asser­ tions, like those of Vershinin, Tusenbach and Trofimov in later plays, are always deliciously suspect. In the last act of Uncle Vanya, the weight of the play denies Sonya her faith before she opens her mouth. Chekhov offers only a final quizzical portrait of waste and frustration, and refuses to resolve the problem he raises. As Vanya buries his tears in his account books, and Sonya repeats her refrain, “We shall rest,” we also see and hear their environment as it was in the beginning, indifferent to their troubles: the watchman tapping, Waffles strum­ ming on his guitar, two old women knitting and scribbling; and the Russian winter has returned. When Vanya weeps, he is reflecting Sonya’s despair in spite of the fine words she is uttering. Chekhov’s “scenes from country life” are more than an economic and social survey of rural Tsarist Russia, more than...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 177-196
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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