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192 Comparative Drama Chekhov: The Critical Heritage, edited by Victor Emeljanov. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. Pp. xxiii + 471. $50.00. The venerable London publishing house of Routledge and Kegan Paul has issued another volume in its invaluable Critical Heritage series. Chekhov: The Critical Heritage is only the second one which deals with a playwright who did not write in English. (Michael Egan’s Ibsen was the first.) A Tolstoy volume has also appeared, however. Perhaps the great influence and popularity of these two Russian classics in England explains their anomalous appearance here. The series does seem to lack a general editorial policy, for the Chekhov and the Tolstoy differ con­ siderably in their organization. While A. V. Knowles limited himself to material published during Tolstoy’s lifetime, but included all the major European countries, Victor Emeljanov has limited himself to material written only in English (mostly reviews of performances of the plays in London and New York, with a few essays on the short stories), but began in 1891, and ended in 1945. When well done, as this one is, these anthologies offer rich material for Kulturgeschichte. Chekhov: The Critical Heritage offers, among other things, something like a case study in the change in the British esthetic sensibility which Paul Fussell has so astutely analyzed in The G reat War and M odem M em ory. (Interestingly, the flamboyance of the Ballet Russee offered no esthetic problems for the British pre-war public, so that it is not a matter of provincialism.) Chekhov’s obituary in The Times—he died in 1904—stated that “He was not unsuccessful as a dramatist” (72). This ambivalence appears in virtually all of the pre-war comments. Over and over, reviewers deliver themselves of such generalizations as “The Russians are bom realists” (79). And I cannot refrain from citing H. de W. Fuller’s dis­ missal of Treplev’s suicide in The Seagull, for it is a triumph of that philistinism which Russians call poshlost’: The only answer that a normal American boy can make to this sort of thing is that, if the boy had had the advantage of some athletic sport, he would doubtless have worked off most of the vague feelings which he mistook for the stirrings of genius. (139) Yet even before the Great War was over, in 1915, the always astute E. M. Forster could warn his fellow countrymen, “Russian literature will scarcely come into its own until we cease to seek in it for the Russian spirit” (135). By 1919 Gilbert Cannan could begin a review of a produc­ tion of The Seagull with the flat statement, “Chekhov is a Master” (169). Frances Hackett explained the change by observing that, “Since 1914 most of us have learned something about the mysticism and credulity of human nature” (183). I might add that the British had also learned something about non-communication and the destruction of the class system, as well. About half of the 239 entries in Chekhov: The Critical Heritage come from the twenties, and rightly so, for it was the decade in which the British and the Americns alike were finally prepared to discover Chekhov. In the twenties even Arnold Bennet and Virginia Woolf agreed on Chekhov. Although Emeljanov’s useful index does not mention Charlie Reviews 193 Chaplin, one may well wonder whether silent film did not give people an appreciation of pauses, gestures, and silences which sensitized them to Chekhov’s subtleties. At any rate, the role of film complements the role of the war in formulating an answer to the question with which Brooks Atkinson began his review of the 1929 Chekhov season: “How does it happen that plays once avoided as lugubrious and shapeless now appear to be etched in light?” (349) It is most informative to read here the comments by William Lyon Phelps of Yale, an early American proponent of Chekhov, and to read Frances Hackett’s suggestion that if Americans want to understand The Three Sisters on their own terms, they should think of it as taking place in Kansas. And although we do not think of Edmund Wilson as a drama critic, as early as 1923 he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 192-193
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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