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Chekhov for the 21st Century. Carol Apollonio and Angela Brintlinger, eds. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2012, 49–54.       Circuses and Cemeteries: Chekhovian Topoi Vladimir Kataev The  setting  of  the  second  act  of  The  Cherry  Orchard  is  an  abandoned  cemetery.   It  is  here  that  the  professional  circus  performer  Sharlotta  delivers  her  confes-­‐‑ sional   monologue,   a   monologue   that   no   one   takes   seriously.   Her   eccentric   clothing,  clownish  attributes—which  include  a  rifle  and  a  cucumber—and  her   ironic  repeated  lines,  almost  like  reprises,  stand  in  a  virtually  impossible,  oxy-­‐‑ moronic   relationship   with   the   setting,   a   circus   in   a   cemetery.   Indeed—and   scholars   have   demonstrated   this   long   ago—the   clown   Sharlotta   fits   organi-­‐‑ cally  into  the  gallery  of  the  play’s  characters  and  in  her  own  way  expresses  its   main  theme.   The  memoirs  of  A.  S.  Suvorin,  A.  L.  Vishnevsky,  and  V.  L.  Durov,  as  well   as   Chekhov’s   letters   to   numerous   correspondents,   speak   at   length   about   Chekhov’s  unfailing  interest  in  visiting  both  circuses  and  cemeteries.  Suvorin,   for  example,  recalled:   He  was  always  interested  in  cemeteries  abroad,  in  cemeteries  and  in   the  circus,  in  whose  clowns  he  saw  real  comics.  This  virtually  defined   the   two   characteristics   of   his   talent,   the   sad   and   the   comic,   sorrow   and   humor,   tears   and   laughter,   both   at   other   people   and   at   himself.…1       This   interest,   at   first   glance,   is   rather   strange.   However,   the   choice   of   a   cemetery  as  a  setting  is  very  rare  in  Chekhov,  and  there  are  very  few  descrip-­‐‑ tions  of  cemeteries  in  his  works,  the  most  memorable  of  which  is  in  the  story   “Ionich”  (1898).  Even  fewer  are  depictions  of  the  circus  and  circus  performers;   the  most  well-­‐‑known  is  in  “Kashtanka”  (1887).     From  Chekhov  we  should  not  expect  literalism  in  the  transfer  of  impres-­‐‑ sions  and  lived  experience  into  art.  Another  theme  that  comes  from  life—the   theme  of  hard  labor—has  a  similar  fate  in  his  work.  There  are  very  few  depic-­‐‑ tions  of  hard  labor  as  a  theme  or  a  setting.  Nonetheless,  as  Chekhov  tells  us,                                                                                                                             1  “Кладбища  за  границей  его  везде  интересовали,—кладбища  и  цирк  с  его  клоун-­‐‑ ами,  в  которых  он  видел  настоящих  комиков.  Это  как  бы  определяло  два  свойства   его  таланта—грустное  и  комическое,  печаль  и  юмор,  слезы  и  смех,  и  над  окружа-­‐‑ ющим,  и  над  самим  собою.…”  (Russkoe  slovo,  5  July  1904).   50 VLADIMIR KATAEV after  1890  “everything  became  permeated  with  Sakhalin”  (vse  prosakhalineno).2   The  Sakhalin  labor  camps  entered  into  works  of  his  in  which  the  settings  were   as  far  from  Sakhalin  as  possible:  hard  labor  entered  into  his  conception  of  life,   into   his   artistic   language.   Just   as   broadly—not   merely   in   the   choice   of   set-­‐‑ ting—we  should  understand  the  importance  these  two  places  and  ideas  have   in  Chekhov’s  world:  one  connected  with  death  (the  cemetery)  and  one  a  place   of  joy  and  fun  (the  circus).   “Most  respected  audience!  I  have  just  arrived  from  the  station!  My  grand-­‐‑ mother   has   croaked   and   left   me   an   inheritance!”3   This   is   how   the   clown   in   “Kashtanka”   begins   his   performance.   The   news   of   death   here   is   only   an   excuse   for   a   continuation   of   uncontrollable   laughter.   “He   himself   laughed,   jumped,  jerked  his  shoulders  and  acted  as  if  he  were  having  a  wonderful  time   before  the  thousands  of  spectators.”4  This  open  frivolity,  this  coarse  treatment   of  the  theme  of  death  is  an  old,  ancestral  trait  of  the  circus  arts  dating  back  to   medieval   carnival,   to   ancient   ritual   performances.   This   transformation   of   death   and   everything   that   accompanies   it   into   farce   in   point   of   fact   brings   many  of  Chekhov’s  works  close  to  the  circus.   Examples   of   such   oxymorons   are   particularly   common   in   the   writer’s   early  work.  In  the  story  “The  Diplomat”  (1885),  we  read:  “The  wife  of  the  titu-­‐‑ lar  councilor  Anna  Lvovna  Kuvaldina  breathed  her  last.”5  The  relatives  of  the   deceased  send  Colonel  Piskaryov  on  a  diplomatic  mission,  to  tactfully  inform   her  former  husband  about  the  tragedy,  but  they  warn  him:  “Only,  my  dear   fellow,  don’t  stun  him  with  it  right  away,  we  don’t  want  anything  to  happen   to  him.”6  Piskaryov’s  mission  is  an  utter  failure.  At  first  he  describes  the  de-­‐‑ lights  of  “bachelor  life”  (na  kholostom  polozhenii),  then  begins  to  let  things  slip   in  one  way  and  another  (mentioning  the  deceased,  then  a  funeral  service,  ut-­‐‑ tering   the   words   “it’s   not   that   she   died,   exactly,   but…”7 ),   and   then,   having   completely   lost   his   way,   he   abandons   the   “newly   baked   widower”   (novois-­‐‑ pechennyi   vdovets).   The   saddest   thing—death—is   accompanied   here   by   the   ridiculous  and  the  comic.  What’s  more,  like  clowns  in  a  circus  act,  both  par-­‐‑                                                                                                                           2  On   Chekhov   and   Sakhalin   see,   among   others,   Edyta   Bojanowska’s   article   in   the   present  volume—A.K.B.     3  “Почтеннейшая  публика!  Я  сейчас  только  с  вокзала!  У  меня  издохла  бабушка  и   оставила  мне  наследство!”  (Works  6:  447).  All  translations  are  by...


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