Written for the 2017 production of Uncle Vanya by Artistic Director Ross Gumbley.
In the 32 years that I have been an actor, a director, a playwright, an improviser and a teacher of improvisation I thought my thinking had been predominantly underscored by one dramatist: Shakespeare… obviously. But with Uncle Vanya in rehearsal and an Anton Chekhov script back in the building the more I realised how profound Chekhov’s influence was to actors, writers and teachers of my generation. It brought home to me that the revolution he created is still being felt today. In many ways, he was so far ahead of the game that it has taken us one hundred years to catch up. The following quotes, maxims and ideas have underpinned my thinking as a theatre practitioner.
The term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ comes from something Chekhov allegedly said in the 1880s – it was noted down by Ilia Gurliand and published in his Reminiscences of A.P. Chekhov – ‘If in Act One you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act’. There has never been a single piece of dramatic theory that speaks more effectively to the dramatist’s art than this wise quote. Good plays are, by their nature, exercises in brevity. Good plays take us on a journey from the beginning through the middle and on to the end following a predetermined path to a logical conclusion. That is where Chekhov’s sage advice is so fundamental. In 2006 it led me to an understanding of improvisational theatre. The story is propelled forward from the impact of what came before. If an improv scene starts with someone riding a bike the story advances by the cyclist getting a puncture, having an accident or collapsing from too much exercise! It can be anything, providing it is a natural result of riding a bike. This theory is the application of Chekhov’s gun.
‘It is the duty of the dramatist to raise questions not answer them’
Chekhov was more interested in representing people as they are rather than casting moral judgements on them. If only every writer of plays embraced this maxim it would avoid a lot of dull nights in the theatre. This quote, more than almost any other, drives what a good play must be. A play which didactically thrusts its message at its audience is easily dismissed. The idea behind a play is like the gas that cooks food – it’s essential while you’re creating; but no one wants to taste it when it’s served. Chekhov’s plays represent individuals going about their lives in all their shambolic glory. It is for an audience to stare in, ponder them and draw their own conclusions.
Chekhov’s comedic touch
Chekhov’s comedic touch is an exercise in dryness. That style of comedy has come more into fashion over the years. From a comedic point of view he was way ahead of his time. Television programmes like The Office, which squeeze the comedy out of excruciating social situations, are much closer to Chekhov than to their immediate predecessors, the broader comedy of the sixties and seventies. Chekhov knew how to present and elevate the absurdities of his characters to the level that an audience can simultaneously identify with their pain and empathise to the point of laughter.
Chekhov contended that farce was a natural part of life. Something that affected me personally as a young playwright was his ability to safeguard against slipping into soap opera by undercutting intense dramatic situations with absurd humour. In Three Sisters when Masha is saying goodbye to her clandestine lover Vershinin, the situation is made socially and dramatically awkward because this tragic goodbye is conducted in front of her husband, the man she has cuckolded. As Vershinin leaves we feel for all the parties and at that point the husband, who has perhaps our greatest sympathy, turns around with a false beard on and says ‘people say when I wear this I resemble the German master’. A scene which could have come from a soap opera is immediately undercut and is more effective for it.
In death, as in life
Chekhov’s demise allows us to consider that life often imitates art. Maxim Gorky described Chekhov’s funeral as a disgrace. He spoke of his friend Anton Chekhov as a man who would ‘squirm at anything vile and vulgar’. Ironically then Chekhov’s corpse was transported from Germany in a refrigerated train marked, ‘For Oysters.’ An army general was being buried on the same day. Chekhov’s funeral profession became confused and at one point began following the wrong hearse to the accompaniment of a military band! The family did not arrive until the procession was almost complete and then they had to force their way in. I wonder if Gorky was right? Part of me likes to think that Anton Pavlovich Chekhov would have totally approved; a dose of comedy mixed with tragedy on the occasion of his poignant death.
Anton Chekhov was an exceptional artist, no doubt. He was also an expert craftsman whose work is inspirational. To study him is to take a master-class in the art of creating theatre.