If one were to choose a 20th century rock lyric to summarize the plays of Anton Chekhov, you could do worse than the Rolling Stones’ line “You can’t always get what you want”. That’s not to say that his plays are all doom and gloom: actually, the plays invite us to laugh at the fact that Murphy’s Law governs the lives of Chekhov’s characters as much as it governs our own.
As a writer, and as a person, Chekhov couldn’t really escape irony – comic or dramatic – in life or in death. A young physician diagnosed with tuberculosis just as he was starting his own medical practice, Chekhov fully comprehended the dark fate that awaited him. After he eventually succumbed to tuberculosis at age 44 in the summer of 1904, his funeral exhibited the same sadness packaged in comedy – or comedy packaged in sadness – that his extraordinary plays exhibit. The Russian writer/doctor had died in Germany, where, according to tradition, when his death was imminent he was handed a glass of champagne. He remarked that it had been a “long time” since he’d had champagne, he declared he was dying, and then did so. His body was shipped back to Moscow for burial. The crowd that awaited the deceased’s return at the railway station discovered their beloved writer’s body had been transported in a car labelled “Fresh Oysters”, the railroad workers having had no idea of the nature of their cargo’s celebrity.
Chekhov’s funeral coincided with that of a celebrated Russian Army general, a certain General Keller of Manchuria, whose burial at the same cemetery on the same day necessitated a military band. Some of the huge crowd who had turned up for Chekhov’s remembrances accidentally following the wrong funeral procession because of the hubbub. And if that were not enough, a substantial portion of the remaining mourners gawked so much at Chekhov’s celebrity friends in attendance that they undermined the solemnity of the occasion.
The same principles of Murphy’s Law that touched Anton Chekhov’s own short but productive life also infuse the lives of his characters in Uncle Vanya as well as his other major plays, all considered classics of world theatre: The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. There are so many overlapping love triangles in his plays, in number and in scale, in wished-for couplings and attempted connections that, if mapped out, their designs would look like fractals. In this way, Chekhov’s plays could give Shortland Street a run for their money. It is no coincidence that Chekhov is the writer to whom we attribute the maxim, “If a gun appears onstage in Act I, it will be fired by the end of Act IV.” What distinguishes him as a writer, though, is his relentless, heart-wrenching sensitivity to each of the human beings he portrays onstage and the extent to which his flawed, funny, strange, sexy, awkward, determined characters are us and not the people we see on TV.
Through the imperfect characters like Vanya, Sonya, Astrov and Yelena (all in multiple love triangles, in Uncle Vanya, incidentally) Chekhov dares to reflect back to us how hard we work to extract the love we crave from an unwilling companion, or how the flush of dread feels when we’ve just said something aloud that can’t be taken back. He captures the inevitable, embarrassing gallows humour that seizes the best of us at the worst possible moments and he simultaneously celebrates and damns the very human nature that civilisation is erected to chaperone. In-laws are shot at within spitting distance, but nonetheless the bullets miss their mark. Great umbrage is taken at the thoughtless upheaval of sacred daily rituals such as breakfast at the proper time. A talkative jackass, whom you never liked, takes all the credit for your work. Your dad marries a much younger woman after your mother dies, and the man you’re in love with thinks she’s gorgeous.
These are the dramas–funny because we recognize them, sad because we recognize them–that punctuate our actual lives, and they’re the stuff that Chekhov so deftly weaves into his plays. Whether or not these daily circumstances constitute comedy or tragedy is a philosophical question that boils down to world view. Come and see for yourself. “You just might find… you get what you need”.