J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (Buddy Glass’ letter to Zooey 3.5)
I went to see The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre last night and remembered these words. The production was competent, smart, energetic; it was genuinely funny and very enjoyable, but yet something of the balance Chekhov carefully wrote into it was lost.
Many critics had trouble with Andrew Upton’s translation, which updated the language of the play with some modern expressions and phrasing, particularly in Lopakhin’s dialogue. Not my problem, I have to say I thought that worked quite well: Lopakhin represents a practical, necessary, somewhat crass future that leaves no space for the flourishing language of well-educated aristocrats like Ranyevskaya or hopeless intellectuals like Trofimov. Lopakhin’s business-like manner and reduced vocabulary inevitably failed him when it came to discuss his feelings, and were accountable for both his inability to propose to Varya (whom he doesn’t love) and to confess his atrocious, unrequited love to Ranyevskaya.
Chekhov weaves into the play a very subtle, delicate, painful conflict between Lopakhin’s desire for social ascent (his grandfather was a serf, his father was a servant, and now he gets to own the estate!) and his emotional attachment to the estate and its people (embodied in the Countess, whom he calls his “mistress”). But more than half of what Lopakhin’s character is about is deliberately subtextual, and must be questioned in production: why does he buy the cherry orchard? Was it a scheme from the start? Is it a grand gesture to gain Ranyevskaya’s love? Does he know that she is intending to return to Paris anyway? Does he deliberately lead Varya on to believe he is interested in her? What is it in him that she loves? Howard Davis’ production made great use of Chekhov’s written humour, but slightly missed his great unwritten depth of emotion. It’s bizarre because usually British productions of Chekhov fail the other way round - too much melancholy and gloom and not enough comedy.
In thinking about this I was also reminded of a great lesson in balancing dramatic swings I once got from watching Mark Rylance play Cleopatra - not his best role and a questionable project in many ways, but he pointed out to me how, before a great tragic moment such as the death of Antony in Cleopatra’s arms, Shakespeare writes in some rather farcical stuff - the bearing of Antony’s body aloft to the monument, and Cleopatra’s line “how heavy weighs my lord!” It is the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime, if you will, or simply of comedy and tragedy, that generates drama or emotion, the thing that literally moves the spectator.
Chekhov writes high comedy but doesn’t write high tragedy. The comedy is outlined in great detail in his stage directions and dialogues to be rough, loud and visual; on the other hand, the tragedy in his characters’ lives is always subdued, simmering under the surface, and therefore the balancing act is more difficult to pull through. But all the material is there for an actor to juggle, and when it does work (and I have seen it work, particularly in Russian productions) its power is devastating.
A written play is only the tip of an iceberg, really it should be a user’s manual, a guide to an unfamiliar place, but it is not the whole picture. So while some of Chekhov’s plays are practically perfect from a dramaturgical point of view, his great talent as a dramatist can only be put to its intended purpose when it is lifted from the page and onto the stage. We keep going back to watch his plays in the hope that the potential of the page is realised, that its beauty explodes like the cherries in bloom.
Maybe like Zooey I demand too much from art, from theatre in particular. Maybe it’s why I had to get out.