Book reviews

Five Plays by Anton Chekhov

I spun Anton Chekhov’s Five Plays for The Classics Club’s most recent spin from a selection of twenty books which scared me. Five Plays was number one on my list because of my fear of not understanding the plays – Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, and possibly this affected my reading because I didn’t enjoy any of these plays.

The plots of each were similar in that they were about people who were in love with the wrong person, generally unhappy and bored with their lives. Most of the characters were lazy, fickle and irritatingly melodramatic. Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters all finished with one particularly unhappy character attempting to shoot themselves or someone else.

Ivanov. Ivanov and Sarah were married, but after five years he became infatuated with their neighbour’s daughter. After Sarah became sick and died, the doctor nagged Ivanov about ignoring Sarah’s needs until Ivanov got the guilts and shot himself. When I finished this I immediately wished that Ivanov had done it on the first page to have saved me the reading time.

The Seagull. Constantine wanted to be a famous playwright, but his mother, Irina, a famous actress, didn’t rate his work. Neither did her lover, who was a famous writer or anyone else in the play. All of the characters were in love with the wrong person. Constantine shot a seagull for the woman he loved, and later he shot himself. As per Ivanov, I wish he’d done it sooner. Each of this play’s characters were bored with their stupid, pointless lives and so was I. If anyone ever presented me with a seagull they had shot I’d arrange to have them locked up.

Uncle Vanya. Uncle Vanya was in love with Helen, who is married to Uncle Vanya’s former brother-in-law, Alexander. Their household also included Uncle Vanya’s mother (Alexander’s former mother-in-law), Alexander’s daughter Sonya from his first marriage and a swag of household servants. Sonya was in love with the doctor, but the doctor was in love with Helen, who was young and beautiful. Uncle Vanya tried to shoot Alexander and missed, so stole drugs from the doctor with the intention of killing himself, except the doctor begged Uncle Vanya to shoot himself in the forest instead of taking his drugs so he (the doctor) wouldn’t have to fill out any paperwork about his death. (I sympathised here with the doctor, nobody likes doing paperwork). All of the characters in Uncle Vanya were also bored stupid with themselves.

The highpoint for me from Uncle Vanya was the doctor’s environmental stance. Unlike anyone else in the story who was unhappy about something, he acted on his worries in a more practical way than just shooting himself or someone else. The doctor’s concern that recent forest destruction was affecting animals, rivers and flora led him to make passionate speeches which the other characters ignored, but also to replant forests on his own land.

Three Sisters. A story of three sisters, their brother, plus various husbands, wives and the sister’s friends from the military, who were stationed in their small Russian town. This story had the usual mess of unhappy characters who were dissatisfied with their lot in life, along with husbands and wives in love with other people. Unsurprisingly, one of the characters was killed at the end of the play, however I don’t know if the character was shot or died in another way, because this time the death was the result of a duel and the action happened off stage.

The following excerpt from Three Sisters is typical of a Chekhov character’s pity party for themselves:

Irina (trying to console herself). Oh, I’m so miserable. I can’t, I won’t, I will not work. I’ve had enough. I used to be at the post office and now I work for the town council, and I loathe and despise everything they give me to do. I’m twenty-three, I’ve been working all this time and my brain’s shrivelled up. I’ve grown thin and ugly and old and I’ve nothing to show for it, nothing, no satisfaction of any kind, while time passes by and I feel I’m losing touch with everything fine and genuine in life. It’s like sinking down, down into a bottomless pit. I’m desperate. Why am I still alive, why haven’t I done away with myself? I don’t know.

See what I mean? Irina is 23 and sick of herself. 23! I feel like smacking her.

The Cherry Orchard. Mrs Ranevsky owned an estate with a cherry orchard which was to be sold to cover her debts, which affected the lifestyles of her family members, servants and the local community. Mrs Ranevsky was a silly, middle-aged woman who foolishly fell in love with a young man who only wanted her money. What little money she had left she gave away, even though she couldn’t afford to feed her servants. A neighbour, a former serf, advised Mrs Ranevsky to cut the trees down and build summer cottages, but she wouldn’t, and in the end he bought the property and the play ended with the sound of the cherry trees being cut down. For Mrs Ranevsky’s loyal and forgotten servants, I felt this play was more of a tragedy, but at least no one got shot. I also felt sad about the loss of the cherry orchard, but in terms of business, at least somebody (the former serf) had a clue.

This play is supposed to be a comedy, but I didn’t think it was funny. On the plus side, though, nobody shot themselves or anyone else, although one character threated to…

Yepikhodov. I’m a cultured sort of person and read all kinds of remarkable books, but I just can’t get a line on what it is I’m really after. Shall I go on living or shall I shoot myself, I mean? But anyway, I always carry a revolver. Here is it. (Shows them his revolver).

I cannot express how glad I am to have finished these plays. Had they not been a Classics Club spin, I probably would have stopped reading after Ivanov. I’ve come away from these plays feeling as if Chekhov was reflecting his world back at his audience, then the Russian people from this time and place were the most melodramatic, despairing and unhappiest people on earth.

I do recognise that my reading of Five Plays would be enhanced by a better knowledge of Russia during this time. The foreword suggests that these plays represent the country being on the edge of the enormous change that occurred soon after. No doubt I would also gain from watching the plays performed, but I can’t see that happening…

Five Plays was book six for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

Comments on: "Five Plays by Anton Chekhov" (4)

  1. I’ve never tried to read Chekhov but I have seen one of his plays, The Present, starring Cate Blanchard a few years ago, which had all the themes you wrote about. I’m not an imaginative, visual person at all. Reading the play gives me almost nothing to work with, so that when I seethe play performed I’m astounded by all the nuance and complexity that can be worked into the seemingly ridiculous words on the page.
    The Present was an amazing performance by Blanchard and the rest of the cast and made me keen to SEE more Chekhov plays.

  2. Groan. Now I’m wondering if I should give one of the plays a chance as an actual play, or as a film. Cate Blanchard is fantastic, it must have been wonderful to watch her acting in a play. I don’t often read plays but have enjoyed Oscar Wilde’s, as well as seeing them as films and from that experience know that you are correct in saying there is so much more to enjoy when they are performed as they are intended.

  3. Cate was luminous. Watching her act up close like that was truly a memorable experience. It’s always fascinating to see the same play performed by different people too – the different interpretations are intriguing.

  4. I haven’t seen enough plays or movie remakes to compare, but love hearing different artists perform the same piece of music, same same but different?

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