Tufts Magazine logo Tufts seal
The online edition of Tuft's quarterly publication Contents Back Issues Subscribe Contact Us
Selected Features
Student Life
To Your Health
Professor's Row
Photo Quiz
Magazine cover photo
Talk to Us
Send a Letter
Send a Classnote
Update your Records
Related Links
Tufts E-News link
Tufts Journal link
Tufts University link
link to Alumni Office
Tufts Career Network link
Support Tufts
Winter 2005
photo by Tracy Powell  
Laurence Senelick

The centennial of Chekhov’s death last year gave Laurence Senelick, Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory, ample opportunity to share his deep-seated respect for the Russian literary legend. Senelick, considered America’s leading expert on Anton Chekhov’s drama, spoke at commemorative events from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Oxford University and Colby College in Maine. Chekhov, he says, is undoubtedly the greatest Russian storyteller and dramatist of modern times, but today “one can now take out the Russian.” In addition, Senelick recently edited and translated the second edition of Anton Chekhov’s Selected Plays (Norton Critical Edition) and is now working on a one-volume edition of the complete plays. He spoke with Tufts Magazine from his office in Aidekman Arts Center.

Can you sum up how people regard Chekhov, his work, and his contributions?

It’s very interesting what’s happened over the course of a century. When Chekhov died in 1904, he was considered an important Russian author, but he wasn’t known well outside of Russia. When his plays began to be better known, they created the image of him as someone writing specifically about a portion of Russian society—a cranky, rather moonstruck, rather feckless group of people. Over the course of the century, Chekhov has come to be considered universal. He’s as important as Shakespeare in terms of repertory. When you consider that Shakespeare presents us with a huge world, characters from every period and clime and creatures that never really existed, and Chekhov presents us with a very narrow group of characters who all seem to come from the same background, you wonder why. You have to ask: What is it about Chekhov that brings him to that masterpiece level?

Did he somehow know how to tap into a human angst that resonates even today?
I don’t know if I’d use the word “angst.” The Russian symbolist poet Andrei Biely said that the thing about Chekhov is that he looks at reality so closely, in such detail, that he sees through reality to eternity. That’s a rather pretentious way of putting it, but the interesting thing about Chekhov as a playwright is that although he gives the illusion that he’s writing a naturalistic play, about things that can happen in everyday life, he’s really writing about the human condition. It opens up into realms that are far more applicable to everybody than simply living on a country estate in Russia on the eve of the Revolution.

What would be some of those common areas that you think he has touched on?

He deals very much with the disjunction between what people think they want, what they think will make them happy, and what actually makes them happy. His characters are always offering prospects of what will happen in a hundred years, or “if only”—that’s one of their favorite phrases. If only this would happen, then I would get married or so- and-so would fall in love with me, then things would be better. In the meantime, they don’t realize that much of what they’re actually doing would be productive of happiness, if they simply paid attention to it at the time.

One of the reasons I don’t like directing Chekhov in university is because so many of his plays have to do with midlife crisis, things that undergraduates don’t understand. When you’ve devoted your life to something and then at a certain point you realize it was a mistake, or your whole life has been founded on misconceptions—that can be very devastating.

Do you find anything particularly depressing about Chekhov?

No. I think that’s one of those terrible clichés, and it still adheres. People keep saying that he’s the merchant of doom and gloom, and this was very much started in his own time, when the symbolists and the decadents felt that he didn’t have enough religious or mystical uplift, that he was too mired in materiality. But, in fact, Chekhov is a comic author.

He began as a humorist when he was in medical school, writing for comic journals. And he always maintained that many of his plays are comedies, and the subtitles of several of them are “comedy,” because he doesn’t take sides with his characters. He stands aside as a doctor, he watches them clinically. It’s as if they have symptoms, as if they have a certain syndrome or a disease, and he’s interested in it. He’s not offering any cures at this point, but he’s diagnosing and seeing which ways these things manifest themselves. It doesn’t depress him that this is the way things are, because everything is changeable. And yet, why is their life dreary? Because they haven’t realized how stupid they are. He enjoys showing us where they’re going wrong.

Often in the past, The Cherry Orchard has been read as a kind of elegy for a lost way of life, “Oh, these poor aristocrats, they’re losing their estate and it’s going to be turned into building lots and they will be scattered over the face of the Earth.” But in fact the loss of the estate means nothing to them, except on a sentimental level. They’re exactly the same at the end of the play as they are at the beginning. They haven’t learned a thing, which is comic. Even when a character commits suicide, as happens in The Seagull, it happens offstage, and Chekhov wants to make it clear that this is just part of life going on. It’s not a big statement. This is somebody who couldn’t cope. Chekhov finds suicide cowardly as a way out. People should be able to cope with their lives.

What’s the root of Chekhov’s own sharp awareness of life?
Oh, much of it is rooted in his own. His father was a petty tyrant, a household despot who forced his sons to sing in the church choir, was always giving their mother a hard time. The household atmosphere was extremely oppressive. His father went bankrupt, which also happened to Ibsen and Strindberg, so there’s something in there about late-19th-century playwrights being traumatized by the family’s coming down in the world. The family moved to Moscow because the father ran off to avoid debts, leaving Chekhov, who had to finish high school. So he lived in Taganrog for two years on his own. He was abandoned. Then he moved to Moscow and had to support the family, while going to medical school, because his older brothers were bohemians and alcoholics. Then a few years later, he started spitting blood. He never admitted that he had tuberculosis. He always claimed it was something else, until around 1902, when his condition became so bad that his doctors insisted he had to live in Yalta where it’s warm. All his life he was facing difficulties, which he overcame by willpower. I mean, he starts out writing captions for cartoons and becomes one of Russia’s most important writers, while he’s still conducting a medical practice.

When he got enough money, he bought a farm, a little estate for the family to settle on. He threw himself into building schools for the peasants and serving for free in the cholera epidemic and doing charitable work. All by himself, he went off to the prison colony of Sakhalin, before the Trans-Siberian railroad was built, so he was crossing the entire continent to do ethnographic studies. Meanwhile, he was writing voluminously. This is a man who didn’t let anything get him down. So if Chekhov could do this, he didn’t see why other people couldn’t do it. He had no patience with pretension, with whining. When his characters whine and moan and groan, he’s not endorsing it by any means. He’s smiling at it, teasing.

Talk a bit more about what’s Shakespearean about Chekhov.
As I say in the preface to the critical edition, Chekhov is not writing about heroic-sized characters, but he’s got what Keats talked about in one of his letters, negative capability. That is, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Chekhov’s contemporaries kept complaining that he didn’t join factions, he didn’t have messages in his work, he didn’t preach a better future. Chekhov was saying it’s not the job of a writer to answer questions, but to ask them. That’s where the negative capability comes in, by that I mean, leaving things open-ended. Negative means emptying yourself out of your own personality, your own prejudices, so that you can present characters from their point of view. As a result, Chekhov is very hard to pin down, he’s very elusive both as a person and as a writer. It’s dangerous to point at a character and say that’s his spokesman, because he’s slippery. I think Chekhov likes to slip the noose whenever people think that they’ve got a grip on what exactly it is he had in mind; he shows you another facet of the problem.

He is a master observer. He can observe and record what might be a routine detail and yet . . . his details are very selective, but they add up, they’re there for a reason. You discover when you examine the plays carefully, especially the best ones, everything is there for a reason. When you look at his drafts, you discover that whenever he revises, he revises to leave things out. He keeps simplifying and he keeps removing the lines that are too explicit.

So is he the master of the implicit?
Yes, very much so. In fact, he’s one of the masters of the pause. This is one of the innovations of playwriting at the end of the 19th century, the discovery of the pause and what takes place in that pause.

What does take place in that pause?
Well, it depends. In the earlier plays, the pause often means the characters are uncomfortable or embarrassed and they’ve run out of things to say. But in the later plays, the pause takes on symbolic meaning, so by the time you get to The Cherry Orchard, the pause is like something that Beckett once described as “those zones in life where the everyday activity of living suddenly stops and you’re confronted with all the horrors of existing.” It’s not just reading the newspaper and lighting your pipe and having sex and walking the dog and so on; suddenly you’re faced with the void and it’s scary. That happens in Chekhov’s plays. Those pauses are awesome, where the characters run right up against life with a capital “L.”

What was a main focus for you as you joined others at events marking the centennial of Chekhov’s death?
One of the things I talked about a good deal was translating Chekhov, because there are lots and lots of Chekhov translations, and what’s the point with doing them again? You do them again, partly because, certainly in terms of the plays, there is no such thing as a definitive translation. But also I don’t think people have seen the jokes. There are lots of jokes in Chekhov that seem to have eluded many of the translators, which make him a funnier author.

Jokes in the sense that . . . ?
Wry, little kinds of connections. I tried to show them in the translation and also in the footnotes, to make readers more aware of things like that.

What do you think that brings to the discussion of Chekhov?
I think it’s going to lighten him up for a lot of people. It may be a little tedious to point out jokes, nevertheless, once people know they’re lurking there, they may realize that something else is going on. Despite the fact that there have been endless comic productions of Chekhov in the last few years, the average person thinks of Chekhov in the way that Gershwin wrote in the song, “more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee.”

I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake at the Shaw Festival some years ago to talk about their production of The Seagull. It was the first time that the Shaw Festival had ever done Chekhov. It was a very funny production. They did the first three acts as justifiable comedy. But at the hotel where I was staying, you’d hear people in the breakfast room, “Oh, are you going to see that Russian play?” “No, I think it’s going to be too depressing.” I think one has to come to the theater with an open mind. Maybe, the less you think you know about Chekhov, the better.

It’s interesting. I had my students define the word “Chekhovian” at the beginning of the semester, and then I had them do it again at the end of the semester. And the adjectives all changed. They began with the usual clichés. Gloomy, dark, about aristocrats, frustrated, bittersweet, all that stuff. But, by the end, they began to realize that he was more ironic, objective, had comic distance, that it’s not about the aristocrats so much as it is about the gentry; it’s even-handed and not naturalistic. They all began to recognize his odd combination of realism and symbolism. That’s education.