What is there about some playwrights that both delights and maddens viewers? And why does the tension between delight and frustration make their work so alive, so dynamic? A recent review by Ben Brantley in The New York Times of an innovative production of Uncle Vanya described just this situation. Our boy Ben found himself captivated for almost three hours by a play in which nothing much really happens. How did Anton manage to pull this off?
According to Ben, it’s because Anton is a master at keeping both his characters and his audience off-balance emotionally. Are the characters in a Chekhov play happy or simply artfully hiding their misery? Are they bored or confused and immobilized? Are they truly trying to change their lives or simply deluded into thinking that that’s what they should be striving to do?
Says Ben: “Such blurring of emotions is what makes Chekhov the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare, and also the hardest to get right in performance. His plays are notoriously classified as comedies, but their world view is as bleak as Beckett’s.”
Bleak is a strong word, but it seems apt when it comes to Chekhov. There is something almost claustrophobic and threatening about the worlds he creates on stage. It’s as if all the joy and energy are sucked out of the air that the characters are breathing. They seem doomed not to truly connect even though they desperately want to. Missed opportunities, deep losses, and frustrated ambitions abound in Chekhov plays—desire seems fated to remain unfulfilled.
Given this bleak worldview, how does Anton manage to hold our attention? Why don’t we as viewers simply throw up our hands and say, “What’s the point of it all?” I think we resist this impulse because we keep rooting for the characters to somehow break through the walls that isolate them from each other. We yearn for them to bridge the gaps that divide them, even though, in our hearts, we know that this will never happen.
What a feat of derring-do! To entice viewers into a world, show them how haphazardly and ineffectively characters inhabit that world, and then compel us to hope that those characters will somehow overcome their limitations and find happiness. What an amazing recipe for drama! No wonder Ben compares Anton to Will. Write on!