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Simple, inspiring, misread

Times Staff Writer

PLAYWRIGHTS try to emulate him, actors cut their teeth on his roles, and directors thrill to the challenge of staging his plays. Can there be any artist more inspirational to other artists than Anton Chekhov, the gentle Russian doctor with the knowing smile, distinguished pince-nez, and self-effacing body of work that’s blessedly free of the phonebook-fat novels so beloved by his more egocentric literary countrymen?

Think about it: Shakespeare daunts, Ibsen chills, O’Neill depresses and Beckett leaves us feeling at a loss. Chekhov, on the other hand, is our immediate and lasting friend, the one we turn to when life presses an awareness of itself and we feel in need of a little existential companionship. A hunger for Chekhov has indeed become tantamount to a hunger for the inward solace of art.

Not for nothing is Sean Mathias’ production of “The Cherry Orchard,” opening today at the Mark Taper Forum, one of the most anticipated events of the new theater season. Sure, Annette Bening is the star. But it’s Annette Bening in Chekhov that promises something unusually fine.

Yet could it be that we’ve gotten this writer all wrong? That maybe he’s not the sweet-natured, melancholy chap so many of us have assumed him to be? And that his vision, while undeniably compassionate on the level of character, may at the same time be ruthlessly unconsoling when it comes to depicting our condition?

Critics have long been battling to define the essence of Chekhov -- so simple and yet so profoundly elusive -- and have continually refashioned him in their own image. In describing the manifold ways in which he’s been understood -- tragic, comic, farcical, satirical, revolutionary, naturalistic, surrealistic, expressionistic, even postmodern -- one begins to sound like Polonius itemizing to Hamlet the “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral” talents of the newly arrived players at Elsinore.

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An important clue to understanding Chekhov can be found in the central debate over the nature of his plays. Are they meant to make us laugh, cry, or some Slavic combination of the two? It’s a question that has dogged “The Cherry Orchard” (the most hotly contested of the plays) from its debut in 1904. (A centennial production at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre inspired the apt program title “A Hundred Years of Misunderstanding.”)

The confusion harks back to Konstantin Stanislavsky, who directed the Moscow Art Theatre premiere. His production famously emphasized the work’s more somber notes, turning the self-labeled comedy into a poignant, slow-moving symphony, a point that exasperated the usually unflappable playwright.

“Is it my ‘Cherry Orchard’?” asked Chekhov after seeing what Stanislavsky had done to what would be his last play. “I am describing life, ordinary life, and not blank despondency. They either make me into a crybaby or into a bore. They invent something about me out of their own heads.”

The gloomy Gusses, who still hold sway when it comes to interpretive direction, mistake even the pratfalls for poignancy. For them, motivation is always pathetic, no matter that much of the histrionic emotion is intended to make us laugh. Who, for instance, can suppress a smile (if not a smirk) at Ranevskaya’s poetic rhapsodies over her famous orchard that she won’t even consider chopping down to save her estate, or her brother Gaev’s crazy apostrophe to a cherished family bookcase, punctuated by a few deft moves in his ongoing game of air billiards?

The scholar Francis Ferguson once described “The Cherry Orchard,” a drama that charts the loss of a beloved homestead through aristocratic inertia, as a “poem on the suffering of change.” Accurate as this insight is, the rhetoric is all wrong -- and you can imagine Chekhov shaking his head at the sorrowful sound.

Yet Stanislavsky’s poetic realism, lugubrious as it is in the wrong hands (including possibly his own), has yet to be bested by other approaches to Chekhov. Certainly the comic correctives, with their screwy slapstick and sitcom reductions, have failed to persuade, even in the bold hands of such auteurs as Andrei Serban and Jonathan Miller, both of whom fashioned rambunctiously frolicsome “Cherry Orchards” that were far from definitive.

If great actors can’t convince us with their deft clowning, what director can? When Meryl Streep literally performed cartwheels in Mike Nichols’ hammy version of “The Seagull” in Central Park a few years back, one could only wish that she had been encouraged to reach into her capacious bag of accents and pull out a slightly more serious tone for the humorously histrionic Arkadina, the fading actress whose unbridled narcissism contributes to her oedipally challenged son’s eventual suicide. And though critic Walter Kerr liked Streep’s earlier zany turn as Dunyasha in Serban’s 1977 Lincoln Center staging of “The Cherry Orchard,” he reported that “she had to work hard, too hard, to establish a level of gagging we’re certainly not accustomed to [in the play], and some of her extravagances -- crashing to the floor in a faint after a single kiss -- fell as flat as she did.”

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The delight in the quotidian

IN a curious essay that followed his own adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard,” David Mamet argues that Chekhov was writing not just comedy but farce. Taking his point a step further, he describes the work as a set of “review sketches on a common theme.” (Fortunately, he picks a good one -- “frustrated sexuality.”) But hilariously accident-prone as the action is (there’s everything from a bumbling clerk’s squeaky boots to a professional student’s stumble down a flight of stairs), the only thing more boring than a ponderously distraught staging of the play is one that tries to pass it off as “Monty Python’s Moscow Circus.”

Clearly, the traditional categories of tragedy and comedy are too limiting for Chekhov’s genius. The author himself chose various designations for his four major plays: “comedy” for “The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard”; “drama” for “Three Sisters”; and the beguiling “scenes from country life” for “Uncle Vanya.” Yet these distinctions, which have nothing at all to do with happy or unhappy endings, blur as you experience the works’ unrestricted energies.

In an essay on Proust, the great German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin observed that “all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one -- that they are, in other words, special cases.” Chekhov’s specialness lies in his delight in the quotidian, the everyday to-ing and fro-ing that by degrees etches a tenuous destiny.

“What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.” These oft-quoted words of Chekhov’s hold the secret to the duality of his vision. Yet to understand the slippery way light and dark interact in his work, it’s useful to recall the unique background Chekhov brings to his dramatic art.

Chekhov started writing humor pieces for the newspapers while studying medicine in Moscow and continued to churn out farcical one-acts throughout his career. (He was revising the stand-up monologue “The Evils of Tobacco” while working on “The Cherry Orchard.”) All of his plays are shot through with broad comic turns, yet directors who confuse the comedy of Chekhov’s vaudeville sketches with that of his great plays do the playwright a great disservice.

To understand his dramatic imagination, you’d be better advised to examine his short stories. Just as you can’t separate the poet from the playwright in Shakespeare, so you cannot isolate the author of “Three Sisters” from that of “The Lady With the Pet Dog.” After all, it was through his stories that Chekhov developed his mastery of the pianissimo drama, the anti-melodramatic style that Richard Gilman brilliantly analyzes in his book “Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity.” Given the coincidence-heavy, crescendo-driven claptrap that dominated the 19th century Russian stage, Chekhov’s discovery of new suppleness in the form is astonishing if not in fact revolutionary, as critics like Gilman have claimed.

The short story can be defined as a record of emotion. Eudora Welty, a master practitioner herself, observed that a “story behaves, it goes through motions.” By this she implied that it wasn’t a description of a feeling but an enactment of the feeling’s shifting course.

This notion serves Chekhov’s dramaturgy, which is full of movement although it’s often been considered static for failing to properly climax in knot-tying endings. What Chekhov offers -- and what is really at the heart of all great theatrical comedy from Shakespeare to Beckett -- is a sense of the ongoing rhythm of life, the fact that no matter the gales of laughter (or streams of tears), another day will punctually follow. Comedy, unlike tragedy, is all about second chances, which is why the heartbreaking loss of the country estate in “The Cherry Orchard” also spells potentially thrilling beginnings for everyone, and not just the self-made businessman and former peasant, Lopakhin, who bought it out from under his aristocratic betters.

Chekhov’s medical background is not irrelevant to his unsentimental empirical outlook. Having practiced as a physician through much of his professional life (“medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress,” he said), he freely acknowledged its influence on his literary sensibility: “It significantly broadened the scope of my observations.... I am not one of those writers who deny the value of science and would not wish to be one of those who believe they can figure out everything for themselves.”

Chekhov was frequently criticized by other Russian writers, most notably Tolstoy, for not taking enough of a stand on the pressing social problems of the day. But ideology was foreign to him; his training as a doctor had taught him to see what was before him, not what he wished were there instead. The only exception to this was his health. Chekhov, who died at 44 from tuberculosis, refused to recognize his own symptoms, which had begun in his mid-20s. But here his clinical sense was challenged by his aversion to self-pity.

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A lack of preachiness

DRAMA entails the collision of perspectives, and Chekhov’s work gathers the conflicting conundrums of how to live one’s life. His plays are remarkable for their lack of preachiness; no one serves as a spokesperson for the playwright. Glorious compositional form is given to questions rather than solutions. If there’s anything that joins his characters, it’s that they all have their backs up against the dark inexplicability of existence.

“Tolstoy’s morality has stopped moving me,” Chekhov wrote. "[I]n the depth of my soul I am hostile to it and that of course is unjust.” It was the didacticism that most offended, the sense that life had somehow been figured out. "[C]alculation and justice tell me that electricity and steam show more love for humanity than chastity and vegetarianism,” he concluded in a moment of uncrusading reverie.

But why does Chekhov’s temperament seem so comforting when it refuses to reassure at every turn? For one thing, it brings a clear air of truthfulness. For another, fiendishly ironic as it is, it stops short of nihilism. The world may be confounding, chaotic and bent on loss, but it’s not without value. Our clumsy struggle is not only a source of laughter but also of sad beauty. The message may be cold comfort, but it comes from some deep affinity for life itself.

In one of the most moving letters ever written by an artist, Chekhov outlines his fundamental creed:

“I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk.... I would like to be a free artist and nothing else and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all of their forms.... Pharisaism, dull wittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable -- freedom from violence and lies no matter what form [they] ... take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”

It was through comedy that Chekhov was able to most fully realize this vision. Not a comedy of cheap yuks, but one that saw our lives as both irreplaceable masterpieces and scatterable grains of sand. A recipe, in short, for that quintessential Chekhovian stage direction, “laughing through tears.”

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Charles McNulty is The Times’ theater

critic. Contact him at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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‘The Cherry Orchard’

Where: Mark Taper Forum,

135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 19

Price: $20 to $55

Contact: (213) 628-2772


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