Chekhov our Contemporary
by Whit Hertford
Anton Chekhov was a keen observer of life - almost surgically - and throughout his time took a unique and unrelenting curiosity of analyzing and questioning what made people behave and feel the way they did. His mother was the inspiration for his prolific nature for crafting short stories, which he worked on simultaneously as a medical student and subsequent physician. He viewed day to day living with less grandeur than Shakespeare. And he was less concerned with the great evils of the world as he is with the fact that people "live badly." He did not seek to redeem life through a grand transformation, but in his stories there are moments of sweeping beauty and goodness side by side with the coarseness of life. His stories reject the typical notion of development. His characters are not portraits, but sketches. They do not typically undergo any existential shift within the narrative. But at their core, they are silently hopeful. And wholly representative of the human experience.
I think human beings must have faith or must look for faith, otherwise our life is empty, empty. To live and not to know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why there are stars in the sky. You must know why you are alive, or else everything is nonsense, just blowing in the wind.
His personal life was held to supreme secrecy and he married later in life at the age of 41, and never had any children. Yet his writings are lush with active love and the desire for deeply rooted connection.
To fear love is to fear life, and those whose fear life are already three parts dead...
After early success and his alliance with the Moscow Art Theatre, at 31 yrs of age, the respected and successful young Russian doctor was at a personal crossroads - he felt spiritually depleted and traveled to Sakhalin Island, a tiny colony north of Japan. The journey took three months. He told his colleagues he was going for research - a “census”. A lie. Knowing of his own sickness (he was diagnosed and had lived with tuberculosis for much of his adult life) and still mourning his brother’s death from a year prior, he wrote to his friend, “There is a sort of stagnation in my soul”. He was trying to un-numb his numbness.
In Sakhlin he met the inhabitants untold disease and devastated states of day to day life. He did not look away. As a writer he also neither turns away in disgust nor rushes forward to satisfy a sadistic curiosity. He simply looks. The gaze is unsparing and penetrating, clear-eyed, ... clinical. He cuts away the artifice. Cauterises indulgences. But still allows the nerve endings to not be left seared, dead or blunted. He counteracts the numbness by invoking tenderness, a sensitivity that is precisely the opposite of dispassion. He tends to his writing and the resuscitation - a word I've used since the beginning as a way to describe my mission with Riot Act.
Chekhov, during this trip but throughout his career, created a different kind of story - one inflected with clinical humanity - observing the perfections and imperfections. After his trip, he wrote his final period of plays, The Seagull, Ward No.6, Uncle Vanya and his seminal work The Cherry Orchard.
And so, during the fall of our “Russia” - the crumbling and decaying of our own democracy and all we’ve known - how do we recover? Do we avert our eyes? Or do we succumb to numbness?
Sakhalin might not have restored Anton’s health, but it restored his sensitivity.
There should be more sincerity and heart in human relations, more silence and more simplicity in our interactions.
I have asked myself - rather stared at myself - many times and inquired, how I would respond to my own personal anesthesia, the lassitudes that crept over my soul.
The answer has come in several forms, visitations: the cobblestones of East London, the waist high snow of a Moscow winter, the rural roads of Utah, the smell of the orange groves and gardenias of my Southern California homeland, and most recently the isolating claustrophobia or feeling of helplessness and uncertainty during our current global pandemic. The necessary reroutes of life. Where one must reassess their own circuitry and reevaluate what matters and what is a mirage. Anton's work continues to provide pathways that bring a return to self. A return to what conjured my ghosts and incited my growth. Just as Ranevskaya. A reunion. To observe and to accept change. To resuscitate. And heal.
Chekhov's time in Sakhlin was his personal expedition to rid himself of a creative corrosion. Here he invented a new kind of literature. One inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive vulnerability and affection. He finished writing Uncle Vanya upon his return at his house in Melikhovo, outside Moscow. A place I've walked. I've played the piano in that house. It’s where newness and my greatest renaissance began. A fire was lit.
Whilst pouring over Chekhov's works I've been in constant awe of his technique, not unlike French impressionist artists who daubed canvases with paint apparently without reason, but achieved an overall effect of vivid, unchallenged artistry. Now after an era of having immersed myself and adapted all of Chekhov’s five major works (six if you include my reinterpretation of the nearly impossible Platonov) and not unlike our current moment of unchartered waters as a human species, I wonder what’s next. His plays never whisper to me, they shout. I never planned to adapt them all. And I certainly never knew which order and when they would call out. As I have searched and uncovered the blankets draped across his plays, that of: belonging, love, extreme loneliness, purpose, work, validation, understanding, stupidity, loss, pain... they feel like a photo album. They resonate and draw me closer. They speak to my nerve endings, always encouraging something internally for me to push past my fear, doubts. The crippling, crawling ones inside. Words matter. Especially the words we tell ourselves. The lies we foster. We must rewrite them.
The supernatural experiences I've had whilst absorbing Chekhov’s masterpieces have pulled me out of my various moments of stagnancy. Until him, no one so vividly wrote women with the same complexity and clarity. A progressive. Eons before his time. His work cuts directly to the radiant imperfections of what it’s like to be human. These plays are forever etched into my veins and his writing carved into my internal branches. Their beauty is that they are full of reincarnation. They evolve, as we must as well. His stories came into my life at the very moment I was looking for a light speed navigation and purpose. And continue to. These plays, unlike any other pieces of theatrical writing in my opinion, offer a guide to authentic humanity and a necessity and neon truth that can direct one back to where they belong. There is a majesty to his words that embodies neither a beginning or end, but a present existing. Where I strive to occupy in my soul on a daily basis. Anton's work has more than provided inspiration and connection, but it's made me relish what surrounds me, made me value the beauty of simplicity, the electricity of love, vibrancy of a pause and truly just the splendor of, well...living.