ARTicles vol.4 i.2b: Coating the Pill

Heather Helinsky explores Anton
Chekhov's sense of humor

Chekhov's interest in theatre began early. Although his religious father believed theatre was the gateway to hell, the adolescent boy wrote farces titled The Hen Has Good Reason for Clucking and He Had Met His Match This Time. Enthralled by play-acting, Anton (with the help of his siblings) put on amateur performances and cast himself as the comic Mayor in Gogol's Inspector General. Schoolboys were forbidden to enter the rowdy theatres in Taganrog, the city in which Chekhov grew up, but the defiant Anton would don dark glasses and a false beard to evade school officials.

As a student at Moscow University, Chekhov turned to writing as a source of income not only for himself but also for his family, plunged into poverty by his father's debts. He also wrote a farce titled The Cleanshaven Secretary and the Pistol. Writing short stories under the name Antosha Chekhonte, his reputation grew and his prose matured. Later he commented that "medicine is my wife and writing my mistress."

At twenty-four, while establishing his reputation as the author of short stories and farces, writing jokes for humor magazines, and penning a theatre gossip column, Chekhov began to cough up blood. Although with his own medical expertise he could diagnose the mortal disease, Chekhov pursued an active career in both medicine and literature. As his tuberculosis worsened, his moods became volatile. "On a bad day Chekhov hated everyone," noted the novelist and playwright Maxim Gorky. Forced by ill health, he left rehearsals for Three Sisters for the warmer climates of Yalta and France.

Humor, as psychologists tells us, is a sophisticated defense mechanism. Konstantin Stanislavski, who directed the first production of Three Sisters, observed that it was "impossible to understand what made [Chekhov] laugh." In a letter to the writer Alexander Kuprin, Chekhov spoke of his struggle to create "new forms" that could express "the sad comicality of everyday life ... everything mixed up together: the important and the paltry, the great and the base, the tragic and the ridiculous." This mixing together helps to explain why the first reading of Three Sisters in October 1900 ended in uproar. Chekhov stormed out. Stanislavski later wrote that the playwright had lost patience because "he had written a happy comedy and all of us ... wept over it. Evidently, Chekhov thought that the play had been misunderstood and that it was ... a failure."

The Chekhovian sense of humor that baffled Stanislavski is evident in the man Chekhov chose as a stand-in for the playwright at rehearsals for Three Sisters. Chekhov insisted that a colonel take his place to instruct the actors on military uniforms. Prior to the Russian Revolution, society was divided into a rigid hierarchy of fourteen official ranks. Each military position had an equivalent civilian rank. In Three Sisters, Masha's husband Kulygin, a schoolmaster, would receive a civilian rank of Court Councillor. The military equivalent of Court Councillor is Lieutenant-Colonel, Vershinin's rank. Both Masha's husband and lover, therefore, would wear uniforms and enjoy the same rank, title, and privileges. The expert on military propriety, Colonel Petrov, clashed with the actors and Stanislavski. Not only did he criticize the uniforms, but also the acting. Olga Knipper, Chekhov's future wife and lifeline into the rehearsal process reports, "Petrov causes a lot of good-hearted laughter ... 'our military professor' as we call him ... Luzhski, a bit of a joker, does a wonderful imitation of him saying ... 'the performance - it's not working!'"

A comment made by Doctor Chekhov before his final medical examination illuminates his views on the power of comedy. "First of all, I'd get my patients into a laughing mood, and only then would I begin to treat them." In rehearsals for Three Sisters, Stanislavski found a similar patter in the rhythm of the play. He noted: "1st Act - joyous, lively, 2nd act - Chekhovian mood, 3rd act - terribly tense, works on speed and nerves. Towards the end energy has run out and the tempo slackens, 4th act - not sure yet." Three days prior to the opening performance, Chekhov's sister Masha reports that the Act One was "interesting ... how merry!" yet by the third act "I ... wept." The aesthetic beauty of Chekhov's writing, therefore, treats tragedy and comedy like a Mobius strip - an infinite continuity. Stanislavski discovered in My Life in Art "the men of Chekhov do not bathe, as we did at that time, in their own sorrow. Just the opposite; they like Chekhov himself, seek life, joy, laughter, courage." Chekhov always coats the bitterness of life with laughter.

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