Playhouse Tuesdays: Commonalities in the One Acts of Anton Chekov
August 12, 2015
(Editor's Note: Playhouse Tuesdays will continue as a monthly segment from this point forward.)
by erica wachs, prose reader
Today I want to talk about three one-acts written by Anton Chekhov: The Bear, The Proposal,and A Reluctant Tragic Hero. Specifically, I’m going to explore how each play finds its humor through establishing and then toppling the authority established at the beginning of the scene.
The Bear is about a widow, Yeléna Popóva, who reluctantly meets with Grigóry Smírnoff, a landowner demanding the twelve hundred rubles Popóva’s husband owes him. Since he has a mortgage payment due tomorrow, he would like the money now. Popóva refuses him until they both fly into a blind rage and are about to duel to the death before ultimately falling into a passionate kiss to end the scene.
For me, the humorous standout of the piece—and the hinge the scene rests on—is the character of Popóva. The scene opens on month thirteen of mourning for her late, crude, unfaithful husband. She refuses to see any guests or leave the house, instructing her maid to turn Smírnoff away to demonstrate to her dead husband “what real love means… my love will last as long as I do, right to my last heartbeat. (Laughs, almost crying.) And I hope you’re ashamed of yourself! You see what a good girl I am, what a faithful wife? I locked myself up here and will be faithful to you till the day I die, while you… I hope you’re ashamed, you little pig.” The stage direction perfectly mirrors the audience’s reaction: should we laugh because she’s an absolute drama queen, or can we find it in our hearts to pity this woman who is so blind to the folly of her self-inflicted martyrdom?
The scene becomes interesting when Smírnoff turns the tables on our perceived image of Popóvna: “I know exactly why you go around in that Mardi Gras outfit and why you’ve buried yourself within these walls! Of course! It’s all so romantic, so mysterious! You’re waiting for some army lieutenant to come riding by, or some sentimental schoolboy with a bad complexion, and he’ll look up at your window and think: Ah! There dwells the mysterious Tamára, who loved her husband so much she buried herself within four walls…” This sets Popóva off, causing Smírnoff to inexplicably fall in love with her, and Popóva gives in to her newfound passion. The question of whether her mourning was a charade as Smírnoff claims remains at the end of the scene. The humor stems from Popóva’s hypocrisy, intentional or not, but also Smírnoff’s inability to resist his own feelings, despite providing an accurate analysis of Popóva minutes before. In short: everyone’s a hypocrite, and it’s funnier when the hypocrites kiss.
The Proposal functions on a similar wavelength in that a convention is established: a young man, Iván Lómov receives Natásha’s father’s permission to marry Natásha. He is so in love he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and then the couple fights for the duration of the scene. The chief difference between The Bear and The Proposal is that in Bear, the characters switch from hate to love, while Proposal goes from love to hate. The couple’s fight about which family owns a little sliver of land between the two properties is immediately followed by a dispute over which hunting dog is better, Guesser or Messer.
My main question for staging this show is: how does a director make the same joke humorous—the same type of argument—twice in the same scene? I think the answer lies somewhere in the authority of the scene, that there is no convincing proof that this couple is in love, or that they would work well together, despite their similarity in class and land ownership. The convention established isn’t even a convention at all—it’s a wish, a blind hope that anyone has when they rush into anything, especially a relationship, blindly: please, let this work out.
In The Bear, the audience gets to know that the two main characters have enough capacity for intense hate and intense passion, but at the beginning of The Proposal, we have the lukewarm sentiments of Lómov: “You just keep thinking about it, you argue back and forth and talk a lot and wait for the ideal woman or for true love, you’ll never get married… Natásha is a very good housekeeper, she’s kind of good-looking, and she’s been to school… what more do I need?” The humor works because with each argument that Lómov and Natásha have, the audience becomes increasingly aware that they were right: these two would never make it as a couple. It is in the way Chekhov validates the audience’s initial suspicions, which is why we find it so funny.
Finally, my favorite of the three one-acts is actually just a “scene from country life” entitled A Reluctant Tragic Hero. The label of “scene” is a bit of a misnomer. The play mostly consists of a lengthy monologue by Tolkachóv, complaining to his friend Muráshkin about why he absolutely despises married life. While the contents of the monologue itself are hilarious (he rants about everything from mosquitos to attending bad theater), the biggest joke of the scene is Tolkachóv himself.
Muráshkin is a foil to Tolkachóv. At the beginning of the scene, Muráshkin’s only concern is that the volume of Tolkachóv’s complaints will worry the neighbors. He is pretty unremarkable, and crafted that way intentionally. He’s quiet, he does things by the book, and presumably doesn’t go around ranting about his wife. (He’s too quiet to rant at all.) Somehow, Tolkachóv decides he’s the perfect man to unload all of his unhappiness on, which backfires at the end of the scene.
In the initial part of his monologue, Tolkachóv says he hates when supposed friends ask him to bring goods to friends that they know in the country. This is a funny observation, but becomes even funnier at the end of the scene:
“Muráshkin: Believe me, I know how you feel… Where exactly is it you’re spending the summer?
Tolkachóv: At Rotten River.
Muráshkin: No! Rotten River! I don’t believe it! Do you happen to know Ólga Fineberg?... You’ve got to do me a little favor. You won’t mind—I know you’re a friend!... First of all, say hello to Ólga and tell her you saw me and that everything’s fine, just fine, give her my best, and second of all, just take this one little thing with you when you go…”
It only makes sense that Muráshkin, the man too quiet to complain, doesn’t read into all the complexities that make Tolkachóv miserable, let alone understand him. When Muráshkin behaves in a way Tolkachóv states he cannot stand, it becomes evident that all the time and energy Tolkachóv put into trying to convince someone he isn’t crazy (the rest of the world is) was in vain. Stuck in a world where he is the only one to see past the nonsense, both Tolkachóv and his situation are tragic.
My thoughts on reading Chekhov are akin to my best friend’s thoughts while watching Seinfeld: the plays weren’t as funny as I wanted them to be. Before you boo me off my soapbox, hear me out. The plays weren’t as funny because they invented the type of humor I have seen repeated over and over again in more accessible (read: more modern) ways (though I’m aware there is much larger difference between a 19th and a 21st century play and a sitcom that came out in 2002 versus 1990). A Reluctant Tragic Hero exemplifies this analogy; if you put the same two characters onstage I feel as if it could very well be a Seinfeld episode. The ailing Tolkachóv acts as a stand in for Seinfled or George Costanza and Muráshkin as his Newman, or any of the other crazy characters on Seinfeld week after week. It’s still funny, but becoming less recognizable as the golden standard in our collective creative lexicon. That being said, I still immensely enjoyed these one acts because I could so readily identify their humor—reading them, I was almost able to see the genesis of jokes playwrights and ordinary people constantly quip and recycle, from the 1800s to 2015. Chekhov’s continuing significant now speaks to the durability of humor and, more importantly, the stubborn, ridiculous, static behavior of ordinary people.