History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Russian Pre-WWII
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) continued his masterly plays from the previous century with "Три сестры" (The three sisters, 1901) and "Вишнёвый сад" (The cherry orchard, 1904).
In “The three sisters”, as Brustein (1964) points out, Andrey “holds a position in which his position is meaningless”, Masha “once an accomplished pianist now has forgotten to play”, and Tchebutikin “has forgotten his medical training” Masha and Vershinin: cultural affinities expressed by his humming a tune which she continues. As Brustein (1964) points out, this is akin to Congreve’s “The way of the world” (1700) where Millimant completes Mirabel's verse by Waller.
In “The cherry orchard”, Pishtchik discovers white clay on his property, not enough to save the estate. Thus, the unexpected happy event has no dramatic impact on the outcome, loss of the family estate. Brustein (1964) points out parallels between “The cherry orchard” and Boucicault’s “The octoroon (1859) where the ”indigent buffoon”, Pishtchik, takes the place of the “humorous friend”, Salem Scudder, the “irresponsible” Lyuba Ranenevsky takes the place of the innocent victim, Mrs Peyton, and the “warm-hearted’ Lopahin takes the place of the evil McCloskey and where the property is lost, not saved, the reverse situation of melodrama. The despoiler, Lopahin, seems the only one composed of “energy, purpose, and dedication.” Characters have different relations with time: Lopakhin has a precise notion of it, Lyuba wants it to stand still, Trofimov wants to turn the clock forward to the future, Firs wants to turn the clock back to the past (Reed, 1977).
"The three sisters"
Time: 1900s. Place: Russia.
On the first anniversary of their father's death and Irina's name-day, Olga, the eldest, a school teacher, Masha, the middle sister, married to Kulygin, also a schoolteacher, and Irina, the youngest, idle but full of expectations, talk of going back to Moscow, to a cultivated life instead of a dull country one. Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin arrives to pay his respects. They reminisce and speak philosophy, notably about the future, when life on earth should be happier. Baron Tusenbach means well, but is constantly teased by the irascible Solyony, a captain with a penchant of smearing his hands with perfume. Chebutikin, a physician who has not practiced for a great while, makes well-meaning but cynical comments, and despairs in his drunkenness when not humming songs. Andrei, brother to the three sisters, loves Natasha and asks her to marry him. When they marry, she soon begins an adulterous relation with Protopopov, Andrei's superior. One day, Masha comes home flushed and happy in Vershinin's company. When he leaves to attend to yet another of his wife's suicide attempts, she is in ill humor. Natasha starts to control the practical business of the home, asking Irina to leave her room for the sake of her baby. Irina despairs of her position as a clerk in a post office, finding the job meaningless. First Tusenbach then Solyony declare their love for Irina, but she loves neither. One night, there is a fire in the town, when all contribute to help except the despairing Andrei. Olga, Masha, and Irina are angry with him for mortgaging their house to pay gambling debts and for constantly submitting to his wife's whims. However, when faced with Natasha's indifference to their aged family servant, Anfisa, Olga's own efforts to stand up to her fall short. At last, Masha confides to her sisters her love for Vershinin. Kulygin blunders in, doting on his wife as she stalks out. Irina despairs of her position as a schoolteacher, finding that job as meaningless as the previous one. Resigned, she accepts Tusenbach's offer of marriage, though with no love for him. Andrei acknowledges his disappointment in marriage and begs his sisters' forgiveness. After being the sisters' guest for some time, Vershinin receives an order to leave town. More irritated than usual, Solyony challenges his old rival, Tusenbach, to a duel. The latter is intent on hiding this news from Irina, who likens her heart to a piano whose key has been lost. A shot is heard and Tusenbach's death announced by Chebutykin, considering that this event, no more than everything else, "does not matter." Masha despairs as Vershinin takes his leave of the three sisters and her husband returns, good-humoredly. Olga reluctantly accepts the position of school headmistress, moving out with Anfisa. Irina says she wishes to persevere as a schoolteacher. Andrei is stuck pushing the perambulator, emblem of his submission to his wife. The three sisters embrace as the soldiers depart to the sound of a gay march. As Chebutykin meaninglessly sings "Ta-ra-ra-boom-di-ay" to himself, Olga wonders at humankind's future, and the reasons behind their present sufferings: "If we only knew....if we only knew," she wonders.
"The cherry orchard"
Time: 1900s. Place: Russia.
Lopakhin, a merchant, and his brother Gaev, meets Mme Ranevskaya at her home. She and her daughter, Anya, have been abroad for 6 years following the death of her husband and 7-year-old son. Anya asks Varya, her mother's adopted daughter, if Lopakhin has proposed marriage to her. She answers that he is too busy in business affairs to think of her. Because of financial worries, the family's cherry orchard must be sold. Lopakhin advises Mme Ranevskaya to cut down the orchard and sell the grounds in lots to build villas, but she delays in answering, and finally considers it vulgar. Instead, she and her brother wait for financial help from family and acquaintances they know has little chance to succeed. Trofimov, her dead son's old tutor and Anya's friend, arrives, so aged from what he appeared that Mme Ranevskaya does not recognize him at first. He is teased by Lopakhin as a perpetual student. Pischick, an accountant, asks Mme Ranevskaya 240 roubles for the interest on his mortgage, but she is unable to. Nevertheless, he is confident she will. Fiers, the old and almost deaf servant, scolds Gaev as if he were a child for one reason or another. Trofimov expounds on the poor condition of Russian affairs at all levels and how few people ever decide to work at all. He and Anya discuss a possible future together, seeking to escape from Varya's influence. He complains that Varya does not approve of their relation. On the day where the property is expected to be sold, Mme Ranevskaya is worried that her brother will be unable to keep it. She teases Trofimov for his immaturity, who, aghast at what she says, runs away and falls downstairs, to Anya's amusement. When Lopakhin and Gaev return, a devastated Mme Ranevskaya learns that the cherry orchard now belongs to Lopakhin. Varya throws down the household-keys and runs out. Mme Ranevskaya decides to return to Paris to her lover, now sick and needing her help. Trofimov will go with Anya to Moscow and Lopakhin to Kharkov. Lopakhin is "tired out with doing nothing". Gaev accepts a position in a bank, but it is doubtful whether his laziness will permit him to be useful there. Varya finds a place as a governess. Trofimov and Anya are disturbed at already hearing the sounds of the cherry trees being cut down, which Lopakhin blames on his workmen. Englishmen have found valuable clay on Pischick's property so that he appears to be in better financial shape than before. Lopakhin says to Mme Ranevskaya that he is willing to marry Varya, but when they are left alone, nothing of that kind is said. Fiers is sick and has been sent to the poorhouse to be treated. When he returns, everyone is gone and he has been abandoned. "Life has passed by as if I never lived," he concludes. There is a sound of a rope breaking as the cherry trees continue to be cut down.
Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) contributed two gritty plays: "На дне" (The lower depths, 1902) and "Последние" (The last ones, 1925).
"The lower depths"
Time: 1900s. Place: Russia.
In a basement resembling a cavern, Kostilioff, the landlord, marvels at the condition of his lodgers, whom he calls "citizens of nowhere, hapless and helpless." As he looks for his wife, Wassilissa, he knocks at the door in Pepel's room, who comes out and asks for 7 roubles owed him for a stolen watch, but he cannot afford it at the moment. The locksmith, Kleshtsch, scrapes keys and other metal-works unconcernedly while his wife, Anna, appears to be dying. Natasha, Wassilissa's sister and a cook, advises Kleshtsch to take better care of her. A new lodger arrives, Luka, a pilgrim. Medviedeff, Wassilissa's uncle and a police officer, takes due note of the new arrival, because on his beat, he must know everybody. Luka assures Anna that death is not so terrible, in fact tender. "Only in death will rest be found," he declares. Pepel tires of his adulterous relation with Wassilissa and she herself is indifferent to a separation. "I have always hoped you would pull me from this cesspool here, that you would free me from my husband, from my uncle... perhaps in you I love only my one hope, my one dream," she says. She proposes to help him marry Natasha whom he loves better provided he murders her husband. Luka overhears this conversation and advises Pepel to escape from here with the one he loves best. They discover Anna dead. On learning this, another lodger, Bubnoff, is glad. "There will be no more coughing," he says with relief. In a vacant area, Nastiah tells the baron of her lover's unhappy life-story, which he does not believe ever happened but was picked from a book. Hearing the same story, Luka soothes the depressed Nastiah by declaring: "If you believe it, then you have had such love." Pepel chooses Nathasha to go away with, but she wonders where they can go. "To prisons?" she asks sarcastically. Nevertheless, Luka advises her to go with him. "All you must do is to remind him he possesses goodness in him," he says. Pepel informs Kostilioff he is going away with his sister-in-law. "I will prepare a glorious wedding for you," Wassilissa promises Pepel in a threatening voice. Luka intends on being on the move again, but Kostilioff disapproves of it. "A man must have a place called home," he states, to which Luka responds: "What if one is at home everywhere?" In frustration, Kostilioff and Wassilissa beat Natasha. A man named Sahtin proposes to serve as witness in the case, but Luka refuses to cooperate, having served too often in this kind of business. While Sahtin speaks to Officer Medviedeff, Pepel brutally assaults Kostilioff after both had drenched Nathasha's legs with scalding water. Kostilioff is discovered to be dead, his wife quite glad of it, so is the murderer, who kicks the corpse for good measure. While Wassilissa triumphantly accuses her associate of the murder, Sahtin comforts him. "Killed in a row, a trifle, only a short sentence for that," he assures him. However, when Natasha accuses both of murder, they are sent to jail for manslaughter. While the lodgers drink it off, Nastiah enters with staring eyes, surely with more bad news.
"The last ones"
Time: 1910s. Place: Russia.
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Since Ivan Kolomnitzev lost his job in the police force, he has been constrained to live at the house of his brother, Yakov, in love with Ivan's wife, Sonia. The Kolomnitzevs have five children, the youngest being Vera at 16 years of age. To make ends meet, Sonia often asks Yakov for money and, though not rich, he always accepts. Vera and her brother, Piotr, describe to their hunched-back sister, Liobov, about being recently harassed by three youths on the streets but saved by Yakorev, a police inspector. Pavel Lestch, physician and wife to Nadia, the eldest daughter, seeks to convince Sonia of the need for them to obtain a position for Alexander, their eldest son, in the police force, but he needs 500 roubles in bribe money. As usual, Yakov yields the money whenever needed. Pavel takes the 500 roubles but keeps 200 for himself, Nadia claiming some of that to buy a jewelled cross as a reward for thinking out this plan. As soon as he gets in, Alexander asks his mother for more money, because for any chance to obtain a promotion, he needs to entertain his colleagues. Hearing rumors that a revolutionary youth imprisoned for having shot but missed Ivan has been falsely condemned, Sonia asks him to help release him. Ivan answers he will think about it. He is outraged at hearing Liobov call Yakov "father", accusing her of turning the entire household against him. His mood improves when Nadia announces that the district attorney has promised Pavel the position of police commissioner for himself. Alexander suggests he become his assistant. "Between the two of us, we'll recreate earthly paradise," he enthuses. Pavel informs Ivan he needs about 1,000 roubles in bribe money to secure the position, which must be obtained quickly because Kovalev, a man he intends as a husband to his daughter, Vera, desires the position for himself. When the mother of the falsely charged youth confronts Ivan, he does not help her in view of concerns that his retraction will be interpreted in his disfavor by the police. Alexander, Nadia, and Vera defend him, while Sonia and Yakov accuse him. A distraught Piotr faints on hearing of his father's choice. Instead of giving his brother the bribe-money, Yakov gives it to the prisoner's mother. "Had you recognized your error, the money would have been yours," snickers Liobov. Refusing to marry Kovalev, Vera flees from the house. To the family, Yakorev announces that they are married and requests 4,000 roubles in dowry-money, to which Yakov agrees to contribute. He also asks for a position as rural police commissioner once Ivan obtains his. Unexpectedly, Vera returns to say she has changed her mind and will marry Kovalev. Still unmarried and disillusioned about Yakorev, she orders him out. In the turmoil of conflicting interests, Sonia kneels to ask her children pardon for giving them birth. Amid the yelling, Yakov suddenly dies. In full command as a result of his brother's death, Ivan is at last appeased.
The best known comedy of this period is "Тот, кто получает пощёчины" (He who gets slapped, 1914) by Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919).
"He who gets slapped"
Time: 1910s. Place: France.
A man approaches Papa Briquet, a circus manager, to be hired as a clown. When asked what he can do, he answers: "Why, nothing. Isn't that funny?" Thinking some more about it, he declares: "I shall be among you he who gets slapped." He names himself "He". Jackson the clown suddenly slaps his face. Taken aback by the blow, He assures the circus personnel he will get used to it. When Papa and his lover and business partner as well as a lion tamer, Zinida, ask him his name, He shows them his passport and they recognize the name. Alone with Alfred, a bareback rider, Zinida reveals her love for him, but he is not interested. "How will I make my lions love me?" she then asks him. Later, a rich noble, Baron Auguste Regnard, reveals his love to Consuelo, the bareback tango queen and daughter to Count Mancini, an impoverished noble, although specifying that he cannot marry her, but she shows little interest. He the clown advises Mancini to give his daughter in marriage not to the baron but to Alfred or himself. But without money, Mancini thinks the baron will eventually win her. Frustrated in his designs, the baron writes Mancini that he is willing to marry her after all. During Zinida's number, Papa worries about her safety, for she is taking a great deal of unnecessary risks. Though finishing her performance safely, she enters pale and shaken, specifying to Alfred: "My lions indeed love me." To He the clown, Consuelo admits she does not love the baron, yet is nevertheless willing to accept him as her husband. But He considers himself as the only man capable of saving her. He declares his love, but gets slapped. "You are he who gets slapped," she reminds him. "Beauty has her fool," he declares, but she does not take him seriously. Prince Poniatovsky arrives to find He. The prince took away his wife and wrote a popular book by vulgarizing his ideas when He was an academician, but yet the successful rival is unhappy. "Everywhere you!" the prince exclaims. He asks only to be assured of one thing: "Will you ever come back?" He says no. In view of Consuelo's upcoming marriage to the baron, a benefit performance is accorded her, with all the parquet seats bought by the baron, who has also spread the arena with thousands of red roses. One more time, He begs her not to marry the baron. "Take her away," He advises Alfred, who tells him to mind his own business. Zidida confirms He's suspicion that Consuelo is not the count's daughter, yet no one reveals it to her, indifferent to both the count and baron. "Ah, Consuelo, books have killed you," concludes Papa. At the intermission of the benefit performance, He offers her a glass of champagne before her number is called and takes one himself. Soon after, she feels sick and turns to find out what is wrong. "It is death," He declares. She dies. In despair, the baron shoots himself. To catch up with her soul, He hopes to die from the same poison.
"Мандат" (The mandate, 1925) by Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970) is a Soviet comedy of the French boulevard type.
Time: 1920s. Place: Russia.
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Nadiedja, widow of a store-owner, wishes to marry her daughter, Varvara, to Valerian. Her son, Pavel, is stunned on discovering that one of the conditions of this match is that he join the communist party. By such means, Valerian's father, Olympus, hopes to protect his considerable possessions in case the bolsheviks decide to seize them. Their conversation is interrupted by Nadiedja's irate lodger, Ivan, who hurries in with a pot over his head, the result of Pavel's hard hammering while hanging a picture on the wall. He threatens to inform the police about this matter until Pavel mentions his communist party membership. The lie shuts Ivan up immediately. To buttress his candidacy, Pavel proposes to gather acquaintances and pretend they are family members of the working class. Nadiedja receives a visit from Tamara, who has brought over a chest containing expensive items in danger to be seized by the authorities, particularly a dress once worn by the deposed empress Anastasia, asking her friend to store it temporarily inside her house. Nadiedja agrees. Unaware of this agreement, Pavel and Varvara discover the chest and try to pick the lock to find out what it holds. In the dark, mistaking her son and daughter for robbers, Nadiedja almost succeeds in shooting them. All three are curious to see how the empress' dress looks on a living person and so they ask their cook, Nastia, to try it on. They are suitably impressed. Trouble starts when Nastia accidentally sits on Nadiedja's revolver. She is too terrified to move as the doorbell rings. Thinking their visitors are communist party members, they hide Nastia with the compromising dress under a piece of cloth. Instead, the visitors are Olympus and Valerian. Alone with her suitor, Varvara mistakenly thinks he has proposed to her, but Valerian informs his father he is not impressed with her. An irate Olympus reminds his son that Pavel will be useful to them as a "safe-conduct" to their business transactions. The dinner party is interrupted by a barrel-organ grinder, a woman with a parrot, and a man with a tambourine, hired by Varvara to act as communist party members. The three new guests are disappointed at Nadiedja's fare, purposefully modest to be in line with communist doctrine. As the guests retire to another room, Nastia still refuses to move until Nadiedja and her daughter pour large quantities of water over her to drench the revolver. When Tamara unexpectedly returns, anxious to hide the state of the wet dress, they force Nastia inside the coffer. Worried about the dress, Tamara requests Valerian to remove the chest to a safer location, specifying that it contains "all that remains of Russia inside Russia." Ivan returns, still threatening to call the police, but his cries are quelled by Pavel's revelation of his mandate to act as president of the committee of tenants. "A copy of this has been sent to comrade Stalin," he proudly adds. The chest is delivered to Valerian's uncle, Autonomus, who mistakenly believes the discovered Nastia to be the deposed empress in person and is elated that the imperial family may yet regain power. He and Olympus try to convince her to remain in Russia under an assumed name. She believes this to mean they are proposing her to marry Valerian. Olympus seizes this opportunity by convincing his son to forget Varvara and marry her instead. When Autonomus informs Nadiedja that her wedding plans are canceled without giving any reason, she is surprised and angry. So is Pavel, making Autonomus cower on the basis of his new status. When several among Autonomus' friends come over to gape at the empress, they are stunned on discovering her to be merely a cook. A vengeful Ivan returns triumphant with the news that Pavel's mandate was forged, but he weeps bitterly on discovering that the authorities will not bother to arrest him.