Anton Chekhov died far too young, succumbing 110 years ago at 44 to the tuberculosis that had long weakened but not silenced him.
Lately, Chekhov’s voice has resounded from stages all over the Boston area. Indeed, nearly every month seems to bring word of a new Chekhov production, another piece of evidence that this man from another time speaks compellingly to our own time.
Not that it’s a one-way conversation: Our time is talking back to Chekhov, too, in the form of adaptations by some of our leading playwrights, multimedia interpretations of his work, and a mirthful satire or two.
So what explains our abiding interest in a long-dead Russian playwright and short-story practitioner? Let’s get the obvious answer out of the way: Chekhov was a great writer, and greatness is always its own justification. But Moliere was also a great writer, and productions of his plays are scarce, at least in the Boston area.
I think we are especially fascinated with Chekhov at least partly because he built his plainspoken dramas with unusual directness on the eternal questions that everyone grapples with — How should we live? How can we live? — and on the eternal challenges of love, family, work, meaning.
Chekhov’s characters live by dreams, fret about money, lose their hearts and heads to wayward passion, taste disillusionment and defeat and despair, and somehow manage to keep going (most of them, anyway). His plays are understated and laced with sardonic humor, but Chekhov’s wry affection and empathy for his characters is palpable. He goes all-in when the subject is life and its disappointments and its fleeting but fierce joys. A sense of mortal stakes and moral seriousness runs through his plays, along with a current of deep feeling that is unpolluted by literary showboating.
When I spoke several years ago with playwright Sarah Ruhl, who was crafting a new version of “Three Sisters’’ to be performed at Yale Repertory Theatre, I asked why she was drawn to Chekhov’s work. Ruhl replied: “Because it’s about what it is to be human, what it is to die, to be in love.’’
‘In Chekhov’s plays the problems the characters face often make us feel better about the problems we face.’
It’s likely that is what also drew other major American playwrights — Annie Baker, Craig Lucas, Tracy Letts — to adapt Chekhov.
The drama in Chekhov’s plays is embedded within a context of everydayness, even banality. Chekhov kept burrowing into the quotidian until he found the universal. A master of mood and the course-shifting moment, he could carefully peel back the layers of a character’s psyche until we glimpsed the essence — a tactic central to TV dramas that have won loyal followings in the past decade, such as “Mad Men.”
For all the cultural differences between then and now, the quandaries and dilemmas of Chekhov’s people reflect our own. They are plagued not just by financial anxiety but by a fear of losing their homes and their place in the world, an all-too-familiar sensation among today’s recession-era audiences.
Peter DuBois, artistic director of Huntington Theatre Company, where “The Seagull’’ is running through April 6, told me that he suspects Chekhov’s popularity today has something to do with the harshness of the economic downturn. “People are still feeling shell-shocked from that and wanting to connect with his stories, which are just about human beings trying to struggle through life,’’ said DuBois. “In Chekhov’s plays the problems the characters face often make us feel better about the problems we face.’’
One of the problems Chekhov’s characters face, of course, is that they’re doomed to be always “fighting vainly the old ennui,’’ as Cole Porter might say. Though startling events certainly occur in Chekhov’s dramas — those momentous gunshots in “The Seagull,’’ “Uncle Vanya,’’ and “Three Sisters’’; the blurted, all-or-nothing declarations of passion that seem to come out of nowhere — the playwright was brutally honest about the prevalence of boredom in any human life. You can almost hear the ticking of the clock. In a parallel vein, Chekhov forces us to acknowledge the enervating power of simple inertia, which prevents us from pursuing our oft-stated aims, even if we know that real life is being lived elsewhere.
“I want to go to Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!’’ Irina exclaims in “Three Sisters,’’ chafing at the limits of their provincial town. But what, exactly, is preventing the Prozorov sisters from simply, you know, going to Moscow? Perhaps Chekhov offers a kind of answer elsewhere in “Three Sisters,’’ when a colonel named Vershinin remarks: “We’re never happy, we can never be happy. We only want to be happy.’’ A physician trained in the art of unblinking diagnosis, Chekhov knew us very well.
Chekhov’s mistrust of absolutes and his nonideological humanism may also be a source of his appeal in our present age of polarization and culture wars and wearisome cable TV yappers. “I am not a liberal, I am not a conservative, I am not a progressivist, a monk, an indifferentist,’’ he defiantly wrote in an 1888 letter. “I would like to be a free artist and that’s all. . . . I regard titles and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom, freedom in opposition to power and lies, whatever form they may take.’’
As a dramatist, Chekhov follows through on that stance by showing what might be called a nonpartisan spirit in his characterizations. He refuses to neatly divide his dramatis personae into heroes and villains. He makes us work. We watch his plays without feeling his thumb on the scales; he doesn’t signal how we should feel or whom we should root for at every moment.
“There’s so many characters with different perspectives,’’ says Danielle Fauteux Jacques, artistic director of the Chelsea-based Apollinaire Theatre Company. “You might not identify with seven out of eight, but that eighth character might have concerns that are very near and dear to your heart.’’
Yuri Corrigan, an assistant professor of Russian and comparative literature at Boston University who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Chekhov, says there is “an astonishing mix in Chekhov between irony on one hand and immense compassion on the other. So every audience has something to grasp onto.’’
Theater people, too, find something to grasp onto with Chekhov. I’ll wager that one reason for the recent Chekhov-apalooza hereabouts is that theater people simply love him. “As a young director [Chekhov] just really touched something in my soul,’’ says the Huntington’s DuBois. “The soulfulness of his writing is something that people really relate to.’’
The primacy of work in Chekhov’s plays has always fascinated DuBois. When he was starting his career in his early 20s in Prague, DuBois created a dance-theater pastiche whose organizing principle revolved around the many references to work in Chekhov’s four major plays. Later, when he began working at a theater company in Alaska, the first production Dubois directed was “The Seagull.’’
“There was something about living in Alaska,’’ said DuBois. “It’s dark at 1 in the afternoon. There’s an incredible amount of soul-searching. Everyone’s having affairs and drinking a lot. Everyone was depressed.’’ He laughed, then added: “It was like a Chekhov play.’’
Chekhov’s oeuvre is a malleable feast, to borrow and bend a phrase from Hemingway. It attracted the interest of a fellow Russian and international celebrity such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, who starred at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre this month in “Man in a Case,’’ a multimedia theater piece presented by ArtsEmerson based on two Chekhov short stories. But it also proved well suited to a troupe whose renown does not extend much beyond Boston: the able cast of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “The Cherry Orchard,’’ which took place this month inside a spacious hall at Pine Manor College.
The Huntington, one of the biggest theater organizations in the region, is currently presenting its fine production of “The Seagull,’’ starring Kate Burton, on the proscenium stage of the 887-seat Boston University Theatre. Equally good, a couple of seasons back, was the production of “Uncle Vanya’’ by the much smaller Apollinaire, in which each of the play’s four acts took place in a different room at Chelsea Theatre Works. The last room was very small, lending a powerful intimacy to the moment when Sonya leans toward the title character and says, in a tone of brokenhearted resolve: “You and I, Uncle Vanya, we have to go on living!’’
Apollinaire is now tackling Chekhov from a much more irreverent direction: The company was scheduled to begin performances Friday night of “Stupid [Expletive] Bird,’’ Aaron Posner’s comedic, contemporized take on “The Seagull,’’ with Fauteux Jacques at
the helm. In the days before, there had been yet another burst of Chekhov-related news.
First, the Huntington announced that it will kick off 2015 with Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ directed by former Huntington artistic director Nicholas Martin, who helmed the Tony Award-winning production of Durang’s play on Broadway. (“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’’ was also recently produced at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence.) Then the small Wellfleet-based Harbor Stage Company, which brought its stripped-down production of “The Seagull’’ to Boston last fall, said last week that it will open its season this summer with “Uncle Vanya’’ and will also bring that production to Boston.
There will almost certainly be more to come. In “Three Sisters,’’ Vershinin suggests that they pass the time speculating on what life will be like in 200 or 300 years. Baron Tuzenbach offers a couple of predictions — “people will travel around in flying machines’’ — but maintains that “life won’t change. It will still be hard and happy and mysterious.’’
To which we can confidently add: And the stage will still be alive with the work of Anton Chekhov, who did such an exemplary job dramatizing the tragicomedy of the human condition.