Translated from the French by Jeremy Lawrence
During playwright Anton Chekhov’s last days, as he is dying of TB, he is haunted by all the characters from his plays. He interacts with them in imaginative scenes that extrapolate the characters moving beyond and outside the plays themselves and takes Chekhov through his own dying – death – dying, into his final state as a figure in a grey and empty Soviet-style wax museum (along with the rest of his characters).
The play is a philosophical contemplation (Visniec writes) of writing, death, and certainly other things – a writer who can no longer write, who is trapped and wandering lost within his past & his imagination, with no way to move forward in art or life. In the ultimate scene, Chekhov visits with the character of infant Bobik, now grown into a man guarding the dusty Chekhov Museum – a vision of old culture lost, devalued and replaced by the demoralizing grey world of contemporary Russian/Eastern European life.
CHEKHOV, PASSERBY, ANFISA
A room in shadow. The furniture suggests the bedroom of Chekhov’s home in Yalta: an iron bed, a wooden table and chair, one leather armchair and one in wicker, an old buffet, a rug at the foot of the be… A glass door half-hidden by curtains so long that they caress the floor. A table lamp on the table.
CHEKHOV startled sits up in bed. A sudden gunshot.
CHEKHOV: Is that you Anfisa?
Pause. CHEKHOV sits motionless.
The face of the PASSERBY appears in the corner of one of the panes of the glass door. It is the image of a ghost. He knocks softly on the glass.
CHEKHOV lights the table lamp, gets out of bed, puts on his dressing gown and goes to open the glass door.
PASSERBY: Good evening. Sorry to bother you. I'm afraid I am absolutely discombobulated. I'm looking for Nicholas Station. Would you be so kind as to tell me, is this the way to the station? It's such a lovely evening... but all the same, I must find the station. They told me that there’s still a ways to go, that Nicholas Station is 17 versts from here... on foot, that is... But, how could that be? Maybe they were all were mistaken. How could the station still be another 17 versts from here? [ Note: a verst =.6629 miles]
The passerby disappears without waiting for a response while ANFISA makes her appearance behind CHEKHOV. A gas lamp in her hand, the old servant is somewhat ghost-like (at least at first.) When he sees her, CHEKVOV begins to cough.
ANFISA: How many times have I told you, Anton Pavlovich, “Don’t leave your bed”? Where on earth do you want to go? As it is, you have too many visitors. All the time there is someone with you. Even foreigners. The whole world comes knocking on your door at all hours of the day and night. It's not normal for a sick man. There now, you're coughing again. The whole night you've been coughing and spitting up blood. That’s not good. And on top of that, you keep leaving your bed. You mustn’t leave your bed when you’re coughing like that all night long and forever spitting up blood. How much more blood are you going to spit? How much more blood do you have left in you?
CHEKHOV, deaf to ANFISA, washes his face in a porcelain basin. ANFISA hands him a towel.
ANFISA: You have spit up so much blood, there can’t be any left in your veins. And it's me who has to wash your linen. It's me who washes the sheets and everything else. And you just don't know how hard it is to get blood out. Washing out blood is as tough as it gets. Even grease stains are easier... And it's all because you keep leaving your bed. That's not good that, no. As soon as I doze off a little, you get up and start writing letters.
(She takes out a blood-stained page)
What use are all these letters? You receive too many letters to begin with, and then you go and answer them all… it’s crazy. Yesterday, you vomited blood all over the letter you were in the midst of writing. And today you want to recopy it…
(She hands him the letter)
Here. It’s all dry, but you can't make out a word of it... It's not nice what you're doing, Anton Pavlovich. It's not nice to mock an old woman of eighty years. I can't get any rest, if I keep waking up. I really must sleep from time to time. But as soon as I fall asleep, you start to scribble or you go off somewhere wearing only your dressing gown.
CHEKHOV gestures kindly for ANFISA to pass him the coat which he puts on with the help of his old servant.
ANFISA: It's not kind, Anton Pavlovich. You only have a few days to live, but as soon as I fall asleep, you’re out of bed. I tell you, Anton Pavlovich, if I was sick I would never let you take care of me. What kind of doctor are you, Anton Pavlovich? Doctors are not supposed to spit up blood. How can you be a doctor and spit up so much blood at the same time? What did they teach you at the university anyway?
With another gesture, gentle but firm, CHEKOV asks ANFISA to pass him his hat then his umbrella. The old woman obeys without stopping her flood of reproach.
ANFISA: Look, I didn't make it through school but nevertheless I have absolutely positively arrived at the ripe old age of eighty. And God willing, some day I will pass away peacefully in my bed without any pain. I won't be spitting up blood. I won't cough. I won't annoy anyone... For now, while it’s true my feet wear out more quickly these days, I am in good health. And God knows my life hasn’t been easy. All my life I’ve been in the service of others. I've taken care of a lot of sick people in my life, but never anyone like you, Anton Pavlovitch. You don't listen to a single word I say. Anton Pavlovich, you are a very bad patient.
CHEKHOV looks at himself in the mirror, coughs, gargles some medicine. When he hears from outside a bizarre cry, perhaps the cry of a bird, he stands for a moment, motionless, water in his mouth. ANFISA brings him his boots and helps him put them on.
ANFISA: I have never seen a sick person as stubborn as you. Why do you always get up to write? What could you still have left to write? You’re going to die soon if you keep at it. It's not good, this. Why keep flogging a dead horse. Enough is enough already. It’s finished. There's nothing more to write. Have you no shame? Is it not enough that you've left your home to die in this foreign country...?
CHEKHOV: Anfisa, please bring me my doctor’s bag.
ANFISA (who goes to look for the bag):Yes, Anton Pavlovich, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, to die so young. How old are you? Look! Not even 44 and almost dead. At your age a man only starts to understand life... how really to relish in it. But you! You're already on your deathbed. Shame on you, Anton Pavlovich. Shame on you!
(She hands him his doctor's bag.)
You ought to have been a veterinarian... Better you should work with animals, because, from what I’ve seen, as far as people are concerned, you’re hopeless.
CHEKHOV: Anfisa, how in God’s name, did you get here?
ANFISA: What would your mother say, dear Yevgenia Yakovlevna? What would your sister Maria say? What would your brothers say? Aleksander, Nikolai, Ivan and Mischa. What would they say? And on top of everything you are a doctor. Really, I don't understand it at all.
CHEKHOV: Anfisa, please bring me my doctor’s bag...
ANFISA: You are one sad story! If at least…
She starts off again towards the armoire to look for the case, but after two steps she stops. “Hadn’t she already brought him the bag?” The contradiction leaves her motionless, confused, disconcerted. Loud military music is heard a little ways away, perhaps in the town square. CHEKHOV leaves by the glass door.
A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review - The Chekhov Machine - By David Avery
"I have two men inside of me -- or rather, two beings -- one is the Doctor and one is the
Patient.---the character of Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov
How much blood are you going to spit up?
Death bed ruminations are a common enough literary device -- righting old wrongs, confessing sins, having your life "pass before your eyes." But what happens when it is the life of fictional characters that you see, and they have grievances with the author?
This is the conceit behind the Los Angeles premiere of Matéi Visniec's The Chekhov Machine. The famous playwright and short story writer Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov (Bjørn Johnson) is dying slowly of tuberculosis. At this feverish threshold between life and death he is visited by characters from his plays -- specifically characters from Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. It mimics a Chekhov play in its tone and structure, with a large ensemble that acts on and speaks about life, death, good, evil, despair, joy, and all things in between. The plot is simple and largely irrelevant -- a means to assemble characters and have them interact.
The cast does an outstanding job of presenting these creations. This is truly an ensemble piece, with each actor getting equal time to portray his or her role. While the play is ostensibly about Chekhov, he is really more of a foil for his characters. He becomes their healer, confessor, judge, and jury. He is their God in a sense, and they continually ask him throughout the play "Why?" Why am I this way, why is this happening, why can't things be different? Chekhov doesn't really answer these questions directly, appearing distant to the pain of his characters. In a telling moment, while treating the wounded Treplev (Dylan Maddalena), a young man perpetually attempting to commit suicide, he says "One should only set out to write when one is as cold as ice." Irina (Kristin Mochnick), Treplev's mother, says "Let Anton Pavlovitch do his work, he has everything necessary to clean your wound." And yet Chekhov appears helpless to change these people or get them to accept their fates, perhaps reflecting his impotency to heal himself.
The many standout moments include the visitation of murderously angry Anna Petrovna (Michelle Haner), a character killed by consumption, who comes to teach Chekhov "how to die." and berates him with "How could you do this to me?" There's also the Passerby (Ed Kiniry-Ostro) who wanders into many of the scenes, continually lost and moving to the next location. Three doctors -- Lvov (Spencer Jones), Chebutkin (Peter Vance), and Astrov (Aaron Lyons) -- have a memorable discussion as they contemplate Chekhov's corpse and the literary merits of his work, with each doctor representing a different attitude (and play) towards theater and its role in society. Also notable is a gambling scene in which Ranyevskaya (Melanie Chapman) loses over and over again, while lamenting that she should be lucky at roulette since she is "so unlucky in matters of the heart."
The characters all seem trapped in an endless cycle of circumstances and unable to become fully realized as people. The blood Chekhov coughs up is a metaphor for the life he gives the people in his plays-- yet it is a crippled and diseased life.
Florinel Fatulescu's direction combines multiple people, places, events, and rapidly changing situations on one stage. The play starts with all of the fictional characters huddled together in blue light, watching a dosing Chekhov, asking "when will the play begin," -- allluding to a Dickensonian visitation of spirits. Throughout the performance lighting sections off the large, circular stage and suggests different scenes, places, and times with minimal props. Jeff G. Rack's set manages to feel open yet compartmentalized. Through it all, Chekhov's bed and room remain visible to remind the audience that while we are traveling to various scenes and , we are in fact really still in the bedroom of a dying man. One of the more ghastly effects in the play is Chekhov's bedroom, with stained walls being suggested by three hanging curtains. Later, those same "walls" take on the appearance of the soiled handkerchiefs used to catch coughed-up blood.
This theaterhas one of the best sound systems I've heard in a long time, complete with 3D sound which is used to good effect, starting with ominous churning machinery, and incorporating birds, crickets, and other-worldly cries that originate from all places in the house. Ironically, the real Chekhov is said to have derided theatrical realisms (such as on stage sounds of croaking frogs) as "superfluous."
This is the second collaboration between playwright Matéi Visniec and director Fatulescu, the first being the well received How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients. While labeled a comedy, it is filled with the grim, absurdist humor unique to Russia. As Commander Solyony (Joseph Husler) says, "Do not confuse the Human mind with the Russian mind."
If the evening suffers from anything, it would be the enormity of the material. The playwright notes in the program that he "had a desire to write a play which stands on its own, a play which can move even the audience which is not well acquainted with the plays of Chekhov." That may be a bit optimistic. Those unacquainted with the Chekhov plays noted above risk missing about half of what is going on (The program does include character "cheat-sheet").
The attitudes and relationships of the characters, and how they react to each other and their creator is central to this production and serve to define Chekhov both as a man and as an artist.
The Chekhov Machine is a challenging and dense work, but one that will prove rewarding for all Chekhov enthusiasts.
France Culture, 2001, with actors from Comédie Française, directed by Catherine Lemire
National Theater Bucharest, Romania, 2003, directed by Cristian Ioan
English (translation Jeremy Lawrence)
Bulgarian (translation Vladimir Petkov)
Russian (translation Anastasia Starostina)
Japanese (translation Hiroko Kawaguchi)
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