POOR, isolated, shy, genial, tubercular, counting winters and declining tapers, ruminating over the households revolving in his mind, diffidently putting them to paper, Anton Chekhov wrote four of the most wonderful comedies in world literature. Few people find Chekhov comical. Most read about these lugubrious, slow, heavy houses full of people protesting their happiness, lamenting their misery, incapable of action, occasionally incanting a vision of the future. We search for themes, ideas, directions, and find none unambiguously free from irony. We see only dolorous mansions crackling with nervous expectation, yearning for changes, immobilized by forces vaguely understood, secure only in the knowledge that they will be replaced. We hear talk of love, mourning, Moscow, work, passion, hope, literature, the future. Everyone desires joy in life; no one obtains it. People die, love fails, projects lapse, days are wasted. Chekhov does not offer dogma, rancor, penitential bathos, clear expositions of readily identifiable social or personal problems. "The fire," he said, "burns in me slowly and evenly." He does not work from idea to speech and gesture. He cannot be dismissed as indifferent, pessimistic, morbid, or hopeful. So we recoil with impatience from these exhibitions of laughter and despair, muttering vaguely about melancholy, ineffectual people, and a possibly hopeful future.
I think that these reactions follow primarily from our failure to recognize the implications of Chekhov's realism. His is a compassionate realism, which goes beyond categories of hope, dread, and anger, to study the reticulating recesses of self-delusion, the vicissitudes of the self-circling, sensitive, introspective mind. The technique of his drama is to show how complex people emprison their souls through the processes of self-consciousness, enclosing themselves into half-perceived mausoleums of hope and fear. What renders this so complex is that Chekhov displays his people without reference to idea, but only to the organic progress of their personalities in pressure against one another. As we listen to these houses of funereal gloom, passionate outbursts, and ordinary living, an encompasing theme emerges. The hopes and fears which animate men and women also ravage them. Hope, fear, despair, joy, melancholy, grief, are all founded in vanity, and all alike operate to destroy the heart which created them in its passionate longing for happiness. The mind and heart struggle in opposition. The heart yearns to embrace the world; the mind preys upon these hopes, simplifying them into ideals, making them obsessions, isolating the being within their illusory buoyancy, thereby emprisoning man in irremediable pain and inevitable disappointment and terror. Entreaties for pity, like ostentation's of contentment, are the poignant refuges of proud, sensitive, starved souls. Illusion is the child of vanity, and disillusion is the child of illusion, of never-ending contact with illusions. The characters know their predicament but do not understand the insidious psychological process which preys upon them. Thus they alternate between lethargy and ebullience, visions of happiness which require only some simple change in order to work. Their inability to make these changes is the result of their psychological immobilization, not of spiritual desiccation or emotional sterility. Of these people Chekhow wrote:
Finding themselves in such a position, narrow and unconscientious people generally throw the whole blame on their environment, or write themselves down as Hamlets and superfluous people, and are satisfied with that.
EACH PLAY has a symbol of illusory release-the seagull, Moscow, the cherry orchard-which, rather than liberating energies, mercilessly turns them inward, thrusts them down, exhausts hope into depression. Every character wants to move, wants to love, to feel intense, gregarious, and extroverted, immediately alive. Yet no one moves, love fails, every play ends problematically. We see everyone.
Under the vapor in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.
But it is not Eliot but Samuel Johnson who conducts us to the center of the problem.
The common theme of Chekhov and of Johnson is the internal conflict between the yearning heart and the self-analyzing mind. Both men study the impossibility of satiety, the evanescence of happiness, the self-consumption of bright hopes; and both men offer only the stern consolation of realism-the uneasy and none too comforting suggestion that the hopes which keep people living are also those which make them miserable. Ambition is fugitive, love is usually for the wrong things-usually only self-love-and the complacence which can come from believing you understand your vanity, is most harmful. Johnson writes of the treachery and hunger of the human heart and imagination: the need for hope, and the folly of self-deceptions which languish life away in the gloom of anxiety. Chekhov writes of the misery of overwrought people struggling to maintain self-control against unhappiness they do not understand. Both writers see themselves subject to the same errors and anxieties. Johsnon, despite his reputation as a prodigious moralist, majestically ordering life with indefatigable lucidity through the irresistible ebb and flow of his periodic prose, as profoundly melancholy man with a resilient and charitable sense of humor much like Chekhov's. Johnson believed that the miseries of disappointment would always exceed the joys of happiness; that human self-confidence is pathetically tenuous; that man loses himself in schemes of felicity; that the artifices of self-deceit are the primary disease of the human imagination; that fancy is volatile and tyrannical, happiness elusive if not unobtainable. His counsel is to live with gentle self-forgetfulness and honest circumspection, to expose vanity but not extinguish passion, to live with hope, resigned to obscurity, to live for others by getting the mind off the mind. He felt that apathy and certainty alike were vain. Men must unburden the day by communing with their hearts.
It is necessary to hope though hope is always deluded, for hope itself is happiness and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction's.
CHEKHOV, however, included such self-knowledge among the frustrations of men. He is not able, like Johnson, to wrench some fragile optimism from a faith in man's reason. Like Johnson, he does not moralize about starving the passions. There is enormous passion in his people, but it neither wells up from life or issues outward to life; it wears them out in a world of private conceptions. Yet this may be exhibited to other people in only a misstep, a repeated word, a comment on snow or line, an anecdote, a crazy position of the fingers. The frightful thing about Chekhov's comedy is that actions such as suicide are no more stunning or forceful than a game of cards or the draining of a wineglass. All life is a surface, the surface possesses all depth. It is not that the dialogue conceals turbulent inner weather, as it figures forth symbolic remarks, but that the exhaustion and energy of speech show the accelerating vicissitude of passion and involution which can make a genteel wreak of a man or woman.
The Seagull is the funniest of Chekhov's plays, and the only one which ends with a death. Chekhov said, "It's a comedy-a great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love." The comedy revolves about various love triangles (Chekhov is the master of the geometry of love) and brisk talk about writing. Konstantin is not the stock young lover-fool. He is richly talented, abundantly sensitive. He cannot come to terms with life only because he has not lived it in any sense except the harmful one of self-created symbols. The act of killing the seagull is romantic and comic; it shows his yearning and his overwrought emotional symbolizations. His little play sounds like Words worth rewriting Manfred. It is the funniest satire of its kind since Dickens' Two Transcendental Ladies in Martin Chuzzlewit ("Mind and matter glide swift into the vortex of immensity. Howls the sublime and softly sleeps the calm Ideal, in the whispering chambers of Imagination.") Trigorin, the writer, is corpulent with sensitivity. He is incapable of both love and brutality, the romantic gestures of pity and hatred. He is wildly popular, and decently agonized about it. He is closed off to the turmoil of the dilating implications of things, a receptivity which may be inspirational or insinuative. Arkadina is steady and caustic, overbearing in her rationality, but qualified by patronization. Perhaps she senses that the people around are children, but she is unable to go beyond that. Sorin, oar and infirm, feels he has lost out on life and is probably right. He hates to be contradicted by Yevgheniy, a doctor (the only one who likes Konstantin's play), when he says he is miserable. Nina wants to marry the famous writer. The old man, Sorin, has unconscious spells, and the young man has spells of despair. One has a little wisdom but is infirm; the other has enormous energy, which is wasted by the riot of his fancies. The country state where everyone is vacationing is dreadfully mismanaged. When Nina's infatuation with Trigorin issues in a child, and when Konstantin's symbolic seagull becomes a traveling actress who does not need him, wonder is slaughtered by mortality. Her mental imbalance and his suicide, far from being tragic results of suffering and noble transfiguration, are comic results of the rapacity of inordinate, unrelieved dreaming. Nevertheless, no one is likely to laugh when Yevgheniy ends the play, after Chekhov's greatest recapitulatory ensemble seen, with the line "The fact is, Konstantin has shot himself."
THE SEAGULL reaches its climax with Arkadina's line to Trigorin, "I'm the only who knows the truth about you." But the candor of detached analysis is only more sophisticated romantic illusion. Self-revelation is a mist of uncynical dream and deception. And this leads to the main reason why the audience feels depressed rather than exhilarated by a Chekhov comedy. The audience can rarely indulge in detached laughter at the characters' expense, because there is no comic spectacle of abstracted human follies on stage, only a concentration of suggestions and perceptions of errors which the audience understand no more clearly than the characters themselves. Or Chekhov.
The time has come for writers to admit that in this world we cannot make anything out.
It is part of Chekhov's comic irony that audience detachment is impossible since such a feeling of lucid superiority is itself comic in its self-deception. His realism, then, does not say "All men are like this; therefore, take note and beware"; but rather, "All men are like this, mysterious and deluded; as you cannot understand, so you cannot judge by laughter; but remember that it is a comedy; if you start lamenting about despair, you become part of the comedy."
There is a character in Conrad's Nostromo, Martin Decoud, a Europeanized South American, who, amidst a revolution, mistakes his sympathetic, ironic detachment for circumspect veracity:
All he saw and heard going on around him exasperated the preconceived views of his European civilization. To contemplate revolutions from the distance of the Parisian Boulevards was quite another matter. Here on the spot it was not possible to dismiss their tragic comedy with the expression, "Quelle farce!"
But Martin Decoud is just as implicated in the comedy for his patronizing sobriety, as for his previous secure elevation. Conrad, like Chekhov, is a master of the comedy of ironic detachment. And this seems to me to be a modern comic technique in this time of self-accusation and self-justification.