The Playgoer: Chekhov and the Nuthouse

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Chekhov and the Nuthouse

By Steven Leigh Morris

NPR had an interesting piece over the weekend on Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull – which opened last week on Broadway. The English playwright admits his knowledge of Russian derives from one-year's study in high school, which is why he feels unqualified to call his version a translation.

So in order to construct his play, based on and inspired by Chekhov's play, Hampton says he sat with a Russian who guided him through the piece.

"What we're looking for is to really try to fathom exactly what Chekhov's intentions were and to reproduce them," Hampton told NPR's Robert Siegel. "To make the audience laugh when he wanted them to laugh and to make them cry when he wanted them to cry."

Hampton goes on to explain how he listened to the Russian and counted “the number of words in a sentence in order to meter the language” for his English version.

There was a personal delight in reading this, after seeing the Sovremennik Theatre's taut, muscular production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in Moscow this past summer.

There's a line almost halfway through the play, when Madam Lubov Ranevskaya, co-proprietor of an almost bankrupt provincial estate, takes a hard look at the manservert, Fiers, who's been working in the household for many years.

“How old you've grown, Fiers!,” she observes. Fiers is deaf, which explains his line, “I beg your pardon.” Lopakhin – a merchant in-residence – pipes in, to Fiers, “She says you've grown very old!”

In Julius West's translation, Fiers replies, “I've been alive a long time.” Other translations have the line as, “That's because I've been living for a long time” Either way, the line gets a mildly amused laugh, or some smiles that enthusiasts can say reflect the essence of Chekhov's languid comedic “atmosphere.”

But in the Russian, Fiers replies with only two words, four syllables -- “Shivoo dolga.” In Moscow, the line elicited a roar of laughter, like a punch-line from a play by Neil LaBute. The line, and the production itself, were far closer to Chekhov's affection for vaudeville than to the kind of ruminative albeit humorous metaphysics that form the pervasive tone in most English-language productions of Chekhov's full-length plays.

In neurologist Oliver Sacks' collection of clinical essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, there's one short story called “The President's Speech” in which two groups of patients afflicted with brain disorders listen to a speech by Ronald Reagan.

One set of patients has a kind of aphasia that prevents them from comprehending the meanings of words, and the ligaments of logic that connects thoughts. Sacks observed in them, however, a compensatory, accelerated capacity to comprehend what people were saying through their visual and aural signals

The other set of patients suffered from a kind of agnosia that prevented them from reading any of those subtextual and contextual signs, yet they benefited instead from an advanced ability to cut to the meanings of the words, and to the lines of logic that connected them.

Both groups of patients complained that the speech made little sense. The aphasiacs remarked that the president's facial tics and speech patterns struck them as fakery, while the agnosiacs homed in on the fallacies of logic that peppered the president's economic policies. Meanwhile, much of the world beyond that clinic, a world containing people with fully functioning brains, was fooled into embracing the wisdom of economic policies that have been impoverishing us since since the early '80s, but only now are they fully crashing down around us. Those with brain deficiencies seemed to get the problem almost thirty years ago.

It's probably obvious by now that this recollection was spurred by yesterday's presidential debate, and the impediments that block us from easily recognizing the layers of deception that come with both performance and argumentation.

It makes a case for Ionesco and his Absurdist ilk, who argued that language was close to useless when it comes to comprehending core truths of who we are, what we're doing and what we need to do in order to improve our condition. Language, however, is pretty good for expressing when we're too cold, hot, hungry or horny. Then again, the chickens in my friend's back yard can do that too, with just a few cackles.

Maybe Christopher Hampton was really counting cackles on the page, and "adapting" them to the stage, in order to streamline the music of a playwright from across a sea and a century. Perhaps we, too, are only capable of receiving it as though a blanket of obfuscation. Perhaps it's not really a language barrier at all, but a more fundamental failure of intelligence and perception.

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