What I May Have Learned Spending The Weekend Completely Rewriting The Dialogue To This Beloved Play For My Quarantine Zoom Reading Group.
It’s a rite of passage for many young (and, in my case, not so young) playwrights: trying your hand at adapting a Chekhov play. A few summers back, just as an exercise, mind you, I wrote the first two acts of a modernized Uncle Vanya. When my then agent asked me what I was up to and I told her, she shouted into the phone: “Stop! Literally every person in New York has written an adaptation of Uncle Vanya! Cabbies. Hedge fund managers. Halal cart vendors. Every member of The New York Knicks organization. Everyone!” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. I still thought it had potential value, though, seeing if I could learn anything by essentially tracing over the blueprint of a great playwright’s great play. I can’t honestly say if it was. At minimum, it saved me from enjoying nature or interacting with family members.
Necessity (With A Dash Of Hubris) Is The Mother Of Invention
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m part of a Quarantine Zoom reading group. We read a play every Thursday evening. It’s become a highlight of my week. The people on it are all supremely gifted and terrific company. It’s definitely high up there on the small list of things keeping me sane these days.
There was some clamoring for Chekhov, and so I thought: great. I thought, given our little company, The Cherry Orchard might suit us best. The problem was, there are so many iterations out there. I even looked into buying Sir Tom Stoppard‘s translation of The Cherry Orchard (Can’t go wrong with good old Sir Tom, right?), but the copies wouldn’t arrive in time. Also, and this is hard to stress enough, I’m very cheap.
So I looked online at several public domain versions of the text, of which there are no shortage. But, to be frank, I found them all stilted and well, dull. Most of them were translated around 1915, so that could be part of the problem. Plus, to be honest, I’ve always found the fact that The Cherry Orchard was explicitly labeled a “comedy” by Chekhov himself somewhat baffling. I get comedies don’t have to be knee-slappers, but still.
From Russia, With Love of Human Suffering
I’ve always had a suspicion that many Americans (read: me) aren’t getting the full scope of the man’s genius when we read Chekhov. I think it’s mostly the Shakespeare Trap: everything is too reverential, too earnest, at least when done badly (which isn’t uncommon). I once knew an American actress who grew up in Russia, and asked her what we Americans didn’t get right about Chekhov and she immediately shouted (we were in a bar), “Oh. My. God! Chekhov is hysterically funny!!”
And I thought, really?
Much of it, she explained to me, is that Russians and Americans have very different senses of humor. Russians, she claimed, were not as into witticisms (although she claimed they do enjoy a good pun. But again, those really don’t translate). They find the heartbreak and self-deception so many of his characters endure inherently comic, which, yeah, I can kinda see that, but I think we tend to lean more into the heartbreak of it all.
That conversation always stuck with me.
So, What the Hell, I Thought, I Only Have The Respect of Theater Artists I Deeply Admire To Lose Forever. I’ll Give It A Whirl.
I had two main goals when I set about re-writing (actually, that’s way too pompous a term for what I did. I’d call what I did more of a rephrasing) The Cherry Orchard: not to change the plot or the characters’ natures (as I read them) one iota, and simply try to make the language sound natural coming out of American, Canadian, and Australian actors’ mouths in 2020 while still honoring the period of the piece (no cursing, for instance, or references to Zoomba. Nor does anyone at any point refer in my version to the Cherry Orchard estate as their “crib”).
Oh, and I also wanted to try, if I could, make it occasionally funny without altering any of the characters or circumstances.
Task One: I Had To Put Out Of My Mind That I Was “Re-Writing” One Of The Greatest Plays Ever Written
This became much easier for me when I realized I wasn’t re-writing Chekhov, but someone else’s version of what they thought Chekhov wrote. That was surprisingly freeing. And, as the hardest thing for me to write – by far – is plot, and that in this case the plot was taken care of for me by a Master, I found the writing went very quickly. Whether the endeavor was at all successful or a crashing failure, I won’t have a clue til Thursday, at least. Having said this, here’s a few things I noticed along the way:
Dramaturgically Speaking, The Cherry Orchard Is One Weird-Ass Play, In Terms of Construction and, Well, Other Things, Too.
The play sets up what we think is going to be the play’s central dramatic conflict – the potential loss of the Cherry Orchard – almost immediately. Pretty high stakes. It is an ancestral estate, after all. So far, so good. But, then, like two pages later, it clearly provides the solution to the great dramatic obstacle. Like, an obvious and immediate solution.
Lopahkin, almost literally on page 10, explains exactly how the family can keep its land and save its dwindling fortunes. Yes, he admits, it will necessitate chopping down the orchard and the pulling down the ancestral home, which isn’t exactly un-fraught, but the family is saved from financial ruin 15 minutes into the play!
Except, it turns out, the cherry orchard isn’t the main issue at all. Because Lubov and Gaev (the owners of the estate) refuse to listen to Lopahkin for some never explained or even broadly hinted at reason. Perhaps because he’s the son of a Serf? Or maybe they just can’t accept that their world, one way or another, is about to permanently change. At times, it’s as if they literally can’t hear him.
I firmly believe (I’m sure this isn’t an original idea), Chekhov doesn’t give a hoot about the cherry orchard; so, what does he care about? What does he want us to care about? If I had to pick one central theme (because I think there’s a few of them), I’d say that he’s most interested in people’s unwillingness/inability to adapt to inevitable change and the toll it exacts on them.
To Quote Bob Dylan, “There Was Music In The Cafes At Night, And Revolution In The Air.”
Change surrounds these characters: a vast social shift that would culminate in the Russian Revolution. The rumblings of this conflict were none too subtle to most Russians as Chekhov wrote this. And yes, Chekhov is clearly interested in commenting on this development, especially through the character of Trofimov. In characteristic Chekhovian fashion, much of what Trofimov says is prescient and true, yet he himself is such an imperfect messenger – one minute eloquent and full of ideals, the next full of idiotic notions of being “above love” and offstage pratfalls – it’s hard to take his lofty ideals too seriously.
Even with the things Chekhov clearly agrees with politically, such as the Emancipation of the Serfs, he has a few characters (former Serfs themselves, sometimes) express great ambivalence about it. This is, of course, something all great writers do: they dig into the contradictions inside our motives and the ambivalent outcomes of all human behavior and endeavor, however well-intentioned. And yeah, tip of the cap here to Chekhov for doing that as well as pretty much anyone who’s ever written drama.
But if this were a play mainly about social upheaval, I don’t think it would resonate with people as much as it does. Nor is it, I think, Chekhov’s main preoccupation. No, as I wrote earlier, in my very humble and under-read opinion, it’s about the tragedy of change, and many people’s resistance/inability to adapt to it, both in their world and within themselves. He wants to show us the folly of how we go about trying to protect ourselves from the inevitable.
Speaking Of Turn Of The Century Geniuses With Poor Health
I keep coming back to what James Joyce answered when he was asked what his short story collection, Dubliners, published a few years after The Cherry Orchard, was about: “Paralysis,” was his one word response. It is, I think, one of the most human of traits. Both men were writing about societies on the cusp of revolution. But ultimately, it’s personal paralysis they’re both more interested in. Our inability to unstick ourselves, even when we know it’s what we should do.
What else can explain Lubov and Gaev’s refusal to heed Lopahkin’s obviously sound and, believe me when I say, repeated advice? How to justify why Lopahkin, the smartest and most confident character in the play in many ways, is unable to propose to Varya, when he knows it’s not only what he wants, but he also knows it’s what she wants, too? He just has to ask the damn question!
Is it that, finally, the successful son of a Serf cannot picture himself being worthy, or happy, living with a woman whose grandparents owned his? Or is it simpler? Is it basic human shyness and interpersonal incompetence at sharing our true feelings? Maybe it’s a mixture. It’s seldom one thing in life; it’s just as rarely one thing in Chekhov.
In the same way, what else can justify Lubov’s tragic dedication to a man she knows to be a cad? And yet, though we clearly see her devotion to him is dumb and self-destructive, and even she says it’s dumb and self-destructive, who among us can’t empathize with her plight at least a little?
Chekhov portrays one of the few characters in the play who isn’t afraid of change, the faithless, socially climbing footman Yasha, as without regard for anyone else around him, including his own mother. In order to move forward unencumbered, unweighted by the past – Lubov calls her love for her unnamed scoundrel “like a stone” – do we need to be equally heartless? Are we all, ultimately, only fully committed to and, equally, trapped by, ourselves, as perhaps the last moments of the play suggest?
Remember, it’s a comedy, people.
Other Dramaturgically Odd Choices In The Play That Would Likely Earn Him A C+ And A Terse “See Me During Office Hours” If Chekhov Were In A Grad School Writing Program
Chekhov makes reference to the tragic drowning of Lubov’s young son, which prompts her leaving the cherry orchard estate to begin with. And while it may arguably hover over the play and its characters throughout (just because there’s no direct evidence of this doesn’t make it untrue), Chekhov makes barely any mention of it after the first act. That’s a big thing to leave not only unresolved, but unremarked upon.
Plus, and here’s where I get all edgy and brazenly commit theatrical sacrilege, Chekhov’s expositional writing is often so clunky, so in your face bad, I refuse to believe a writer of his genius wasn’t doing it on purpose. Though I’ve yet to figure out what’s gained by it.
On The Other Hand…
To counter my bold assertion (so typical of me, the universally acknowledged “bad boy” of playwriting blogs), actress Jill Eikenberry offers this:
“I think in those expositional speeches, they’re just trying to figure out how their lives have turned out this way. They all think of themselves as the center of the universe. They’re Russian. Also, Chehkov was in cahoots with Stanislavsky and they were all about the inner lives of the characters. It was such a new idea. When I played Yelena in Uncle Vanya at Yale, I thought too many of her speeches were filled with ennui and self-pity. I thought the audience would hate me. But at the first preview, when I finished one of my least favorite monologues and swooned onto the divan, the audience laughed hysterically. And I thought ‘Hmm. This guy might know a thing or two about playwriting.'” Touché, Jill, touché.
Although I think it would be silly to entirely discount the comedic power of swooning on divans. It’s gotten me out of more than one sticky situation, both in my plays and my life. I recommend it highly.
Oh! And He Also Does This!
He also breaks HIS OWN SUPER FAMOUS, INCREDIBLY VITAL, CLICHED, AND BASIC PLAYWRITING 101 RULE. You know the one: “If we a see a gun at the start of the play (or start of ACT II in this case), be sure it’s fired by the end.” He breaks this rule. Not once. But twice. Twice.
The beautiful (seriously, he was kinda dreamy looking – the man looked hot with a goatee – a GOATEE) bastard (actually, by most accounts, an extraordinarily nice man) gets away with it; I think he gets away with it all. There’s no getting away from the power of his characters’ sloppy, deeply relatable humanity. Maybe, in the end, to capture that, you have to be willing to write a less than “technically perfect” play. Probably doesn’t hurt to be a genius, either.
Please! Share your thoughts on Chekhov with me. Praise my insight or call me out on my stupidity! I want to hear from you! I’d love to hear your thoughts on adapting works in general! I’ll let you know how the reading goes.