Czeslaw Milosz, the brilliant Polish-Lithuanian dissident essayist, once gently criticized Pablo Neruda, the giant of Chilean poetry and a committed Communist, for letting his ideological enthusiasms impair his poetic nose for truth:
Pablo Neruda, the great poet of Latin America, comes from Chile. I translated a number of his poems into Polish. Pablo Neruda has been a Communist for some ten years. When he describes the misery of his people, I believe him and I respect his great heart. When writing, he thinks about his brothers and not about himself, and so to him the power of the word is given. But when he paints the joyous, radiant life of people in the Soviet Union, I stop believing him. I am inclined to believe him as long as he speaks about what he knows: I stop believing him when he starts to speak about what I know myself.
I was thinking about this quote as I headed to New York’s Public Theater to take in the English language premier of Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón’s play, Neva, about the death of Chekhov on the eve of the 1905 Revolution in Russia. Calderón is a political playwright, animated by the memory of the Pinochet dictatorship; Chekhov, meanwhile, was the voice of bourgeois Russia, valorized by the Soviets as a progressive (and class-conscious) voice while being patronized for the limitations of his (understandable) pre-revolutionary consciousness. I was fascinated to learn what the modern Chilean would make of the 19th century Russian. The setting of the play suggested he would be grappling with precisely the question of how to interpret Chekhov’s life’s work. Was he a harbinger of the glorious Socialist future? A bourgeois relic who had to be left behind for that future to be born (his death in 1904 thus being historically necessary)? Or was the Socialist transformation of Chekhov into a progressive – a man of history rather than a man in history – itself a tragedy, and a source of insight into why the future wasn’t so glorious after all, and why history never ends?
Well, I didn’t quite get what I was hoping for. The play opens strong, with Chekhov’s widow, the actress Olga Knipper (Bianca Amato), fretting that she can no longer act since her husband’s death six months before. She’s practicing Madame Ranevskaya’s monologue saying goodbye to her beloved Cherry Orchard, but, she complains, she doesn’t feel anything – can no longer feel anything. Her monologue is intended, no doubt, to recall the revolution in acting achieved by Stanislavski, working with the texts of Chekhov – a new “method” organized around the idea that acting is about bringing out authentic emotion from within the actor.
The punchline is that the monologue is not a soliloquy; after paragraphs of anxious prose, apparently directed at us, Ms. Amato asks, “isn’t that right Sergei?” and another actor (Luke Robertson) lifts himself from his previously unseen spot on the floor. He’s not playing Sergei, though, he’s playing Aleko, another actor in the troupe whom Olga hasn’t even bothered to learn the name of. Before too long, a third actor, Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) joins the group, the three of them waiting to rehearse – that is, assuming the other actors and the director haven’t all been murdered by the Tsar’s troops who fired on the street protests earlier that day (something else Olga hasn’t bothered to find out about).
While they wait, they play out scenarios, somewhere between acting exercises and therapy games, at Olga’s behest and drawn from her life. Over and over we get the death of Chekhov and Olga’s reaction; we get Chekhov telling his sister that he plans to marry (the sister is none too pleased; she wanted him for herself); we get an obscene monologue by Aleko that starts as a profession of love and turns into something Dostoevski’s Underground Man might have written; we get snippets of Chekhov’s plays. The actors weave in and out of these quotes and scenarios, so that we are never entirely sure when they are acting and when they are “themselves” – of course, they are always acting, and, if they are following the “method,” they are still always themselves.
The troika of actors are trapped, like Sartre’s trio of the damned but also like so may Chekhov characters (particularly those in the third act of The Three Sisters) in a claustrophobic physical and social space. The director (also Mr. Calderón) has placed them on a tiny platform in the center of the stage, lit from below by a single lamp. The outside world of which they speak – where revolution is either boiling over or being stamped out – feels as abstract as the outside world in Endgame; all that really is is here, in the theatre.
It’s a supreme effective way to dramatize the question about Chekhov for a left-wing playwright like Mr. Calderón, namely, what the political implications of his plays and of his idea of the theatre are. On the eve of revolution, what is the purpose of a theatre that appears to aim for tragic self-knowledge and the broadest possible social conscience – but that does not, as Kenneth Clark said of pornography (erotic or political) become an incentive to action? Are these three actors a metaphor for the impotent self-involvement of the theatre at such a moment? Or of the desperate effort to recover some kind of authentic human feeling at the moment it is about to be crushed under the wheels of revolution or reaction?
I don’t mind that the play doesn’t really answer that question – but I do mind that for most of the play it never really progresses beyond that initial question. And, worse, when it does move, it degenerates into facile speechifying. Aleko turns out (maybe) to be a millionaire and a noble and simultaneously a Tolstoyan and a sensualist; Masha to be sexually frigid and a budding revolutionary. After a few tedious turns debating whether the revolution will be a good or a bad thing, Olga and Aleko sink to the floor for lack of a bed on which to lie together, while Masha rises to proclaim the revolution and denounce its enemies, only to be shot (I think), and to fall off the stage. I’m not sure what this is intended to mean, but it feels like a resolution of the initial question by coming down emphatically on the side of revolution, and against the Chekhovian legacy, but without having actually proved the case at all – indeed, if Masha’s speech is supposed to be the Socialist alternative to Chekhovian bourgeois liberalism, then it made an excellent if, I suspect, inadvertent case for the latter.
In the end, I felt like I really would have liked to know what a Polish playwright – someone who knew what Czeslaw Milosz knew, and not only what Neruda did – would have done starting from the same question, and with the same electric initial position.