Cheering up Chekhov
GORKY concludes his reminiscences of Chekhov with these words: ``It does one good to recall the memory of such a man, it brings renewed energy into one's life....'' In this spirit, I would like to recall the visit made by the Moscow Art Theater to Chekhov at Yalta. In the fall of 1898, Chekhov reluctantly decided on an extended stay at the Black Sea resort of Yalta for his health. Sun-drenched, amid lush vegetation, Chekhov may, at first, have shared Pushkin's delight with the Crimea. ``I felt immediately at home in the southern climate,'' wrote Pushkin, ``and luxuri-ated in it with all the laziness and insouciance of a Neapolitan lazzarone. I loved to wake at night and listen to the sound of the sea for hours.''
But Pushkin passed through the Crimea as a tourist. Chekhov's stay was of indefinite duration and involuntary. He found the place depressing. ``Do you like the sea, Anton Pavlovich?'' asked the Russian writer Ivan Bunin. ``Yes,'' responded Chekhov, ``only it is too barren.... I think it is wonderful to be an army officer or a young student, to sit somewhere in a crowded place and listen to music.'' Wrenched from his family and friends in Moscow, Chekhov felt like ``a transplanted tree hesitating as to whether it will take root or wither away.''
He wearied of hotel life after a few weeks. ``I am buying a plot of ground in Yalta and intend building so as to have a place to spend the winters. The prospect of a nomadic life with its hotel rooms, doormen, hit-or-miss cookery, and so on, alarms me.'' He purchased land at Autka, a suburb of Yalta, 20 minutes by foot from the center of town. Here, looking north, Chekhov could see the steeply rising Crimea mountains, which form an amphitheater around Yalta, shielding it from the cold winds of northern Russia; and looking south, the Black Sea stretching beyond the horizon to Turkey.
When the house was completed, he placed portraits of Turgenev and Tol-stoy on the wall. From his writing desk he looked upon a large print of Pushkin, fountainhead of Russian literature. Writes biographer Ernest J. Simmons, ``After listening to Chekhov's complaints that he was bored with the scenery of Crimea and longed to see again the fields of his northern Russia,'' the artist Isaak Levitan, ``in the course of half an hour, painted such a scene - a night in a hayfield - cocks of hay, a forest in the distance, and a moon reigning on high above it all.'' Chekhov set the canvas in a niche above his fireplace.
A few months prior to leaving for Yalta, Chekhov had granted permission to the Moscow Art Theater to perform ``The Sea Gull.'' The dramatist Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev, heir to a textile fortune, were the co-founders of the Moscow Art Theater. (To spare his family the embarrassment of his chosen career, that of director and actor, Alekseyev took the Polish-sounding name Stanislavsky.) The new company sought to raise performance standards at a time when overacting and shoddy productions dominated the Russian stage.
While Chekhov fretted in Yalta, for the 1896 St. Petersburg premi`ere of ``The Sea Gull'' had been a disaster, the company performed the play in Moscow on Dec. 17, 1898. The telegraph wires began to hum soon after the per-formance.
Moscow to Yalta:
Just performed The Sea Gull, success colossal. Play so took hold from first act that series of triumphs followed. Curtain calls endless.... We are mad with joy.
Yalta to Moscow:
Convey to all: Infinite thanks with all my soul. I'm confined to Yalta, like Dreyfus on Devil's Island. I grieve that I'm not with you. Your telegram made me well and happy.
(The reference to Devil's Island brought complaints from Yalta's hotel-keepers!)
With the play's success assured, so much so that the company adopted the sea gull as its emblem, the directors of the Moscow Art Theater sought Che-khov's permission to produce ``Uncle Vanya.'' He agreed.
Chekhov describes receiving news of the October 1899 opening performance. ``The telegrams started arriving the evening of the twenty-seventh, after I had already gone to bed. They were repeated to me over the telephone. I kept on waking each time and running barefoot to the telephone in the dark, giving myself a bad chill; I would hardly fall asleep before there would be another ring, and another. This is the first occasion my own personal glory has prevented my sleeping. Upon going to bed the next night, I put my bedroom slippers and bathrobe next to the bed, but there were no more telegrams.''
Chekhov's elation was brief. The solitude and silence of his house depressed him. He felt like an exile, abandoned by friends, far from his beloved Moscow. To his sister Masha, living in Moscow, he wrote: ``What you write about the theater ... just provokes me; you really don't know how dull and stupid it is to go to bed at nine in the evening and lie there in a fury and with the consciousness that there is nowhere to go, no one to talk to, and nothing to work for because it makes no difference what you do if you don't see or hear your work. The piano and I are the two objects in the house existing mutely, wondering always why we have been placed here, since there is no one to play us.''
And to the actress Olga Knipper, his future wife, he wrote: ``I'm bored and I rage and rage and I envy the rat that lives under the floor of your theater.''
To ease his loneliness, Chekhov suggested the Moscow Art Theater come to the Crimea. He had never seen the company perform a play of his before an audience. His desires accorded with Stan-islavsky's designs. Chekhov's plays at-tracted audiences, a requisite to the survival of the company. The trip would serve two purposes: a joyful reunion for Chekhov and the company, and an incentive to him to write a new play.
The planned visit filled Chekhov with excitement. ``I rejoice, rejoice, primarily for myself, for to see all of you, and especially in a finished production.... I confess this is a dream the realization of which I had not believed in until recently; and now I tremble with every ring of the telephone at the thought that it is a telegram from Moscow to announce cancellation of the plans.''
Playbills went up and Sinani's book-shop, gathering place for Yalta's writers and artists, did a brisk business in the sale of tickets.
In early April 1900 the company began the two-day railway journey south: actors, actresses, children, governesses, stagehands, property men, costumers, wigmakers, plus carloads of scenery. Stanislavsky told them: ``Take off your fur coats, take out your summer clothes, your straw hats! It does not matter that you will freeze a day or two - you will be warm when you arrive.''
A holiday mood swept over the company on this, its first tour, with much singing and comic telegrams sent to friends en route. The excitement increased when the sight of mountains and the sea announced the troupe's arrival in the Crimea. At Sevastopol the company boarded a Black Sea steamer bound for Yalta.
On April 14, in the midst of a storm, they arrived for their 10-day visit. A large crowd welcomed them at the pier. Bouquets were presented and mountains of luggage and scenery unloaded from the steamer.
Each day the members of the company set out for Chekhov's house on foot or by carriage. Here their beaming host greeted every guest with a kind word. He proudly showed the visitors his garden.
``The little garden,'' Bunin wrote, ``tended with such care by Chekhov, who was in love with every flower, tree and animal.'' His two mongrel dogs and two pet cranes followed their master on the tour of the grounds.
Inside the usually silent house, animation reigned. In one corner, Gorky captivated visitors with stories of his youthful adventures tramping about Russia. In another, Bunin amused listeners with his humorous anecdotes. Che-khov, the happy host, talked with everyone, putting each guest at ease. Following dinner, an actor read aloud several Chekhov short stories.
How Chekhov reveled in the gaiety! He reminded Stanislavsky ``of a house which had stood shuttered and locked all winter suddenly opened up in spring so that all its rooms were filled with sunshine.''
The company opened its Yalta stay with a performance of ``Uncle Vanya.'' The playhouse was filled to the rafters. Even Chekhov's mother, in an ancient silk dress dug out from the bottom of her trunk, attended. The performance went well, despite musical interruptions from next door, where the town band was playing polkas and waltzes. The audience accorded Chekhov a standing ovation. When he appeared on-stage, his pince-nez misted over.
Chekhov also attended a performance of ``The Sea Gull'' given in his honor. Once again, the audience greeted him with prolonged applause. Later Chekhov presented to Nemirovich-Danchenko a medallion with this engraving: ``You gave my Sea Gull life. Thanks!'' Members of the cast received gold medallions from him.
Stanislavsky could be well pleased with the visit. Chekhov had promised to write a new play for the Moscow Art Theater. ``Speaking between ourselves,'' Stanislavsky wrote, ``that was one of the chief reasons why the mountain came to Muhammad.''
Chekhov, too, was pleased. His drooping spirits had been raised by the presence of his colleagues, with whom he could laugh and discuss art and literature. And, at last, he had seen his plays performed by a group of artists he could respect.
Chekhov set to work. As he began writing ``Three Sisters,'' he would occasionally look up from his desk and gaze on the company's parting gift to him: in the garden, the bench and swing from ``Uncle Vanya.''