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NA326112 - CHEKHOV, A.: In the Ravine and other short stories (Unabridged)
English 

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

In The Ravine

& Other Short Stories

Oh! The Public • The Chorus Girl • The Trousseau

A Story Without a Title • Children • Misery • Fat and Thin

The Beggar • Hush! • The Orator • An Actor’s End

 

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, grandson of a serf, was born into a Russia of tumult in 1860. In 1861 the system of serfs was abolished, although serfdom echoed through the social order for succeeding decades. He grew up in Taganrog on the Sea of Asov, but his family moved to Moscow when his father’s business failed. There, Chekhov studied medicine, which he was to practice all his life.

In his student years he earned money by writing, establishing a reputation initially for humorous short stories, then far more serious observations of Russian life. And finally came the great plays, including The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard – his last great play, in 1904, the year of his death from pulmonary tuberculosis.

The plays remain the works with which he is most clearly identified. The short stories, often gentle in their character, faintly elusive in their purpose, rely on the portrayal of seemingly simple situations rather than masculine plots with a strong conclusion. For a generation engaged by Maupassant (1850-1893), with his overtly exciting storylines, Chekhov presented a totally different approach.

He wrote:

 

“All I wanted was to say honestly to people: ‘Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!’ The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves.”

 

His short stories inhabit the same atmosphere as his plays. The words spoken and the actions, which take place, can appear quite inconsequential, but it is the confusion, the yearning, the hope and the anguish behind those words, which form the real story. At first reading, or hearing, they can seem even pallid. But gradually the depth of emotion, of intent, emerges from even the lightest of brushstrokes.

 

This is evident in each of the stories here. Oh! The Public is a typical Chekhovian comedy, presenting the flustered confusion of the guard who, initially, can rely on his position of authority and do his job in his uniform – a contemporary figure we can recognize even now! But gradually he is undermined. And does his tormentor really have a ticket? The Orator, too, is a brief comedy, which also has something to say about the funeral process, while A Story Without a Title pricks religious pomposity.

 

In The Chorus Girl, the sympathies of the reader/listener rock back and forth between the plight of the wife and the plight of the girl, showing so clearly the complexities of the common triangle.

 

So many of these stories offer vivid glimpses of Russian life in the closing part of the 19th century. The sad, unfulfilled lives lamented by Chekhov seen no more clearly than in The Trousseau, with its picture of hopeless, forlorn existence.

 

By contrast, Children is a bright evocation of a group of youngsters having fun while the grown-ups are away. With remarkable economy, Chekhov shows what an invisible but sharp observer in the room would have seen during the game. The individual nature of each child emerges in just a few lines, through their response to the game, to the others, to the lateness.

 

And, as we all remember, such evenings are not entirely fun, for interwoven relationships are as strong at child level as later on; some individuals are caring, others selfish, ambitious, or confused.

 

Chekhov wrote about the people he met and observed. The cab driver in Misery is desperate to communicate his tragedy, but those he meets – his fares – are either anxious to avoid involving themselves or are oblivious to it. With whom can he share his grief? The answer is the real tragedy. On the other extreme is the journalist in Hush!, living a fantasy of importance as he scribbles away.

Vertical or horizontal relationships abound. Fat and Thin expresses with a smile the social pecking order we impose on ourselves, while The Beggar shows that things are not always what we presume.

 

Knowing the dynamics of a theater company so well, Chekhov set out to have fun, too, with An Actor’s End. Fun, with a dying man?… The underlying plot is so very Russian – the need for a return to the roots, to Vyazma, to die. But the color of the picture comes also from the characters making their exits and entrances, dealing each in their own way with the situation. Here is the comic actor Sigaev, here is the jejune premier Brama-Glinsky, here is the manager Zhukov, the tragic actor Adabashev, the hairdresser Yevlampy.

 

And finally, In The Ravine: In form this is more a novella than a short story, yet not in content. Here, in Ukleeva, in the ravine, is an enclosed society with its own cycles of power, submission, blackmail, abuse, and profound Russian sadness. Most people coming into contact with the Tsybukin family are affected by it, some deeply, some only in passing. Grigory Petrovitch Tsybukin rules, for a while, but he cannot remain untouched by the shrewdness and ruthlessness of Aksinya, his daughter-in-law, the gentleness of Varvara, his young wife, or his desperate pride in his wayward son Anisim. Into this family comes the simple Lipa, who can only talk on real terms with the carpenter, and who can, perhaps, understand the tragedy that befalls her son Nikifor; even more tragically, she comes to accept it. It is the way of the world, Chekhov seems to say.

 

At the age of 26, Chekhov wrote to his brother, Alexander:

 

“When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.

In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations! Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions. Nor is it necessary to portray many main characters. Let two people be the center of gravity in your story: he and she.”

 

Notes by Nicolas Soames

 

 

Kenneth Branagh

 

Kenneth Branagh, a leading figure in film, television and on stage, is equally at home with classic and contemporary subjects. However, as director and adaptor, he has made a particular contribution to Shakespearean performance with his films such as Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. His productions of Shakespeare in the theater have included: Henry V, Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost (Royal Shakespeare Company), Romeo and Juliet (Lyric), As You Like It, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing (Renaissance), A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear (World Tour), which he also directed, and Coriolanus (co-production with Chichester Festival Theatre). He has also played Iago in Oliver Parker’s film Othello. Among his other films are: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Peter’s Friends and Theory of Flight. He has won numerous awards for his work on stage, film and television as actor and director.


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