A year on and back from Chekhov country. Completing the script for “Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre” which will be the next film in the Russian Theatre Film Series – a series of films about Russian theatre of the early twentieth century.
Its a long journey, taking me through the labyrinth of Russian literature and theatre, as I acquaint myself with the folding and enfolding depths of the Russian mind through its culture.
To say Russia is a country going through immense changes is like saying people are human beings. Its obvious. However some things, while changing, remain constant like the tradition of the dacha in Russian life and culture. The dacha is a home in the Russian countryside, a retreat from the stifling city in summer. But it is much more than this. Chekhov used the dacha as a central motif in many of his works. Even if it wasn’t in the foreground of a story or a play it was always there somewhere in the background of Russian provincial life.
Of course the dacha is different in modern Russia. A new class is moving into this hitherto hinterland of pre revolutionary bourgeois and what was known as the Russian intelligentsia and soviet egalitarianism in which a a piece of the countryside was theoretically within the reach of everybody. In the Soviet system political status was the measure of the luxury one could attain. Now, it is money, with a side dish of political status, which rules more than anything else.
But what was the dacha for Chekhov in the context of theatre? Perhaps it is fanciful to consider something like the Shakespearian Arcadia or the forest of Arden in As you Like It where the norms of behaviour are turned up side down. Maybe this wasn’t Chekhov’s prototype but Chekhov did use the idea of a peaceful country setting, a place of harmony with nature, calm and meditative and turned this idea inside out.
At this time when in Russia everything seems to stop; work school, even the theatres close for the season and Moscow empties of people it seems like a time to to take stock. Like the characters in Chekhov’s plays the summer gathering of family, friends and acquaintances at the dacha is like a timeless interlude for looking back and looking forward, a space where the hopes and desires and disappointments could be weighed up, contemplated and evaluated.
The dacha is like an enclosed world where the drama of the outside world is shut out and forgotten and a sense of freedom from the activities of city life and its cares are forgotten. Here in the dacha the inner drama of peoples lives seemingly buried deep in the human consciousness erupt in restrained but epic proportions. Forgotten traumas are forced to the surface
The people or characters of Chekhov’s country setting are nervous, undergoing turmoil in their lives and their relationships. Family and friends gather after having not seen each other for a while. They meet again only to be reminded by each other of broken dreams and the unfulfilled promises of their own lives. The dacha, rather than a place of rest and meditation, becomes a cauldron of emotional conflicts, simmering away beneath the calm surface of the natural setting of the dacha. A poignant disenchantment bordering at times on indifference erupts into an agonising sense of loss and purposeless as the characters search for meaning to their existence.
This enclosed world, like another dimension, becomes the setting for a drama like no other. Away from Moscow in the gentle shade of the forest pines and white birch, the soft gloom of the dacha interior seems to mirror the opaque sub conscious world of the various characters.
In this context of another dimension I am reminded of another Russian artist, Tarkovsky. The Russian countryside plays an enormous part in Tarkovsky‘s films. The opening part of Solaris comes to mind and also, strangely enough, Stalker.
In Stalker the the main characters travel from the gruelling oppressive city to the countryside just like Chekhov’s characters. Here, Chekhov’s gloomy indifferent countryside has turned into a dystopian radioactive nightmare known as the “zone” where the normal laws of existence are no longer applicable and as with Chekhov there is no immediate relief. Relief can only be bought at a price, through suffering and confronting through suffering ones inner and moral failures and deficiencies. The landscape looks the same as it does in Chekhov’s world but now is littered with the debris of an apocalyptic event.
The the motif of the Shakespearian Arcadia (if it exists at all in Chekhov’s plays) and its light hearted fantasy is also akin to a zone, another dimension where the normal laws of life have been suspended. In the film Stalker, this “zone” has given way to the life and death struggle of the soul in a hostile environment.
I only use the image of Shakespeare’s Arcadia as a theatrical device to draw attention to a feature of Chekhov’s work and the role of the dacha which I link (perhaps spuriously)to an Arcadian space or psychological zone in which characters confront the true nature of themselves as human beings. Chekhov’s characters are also engaged in a life and death struggle like those in Stalker but the life and death struggle is with themselves.
In this context a thematic line can be drawn from Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard which hints at the negative aspects of progress and its negative effects on the psyche or souls of human beings, through to Tarkovsky‘s Stalker where a new cycle has begun and human beings battle literally with a toxic environment which requires them to confront their own moral decay in order to find inner salvation or at least an understanding of what inner salvation might consist. The Cherry Orchard is still recognisable as such but its sale and demise points to a new era where nature and humans will have a more ambiguous relationship to each other. Because our lives are intimately bound up with the natural world any change in its character will have an impact on us. Tarkovsky takes up this theme in a specifically Russian context and underscores the deep connection which Russian’s feel with nature.
Chekhov changed the course of Russian theatre and theatre in general and yet out here in Chekhov country one can glimpse and experience that world before the revolution and before the industrial and technological dream of a modern world.by