It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Chekhov’s Gun (or, “In Praise of Simplicity”)

Dave Sikula keeps it simple.

So, not to toot my own horn (because Jeebus knows that writing a blog post implies no personal aggrandizement), but I’m currently working on a translation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

I find the process of translation and adaptation fascinating. In a sense, I’m writing the play along with Chekhov. As I work my way through the (surprisingly short) text, I get to see what he’s putting in and what he’s leaving out. I look at the choices he made and have to puzzle out why this character says this or that character does that. On top of that, I have feel I have to find a balance between what a Russian doctor wrote at the end of the 19th Century and how an American audience will receive that information in the 21st.

My process has changed over the years. I did my first translation (from “Три сестры” to “The Three Sisters”) after a good friend of mine went through a particularly bad breakup. The play has always been her favorite and I thought I’d do a translation to try to cheer her up. (She’s a very good director in Los Angeles, and I had hopes she’d direct it – she still hasn’t.) I went to the library (remember libraries?) and got a HUGE Russian-English dictionary, and started going through it, word by word.

It took me six weeks to get through the whole play. At first, I could manage half a page a night, but by the end, I was up to about two pages. (My current pace is about four or five.) I start with a literal translation. Taking “Елена Андреевна «одного часа, говорит, не желаю жить здесь… уедем да уедем… Поживем, говорит, в Харькове, оглядимся и тогда за вещами пришлем…» Налегке уезжают. Значит, Марина Тимофеевна, не судьба им жить тут. Не судьба… Фатальное предопределение” to “Yelena Andreyevna ‘one hour, speaks, I do not wish to live here . . . We shall leave yes we shall leave… We shall live, speaks, in Kharkov, we shall look round and then behind things we shall send. . .’ Rough leave. Means, Marina Timofyevna, not destiny it to live here. Not destiny… Fatal predetermination.” After wrestling with it, I turn it into “Yelena Andreyevna says ‘I can’t stand one more hour here.’ She says ‘I don’t want to live here . . . we have to leave, and we have to leave now’ . . . She says ‘We’ll live in Kharkov for a while. We’ll look around, and then send for our things’ . . . They’re leaving everything behind. Marina Timofyevna, it just wasn’t their destiny to live here; just not their destiny . . . It was predestined by Fate.” At this point it’s still not perfect, but after I finish Act Four, I’ll go back and clean it up, using the lessons I’ve learned from going through the whole play (realizing patterns, turns of phrase, and character traits, among other thing) to go back and make everything clean, clear, and consistent.

One of the things we know about Chekhov is that he and Stanislavskii argued over his plays. (When I was in Moscow, I visited Chekhov’s grave, and was delighted to find that he and Stanislavskii are buried virtually head-to-head, so they can continue to argue through eternity.) Chekhov insisted that his plays were comedies. Personally, I find them all very funny – at least, until the end when things go to hell. Stanislavskii drove Chekhov crazy by treating them as heavy dramas, casting a pall over them that exists to this day. I’ve seen probably dozens of productions of Chekhov, and they invariably steer right into the ditch of gloominess and self-indulgence. I’m not saying they’re broad farces (though Chekhov wrote plenty of those), but it seems like every time a translator or a director gets to a point in the script where it’s intended to be funny, they assume “Oh, it’s Chekhov; he couldn’t have meant that. What’s the darkest and most depressing way I can approach this?” That’s another challenge; making sure the humor and comedy are obvious enough to be apparent to even the dimmest director. Because of this assumption (that the plays are downers), directors and actors tend to indulge themselves and take the maximum time to wallow in emotion. This was another thing that drove Chekhov crazy; he insisted that his acts should take 12 minutes each to play. In spite of my feelings that the plays should have a brisk pace, I was surprised to see that this one has extraordinarily short acts. I’m well into Act Four and am only on page 38; I have to keep checking to make sure I haven’t left anything out.

That’s what I mean about simplicity. Chekhov could have given us much, much more, especially in terms of “events” happening. People sometimes complain that “nothing happens” in these plays, and while there aren’t any “plots” per se, and characters don’t really evolve for the most part (which is part of his point), they undergo massive emotion upheavals (which are frequently conveyed comedically). He figures out what he wants to do with his plays (which – like his stories – are usually intended to motivate people to change their stupidly mundane lives) and presents only the information he needs to get that point across.

I finished Act Three last night, which features one of the two guns in the canon. A lot of people talk about “Chekhov’s gun,” without really knowing either what it refers to (or even who Chekhov is; hint: he’s not the guy from “Star Trek” – whose name isn’t even spelled the same). The principle, to quote the man himself, is “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

Simplicity is something I’ve come to embrace over the years. I started out loving big physical productions with lots of sets, costumes, wagons, and projections, but I know they come with equally big price tags. I still love them where appropriate, but as often as not, they’re not necessary. They’re big, bloated dinosaurs that are less about supporting a story and more about showing patrons how well (and how much of) their money has been spent. Big and florid may be flashy, but I’m finding it doesn’t do as well as cutting through to the heart of the story. When think back on the shows I’ve seen, it’s almost never the flashy effects I recall; it’s the moments of human interaction. Whatever gets in the way of that is extraneous and should be lost. No one will ever notice.

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2 comments on “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Chekhov’s Gun (or, “In Praise of Simplicity”)

  1. ncooperf says:

    Dave–I like the direction you’re going in. I wouldn’t say that every one of his plays is a comedy, but there is plenty of humor in all of them, and so much of it gets lost in production/translation. Case in point: A few years ago Berkeley Rep did a production of 3 Sisters that probably turned a lot of people off of Chekhov for good. (I love Sarah Ruhl as a playwright, but her translation was completely misguided. She didn’t know Russian, and worked from a so-called “literal” translation, missing many nuances and adding plenty of unintended , bizarre ones.) And the production itself suffered from the ills you describe. On the other side: Marin Theatre Co.’s Seagull (also from a few years back) caught the humor in that play. It was delightful.
    More power to you! I look forward to your take on Chekhov.

  2. […] of his major works, including The Pear’s current offering, Uncle Vanya. As Sikula noted in a 2013 San Francisco Theater Pub blog post while working on this translation, Chekhov thought his plays were comedies, and he tends to agree […]

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