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Doctor Chekhov (that’s what the little plaque at the top of this post says – Doctor A. P. Chekhov, to be exact) has haunted a lot of dreams over the last 130 years. He began haunting mine long ago, probably when I was in high school in the early 1970s, although the first connection might have happened as early as the late 1960s. I do remember quite specifically the first time I encountered his work in performance. It was at my girlfriend’s house and she had the TV on. One of those Saturday Afternoon Playhouse series things was on and there was a real live Chekhov play unfolding before my eyes. It’s possible that I didn’t happen upon the broadcast by chance, it’s entirely possible, considering my infatuation with things Russian at that time, that I asked my girlfriend to turn the TV on so we could see the broadcast. My memory doesn’t offer me any more details. I’m not going to be able to say which of the plays it was (although I have an impulse to say it was Uncle Vanya), and I can’t say for sure who was performing – although I have a feeling it was a British production. That might be a quirk in my head, however, because, when I was growing up, American actors often imitated British accents when playing Chekhov. I guess they thought it made them sound more cultured. I do remember thinking the whole thing seemed rather stuffy.
These days Chekhov haunts my dreams because he haunts my wife Oksana’s dreams unmercifully. He always has. She often says that Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard because he knew she was going to be born to play Ranevskaya. That nagging dream almost became a reality many years ago when a major director at a major theater cast Oksana in the role of Ranevskaya. It took death to stop that from happening. That, of course, only increased the power of her dreams – often to the point of excruciating pain. She has played bits and pieces of Ranevskaya and other Chekhov heroines in Dmitry Krymov’s experimental productions of Tararabumbia and Auction. But, well into a storied career, Oksana still has not played Chekhov “proper.” That surely is one of the reasons why he continues to haunt her. It has reached the point that Oksana now often sleeps with Chekhov. She puts The Cherry Orchard under her pillow at night and lets the writer’s words seep into her brain from there. I myself hear a few floating around from time to time from my corner of the bed.
But I got carried away here, for my real purpose today is to present the famous house at 6 Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya where Chekhov and his family lived from 1886 to 1890. Today it’s a funny-looking little place, dwarfed by large architectural monoliths to the east. You can just see that somebody at one point or another really wanted to bring in a bulldozer and knock this little two-story building down to make room for something that would either make more money or serve more people. Fortunately, all such impulses have been denied, and the Chekhov home still stands, sticking out like a sore thumb because of its size, its shape and its color. The building now houses one of many Chekhov museums in Moscow and its environs. I hate to say it’s not a very thrilling museum. There are a few paintings, some archival materials – manuscripts and such – quite a few photos, and a fair amount of books. They’re all presented under glass or hanging in frames on walls. You don’t really get much information from them, and you don’t really get a sense for this having been a place where Chekhov actually lived. I personally tend to be most impressed by the exterior of the place, its quirks and its incongruities. It’s always such a joy to walk or drive by this place and to be reminded for a moment, that Chekhov hung out here.
A lot of great literature was created inside these walls. The big collected works devotes the better part of five volumes to works written during Chekhov’s stay here. A very rough count of the stories conceived here comes to around 165. Some, like “I Want to Sleep,” “The Steppe,” “The Kiss” and “Kashtanka,” were to become classics. These titles bear witness to the fact that it was in this home that Chekhov made the final turn from popular and well-known writer into the territory of one of the leading literary figures of his day. Here, too, Chekhov began truly honing his pen as a playwright. His Ivanov made its first appearance in the world here, in 1887. It is interesting to see the ambivalence that Chekhov’s drama evoked in spectators right from the beginning. The very first newspaper notice regarding the premiere of Ivanov at the Korsh Theater on November 19, 1887 was published a month earlier, on Oct. 9. Here is what it said (my added italics): “A.P Chekhov, as we hear it, wrote a comedy in four acts….”
As we hear it! But maybe we could be wrong! Maybe we got this all mixed up. And, really, what is this Chekhov guy up to anyway?! There it was in plain black and white, before Ivanov, not even one of the major plays yet, had been performed. Is this guy funny or is his work deadly? Folks are still trying to figure that out. He’s still haunting us about that.
Other dramatic works written while Chekhov lived here were some of his great one-acts, The Bear, The Proposal and The Wedding. Also written here were The Wood Demon (which would transform into Uncle Vanya in very different form) and the short play Tatyana Repina.
It was from this house that Chekhov shoved off to visit Sakhalin in the farthest east of Siberia, one of the most important events in his life and writing career. It not only served to broaden and deepen Chekhov’s world view, thus pushing him over the top and into the realm of greatness, but it also surely served to shorten his life. There is no way a man as sick as Chekhov was with tuberculosis should have undertaken a brutally strenuous trip like that. Which only goes to show you – sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
That’s what this place means to me.