Wednesday, January 27, 2010

the moment of truth

last nite at the blue room theatre a group of actors read chekhov's three sisters. deja vu, for me. fifty years ago i attended a production of the play at san francisco's actors workshop six times. it's memory has never faded. i didn't know why until last nite.

we read two translations/adaptations, one act of each, the tone quite different. the writing styles radically opposed (the second by david mamet). the first act worked wonderfully, lots of humor, charming characters, not what we normally associate with checkov. the mamet version turgid and depressing, the characters coming across as whiners, a common complaint with the audience for these plays.

afterwards, various participants commented on the spoiled nature of the sisters and brother. how they stewed in their own juice and never got anywhere. this certainly didn't make them seem very appealing. we left with the jury out.

suddenly, i realized what the play about: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH, something we all experience. that time when we have to make our own living. dreams come crashing down, the child no longer a child. the play traces the experience of such people hitting the harsh realities of the world and finally coming to terms with them, accepting them.

let's face it, at some point most of us find a situation and place where we dig in and spend a large portion of our lives. security and comfort more important than grand schemes of performing on broadway or re-inventing the wheel.

at first the youngsters, who've never worked, imagine work will free them. they hallucinate the sweat and toil as a kind of ecstasy. we in the audience can't help smiling. alas, in the course of the play they learn how tyrannous and petty labor can be. in fact for the social-climbing working-class woman who takes over the house, work becomes the only reason for existence. when an aging servant can no longer work, she threatens to throw her in the gutter. as the sign over the entrance to auschwitz says, arbeit macht frei. work makes you free. i think the irony of that is lost on none of us.

checkov hated work, complained all the time in his letters about having to write so much to support a large family. as a boy, he felt like a slave in his father's store and said, 'i had to beat that subservience out of me.' looking at the wall of personal photos in his moscow apartment, i had an epiphany. checkov dressed and appeared to be a dandy. i don't know why that seemed to explain so much, but it did.