chapter  3
21 Pages

Vaudevilles and one-act plays

Some of the short plays written by Chekhov between 1885 and 1903 continue to be performed as frequently as Pinter’s or Beckett’s short plays (Gottlieb and Allain 2000: 57). However, these one-act plays are not as widely known as the major plays, and the depth and range of Chekhov’s comedy is still not fully appreciated. These plays, some of which Chekhov referred to in his letters as ‘vaudevilles’ (Chekhov 1975b 2: 206), are important to a consideration of Chekhov’s style of humour in the major plays. They also indicate how Chekhov used stock characters and plots from nineteenth century drama but developed them, as he did in the full-length plays, to become a means of dramatically framing his particular social, psychological and philosophical analysis, in a way which went far beyond what most of his contemporaries offered for the stage. Thus, for example, relationships between the male and female protagonists in The Proposal (1888-89) and in The Bear (1888) presage the farcical elements in the relationship between Varya and Lopakhin, the ‘lovers’ in The Cherry Orchard, where the element of farce heightens the social and psychological complexity of the relationship. Similarly, The Wedding is an example of Chekhov’s examination of poshlost’ – the notion of a society dominated by false ideals and superficiality. The satire typified in The Wedding becomes a more in-depth and humane exploration of the difficulties of living in the sterile environment of the Russian provinces in the major plays. Other plays, such as The Evils of Tobacco (of which six versions were written, the final one being completed in 1902), were contemporaneous with the major plays and arguably offer, in miniature, a comparable depth and complexity. In this short play,

Chekhov develops his consideration of futlyarnost’, how people become entrapped in habit, fulfilling social roles, while cut off from genuine human relationships. Some of the short plays are purely comic and in others, such as this one, a character has a moment of insight and understanding, the major theme of Chekhov’s work. Chekhov was familiar with vaudeville from his youth, and part of

its appeal to him was as a miniature form. In 1888, he wrote, recommending the writing of vaudevilles, ‘After all, the only difference between a full-length play and a one-acter is one of scale’ (Chekhov 2004b: 167). Critical analyses, therefore, tend to focus on the relationship of the short plays to the rest of Chekhov’s dramatic writing (see Gottlieb 1982). Zingerman discusses vaudeville as the key to Chekhov’s dramaturgy, pointing out similarities between the environment of poshlost’ in the short plays and the environment of Konstantin in The Seagull, Astrov in Uncle Vanya and that in Three Sisters (2001: 193). The short plays are also stylistically related to Chekhov’s early short stories, where he frequently wrote ‘little scenes’ (tsenki), stories in dialogue form, such as Drama and After the Benefit, often on themes of theatre itself. He did, in fact, adapt some of these stories, such as A Tragedian in Spite of Himself and The Jubilee, for the stage. Chekhov’s expression of the human condition through metatheatre is exemplified in Swan Song. The best-known plays are Swan Song (Calchas), A Dramatic

Study in One Act (1886-87), The Bear, A Joke in One Act (1888), The Proposal, A Joke in One Act (1888-89), The Wedding, A Play in One Act (1900), The Evils of Tobacco, A Monologue in One-Act (1902). Plays such as The Bear, The Proposal and The Jubilee (1891) are the most comic; the other plays acquire the mixture of pathos and comedy that is Chekhov’s hallmark.