Monday, 14 May 2007

The Bolsheviks are in the Cherry Orchard.

Dean Parker

The two heavyweights of 20th century Russian theatre go head-to-head in Wellington at the beginning of next month.
On the night of Saturday, June 2, Anton Chekhov’s elegiac Uncle Vanya will be ending its run at Circa, while on the previous Wednesday at Studio 77 Maxim Gorky’s explosive Enemies will open for a short five-night season.
Chekhov was middle class, educated, good-humoured, gentle—a country doctor. Gorky was poverty-stricken, untaught, suicidal, bitter—a bum, living on the margins of society until he discovered he could write.
Chekhov wanted a gradual transformation of czarist despotism into an enlightened, liberal society. Gorky wanted a revolution and suffered imprisonment for it.
Gorky was the younger man, by eight years. He had been born into poverty, run away as a child, tramped about as a migrant worker, been driven to despair and a suicide attempt.
But as a child he had been taught to read and it was to be his salvation. He read voraciously and began to write. Years ago I picked up a piece of writing by him and can still remember my eyes widening at the sentence, “The stars spread out above me like bed-bugs.”
Gorky revered Chekhov. Chekhov had the magic touch, a simplicity that revealed the complex, an irony which rebuked a class.
Gorky corresponded with him.
Chekhov advised the apprentice to show restraint in writing, to keep his descriptions short and compact.
Gorky was the humblest of petitioners. “I am as stupid as a locomotive,” he wrote.
Chekhov warned him against getting up on his high horse, instructed him that characters should have a life of their own and not be just illustrations for a tract.
He tried to convince Gorky that he didn’t need to be in a revolutionary party to improve people’s lot.
Gorky readily took the literary advice but remained unconvinced of the political. He continued an involvement with Lenin’s Bolsheviks and remained on the files of the secret police.
In 1901 he visited Chekhov in the Crimea, spending a week with him. A police agent following Gorky hung around outside the house.
Chekhov described Gorky to others as having, “the appearance of a tramp, but inwardly he is a very elegant man.”
The following year Gorky wrote his stunning stage account of life at the very bottom of the underclass, The Lower Depths.
It was vivid and violent. Directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, it took Moscow by storm.
Nearly fifty years later, in February 1951, when Wellington was about to be wracked by a massive and bitter dispute on the waterfront, it was Gorky’s Lower Depths that the left-wing Unity Theatre was rehearsing.
In Moscow Gorky became lionised, but his fame was still not enough to prevent him again being picked up by police and jailed, accused of trying to set up a revolutionary government when strikes and shootings rocked Russia in 1905.
He was released, helped found the first legal Bolshevik newspaper New Times and then, in December, was in the thick of a Moscow general strike, helping distribute rifles to strikers.
Following the strike his position was precarious. He went into exile, travelling to the United States on a fund-raising tour for the Bolsheviks.
He continued to write.
He had begun depicting the middle class that flocked about his theatrical successes, the wavering class caught between social forces and depicted with such melancholy by Chekhov.
In the aftermath of the 1905 risings he wrote Enemies. It was proscribed by the Russian censor who described it as “nothing but a diatribe against the ruling classes.”
The setting of Enemies is Chekhovian: a country estate, an extended middle class family. But this is a family that has chopped down Chekhov’s cherry orchard and erected a textile factory on the land.
Their idle life is broken by a dispute in the factory. A virulent manager and co-owner has been on vacation and in his place a more liberal family member has made concessions to the workers. As all trainee Wal-Mart managers know, give the workers an inch and they’ll take a mile. The manager returns to find an increasingly bolshie work-force. Like Australasian supermarket giant Progressive Enterprises last year, the manager decides to give the workers a taste of lockout. For his sins he is shot dead. Military police arrive. The family is dismayed and divided. Radicals move to consolidate a presence in the factory.
When Enemies was given an English production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1971, a critic described it as “the missing link between Chekhov and the Russian revolution”.
And clearly it is. The Bolsheviks are in the Cherry Orchard.

Studio 77
77 Fairlie Tce, Kelburn.
Wednesday, 30 May until Sunday, 3 June, 7.30pm.

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