I’ve always thought Chekhov was funny (and no, not because of that bit in Star Trek IV- The Voyage Home about “nuclear wessels” thank you very much, Mark. Oh, we’re going to have problems here), so, I’ve been taken aback a bit of late by a few reviews of Jonathan Miller’s production of The Cherry Orchard at the Crucible expressing surprise at just how funny it is. There seems to be a reluctance to allow big laughs and big emotions to live side by side. Maybe it’s just because the “classics” are expected to be po-faced, whereas Abigail’s Party and Arcadia say have permission to mix the tones up a bit.
I often feel I’ve read a different version of Chekhov’s plays to everyone else, because they’re full of humour to me- sure, they end up sad as a rule, but hey, so did Tony Hancock, and people can still see the jokes there.
Actually, I sort of did read a different version of the plays to everyone else at university, because they all had brand spanking new Methuen translations and I had a second hand hardback from years back that was so old it called the author Tchekoff, honest, it really did, I've just checked.
It also got tricky in that my translations seemed almost always to use different names for the cast in stage directions (You know how in Russian literature everyone seems to have three names, a formal one, a pet one and their family name? It's fine when you're watching it, but a swine on the page).
Anyhow… I think Chekhov did far more gags than most people are prepared to admit, isn’t quite the grumpy old naturalist he’s often painted as (as a result of his connection with Stanislavski and the Moscow Arts Theatre), and is very keen on subverting the form he's working in.
Take the magic tricks in The Cherry Orchard- as written there’s a great big stage illusion making characters appear from thin air in Act 3 (the Crucible production plays it a deal more realistically). I think this is rather cheekily pushing the boundaries of what we'll accept in a play largely set in rooms that are unlikely to feature star trap doors under the floor, like the moment when one the characters on stage starts talking about a play he recently saw at the theatre, it draws attention to the play's theatricality.
There is also the business of Chekhov’s pistols (alright then Mark, "phasers", tsk).
Famously, Chekhov tells us that if the pistol is seen in Act 1, it should be used in Act 2. Except of course, he knows audiences are wise to this and in his later plays messes us about brilliantly.
The use of the pistol in Uncle Vanya is one of the greatest theatrical gags ever, I think- funny, sad, emotionally true and a knowing inversion of Chekhov’s earlier work and our expectations, and as for The Cherry Orchard pistol, well, he’s just being a cheeky sod, there.
He mucks about!
He’s also the only major dramatist I know of to make the comic boing of an elasticated rope snapping off stage into a symbol for something changing in the order of things.
Go and see the play if you get the chance (the chap who played Binro the Heretic’s in it, Mark).