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In Our Time: Chekhov

Friday 15 March 2013, 11:37

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Chekhov. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

Anton Chekhov Anton Chekhov

Hello

There was a march through London last Saturday for International Women's Day. It streamed down Shaftesbury Avenue and I stared and I stared but I saw not a man in the march, which was obviously intentional and made the march all the more dramatic. Well-lettered banners. Mixtures of folk, a true London/new UK representation.  Very lightly policed. And the presence of the new innovation – people blowing old-fashioned referee whistles. Oh well, oh well. In my day it was jazz bands and singing, but time marches on. It's a curiously dramatic event to see the streets of such a great city taken over by a peaceful, determined march in such a cause. Makes you feel quite proud, although perhaps we're not supposed to say that.

Went down to Maidstone to a funeral yesterday. The death of an old friend who had filmed more than a hundred South Bank Shows. We had the reception in The Crown in Rochester where Dickens might well have had a drink or two. We certainly did. It's such a pleasure to see old friends you've worked with together over the years. You realise in a minute or so how very, very much working relationships matter, and how much you have in common, and how you wish you would meet more often, and how you make plans to do so, and how you hope it's going to happen, how you hope it's all going to come through. Les Young was a wonderful cameraman and tribute was properly paid in a simple, calm, humanist funeral in the crematorium. Then glasses were raised.

London seems to be bowling along quite heavily at the moment. Take today. In Our Time was a bit of an odd one in that, having announced Chekhov, I began with the word Tolstoy. I think I was quite nervous before the beginning for one or two off-mic reasons and hadn't taken the minute or so to myself that I like. Anyway, Tolstoy it was but he soon morphed into Chekhov.

There was so much to say. Perhaps I went in with an agenda of my own in one or two cases. I was determined that the sanitised version of Chekhov which I had received as a young man and as a passionate Chekhov reader since my late teens should not prevail. I somehow had the feeling that the Edwardians had treated him as a sanitised Edwardian hero, fragile and coughing, the genius coming out in some rather melancholy, sad, late-nineteenth century, Puccini way. In fact, despite the terrible illness which he noted in his twenties, he was a man of multiple passions, great powers, ferocious ambition and boldness in so many areas of life. I hope that, at least, came across.

The three contributors were so very good that each one, I felt, (and to a certain extent I feared, to tell you the truth) would have done the forty-five minute programme and more alone and with great ease and panache. There was so much to say and there always will be about Chekhov. Afterwards I said that perhaps we should have just concentrated on the plays; that we were trying to put a quart into a thimble. "No, no," they said, "we wanted to cover the whole range." Means that you have to drive it quite hard. A couple of e-mails have said that they thought I was impatient. I'm sorry I came over as impatient. What I know it was was an urgency to cover the ground and to hit as many nails on the head as I could (mixed metaphors again!).

After that to see a wonderful rough cut of a South Bank Show film on Tamara Rojo, the magnificent, young, Spanish dancer who's now taken over the English National Ballet as its director as well as a principal dancer. It's such a good profile, so well-made by Suzannah Wander, one of the directors I've worked with for about ten years now.

Into the office for piles of post and preparing, as I dictate this, to go to the New Statesman's office to talk with David Hare for a couple of hours about Britain (and perhaps even more) over the last hundred years for the centenary issue of the New Statesman. Rather dreading it. What is there to say that has not been said so many times? On the other hand, we might get lucky...

And then – where else? On to The One Show to talk about the South Bank Show Awards which are going out on Sky Arts tonight.

And so, as the man said, to bed.

PS: Dashed across the road to the sandwich bar, as per usual, for those who think I lunch high up the hog every Thursday!

 

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    Comment number 1.

    Dear Melvin,
    I rarely comment on anything for fear of being so off the mark that I will do more than even embarrass myself (comes from growing up in a University town, I suppose - and being the son of a merchant). Nevertheless, because of my own experiences with Chekhov, I feel compelled to make a small comment on the brief part of the program where you talked about - or tried to talk about - THE LADY WITH THE LITTLE DOG. The point you tried to make - about the redemption and transformation of the male character - was lost and the listener was left with the sense that the story was really about yet another irresponsible male doing his worst to a helpless female. But, as you tried to suggest, nothing could be further from the truth of this story. The last few paragraphs turn everything that has gone before inside out and we are brought to terms with the futility and hard realities of love, of life. Brought to terms as only Chekhov and Shakespeare seem able to do.
    I applaud your restraint and humbly suggest that sometimes members of the academy get things really wrong.
    I love your program.
    Steve in the US

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    Comment number 2.

    To rephrase Chekhov,academics are like horseflies that prevent the horse from ploughing.They buzz a lot ,but about what we don’t know.Chekhov’s stories contain the diamond currency of his genius,containing the fluidity and randomness of life made into the form of fiction.The academics talked of influences,Tolstoy,Turgenev, Gogol, where event-plot drove the fiction,so contrived and manipulated.Chekhov abandoned this kind of self-conscious story,for something more casual and realistic.Chekhov was also greatly influenced by Maupassant,taking over many of his themes,due to not at that time having a submerged population to hand(which he did later in teachers and doctors),treating it in his own way.In his stories he deals with moral slavery(mortal vs. venial sin),art vs. science,the false personality.He wanted his friend Suvorin to write a story about him,about a young man who fawned on rank,kissed the hands of priests, accepting without question other people’s ideas,express his gratitude for every morsel of bread he eats,a young man who has been frequently whipped, conscious of his own worthlessness-to write the story of how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop,and how on waking one morning,feels that the blood coursing through his veins is real blood and not the blood of a slave.He deals with the human incapacity to communicate and loneliness(e.g.The Dependents and Misery).The plays are heavily indebted to the fiction in their mood,themes and setting,which has made them last.The loveliest of his comedies is The Cherry Orchard,where everything fuses and the drama becomes autonomous.The Lady with the Dog is really about a married woman who commits adultery,is punished because she does not leave her husband altogether:her and her lover need to live together and take the consequences.A harbinger of the 20th century story,he said:
    ” Writers must be as objective as a chemist.” Though art was his mistress.

 

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