Tableau Vivant, Part II: Leftovers

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(Chebutykin drops the clock, and it smashes to pieces.)

CHEBUTYKIN: Smash!

 (Pause; everyone is distressed and upset.)

KULYGIN: (Picking up the pieces) Iván Románich, Iván Románich, such an expensive clock, and you broke it! You get an F-minus in conduct!

IRÍNA: That was Mama’s clock.

CHEBUTYKIN: Maybe. Mama’s. All right, so it was Mama’s. Maybe I didn’t even break it. Maybe it just looks like it’s broken. Maybe we don’t even exist; maybe it just looks like it. I don’t know anything and nobody else knows anything either.

A wild idea occurred to me as I made my way through Chekhov’s plays this spring. If I asked nicely, would my friends agree to stage some modern tableaux vivants from Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard?  I had been thinking about how silence and stillness work in these plays, and how humor and misunderstanding creep into moments of deliberate pause in these plays. I wanted to study these moments in the paused, familiar faces of my friends in the roles of Chekhov’s most familiar characters. This is the sort of idea that appears lucid in a dream, that most sensible people dismiss after waking. But I fixed upon the idea with silly reverence. Chekhov is somewhat irresistible, after all. His short stories, with their gentle humor, unadorned sentences, and ordinary diction, are offered as models to nearly all apprenticing writers. Haven’t we all met a Gurov, or a lady with a little dog? Who doesn’t know a Másha? I love Chekhov–show me a writer who doesn’t at least claim to love Chekhov–and I learned in graduate school that I no longer know how to write a term paper.

I sold the idea to my friends in a series of plaintive text messages. This will be weird, and sort of embarrassing, but mostly fun, I wrote. At this point, I told them, I believe I’ve run out of viable options–your earthly bodies will be a tremendous help to me.  I promised my friends a homemade dinner and spirits. My friends–sensible people, quiet, well-spoken, occasionally nervous, non-actors all–acceded with minimal coercion. What improbable miracles! The week after my friends agreed to my modest proposal, I sat in my office and roared with laughter whenever this project popped into my mind.

Perhaps my wild vision would come to nothing suitable, an academic disaster. And if so, I would forget the amateur tableaux vivants and read some highfalutin’ theory to better understand Chekhov’s silences instead. At the very least, my companions and I would enjoy a feast. We know how to do this already. In Chekhov, as in our lives, people are always sitting down, eating, discussing heartbreak like the weather.

To be clear, in the improbable case that the above image has not already made this fact evident, I am no professional photographer. Nor would I say that I am a particularly good photographer. I have a digital camera, light as a stone, simple to manipulate. Because Nabokov wrote in his Cornell lecture on Russian literature that Chekhov kept “all his words in the same dim light and of the same exact tint of gray, a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud,” my computer deepened the saturation of this image and the ones to follow in this series, and turned them a soft black and white. After I plied my friends with wine and homemade enchiladas, we set to work.

The people I photographed know each other very well, are comfortable assuming the familial postures assigned by Chekhov. They are not actors. And perhaps I might go so far as to state that these people, while not actors, are preoccupied with empathy as art and practice. These amateur actors are all serious writers, for whom entering into another mind, for the space of a poetic line, or for the length of a novel, is of the utmost daily importance.

But, let’s take it easy. A pair of bon mots from Stella Adler assisted in grounding my romanticism regarding this project: “Chekhov is intimate, but if you use his language that way you will kill him and yourself. They are not talking about important things.” And: “The big posture is gone. We are not heroic. We are just leftovers from an age when men were strong, women fragile.”

I tend towards the Stanislavski’s excesses myself, and I benefit from engaging with a literary style which, “goes to parties clad in its everyday suit,” as Nabokov describes Chekhov. Leftovers we are, fragile and strong, chattering over daily heartbreaks.

Onto the scene.

Eric McDowell, seated, at left, writes sensitive, dignified short stories with subdued authority. Here he makes an excellent Kulygin, entering the role of the unloved, clumsy, and clueless schoolteacher with a writerly empathy. McDowell wears glasses provided to him by another amateur actor, poet Mary Camille Beckman, not pictured in this scene. (“Do I need to wear a suit?” McDowell asked me a day before the photographs were taken. I said no. No elaborate frames, and no stilts. Just the everyday suit.) Poet Claire Skinner stands in the background of this photograph, Irína’s scowl playing on her face. Gala Mukomolova, arms akimbo, on the right-hand side of the photograph, is a Muscovite and a poet, playing Chebutykin here in an understated drag. She won the role over the others by demonstrating the most convincing facial expression of a dotty older Russian man. Falling into these roles was surprisingly easy, which may say more about Chekhov’s human-sized theater than the skill of the actors and photographer. Here we are, clad in our everyday suits.

Fitting, perhaps to begin this series of stills with a scene in which the central object is a clock broken into pieces. In this moment, Chebutykin has smashed the clock, seizing the attention of everyone. The stage falls quiet, distressed. Kulygin, the myopic schoolteacher, unsurprisingly, is the first to speak, delivering an “F-minus in conduct” to Chebutykin. But action moves this scene forward. Humor intrudes on the silence; the hint of melodrama suggested by this object, is dispelled by Kulygin’s asinine rebuke. Irína, usually the quietest of the three sisters, mourns her mother aloud.

The character of Chebutykin may initially appear written for laughs, dismissed by the other characters for his foolish caprice and mutterings, later on in the play, he bears some responsibility for the Baron’s death. Of this scene, Adler writes: “This is a great key for you to understand the great anger in him…In the last act when they ask him what’s happening in town he says nothing…He allows Irína’s fiance to die. Why? I shouldn’t tell you–I should make you figure it out yourself–but I will: Irína is the only thing he has. He wants her there in his old age.”

Chebutykin’s recklessness is not random, but deliberate. In breaking the clock, Chebutykin foregrounds the manner in which he will manipulate and seize Irína’s life, keeping her close to him. Chebutykin will disrupt the forward progression of Irína’s life destroying her dreams of marrying the Baron and moving to Moscow.

Chebutykin’s strange equivocations after the pause are of particular interest. This is what we humans do. Make a choice, revoke it. Study it, defend nuance, qualify our actions. Deny, while exposed. Hedge, justify. What does it matter who broke the clock? It lies broken, irreparable. Chebutykin continues to deny the blame for the broken clock, using the moment of pause to cast aspersions on the dealings of the household. Mama’s clock or not, my fault or another’s, what does it matter? What’s important are the secrets of this family–and perhaps those secrets aren’t even as important as whether or not we are alive. To the others, Chebutykin sounds like a fool, but  all the same, he insists. In a moment, the scene of the broken clock will be given over to Másha and Vershínin, fire sirens, singing, and wild laughter for all that is burned.

Part 1 in this series.

And Part 3.

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