Saturday 1 May 2021

'I always come out of the theatre more conservative than I went in'

 (Re)reading Chekhov's 'A Dreary Story' – one of his very best, I think – I was amused to come across this passage, which I had forgotten. The narrator, a distinguished – and dying – medical professor, airs his views on theatre: 

'I don't think the theatre's any better now than it was thirty or forty years ago. I still can't find a glass of clean water in corridors or foyer. Attendants still fine me twenty kopeks for my coat, though there's nothing discreditable about wearing warm clothes in winter ... The men still go to the bar in the intervals and drink spirits. Where there's no progress in small things, it would be idle to seek it in matters of substance. When an actor, swathed from head to foot in theatrical traditions and preconceptions, tries to declaim a simple, straightforward soliloquy like 'To be or not to be' in a manner anything but simple, and somehow inevitably attended with hissings and convulsions of his entire frame, when he tries to convince me at all costs that Chatsky* – who spends so much time talking to fools and falls in love with a foolish girl – is a highly intelligent man, and that Woe from Wit isn't a boring play, then the stage seems to exhale that same ritual tedium which used to bore me forty years ago when they regaled me with bellowings and breast-beatings in the classical manner. And I always come out of the theatre more conservative than I went in.
  You may convince the sentimental, gullible rabble that the theatre as at present constituted is a school, but that lure won't work on anyone who knows what a school really is ... the theatre can only be a form of entertainment under present conditions. Yet this entertainment costs too much for us to continue enjoying it. It deprives the country of thousands of  healthy, able young men and women who might have become good doctors, husbandmen, schoolmistresses and officers, had they not devoted themselves to the stage. It deprives the public of the evening hours, which are best for intellectual work and friendly converse – not to mention the waste of money, and the moral damage to the theatre-goer who sees murder, adultery or slander improperly handled on the stage.'

  Well, I wouldn't go quite that far myself, but in general terms I share Nicolas Stepanovich's lively aversion to theatre – and I wonder how much of the above Chekhov himself might have agreed with. As it is, his plays are among the very few that might – given the right production, etc – tempt even me to endure the dismal experience of attending a theatre. 

* Chatsky is the protagonist in Woe for Wit, a classical verse comedy of 1823 by Alexander Griboyedov. 

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