This week, in celebration of Anton Chekhov’s 155th Birthday, Fiona Lindsay discusses the things that Chekhov and Chekov have in common…
Let’s start with a factoid (to quote Radio 2’s Steve Wright).
Q: What do the Starship Enterprise and the Russian city of Yalta have in common?
A: Both gave residence to a man named Chek(h)ov. Well men to be precise; Pavel and Anton.
As all you Trekkies out there will know, Pavel Chekov is an honorary graduate of the Space Academy and the youngest officer on the Starship Enterprise. But did you know that he also shares the same name as the father of one of the greatest dramatists of the modern age?
The other Pavel Chekhov, green grocer and choir-master ran his family with a rod of iron and his 3rd son Anton took himself away from his family as soon as he possibly could to educate himself, lead his life and go on to to become a doctor, dramatist and author, and is widely regarded as amongst the greatest writers of short stories in history. Today is the 155th anniversary of his birth.
But back to Star Trek. Remember this?
Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise’s five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go where no man has gone before.
In many ways this could be the mission statement of a writer whose job it is to get into the nooks and crannies of our soul, into our uncharted emotional landscape and to push the boundaries of our thinking. Anton Chekhov is a master at this and his words transport us to times and places that only plays and stories can.
Yalta was the docking hub where Chekhov refueled his creative juices and wrote The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. I’ve seen some amazing productions of his work but my first experience, aged 11, is the one that stands out.
We’d just returned from living in Italy where we’d been cut off from most UK related things - weather, Digestive biscuits, six o’clock news, culture - so my mum took it upon herself to give us fast-track exposure to as much as possible on our return.
So, one rainy evening, after the six o’clock news and eating Digestive biscuits we were taken off to see a play. I don’t think I’d ever seen a play before, panto yes, but not a proper play: in a proper theatre, with proper actors. I was the youngest person in the audience and I’d no idea why those around me were getting grumpy. The show was 15 minutes late in going on. A man with dark, curly hair and wearing a brown cord jacket came and sat on the edge of the stage and introduced himself. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Ian McKellen and I’m very sorry we’re late but there’s been some sickness in the cast and so, as well as playing my part, I’ll be playing another too and reading from the book.” The audience applauded (I had no idea why then but do now) and the play began. It was The Three Sisters; a touring production presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by a young(ish) Trevor Nunn. The show also included a young Bob Peck, Roger Rees and Janet Suzman. I mainly remember the colour palette, the dresses and pinned hair. I also remember Masha’s desire to get to Moscow.
After that, whenever there was dispute around our family tea table, my dad could be heard wailing Moscow, Moscow - his polite way of saying, “get me out of this madness.”
The need to escape is a common theme in literature. Masha and her sisters yearn for Moscow in the same fashion that so many of Shakespeare’s heroines yearn for home and a safe haven. Running away in our imaginations brings endless possibilities. Exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no man/woman has gone before. The forest, the universe, Moscow – it’s all the same thing really.
Both creative exploration and actual exploration (space or otherwise) suggest a certain freedom, but I would just like you to leave you with this comment from Anton Chekhov:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”
Great artists and great adventurers know exactly where they’re leading us.
Beam me up, Chekhov.