Chekhov and the Irish
Thomas Kilroy, 1995
There is a view abroad that the Irish have a particular affinity with Chekhov's work. This might be just another form of Irish self-flattery. Nevertheless there are some facts that might be mentioned. There are the recent Irish adaptations and versions of the plays that have given the originals a fresh voice in the English language. Or you could simply note the remarkable number of recent Chekhov productions in Irish theatres. We see very few foreign classics in the Irish theatre; Chekhov is the exception.
Then there are the ingredients of the plays themselves which Irish audiences can respond to with recognition. A provincial culture rooted in land ownership. A familial structure that is so elastic that it can hold all sorts of strays and visitors and drop-ins in painful intimacy. All that talkativeness, tea-drinking and dreaming, above all that dreaming, "the torturing, heart-scalding, never satisfying dreaming" as Shaw put it of his fellow-countrymen in John Bull's Other Island. Chekhov's dreamers are immediately accessible to Irish audiences in all their illusions, none more so than Sonya dreaming of angels as, contrastingly, Vanya weeps at the end of this play.
The comic that is brushed by darkness is part of our tradition. The comic born of human desperation is part of our everyday. Vanya's botched murder attempt is farcical but our laughter is immediately smothered in other feelings - embarrassment, for instance, or shocked pity that will not allow us to laugh outright.
Beckett, who knew all about such degrees of laughter, once talked about a similar kind of farce in O'Casey. A farce of "dehiscence" is how he put it, where things, objects, items of furniture and the like, fly about, beyond human control, not doing what they are supposed to do, like poor Vanya's gun. This is a farce of extreme risk because it deals with the extremity of desperation. We are familiar with it in Irish writers like Synge and Beckett. It requires iron control to carry it off. Like Synge, like Beckett, Chekhov had exactly this hard-edged, even beady control, and perhaps most particularly, in situations of emotional excess.
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