Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
A Provincial Life
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Richard Butler, Anthony Hopkins, Shivaun O'Casey, and Geoffrey Whitehead

A Provincial Life

by Peter Gill

The English Stage Society

Royal Court Theatre, 30 October 1966

Chekhov's long story My Life, upon which this play is based, was written in 1896 during the period of his maturity as a story writer. His work of this time is a powerful reflection of contemporary Russian life. The story Ward 6 for example, set in a decrepit provincial hospital, with one terrible ward for the mentally sick, is such a strong image of the Russian intellectual's dilemma, that the young Lenin was reported after reading it 'to have been seized with such a horror that he could not bear to stay in his room. He went out to find someone to talk to; but it was too late: they had all gone to bed. "I had absolutely the feeling", he told his sister the next day, "that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself"'.

I've often been blamed, even by Tolstoi, for writing about trifles, for not having any positive heroes revolutionists, Alexanders of Macedon .... But where am I to get them? I would have been happy to have them!  Our life is provincial, the cities are unpaved, the villages poor, the masses abused. In our youth, we all chirp rapturously like sparrows on a dung heap, but when we are forty, we are already old and begin to think about death.  Fine heroes we are!

Anton Chekhov

During my stay in Paris, the sight of a public execution revealed to me the weakness of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw the head divide from the body and heard the sound with which they fell separately into the box, I understood, not with my reason but with my whole being, that no theory of the wisdom of all established things nor of progress could justify such an act; and that if all the men in the world from the day of creation, by whatever theory, had found this thing necessary, it was a bad thing, and that therefore, I must judge of what was right and necessary, not by what men said and did, not by progress, but by what I felt to be true in my heart.

Leo Tolstoy, My Confessions

The first production was at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs:

A Provincial Life

Royal Court Theatre

by Philip Hope-Wallace

For one of its Sunday night try-outs at the Royal Court Theatre the English Stage Company put on last night “A Provincial Life,” by Peter Gill, who also directed the low-keyed but accomplished production. The play dramatises one of Chekhov’s stories published in 1896 (three years before “Uncle Vanya") and is full of interesting parallels. Given that dramatising a Chekhov story must face the competition of the author’s great plays, it was surprising and successful in as much as we soon seemed to be watching an original. There were intermittent flashes of recognition: a picnic where one of the guests is unwelcome and an important sentimental declaration falls to the ground. Or a scene where a talkative Army doctor, like a cynical Astrov, despairs of Russian sloth and boredom. Or the after dinner conversation with the well-to-do young lady who aspires to educate herself and do something useful. How strongly the atmosphere gathers, how wry the pathos, half silly, half sincere, which it generates.

“My Life,” the original title of the story, tells of young Misail who rebels against his bourgeois family, moves into lodgings with an old nurse, loses a job as a telegraphist and on rather Tolstoyan principles becomes a house painter. Anxious to renounce his heritage, Misail finds that it will not let him go. The pretentious amateur theatrical world of a certain Mme Mufke still beckons. His sister, like Varia in “The Cherry Orchard,” dwindles into a drudge and stabs at his guilt. Anyuta, the loving girl, finds that she cannot shake hands with a workman.

Misail is torn and full of contempt at his own situation. Even heaven looks empty. Geoffrey Whitehead gives this feeble hero a crucified look of suffering. But the character remains strangely passive in theatrical terms, like “Ivanov.” Susan Engel and Pamela Buchner are strikingly good as the soulful girls with Shivaun O’Casey as the sister. There are effective contributions by Anthony Hopkins as the doctor and John Normington. To those prepared to fill in some of the overtones of a dramatised “novella,” this is a gently rewarding experiment.

There was also a radio transmission, with a different cast.

A Russian Province in the 1890s. There will be one interval of 15 minutes.

Misail Alexander Poloznev Geoffrey Whitehead
Alexander Pavlovitch Poloznev, his father, an architect John McKelvey
Kleopatra Alexandrova Poloznev, his sister Shivaun O'Casey
Anyuta Ivanova Blagovo, their friend Susan Engel
Andrey Ivanov, a working man Richard Butler
Ivan Cheprakov, a school friend of Misail's Richard O'Callaghan
Boris Ivanov Blagovo, a doctor Anthony Hopkins

A member of the National Theatre Company.

Victor Ivanov Dolzhikov, an engineer Bernard Gallagher
A Shopkeeper Peter Wyatt
A Workman John Shepherd
Other workmen Toby Salaman
George Cannell
Peter John
Oliver Cotton

A member of the National Theatre Company

William Hoyland

A member of the National Theatre Company.

Marya Victorovna Dolzhikova Pamela Buchner
An Old Man John Normington

A member of the Royal Shakespeare Company

Karpovna, Misail's and Kleopatra's old nurse Anne Dyson
Prokofy, her son, a butcher Trevor Peacock
Madame Azhogina Gillian Martell
Madame Mufka, an amateur actress Jean Holness
Madame Azhogina's daughters and guests Rosemary McHale
Jean Boht
Amaryllis Garnet
Charlotte Selwyn
Peter John
Toby Salaman
John Shepherd
William Hoyland
George Cannell
The Governor John Normington
Singer Jean Boht
Directed by Peter Gill

Peter Gill is a former assistant director at the Royal Court. His most recent production was the very successful "O'Flaherty V.C." at the Mermaid Theatre. His first play "The Sleepers' Den" was a presented by the English Stage Society in February, 1965. His other productions at the Royal Court have been D.H. Lawrence's first play, "A Collier's Friday Night", "The Local Stigmatic" by Heathcote Williams and "The Ruffian on the Stair'' by Joe Orton. His next production will be Otway's "The Soldier's Fortune", to be presented at the Royal Court in January.

Assistant to the Director George Cannell
Stage Manager George Gavigan
Assistant Stage Manager Ken Cottell
Spectacles by Clifford Brown
Other properties by Robinson's of Monmouth Street

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