Anton Chekhov at his home in Melikhovo with his dachshund Khina in 1897
Dan Rebellato’s 2010 play, Chekhov in Hell, opens with a quotation from Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright and author who died in 1904. He says ‘you ask me what life is. That’s like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot, and there’s nothing more to know’. Like Chekhov’s characters, Rebellato’s characters to search for an appropriate way to fill their lives, an action often left unfulfilled. In The Seagull, Semyon asks Masha, ‘Why do you always wear black?’ to which she replies, ‘I’m in mourning for my life’.
Throughout his work, Chekhov creates characters who are uncertain of their lives and, by extension, their future. During act three of The Seagull, playwright Boris philosophises with the actress Irina about the meaning of his life. He is captivated by Nina’s desire to sacrifice herself to him, which she expresses by quoting words from Boris’s own writing: ‘If you ever find yourself short of a life, take mine’. At this point, Boris is depressed and in need of an opportunity to change his future. He tells Irina of his obsession with Nina and decides that sleeping with her will awaken him. He tries to persuade Irina to give him her blessing to start an affair. He ponders, ‘I’m sleepwalking through life. You’re talking to me, you’re standing there, but all I see and hear is her. I’m possessed by such sweet visions of her soul – set me free’. He is convinced that possessing Nina will fill his life with meaning.
In Chekhov’s Three Sisters, three sisters, living in a remote garrison town, find themselves in three very different sets of circumstances and but are equally unaware of what their future holds. Olga, a spinster school teacher, feels undervalued at work and wishes she had married ‘any man, an old man if he had asked’. Masha, the second sister, is in an unfulfilling marriage and has fallen in love with a lieutenant-colonel, Vershinin, with whom she begins a doomed affair. The youngest sister, Irina, wishes to return to Moscow, but instead she agrees to marry Tuzenbach, a lieutenant, she respects but does not love. Collectively, however, the three sisters have one goal: to go to Moscow. Moscow represents an optimistic future for the sisters and, although they never get there, the dream of moving offers them relief from the mundanity of their current situations.
In both plays, Chekhov’s presents us with characters who believe that a single action will eliminate their boredom and give birth to a new era of excitement. Nevertheless, as each play closes, the characters remains as equally unsatisfied as when the play began. None of the three sisters make it to Moscow. Boris sleeps with Nina, but it brings him no comfort. These unfulfilled or empty desires represent an idealistic future, which enables the characters to progress through their lives, despite the fact that a senses of fulfilment remains forever beyond their grasp.
Just as Chekhov’s character’s grasp at a happy future beyond their reach, so the future looks back at them in their imaginations. The idea of future generations remembering the present haunts them. In Uncle Vanya, Astrov, a middle-aged doctor, comments ‘will our descendants two hundred years from to-day, for whom we are breaking the path, remember us in a kindly spirit? No, nurse, they will forget’. Astrov bitterly suggests that because we so focussed on our own problems, we have little regard for the sacrifices that past generations made for the sake of progress. So too, therefore, will our own sacrifices be forgotten by those who come after us.
In Three Sisters, Vershinin asks ‘who will remember us when we are dead? What will life be like in the future?’ Vershinin is a figure who questions the sisters’ role in society and locates them within the larger context of humanity. Whereas the sisters grumble about their various roles within society, Vershinin expands on their complaints puts them in perspective by reflecting on humanity in general. He muses, ‘in two or three hundred years life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, astounding. Man needs such a life and if it hasn’t yet appeared, he should begin to anticipate it, wait for it, dream about it, prepare for it. To achieve this, he has to see and know more than did his grandfather and father’. We are, in Vershinin’s eyes, rungs on a ladder to a brighter future.
Over a century after Chekhov wrote this optimistic statement, Rebellato seems to answer Vershinin and question his vision of collective progress. In Chekhov in Hell, Anton Chekhov enters a coma in 1904, only to awaken a century later in twenty-first century Britain. The play takes Chekhov, as a playwright and author, and locates him within the very future that his characters so frequently prophesise. Chekhov sets out to explore this brave new world. He visits a range of different environments, including a restaurant, a fashion house, a lapdancing club and a dirty hotel room. Chekhov’s experience of ‘now’ is cruelly ironic. There is no ‘unimaginably beautiful’ future. Rebellato rejects the world that Vershinin imagines in Three Sisters, and instead confirms Astrov’s vison of a future in which ‘what seems to us serious, significant and important will, in future times, be forgotten or won’t seem important at all’. The play portrays the concepts of desire and longing for change as an everlasting need. The world is no worse than it was then, the problems have merely changed.