Wednesday, August 26, 2015

There's that great long short story of his, simply called, "My Life."  Chekhov often made cracks about artistic types, provincial theater.  Even reliable narrators belittle the creative endeavors in convincing ways.  And here his persona is that of a bum son, a disappointment to a father who's made every effort to keep him employed at decent jobs in the local bureaucracies.  The son is patently unable to keep a job and please the authorities however one does, deserving a painful strike from his old man's wiry muscles for his incapacity to behave.   (Chekhov's own father beat him as a boy growing up.  Does the story allude to the resulting contrarian deep in the writer's soul?  One of his great early works, the long story "The Steppe," inhabits the mind of a boy sent off to relatives across a great expanse to go to school, signaling a closeness between the grown man and the fertile silent inner imagination of young people.)  The story leads us to a life around a local theater, where he serves as a painter and meets an actress and carries on with life such as it is.  Is there much meaning, who knows, in such a life as Chekhov paints...  Cross reference with "The Grasshopper," the wife of the hard-working doctor tending to typhus patients, seeking a cure, a treatment, while she fritters away her time with the locale artistes she deems more interesting and even more important and alive, only to realize all the illusion of that world when he, in the line of duty, gets sick and dies.

For Dr. Anton Chekhov, writing was his mistress.

Would Chekhov have wanted to be an actor?    Late in his forty year life, he married the actress Olga Knipper...  Would he have ever wished it were him out on the stage, to capture just so a character or a line or an emotion...  Good looking guy, multi talented, a good doctor himself seems to aligned him into a respectable life, but maybe all writers wish, like Shakespeare, or dramatic Cervantes, to be as directly involved as possible with the stage?   Would it have been something one would have brought up to the shrinks of the day, "you know, there was this time in life, I shoulda moved to New York, heck, I should have started even earlier than that, what a glorious use of talent that must be, to be upon the stage...  Now look at me...  A bum...  I coulda been an actor, a great one even... (But for life's own dramas, 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'...)"

But somehow for them some kind of shyness intervened, some hesitancy to carry out the lusty flamboyance of a stage, rather a preference for all the possibilities of words upon a blank page, that primary desire that comes every day, the need for meaning or words themselves to arrange things in the sore parts of the brain that need to be engaged in work to keep anxieties at bay.  The actor is toward the consumer end of the line, away from the great engine of nature and the Universe which says there must be drama and stories and here is one to carry the day or speak for the times and its life participants where the writer, the dramatist sits.  And any actor must admit, the beauty of such things, standing as I once did at night with Jeffrey Wright at the grave of Emily Dickinson under starlight, the writer watching his friend the actor emote over the little lady, the actor himself transformed to the finest and most original of writers better than me at it.  Live before me, with tears that for me stayed within, but which I was grateful for, maybe a bit jealous of the stunning ability.

A lesson is learned from the actor, though.  A reverence for the words, the texts, these scenes plucked from thin air.  A strange manly confidence in the process's fruition...  What the bard quietly transcribed in the tavern smelling of ales is gold to them, perfect, full of all potential.  How beautiful they could take the shy poet's words and do all that, and there's even an industry made out of what at one point can only be naked words, a beginning, a stab in the dark at one lone point of gestation however gestation is done.   Fancy the patrons that come, the bankroll, the lit stage, the audience to buy tickets and spend there own time in blank convinced awe, when they have all their own problems ticking in their heads, inevitable death to worry about.

The poet's work though, itself, oddly, is acting.  And the words themselves always seem to have some deep perhaps cagey reference to the creative process, its answers, its questions, all of it.  Such that how can a writer sit down without thinking somewhere of Hamlet, "such a thing is man..."  Bring me the players, for I've written something out, and somehow it needs the stage.

The writer can have too many worries to think of the potential of the stage, spends a lot of time trying to build up his own head of steam, thus finding himself a fond hanger on at Chekhov's provincial theater a bit out of place but wanting to belong so that his love affair would be complete.

And then there is Emily, who is her own theater, her own stage, her own greatest actors assembled.  Theater itself being a creature of the imagination.

As we all know, Shakespeare had no problem at all appropriating other people's plays and plots, doing his own adaptations.  The culture of the day allowed for that cross-pollination, and they might have bickered and cut at each other, but the whole thing healthily went on in its Elizabethan way, no "I'm shutting you down and suing you, because you've taken my play almost word for word..."  Imagine...  But even with a complete plot and a structure and blanks apparently to fill in and change slightly, here the work just began, to take lifeless characters, make them full, bring them to life through the same process every writer knows, writing, editing, ruminating.  Nakedness.

Perhaps otherwise a writer walks shamefully and shyly, secretively, past a bookstore, looking in from out the window, on the sidewalk, hesitant even of walking in.  "My work will never belong there, that's for all the greats, for all the people who've figured it out and made it happen.  What does my cheap scrawl have as far as attraction to that place of stories that sell, that people like, that have plots and happy or satisfyingly tragic endings, despite all the good lines one might himself come up with, all for naught."  Until an actor friend comes along, hey, c'mon, let's go in.  Values reborn.

Maybe, if I were to rewrite a great like "My Life," I might put the guy as a bartender.  In great cities of the world surely there is symbioses between actors and bartenders, the job to pay the bills while the art is pursued.  There he is, watching all the people over the years come and strut across the stage, wrapped in costume and dramas daily and longer ones.  Then alone, he eats his dinner, pours himself a glass of wine, and without the steadiness of having made any name for himself, a supporting role in life, goes home.  Whereupon, secretively, he works his own craft, writing for the sake of writing, no more, no less.

How sore a writer is sometimes.  But that's the kind of work it is.  After a full enough day of lifting and heaving, and digging, there comes a satisfaction, the return of a humor never far away.  Cause for faith enough.  He walks away, feeling he's split the atom, revealed the nature of light and time, a participant, seen through the act of being that which is, which all people must finally share in, knowingly or not.  Even lines from Yeats seem to make intuitive sense and carry meanings that can be reckoned.

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