Chekhov in Ireland
by Robert Tracy
Professor of English and of Celtic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley
It is just eighty years since Edward Martyn's Irish Theatre performed Uncle Vanya, the first full-length Chekhov play to be acted in Ireland. The middle of the Great War, the eve of the Rising, was hardly an auspicious time to introduce a new playwright to a Dublin audience but, since that debut, Chekhov has entered the Irish repertory, recognised as a great Russian playwright but also as a playwright whose work memorably captures certain aspects of the Irish experience.
Martyn had broken with Yeats and Lady Gregory, his co-founders of the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey) over their refusal to stage plays by non-Irish authors. Joining forces with Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, who were already preparing themselves for the real life drama of Easter 1916, he established the Irish Theatre in Hardwicke Street, in premises owned by Countess Plunkett and snared with the Yeats sisters' Dun Emer Guild. The one act Swan Song, directed by MacDonagh, who also acted one of the two roles, was part of the Irish Theatre's second bill (January 1915), to prepare audiences for the more ambitious Uncle Vanya (June-July 1915), also directed by MacDonagh. His brother John, later a well known film director, was Vanya. Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh was Sonya — "too lovely" for the role, a reviewer complained — and William Reeves played Serebryakov, copying the mannerisms of a man with gout from Martyn, who suffered from that ailment.
Though Dublin reviewers described Chekhov as wordy and sombre, they were markedly less hostile than those who ridiculed the first London productions of Chekhov in 1911-14. Accustomed to Ibsen, Shaw, and Gorky, London reviewers expected a developing plot and a social message. They were baffled when Chekhov's characters talked and talked, failed to listen, and seldom acted. Oddly enough, it was Shaw, a very different playwright, who bullied the London Stage Society into giving Chekhov an early hearing. "When I hear a play of Tchekoff's I want to tear my own up," Shaw exclaimed after seeing the Stage Society's Uncle Vanya in 1914, and soon began Heartbreak House, his "Fantasia in the Russian Manner".
Shaw's Irish upbringing allowed him to see how Irish Chekhov's un-English world was. The condition of Ireland after Parnell, with no apparent chance for political change, resembled that of pre-Revolutionary Russia. The paralysis Joyce depicts in Dubliners echoes the stasis in which Vanya and Sonya, Astrov, and the three Prozorov sisters live, while the situation in The Cherry Orchard — gentry unable to keep the estate they lose to Lopakhin, the gombeen man — is recognizably Irish.
Thomas Kilroy developed these Irish/Russian similarities in his 1981 version of The Seagull, shifting the action to "the wilds of Galway" at the time of the Land League. The Doctor hums Moore's Melodies and Peter yearns for the comforts of the Kildare Street Club. As in Chekhov, the peasantry are sensed offstage.
John MacDonagh brought those peasants on stage in Weeds (1918), also set in the West of Ireland and closely modelled on The Cherry Orchard. The text has been lost, but reviews indicate that the protagonist inherits an estate and resolves to make friends with his tenants. The tenants waiting to take over the estate are the weeds of the title. MacDonagh also directed The Cherry Orchard (1919) — before Dublin's curfew and martial law, together with Martyn's financial problems, closed the Irish Theatre. Life imitated art when Martyn's Galway tenants stopped paying rent.
Chekhov performances were few in the twenties. Frank O'Connor (Michael O'Donovan), whose short story technique owed much to Chekhov, produced The Cherry Orchard (1928) in Cork, playing Lopakhin himself. There were Dublin performances of The Bear in Irish (An Bear, 1923, 1924), and in Galway Michael Mac Liammdir and Hilton Edwards began their long and successful theatrical collaboration with Mac Liammdir's Irish version of The Proposal (Ag Iarraidh Mná, 1929) at Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe.
Chekhov may be said to have fully arrived in Ireland with the Edwards-Mac Liammdir Cherry Orchard (1932) at the Gate, with Sara Allgood as Ranevskaya, Edwards as Lopakhin, and Mac Liammdir himself as Trofimov. In The Seagull (1932), Mac Liammdir was Konstantin, Edwards Trigorin, Meriel Moore Masha, and a very young Cyril Cusack appeared in the tiny role of Yakov.
These productions, and particularly the performance of the popular Sara Allgood, made Chekhov popular in Dublin, and Edwards' direction eliminated that aura of gloom that had been associated with the playwright since the early days of the Moscow Art Theatre. The Gate was also home to Lord Longford's series of Chekhov plays, done with an admirable lightness of touch: The Cherry Orchard (1939), Three Sisters (1940), The Seagull (1941), The Cherry Orchard (1943), Uncle Vanya (1944), The Seagull (1946). Lady Longford's revival of Longford Productions was memorable for a particularly effective Three Sisters (1980). Longford's commitment to Chekhov in Ireland is matched only by Mary O'Malley of the Belfast Lyric Players Theatre, who presented Uncle Vanya once (1963), and each of the other major plays twice between 1957 and 1978.
Since 1968, the Abbey has made amends for earlier neglect by mounting an impressive series of Chekhov revivals, commencing with a Cherry Orchard featuring Siobhan McKenna as Ranevskaya and Cyril Cusack as Gaev. The Seagull (1970), Three Sisters (1974), and Uncle Vanya (1978 — Cusack in the title role) followed, and the Peacock presented the rarely-performed Ivanov (1978).
Chekhov has been much admired by many Irish dramatists — Shaw and O'Casey among them. But it is in Samuel Beckett's plays that Chekhov's influence is both most apparent and most deeply absorbed.
Brian Friel pays delicate homage to Chekhov in Living Quarters (1977), recombining elements from Three Sisters - three sisters and a feckless brother, a family still ruled by a dead military officer, a priest who cannot absolve in place of Chekhov's doctor who cannot heal.
Friel made his version of Three Sisters the centrepiece of the trilogy about language and its misuse which he wrote for Field Day: Translations (1980), Three Sisters (1981), and The Communication Cord (1982). Translations accepts the passing of the
Irish language, and challenges the nationalist cliches which celebrate pre-Famine Ireland as a paradise. In The Communication Cord, language is the medium of deception and mis-communication. The monologues of Vershinin and Tuzenbach, who talk but never listen, expose the danger of talk without purpose or substance, talk for its own sake. Friel's Three Sisters makes Chekhov part of Ireland's necessary questioning of rhetoric and nationalist cliche.
Frank McGuinness has already given us a version of Three Sisters (Gate, 1990), notable for casting three sisters, Sorcha, Niamh, and Sinead Cusack as Olga, Irina and Masha, with Cyril Cusack as the Doctor. Now he has turned to another drama of apparently wasted lives. When Martyn revived Uncle Vanya after the Rising, Sonya's heartbreaking promise of peace and a better world must have seemed poignant indeed. Perhaps now that promise can begin to resonate.
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