Checking Out Chekhov: A Guide to the Plays for Actors, Directors, and Readers

Checking Out Chekhov: A Guide to the Plays for Actors, Directors, and Readers

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Sharon Marie Carnicke

ISBN: 9781936235919 (hardcover) / 9781618113207 (paper)
Pages: 200 pp.
Publication Date: July 2013

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This book paints a vivid portrait of Anton Chekhov—a Russian writer whose elusive personality and richly detailed plays have left an indelible imprint upon the world’s theatre. Every page reveals the joys and difficulties of his short life, his comic sensibility, deep compassion, and often puzzling use of dramatic style and genre. Carnicke demystifies Chekhov’s plays—forged from his literary innovations, avid theatergoing, love of vaudeville, and loathing of melodrama. She interweaves biographical and cultural information with insightful case studies and close analysis to leave her reader with a full and fresh perspective on an artist who is as foundational to theatrical traditions as are Shakespeare and Stanislavsky.

Sharon Marie Carnicke (PhD Columbia University) is Professor of Theatre and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California. Her translations of Chekhov’s plays have been produced by theatres nationwide to public acclaim, and were published as Chekhov: 4 Plays and 3 Jokes, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Translation Award (the American Literary Translators Association). Her groundbreaking book, Stanislavsky in Focus, is now in its second edition. Her other publications include The Theatrical Instinct, a study of the avant-garde director Nikolai Evreinov, and Reframing Screen Performance, coauthored with Cynthia Baron.

Sharon Marie Carnicke, a professor of Theatre and Slavic Studies at the University of Southern California, who has worked professionally as an actor, director, and dancer, who has written on Stanislavsky’s system and Evreinov’s productions, and who has published a translation of Chekov’s major plays, has now produced a provocative guide to these plays for actors, directors, and readers. Her thesis is simply that to acquire a taste for Chekov, ‘one needs to read him closely, thoughtfully, even creatively’. This she manages to do in her new book.
— Michael R. Katz (Middlebury College), in the Slavic and East European Journal, 58.3 (Fall 2014)
A strong background in Russian language and culture, combined with professional theater experience as an actress and director, prepared Sharon Carnicke not only to translate Chekhov’s plays for performance but also to illuminate the mysteries of his works for theater artists preparing to stage the plays. Certainly it is actors and directors who have the most to gain from this ‘guide to the plays,’ which also serves as an intelligent introductory study for general readers. Carnicke covers the basics—transliteration, how Russian names are used, capsule biography, late nineteenth-century theatrical genres—while offering enough fresh insight into Chekhov’s world and his work to hold the interest of those already familiar with the plays.
— Felicia Hardison Londre, University of Missouri–Kansas City, in The Russian Review, January 2014 (Vol. 73, No. 1)
Writing with sharp insight, Carnicke reveals the often-overlooked clues essential to appreciating and producing successfully the elusive plays of Chekhov. This book is indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to uncover the mysteries of how his plays really work.
— R. Andrew White, Actor, Director, and Associate Professor, Valparaiso University
In a lively and engaging style Carnicke presents a broad swath of biographical and historical material necessary for a truly informed production of Chekhov on the stage. This is a must-read for scholars, students, and performers.
— Brian R. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Russian, Swarthmore College
Carnicke’s book excels as an overview of the whole phenomenon of Chekhovian drama. It astutely situates his dramaturgy in relevant contexts: from late 19th-century Russian literature, including Chekhov’s own short stories, to contemporary theatrical practices. Its signal achievement is to provide a deeper understanding of Chekhov’s plays, free from the distorting cliches that too often attend them.
— Thomas Seifrid, Professor, Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Southern California
Carnicke’s book brilliantly captures the essence of Chekhov. I can’t think of a better introduction to the work of this most elusive of modern writers.
— Peter McAllister, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London
Checking out Chekhov brings the enigmatic writer to life in a profoundly exciting way. It is a transformative book for any actor or lover of the theatre!
— Mary Joan Negro, Founding Member of The Acting Company (New York), Tony Award Nominee, and Associate Professor of Theatre Practice, University of Southern California
Carnicke . . . takes a different kind of look at the plays of the Russian master and the man himself. She presents not simply an analysis of the plays but a discussion of the way they introduced many innovations into the theater.
— Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Table of Contents

Biography of the Author
To the Reader

Transliterations of Russian Words, Names, and Titles of Works
Ellipses and Dates
The Usage of Russian Names
Introduction: A Taste Like Olives

Chapter One: Chekhov on His Own Terms
Finding Chekhov
Head of Household
Medicine, Civic Work, and Life Outside Moscow
Marriage to the Moscow Art Theatre

Chapter Two: The Literary Soil for Chekhov’s Drama
From the Medical Point of View
“The Student”: A Reading
Chekhov’s Literary Innovation in Context

Chapter Three: The Devil in the Details of Chekhov’s Plays
Types of Details
1. Apparent non sequitors in conversations and behavior
2. Apparent irrelevancies
3. Puns and word play
4. Verbal tics, meaningless phrases, and eccentric grammar
5. Fractured foreign languages
6. Grandiloquent speech and philosophizing
7. Clothing as commentary.
8. Stage settings and the emotional progression of a play
9. Furniture and inanimate objects
10. Food and drink as commentary on the symptoms
of heartache
11. The pause
12. Soundscapes and the music of everyday life

Chapter Four: Dramatic Innovations, Part One: Vaudeville
Chekhov’s Love of French Vaudeville
A Vaudeville by Scribe and a Joke by Chekhov
Chekhov’s Comic Sensibility

Chapter Five: Dramatic Innovations, Part Two: Melodrama
Traditional Melodramatic Writing and Acting
Chekhov’s Loathing of Melodrama
Melodrama Turned Inside Out in Chekhov’s Plays
Details Plus Vaudeville Plus Melodrama Equals

Chapter Six: Chekhov’s Plays as Blueprints for Performances
Stanislavsky’s Score for The Seagull
The Score of The Seagull as Realized on Stage, 1898
Conclusion: A Matter of Perspective

Annotated Bibliography
Citations to Chekhov’s Work
Chekhov’s Stories, Letters, and Plays in Selected English Editions
Sources in Russian
Sources in English
Index of Names, Terms, and Chekhov’s Works
Index of Character Names from Chekhov’s Major Play