In the Moscow home of the famous Russian actress, Maria Yermalova, I heard a short talk on the play “The Mechanical Piano” by Oleg Tabakov based on Chekhov. It was in the late 1990s. The expert speaker was Sergei Ostrovsky, himself from a famous theatrical family. He was then an intelligent and unassuming young student of theater history studying at Tufts University near Boston. His mother was curator of the Yermalova home, which is now a Theatrical Museum.
Tabakov, he explained, was one of the rebellious writers who, during Khrushchev’s time, broke loose from state cultural control and brought new life into Russian theater. In times of Stalinist control, Chekhov and other great writers were performed according to official interpretation, and not according to the interpretation of the directors and actors, or even the intent of the author. The Maly Theater, one of Russia’s leading theatrical institutions, was known only for its state approved productions, especially of Chekhov―the presentations being boringly proper. Tabakov, he told us, was one of those out to break the mold.
Tabakov chose to write a play based on a drama by Chekhov, written by that great Russian author at eighteen. It was apparently Chekhov’s first play, overly long, full of everything he ever dreamed to put into a play―crashing trains and dancing gypsies. When he brought it to Maria Yermalova for an opinion, she told him it was terrible. He burned it saying the worse day of his life would be the day the play was put on the stage. He never even gave it a name, but it is commonly called “Platonov” after the main character. But a second copy of that play survived. It resurfaced, modified as a movie by Nikita Mikhalkov in 1977 – “An Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano.” Three hours long and according to some Russians, one of the best films ever made. The story became the basis for a shorter stage play now also called, “The Mechanical Piano.”
The characters are typically Chekhovian. There is Platonov, a middle aged man who grew up with great aspirations and confident of material success in spite of the fact that he had no education and no family pedigree from which to launch his life’s direction. His love, tiring of his promises and no results, married a young member of the intelligentsia, and Platonov now meets her after these many years and all the passions and emotions rise to the surface.
Her husband has achieved nothing with his degrees and high connections and is mainly occupied with thinking about Russia. There is a doctor who, because he is at a dinner party, refuses to answer an emergency call. Other characters represent recurring Russian types. In fact, the main message of this play, that times repeat themselves, is one reason Chekhov is so popular in Russia today. The conflict in society at the end of the nineteenth century is present again today. Russia at that time, although a step behind Europe, and blossoming forth in the industrial revolution, was struggling with the conflicts of capitalism.
The privileged classes of the time were balking at their responsibilities in an emerging order, and the entrepreneurs, some of peasant stock, now the nouveau riche, were, as they are today, amassing fortunes and displaying their wealth to the embarrassment and envy of the “have-nots,” which included the intellectuals. Society was changing from the standard of “who you are,” to “how much do you have.” And that is exactly what is happening now.
The following Sunday I went to see the play and the next week coincidentally happened to see on television the movie directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. The most humorous part is when Platonov, despondent about life, attempts suicide by drowning himself in the lake; not realizing the lake was only three feet deep. He emerges soaking wet with his cream linen suit shrunken by two sizes. Failing even at suicide, he is now even more discouraged with life, and can only blame it on Russia, “Poor Russia,” he says.
Chekhov is relevant today.
Excerpted from “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”