When I lived in Moscow, I heard a talk on the play “The Mechanical Piano” by Oleg Tabakov 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 the famous actress Maria Yermalova, she told him it was terrible. He burned it. 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. Platonov is a middle aged man with great aspirations and no education or family pedigree from which to launch his life’s direction. He is in love with a woman married to a young member of the intelligentsia, who has achieved nothing with his degrees and high connections and is mainly occupied with thinking about Russia.
The following Sunday I went to see the play and the next week coincidentally happened to see on television the 1977 movie directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. The most humorous part is when Platonov, despondent about life, attempts suicide by drowning himself in the river; not realizing the river 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.
I borrowed this hilarious episode for my book “The Lady with an Ostrich Feather Fan,” based on the story of the “Yusupov Rembrandts” now in The National Gallery of Art in Washington. The murder of Rasputin, by Prince Felix Yusupov and friends had humorous parallels to the Platonov scene when the chains to sink the victim’s body in the river were left behind. In my new book, the discovery scene in the Yusupov Palace is recognizably similar. This new historical novel is planned for 2011 publication.
Buy the book here “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”