Is Chekhov Classical?
New Saloon, according to the Under the Radar program, “celebrates the unique and enduring aspects of live performance and the dramatic canon.” Having spent most of my theatrical life working with “classical” companies, I have a lot of complicated thoughts about The Canon. What makes a play classical? What makes it canonical? Are the answers to those questions the same, or different?
In their piece Minor Character, New Saloon's use of multiple translations of Uncle Vanya doesn't just twist the text around. By rephrasing each line multiple times, the characters take on a kind of second-guessing uncertainty that feels remarkably contemporary, more Will Eno than Chekhov. There's no mistaking, of course, that the world of the play still exists at the turn of the 20th century. Even though the sound cue to denote the Professor leaving is clearly a car revving its motor, Sonia still says that she can hear his horses. All in all, New Saloon does everything to bring the play into the present short of writing a new play; at times, the audience can forget that they're watching an adaptation of a canonical work.
Astrov remarks something to the effect of, “Maybe in 200 years people will have figured out how to be happy.” At the performance I saw, this line was greeted by some rueful chuckles, as if to say, “Oh no, no we haven’t” to the doctor. I found myself wondering how many of my fellow audience members were under the impression the play had been written hundreds of years ago – when in fact, Uncle Vanya, at 118 years old, is significantly closer to our time than to Shakespeare’s, for example. Does Anton Chekhov’s place as a canonical playwright remove his plays from time? How can a playwright who died just over a century ago be considered classical?
And yet, this cultural effort to place Chekhov on a pedestal is what makes Minor Character possible. New Saloon plays with translation so deftly thanks to the fact that there have been so many translations of Uncle Vanya, which in turn is due to the play's attributed importance.
Since the play is still relatively young and this re-envisioned production even younger maybe we’re off the hook about being happy. Perhaps in 2099, Dr. Astrov will sound prophetic, rather than foolishly optimistic. Who’s to say?