“In life people do not shoot themselves, or fall in love, or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute,” observed Anton Chekhov, “They spend most of their time eating, drinking, running after women or men, talking nonsense. It is therefore necessary that this should be shown on the stage.” Among the most influential playwrights of the modern era, Chekhov let this creed guide his work into the harrowing realm of the everyday. His is a drama of the struggle to make an inescapably mundane life worth living, and his plays make paramount the consequences for losing track of that seemingly modest goal.
Marina Carr, one of Ireland’s leading and most daring playwrights, has taken this defining nature of Chekhov’s work and turned it back upon the writer. Anton Chekhov is the lead character in her newest play, a biographical drama about the last years of Chekhov’s short life called 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES, offered Friday as a staged reading in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s new reading series. A quintessentially Chekhovian play about Chekhov, 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES follows its protagonist through a series of neither chronological nor linear episodes of his life as a writer, a lover, a son and brother, a convalescent, and perhaps most of all as an everyday human doing his best to find the thread of narrative in a life he has long since determined to be farce. The play is a bittersweet and philosophical journey that asks us to think less about Anton Chekhov the man, and more so about the everyday struggle to live life for and as art.
Revisiting one of her favorite dramatic devices, Ms. Carr gets the question of death sorted very early in this play. It opens with a sickly Chekhov at forty four, attended in his death bed by the play’s reaper, the Black Monk, who tells the writer, “Eternity has always had its claim on you.” In his last moments, Chekhov dictates a letter to his sister, Masha, saying his misses his garden, and reassuring her that he’ll “be fine in a few days.” That final utterance smacks of hopeful insincerity, undercut immediately by the next scene, which features Chekhov’s coffin arriving to his family by train. Returning to the writer’s deathbed in its closing scene, the play shows us a dying man consistently wistful and resigned to the whims of eternity. “The only subject that interests me is eternity,” he will tell Masha in their last exchange, “I find eternity doesn’t believe in me.”
In the space between the death scenes, 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES bounces around between the different conflicts and interpersonal struggles defining its protagonist’s last years (the play’s title, by my count, refers to its sixteen scenes, each a different glimpse into the everyday experience of this artist). Chekhov’s is among the more interesting literary biographies: born to a Russian family that had only recently purchased itself out of serfdom, he worked as a physician before turning to writing—“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress,” he would quip. His literary career consisted primarily of short stories and one-act plays before his first major work, THE SEAGULL, which flopped terribly in its 1895 premiere. Taken up two years later by Konstantin Stanislavsky’s new Moscow Art Theatre, though, THE SEAGULL became a hit, and paved the way for Chekhov’s three other monuments of dramatic history, UNCLE VANYA (1899), THE THREE SISTERS (1901), and THE CHERRY ORCHARD (1904). After a whirlwind of success, the playwright died of tuberculosis six months after the opening of THE CHERRY ORCHARD, leaving an oeuvre of major plays far smaller than the shadow it casts over modern and contemporary drama.
16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES shows us a Chekhov coyly navigating the twists and turns of his turbulent final years. Whether it is negotiating the tensions of his family of siblings and elderly parents for whom he has become the breadwinner, wooing any of several lovers into passionate trysts, or ruminating on life and literature with Tolstoy, Ms. Carr’s Chekhov is constantly exploring how best to live out the end of his short life. Equally as aware of the audience that his illness has doomed him, the playwright seems determined to find some lasting beauty—be that in literature, nature, or a shared bed—in his finite life. The one time we see him lose his cool, quarrelling with his agent about his work and legacy, we are made acutely aware of how much the stain of his family’s “slave blood” haunts Chekhov. That legacy, it becomes clear, is a lasting chip on the playwright’s shoulder, and is a motivator of the conflicting drives for, on the one hand, beauty, sex, and whimsy, and on the other hand, diligence and work.
16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES opened last fall at the Dublin Theatre Festival to tepid reviews. Most critics found the protagonist touching, but objected to a murkiness of purpose and conviction in the play. The Irish Rep’s staged reading, however, revealed perhaps more clearly the wistful sense of yearning that engulfs both the protagonist and the play. Ms. Carr is turning to Chekhov, it seems, in order to join his mediation on beauty and purpose in everyday life and art. High drama would be out of place here, which makes the play an interesting departure for Ms. Carr, who is most famous for often gruesome tragedies like THE MAI, BY THE BOG OF CATS…, or ARIEL. Her recent PHAEDRA BACKWARDS, which premiered at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre almost simultaneously with 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES’ Dublin premiere, embodied all the characteristics familiar of her famed Midlands plays: death, revenge, incest, and an unquenchable yearning for something more.
More attune with Ms. Carr’s MARBLE or WOMAN AND SCARECROW, each more subdued than her trademark tragedies, 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES nonetheless opens new terrain for this playwright by moving overtly into Chekhovian territory. This play is the first time we see Ms. Carr—whose work is influenced directly by the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Tennessee Williams—tackling the richly mundane drama of the everyday. It would be a mistake to treat this play as strictly about Chekhov the man; its greater import is its examination of life as a struggle to navigate day-to-day uncertainty. Chekhov was criticized for his “low drama,” but his work and 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES both suggest that real human drama lies in the very lowness of human experience.
In reality, sometimes people do shoot themselves, and sometimes they do fall in love or deliver themselves with clever sayings, but it is in the space between those spikes in drama that Chekhov sought to explore the human condition, and 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES uses the figure of this great master to do the same. The Chekhovian is an aesthetic that permeates much Irish drama, and so maybe it was only a matter of time before Ms. Carr adopted it directly. The move, however, is a fruitful and exciting one. Perhaps a seventeenth glimpse offered by this play is the philosophical possibilities of Marina Carr’s imagination directed towards the farce of everyday human experience.
16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES
Written by Marina Carr
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
New York, NY, 10011