I love Chekhov. A lot of people love Chekhov. My expression of this affinity adds, I’m aware, absolutely nothing to any conversation whatsoever, especially in a literary sense. And the vast majority of contemporary performance of his work is, unfortunately, both tedious and dull. Yet every once in awhile, a production ignites the motor of the play, and the temporality of theatrical event crystalizes into immortality.
Uncle Vanya, for example, is one of the most ecologically aware plays I’ve ever encountered. Lurking under the surface of this taught Naturalist play lies strong Marxist undertones and a desperate environmental appeal. It is, in fact, Marxism with Capitalist appeal. Why would a play originally written more than one hundred years ago feel so close to home? Did the problems facing humanity in turn of the century Russia really bear that much semblance to the contemporary global issues we face now? Have the industrial and technological innovations of the 20th and 21st Century done little to change human outlook on the world? In Uncle Vanya, Dr. Astrov asserts that they must work to preserve the forest and make the world a better place, but what does that work entail? In Capital, Marx claims:
Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants.
In this case, Marx’s definition of work, in which man “opposes himself to Nature” and “appropriates Nature’s production” seem incongruent with the idea of conservation. Due to the exploitative relationship between humanity and the natural world, what Astrov is desperately advocating for cannot be increased conservation efforts, but rather must be the abolishment of an (agri)cultural system ruled by a small, wealthy portion of the population, in which wealth is accrued through the exploitation of natural resources. A portion of the population which typically attends the theatre, particularly the work of the canonical old masters.
I find I spend roughly the same amount of time discouraged by the state of contemporary American Theatre and enlivened by its possibilities. And on this blog about theatre and the intersection of art and culture, I haven’t anything particularly useful to contribute at the current moment. The ephemera of the theatrical event as it exists in a capitalist marketplace, dictating the success and failures based on the whims of a few reviewers and its popular appeal before it disappears into the ether can be a downer. Yet there is hope in the temporary. As Nicholas Ridout notes in his book Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love,
The time of the play suspends the work of history… In the theatre the past in question is as here now as the future it imagines. It performs a temporal collapse or fold. An alternative future of the past is momentarily seized in the present.
During performance a different future is possible, a future where humans refrain from decimating the planet. That future is possible here and now, and impossible everywhere else and at all other times. Perhaps that is the power of theatre when it comes to climate change: it is the only place to experience a past in which the future is different.