Sunday Jan. 29, 2017

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Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday

It’s the kind of mid-January afternoon—
the sky as calm as an empty bed,
fields indulgent,
black Angus finally sitting down to chew—
that makes a girl ride her bike up and down the same muddy track of road
between the gray barn and the state highway
all afternoon, the black mutt
with the white patch like a slap on his rump
loping after the rear tire, so happy.
Right after Sunday dinner
until she can see the headlights out on the dark highway,
she rides as though she has an understanding with the track she’s opened up in
     the road,
with the two wheels that slide and stutter in the red mud
but don’t run off from under her,
with the dog who knows to stay out of the way but to stay.
And even after the winter cold draws tears,
makes her nose run,
even after both sleeves are used up,
she thinks a life couldn’t be any better than this.
And hers won’t be,
and it will be very good.

“Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday” by Deborah Slicer from The White Calf Kicks. © Autumn House Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright Anton Chekhov (books by this author), born in Taganrog, Ukraine (1860). Before he became a playwright and a master of the modern short story, he planned to become a doctor; in fact, he started writing as a way to make extra money to support his family while he was in medical school. He sold some comic sketches to a variety of newspapers in St. Petersburg, and gained a reputation as a good "lowbrow" writer — a skill he inherited from his mother Yevgeniya, who was a gifted storyteller. In spite of the rigors of medical school and the demands of an active social life, Chekhov managed to be very prolific; he even wrote a novel (The Shooting Party [1884]). He finished medical school and worked as a doctor for eight years, and though medicine was his chief occupation, he never fully gave up his literary pursuits during that period. In a letter, he wrote, "Besides medicine, my wife, I have also literature — my mistress."

In 1892, he bought an estate 40 miles outside of Moscow and moved to the country to write full time, although he still gave free medical care to the peasants on his estate. Over the next six years, he mainly wrote short stories, although it was during this time that he wrote the play The Seagull (1896). He drew criticism from the Russian literary establishment for his failure to incorporate political positions or social criticism into his work. He didn't pass judgment on his characters or teach any moral lessons. He said, "A writer should be as objective as a chemist."

Around the turn of the 20th century, Chekhov began to focus less on stories and more on plays. He wrote for the Moscow Art Theatre, which was founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski in particular had a reputation in the theatrical world as a real innovator with a naturalistic style. On the surface, many of Chekhov's plays seemed to be tragic, but he had written them as comedies, even farces; he hoped that Stanislavski would recognize this and steer clear of sentimentality and melodrama. Sadly, he was disappointed. Stanislavski tended to place heavy emphasis on scenes that Chekhov had intended to be subtle and indirect. This was particularly evident — and troublesome — in Chekhov's last play, The Cherry Orchard (1904). Chekhov had spent years thinking about the story before he ever began to write it. It's the story of an aristocratic family that is about to lose its land to pay off their debts, and although they are upset about the loss, they do nothing to stop it. Chekhov wrote it as a comedy, and although there were tragic elements, he intended the overall tone of the play to be lively. Nevertheless, Stanislavski insisted on presenting the play as a ponderous tragedy. Where Chekhov had written that characters should be "speaking through tears" and wanted the actors to indicate this through facial expressions only, Stanislavski directed the actors to sob openly and dramatically. Chekhov was livid, and although he was seriously ill with tuberculosis by this time, he took an active part in the production to try to salvage the play. He traveled to Moscow against his doctor's orders and worked furiously to revise and edit the play and supervise rehearsals. The Cherry Orchard premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre on January 17, 1904, and even though Chekhov was still convinced that Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko didn't understand the play, it was a great commercial and artistic success. He was second only to Tolstoy as a literary celebrity.

A few months later, Chekhov went to Germany to take a spa treatment on the advice of his doctor. While in Badenweiler, he suffered a series of heart attacks. The doctor offered him sips of champagne, which was supposed to be beneficial to people with heart conditions. Chekhov remarked that he hadn't had champagne for ages. He then turned on his side, closed his eyes as if to take a nap, and died.

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