Michael Chekhov’s most famous roles during the Russian period of his creativity include Strindberg’s Erik XIV, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Khlestakov in Gogol’s The Government Inspector. A look at his Moscow repertoire of November 1924 reveals that he played both Khlestakov and Hamlet three times, incomparably combining the two most difficult and desirable roles for both tragic and comic actors. How could he achieve the hilarious laughter and comic catharsis experienced by audiences watching Khlestakov, and the tragic cleansing described by spectators watching Hamlet a few days later? Chekhov, who could play a major role in any genre a few days apart, demonstrated a unique inner and physical plasticity; however, playing tragedy and comedy were not two separate gifts that he would switch at will. Not only did he redefine the genres of tragedy and comedy themselves, he also played many roles in which the tragic and comic met and merged. Chekhov, a master of tragicomedy, was able to insert buffoonery into tragedy and make tragedy buffoonish. Chekhov’s art lay in the “gravitation and levitation of tragic and comic, and in the eradication of the borders between them […] ” (Chekhov 1986: 2.445). This chapter examines the role and significance of the comic acting tradition in Chekhov’s roles containing motives and devices from popular culture and carnival, as analyzed by Mikhail Bakhtin (1975; 1979; 1984). The variety of Chekhov’s comic means, often in their almost archaic, archetypical

straightforwardness, contributed to his overall acting technique in all genres, and later certainly to his acting theory. Short and slender, he started as a comic actor, from his teens playing the parts of old men on the balconies and verandas of summer-houses (Chekhov 1986: 1.53). Unlike the young Stanislavsky, he was not involved in the organization of amateur theatre productions, but both Stanislavsky and Chekhov started their training very early, and based the development of their acting skills on comedy and vaudeville. Chekhov’s characters were hilarious, their behavior portrayed through all kinds of physical imperfections, such as limping, falling, tripping, stuttering, etc. Playing old men would become his forte. The particular, zesty effect of his acting derived from the sharp contrast between the old man’s make-up, manners, and voice, and his flexible, youthful, as if constantly dancing, figure. In other words, he used virtuoso perfection to portray the limitations of old age. According to Chekhov’s memoirs, he was constantly performing. Acting itself

became the most essential part of his life, both on and off stage. As he wrote, “it

made no difference to me whether I was rehearsing or performing for the public […]. I would completely forget about myself and my surroundings […].” (1986: 1.53). As a result, the thin line between being and seeming, living and performing, blurred, and often the real and imaginary merged. His choice of profession came as no surprise. However, the two clashing realities – stage and life – became Chekhov’s artistic habitat for some time. He made a conscious effort to break this habit only after Stanislavsky pointed it out to him in 1917. Stanislavsky scolded him for his bad habit of play-acting in life and on stage, thus wasting his creative energy (1.56). Until then, Chekhov had permanently existed as if in two realities at once, easily moving from one to the other and back. When Chekhov was admitted to the Suvorin Drama School in St Petersburg in

1907, he knew that his physicality limited his potential stage employment to comic and character parts. The School provided its students with traditional training that reflected the stage conventions of the time: they were required to play in the current Russian repertoire, a big part of which comprised comedies and vaudevilles. Graduates were supposed to be well equipped to take an engagement in any provincial Russian theatre. Thus, as a student at the School, Chekhov played mostly in vaudevilles and comedies. Among his other roles were the Sponger (Waffles or Vaflya) in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Maitis in Herman Heijermans’ The Good Hope (translated into Russian as The Wreck of “The Good Hope”), the wood demon in Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell, and Solyony and Chebutykin in Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. He also played his first Khlestakov (the main protagonist in Gogol’s The Government Inspector) in the School performance dedicated to the hundredth anniversary of Nikolay Gogol’s birth (1909). Upon his graduation, the examining committee concluded that Chekhov had greatly succeeded in “comic and character parts” (Chekhov 1986: 2.409). Had he stayed at the St Petersburg Maly Theatre for a longer period than the two seasons he spent there, or had he been employed by either Russian Imperial theatre, his choice of roles would have always been rather narrow: according to customary theatrical practice, he was neither a hero nor a lover (thus, Hamlet and Romeo were out of his range), but could have been easily cast for any comic or character part, such as Malvolio and Khlestakov. Although turn-of-thecentury theatre started to revise the traditional techniques of typecasting, gradually erasing borders between genres, it would only be his affiliation with Stanislavsky, the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), and its studios that would allow him to overcome his traditional stage predisposition. Upon his graduation Chekhov joined the St Petersburg Maly Theatre, starting

with comic and character roles of both genders (including, for example, the chamber maid Palasha in a vaudeville called In the Automobile by Boris Glagolin). His comic interpretation of Hinorari in the tear-jerking popular melodrama The Typhoon by Melchior Lengyel (1910) was criticized as inappropriate. One critic wrote that Chekhov distorted the part by adopting grotesque poses and making silly faces, and that he played this young Japanese man as “a fool from a vaudeville, a Japanese Mitrofanushka [a character from Fonvizin’s play The Minor – MI]” (Chekhov 1986: 2.410). Indeed, the part is not comic, but purely melodramatic: when the diplomat kills his lover, his innocent servant Hinorari pleads guilty. At the end of the play, Hinorari is guillotined. Most likely, by turning the servant into a vaudeville fool Chekhov was

attempting to overcome the sentimental nature of the character: perhaps the audience would not be so heartbroken over the death of this little nobody?1