NEW YORK, NY.-
Since Russia invaded Ukraine almost a year ago, cultural institutions in Europe and the United States have contemplated what to do with Russian art. Peter Tchaikovskys militaristic 1812 Overture? Potentially offensive, and dropped from many concerts. Fyodor Dostoyevsky? One of Russian President Vladimir Putins favorite authors, cross-examined, in Ukraine and elsewhere, for his expansionist views.
Anton Chekhovs plays, on the other hand? So far, nobody is pulling them from the stage.
The Russian dramatic repertoire, more widely, has flown under the radar. In Paris, no fewer than four Russian plays were on at prominent playhouses in late January and early February, including Chekhovs The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, as well as lesser-known works, such as pieces by Ivan Turgenev (A Month in the Country) and by Alexander Ostrovsky (The Storm).
And the artists involved appear to be staying away from mentioning the war. While the Ukrainian flag was unfurled regularly on French stages in 2022, it made an appearance just once at the performances I saw of those four plays: At the end of Turgenevs A Month in the Country, at the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet, an actor brought it out and held it during the curtain calls. Only one playbill, for The Seagull at the Théâtre des Abbesses, mentioned Ukraine.
In a country like France, where support for Ukraine is steadfast, this is hardly for lack of sympathy. It probably has more to do with Russian theaters reputation for universalism the belief that a playwright like Chekhov revealed profound truths about the human condition that went far beyond Russias borders. As performer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from Soviet Russia in 1974 and has spoken against the war, told The New York Times last year: The miracle of Chekhovs writing is that, no matter where its performed, it feels local to the culture.
The directors of these four Russian plays presumably didnt select them in connection to geopolitical events. The sets for all the productions I saw were tastefully vague, and the costumes mostly modern. Since theater productions in France are typically planned at least two years before they reach the stage, all would most likely have been scheduled before the invasion of Ukraine last February.
Still, watching 19th-century plays by Chekhov, Turgenev and Ostrovsky in short succession offers a fascinating window onto Russian culture, which has long prized the performing arts. After a few nights in a row, the characters started to feel connected. The unhappily married Natalya Petrovna, in A Month in the Country, had a kinship with Helena in Uncle Vanya and Katerina in The Storm. All three suffer from ennui and neglect in the countryside; all three seek solace in affairs that end badly.
Its no coincidence, of course. Ostrovsky and Turgenev were acquainted, and Chekhov, who came of age later in the 19th century, knew his predecessors work and name-checks both in Uncle Vanya.
The themes they explored speak to social rifts that manifest across cultures. Class struggles, such as landowners power over regular workers or the disdain of urban professors and artists for country life, underpin the characters relationships, as does this patriarchal societys hold over women. (Bad weather and alcohol also feature prominently.) Patriotic wars dont come calling for local men, unlike in many Russian novels.
Brigitte Jaques-Wajemans The Seagull makes the most impassioned case for Chekhov as a vessel for the worlds feelings rather than for any specific sense of Russian-ness. She has opted for a very spare production at the Théâtre des Abbesses, the second stage of the Théâtre de la Ville: Beyond a painted backdrop evoking the lake mentioned in the play, the cast only has a small elevated stage made of wooden blocks and a few tables and chairs to work with.
Yet every element is used beautifully. One of Jaques-Wajemans great strengths lies in the precision of her work with actors, and here, she brings individual color out of each. As Nina, the country girl who dreams of becoming an actress, Pauline Bolcatto starts off as a ball of innocent enthusiasm, while Hélène Bressiant brings a touch of Goth nihilism to the resigned Masha. As Arkadina, the successful and snobbish actress visiting her country home, Raphaèle Bouchard rocks improbable turbans and fuchsia pants.
This Seagull brought out a constant from Russian play to Russian play: Practically everyone in them, no matter how rich or successful, feels emotionally stunted.
It is true, too, of A Month in the Country and The Storm, two plays that are seen much less often in the West. The plot of Ostrovskys The Storm, which had its premiere in 1859, is perhaps better known outside Russia through Kata Kabanova, the 1921 Janacek opera named after the plays central character. Kata, or Katerina, is saddled with a husband she doesnt love and an overbearing mother-in-law. She starts a covert relationship with Boris, who has recently arrived in her small town, only to become overwhelmed by the moral implications.
Denis Podalydès brought a sensitive, visually elegant production of The Storm to the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, led by the arresting Mélodie Richard as Katerina. A photograph showing the Volga River is reproduced in the background on wooden panels, which are later turned over to create a simple, two-tiered structure for Katerina and Boris nighttime escapades in the bushes.
The Storm and A Month in the Country both show humans chafing against curtailed horizons. In A Month in the Country, Natalya Petrovna, a woman who falls for her sons young tutor, isnt the only one to suffer. Like Masha in The Seagull, the young Vera, an orphan who lives with Natalyas family, sees her options in life for what they are and resigns herself to a joyless marriage.
Juliette Léger conveys Veras arc with admirable ease in Clément Hervieu-Légers captivating production of A Month in the Country. The entire cast, in fact, struck a bittersweet, realistic balance between comedy and tragedy, from Clémence Boué (Natalya) to Stéphane Facco (wondrous in the role of Rakitin, Natalyas platonic companion).
Yet for all the emotional truth in these characters, from Turgenev and Ostrovsky to Chekhov, the sentence for those who stray is harsh. They all fail. At best, they return to a dull life; sometimes, suicide is their preferred option.
It is a bleak outlook for domestic dramas. Nobody is calling for these plays to be canceled, but to call them universal is a little too easy. In Russian theater, if you rebel against social norms, you will be crushed.
That, in itself, is a message.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times