Last night, I saw an excellent performance of Chekhov's Three Sisters at the Vortex Theater in Albuquerque. I had never seen this play before, and based on descriptions of the plot, I didn't really expect to like it very much, but in fact I thought it was brilliant, in ways that are not captured by a plot summary. It's surprising that this suprised me, since I like Chekhov's short stories very much, and for the same reasons.
Two small linguistic footnotes follow, one intrinsic to the text, and the other related to last night's performance.
Ut consecutivum. The character Fyodor Ilyich Kulygin is described by the Wikipedia article as follows:
Masha's much older husband and a teacher at the high school. Kulygin is a jovial, kindly man, who truly loves his wife, although he is aware of her infidelity. His hobby is to go for rambles (long cross country walks) with the headmaster- Kulygin is the honorary secretary for the rambling society in the local town. At the end of the play, though knowing what his wife has been up to, he takes her back and accepts her failings.
Kulygin mainly provides comic relief, wandering in from time to time to look for his straying wife. But he has some important lines, for example this (from the translation by Julius West at Project Gutenberg — last night's production used a more recent translation by Paul Schmidt):
To-day the soldiers will be gone, and everything will go on as in the old days. Say what you will, Masha is a good, honest woman. I love her very much, and thank my fate for her. People have such different fates. There's a Kosirev who works in the excise department here. He was at school with me; he was expelled from the fifth class of the High School for being entirely unable to understand ut consecutivum. He's awfully hard up now and in very poor health, and when I meet him I say to him, "How do you do, ut consecutivum." "Yes," he says, "precisely consecutivum …" and coughs. But I've been successful all my life, I'm happy, and I even have a Stanislaus Cross, of the second class, and now I myself teach others that ut consecutivum. Of course, I'm a clever man, much cleverer than many, but happiness doesn't only lie in that.
I believe that the ut consecutivum is probably this part of Lewis & Short's entry for ut:
II.B. Introducing a temporal clause, the principal predicate being an immediate sequence.
L&S give examples of this temporal ut where "ut A, B" means "as soon as A, B", or "since A, B", or "whenever A, B". [Update: actually this guess was wrong — this term is in fact tradictionally associated with <i>ut</i> introducing a subjunctive clause of result — see the comments below for details.] But ut is protean — ut often has to be translated as "how", or "in what way or manner", or "as much as", or "howsoever", or "considering that", or "although", or just plain "that" … So it's hardly surprising that a student would find it hard to sort ut out, though it seems harsh to drop someone from school for failing to recall one piece of the puzzle.
These days, we use obscure features of the integral calculus or of organic chemistry as intellectual gatekeepers, in place of obscure features of Latin grammar. And we don't kick kids out of school for failing to make it through the gate, we just drop them to a lower track, or suggest that they try a different major. Anyhow, the obscure features of Latin grammar did at least have some metaphorical value that methods of integration generally lack. (For more discussion of the curricular role of calculus, see the end of this post.)
Provincial accents. The three sisters of the play's title are unhappy about being stranded in a provincial town, where their father, who died a year before the play begins, was commander of a local army detachment. They yearn to return to Moscow, where they grew up, and which has become a sort of mythic land of happiness for them, especially for Irina, who was only nine when they left, eleven years before the play begins.
As far as I can tell, Chekhov's describes the play's setting just as "a provincial town". And a provincial town in the Russia of 1900 — especially one far enough away from the capital that the three sisters would not have gone back for a visit in eleven years — would have had a distinctive regional accent, I think, one that everyone involved would have been quite aware of.
Although I don't know very much about Russian dialect history, I do have one piece of personal evidence that this is likely to have been true. My maternal grandfather was born and raised in Moscow, and his wife was not. To the end of her life, he teased her about her (certain features of her) accent, although (or perhaps because) she was better educated than he was, and later became the headmistress of a school at which he taught. (She came from somewhere to the south, but the school was in pre-revolutionary Latvia — they emigrated to the U.S. in 1921, after the newly-independent Latvian government closed Russian-language schools.)
I don't see anything in the English translations of the plays to indicate that Chekhov wrote his characters' parts in ways that indicated which variety of Russian they spoke, and my Russian is not nearly good enough to figure this out from reading the original. Perhaps someone with a better command of the language can tell us?
Last night's production didn't take up this potential opposition of accents in a systematic way. But one character — the woman who played Natalia Ivanovna (Natasha) — did present an identifiable provincial persona. Appropriately for Albuquerque, she came across as southwestern. She used -in' for -ing a fair fraction of the time — it was especially striking in the word "darlin'" — and a bit of monophthongization of rising diphthongs. And this impression was reinforced by aspects of her hair style, dress, and so on.
Wikipedia describes Natasha this way:
Andrei's love interest at the start of the play, later his wife. She begins the play as an insecure, awkward young woman who dresses poorly. Much fun is made of her ill-becoming green sash by the sisters, and she bursts into tears. She apparently has no family of her own and the reader never learns her maiden name. Act II finds a very different Natasha. She has grown bossy and uses her relationship with Andrei as a way of manipulating the sisters into doing what she wants. She has begun an affair with Protopopov, the head of the local council (who is never seen), and cuckolds Andrei almost flagrantly. In Act III, she has become even more controlling, confronting Olga head on about keeping on Anfisa, the elderly, loyal retainer, whom she orders to stand in her presence, and throwing temper tantrums when she doesn't get her way. Act IV finds that she has inherited control of the house from her weak, vacillating husband, leaving the sisters dependent on her, and planning to radically change the grounds to her liking. It is arguably Natasha, vicious and insensitive of anyone besides her children, on whom she dotes fatuously, who ends the play the happiest, having achieved everything she wants. Natasha's meanness could be traced, psychologically, to the way she is made fun of in Act One, but she may just be a bad lot. Her triumph can be taken to represent that of an intrinsically insensitive lower class over the refinement of aristocratic ideals (like Lopakin's triumph in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard) and so be interpreted politically.
Thus for Natasha to have local characteristics of accent and dress is a nice touch, although perhaps it's slightly disconcerting in a production that doesn't otherwise adapt the Russian setting. Perhaps her regionalisms would have worked even better if the other locals in the play had shared them to some extent, or if the the Muscovites had occasionally mocked them by imitation.
Alas, the actress who played Natasha was criticized for regionalism in a review by Erin Adair-Hodges in the Albuquerque Alibi:
One character … seemed to have wandered over from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, played in a broad slapstick.
But Adair-Hodges didn't like the other characters' accents much either:
To be fair, actors in a Chekhov play are tasked with incredible challenges, such as using realism to approach dialogue translated from the Russian written a century ago. In this version, that task resulted in many of the actors speaking in their normal, modern American voices, which clashed harshly with the content. The default flat nasality of American speech, especially that of anyone who grew up after Valley Girl, is simply unable to treat the dialogue—and the Russian names—with the proper weight and pathos. No one's asking for a Russian accent, but an attempt to open vowels could have made a huge difference.
Surely Russian accents would have been beyond weird, suggesting a production to be featured on The Onion TV. And I'm not exactly sure what "an attempt to open vowels" means, so I can't judge whether it would indeed have made a "huge difference", and if so, in which direction.
But this raises the whole question of how to use varieties of English in plays translated from other languages, or adapted from other places and times. This is especially important for plays in which regional or class differences in speech are featured, whether explicitly or implicitly. I know nothing about this, except that there are people like Amy Stoller (an occasional LL commenter) who do — this would fall under the heading of what her web site calls "creating a consistent vocal world", I guess.
[Full disclosure: my oldest son played Kulygin in this production.]
[A more sympathetic local review can be found here.]