Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To His Brother Alexandr.

MOSCOW, November 20, 1887.

Well, the first performance [Translator’s Note: “Ivanov.”] is over. I will tell you all about it in detail. To begin with, Korsh promised me ten rehearsals, but gave me only four, of which only two could be called rehearsals, for the other two were tournaments in which messieurs les artistes exercised themselves in altercation and abuse. Davydov and Glama were the only two who knew their parts; the others trusted to the prompter and their own inner conviction.

Act One. — I am behind the stage in a small box that looks like a prison cell. My family is in a box of the benoire and is trembling. Contrary to my expectations, I am cool and am conscious of no agitation. The actors are nervous and excited, and cross themselves. The curtain goes up . . . the actor whose benefit night it is comes on. His uncertainty, the way that he forgets his part, and the wreath that is presented to him make the play unrecognizable to me from the first sentences. Kiselevsky, of whom I had great hopes, did not deliver a single phrase correctly — literally not a single one. He said things of his own composition. In spite of this and of the stage manager’s blunders, the first act was a great success. There were many calls.

Act Two. — A lot of people on the stage. Visitors. They don’t know their parts, make mistakes, talk nonsense. Every word cuts me like a knife in my back. But — o Muse! — this act, too, was a success. There were calls for all the actors, and I was called before the curtain twice. Congratulations and success.

Act Three. — The acting is not bad. Enormous success. I had to come before the curtain three times, and as I did so Davydov was shaking my hand, and Glama, like Manilov, was pressing my other hand to her heart. The triumph of talent and virtue.

Act Four, Scene One. — It does not go badly. Calls before the curtain again. Then a long, wearisome interval. The audience, not used to leaving their seats and going to the refreshment bar between two scenes, murmur. The curtain goes up. Fine: through the arch one can see the supper table (the wedding). The band plays flourishes. The groomsmen come out: they are drunk, and so you see they think they must behave like clowns and cut capers. The horseplay and pot-house atmosphere reduce me to despair. Then Kiselevsky comes out: it is a poetical, moving passage, but my Kiselevsky does not know his part, is drunk as a cobbler, and a short poetical dialogue is transformed into something tedious and disgusting: the public is perplexed. At the end of the play the hero dies because he cannot get over the insult he has received. The audience, grown cold and tired, does not understand this death (the actors insisted on it; I have another version). There are calls for the actors and for me. During one of the calls I hear sounds of open hissing, drowned by the clapping and stamping.

On the whole I feel tired and annoyed. It was sickening though the play had considerable success. . . .

Theatre-goers say that they had never seen such a ferment in a theatre, such universal clapping and hissing, nor heard such discussions among the audience as they saw and heard at my play. And it has never happened before at Korsh’s that the author has been called after the second act.

November 24.

. . . It has all subsided at last, and I sit as before at my writing-table and compose stories with untroubled spirit. You can’t think what it was like! . . . I have already told you that at the first performance there was such excitement in the audience and on the stage as the prompter, who has served at the theatre for thirty-two years, had never seen. They made an uproar, shouted, clapped and hissed; at the refreshment bar it almost came to fighting, and in the gallery the students wanted to throw someone out and two persons were removed by the police. The excitement was general. . . .

. . . The actors were in a state of nervous tension. All that I wrote to you and Maslov about their acting and attitude to their work must not, of course, go any further. There is much one has to excuse and understand. . . . It turned out that the actress who was doing the chief part in my play had a daughter lying dangerously ill — how could she feel like acting? Kurepin did well to praise the actors.

The next day after the performance there was a review by Pyotr Kitcheyev in the Moskovsky Listok. He calls my play impudently cynical and immoral rubbish. The Moskovskiya Vyedomosti praised it.

. . . If you read the play you will not understand the excitement I have described to you; you will find nothing special in it. Nikolay, Shehtel, and Levitan — all of them painters — assure me that on the stage it is so original that it is quite strange to look at. In reading one does not notice it.

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