I’ve been reading Chekhov plays recently (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard), and I’ve been struck by how much they resemble Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – although perhaps it is the other way around, since Chekhov died two years before Beckett was born.
I wouldn’t have thought there would be any similarities between Chekhov’s bourgeoisie and Beckett’s vaudevillians, and yet the plays resemble each other in many ways:
• The dramas are set in empty places – small country estates or provincial towns in Chekhov, a featureless existential limbo in Beckett.
• The characters are frantic and paralyzed. They are largely incapable of making a decision or taking constructive action.
• The characters lack self-knowledge or insight to their lives and situations. As a result, they talk in stale words and trite phrases about trivial subjects.
• Little to nothing happens in the plays. This is perhaps because the characters do not possess meaning, purpose, occupation, or passion.
• The plays are all ostensibly comedies, but the humor is hard to see and it takes especially gifted actors to make the performances funny.
The ultimate effect of all these qualities – in my mind – is to suggest that human beings do not exist: that we have no essence, no objective self, no enduring spark, that we have no souls, and that death will scatter us like the wind scatters dust.
Nabokov in Speak Memory tells the story of visiting one of his governesses in her old age. When Nabokov learns a few years later she has died, he writes:
She had spent all her life in feeling miserable; this misery was her native element; its fluctuations, its varying depths, alone gave her the impression of moving and living. What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul. My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity.
What I see Nabokov saying is that we cannot make a durable self without love for someone or something, for a place or a memory, or for consciousness itself. That we must love and choose love to bind ourselves to creation.
I’m not certain characters like Treplev or Uncle Vanya or Vladimir or Estragon have done that. So maybe they are just dust. I’d like to think I’m not.