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  You are in: Home > Theatre & Drama > A New Poetics of Chekhov’s Major Plays  
 

A New Poetics of Chekhov’s Plays
Presence Through Absence

Harai Golomb

Harai Golomb has retired as Professor of Theatre Studies, Musicology and Multi-disciplinary Studies at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Arts. He has published extensively and lectured widely on Chekhov’s plays worldwide. This is his first book-length study on the subject.

 

 

Casts new light on how Chekhov’s plays can be interpreted and enacted.
The author explores all the prime components of Chekhov’s theatrical technique: text construction, themes and ideas, scenes, dialogue, plot, and interaction between verbal and nonverbal elements.
A rigorous and comprehensive treatment of the many aspects of Chekhov’s artistic universe.
All the major works explored.


Foreword by Donald Rayfield, Emeritus Professor of Russian, Queen Mary College, University of London; author, Chekhov: A Life; Chekhov, the Evolution of his Art; Understanding Chekhov.

Selected Brief Endorsements

“[Harai Golomb’s work is] A KEY TO CHEKHOV” Prof. Ronald Hingley (1920-2010), Chekhov Scholar and Biographer; Translator and Editor: THE OXFORD CHEKHOV

“A blast of fresh air […] this book […] gives audience, reader, actor and director all they need […] It breaks through the sludge that has formed in the Chekhov pool […]” From the Foreword by Donald Rayfield, Professor-Emeritus of Russian at Queen Mary College, University of London; Author. Chekhov: A Life; Understanding Chekhov

“[This] thorough, profound and innovative work on Chekhov is a model for teachers and students […] an inimitable contribution to our understanding of the very nature of literary and dramatic art.” Benjamin Harshav, Professor Emeritus of Comparative and Slavic Literatures, Yale University; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Author, Explorations in Poetics

“A unique and extraordinary accomplishment. Professor Golomb’s masterful study of Chekhov drama and theater […] will be in the pocket of everyone interested in Chekhov and theater.” Robert Louis Jackson, Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Yale University; Founding President, North American Chekhov Society.

“A celebration for the world of Chekhov studies. This book is […] a must for scholars, students, actors, directors, and the general Chekhov-loving public alike.” Vladimir B. Kataev, Professor; Chairman of the Chekhov Commission of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Harai Golomb’s welcome study [… is] a worthy addition to Chekhov scholarship; [it] draws our attention to alluring new areas […] a wide readership is envisaged from drama and culture students and scholars to theatre goers and practitioners.” Cynthia Marsh, Emeritus Professor of Russian Drama and Literature, University of Nottingham.

“This book will undoubtedly be recognized as a major contribution, not only to Chekhov studies, […] but to literary studies generally. I am honored to endorse it with the greatest enthusiasm.” Hugh McLean, Professor Emeritus of Russian Literature, University of California, Berkeley

“The book […] is not only about one great playwright; it also deals with the way we can view theatre and its theory today. [It] is a work of art in itself”. Patrice Pavis, Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury UK; Professor Emeritus, Sorbonne 8; Author: Dictionary of Theatre; Editor of French edition of Chekhov’s plays.

“Golomb does greater justice to the justice Chekhov himself does to the complexity of the human condition, defined as it is by potentials, realized and unrealized alike. […] invaluable to students at all levels and for directors, actors, and playwrights as well. NO ONE READS CHEKHOV’S DRAMA BETTER.” Cathy Popkin, Professor of Russian, Columbia University; Editor, Norton Critical Edition of Chekhov’s Selected Stories.

One century after the death of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), his plays are celebrated throughout the world as a major milestone in the history of theatre and drama. Outside the Russian-speaking community, he is undoubtedly the most widely translated, studied and performed of all Russian writers. His plays are characterised by their evasiveness: tragedy and comedy, realism and naturalism, symbolism and impressionism, as well as other labels of school and genre – all fail to account for the uniqueness of ’Chekhovism’, i.e., the essence of his artistic system and world view.

Presence through Absence is a bold attempt to map the unique structure and meaning that comprise Chekhov’s immensely rich artistic universe. Golomb’s text is an incursion into Chekhov’s vision of unrealised potentials and present absences. His timeless works are shown with rare insight and clarity to have artistic principles and coherence above and beyond the scope of the individual play.


Foreword by Prof. Donald Rayfield
Preface: About and Around the Book
Acknowledgements
Cover Illustrations

PART I
PREVIEWING
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF CHEKHOV’S POETICS

1 Introduction: Basic Principles of Chekhovian Thematics (What?)
OPENING THE BOOK’S OUTER CIRCLE

1.1 Presence through Absence/Unrealised Potential:
Formulating a Chekhovian Universal
1.2 Thematic Structuration in Three Sisters: Trichotomies
1.2.1 An Example: Education and Learning
1.2.2 Other Themes
1.3 Building a (Textual) Character: Doing, Talking, Wishing
1.4 Building a Text: Compositional Implications of the Principle
of Unrealised Potentials/Presence through Absence
1.5 Negation vs. Annulment: Conservation of Artistic Mass
1.6 Paradoxes of the (Un)Realisability of Chekhov’s Art

2 Basic Principles of Chekhovian Composition (How?)
2.0 Preliminary Remarks: Chekhov the Structuralist?
2.1 A Theoretical Complex of Complexity
2.2 Saturated Complexity: Shakespeare’s Plays as Paradigm
2.3 Unsaturated Complexity: Chekhov’s Plays as Paradigm
2.4 A Third Ideal of Complexity: ‘Strong’ Parts, ‘Weak’ Wholes
2.5 Conclusion: Investment and Interest

PART II
VIEWING
CHEKHOV’S DRAMATIC TEXT AND WORLD

3 Starts that Fit: The Curtain Rises on a Chekhov Play —
OPENING THE BOOK’S INNER CIRCLE

3.0 Truisms and Preliminary Theoretical Considerations
3.1 The Beginning of The Seagull
3.2 The Beginning of Uncle Vania
3.3 The Beginning of Three Sisters
3.4 The Beginning of The Cherry Orchard

4 Dramaticality, ‘Dramaticalness’, Theatricality,
Dual Fictionality
4.0 Introduction: Is Chekhov a Playwright?
4.1 Terminology: Drama, Dramaticality, ‘Dramaticalness’, etc.
4.2 Chekhov’s Drama and the Non-“Dramatic”
4.3 Chekhov and the Differentia Specifica of Drama
4.4 Concluding Remarks

5 Character and Characterisation (Who?)
5.0 Introductory Remarks
5.1 An Anatomy of Characterisation: No Joking Matter
5.2 Characterisation in the Major Plays
Appendix: “A Little Joke” (versions published in Sverchok, 1886, and as
revised for the Collected Works, 1899)

6 Communicating (in) Chekhov
6.0 Communication and the ‘Descent of Man’s Stature’
6.1 Chekhov and Staged Communication: ‘Public Images’
6.2 Communication at Work: Three Sisters as a Case Study
6.3 Concluding Remarks

7 “Restraining Order”: Repression of Expression as Pressurised
Explosiveness

7.0 Focusing on Chekhovian Restraint
7.1 Major Features of Restraint and Basic Distinction
7.2 Restraint in Stories: A Moment in “A Dreary Tale”
7.3 Some ‘Micro’-Level Examples
7.4 An Illustration: Structuring Restraint in Three Sisters
7.5 A ‘Macro’-Level Example: The Seagull in The Seagull
7.6 Conclusion: A Survey of the Other Major Plays

8 “Tea or ‘Philosophising’?”: Hierarchising Ideas
and Values

8.0 The Importance of Being Specific: Hierarchising,
Referentiality and Organisation in Literary and Dramatic Art
8.1 “Sheer Indifferentism”: Does Chekhov Really Care?
8.2 Perspectives on “Philosophising” in Chekhov’s Plays
8.3 Value Structuration: The Case of Three Sisters
8.4 Conclusion

9 The End(ing)s Justify the Mean(ing)s: The Curtain Falls on
a Chekhov Play — CLOSING THE BOOK’S INNER CIRCLE

9.0 Preliminary Remarks
9.1 Double-Phased Endings in Three Stories
9.2 Endings in the Plays
9.3 Exit Chekhov the Man, or: How to End a Life, and A Life?
Appendix: Potential Ending(s) of The Cherry Orchard

PART III
OVERVIEWING
A COMPREHENSIVE LOOK

10 Chekhovism Viewed from Beyond its Boundaries:
Comparative–Contrastive Perspectives

10.0 Structural Preamble
10.1 Chekhovism among Other -isms: A Pan-Chronic View
10.2 Chekhov and the Major Genres of Drama: A Survey
10.3 A Perspective of Historical Poetics: A Diachronic View
10.4 Assessing Chekhov’s Greatness, with an Interart View
10.5 In Conclusion

11 Chekhov and Posterity — CLOSING THE BOOK’S
OUTER CIRCLE

11.0 Preliminary: Closing the Outer Circle
11.2 Heredity and Heritage in Chekhov’s Plays: Past, Present, Future
11.3 Perspective of Inheritance: Parallels and Isomorphisms
11.4 Conclusion: Mortal Chekhov’s Immortal Heritage

Appendix
Reflecting (on) Chekhovian “(Auto)Biographophobia”: Nína Zaréchnaïa’s
Medallion under a Magnifying Glass

A Guide to the Structure of Names, their Pronunciation and Transliteration

Works Consulted
Index




The Foreword by Donald Rayfield

About ten years ago I was rash enough to give a paper ‘What is there left to say about Chekhov?’ and annoy my colleagues by saying that, apart from biographical and textual questions, Chekhov criticism had reached an impasse and that perhaps we should have a moratorium for a decade until a new approach had been devised. Certainly, there was a problem in that the relatively small corpus of Chekhov’s work — only four major plays, and only one stageable play and two unstageable ones in addition; narrative fiction of major literary importance that fits easily into one volume — was overwhelmed by the intensity and redundancy of many critical approaches, constantly rehashing the same interpretations and controversies, and over-obsessed with ideology and biographical reference points.

My point at that time is now completely invalidated by Harai Golomb’s book. Those who have heard him speak (the ideal mode to appreciate the vigour of his performative approach) and read his papers will not doubt that they are about to feel a blast of fresh air in their faces. The fact that Golomb approaches Chekhov not as a Russianist or Slavist or comparativist, but from a background of musicology, drama and literary theory, aroused in the past suspicions among the supercilious and the conservative, but has been a source of inspiration for the open-minded. This is an approach to Chekhov that is equally valid for Chekhov in the original as in translation. True, it is oriented almost exclusively towards the four major plays (the prose fiction is little more than a prop, despite penetrating discussions of a couple of stories), but it opens up a diversity of interpretation and an insight into the mechanics of the Chekhov play which operate as a corrective to all the theoretical or practical work on Chekhov drama hitherto. Much of Golomb’s approach is playful, or to use a more fashionable term, ludic. For instance, he imagines how different the play becomes if you chop off the final 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds; he looks at apparent minutiae — choice of titles, for instance — which determine our reception of the work. You then realise that every word in Chekhov’s drama is a butterfly which only has to flap its wings to cause a storm that affects the whole world. This is the best critical work on Chekhov I have read since Chudakov, and the broadest ever.

This is a book that highlights the structural genius in Chekhov’s art, while constituting a feat in the structural organisation of its own text. It gives audience, reader, actor and director all they need, from how to pronounce Russian words, to the keys for unlocking the information and emotional treasures of the plays. All of Golomb is food for thought; some of his ideas will generate controversy; a few may even be refuted, but this book certainly breaks through the sludge that has formed over the last century in the Chekhov pool and challenges professional
chekhovedy to come out of their theoretical hermitages and get a life.” Donald Rayfield, Emeritus Professor of Russian, Queen Mary College, University of London; author, Chekhov: A Life; Chekhov, the Evolution of his Art; Understanding Chekhov

“Harai Golomb is one of that exquisite breed, a Stradivarius among scholars. He knows how to unpack all the details, and weave them into a complex tapestry which reveals the full richness of whatever work of literature he chooses for his subject. His thorough, profound and innovative work on Chekhov is a model for teachers and students of how to read and extract the literariness of a text and how to construct a single author’s poetics. This book is exemplary in its content and structure alike; it is the reward of many years of study, and an inimitable contribution to our understanding of Chekhov, and through him — of the very nature of literary and dramatic art.” Benjamin Harshav, Professor Emeritus of Comparative and Slavic Literatures, Yale University; Professor Emeritus of Poetics and Comparative Literature, Tel-Aviv University; Founding Editor, Poetics Today; Founding Director, Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, Tel-Aviv University; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Author, Explorations in Poetics and hundreds of other studies.

“A unique and extraordinary accomplishment. Professor Golomb’s comprehensive and deep exploration of Chekhov’s drama, his detailed and subtle discussions and analyses of almost every aspect of Chekhov’s great plays — poetics, structure, genre, semantics, concept and creation of character, endings and beginnings, music and musicality, esthetic and philosophical dimensions, etc., and all this put in a comparative and historical context — not only will raise the study of Chekhov drama and theater to qualitatively new levels of scholarly and critical inquiry, but will powerfully impact upon the production, directing, and acting of Chekhov plays. Professor Golomb’s masterful study of Chekhov drama and theater will be in the pocket of everyone interested in Chekhov and theater.” Robert Louis Jackson, B.E. Bensinger Professor (Emeritus), Slavic Languages and Literatures, Yale University

“The publication of Harai Golomb’s revelatory book is a celebration for the world of Chekhov studies. This book is bound to revolutionize the entire field: it is indeed A NEW POETICS of the major plays, as definitive as such a study can be, with significant contributions to the study of the stories as well. His discovery of the principles of Presence through Absence and Unrealized Potentials captures the brain, heart and soul of Chekhov’s dramatic art and the uniqueness of its complexities — what the author calls “Chekhovism” — as very few have done before. Because of its innovative discoveries, analytical rigor, immaculate precision, impeccable structure, depth and thoroughness, this book is a must for scholars, students, actors, directors, and the general Chekhov-loving public alike. It never loses the wood for the trees: its attentiveness to the subtlest of details does not cloud its comprehensive vision, and its path-breaking theoretical insights complement its meticulous textual analyses. All these qualities, together with its reader-friendly rhetoric, make it a masterpiece of its kind.” Vladimir B. Kataev, Professor; Chair, the Department of the History of Russian Literature, Moscow State University Chairman of the Chekhov Commission of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Author: If We Could Only Know — An Interpretation of Chekhov and tens of studies in Russian

“Harai Golomb’s welcome study on Chekhov’s Poetics emerges from a lifetime’s companionship with Chekhov and his plays. With humility he argues his study is but 'a' contribution to understanding this global writer: in fact, he succeeds in providing a valuable and insightful key to the essence of Chekhov’s dramatic skills. He confronts the questions others may have balked at asking; he questions received views, explains and demonstrates. To support his arguments, he offers close and subtle analyses of scenes from the four mature plays.
Himself a lover of the subtleties of language, Golomb takes great pain to unpick the qualities and complexities of Chekhov’s textual brilliance. Drawing on a lifetime of work in the creative arts, Golomb draws our attention to alluring new areas, for example indicating the value of comparing the plays and music. Judging, inter alia, from the extensive analysis of Russian name pronunciation, a wide readership is envisaged from drama and culture students and scholars to theatre goers and practitioners. All in all, Golomb has accomplished an adventurous study and a worthy addition to Chekhov scholarship.” Cynthia Marsh, Emeritus Professor of Russian Drama and Literature, University of Nottingham. Author, Maxim Gorky: Russian Dramatist, and many articles on Chekhov’s theatre; Curator, Chekhoviana: Marketing a foreign classic to British audiences (Nottingham, 2014).

“I was delighted to hear of the forthcoming book on Chekhov by Harai Golomb. After decades of seminal contributions to Chekhov studies in the form of articles, lectures, and appearances at international symposia, Professor Golomb has acquired a reputation as one of the most thoughtful and original Chekhov scholars in the world. He not only has an encyclopedic command of the entire Chekhov corpus and the surrounding scholarly literature, but he brings to Chekhov studies a vast erudition and sophistication in literary theory, in other literatures, and also in music. This book will undoubtedly be recognized as a major contribution, not only to Chekhov studies, including both drama and short stories, but to literary studies generally. I am honored to endorse it with the greatest enthusiasm.” Hugh McLean, Professor Emeritus of Russian Literature, University of California, Berkeley

“There are whole libraries full of books on Chekhov. Chekhov is everywhere, in all hearts, on all stages, at every stage of our existence. We can see and understand life through him. He always makes sense and yet there is never a final answer to all questions his work poses.
Haraï Golomb does not provide such a definite and easy answer, but his book — a lifetime achievement — is true to both famous categories of Blaise Pascal: esprit de finesse and esprit de géométrie. His analyses of different moments of Chekhov’s plays and short stories are always fine, subtle and illuminating. They offer an invaluable, precise and geometrical overview of the dramaturgy, style and theatricality. So the book is not only about one great playwright; it also deals with the way we can view theatre and its theory today.

Little by little, we begin to see and measure Chekhov’s world and our own universe, with the precision of a labyrinth’s surveyor. Golomb’s book is a work of art in itself: we enjoy it at every turn. It confirms and deepens our love for Anton Pavlovitch. Thanks to both of them we keep going. There will never be an ending.” Patrice Pavis, Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury UK; Editor, French edition of Chekhov’s Major plays; Author, Dictionary of Theatre; Analyzing Performance; Contemporary Mise en Scène: Staging Theatre Today

“Long recognized in the field of Chekhov studies for his brilliant articles on individual plays, particular scenes, and specific interactions, Golomb has undertaken here nothing short of a poetics of Chekhov’s oeuvre as a whole. Moreover, arguing that Chekhovian meaning is produced precisely in the interactions between and among individual parts, he convincingly makes the case that nothing short of this will do. Indeed, even knowing Golomb’s remarkable essays, I was unprepared for the extraordinary achievement of this book.

Golomb is the first to give an adequate account of the isomorphism of thematic and compositional workings that distinguishes Chekhov’s dramatic project. This is more than illuminating; it is important. Golomb’s understanding of “poetics” as work, activity, performance, establishes beyond dispute the dynamic complexity of Chekhov’s artistic system and the signifying potential of each communicative or interpretive move. A similar affinity for function and morphology gives rise to some of Golomb’s most innovative formulations Moreover, paying particular attention to Chekhov’s choices — to what isn’t there as much as what is — Golomb does greater justice to the justice Chekhov himself does to the complexity of the human condition, defined as it is by potentials, realized and unrealized alike. His analysis points the way toward an essential recognition of the interplay of textual and extra-textual elements, the mutual entailment of art and life, the interdependency of part and whole.
Rarely have I encountered such scrupulous explication, firmly rooting rhetorically powerful suggestion in concrete and substantive demonstration. Golomb’s argument is distinguished by its logical rigor and its inspired use of textual material. It is also remarkable for its methodological self-awareness. Golomb keeps his cards on the table, acknowledging his own interests and interrogating his own procedures, raising more than once the thorny question of admissible (and inadmissible) evidence; the result is genuine probing and authentic inquiry.
What impresses me the most is Golomb’s sense of both nuance and power when he examines relationships of all kinds—not only those between characters or between text and potential performances or between the work of art and its perceivers or even the vexed one between art and life—and his recognition of how complex and elusive all such relationships are, how dizzying the interpenetration of their respective parts, and how, in their borrowings and belongings, the components of each relationship effectively produce one another. No one reads Chekhov’s dramas better.

As a scholarly contribution, the book will be invaluable to both those who study Chekhov and those who come to Chekhov via theater studies. But given its structural clarity, it will also be accessible—and no doubt extremely suggestive—for students at all levels and for directors, actors, and playwrights as well.” Cathy Popkin, Jesse and George Siegel Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Russian, Columbia University. Author, The Pragmatics of Insignificance: Chekhov, Zoshchenko, Gogol, Editor, Norton Critical Edition of Anton Chekhov's Selected Stories

“Golomb’s Presence through Absence is undoubtedly a landmark study of Chekhov’s dramaturgy
and poetics. It deserves a place of honor on the shelves of any library where Chekhov is
to be found, and should be carefully read, and re-read by all those with an abiding interest in
Russia’s greatest dramatist.” Jerome H. Katsell, Independent Scholar, writing in Slavic and East European Journal

 

Publication Details

 
Hardback ISBN:
978-1-903900-47-5
 
Paperback ISBN:
978-1-84519-624-0
 
Page Extent / Format:
448 pp. / 234 x 156 mm
 
Release Date:
Hardback, January 2014, Paperback, September 2014
  Illustrated:   No
 
Hardback Price:
£75.00 / $99.50
 
Paperback Price:
£35.00 / $50.00
 

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