IN the English-speaking world Anton Chekhov is far better known for his plays than for his short stories. But during his lifetime Chekhov's stories made his reputation; his plays were given a more ambivalent reception, even by his fellow writers. Shortly after Chekhov's death, in 1904, Tolstoy voiced a common feeling that plays like Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters weren't quite dramas. "To evoke a mood," he said in an interview, "you want a lyrical poem. Dramatic forms serve, and ought to serve, quite different aims. In a dramatic work the author ought to deal with some problem that has yet to be solved and every character in the play ought to solve it according to the idiosyncrasies of his own character.... But you won't find anything of the kind in Chekhov."
In this criticism Tolstoy hit on exactly those features that have made Chekhov's plays the fundamental works of modern drama. Like lyric poems, they favor mood over plot; there is no overriding "problem," and when problems do appear, the playwright never seems to endorse any solutions. Chekhov's dramatic form allowed him to present things on the stage "just as complicated and just as simple as ... in real life," as he famously wrote. "People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart."
But Chekhov's emphasis on tone and mood, and his faithful re-creation of ordinary conversation with all its hesitations, references, and silences, make him an unusually difficult playwright to translate. Just as difficult to convey is the class dynamic that Chekhov treated again and again: there is no precise English, much less American, equivalent of his gentry, trying to live a city life on income from vast, ungovernable, debt-ridden estates. To an audience that doesn't share Chekhov's basic cultural knowledge, his plays can seem far more meandering, depressing, and vague than they were intended to be.
In his new translation of Chekhov's complete plays Paul Schmidt has these problems very much in mind. Both an actor and a Russian scholar, Schmidt sets out to give us a Chekhov who makes sense. He writes in his introduction, "Above all, I hope these translations will provide actors and directors with a clear sense of how the plays are meant to work and how they should sound." His guiding stars are clarity and relevance -- particularly relevance to an American audience. "I want to emphasize," he writes, "that this is an American translation, not simply another 'English' translation."
The result is a surprisingly lively Chekhov, colloquial and clear, which will come as a revelation to those who know the playwright through the widely read but rather stiff British translations of Constance Garnett and Elisaveta Fen. Everything about Schmidt's book, from the organization and footnotes to the language itself, is meant to clear away the obscurity and sentimentality with which Chekhov is often burdened. The plays that emerge are funnier and more muscular than one might have expected.
Among the simplest but most effective of Schmidt's choices is to include all of Chekhov's mature finished plays. Most editions of Chekhov include only the "major plays" -- The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard -- and these are, of course, the heart of his achievement. But from those four plays one would never know that the young Chekhov started out as a writer of comic stories for humor magazines, and that his first successes for the stage were one-act farces. He continued to write these short comedies throughout his career, and they show him to be a master of comic timing. Most of them have faded with age, but The Bear -- in which a blustering bully challenges a woman to a duel and then falls in love with her when she agrees to fight -- could still raise laughs today. Seeing these farces (there are seven of them in the volume) alongside the later plays changes how we see Chekhov, and makes us more responsive to the comic elements in a play like The Cherry Orchard.
Even more illuminating are Schmidt's notes, which manage to demystify the many quotations and references scattered throughout the plays. Whenever a character hums a tune or recites a verse, Schmidt tells us just what it is he's saying, and what associations it would have for a Russian audience. This basic information, which most translations fail to provide, does away with half the vagueness that audiences often find in Chekhov. For example, in the first act of Three Sisters, Masha, the middle sister, repeats a snatch of poetry from Pushkin. To an English-speaker the verse sounds highly romantic, like something from Yeats: "Beside the sea there stands a tree, and on that tree a golden chain." This creates an atmosphere of sad longing -- very "Chekhovian." But for a Russian audience, Schmidt reveals, the reference would have immediately called up the next lines, which he takes the liberty of including in his translation: "And on that chain an educated cat goes around and around and around." This effectively punctures the dreamy tone, leaving us instead with a fanciful, even silly, fairy tale; the emphasis now is not so much on the "golden chain" as on the "going around and around," which mirrors Masha's sense of frustration. This is a perfect instance of how even a literally correct translation can give a misleading impression of Chekhov.