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"Chekhov's Leading Lady" by Harvey Pitcher

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 11:24 am    Post subject: "Chekhov's Leading Lady" by Harvey Pitcher  Reply with quote

I wasn't quite sure where to write about this life of Chekhov's wife, the actress Olga Knipper.  
Olga was born in 1868 and died in 1959 - 55 years after the death of Chekhov in 1904.
I enjoyed this book very much. It helped to fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of the Russian Theatre in the 20th century.  I particularly enjoyed the book after the death of Chekhov.  I was fairly conversant with the story of the Chekhov/Knipper relationship but knew nothing about her life from 1904.  And very little about her lifelong relationship with Chekhov's devoted sister, Masha. Masha devoted her life to Chekhov's memory, dealing with the publication of his works and letters and looking after the Chekhov museum in Yalta - even during the 2nd World war under German occupation.
Knipper has been unfairly criticised by posterity for the way she and Chekhov lived apart for a lot of their brief married life - she acting in Moscow - he living in Yalta for his health.  But this was a mutual agreement.  They were both professionals and took a sensible decision to allow them both to pursue their careers.  However, they visited each other constantly. Olga travelled with Anton to Bardenweiler in Germany where he died.  Her account of his death is vivid in its detail and very moving.
She created several famous parts in the original Moscow Art Theatre productions of Chekhov's plays, especially Masha in "Three Sister" which she continued to play long after she was too old for the part.  As she did with Ranevskaya in "The Cherry Orchard".  Imagine seeing Knipper play opposite the great Stanislavsky as Gaev!  The last new role she created was Lady Markby in Wilde's "An Ideal Husband"in 1946.  Her last appearance in Chekhov was in 1949.
The parts of the book about the Moscow Art Theatre after the Revolution and its relationship to the Soviet State are most interesting, as is the story of the company's tours abroad, especially to the USA.  
She played Gertrude in Gordon Craig's Moscow production of Hamlet but was considered a failure in the role.
I was touched to read that she actually saw Paul Scofield's Hamlet when it played in Moscow in the 1950s.  

This extract describes Olga in "Three Sisters"

Near the end of the play Olga as Masha stood listening to the sound of the regimental band fading away in the distance, and knew that it was talking Vershinin out of her life for ever. ' I couldn't stop the tears flowing,' she wrote to Anton, 'I kept seeing YOU and I can't remember how I spoke the final words; and when the curtain was drawn, I burst out sobbing, they caught hold of me and dragged me off to the dressing-room, so that I didn't even appear for the curtain-calls.'

Olga brought more depth of feeling to Masha than to any of her other parts.  
'When I was playing Masha before the farewell with Vershinin, I used to go up to my room and lock the door, so as to gather myself. When the bell went, I would fly out of the dressing-room and run down to the stage with my heart pounding.' Rushing up to Vershinin, played by Stanislavsky, she would suddenly stop short and her arms would drop down loosely by her sides. The brief scene that followed - Masha gazing into Vershinin's face as if to imprint it on her mind forever, her single word of farewell, their last embrace and Masha's scarcely human, gasping sobs - this brief scene, as played by Knipper and Stanislavsky, was never forgotten by those who saw it.  Masha was established as the most moving and unforgettable of all the characters she created.

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 16, 2009 10:55 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Masha in Three Sisters is a superb role, isn't it? I first saw Three Sisters when I was still at school: it was a performance put on by students  at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and there were two means of admission - with tickets for those who had tickets, and without tickets for those who didn't. I have seen quite a few productions since, but none has had the impact of that performance. This may have been because it was new to me, and I didn't know what to expect; but it could also be that te production just awas very, very good. I still remember being really taken aback by Masha's bursting into tears at the end. It was made all the more affecting by her sisters standing around feeling membarrassed by it all. And then, Chekhov introduces the masterstroke: Masha's huband, Kulyghin enters. He is not the most intelligent of people - indeed, he is a bit of a prat - but he has worked out that his wife has had an affair with Vershinin, and, very gently, he tries to comfort her, telling her that he will never reproach her with this, never refer to this. It is wonderfully magnaninous of him, but somehow his very magnanimity makes things even worse for Masha, as it rubs in the fact that she is stuck with him for ever. Somehow, Chekhov manages to make us feel simultaneously sorry for both these people.

I sometimes wonder whether the character of Masha was inspired by another general's daughter - Hedda Gabler. Both are intelligent people originally of a high social standing, but married to rather unintelligent and tiresome men, and they both find themselves trapped, with no outlet for their intellectual or spiritual aspirations. Of course, they react rather differently to their situations, but they do seem to me sisters under the skin.

Chekhov was not initially too impressed by Ibsen, saying that his plays weren't a good reflection of reality - "things don't happen like that!" - but towards the end of his life, when he was in Yalta for his health, he did write to a friend of his asking him to send him plays by Ibsen. I imagine that Chekhov had to rejected Ibsen initially when he was trying to develop his own dramatic vision in a different direction, but that he came round to appreciating Ibsen once he had mastered his dramatic art. Is there any mention in your book of Ibsen? It would be fascinating to know if Olga Knipper had played any Ibsen - or Strindberg - and if so, what she made of it. Stansilavsky, I gather, was a fine Ibsen actor, and had made a huge impression as Stockman in An Enemy of the People.

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 16, 2009 11:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hello Himadri,
Olga was very much an actress of the Stanislavsky school.  Inner feelings as opposed to external effects.
She played Lona Hessel in Ibsen's "Pillars of the Community", but the book gives no more information about her views or performance.
She also played Maya in "When We Dead Awaken", Regina in "Ghosts", Rebecca West in "Rosmersholm".
She played the Mayor's Wife in Gogol's "The Government Inspector", Natalya in "Turgenev's "A Month in the Country".
The book is tantalisingly short of descriptions of her performances.
There is, however, this description of Eleonora Duse in Ibsen's "The Lady From The Sea" in 1923 in New York.  Stanislavsky wrote,"She really can't act any more, but there's still a kind of music in her." Knipper found the experience harrowing, and wrote of the same performance,"You felt that you wanted to carry her off the stage and surround her with care and kindness, just so she shouldn't act.  She held my hand and was trembling all over."

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