A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 6 - Summer 2013

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“Missing: the Presence of Absent Children in the Plays of Anton Chekhov”

by Mark Purves

Among the characters occupying the fuggy tavern of Along the Highway, one of Anton Chekhov’s first attempts at serious drama, is a group of indistinct figures known simply as “the voice from the corner” (190). Contributing to the dark atmospherics of this one-act sketch, the voice from the corner sets busily to work, passing judgment on the hostelry’s regulars, spouting caution and spreading common sense. Corralled into a single entity, the voice also takes part in shaping the audience’s sympathy for the tavern’s lower life forms; it is touched by the heartbreaking biography of a fellow customer, whom the voice from the corner buys a drink. An equally indefinite figure soon arrives, known merely as “a voice behind the door” (200). Toward the close of his short play, Chekhov specifies the unique identity this voice possesses. Begging for entrance into the warm tavern, the voice pleads, “Help us, be a father to us” (200). The paternal reference of this entreaty particularizes the opposition the play makes between those who do and do not appear on stage: the voice asking admittance is revealed to be that of a child lobbying the attention of its parent. The offstage figure seeking onstage entry speaks from what might best be described as a decentered space of nonbelonging—a paradox that puts into mind the conspicuous scarcity of children in Chekhov’s plays. Like tenebrous refugees of some Greek chorus, the children of Chekhov’s dramas live out the action of their lives offstage. For all of their invisibility, however, these children wield visible influence over the adults charged with their care. In this article, we will puzzle out the broader implications of this mystery by examining a key motif Chekhov traces throughout his plays: absent children. This motif, it will be argued, serves as a helpful vehicle for understanding the author’s notions of healthy family relations. For Chekhov, the family is more than the sum of its members; it is an interwoven context shared between parents, spouses, siblings, and children.

The absent children populating Chekhov’s dramas bring to light a number of epistemological issues crucial for understanding Chekhov’s work as a whole. For instance, what effect do children have on parents? How does Chekhov create the presence of the children he never displays before the audience? What status do children have in Chekhov’s dramatizations of family life? How are we to understand that in his plays Chekhov appears to lampoon the ideal he personally held for proper relations between parents and children? What are the personal implications of absent children in Chekhov’s plays? In order to fully answer these questions, we will begin by noting the work of scholars concerning the trope of absence traceable throughout Chekhov’s oeuvre, and then we will reference relevant passages relating to children contained in the author’s notebooks and correspondence and consider their reflexive effect on Chekhov’s dramatizations of family life. This will not only enable us to treat more broadly the philosophical ideas his plays present about the unique relationship depicted between parents and children but also examine the degree to which these unseen figures determine the attitudes and outcomes of some of Chekhov’s most intriguing adult dramatis personae. We will conclude our general discussion with a close analysis of The Seagull, in which the offstage presence of children, together with the absence that defines them, motivates nearly every aspect of adult life depicted onstage. It is my hope that this discussion will repay the interests of Chekhov’s readers—especially those artists and directors interested in staging Chekhov’s plays—with an insight into the intricate nature of family relations.

One of the more dominant tropes governing the plays of Anton Chekhov is absence. “Chekhov’s originality,” James Loehlin recently stated, stems from “keeping the most dramatic event of the story offstage” (112). Jean Gagen has similarly noted the unique setting of a Chekhov play, remarking the presence of “invisible characters who never appear on stage, yet play significant roles in the action” (120). Laurence Senelick anatomizes Chekhov’s penchant for structuring the action of his plays around the tension between what occurs on and off the stage: “Chekhov had used the device in Uncle Vania and Three Sisters, where Vanya’s dead sister, the prepotent Protopopov, Mrs. Colonel Vershinin, and Kulygin’s headmaster shape the characters’ fates but are never seen. In The Cherry Orchard, the plethora of invisible beings fortifies the sense of the estate’s vulnerability, transience, and isolation” (974). The organizing principle of absence provides a useful frame for grasping the variegated ways in which Chekhov examines the losses his characters frequently suffer, including the loss of mutual affection within the families he portrays. It is also relevant in understanding the immediate implications of what his plays’ dramatis parentis so often forget, namely, their children.

Images of children recur regularly in Chekhov’s prose. Many stories—several of which number among his best known—explore the unsettled, porous experience of childhood; each reflects the author’s broader interest in the complexities, compromises and conflicts of family life. Often, children comprise the quality of consciousness through which a reader sees the events contained in a narrative—a sensibility that, it has been argued, evinces Chekhov’s developing modernism (Bitsilli 27; Hagan 334; Hamburger 44). Interestingly, Chekhov’s specific use of child protagonists in his prose has been accorded to the “warm, loving relationship” he felt for children generally, who in turn reciprocated his affection: “He simply loved children and children loved him” (Valagin 49). In one of the first monographs to appear following Chekhov’s death in 1904, Vasilli Brusianin argued that the nearly three dozen stories in which Chekhov imagined the life of a child derived from the pathos he encouraged in his readers for society’s youngest members. More recently, Radka Gřibvoka has contended that the author transmutes his fondness for children into his stories by establishing a chronotope of childhood that lies at the heart of “the ontogenetic, gnoseological, aesthetic and ethical sense of Chekhov’s work” (56). Chekhov’s love of children, the kind imputed to Chekhov by scholars for over a century, deserves to be taken lightly and treated with care. Such testaments are copious and unquestionably touching; yet to proclaim Chekhov a “lover of all children” fails to withstand serious scrutiny (Brusianin 23). For while this affection was doubtlessly accurate, it was not without ambivalence, a point made clear in the trepidation Chekhov felt about settling down: “I’m afraid of a wife and family routine, which would hinder me” (94).

Depictions of children found in Chekhov’s later plays were prefigured in the author’s early life. As a medical student, Chekhov often worked late into the night to the merciless screams of his infant niece, Masha: “The little one is roaring! I swear to never have children … the French have few children because they are educated” (82). Yet in the decade following, Chekhov would commit over a dozen letters expressing his concern for the girl and her siblings to their father, his elder brother, Aleksandr: “Don’t be a parent in word only. Teach by example … appearance influences a child most of all, and appearances have been horribly downgraded by you” (89). Troubled by Aleksandr’s increasing alcoholism, younger brother Anton removes his nieces and nephew, placing them in the care of his great-aunt, to whom he provides a list detailing the cost required to meet their needs. Chekhov would continue to chide his sottish brother, warning him of the consequences that eventuate when a father turns away from his domestic duties. “Children are holy and pure,” he writes, “and its better not to love than to love with a despotic love” (121—122). These letters present an interesting window into the mind of a man whose art would often associate children with absence; in this case, the love and protection Aleksandr fails to provide his children, who are left wanting.

Among the impressions recorded during his eighteen-month visit to the penal colony located on Sakhalin Island in 1889, few are more striking than Chekhov’s depictions of children. Writing with the cool detachment he recommended to others, Chekhov placed the 2,122 children living on the island into groups according to age and legal status. To his surprise, Chekhov found that of the nearly fifteen hundred children born on the island, only eleven registered under the ages of fifteen and sixteen; “A complete absence of youths,” he wrote, “that did not escape my attention” (61—62). Increasingly troubled by the scarcity of older children—“it was as though the ages thirteen to twenty did not exist at all on Sakhalin” (63)—Chekhov turned his attention toward the extreme malnourishment and lack of proper clothing suffered by the town’s youngest denizens. As he investigated the children of the island, he noted that these children, in addition to suffering, were growing up in families characterized by “an absence of something important” (Chekhov 73). During his more than one hundred house calls, Chekhov began to understand that this unnamed vital something is childhood itself. As convict offspring deprived of at least one and sometimes two parents, the children of Sakhalin raised themselves under conditions so solitary so as to make childhood impossible: “While the parents serve out their time in hard labor and obligatory settlement, the child ceases to be a child” (Chekhov 245). The association Chekhov made between children and absence poignantly frames future encounters, including the interviews Chekhov conducts with the island’s resident orphans. For the author, who famously remarked “there was no childhood in my childhood” SakhalinIsland was more than a testimony of Chekhov’s pen; it was a personal testament as well (Ermilov 11). Disturbed at the miasma in which these children drew breath, Chekhov sought support from the wealthy residents of Russia’s capitals. What is more, the journey forever altered his treatment of children in his plays.

The association Chekhov would make between children and absence following his trip to Sakhalin became a pervasive element in his dramatic work, finding expression in other, less explicit ways. In Uncle Vania, Chekhov exploits the tension between present parents and absent children for comedic purposes through Telegin, who proudly reports that although his wife abandoned him at the altar due to his ugliness, he has upheld his matrimonial end of the bargain by selling his property in order to educate the children his wife “bore to her lover” (68). Telegin’s revelation serves as an important mode of characterization: instead of testifying to his parental concern, it underscores his credulity. It also points up the tendency of Chekhov’s characters to understand the losses of their lives in parental terms. Consider, for instance, the disconsolate eponymous hero of Ivanov, who links the barrenness of his estate with the emptiness (pustota) of his soul: “My own land looks at me like an orphan” (50).

A Reluctant Tragedian (1889) and Three Sisters (1900) further testify to Chekhov’s interest in how absent children impinge upon the witnessed lives of parents. In the latter, Chekhov fleshes out the deep psychological possibilities of his dramatis personae by way of their attitude toward children. This is particularly true of Natasha, who uses the children she shares with her husband, Andrei, to secure her position as headmistress in the Prozorov home: “Bobik’s frozen. I’m afraid he’s cold in his room, you know. We need at least move him into another room until it warms up. Irina’s room, for example is just right for a baby: it’s dry and gets the sun all day long. We need to tell her that for now she can be with Olga in one room...she’s never here during the day, only at night” (140). And later, Natasha addresses Irina: “You just move in with Olga for a while…you will go with Olga in one room and Bobik goes into your room” (155). Recognized for her “egotistical maternity” (Kelly 48), Natasha speaks of little else but her son, Bobik, and daughter, Sophia—neither of who appear onstage. Constant recourse to her son and daughter has the ironizing effect one tends to find in other Chekhov characters whose extreme attachment to children reads as a hallmark of bourgeois mindlessness. Over the course of Three Sisters, Natasha’s repeated concern for her children is unmasked as petty ambition. By exploiting the dependencies of her infant offspring, Natasha battens on the feckless sisters of Chekhov’s play. Bearing children thus catalyzes the path Natasha takes in moving Irina and Olga first around and ultimately out of their house. It also grants her the freedom to entertain the extramarital interests of other men. Where children afford the mobility Natasha enjoys outside of home, they accelerate the relegation of Andrei’s position by tethering Andrei to the demands of paternity. Natasha dashes off for a curious midnight drive with a local civic leader while Andrei remains to watch the children: “Tell Andrei to take care of Bobik” (186). Andrei’s children thus engage the audience’s understanding of the increasingly nominal position this father plays at home. In act four, Andrei creeps along the play’s outer edges—upstage and “with a carriage” (181). Bobik and Sophia emphasize Andrei’s public and personal impotency; Andrei’s daughter is probably not even his own, but the unlicensed offspring of Andrei’s rival, Protopopov, who watches the girl as Natasha’s guest. Children also call attention to their father’s failure to provide materially for the family and to their father’s mounting debts due to gambling. This fact is not without its comic dimension. Bound to his children, Andrei is cuckolded in a way not unlike the henpecked husbands of Chekhov’s vaudevilles, such as Tolkachov from A Reluctant Tragedian, whose inability to unburden himself—even momentarily—from the demands of childrearing is realized in the overabundance of goods he struggles to carry home to his children. He delivers his monologue with an armful of items, including a lamp the size of a globe, a child’s bicycle, three hatboxes, a jumble of clothes, a bag full of beer and dozens of small crates. Incidentally, before Tragedian reached the censors it had the father in search of a child’s coffin, collapsing the tension between presence and absence through a father defined by his missing offspring. This is but another occasion when the membrane between the events unfolding before the audience and those played out offstage is permeable. Here, Chekhov seems to suggest, is what matters; here is the paradoxical erasure of life, where the absent personality evinces traces of itself, no matter how bare. What is more, this aside—restored in modern editions—denotes the permanence of grief by exposing the lie of closure, reminding us that as long as we are condemned to remember, we are certain to experience the pain of loss and despair.

In The Seagull, Chekhov’s interest in patrolling the frontier between the visible reality of the adult world and the unseen experiences of children assumes its deepest dimensions by bringing those typically kept behind stage before the audience. Undergirded by an element of “what is not” (Flath 491) that activates its plot, setting, dialogue, and mode of characterization, the play draws on Chekhov’s identification of children as figures of emptiness in the figure of Treplev, the play’s consummate child, whose suicide beyond the fixed world of the stage enables the neglected son to claim the attention of those adults he wished either to impress (Trigorin) or to punish (his mother). Other children include Nina’s dead son and the infant Masha and Medvedenko share. Together, these latter two are the distant figures of the play, inscrutable, yet in possession of a dramatic identity no less potent than that belonging to Treplev. The offstage presence of these children—together with the absence that defines them—helps to maintain the opposing spheres of the play’s physical and symbolic reality, all of which point to the consequences Chekhov associated with parental abandonment.

The fissured family relations portrayed in The Seagull derive in part from the unwelcome habit children make of preventing parents from fashioning a world in the image of their ideal. Treplev and the effect his serial outbursts have in overthrowing his mother’s preconceptions immediately come to mind. The son reminds his mother of her failure of genuine parental involvement and—even worse—of her age. The mismatch Chekhov makes between Masha and Medvedenko, whose loveless union produces a son, highlights further the vexed emotional attitudes parents maintain for whom their children are and what they represent. Act four commences with the arrival of Masha and Medvedenko, itself a telling entrée into the emotional conflict underlining their marriage. Shouting for her beloved Konstantin, whom she never stopped loving, Masha bristles at her husband’s entreaty to return home and feed their hungry child. “I feel sorry for him,” the hapless Medvedenko explains, “three nights without his mother,” to which his wife responds: “You’re becoming boring. At least you use to talk, although about what I never knew. Now it’s always the baby, the baby, the baby, and let’s go home. That’s all I ever hear from you” (46). Her refusal to return home makes clear Masha’s regard for her son as the antithesis of the fantasy she once imagined for herself, a reminder of all she hoped to have now lost in the unpoetic obbligati of family life. Masha’s outburst might be more situational than it appears. Chekhov’s ambivalence over becoming a father himself, coupled with his understanding of the hardships that accompany living shoulder to shoulder with demanding—and screaming—infants, may suggest a more forgiving reading than is usually applied to the discontented young mother. Still, the father’s description of the child enduring what will soon be the fourth day without his mother cannot but provoke concern. Framing the audience’s conception of the infant as an object of neglect, Chekhov enlists our sympathy even as he encourages us to see what Masha could not: her son as a fully embodied other. The disappointment attending Masha’s feelings for her son may also signal Chekhov’s thoughts on the regrettably real-life consequences that come about when one idealizes another for want of something better. In a letter addressed to his younger brother, Mikhail, Chekhov counseled against marriage based on anything other than genuine affection: “there’s no use marrying except for love” (311). Masha marries for reasons other than love and is thus made to pay for her heedlessness in the form of her child, an infant calling her through the child’s father who constantly reminds his wife of her maternal duties.

The interpenetration of absence and presence building the play’s tension creates circumstances in which children and parents come together without ever really connecting. Consider, for instance, the exchange between Masha and Dorn—her suspected father—and the accent she places on the absence of love she experiences for the man responsible for her raising, on her longing to be understood: “I again want to tell you,” she says in agitation “I don’t love my own father … in you my heart is entrusted. For some reason, I feel with all my soul that you are close to me … Help me, please. Please, or I may do something stupid, make a mess of my life, ruin it…I can’t go on any longer” (19—20). Masha’s plea remarks her status as an absent child, the forgotten daughter looking to connect with a man incapable of abiding—let alone fatherly—affections.

As with Masha, the outcome of Nina’s hasty affair with Trigorin is similarly punitive; Trigorin is not the hero Nina imagines him to be, and she pays for her ignorance. Nina’s arrival to the back lawn of the Sorin demesne in act one is made significant by her absence from home, away from a father and stepmother who disapprove of her actor friends. Empty of breath from having dashed out undetected, Nina, who grows increasingly anxious over her absence from home, returns to her father after Treplev’s play is over, though she never really goes home again. Stealing off with Trigorin, Nina absents herself from her parents, but in the process, she creates a childless home of her own. If Nina emerges from a locus of absence, she returns to it by play’s end. Her return late in the final act foregrounds the losses she suffers in the adult world, where she becomes a woman and a mother only to suffer abandonment and betrayal.

The identifying symbol The Seagull takes as its title further points up the play’s interest in the proximity of absent children to their parents. The death of Nina’s son constitutes the presence of an immutable absence, concretized in the seagull. “I’m the seagull,” she explains to Treplev. “That’s not it … Do you remember the seagull you shot? A man happens by, sees it and destroys it out of nothing better to do” (58). Nina is correct when—now for the third time—she refuses to self-identify with the dead bird; she is not a seagull, as both Treplev and Trigorin have maintained over the transit of the play, but a self-constituted woman aware of life’s complexities. When Shamraev presents Trigorin with the seagull—now stuffed—Nina mentions before exiting the stage forever, Chekhov returns the audience to the play’s preoccupation with the persistent influence of absent children. Considering Russian folk thought about unbaptized infants “said to reappear as birds” (Simpson 15) after death, Chekhov’s employment of prosopopoeia, the physical representation of an absent person, serves to maintain the duality between present parents and absent children. Absence impinges upon presence; the offstage presence of Nina’s dead son personified by the seagull motivates the action unfolding on stage even as it mediates the tension between what does and does not occur before the audience. As the play concludes and the cast disperses, the seagull remains, staring mutely against the sudden gunshot ringing out from offstage.

Nina’s dead child augurs badly for the Medvedenko infant, another of the play’s abandoned children. Moreover, the grim doubling Chekhov makes of these absent infants—either through death or neglect—invites important speculation about Treplev. Much the subject of analysis, especially in the relationship he does not share with his dead father and emotionally absent mother, Treplev represents the third and final missing child of Chekhov’s play. Symbolically, this particular child figures the general responsibilities the parents of Chekhov’s plays feel ill equipped to face; and though Treplev’s serial outbursts have the effect of alienating our sympathies, one cannot deny his deep sense of abandonment and its relation to Chekhov’s identification of children with absence. Treplev’s self-identification as a “cold cave” (Chekhov 57) emphasizes not only Arkadina’s arctic affection, but also the extent to which the absence of motherly love has transformed him into an empty receptacle. By his suicide, Treplev joins the other missing children of the play, completing a triangle of parental deceit and neglect.

Not long after settling down, Chekhov and his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, began to speak of children. “When our child is a year and a half old I’ll likely be bald, gray and toothless” (35), the author wrote. He would later express that nothing would make him happier than to see a toddler of their own rummaging around in his wife’s closet, and “smudging my desk with ink” (111). Unfortunately, the desire Chekhov experienced for children grew alongside the awareness that he would never become a father due to the tuberculosis that crippled his life. Perhaps the absence of children in his plays can best be understood not as an omission but as meaning itself.

Works Cited

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