Recognising Chekhov

PLATONOV by Anton Chekhov, Part One of the Young Chekhov trilogy, adapted by David Hare, directed by Jonathan Kent, a Chichester Festival Theatre Production, The National Theatre, Thursday 14 June, 7.30pm.

The problem for me with Chekhov is where I come from. I recognise the agricultural economy, the large distances (given horse and cart transport in Chekhov's time) between estates, the personal fiefdoms, the extended families, the large and diverse workforce who are almost like family, the formal get-togethers, the more informal celebrations, all of which take lots of organisation and travelling, the way these can turn into extended bacchanals, the copious amounts of alcohol in general, the boredom, the frustration, the limited social circle, the difficulty of working and living with the same people, year in and year out.

I'm talking about Australia, the large cattle and sheep stations in the 60s and 70s, when you still needed to be able to ride a horse to get work there. (These days round-ups, musters, are done with helicopter and motorbike.)

Where's the problem then?

The problem is that, for all these similarities, there is a fundamental, blinding difference. White Australia had, effectively, no past. It was all future. Chekhov's Russia had no future. It was all past. Hundreds, thousands of years bearing down on his characters, impossible to escape from.

Australia's situation was that there was a past. It just didn't belong to the Europeans. And the Europeans were hell bent on wiping it out.

History shows that the Russians were no less enthusiastic about obliterating their own past.

What is each continent left with now? And how is this received in England, who destroyed their own agrarian continuity centuries ago? They were enclosing common land, taking it out of common use, in Shakespeare's time.

The forces enclosing Chekhov's world belong to the same class, money, industry, innovation, and his characters for the most part pretend, as hard as they can, these intrusions don't exist. Their counterparts in Australia, conversely, embraced the concept of individual ownership, of enclosure of what had been Aboriginal common land, with unseemly enthusiasm.

And here is another fundamental difference: in Australia there was a surfeit of land. (My father and grandfather were both, at different times, selectors; they could claim a piece of land with the proviso that they had to live on it and improve it. They could, indeed had to, fence it in.)

Just a little background: the way things went in Northern Australia, the bit I know about. First came the explorers, then large institutional investors in England took up enormous holdings (you could identify them on a globe) and invested in managers, staff and livestock. (My maternal great grandfather managed Valley of Lagoons, one of the first cattle stations in that area.) These huge holdings were gradually, by the government, broken into smaller and smaller holdings. (My aunt and uncle won their station in a lottery that only people with experience could enter. Their station had been a part of a much larger holding owned by my uncle's father.)

In effect, Australia was starting at a point which Russia was just getting to, but for Australia there was no pre-existing social structure to break down. It was, apart from the Aborigines, a blank canvas, Terra Nullius, nobody's land.

(And it wasn't as if Russia was completely ignorant of events in Australia. In Ivanov, the second Chekhov play in this series, in the Gutenberg online version, a character compares their current situation to the Australian Bush, where there is no public spirit, every man (sic) for himself.)

Personally, I'm glad I wasn't born in either place. To be a peasant in Chekhov's Russia would not have been much better or worse than being a selector in Australia. Life was an unforgiving struggle, though Russia would definitely have been colder.

In pioneering Australia, life was so tough people helped each other. The enduring myth of the Australian bush is of 'mateship', being there for your friends and neighbours through thick and thin.

What I'm trying to say, is that there seems to be a moment, in European countries at least, when human relationships are transformed from being the result of generations of interaction and responsibility, to being defined by finance or individual ownership.

And what's really striking to someone from the New World, is that in as much as Shakespeare seems to encapsulate that moment for England, Chekhov defines it for Russia and to be honest, in this sense, Shakespeare feels just as remote to an Australian as does Chekhov. (Quelle horreur! What's this guy doing writing theatre reviews?)

These three early plays of Chekhov reveal his struggle with the themes, the workings, the cogs and springs, rather more than the smooth maturity of his later efforts. Platonov is loved, and tempted, by, three different women: the widow and landowner, the past; his wife, the status quo; and a lover from his student days, who encourages his idealism and imagination, the future.

There is something of a fairy tale about this kind of schematic approach. The hero is tempted three times. To achieve his goal, to come through it all, to actually be a hero, he has to overcome these trials.

However, watching this play, as funny and as attractive as the production is, it seems to prioritise an undefined longing for a different kind of world, one in which social bonds trumped financial commitments, a world which existed in the indeterminate past, at the imaginary moment where things changed forever. But my overwhelming impression was that this inflection point is now old fashioned, without resonance. We have reached a new inflection point and it needs a new kind of exploration, a new way of seeing.

To an Australian, the division of the land into individual ownership, to a financial rather than social contract, had no antecedents. It didn't transform from anything. But that social contract, in every country, is now itself changing, but to what isn't clear, isn't yet defined.

I was reminded recently about Tim Burners-Lee, who invented the concept of the World Wide Web, and who made it available for everybody, without claiming ownership. Paradoxically, users of his web have been organised into 'profiles' in which they are trapped, like caged rats in a laboratory, from whom companies can extract 'data'.

There aren't any more Australias with native populations to displace from vast tracts of land. The new frontier is somewhere else. Theatre too, needs to discover a new world, a new voice, not just more of the old.

Paul Corcoran