The meaning behind the lines: how Ibsen's toughness and Chekhov's tenderness transformed American playwriting and acting.

Author:Smith, Wendy

Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov gave birth to modern drama, but they pulled it in opposite directions. Beginning with A Doll's House in 1879, Ibsen remade the art of playwriting, creating works that startled audiences with their frank discussions of social issues and their unconventional dramaturgy. His later plays would be concerned less with social criticism and more with the progress of the human soul, but he would always be drawn to conflicts couched in the fiercest terms. Chekhov dealt with conflict too, but from a ruefully comic perspective. A doctor as well as a writer, aware from an early age that he would die young of tuberculosis, he viewed his characters' foibles with amusement rather than the outrage Ibsen often displayed. Ibsen could be skeptical and ironic, and Chekhov was closer to his characters and angrier about the state of their society than his contemporaries sometimes recognized. Still, those generalizations--Ibsen tough, Chekhov tender hold as summaries of their enduring influence in the theater. In America, the changes they wrought still resonate.

This past season Chekhov was everywhere in New York City, where productions of his four major plays illustrated the diversity of contemporary theater. On Broadway, Kristin Scott Thomas revisited her luminous London performance as Arkadina in The Seagull under Ian Rickson's psychologically probing direction. Another English director, Sam Mendes, guided actors from both sides of the Atlantic through an imaginative rendering of The Cherry Orchard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the East Village, the Classic Stage Company mounted an Uncle Vanya that was kinetic and direct, its American cast pacing the stage and clutching each other to make palpable their characters' discontents. Uptown, a bustling Classical Theatre of Harlem production of Three Sisters emphasized action over introspection.

"The melancholy strains of Chekhov at the turn of the 20th century--with their currents of anxious expectation and bewilderment--are sounding like the perfect theme song for the early 21st century in recession-era New York," suggested New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley. But New Yorkers were less inclined to give ear to the harsher melodies of Ibsen. Mary-Louise Parker's Hedda Gabler was widely reviled, with Rickson getting a stack of bad reviews as voluminous as the good ones he received for The Seagull. Critics were less venomous and yet more dismissive about The Master Buildeg, which featured James Naughton in the titanic role of Halvard Solness. Ibsen apparently doesn't suit our present mood.

That wasn't the case a century ago, just a few months after Ibsen s death in 1906, when Alia Nazimova changed the landscape of American theater with her performances in Hedda Gablm;, A Doll's House, and The Master Builder. No New York production had lasted more than a month until Nazimova showed Americans what all the fuss was about. Minnie Maddern Fiske, who had starred in the Broadway premiere of Hedda Gabler in 1903, saw Hedda as "a poor, empty little Norwegian neurotic," she told critic Alexander Woollcott. Nazimova conversely understood Hedda as a nightmarish New Woman who turns to destructive manipulation of those around her because society offers no other outlet for her energies; her performances as Nora in A Doll's House and Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder were equally contemporary. After receiving ecstatic reviews and playing to sold-out houses on Broadway, she spent three years touring with all three plays across the country, making Ibsen's dissections of stultifying marriages, dreary conformity, and unbridled...

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