Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Anton Chekhov, Ladies' Man

I discovered the following anecdote while flipping through a pile of old theatre programs/directors' notes for work. I wish I could find an actual corroborated source for it, because it's almost too good to be true--nasty, clever, and hilarious.

Evidently women were always falling madly in love with Anton Chekhov. Which I guess I understand. He was cute, and tubercular, and worked as a doctor, and wrote little gem-like short stories. Kind of like a real-life Doctor Zhivago, now that I think about it. Very tragically attractive in that melancholy, Russian way. But, he also had a wicked sense of humor...

In his first major play The Seagull, the young and innocent Nina falls in love with Trigorin, a famous writer who is summering nearby. The day he goes back to the city, she gives him a medallion engraved with the title of his book, plus a page and line number: "Days and Nights, page 121, lines 11 and 12." They direct Trigorin to the line "If ever you have need of my life, come and take it."

Now, supposedly, Chekhov based this on an episode from his own life. Lydia Avilova, an unhappily married aspiring author, was one of the many women who threw themselves at Anton. Indeed, she gave him a medallion engraved with a book title, page, and line number, referring to a line Chekhov had once written: "If ever you have need of my life, come and take it."

But it gets better. Chekhov ignored Lydia's gift. He never replied. (Men!) But some months later, he ran into her at a party--a masquerade ball.

"What happened, Antosha? Didn't you like it?" begged Lydia.

"The medallion? What?--oh yes--sorry I never got back to you," said Chekhov hastily. "But, actually, I've got this new play opening in a couple of weeks--it's called The Seagull--and you must come see it. Opening night, I insist. I know I haven't treated you right--but come see The Seagull and All Will Be Revealed."

So Lydia showed up in the opening-night audience. The performance was a disaster. This was before Chekhov partnered with Stanislavski; people had a hard time understanding his plays. (They still do!) Lydia strained to make out the actors' words above the jeering of the audience, so she could hear Chekhov's answer to her. And in Act III, when Nina gives Trigorin the medallion, Lydia felt absolutely humiliated. Betrayed.

But not so humiliated that she didn't notice a fine detail: the line and page numbers (page 121, lines 11 and 12) on the medallion in The Seagull were different from the ones on the medallion that Lydia had actually given to Chekhov. She memorized the new numbers and rushed home immediately after the performance was over. Perhaps this was Chekhov's real answer! She pulled his book of stories off the shelf and paged through it. But lines 11 and 12 of page 121 were nonsensical, irrelevant.

Then she realized that Chekhov might have been directing her to her own recently published book of stories. She took it from her desk--flipped through it with trembling fingers--found page 121, counted down 11 lines, and discovered this sentence:

"It is not proper for young ladies to attend masked balls."

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