Sunday, February 21, 2010

Humiliation no more

Have you ever heard of a game called "Humiliation"? Evidently, the author David Lodge invented it in his novel Changing Places. It's a party game to be played at gatherings of the snobbish and overeducated: everyone goes around the room naming the title of the book they are most embarrassed that they have never read. The person with the most humiliating admission is declared the winner.

Thinking that I might one day find myself a participant in a game of Humiliation, I got my answer ready: I would say that, to my great chagrin, I had neither seen nor read Chekhov's Three Sisters.

But now I'll have to think of a new answer, because I finally corrected this embarrassing gap in my knowledge, and I'm so glad I did. I don't know what took me this long. I mean, it would be one thing if I didn't like Chekhov. (Yes, there are people who have that opinion... even if I find it inexplicable.) But I love his three other plays! I wrote a research paper on him and Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theater when I was in high school! And yet I had never read Three Sisters. Perhaps I was unconsciously trying to preserve it, knowing that Chekhov wrote so few plays, and that once I read Three Sisters I would never again experience the thrill of reading a major Chekhov play for the first time.

So, this probably isn't news to any of you, but Three Sisters is a gorgeous play, and the passage where Tuzenbach and Vershinin debate what life will be like in 200 years might be my favorite thing Chekhov ever wrote. The play so perfectly balances joy and despair... where The Seagull is all about unrequited love, the sadness of Three Sisters is offset by our knowledge that no matter what happens to them, the sisters will always love and support each other. It's the kind of play where the characters declare that they're happy, and it breaks your heart.

And yet, it's funny, too. I made a friend of mine read the Tuzenbach/Vershinin dialogue I mentioned above, and her first reaction was "It's funny," and I could have kissed her for that, because so many people don't see the humor in Chekhov, and she did, right off the bat. Then she said "But you realize that people these days don't care about this kind of thing. They all want to see, like, The Matrix."

Maybe. But I remain hopeful that, as Tuzenbach says, "Life won't change. It will still be hard and happy and mysterious. Three hundred years from now, people will still go around complaining 'Oh, life is so hard,' and they will still be afraid to die, the same as they are now." And if that holds true, then there will always be a place for Chekhov.


terryteachout said...

I actually organized a large-scale game of Humiliation at a party of eggheads many years ago--an experience I have never repeated.

Marissa said...

Ha! I think I might've first heard of the game of Humiliation on your blog, actually. So I'll take your word for it that it's not a good idea to play it in real life!