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UCLA Professor Boris Dralyuk is the dramaturg on CityShakes’ Emerging Director Program Fall Production. He was generous enough to be this week’s guest blogger. Here he paints a picture of the power of Chekhov, and of the enduring relevance of this production’s translation of The Cherry Orchard

When Mallin Alter wrote to me about her plans to bring Anton Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard (1904), to the City Shakespeare Company’s stage, and asked whether I’d serve as her dramaturg, I leapt at the chance. I was sure that she’d offer a new and fresh interpretation of Chekhov’s subtle masterpiece, and I wanted to play some small role in realizing her vision – or just be a fly on the wall. Mallin had been of my very best students the first year I taught Chekhov at UCLA in 2011, and her deeply felt commitment to the man’s work was extraordinary; the course gave rise to a Chekhov Club, which still continues to meet, with Mallin one of its core members.

The 2011 course had been entrusted to me by one of my mentors at UCLA, the legendary translator Michael Henry Heim. Mike had taught the Chekhov course for thirty years, but he had been battling cancer, and could not teach that quarter. He would succumb to the disease in 2012, at the age of 69. Mike had studied and translated Chekhov for most of his professional life. His very first book was a 1973 translation of Chekhov’s letters, revised and rereleased in 1975 as Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (edited by Simon Karlinsky) – a far more accurate title. It remains one of the best, most insightful explorations of Chekhov’s mind. And among Mike’s proudest achievements – and there were almost too many to count – was a full translation of Chekhov’s major plays for the Modern Library: The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. Indeed, the plays are nothing short of essential; they changed the way audiences across the world conceived of theater and of its possibilities. No nineteenth-century playwright before Chekhov had dared to have his characters speak so little sense to one another, communicate so badly, act so aimlessly, offer so many hopeless solutions to seemingly minor problems, and yet say, or rather suggest, so much to the audience precisely through their failed gestures and their misguided talk.

Chekhov had no real faith in the success of his stories and plays abroad. They were, to his mind, far too Russian – mired in that country’s peculiar problems. He may have been right at the time; when he passed in 1904, the world was not quite ready to receive him. But this soon changed. In the aftermath of World War I, Western audiences came to realize that their societies – and their personal lives – were no more functional or stable than those of Chekhov’s Russians. We are all capable of the grossest misunderstandings, of being trapped by our pasts; for the most part, the modern lives we lead are not quite comic, not quite tragic – they are, in other words, Chekhovian.

During one of the last conversations I had with Mike, he shared what Chekhov meant to him personally. Unlike the characters of many other authors, he said, Chekhov’s continue to grow with you. The Lyubov Ranevskaya you meet at 20 is a different woman from the one you meet at 30, 40, and so forth. And Chekhov created so many people – a whole world that grows with you. It is Mike’s lifelong encounter with Chekhov that gave such vitality to his translation of The Cherry Orchard, which he refined over many years. I have no doubt that he would have been thrilled – as I was – to see the brilliant young actors Mallin has assembled bring his translation to life at the table read, and begin their own growth alongside Chekhov.

– Boris Dralyuk


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