In the Moscow home of the famous Russian actress, Maria Yermolova, I heard a short talk on the play “The Mechanical Piano” adapted by Oleg Tabakov based on Chekhov. The expert speaker was Sergei Ostrovsky, himself from a famous theatrical family. He was an intelligent and unassuming young student of theater history studying for his Ph.D. at Tufts University near Boston. His mother was curator of the Yermolova home, which is now a theater museum.
Tabakov, he explained, was one of the rebellious actors and directors who, during Khrushchev’s time, broke loose from state cultural control and brought new life to Russian theater.
Tabakov chose to adapt a play based on a drama by Chekhov, written by the great Russian author when he was just 18. It was apparently Chekhov’s first play, overly long, full of everything he ever dreamed to put into a play ― crashing trains and dancing gypsies. When he brought it to Maria Yermolova for an opinion, she told him it was terrible. He burned it saying the worse day of his life would be the day the play was put on the stage. But a second copy of that play survived. He never even gave it a name, but it is commonly called “Platonov” after the main character. It resurfaced, modified as a movie by Nikita Mikhalkov in 1977 — “An Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano.” Three hours long and according to some Russians, one of the best films ever made. The story became the basis for a shorter stage play now also called “The Mechanical Piano.”
The characters are typically Chekhovian. There is Platonov, a middle-aged man who grew up with great aspirations and was confident of material success in spite of the fact that he had no education and no family pedigree from which to launch his life's direction. His love, tiring of his promises and no results, married a young member of the intelligentsia, and when Platonov meets her many years later all the passions and emotions rise to the surface.
Her husband has achieved nothing with his degrees and high connections and is mainly occupied with thinking about Russia. There is a doctor who, because he is at a dinner party, refuses to answer an emergency call. Other characters represent recurring Russian types. In fact, the main message of this play, that times repeat themselves, is one reason Chekhov is so popular in Russia today. The conflict in society at the end of the 19th century is present again today. Russia at that time, a step behind Europe but blossoming in the industrial revolution, was struggling with the conflicts of capitalism.
The privileged classes of the time were balking at their responsibilities in an emerging order, and the entrepreneurs, some of peasant stock, now the nouveau riche, were, as they are today, amassing fortunes and displaying their wealth to the embarrassment and envy of the “have-nots,” which included the intellectuals. Society was changing from the standard of “who you are,” to “how much do you have.” And that is exactly what is happening now.
The following Sunday, I went to see the play, and the next week coincidentally happened to see Mikhalkov’s movie on television. The most humorous part is when Platonov, despondent about life, attempts suicide by drowning himself in the lake — not realizing the lake is only three feet deep. He emerges soaking wet with his cream linen suit shrunken by two sizes. Failing even at suicide, he is now even more discouraged with life, and can only blame it on Russia, “Poor Russia,” he says.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.