Week 49: William Boyd’s Longing (2013)
Donald Rayfield’s introduction to William Boyd’s Longing draws attention to the paucity of Chekhov’s dramatic oeuvre while acknowledging the wealth of inspiration playwrights have since drawn from his work. One solution, says Rayfield, to the hunger for more Chekhovian plays, lies within his prose. Hence, Boyd’s play seamlessly adapts and entwines two of Chekhov’s short stories, ‘My Life’ and ‘A Visit to Friends’.
Moscow lawyer, Kolia, pays a visit to old friends, Tania and Varia in the country, but unbeknownst to him, Tania has an ulterior motive for the get-together. Her husband, Sergei, has frittered away all her inheritance on scatter-brained schemes that fail to come to fruition, and now the family estate is about to be repossessed – the only possible saviour is Kolia and his legal wit. Meanwhile, young Misail sets to work repainting Sergei and Tania’s summerhouse with the aid of the philosophical Radish – ‘“what is life like?” It’s as if you asked me: what’s a carrot like? A carrot is a carrot and nothing more…’. The son of the town architect, Misail rejects the wealthy life he was born into, preferring to work with his hands and live simply. Yet his fiancé, Kleopatra, the daughter of local enterprising railway engineer, Dolzhikov, craves the fine life, much to Misail’s embarrassment. The two plotlines converge when Dolzhikov hires Sergei’s summerhouse as a venue for Misail and Kleopatra’s engagement party, and later proposes to buy the estate, keeping the old family as tenants of the summerhouse.
Boyd captures all the – to coin a phrase - ‘melancomic’ essence of Chekhovian drama and the stock features we’ve come to expect from theatre’s supreme realist. Repressed passions and unrequited love abound as Varia supresses her long-held love for Kolia and eventually resigns herself to his lack of reciprocation. Meanwhile, Tania – fully aware of Varia’s feelings – attempts to set up a marriage between Kolia and her young sister, Natasha, whom Misail is utterly enchanted by. As with all Chekhovian drama, all this pent up passion goes nowhere, characterised by a stasis perfectly juxtaposed with the changing world that surrounds the characters. Adroitly summarised by Kolia’s motto, ‘All Things Pass’, the old aristocratic Russia, represented by Tania, is being supplanted by the nouveau riche society of Dolzikhov, while Misail’s idealism seems ill-founded and crippled by an unhappy reality.
I felt Longing to bear particular comparison with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, as they share similar themes and characters (Tania/Ranevskaya, Pishchik/Sergei, Anya/Natasha, Varia/Varya), and both plays have that elusive quality which positions them as not-quite tragedy, but on the brink between laughter and tears. This resemblance is unsurprising, considering Chekhov himself apparently drew upon ‘A Visit to Friends’ when writing The Cherry Orchard.
While Boyd’s play doesn’t particularly illuminate anything new regarding Chekhov, he creates an uncanny imitation of the playwright’s style and substance. Longing presents an interesting exercise in adaptation and the expanding of an artists’ repertoire which seems at once synthetic and natural.