Platonov and Anton Chekhov's Proto-Grunge Philosophy
Before he shot himself in the head, Kurt Cobain wrote a suicide note in which he said, "I still can't get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone. There's good in all of us and I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad."
Before they do their own fair share of shooting, the characters in Anton Chekhov's unfinished play Platonov (1878), an early dramatic work written while he was a schoolboy, say much the same thing—at least they do in Jay Scheib's adaptation titled Platonov, or The Disinherited, which recently ran at the La Jolla Playhouse Without Walls Festival. Chekhov never saw a production of the play, but it has had several high-profile adaptations and productions in the last few decades and is occasionally even staged in its full four-hour glory. The author used elements from this early piece—a drunk doctor, the decline of an aristocratic estate, extramarital affairs, and revenge by gunfire—freely in his later works, lending any performance a sense of déjà vu: If you've seen any Chekhov, you've seen parts of Platonov.
Platonov begins with the dinner party of a young widow named Anna (Judy Bauerlein). Her stepson Sergey (Jon Morris); his wife Sonya (Natalie Thomas); Platonov, a country school teacher (Mikéah Ernest Jennings); his wife Sasha (Ayesha Jordan); her sister Nicole, a doctor (Virginia Newcomb); and wealthy investor Porfiry Glagoyev (Todd Blakesley), are her guests. Porfiry wants to sleep with Anna, Anna wants to sleep with Platonov, Platonov wants to sleep with Sonya, and Nicole just wants to get drunk. Anna’s servant Jacob (Laine Rettmer) spends most of the play attempting to manage the chaos that ensues, and when Porfiry fails to save Anna’s estate, Jacob manages to convert her sobriety into success by buying it herself.
Scheib's adaptation of the play, which freely alludes to its author's dramatic oeuvre, is post-modern because of the connections it makes to the world of rock and roll and specifically, grunge. Thankfully, these connections are not aesthetic but rather philosophical: Drugs, sex, alcohol, and even the sound of a guitar (played live) serve to amplify a Chekhovian worldview, but there is no plaid and all of the actors appear to have washed their hair.
Drugs, sex, alcohol, and even the sound of a guitar (played live) serve to amplify a Chekhovian worldview...
Turns out, it's not much of a leap. The central characters in this play are at a turning point in their lives. They can't figure out how they got where they are. They are obsessed with whether it is too late to change course, and convinced that their potential has gone to waste, are rededicating themselves to living fully and in excess. They will woo whom they want, screw whom they want, drink and do coke as much as they want, and not apologize for it. They are living the spirit of punk as defined by Cobain himself: "Punk is musical freedom. It's saying, doing and playing what you want."
Though some points of connection—Sonya's tuberculosis might remind hardcore Cobain fans of his chronic bronchitis and Chekhov fans of his death from the same disease—are too esoteric for the average audience member, they are not incidental, nor are they a "concept" in which the director simply lays one world down on top of another. The marriage of Chekhov's world with Cobain's works because at the center of both is an overwhelming sense of capital-A Alienation.
Platonov's Porfiry Glagoyev like Cobain, suffers from an "ability to feel [that] is too great to ever possibly endure." In fact it makes him "so fucking sad" that he has a heart attack. Porfiry, who is slightly older than the other characters, sees civilization's downfall in our ever-increasing demand, to paraphrase Smells Like Teen Spirit, that someone better entertain us because we are here now:
Today there’s there’s just this pathetic little desire to get what you want and be gratified somehow. But Nobody really sacrifices for real anything really. Nobody feels really within a frame of real feeling and so no one dares to really love and feel real even real fucking and that really feeling loved hard sideways feeling. You know?
The characters in Platonov are alienated from their jobs (the doctor drinks too much to preserve anyone's health) and economic situations (the widowed Anna does nothing to prevent her estate being sold out from under her). They are alienated both from their pasts (Platonov, now a mere schoolteacher, was once a promising intellectual and artist) and their futures (Sonya settled for safety in her marriage but now cannot bear the boredom she foresees). They are alienated from their own feelings and use alcohol to try to get in touch with them, the result being the kind of selfish indulgence seen only in addicts and rock stars.
In the site-specific production of the WOW Festival, Schieb made the theme of alienation literal by limiting the audience's view of the performance. Neither the stage nor the seating was raked, making it difficult to see the live action for everyone except those in the first row. Scheib himself stood on stage with a camera which projected footage live to a screen that everyone could see. For some scenes, the actors went inside a room with only a small window and the audience could see only that at which Scheib pointed the camera. The result was reminiscent of the voyeurism of reality TV, in which the audience watches something presumably private being made [selectively] public.
As with reality TV, the camera's control over the narrative complicates the question of authorship, a question that mirrors not just the seeming post-structuralism of the piece but also the existential debate at the heart of the drama. Just as the audience wonders whether these are Chekhov's characters or Scheib's and imagines what's happening that we can't see, the characters ponder whether following one's passions is even possible or whether the endings to their stories have already been written.
I wish the use of the camera and the obstructed views had evolved as the story unfolded—as it was, the frustration of not being able to see the live action eventually overshadowed my interest in the experience. However, though actual emotional connection to the characters was inhibited by the verfremdungseffekt, close-ups of people enduring both pain and ecstasy did ensure that the audience's experience was as visceral as it is upon hearing the music of Kurt Cobain, whose sound Rolling Stone described as "a grenade detonating in your car radio."
In this adaptation, the titular character of Platonov is one of the least interesting. Though most of the other characters are in love with him, I was never quite sure why. The most interesting character is Jacob: in Chekhov a male servant, in Scheib's version a lesbian who rose to fame as an opinion-maker but managed to drink away her fortune. Jacob shared Cobain's inability to manage success, but unlike Cobain, her suicide attempt failed and at the beginning of the play, she is sober and putting the pieces of her life back together, working whatever jobs she can to pay the bills. In true Chekhovian fashion, by the end of the play she is the owner of an estate that its aristocratic owners mismanaged into bankruptcy.
Perhaps Jacob has more in common with Cobain's wife Courtney Love, who said of herself, "I'm a survivor. At least that's what everyone tells me."
It's not the sort of ending that makes one feel that everything is going to be all right for everyone, but it's a better ending than Cobain saw. Scheib's Platonov, therefore, leaves open the possibility of recovery—of a life lived fully but without dependence on substances to feel and to really live. Cobain himself said, "Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self esteem,” but he never stopped struggling with addiction. Perhaps Jacob has more in common with Cobain's wife Courtney Love, who said of herself, "I'm a survivor. At least that's what everyone tells me."