Second Act

The dining room in the Silversmith house. — Night. — So as to be heard, a watchman is knocking in the grounds. [The regular knocking of a watchman was a feature of summer nights on a remote Dartmoor farm within living memory. It was done against a tree-stump or block of wood with a mallet whose handle was wrapped around with cloth. Such a mallet was known in Russia as колотушка (from the verb колотить, to bang or beat) and was also used in threshing. The knocking provided an active alarm, intended to protect the homestead against an intruder overpowering the watchman. The occupants soon became hardly conscious of it, unless it was interrupted.
     In Chekhov's play, the knocking must obviously be continuous throughout the Second Act until, in the end, Yelena sets off the alarm by dismissing the watchman. It is an astonishing device that simply cannot be dispensed with. In this version, set in a time and place where an active alarm would normally be provided electrically, we must assume that the knocking is kept on for "heritage" reasons....
     What should it sound like? It has been said that, in Russia, Typically the tapping consisted of two strokes in two seconds, a five second pause, and then the sequence was repeated. A much simpler beat was known in Devon, with a single stroke repeated about every couple of seconds. Everywhere the pattern may have been a matter for local, even household tradition. In the theatre, much trial and error may be needed to get the rhythm, volume, pitch and tone right for the space. The cast and audience must be able to forget the knocking. Eventually the alarm must go off. That is the whole point.]

Alexander is dozing in an armchair in front of an open window. Helen is sitting beside him, also dozing.

Alexander (barely awake)

Who's that? Sunny, you?

Helen

It's me.

Alexander

You, Lennikins. ... Unbearable pain!

Helen

Your rug has dropped on the floor.

She wraps his legs.

Alexander, I'm shutting the window.

Alexander

No, I'm suffocating ... I dozed off just now and dreamed I had someone else's left leg. [When Voinitskii says in the First Act that the professor has been doing someone else's job, it's the same as saying that he has been doing the wrong job. But to dream that you have someone else's leg? That has to be taken literally! — Anyway, this is an old musicians' joke: the double bass is good for nothing but standing around on someone else's left leg, droning on and on!] I woke up in excruciating pain. This isn't gout, y'know, more like rheumatism. What's the time now?

Helen

Twelve twenty. [This is the first of two occasions on which Aleksandr asks his wife the time. To judge from her answers, it seems to go from twenty past twelve to nearly one o'clock in the space of a few minutes. Of course at the second time of asking, when Yelena says "Nearly one" what she actually means is "Who cares?" But there is something else going on as well. Chekhov may be teasing us about the so-called "unity of time", but he is also enjoying himself hugely with the music.
     The music being followed in the Second Act is the fifth movement of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, which is in 6:8 time. Early on, a rhythm section of the strings is called on to play twelve notes to the measure under the main theme. These notes are marked mezzo-staccato, which means they are to be played separately by shortening each note by a quarter of its length. In other words, these twelve notes are shortened from sixteenths to twentieths. For anyone who has to ask, the time is not 6:8 (or 12:16), but 12:20!
     After eight measures of this, the beat is increased to eighteen notes to the measure, though it is now virtually impossible to keep the notes separate. Ask a musician what the time is when she has to play at eighteen sixteenths mezzo-staccato and you'll be lucky to get an answer as polite as "Nearly one"!]

Pause.

Alexander

In the morning, have a look in the library for the Priestley. You'll find he is here.

Helen

What?

Alexander

Have a look for the Priestley in the morning. I remember it was here. But why is it so hard for me to breathe? [The difficulty Aleksandr has in breathing is the key to this wonderful joke. He is asking for the works of the poet and essayist Batyushkov, but the name comes at the end of a sentence and he makes Батюшкова sound like батюшка. His wife thinks he's sending for the priest, though why she does so may need some explanation.
     As Marina often uses the word, «батюшка» is a form of address combining familiarity and respect, rather like the Devon expression "m'dear". But as an object of reference, "the little father" means any minor authority figure, especially ‒ at least when Chekhov was writing ‒ the local priest.
     The idea that Aleksandr may be asking for a person rather than a book is reinforced by an ambiguity in the Russian possessive у нас. In context, this can mean a person "at our house" (the French chez nous), rather than simply a thing "in our possession".
     Yelena dreams of the day her husband will wake up calling for a priest and not just a doctor. This makes her line ‒ the Russian particle «A?» ‒ perhaps the finest gift ever offered to an actress by a playwright.]

Helen

You're tired. It's the second night you haven't slept.

Alexander

They say Turgenyev developed angina from gout. I'm afraid it might happen to me. Damnable, disgusting old age! The devil take it! As I've got older I've become revolting to myself. What's more, just looking at me must be revolting for the rest of you.

Helen

When you speak about your old age in that tone, it's as if the rest of us were to blame that you're old.

Alexander

To you above all I'm revolting.

Helen moves and sits some distance away.

Of course, you're right. I'm no fool and I understand. You're young, healthy, beautiful, full of life,- I'm an old man, almost a corpse. That so? Or perhaps I don't understand? And of course, it's stupid of me to live this long. But give it time; I'll soon let you all go. I shan't have to drag on much longer.

Helen

I'm exhausted. ... For God's sake, be quiet.

Alexander

It turns out that thanks to me everyone's exhausted, fed up, losing their youth, while I'm the only one who's enjoying life, who's contented. Oh yes, of course!

Helen

Do be quiet! You've tormented me to death!

Alexander

I've tormented everyone to death. Of course.

Helen (through tears)

Unbearable! Tell me, what do you want from me?

Alexander

Nothing.

Helen

Well then, do be quiet. I'm begging.

Alexander

It's a funny thing. John Peter starts to speak, or that old idiot Lady Marie, and nothing — everyone listens. But I say just one word and everyone starts to feel miserable. Even my voice is revolting. Well granted, I am revolting, I am an egotist, I am a despot. But have I really no right to egotism even in old age? Have I really not earned it? I ask you though, have I really no right to a peaceful old age, to some attention from others?

Helen

Nobody's arguing with you about your rights. [Yelena begins this intervention in a spirit of defiance and ends it in a spirit of resignation, though she uses exactly the same words to express both. Chekhov conveys the shift in mood by a mere change in the word order, a particularly subtle effect in Russian, which relies for its meaning on formal grammar rather than word-order. (I am grateful to Professor Angela Livingstone of the University of Essex for originally suggesting to me that this might be a case where the last word of a Russian sentence carries a special emphasis.) Yelena starts by saying to her husband, "Nobody is disputing with you your rights" — meaning that the argument is about something else. She ends by saying, "Nobody with you your rights is disputing" — meaning that there is no argument at all.
     In between, a window bangs in the wind. Anyone responsible for producing this effect in the theatre is going to agonise over what Chekhov intended by it; I woke in the middle of the night with the sound banging in my head: Да, Да! ... Да, Да! ... Да, Да!. In English, the curtains have to billow: Yes! ... Yes! .... Yelena is being cheered on in her defiance, I think, by the ghost of Vera Petrovna, her predecessor as the professor's wife. But she shuts the window! And with this single gesture she both defies her husband's expressed wish and finally gives up the ghost. «Сейчас будет дождь», she says, looking at the sky. It is the sort of thing one might say of a child whose eyes are brimming with tears .... ....
     Tu l'as perdu, et pour jamais, sings the watchman, taking on the role of Pluto in the finalé of Offenbach's Orphée aux Enfers, Elle me reste donc? (Well, what else could he possibly sing?)]

Curtains swish in the wind.

The wind has got up. I'm shutting the window.

She shuts it.

Now the rain is starting. About your rights ... nobody's arguing with you.

Pause. The watchman knocking in the grounds sings a song.

Alexander

You devote your life to learning; you grow accustomed to your study, lecture theatres, distinguished colleagues; and suddenly, hey presto, you find yourself in this crypt, met with the stupid people here day after day, listening to their trivial conversation. ... I want to live. I love success, love celebrity, buzz,- here it's like being in exile. Every minute spent grieving for the past, looking on while others triumph, staring death in the face. ... I can't! No way! But here they won't even forgive me my old age!

Helen

Give it time. Have patience. Five or six years and I'll be old too.

Sunny comes in.

Papa, it was you who had us send for Dr Astor,- since he arrived you've refused to see him. That's indelicate. We've disturbed someone for simply no reason ....

Alexander

What's your Astor to me? He understands as much about medicine as I do about astronomy.

Sunny

We're not writing away for an entire medical faculty to attend your gout.

Alexander

I'm not going to exchange a single word with that mock shaman.

Sunny

That's up to you.

She sits down.

It's all the same to me.

Alexander

What's the time now?

Helen

Nearly one.

Alexander

I'm suffocating. ... Sunny, pass me the capsules from the table!

Sunny

Coming up.

She hands over some capsules.

Alexander (irritably)

Oh, not those! You can't ask anyone for anything!

Sunny

Please! Don't be capricious. That may well put a smile on the face of some people, but spare me, thank you very much! I don't like it. And me, I don't have time ... me, I have to get up early tomorrow ... it's my grass-cutting.

John Peter enters in a dressing gown and with a lantern.

There's a storm putting his coat and boots on.

Lightning.

Right on cue! Hélène and Sunny, off to bed. I've come to relieve you.

Alexander (alarmed)

No, no! Don't leave me with him! I mean it. He'll talk me to death!

John Peter

Do let's give them a break! They didn't get any sleep last night either.

Alexander

They can go to bed, but you go away too. Thank you. I implore you. In the name of our previous friendship, don't object. Later on we'll have a chat.

John Peter (with a sneer)

Previous, our friendship. ... Previous. ...

Sunny

Do be quiet, Uncle Johnny.

Alexander (to his wife)

My dear, don't leave me with him! He'll talk me to death!

John Peter

This is shaping up to be a good laugh.

Nanny Marina comes in with a lantern.

Sunny

You should be in bed, Nannikins. It's already late.

Nanny

The tea things aren't down from the table. One can't very well go to bed. [Marina can't go to bed while the samovar is still up at the table. ... When it comes to translation, the laws of cricket have nothing on a samovar! A teapot, of course, just lies there; Nanny can cuddle it as much as she likes and it will never grow into a samovar ....]

Alexander

Everyone's sleepless, exhausted. I'm the only one who's in a state of bliss.

Nanny goes up to Alexander, tenderly

What is it, m'dear? In pain? I've got the same legs myself, droning and droning like that.

She straightens his rug.

It's that old complaint of yours. Little Sunny's mother, rest her soul, a true daughter of Peter, she used to kill herself, nights without sleep. ... She loved you so very much ....[Vera Petrovna "used to grieve", but I've gone for the more literal sense of «бывало убивается» because I think Chekhov wanted to provide a context for a later revelation ‒ his way of trying to avoid melodramatic surprise ‒ and hence the pause to let it sink in.]

Pause.

The old are just like the young, they want somebody to care about them,- nobody cares about us oldies.

She strokes Alexander on the shoulder.

Let's get going, m'dear, off to bed. ... Let's get going, twinkle. ... I'll make some hot chocolate for you, warm your toesies. ... I'll say a prayer to God for you ....

Alexander is moved.

Nunc dimittis, Marina. [What Aleksandr actually says is «Пойдем, Марина», parroting her word for "Let's get going" or "Come along". But for Chekhov, пойдем is a very special word (see, for instance, his wonderful use of it in The Cherry Orchard). It comes from Church Slavonic, and here it makes a subtle allusion to the funeral prayer На исходOn Leaving. I thought it better to dispense with the subtlety rather than forfeit the sentiment, although this meant shifting the allusion for an English audience to a text whose Church Slavonic version, Ныне отпущаеши, does not use the word пойдем.]

Nanny

Just the same myself, legs droning like that, droning like that!

She attends to him with Sunny.

Little Sunny's mother used to kill herself over everything, cry over everything. ... As for you, Sunnikins, back then you were still young, you didn't understand. ... Come, come, m'dear ....

Alexander, Sunny and Nanny go out.

Helen

I'm tormented to death with him. I can hardly keep my legs under me.

John Peter

You with him,- I with myself. This is the third night in a row I haven't slept.

Helen

There are very bad vibes in this house. Your mother hates everything except her pamphlets and the professor; the professor is irritable, suspicious of me and afraid of you; Sunny is angry with her father, and so angry with me she hasn't even spoken to me for a fortnight; you hate my husband and openly despise your mother; I'm so irritable that twenty times today I've caught myself starting to cry. ... There are very bad vibes in this house.

John Peter

Let's leave out the philosophy!

Helen

John Peter, you're an educated man ‒ even clever ‒ and it seems to me you ought to understand that the world is being laid to waste, not by pillage, not by fire, but by hates, enmities, by all these petty squabbles. ... Your proper role is not to make angry noises, but to set everything at one again.

John Peter

First set me at one with myself again! My dear....

He presses his lips to her hand.

Helen

Leave that out!

She pulls away her hand.

Go away!

John Peter

Now the rain is passing,[«Сейчас пройдет дождь,» says Voinitskii, and the structural similarity with the earlier «Сейчас будет дождь» of Yelena Andreyevna is important. It has the same elegiac quality and helps to suggest their lost spiritual connectedness.] and everything in nature will be refreshed and breathe easily. The one and only thing not refreshed by the storm will be me. There's a thought trapped in my head day and night by a veritable demon, that life is irretrievably lost to me. I have no past ‒ it was squandered on trifles ‒ yet the present is horrendous in its absurdities. Just consider my life and my love — where am I to put them, what am I to do with them? My feelings are wasting away to no avail, like rays of sunlight reaching into a bottomless pit, and my whole life is wasting away with them.

Helen

When you speak to me of your love, I go sort of dead and don't know what to say. Forgive me, there's nothing I can tell you.

She goes to leave.

Good night.

John Peter bars her way.

And if only you knew how I suffer from the thought that side by side with me in this very house another life is wasting away. Yours! Why do you put up with it? What damned morality is holding you back? Think on though, think on ....

Helen looks intently at him.

John Peter, you're drunk!

John Peter

Could be, could be ....

Helen

Where's the doctor?

John Peter

He's in there .... staying the night with me. Could be, could be. ... Anything could be!

Helen

Drinking again today? Why do you do it?

John Peter

At least it offers a glimpse of life. ... Don't hold me back, Hélène!

Helen

You never used to drink, and you never used to talk so much. ... Go to bed! I'm fed up with you.

John Peter presses his lips to her hand.

My dear .... marveilleuse!

Helen (with annoyance)

Leave me alone. That's revolting, end of story.

She goes out.

John Peter is alone.

She's gone ....

Pause.

Ten years ago I used to see her at my late sister's. Back then she was seventeen and me thirty-seven. Why didn't I fall in love with her back then and propose to her? [And now we see why Chekhov is so precise about the age of Yelena Andreyevna. The important thing is not that now she is twenty-seven, but that when Voinitskii missed his chance to propose to her she was ten years younger. For Chekhov, a girl of seventeen is at just the age when a proposal would be out of the question only for a man of certain conventional moral scruples. In fact, Voinitskii ruins his life precisely by being a Tolstoyan moral agent.] Y'know, it could so easily have happened! And now she would be my wife. ... Yes. ... Now we'd wake up from the storm together; she'd be frightened of the thunder,- I'd hold her in my embrace and whisper: "Don't be afraid, I'm here". Oh, wonderful thoughts, so pleasant I'm even laughing. ... But, my god, the thoughts are getting mixed up in my head. ... Why am I old? Why doesn't she care about me? Her rhetorical, indolent way of speaking, her absurd, indolent thoughts about the wasting of the world — all that is deeply obnoxious to me.

Pause.

Oh, how I've been conned! I worshiped that professor, that wretched gout-bag ... I worked like an ox for him! Sunny and I squeezed every last drop out of this estate; we were just like misers, the way we haggled over the seed oil, the peas, the cheese ... not eating a crumb ourselves so we could scrape together the pennies and ha'pennies and send thousands of pounds to him. I was proud of him and his learning ... I lived and breathed it! Everything he wrote and uttered seemed brilliant to me. ... God, but now? Here he is in retirement, and now the sum total of his life can be seen: after he's gone not a single page of work will remain; he's utterly unknown, he's a nothing! A soap bubble! And I've been conned ... I can see it ... stupidly conned. ...

Michael comes in half-undressed, very tipsy, followed by Crumbly with a guitar.

Michael

Play!

Crumbly

Everybody's asleep, sir!

Michael

Play!

Crumbly strums softly.

To John Peter.

You on your own here? No ladies?

Standing a'kimbo, he sings softly.

Fly away cottage, fly away bed, the master has nowhere to lay his head. ... The storm woke me. Quite a drop of rain. What's the time now?

John Peter

The devil knows.

Michael

Methinks I heard the voice of Mrs Silversmith.

John Peter

She was here just now.

Michael

Magnificent woman.

He examines the bottles on the table.

Medicines. Every prescription under the sun! From Bristol, from London, from Cambridge. ... Every city plagued by his gout. Is he ill or is he shamming?

John Peter

He's ill.

Pause.

Michael

Why are you so miserable today? Feeling sorry for the professor, is that it?

John Peter

Leave me alone.

Michael

Or could it be you're in love with the professor's other half?

John Peter

She's my friend.

Michael

Already?

John Peter

What do you mean, "already"?

Michael

A woman can be friends with a man only in this sequence: first an acquaintance, next a mistress,- then actually a friend.

John Peter

A disgusting philosophy.

Michael

What? Yes. ... I must confess — I get vulgar. See, I'm also drunk. I usually get drunk like this once a month. When I'm in this state, I get impertinent and insolent in the extreme. Nothing matters to me! I take on the most difficult operations and do them perfectly; I draw up the most far-reaching plans for the future; at such times I no longer see myself as a crackpot and believe I bring a colossal benefit to mankind ... colossal! And at such times I have my own personal philosophical system, and all of you, dear friends, represent to me the merest insects ... microbes.

To Crumbly.

Crumbly, play!

Crumbly

My dear friend, I'd be glad to with all my heart, but you must see — the whole house is asleep!

Michael

Play!

Crumbly strums softly.

We should have a drink. Come along, eh, it looks like we've still got some cognac here. As soon as it's daylight we'll go to mine. Ay Kay? I've got a registrar who never says "OK", but "Ay Kay". An awful scoundrel. So, Ay Kay?

He sees Sunny come in.

Excuse me, I'm not dressed.

He goes out hurriedly; Crumbly follows him.

Sunny

As for you, Uncle Johnny, you've got drunk with the doctor again. You're a fine pair. So he's always like that, but why you? At your age it's totally not done.

John Peter

Age has nothing to do with it. When you've no real life, you live on illusions. It's got to be better than nothing.

Sunny

Our grass has all been cut ... every day it rains ... it's all rotting,- you busy yourself with illusions. You've totally abandoned the farming. ... I'm working on my own and I'm totally worn out. ...

She is alarmed.

Uncle, you've got tears in your eyes!

John Peter

What do you mean, tears? Not at all ... nonsense. ... You gave me a look just now exactly like your mother used to. My dear ....

He eagerly kisses her hands and face.

My sister ... my dear sister ... where is she now? ... [How can this question possibly arise? Chekhov has gone to great lengths to stress that Vera Petrovna was practically a saint, at least in her brother's eyes. There's only one reason why he might doubt where she is in death. ...
     This is the only reference in the whole play to the fact that Vera Petrovna committed suicide. Marina surely wasn't telling us with her use of the past-iterative "she used to kill herself", though the author probably meant it as a warning. This is Chekhov working right at the top of his game: the suicide is a terrible secret that nobody mentions, but it's not irrelevant to the present and we have to be made aware of it. It certainly has an awful bearing on the predicament of the professor's second wife, as Voinitskii himself realises.]
If only she knew! Aagh, if only she knew!

Sunny

What? Knew what, Uncle?

John Peter

It's so heavy on me. ... It's not right. ... Never mind ... later. ... Don't worry. ... I'm going ....

He goes out.

Sunny knocks on a door.

Dr Astor! You're not asleep, are you? Spare a moment!

Michael (on the other side of the door.)

Coming!

After a while he comes in, by this time fully dressed.

What can I do for you?

Sunny

Do have a drink yourself, if you don't find it revolting, but I implore you, don't let my uncle drink. It's bad for him.

Michael

Very well. We won't be drinking any more.

Pause.

I'll be going home now. So that's a done deal. By the time I'm ready it'll be daybreak.

Sunny

It's raining. Give it 'til morning.

Michael

The storm's going past; we'll only catch the edge. I'll go. And please don't call me out to your father again. I tell him gout,- he has rheumatism; I ask him to lie down, he sits up. And today if you please he wouldn't say a word to me.

Sunny

He's spoilt.

She looks in the sideboard.

Would you like a bite to eat?

Michael

All right, let's.

Sunny

I love a bite to eat at night. I think there's something in the sideboard. They say he's had great success with women in his life, and he's been spoiled by his partners. Here, have some cheese.

They stand together at the sideboard and eat.

Michael

I've had nothing to eat all day, only to drink. Your father's a difficult man.

He takes a bottle out of the sideboard.

May I?

He drinks a glass.

There's nobody here so I can speak frankly. You know, I don't think I could live a month in this house; I'd suffocate in this atmosphere. ... Your father, completely absorbed in his gout and in books; Uncle Johnny with his spleen; your grandmother; and to top it all, your stepmother ....

Sunny

What about my stepmother?

Michael

A human being ought to be perfect in every way: in face, in clothes, in soul, in intellect. [Chekhov here provides an important key to the structure of this play. Each of the tragic protagonists is endowed with one of these qualities and is sadly lacking in others: Yelena has the face; Voinitskii the clothes; Sonya the soul; Astrov the intellect. As a whole, they form a beautiful, cracked pot trying and failing to put itself back together.] She's beautiful, no question, but... [By refering to Yelena Andreyevna in the words used by the magic mirror about the wicked stepmother in the "Snow White" folk tale, Chekhov sets up a delicious irony. ... Astrov could so easily have continued and realised who is actually the fairest of them all....] y'know she does nothing but eat, sleep, perambulate and bewitch us all with her beauty — and that's all. She has no responsibilities whatsoever; her work is done by others ... isn't that so? But an idle life is simply not pure.

Pause.

Ah well, perhaps I'm being too hard on her. I'm like your Uncle Johnny, not contented in life, and we're turning into a pair of grouches.

Sunny

Are you really dissatisfied with life?

Michael

Generally speaking I love life, but I can't endure this provincial, philistine life of ours, and I despise it with every fibre of my being. As for my own personal life, well, God knows there's absolutely no good in that. You know what they say about life being like fighting your way through a wood on a dark night, how if you see a glimmer of light in the distance you don't notice the tiredness, the darkness, the thorny branches hitting you in the face. Well, I tire myself out ‒ you know I do ‒ like nobody else; dark fate is always bearing down on me; I suffer intolerably on occasion. — But for me there is no glimmer of light in the distance. I no longer expect anything for myself, I don't have any time for people. ... For a long time, there's been nobody I've loved.

Sunny

Nobody?

Michael

Nobody. Though I have a certain tenderness towards your nanna, for old times' sake. Working people are very small-minded, backward and uncouth, and yet I can't get on with the middle classes. They tire you out. All of them, our good friends here, are small-minded and mean-spirited and can't see past the end of their noses — put bluntly, they're stupid. And those who are a bit wiser and better are hysterical, eaten up with analysis and introspection. ... These people are whiners, back-stabbers, vicious slanderers; they sidle up to you, look at you out of the corner of their eye and make up their minds: "Oh, this one's a nut-case!" or: "This one's a pompous ass!" And when they don't know what label to stick on my forehead they say: "This one's a strange fellow, very strange!" I love the forest ‒ that's strange; I don't eat meat ‒ that's strange too. There's no spontaneous, pure, facile attitude towards nature or people any more. ... None, none!

He goes to take a drink.

Sunny stopping him.

No, please, I beg you, don't drink any more.

Michael

Whyever not?

Sunny

It really doesn't suit you! You are graceful, you have such a gentle voice. ... More than that, you are refined ‒ like nobody else I know. Why do you want to resemble ordinary people who drink and play cards? O, don't do it, I beg you! You are always saying that people don't create, but only destroy what's been given to them from on high. So why, why do you destroy you yourself? There's no need, there's no need, I beg you, I implore you.

Michael holding out a hand to her.

I won't drink any more.

Sunny

Give me your word.

Michael

Word of honour.

Sunny pressing his hand firmly.

Thank-you!

Michael

Basta! I'll sober up. See, I'm already pretty much sober, and I shall stay that way to the end of my days.

He looks at his watch.

Let's carry on then. As I was saying: my time has already gone; it's too late for me. I've grown old; I've worked too hard; I've become a wreck; all my feelings have been dulled and I don't think I could ever again become attached to another person. I love nobody and ... never again will I fall in love. What still gets to me is beauty. I'm not indifferent to that. I think if Mrs Silversmith here wanted to she could turn my head in no time. But you see that's not love, nothing to do with attachment....

He covers his eyes with a hand and shudders. [Another looking-glass moment. ... Of course, while this premonition may add to a sense of foreboding, its full significance will not be apparent to a newcomer to the play. The incident is here mainly to enrich the experience of those who are already familiar with the Third Act. Chekhov was clearly writing for posterity.]

Sunny

What's the matter?

Michael

It's.... Before Easter, a patient of mine died under anaesthetic.

Sunny

Time to forget about that.

Pause.

Tell me, Dr Astor ... If I'd had a friend or a little sister, and you'd found out that she ... well, how shall I put it ... that she loved you, how would you have reacted?

Michael (shrugging his shoulders.)

I don't know. It would have to be not at all. I'd give her to understand that it wasn't possible to love her ... and that I had other things on my mind. Oh well, it's time to go if I'm going. Let's say goodbye, my dear, or we'll be carrying on like this until morning.

He shakes her hand.

I'll go through the sitting room, if I may, otherwise I'm afraid I'll be held up by your uncle.

He goes out.

Sunny (alone.)

He said nothing to me. ... His heart and soul are still hidden from me, so why do I feel so happy?

She laughs with happiness.

I said to him: you are graceful, noble, you have such a gentle voice. ... Perhaps that was out of place? His voice does vibrate and caress ... I can still feel it in the air. But when I said that to him about a little sister, he didn't understand. ...

She wrings her hands.

Oh, it's so horrible that I'm plain! So horrible! And I know I'm plain, I know, I know. ... Last Sunday coming out of church I heard them talking about me, and one woman said: "She's kind and big-hearted, but it's a pity she's so plain." ... Plain....

Helen comes in and opens the window.

The storm's over. Such lovely air!

Pause.

Where's the doctor?

Sunny

He's gone.

Pause.

Helen

Sophie!

Sunny

What?

Helen

How long are you going to sulk at me? We haven't done each other any harm. Why should we be enemies? It's too much...

Sunny

I myself wanted....

She embraces her.

Enough of being cross.

Helen

Oh excellent.

Both are in a state of excitement.

Sunny

Papa gone to bed?

Helen

No, he's in the sitting room. ... We don't talk to each other for weeks at a time, God knows why....

She sees that the sideboard is open.

What's this?

Sunny

Dr Astor had supper.

Helen

And there's wine. ... Let's drink Brüderschaft. [To drink Brüderschaft is to make a pact agreeing to use the familiar, second person singular form of address ‒ du in German and ты in Russian. From now on, whenever Sonya and Yelena address one another, a Russian audience will be subtly reminded of this little scene. The absence of so-called "tu-toying" in English means that something extra must be done to bring this betrothal to the mind of the audience, especially when it becomes crucial to remember it in the Third Act.
      To give the scene its proper significance, I have left in the pact itself, changing the familiar form from Russian to French, which is more plausible as a little game the Englishwomen are playing. I have then expanded the Ты reply given by Sonya in order to provide a hook that can be used to recall it when the need arises.
      In the Cullompton Allsorts production, we went to some lengths to try and fix this scene in the mind of the audience. Between drinking and kissing, the women were each given some business. Sunny took the glass and smashed it in a fireplace ‒ the ritual used to symbolise that the promise made with the glass cannot be unmade. Meanwhile, Ellen (as she then was) took a wafer from the sideboard and had it break in her hand ‒ a reference to a proverb coined by John Fletcher: "A womans oathes are wafers, breake with making." (The Chances II, i) ‒ upon which, catching herself in the mirror, she shuddered and crossed herself. It was important, not that everyone got the precise significance of these symbolic actions, but that they had a sense of something significant taking place.]

Sunny

Let's.

Helen

From a single glass....

She pours.

It's better this way. Right, well then — tu?

Sunny

Tu, Hélène, tu.

They drink and kiss.

I've wanted to make up for a long time, but I felt embarrassed somehow....

She weeps.

Helen

But why are you crying?

Sunny

It's nothing, I just am.

Helen

Come, come, now. ...

She weeps.

You funny girl, I'm starting to cry too....

Pause.

You're angry with me because you think I went with your father for what I could get. ... If you can believe a promise, I promise you — I went with him out of love. I was infatuated with him as an erudite and celebrated man. The love was not real, it was make-believe, but you see it struck me as real at the time. I'm not to blame. But from the moment we were married you haven't stopped tormenting me with your wise, suspicious eyes.

Sunny

Pax, pax, now! Let's move on.

Helen

There's no need to give that look ‒ it doesn't suit you. Everyone has to believe in each other, otherwise we can't live.

Pause.

Sunny

Tell me in all conscience, as a friend — are you happy?

Helen

No.

Sunny

I knew it. One more question. Tell me frankly — wouldn't you have liked a young husband?

Helen

What a little girl you are still. Of course I'd have liked that!

She laughs.

Now, ask me something else ... ask me....

Sunny

Do you like the doctor?

Helen

Yes, very much.

Sunny laughs.

I've got on a silly face, haven't I? He's not here any more, but I can still hear his voice and footsteps, and if I glance in a dark window his face looks out at me. Do let me pour out my heart. ... But I'm too embarrassed to speak out loud. Come along to my room for a little talk. Do you think that's silly? I know it is. ... Tell me something about him....

Helen

Like what?

Sunny

He's clever. ... He's skilled at everything, does everything. ... He practises medicine and he plants trees....

Helen

It's not what he does, not the forestry and not the medicine. ... My darling, do understand, it's the touch of genius! And do you know what it means, that touch of genius? Moral courage, freedom of mind, breadth of vision. ... He starts to plant saplings and he's already pictured what will come of them in a thousand years, already thought of the happiness of mankind. Such people are rare ... they must be cherished. ... He drinks, he's sometimes coarse, but is that such a bad thing? People of genius can't stay clean in this part of the world. Just you think for a minute what life is like for this doctor! The distances he has to travel, the state of the roads, the weather conditions, coarse and ungrateful people surrounded by poverty and disease, and to work and struggle in such circumstances day in and day out, it's hard for anyone to keep himself clean and sober to the age of forty....

She kisses her.

From my heart, I wish you the happiness you deserve.

She goes up.[Yelena "goes up" in the theatrical sense of taking to the stage — she doesn't "get up", as if previously she might have sat down. This sense derives from early Greek theatre, where a protagonist would "go up" from the orchestra to the proscenium for an "episode" — a break in the flow of the chorus for a piece of spoken drama.
      In this case, Yelena goes up in the role of her namesake La Belle Hélène. She is making light of her own predicament by parodying a tragic heroine. Offenbach's operetta was widely criticised for being "too episodic", by which was really meant that it had too much speaking and not enough singing. This didn't stop Chekhov loving it from the first time he saw it as a boy. And he can't resist a sly dig at Nietzsche, who tried to explain away his own guilty pleasure at La Belle Hélène by pretentiously claiming that, under all the froth, the comic heroine was hiding a deep unhappiness.]

But I'm a prolixious, episodic character. ... In my music, in my husband's house, in all my amorous adventures ‒ simply everywhere ‒ I've been nothing but an episodic character. As a matter of fact, Sunny, if you really think about it, you'll see I'm very, very unhappy!

She struts the stage in emotional fashion.

There is no happiness for me in this world. None! Why are you laughing? [As Yelena comes back down from playing the Queen of Sparta, she pauses in the role of actress to make this teasing enquiry. The drama critic and theorist Leonid Andreyev has given us an anecdote that is worth quoting in full. (I have it in the translation by Senelick included in his collection Russian Dramatic Theory from Puskin to the Symbolists, Austin 1981, pp 264-5.)

I once attended a masquerade party in Moscow thrown by some artists. ... ... But for the most part it was rather boring, almost excruciatingly so — as all our masquerades and merrymaking usually are. And then [the musician Ilya] Sats, who was turning green with ennui, proposed in a terrified whisper to me and some actors from the Art Theatre that we absquatulate. ... ...
      We left. But then something very strange occurred: his room was empty, enormous and horribly cold, and evidently had been unheated that day, there was a total absence of anything cheering: not only did wine, which many had counted on as the only way of escaping their sober and deadly yearning, fail to put in an appearance, but there was not even hot tea, it was too late to get a bit of a warm! Sats was embarrassed, muttered something, poked about in corners and suddenly cheered up: he had found somewhere some small wax Christmas-tree candles and with our help stuck them all over the place — on windowsills, tables, the grand piano. It began to look most peculiar ‒ and rather jolly. And then, on top of this, something quite special and charming began to happen, something I can recall with delight even now: we all started acting. There were only a few of us — Knipper, Moskvin, Kachalov, Zvantsev, Leonidov, Sats and I — and we all acted: for ourselves, for there was no audience. There was only a general outline, we were to portray something that would be Spanish to the nth degree, and while Sats improvised music, Zvantsev composed a corresponding script in verse and the rest of us entered into it, each with his own contribution. It was hilarious, ridiculous, like Vampuka (which did not exist at the time) and remarkably talented: I already had a high opinion of those actors, but now I was struck by the force, clarity and freshness of their talent, the sparkle of their acting. At first I didn't want to act: it was awkward, I was unskilled, but imperceptibly I got carried away by it and began to act, something which made even me laugh. Everyone laughed at himself and the others, the music was punctuated by laughter, and everyone acted: we sang, piled up incidents, gave ourselves direction, latched onto an allusion in mid-flight and kept the dialogue going; some had come from the masquerade in costume. and there was no audience — they were acting alone.
Chekhov was not there or Andreyev would certainly have mentioned him, but there must have been many other occasions on which his wife and her friends entertained themselves in the same way. It is "something quite special and charming ... ... punctuated by laughter" that he calls for from Yelena here.]

Sunny is laughing, hands over her face.

I'm so happy ... so happy!

Helen

I want to play. ... I could play anything right now.

Sunny

Do play!

She hugs her.

I won't get to sleep. ... Do play!

Helen

I'm going to. Your father's not asleep. Music irritates him when he's ill. Go and ask. If it's all right with him, then I'll play. Go on.

Sunny

I'm going to.

She goes out.

The watchman is knocking in the grounds.

Helen

I haven't played for so long. I'm going to play and cry, cry like a silly girl.

(Through the window.)

Is that you knocking, Jeffries?

Nightwatchman

'Tis!

Helen

Don't knock ... the boss is not well.

Nightwatchman

I'll be on my way!

He whistles.

Hey there, Sherzo, good boy! Sherzo!

P A U S E.[This mirrors one of the finest pauses in all music. At the end of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, the music goes quiet and under it can be heard a distant alp-horn. The gradual fading of this horn builds an unbearable tension. Chekhov reproduces the effect with the alarm that has been set off by Yelena dismissing the watchman. The knocking stops, and the astonishing silence that follows gradually fades (as, perhaps, Yelena fingers the keys and licks the reed of her clarinet). Then, just as Beethoven resolves his pause with an orgasmic Jawohl!, so Chekhov typically subverts the idea with an equally climactic Нельзя!]

Sunny comes back in.

We can't!

CURTAIN