This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 19, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
When you get very old (I have lived a little more than eight decades), not only do the years begin to fly by extraordinarily fast, but also, each phase of your life seems like a separate lifetime.
In my case, each phase consists of about two decades, so I see my life in four phases, each as distant and strange as separate lifetimes. Those phases are: my childhood and teenage years, my college years, my career as a teacher, and my career as a preacher.
The most distant phase, childhood and teenage years, is the one that seems the most real to me, and I remember it the best, my childhood having the happiest memories. My teaching years are the phase I remember the least well, and not only does it seem like another lifetime, but also like a strange and foreign one. Although my college years were happy years in spite of my being flat broke most the time, it, too is a phase I seldom recall.
Yet, it is the college years wherein so many of my tastes, attitudes, and ideologies were set. That is when, as a drama major, I first “met” Anton Chekhov, the famous Russian playwright. The Chairman of the Drama Department, himself having studied playwriting, was an avid fan of Chekhov’s. My very first activity as a drama major was to design a set for Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. My acting class followed the Stanislavski Method of Acting via Boleslawsky, and that led to Chekhov also, -- Chekhov worked with Stanislavski in the Moscow Art Theatre before the Bolshevik Revolution. Chekhov was no Marxist.
As a rural school student in Dime Box and a high school student in Giddings, Texas, I had never heard of Chekhov, and I’m not even sure whether I knew where Taganrog and Moscow were located. Since the Soviet Union was one of our Allies during World War II, I did know, from the globe with which we followed the War, where Russia was.
Although there were ways we were different, Anton Chekhov reminded me of myself, -- his parents were poor peasant from the small town of Taganrog, but they managed to own a small store that sold vodka by the drink and some groceries. When I was born, my father owned a beer joint/meat market and sold beer by the mug or the bottle as well as meat products. However, his father was not at all like my father, so the family similarity stopped there.
As a college student, I felt that Chekhov’s ideas were very similar to my own, so I became a great fan of his. How much his ideas influenced by ideas, I guess I’ll never know. Like him, I was very annoyed by people who were lazy and incompetent and made no effort to improve. Like him, I couldn’t stand phoniness and pretentiousness, etc. He became my idol and my model to imitate.
Last week, I began reading Henri Troyat’s biography of Chekhov, and many Chekhovian ideas are being rekindled in my brain. Troyat’s book reminds me that Chekhov, in spite of his fame as a writer, never gave up his practice as a medical doctor. Living on his country estate, he treated hundreds and hundreds of poor peasants without charging them a cent, not even for the medicines he prescribed. At least twice he was instrumental in containing a cholera epidemic in that part of Russia. He was a very caring person, dedicated to helping humanity in general as well as helping his needy family. Through writing about the horrible prison conditions in Siberia, he helped to bring about prison reform in Russia. I fall far short of his dedication to helping humanity.
More and more I realized it was his person that I liked more so than his writing. After all, I don’t know a word of Russian.
Still, speaking the lines from his plays in English translations, like The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and others, brought me to the conclusion that he was truly one of the greatest of all playwrights It is astonishing how much his plays remind me of the works of my favorite American playwright, Horton Foote (from Wharton, Texas).
Once, when I interviewed Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winning playwright Foote in his home in Wharton, and I said to him, “Surely your writing style has been influenced by Anton Chekhov,” he replied that many people have said the same thing, but actually he had never read Chekhov or seen his plays until critics made such a claim.
The “person” side of these two playwrights was similar, too. Like Chekhov, Foote was genteel, kind and caring, a person who loved his family deeply, and who cared about distressed humanity.
The simple beauty, the subtlety, the packing-a-wallop terseness and understatement in the plays of both of them is extraordinary! I read Chekhov when I was in college; I read Foote’s plays when I was a teacher. They both continue to influence me in many ways.
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.