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Is Anton Chekhov’s The Proposal a mere copy of King Oedipus?

I would be called an adamant, haughty, less read, so narrow-minded critic by those who are on a pilgrimage to the Chekhovian tradition in theatre, if I said that Anton Chekhov’s (1860-1904) one act play,’The Proposal’ (1888-1889) was nothing but a Mere replica of Sophocles’( a 5’th century B.C. Greek playwright)’King Oedipus’.

They would be of the view that Chekhov, being a genius who opened a new epoch in the history of the world theatre, must not have felt as helpless as to borrow from the others.

The fact that ‘The Proposal’ contrasts with ‘King Oedipus’ in its choice of the Subject matter, theme and form would definitely be cited as evidence to prove their argument. It is true that Sophocles’ play is based on a famous Greek legend, according to which Oedipus, as a fulfillment of an oracular prediction, killed his own father, committed incest with his closest blood relative and finally realising the crimes, though he had committed them unwittingly, blinded himself.

A scene from the king Oedipus

Those whom Sophocles represents in ‘King Oedipus’ are legendary men and women, who might have lived centuries before his time whereas the men whom Chekhov represents in his drama lived in the latter part of the 19th century. Sophocles develops in his drama such themes as helplessness of a man before his fate (will of God), limitations of man’s potentialities, and appearance and reality whereas in ‘The Proposal’, Chekhov seems to develop as his theme the trivialities and moral decadence of the landowners.

It is mostly the form of drama that may complicate anyone’s attempt to find identical features between the two. However, as Constantine Stanislavski rightly identified, though Chekhov vehemently denied, tragedy runs in Chekhovian dramas like an undercurrent. It seems that Stanislavsky’s comment is quite applicable to this one act play as well. The laughter it evokes is illusionary. It is like a fancy dress. Therefore, though parallelism is seen in characterization, tone, dramatic techniques and even in his theatrical concepts, I will specify my study to the parallelism in the plot structure.

As an initial, quite visible proof for my argument I would like to draw the attention of the enthusiasts of Chekhovian tradition at the quarrel scenes which both playwrights utilize to complicate the action; revealing the killer in ‘King Oedipus’ and revealing Lomov’s proposal to Natalyia in ‘The Proposal’. When the development off the ‘Action’ (central incident); revealing Lomov’s proposal to Natalyia, is further analyzed, it will be quite obvious to anyone that its structure is not different from that of ‘King Oedipus.’

Exposition of action

The opening scene in ‘King Oedipus’ is used - as the end aim of tragedy is to evoke pity and fear - for the spectator to identify Oedipus as a man with better human qualities and potentialities. The spectator goes to the theatre being fully aware that he is to see a drama about the most loathsome, abominable, mean and wretched man that he has ever heard of or even dreamt of. With the very first word that Oedipus utters; “Children”, the playwright dares challenge the spectator’s prejudiced pre-concepts about Oedipus. When he says to the Theban elders, who have come to the palace to seek his help to find deliverance for their present calamities;

“Indeed I should be heartless were I stop my ear

To a general petition such as this.,’ the spectator questions himself whether it is this man (the one who seems to have warmth in his heart to feel for the others) who is said to have killed his own father and committed incest with his mother, and would drop down the clubs and stones that he might have brought with him to shower upon the abominable .mean sub human who had been there in his imagination. Instead, he may begin to love him. He is now, without any doubt, confident that the man in his front is innocent, and has fallen an easy prey to an unseen vicious malignant force.

The opening scene is also used to creates suspense (interest) or curiosity of the Audience. When the curtain unveils, the Theban citizens, who have gathered at the Forecourt, are seen standing in the form of supplication. Oedipus asks;

“What is the meaning of this supplication what is the matter? Some fear, something you desire?,,

Similarly, when the curtain unveils in ‘The Proposal’ Lomov seems to have come to Choobukov’s (a neighbour of him) house formally dressed and when Choobuko asks;

“Why all this formality? Tails, gloves, and all the rest of it!

Are you going… visiting....What’s the matter...?

It evokes our suspense and further reminds us what Oedipus asks the Thebans.

Soon, we realise that he has come to make a proposal to Natalyia. Thus, revealing his proposal to Natalyia is understood as the ‘action’ of the drama. The irony created here, in both dramas, is quite similar because the man from whom Lomov seeks help:

“You are the only man who would possibly help me “

He is the one who has been waiting for years to give his daughter (who is passing her marriageable age) in marriage to him whereas the man from whom Thebans seek help to find the killer of the former king Laius is the killer himself. The spectator finds the situation intensely ironic as the man who falls in the trap long lay by Choobukov is a hypochondriac (a psycho-physical patient). In ‘King Oedipus’, Oedipus finally traps himself as the killer and identifies the killed as his own father.

Complication of action

When Creon’s visit to Delphi to consult its oracle to know the reasons for the present disaster is announced to the Thebans, the spectator’s suspense heightens.

Because he knows that Creon will come back with the message that the killer Oedipus strives hard to find is none but he himself. Choobukov’s going inside to inform Natalyia about Lomov’s proposal to her, and the created suspense thereby cannot be unconscious or spontaneous but deliberate copying. At the next moment ,when Natalyia comes out clad in her working dress, the audience feels quite certain of her negative response to Lomov’s proposal as it has already been observed what he has said and done. He cannot sleep at night. He has got a heart disease with continuous palpitations. He always gets terribly agitated and his lips tremble, and his right eye-lid twitches. As Choobukov later says, amidst their conflict, all his family members are mad, and Lomov, particularly, lives under his mistress’s thumb. All this should have been known to Natalyia as it is to the audience. So, the spectator is, now, sure that Lnmov will get a worse welcome from Natalyia.

Similarly, when Creon comes with the god’s message the spectator does not need to wait until he says it himself. He knows that the ‘full-buried’ crown of flowers that Creon is wearing is a clear sign that Oedipus, the killer cannot escape. Creon asks Oedipus whether the message is to be told before all the citizens or personally to him.

The spectator feels tensed when Oedipus asks him to do it before all, and as he knows the plight of Oedipus, his hair stands upright. He genuinely feels sorry for Oedipus for his helplessness at the moment. Moreover, his words suggest how innocent, how helpless and how honest he is. Thus, the action in both dramas is pushed forward, but at the next moment when Creon conveys the message to him;

“There is an unclean thing,

Born and nursed on our soil, polluting our soil, which must

be driven away?

Not kept to destroy us.”

The action is pushed backward as the message is not conveyed in plain, direct terms. Though the ‘unclean thing’ is none but Oedipus” no one can interpret it. The promise given to the spectator that Oedipus would be exposed as the killer as soon as Creon comes is thus withdrawn. The spectator loses a golden opportunity. In ‘The Proposal’ Choobukov too reveals Lomov’s proposal to Natalyia but wrapping it in a riddle;

“’There’s a customer come for the goods.”

By ‘goods’ what he means is his own daughter because the morally stale Russian Landowners would have considered their daughters as ‘goods’. As the message does not seem clear to her, the spectator cannot see what her response to Lomov would be.

In ‘King Oedipus’ when Teiresias, the blind seer, famous predictor comes, the playgoer feels again tensed because in divination Teiresias is said to have been second only to the gods. It is known to the spectator that gods convey their message in a form of a riddle, and man has to interpret it. However, he knows that Teiresias, being a man, should convey it directly. Oedipus, in order to get him revealed the meaning of the god’s will, encourages him to do so saying:

“’The only way of deliverance from our plague

Is for us to find out the killers of Laius And kill or banish them.

Now, sir, spare not your skill ...It is for yourself.

It is for Thebes, it is for me. Come, save us all,

Save all that is polluted by this death.

We look to you. To help his fellow-men

With all his power is man’s most noble work.”

But Teiresias knowing that he cannot save Oedipus by revealing the killer, discourages him saying;

“Wise words; but O, when wisdom brings no profit.’

This results a quarrel between Oedipus and Teiresias because Oedipus, who is wiling to keep even his life at risk to help his citizens, reasonably gets angry as this senior citizen denies revealing the killer though he has that ability. Sophocles utilises this quarrel to deviate the main course of action in order that the revelation of killer could be complicated. Similarly, Natalyia happens to quarrel with Lomov as she accidentally reminds him a long disputed land. In both dramas, action is pushed further backward as a result. What is more urgent at the moment for Oedipus and Teiresias is to save the country by exposing the killer whereas for Lomov and Nathalyia it is their marriage as both are passing their marriageable age.

Lomov, then, names Choobukov an ‘intriguer’ and ‘usurper’, and Oedipus does the same thing;

“I tell you I do believe you had a hard

In plotting and all but doing, this very act”.

Hereafter, Chekhov intending to shorten the drama uses ‘three-in-one, technique.

In ‘King Oedipus’, Oedipus imagining that Creon should have hired this blind seer to name him the killer, and claims the throne , chases Teiresias out and quarrels with Creon.

Turning point

Then, Jocasta comes to console him by asking him not to believe what the soothsayer said;

‘Then, absolve yourself at once. For I can tell you,

No man possesses the secret of divination.

And I have proof.

Choobukov chases Lomov out and in order to console Natalyia he says;

“And this ridiculous freak, this eyesore - yes, he has the impertinence to come

here and make proposal and all the rest of it !. Would you believe?.

Choobukov may intend here to console Natalyia by ridiculing Lomov together with his proposal to her’. However, something unexpected happens because she is not in a situation to wait for an ideal lover. She yells at him and implores that he should bring back Lomov’ (This marks the most crucial point and reversal of the action as well.)

The same thing happens when Jocasta tells the story as a proof to rid off Oedipus’ fear over what the soothsayer said. When Jocasta says;

“Laius...was killed by outland robbers

At a place where three roads meet.”

Oedipus, instead of being consoled, hangs on what Jocasta said because he remembers that he killed a man (at a place where three roads meet.’ He asks Jocasta to bring back the shepherd, the only eyewitness (who saw Oedipus killing Laius.) who, as Jocasta says has left the city after the incident. This is the most crucial turning point of the drama because the action; reveling the killer (or Oedipus being exposed as the killer) could so far be delayed as Oedipus was not ready to suspect his own acts. The killer that lives within Oedipus cannot be traced until he begins to suspect himself. Oedipus, being self righteous, suspects all the others except himself. Thus, it is clear to the spectator at this point that revelation of action will immediately take place when the shepherd and Lomov come in each drama respectively.

Reversal

In ‘King Oedipus’, in addition to revealing the killer, Oedipus has to recognise his own identity as well. They are like two parallel plots. For this purpose, Sophocles uses the scene in which a Corinthian messenger comes to relieve Oedipus. Aristotle cites this scene as a better example of ‘Reversal’. When the messenger says that he has come with a good news for Oedipus, even the spectator feels ecstatically pleased because as Oedipus has already won his love displaying his better human qualities the spectator now eagerly wishes that he would go to Corinth and live there happily. His tension now heightens because he knows that the shepherd will soon come and expose Oedipus as the killer.

However, breaking all these promises given, Oedipus’ identity is suddenly revealed by the messenger in his attempt to rid off Oedipus’ fear of marrying his mother. At this moment, Oedipus feels impatient to know who his real parents are. The messenger says that he was given to him by one of Laius’ shepherds. They were of the view that the shepherd whom the messenger means is the same man that Jocasta sent men to bring down and that she knows it better.

Recognition

Jocasta realizes everything though it is not still clear to Oedipus and rushes into the palace. The place where Natalyia comes to know the meaning of Lomov’s visit is similar to Jocasta recognising the truth behind everything though it is not still known to Lomov.

This is what Aristotle in this ‘Poetics’ says;

“As it is persons who are involved in the discovery, it may be that only one person’s identity is revealed to another, that of the second being already

Known. Sometimes, however, a natural recognition of two parties is

necessary, as for example, when the identity of Iphigenia was made known to

Orestes by the sending of the letter, a second discovery was required to make him known to Iphigenia”.

This implies us that Chekhov in his attempts of experiments to initiate a new style /tradition of theatre against the existing melodramatic and romantic scenes that evoked hilarious laughter has followed Aristotle’s instructions on plot development and characterization. Thus, he seems to have done his experiments closely associating ‘King Oedipus’. As Aristotle further says;

“Discovery is a change from ignorance to knowledge, and it leads either to

love or to hatred between persons destined for good or ill fortune. The most

effective from of discovery is that which is accompanied by reversals like the one in Oedipus.”

The shepherd comes but refuses to speak. Oedipus hires his men to torture the old man to bring the truth out however much it would be bitter for him. This man is safeguarding two secrets about Oedipus’ life. He is the one who knows Oedipus’ true identity and can say whether the king was killed by him or another”.

In ‘The Proposal’, when Lomov comes back, Natalyia determines to be patient and make a sacrifice by allowing him to win over her for the sake of her marriage. However, as she cannot alter the hereditary weaknesses that she has inherited from her own mother (In the next quarrel scene, Lomov reveals a family secret where Natalyia’s mother beating her father.) loses her designed patience and quarrels with Lomov over the pedigree of her dog. Oedipus’ anger is such a hereditary weakness that he has inherited from his father. The shepherd being unable to tolerate the physical torture any more reveals, though unwillingly, the truth of Oedipus’ life. Though Aristotle cites an example from Orestes as proof for double recognition, here lies another convincing example. Parallel to climactic/recognition scene in ‘King Oedipus’ , Chekhov uses the end of the second quarrel scene to develop its action to its climax where Natalyia being implored by her father shares her consent with Lomov by giving a kiss, and the latter (who has been in a state of trauma) recognises that his message is now known to Natalyia and has been accepted by her.

Resolution

As Aristotle says;

“Discovery leads either to love or to hatred between persons destined for good or ill fortune.”

Oedipus runs after Jocasta with a sword (This action of Oedipus is differently interpreted by critics.), comes to know that she has already committed suicide, and then blinds himself. In ‘The Proposal’, an idea is implied that Lomov’s recognition may lead to love (their marriage). Should there be an1’other example to prove that Chekhov in ‘The Proposal’ his second drama that he attempted at the age of 28 (Ivanovo- his first attempt was a failure.) followed the instructions laid by Aristotle in his ‘Poetics’(Aristotelian comments on ‘King Oedipus ‘and other dramas.) and utilised the plot structure of ‘King Oedipus’ to initiate a similar simple realistic tradition which is truly based on plot development and characterisation.

‘The Proposal’ -tragedy or comedy?

It is in fact due to the blind vale of comedy in Chekhov’s ‘The proposal’ that one may not identify the Oedipus’ skeleton stands behind its lines. In comedy, the protagonist finally achieves his desired objective/s. From the very beginning, he strives hard to achieve it with determination, dedication and devotion. However, it is hardly possible for anyone to see Lomov having such qualities. He is lazy and passive. He does not strive hard to achieve his objective. His achievement is an accident. It is his fate. However much he attempts (though unconsciously) to avoid it, it finally happens. He is to marry Natalyia, a quarrelsome, adamant and haughty woman. By marrying her, will he be able to spend ‘an ordered, regular life’ that he intends to?

In tragedy, the tragic hero, however hard he attempts he cannot achieve his aspirations. Oedipus’ sole objective in the drama is to avoid committing the two crimes; killing his father and committing incest with his own mother, for committing which he would never be forgiven. He does everything possible. He leaves his parents (though leaving one’s parents as he himself says is the hardest thing that one can do), leaves his psycho-physicals security, bodily pleasure, comfort and keeping even his life at risk.

However, once he turns back to his own life, he realizes that he, unwittingly, has committed the two crimes. He lives under delusion assuming that he is the most intelligent, the bastion of Thebans and their saviour. Though he solves all the others’ riddles, he has not been able to solve the riddle of his own life. Though he has eyes, he can never identify who he has killed on his way or the one with whom he has been living. The second objective that he strives hard madly quarrelling with all who attempted to stop him is finding the killer. He does not want to find the killer for his own sake. It is for the others. He is willing to sacrifice his own life for the others’ betterment. He finally achieves the objective but when it is achieved, it does not give the meaning that once he expected. The killer he has so far attempted to seize is he himself. It is the catastrophe of the catastrophic end of his life. Being unable to accept this, he blinds himself.

Is the situation different in ‘The Proposal’? The drama ends while Natalyia and Lomov continue quarrelling. Does the achieved objective give him the meaning that he expected?

“Natalyia Stepanovna is an excellent house keeper; educated, not bad-1ooking... I’m thirty-five already - a critical age, so to speak. Secondly, I must have an ordered, regular life. . .’ (What Lomov says here reminds me what Teiresias says to Oedipus in heat of anger; “Do not blame me; put your house in order.” Even Oedipus might have intended of living an orderly, regular life by marrying Jocasta.)

Then, can The Proposal’ be a comedy? Can it be a farce or a satire? Can anyone laugh at their plight? In ‘King Oedipus ‘, from the beginning to the right end, whatever Oedipus says the audience laugh at him for his ignorance, but isn’t their laughter followed by deep sense of pity for his helplessness, innocence and plight. Chekhov evokes our laughter throughout the performance of his drama. However, I would ask the counter critics to read it carefully and tell me whether his tone of irony is not intermingled with sympathy as it is of Sophocles in ‘King Oedipus ‘. Though we laugh at their outward follies and cruelties, we feel intensely sorry for their inner plight.

Thus, Chekhov’s ‘The Proposal’ seems to be a mere copy of Sophocles’ ‘King Oedipus’ or a different interpretation given to it in a minute form. It might be as a result of this experiment that he, later, formed certain new theatrical concepts as well.

 

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