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
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
Known. Sometimes, however, a natural recognition of two parties is
necessary, as for example, when the identity of Iphigenia was made
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
love or to hatred between persons destined for good or ill fortune.
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.
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.