Last week I had an email conversation with my longtime friend, American playwright Ellsworth Schave, about great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, and another email conversation with a director. and theater owner about Horton Foote’s Trip to Bountiful. The two email conversations (I don’t do phone conversations) renewed my interest in dramatic writing and my love for Anton Chekhov’s great plays.
So what is it that brings these thoughts together? The fact that Ellsworth’s “style” of dramatic writing was influenced by Anton Chekhov, whom he admired as much as I did, and by my theory that Horton Foote’s wonderful and deceptively simple plays were influenced by Chekhov. When Mr. Foote (many people in Wharton called him “Horton”, but he was still “Mr. Foote” to me) spent his six months a year at his family home in Wharton, I had the opportunity to ask him during one of the many seminars he took with drama students and my creative writing class at Wharton County Junior College if his writing style had been influenced by Anton Chekhov.
He replied that a lot of people had asked him the same question, and he told them, telling me that, alas, he had not read Chekhov before the first person asked him the question. I told him that I believed that despite his lack of exposure to Chekhov, his pieces were very âChekhovianâ (if that’s a word, lol). He seemed satisfied with my assessment.
My friend (he was a best man at my wedding) Ellsworth wrote and still writes deceptively simple plays that are very Chekhovian (in my opinion), A Texas Romance, Calvin’s Garden, The Turquoise Pontiac, The ’47 Ford, and many more. One of his first plays, A Texas Romance, premiered in Michigan City, Indiana, and continued in Bossier Parish, Louisiana. Like Horton Foote, Ellsworth Schave is an American playwright strongly associated with Texas.
Mr. Foote, who died in 2009, has written television plays and dramas, as well as live theater plays, and has won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and two Oscars. The first play I ever read by him was The Dancers (written in 1954), but my favorite, and absolutely darling, play from him is Trip to Bountiful. Tender Mercies was an original script which is a classic.
Not too long ago, at the Little Plaza Theater in Wharton, the Plaza Musical Group performed the Chamber Opera version of Mr. Foote’s play, A Coffin in Egypt, to a libretto by Leonard Foglia and sheet music. by Ricky Ian Gordon. I couldn’t attend the presentation myself, but my wife did. The setting was Egypt, Texas (down the road from Wharton) and Lady Egypt (the title I knew her by) was someone I got to know very well in her later years.
Saying all this about two American playwrights that I admire brings me back to Anton Chekhov. In my opinion, the best written biography of Chekhov was Chekhov by Henri Troyat.
Born in 1860, Chekhov died in 1904, some time before the abolition of serfdom and the Bolshevik revolution. His grandfather had been a serf, but by the time Anton died, Anton was ironically master of his own large estate with his own serfs. La Cerisaie is my favorite of his pieces and seems to herald the changes to come that will lead to the Revolution of 1917. Working as a doctor was his career that he loved to the end, never giving up the practice of medicine.
He was the master of understatement and his plays were so subtle with implications that the less educated did not understand. Simple and subtle but deep, I guess, that’s what I mean by ‘Chekhovian’, and I see those qualities in Ellsworth Schave and Horton Foote. Long live the theater!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, retired LCMS pastor, and author of three books, It Must Be the Noodles, Open Prairies, and Tanka Schoen.