Profs Phelps and Senelick get it right

On 14 September 1922 the following letter appeared on pages 584-85 of the Times Literary Supplement:

 Sir, — In your issue for August 3 you say “outside Mr Lubbock’s book, Calderon’s plays and ‘Tahiti’ are all that is left of a fine spirit and fine brain”. I think his ‘Introduction to Two Plays by Chekhow [sic] 1911 [sic] the most subtle and penetrating essay on the Russian dramatist that I have seen anywhere. Faithfully yours, WM. LYON PHELPS. Huron City, Michigan.

It seems no exaggeration to say that at this time Phelps was the most famous American humanities professor in the world. As a young lecturer at Yale University in the 1890s he had offered the first-ever American university course on the modern novel — to the intense envy and opposition of his tenured colleagues. Eventually, Phelps’s courses became internationally known and the best attended on the campus. By 1922 he was Lampson Professor of English Literature at Yale, a celebrated athlete and baseball-player, a public preacher, and later had his own radio show. In his letter Phelps is referring to Percy Lubbock’s George Calderon: A Sketch from Memory, which had been published to critical acclaim the year before.

Phelps was absolutely right to draw attention to George’s introduction to Chekhov’s plays, and frankly one could still argue today that it is the single ‘most subtle and penetrating’ piece in English on the subject. The question is, why isn’t it better known and appreciated?

The answer is perhaps amusing and characteristic of the British theatrical and academic establishments.

In 1912, except for some enthusings by Maurice Baring about Chekhov’s ‘realism’ (politely deflated by George himself in the TLS), nothing much had been published in English about Chekhov’s plays. Theatre critics and Edwardian highbrows had no handles on Chekhov; they did not know what they were going to say about his plays, which after Ibsen and Shaw they found pretty mystifying.

George’s ‘Introduction’ allowed them to become instant experts. More than one theatrical columnist commented humorously on how everyone was ‘quoting’ Mr Calderon on Chekhov, but no-one acknowledging him… Obviously, the theatre critics did not want to lose face by crediting George, and in fact they and other English theatre people resented the fact that he knew Russian and was ‘too clever by half’. An informal conspiracy of silence grew up around the ‘Introduction’, and even about George’s pioneering of Chekhov’s plays. Complicating it was the fact that the ‘progressive’ theatrical establishment was overwhelmingly Liberal and Fabian, whereas George was a radical Conservative, anti-feminist, etc. For some time, the ‘Introduction’ became the elephant in the room of English writing about Chekhov’s drama. Yet as Harold Hobson said to me in 1977, the early twentieth-century British theatre owed more to Calderon for its initiation into Chekhov’s plays than to anyone else.

In the 1960s British theatre writers and Russianists were indundated with fresh biographical information about Chekhov released from the USSR and Soviet interpretations of his plays. This persuaded them that anyone who wrote ‘Trofimov’ as ‘Trophimof’ must be out of touch, ‘Edwardian’, and thoroughly superseded. George was regarded by academic Russianists as a dilettante and the ‘Introduction’ hardly referred to. In fact, George Calderon was one of the best-informed British Russianists there has ever been and had a first-rate critical mind of his own.

The beauty of George’s ‘Introduction’ is that it is both a diachronic and a synchronic document. That is to say, the issues it covers in twenty pages — the ‘New Drama’, ‘The Centrifugal Method’, ‘Group Emotions’, ‘English Acting’, ‘Contrast of Moods’, ‘The Illusions of the Ego’, ‘Tragedy and Comedy’, ‘Good and Evil’, ‘Villains and Heroes’, ‘Realism’, ‘Soliloquies’, ‘Symbolism’ — can be looked at purely in the context of their times, or they can be discussed as issues still with us in Chekhov’s theatre today. You can approach them knowing an awful lot about the history of British and European theatre circa 1910, or you can tackle them knowing nothing about that but having your own responses to reading Chekhov’s plays and seeing Chekhov productions now.

I have always felt that this combination of the then and the now makes the ‘Introduction’ peculiarly suitable as a set-text for a theatre studies course on Chekhov or a Russian literature course that includes his plays. The lecturer can ‘teach’ the historical dimension — those facts — but the issues George raises can be debated in a seminar/tutorial by any student who has read and thought about the plays, seen recent productions, or is alive to theatre tout court. Unfortunately, I have yet to come across a Theatre Studies or Russian Department in Britain that agrees with me!

But there is poetic justice, surely, in the fact that today another American, Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University Laurence Senelick, has championed George’s writing on Russian drama generally, and been the first, probably, to reprint the ‘Introduction’ since the 1930s. It can be found in Selected Plays of Anton Chekhov, edited and translated by Laurence Senelick (New York, W.W. Norton, 2005), p. 463-79.

Senelick prefaces George’s essay with the words: ‘His introduction to their [the translations’] publication, despite the old-fashioned transliteration of Chekhov’s name, is a very astute interpretation by a contemporary.’

Sometimes one has to stand a long way back from something to see it in its true light.

Next entry: 15 February 1915

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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