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Chekhov: A Biography and The Signature of All Things

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I have a tendency to pick up thick, dry (well, actually sort of musty) biographies and stubbornly plow my way through them. Admittedly, I called it quits on page 600 of Chekhov: A Biography by Ernest J. Simmons in favor of the above mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert novel, which is about the same length and which I tore through in the matter of about a week, but more on that later.

The back cover of Simmons’s bio reads: “This work reads like a massive Russian novel, but one in which a real hero dominates a tapestry of real life.” Let me assure you, this is false advertising – it reads like a halting, over-wrought research report in which the minutiae of Chekhov’s day-to-day existence is loyally recorded in painstaking detail. As with biopics, I think there is an art to writing biographies in which the story of a person’s life can be both well-researched and selectively rendered so as to leave the reader with a more memorable, vibrant impression of the essence of who that person was, and I’m fascinated by that art. Simmons’s approach is less than inspiring. But it was certainly informative, and inspires me to delve deeper into Chekhov’s body of work, of which, when I say deeper, I confess I am treading in very shallow waters. My exposure to Chekhov, embarrassingly, is limited to some of his short stories, adapted to the stage for a show I worked on called “Chekhov’s Life in the Country.”

Chekhov was a physician, first, then ever-increasingly, a writer. He called medicine his wife and literature his mistress (quite literally – he married very late in life). He constantly gave away his medical services for free and started writing humorous stories for cheap magazines as a way to make money for his large family. He wrote under a pseudonym, and he wrote hastily. This business of writing was a mercantile one in which he churned out stories for small sums. Simmons never goes into much detail about Chekhov’s early life as a reader; rather, he gives the impression that Chekhov was full of stories and gifted with powers of observation and imagination — that the stories just poured out of him.

It took time for Chekhov to see and embrace that he had a special genius, and he slowly graduated from the popular magazines to publications of literature. His relationship to the theatre and playwriting was a bit rocky; his plays were often ill-received at first, as they didn’t adhere to the conventions of Russian drama. Tolstoy criticized him for writing “the world as he saw it,” rather than infusing his work with a moral perspective, but Chekhov and Tolstoy eventually developed a mutually admiring relationship. Chekhov had tons of friends, and when he wasn’t writing, he was usually entertaining a group of visitors – he also loved to garden and became something of a real estate enthusiast near the end of his life. He was extremely close to his sister, and held out on marriage until late in life when his tuberculosis was in full swing, when he married a Moscow actress named Olga. Interestingly, he launched on a journey to Siberia in the middle of his life and wrote a report on the treatment of prisoners there. And… I’ll leave you there. I’m a bit Chekhov-ed out. But suffice it to say that the book only builds up your admiration and even, affection for this literary giant – it does humanize him and portray him as a likeable, relatable figure.

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In contrast, The Signature of All Things was a quick read. It starts with the story of Henry Whittacre, a scrappy, poor boy who grew up the son of an orchard farmer and longed for a bigger, better life. He starts stealing flowers from a famous botanist for chunks of money from aspiring botanists, and ends up going to work for the famous botanist. After sailing the world, he marries a Dutch woman, takes her to America, and builds a formidable estate in 19th century Philadelphia.

From then on, it’s his daughter Alma’s story. Her relationship to her adopted sister, Prudence, her sexual awakening starting in her father’s library, her unrequited love for the printmaker George Hawkes, her silly friendship with a young woman who later becomes George’s wife and later still, goes insane, her mother’s death, her obsession with mosses to counteract the loneliness of spinsterhood, her fleeting marriage to an orchid painter named Ambrose Pike, her father’s death, and upon learning some surprising information from her mother’s nursemaid, the decision to leave the estate to Prudence and sail to Tahiti…

The book gets its title from the Ambrose Pike character, who confesses to Alma that he went insane when he thought he could discern God’s imprint on every trace of the natural world. Alma’s own life story is infused with a deep devotion to and lifelong study of nature, and so, in her own, more grounded way, she sees God’s signature in nature, too.

Following her travels to Tahiti and around the world, when Alma seeks to resolve her conception of the mysterious Ambrose Pike, she settles in Holland with her mother’s relatives. As an old woman, her study of mosses leads her toward her own theory of natural selection, but she resists publishing her theory because she can’t bridge the gap between the self-sacrificing nature of people like her once-despised sister Prudence with the idea that struggle and conquest define human nature. So at the core of this novel is the tension between the natural world, in all its beauty, and the unique beauty of humans.

In many ways The Signature of All Things reminds me of the novels I enjoyed as a girl – and one of my favorite novels to this day, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which Padraic is finally reading this summer, to my delight. You have a precocious, curious, slightly unconventional female heroine free to study or explore in a world buoyed by inherited wealth, a historical setting around the 1800s, and an epic, birth-to-death scope. I couldn’t help but notice that the character Prudence’s story, heavily intertwined with the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, is sidelined, in favor of privileged Alma’s love interests and reverence for mosses. Perhaps it would be more edifying to write, or read, a book about Prudence. The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love – is also steeped in the world of privileged white women.

So it’s in many ways an old-fashioned tale, if such a thing exists, but a delectable, escapist one, perfect for car rides back to Chicago, which still feels like my second home, or outdoor evenings in Saint Louis spent rocking (as in, a chair) and reading.

My parting advice – skip the Chekhov biography for a collection of his short stories, starting with The Lady with The Little Dog (I love this story), or a cold read of The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull, and in the meantime, if you’re looking for a virtual garden in which to explore, curl up with The Signature of All Things. Enjoy 🙂

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Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.11.54 AMJulie Andrews isn’t so different from her alter ego, Mary Poppins — she radiates respectability, striving to be “practically perfect in every way” with endearing panache. I could have told you that before I read her memoir, “Home”if you teach musical theatre history, she has a way of asserting her greatness, from her narration of the PBS Broadway DVD series to her vocal virtuosity to her string of original roles that lent musical comedy dramatic heft, albeit PG dramatic heft. I’d argue that the most avant-garde theatre-goer finds it hard to hate on a youthful nun, a no-nonsense nanny or an impressionable flower girl when played by Ms. Andrews. She nails the deceptively difficult task of making rather square heroines interesting and memorable. The more I learn about Julie Andrews, the more I realize that the actress shares this sunny, substantive nature. “Home: A Memoir of my Early Years,” covers her childhood and early Broadway career through her acceptance of the film role of Mary Poppins. Tenacity, talent, poise, optimism and an impressive clarity of spirit characterize her pursuit of career and family, not unlike the ingenues imagined by Lerner and Loewe or Rogers and Hammerstein. On the opening night of “My Fair Lady,” Andrews writes

“I distinctly remember feeling like a prizefighter going into the ring; I was the correct weight, I knew what I had to do, my voice had returned, and I was ready as I could possibly be. It was the only time in my entire stage career that I have felt that way.”

The reader is given a vivid backstage tour of this pivotal moment in her career, from the generous advice of composer Richard Rogers encouraging her to take the lead in Lerner and Loewe’s competing show, to her homesickness at the outset of rehearsals to her guilelessness as an actor, prompting director Moss Hart to call off rehearsals and give her a one-on-one, 48-hour acting lesson that “felt like…going to the dentist with an agonizing toothache.” The strain of the two-year run manifests itself in quirky and not so quirky ways — the urge to giggle mid-scene, vocal exhaustion, the need to cover for her co-star’s onstage pranks — but overall, this early chapter reads like a cinderella story: “for every single performance of the two years I played on Broadway, I never stopped working on Eliza. She is such a character, and I have never in my life had as good an acting lesson…”

Her memory of the fear, anticipation and excitement surrounding “My Fair Lady” is fierce, as is her memory of “Camelot,” “Mary Poppins,” a live TV special of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” and so on. The quantity and immediacy of her backstage anecdotes are a reminder that the anxious, demanding and sometimes euphoric work of performing makes for a truly unique, heightened existence, that is, if your career happens to be blessed! Remarks like “there are eight unison notes as the overture begins. Every time I heard them I would think, ‘Oh my God, we’re committed now'” resonate with ahem, yours truly, a lowly production assistant on a gargantuan production of “Miss Saigon.” Never mind that mine was the sweaty job of organizing colossal piles of guns and flags, awkwardly bossing a union crew through helicopter fly-overs, chain link fence rattling, and turn table mayhem, I get a tiny, ridiculous thrill whenever I hear the ominous drum rattling at the beginning of the overture. You know, when I’m standing in an elevator or listening to the radio… Andrews walked with giants, but her walk down memory lane doesn’t speak exclusively to theatre nerds. My fondness for musical theatre is about 10 percent love of musicals and 90 percent appreciation for what it takes to produce them. Similarly, the draw of Andrews’s memoir is her ability to eloquently deconstruct her own success story while retaining a serendipitous sense of show biz magic, probably because she still seems genuinely surprised and humbled by her accomplishments.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.23.41 AM“Home” isn’t solely concerned with the home Julie Andrews found onstage. The literal meaning of the word is equally if not more important to her conception of her “early years,” as demonstrated by the opening sentence of chapter one: “I am told that the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was ‘home.’” This is followed by a detailed outline of her family lineage and birthplace, the working class village of Walton. She writes lovingly of “Dad,” a.k.a. Ted Wells, recalling bucolic outings together in the English countryside. Dad was a “‘practical handicrafts teacher’” about whom Andrews remembers “wonderful, specific things,” such as his attentiveness to nature, poetry, music and self-improvement through study, as well as his nurturing presence. However, Andrews’s childhood is defined by struggles at home, and this is the context where she first carries the show, drawing on innate resilience, poise and sensitivity. She hints at the complex family dynamics, writing of her parents, “Someone once asked me which parent I hated the most. It was a provocative question and an interesting one, because it suddenly became apparent to me which one I loved with all my being…and that was my father. My mother was terribly important to me and I know how much I yearned for her in my youth, but I don’t think I truly trusted her.”

Andrews’s mother was a traveling vaudeville singer who, in her own words, married Dad because he was “safe” and eventually remarried her partner in the vaudeville act, a performer named Ted Andrews. As a result of her parents’ separation, Julie spent the bomb blitzes of World War II traveling back and forth between Dad and “mum and Ted.” Ted gives her singing lessons and realizes the strength and range of her voice. When taken to a vocal specialist, it is discovered that the eight-year-old Andrews has a fully formed, adult larynx. This revelation sets serious vocal training in motion, providing a much-needed emotional release for a deepening series of ruptures in her family. At nine or ten years old, Puccini arias make Andrews burst into tears, “overwhelmed by the sadness of the lyric combined with the pure sweetness of the melody.” This frustrates her mother but invokes sympathy in her voice teacher, an opera singer referred to as “Madame.” Madame gently steers Andrews toward Handel and says “never be embarrassed when you are moved by music… You will sing them when you are older and your voice is more mature. Right now it would just pull you to pieces vocally. It’s too emotional; too beautiful and sad.”

In a direct but graceful way, Andrews documents the numerous sources of sadness inside her childhood home — secrets, abuse, the emotional ambiguity of her parents’ relationships — then moves briskly to the next event, giving the reader a private, uncontained view of a life in process. For example, walking with her newly remarried mother near the family’s new home in Kent — both the “garden of England” and in 1943, “right in the middle of the flight path between Germany and London” — it is suggested that Julie settle on a more appropriate term of endearment for her step-father. “Uncle Ted” becomes “Pop” with the same suddenness that “Julia Elizabeth Wells,” originally named for dad and her two grandmothers, is handed the name “Julie Andrews.” She candidly covers the many sides of Pop, from their initial dreaded voice lessons, to performing duets with him for Queen Elizabeth, to his ongoing role in organizing their act, to instances of sexual abuse and his descent into full-fledged alcoholism.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.15.29 AMThere’s more where that come from, deeper secrets and other, ongoing hardships. But Andrews’s sufferings are a stark contrast to the Midas touch of her singing voice, her extraordinary friendships with fellow artists, the joyful experience of being a mother herself, and her second wind as a writer. There is a triumphant tone to what she has managed to ask and receive of her life, despite the limitations of her childhood home. About “My Fair Lady,” she describes the rare experience of “threading the needle” — hitting every moment of the show spot-on. It’s a metaphor for her life’s striving, described as “riding the ecstasy all the way home,” the “joy of being a vessel, being used, using oneself fully and totally in the service of something that brings wonder.”

[Creative Commons Licensed photos: Wikipedia and Harper Ganesvoort’s photostream, as well as the cover of the book]

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