It is Anton Chekhov’s birthday.
Below is a letter from him to V. A. Tihonov, dated February 23, 1892. Chekhov had turned thirty-two the month before. It has been translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett.
You are mistaken in thinking you were drunk at Shtcheglov’s name-day party. You had had a drop, that was all. You danced when they all danced, and your jigitivka on the cabman’s box excited nothing but general delight. As for your criticism, it was most likely far from severe, as I don’t remember it. I only remember that Vvedensky and I for some reason roared with laughter as we listened to you.
Do you want my biography? Here it is.
I was born in Taganrog in 1860. I finished the course at Taganrog high school in 1879. In 1884 I took my degree in medicine at the University of Moscow. In 1888 I gained the Pushkin prize. In 1890 I made a journey to Sahalin across Siberia and back by sea. In 1891 I made a tour in Europe, where I drank excellent wine and ate oysters. In 1892 I took part in an orgy in the company of V. A. Tihonov at a name-day party. I began writing in 1879. The published collections of my works are: “Motley Tales,” “In the Twilight,” “Stories,” “Surly People,” and a novel, “The Duel.” I have sinned in the dramatic line too, though with moderation. I have been translated into all the languages with the exception of the foreign ones, though I have indeed long ago been translated by the Germans. The Czechs and the Serbs approve of me also, and the French are not indifferent. The mysteries of love I fathomed at the age of thirteen. With my colleagues, doctors, and literary men alike, I am on the best of terms. I am a bachelor. I should like to receive a pension. I practice medicine, and so much so that sometimes in the summer I perform post-mortems, though I have not done so for two or three years. Of authors my favorite is Tolstoy, of doctors Zaharin.
All that is nonsense though. Write what you like. If you haven’t facts make up with lyricism.
BY HOWARD MOSS
We have the whole evening ahead of us,
We think, our eyesight starting to weaken,
We must have missed the houselights growing dim,
But how could that moment have escaped us when
The roots of the paper trees struck water
And transformed themselves into the real thing—
This nervous wood at the edge of a small,
Provincial town whose still lifes waken
To find that they’re portraits after all
And subject to the risk of animation?
Tonight we may discuss—after the Chopin
Nocturnes, after the I-don’t-know-how-many
Performances of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata—
The gradual reduction of Roman columns,
The disease of too many lakes and clouds.
Do cobblestones have a future? Is rain
Removable? Depressing mornings find
Characters in bed who have no reason
To get up, the light a yellowish half-light
Mirroring the mind, its sad affections.
At the lake, a flat of faultless summer
Is being taken down, the view abandoned;
The puzzled players change their places. Once
You might have found them walking in an orchard,
The blossoms opening their mouths to speak
And song occurring as if it were natural;
Now that trees uproot themselves and bankrupt
Agriculture wanes in its drying furrows,
Property and battlefields turn out to share
A fate in common—they exchange hands.
Shrines “fallen out of the perpendicular,”
Stones “that have apparently once been tombstones”—
We are on someone’s estate not far from Moscow.
How simply the sun goes out like a match!
How deeply the wounds stay on the surface!
He said the best that can be said for property:
It lets an old man fall in love with landscape,
Lets so many trees have a chance to be noticed,
Allows the self-interested birds to preen,
Until the property is lost again.
To an upstart creditor who sells the trees
For lumber, then, to the sounds of saws,
Tramps through the hallway in his dirty boots
To explain, in tears, the dreary motivation:
His mother’s dying, his young wife’s in love
With a boor . . . The Babel of trouble starts;
Among all the hells that go on talking,
Only one is real, though it is silent,
And everything leads up to it—to lose
The land, to lose the very ground you stand on.
If the temporary brilliancies gather once more
In the middle distance, and the modal lark
Persuades the summer evening to reveal
One private little splendor not for sale,
Still, a gunshot, onstage or off,
Tells us what no one is prepared to know:
Love is a tourniquet tightening its bands
Around the slowly dying wrist of freedom,
Futility’s a spinster bending over
A book of household accounts forever.
Bathed in the acid of truth, all things
Become possible: to be a cold snake
At an interview, to live on scraps of soap
To keep oneself warm, to resemble a cat
Constantly stalking the shadow of nothing,
To the horse’s clop-clop outside the window,
Or the sound of a guitar from a neighboring room,
The doctor, with a smile, asks, What is man?
A hero about to be done-in for good?
A villain about to be rescued by pain?
The governess is wearing her old forage cap.
That’s Epihodov playing his guitar.
Astrov is talking about trees. We could be
Racing the wolves at thirty below
In a ravine whiplashed by snow, or slowly
Succumbing to boredom in a seaside town,
Waiting for a future that will never be,
The heat getting worse, far off the waves
Pounding faintly late in the moonlight,
At a low moment in our lives.
It is also Paddy Chayefsky’s birthday. Here are some of his thoughts on screenwriting.
ON THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE
“The three-act structure is the form that I grew up in the theater with. You generally present a situation in Act I, and by the end of Act I the situation has evolved to a point where something is threatening the situation. In Act II you solve that problem producing a more intense problem by the end of Act II. In Act III you solve that problem, either happily or unhappily, depending on whether you have a comedy or a tragedy or a drama: you work out the final solution accordingly.”
“If it should occur to you to cut, do so. That’s the first basic rule of cutting. If you’re reading through and stop, something is wrong. Cut it. If something bothers you, then it’s bad. Cut it. If you can cut inside the speech, you’re really cutting most effectively.
“It’s purifying, it’s refining. Making it precise. Precision is one of the basic elements of poetry. My own rules are very simple. First, cut out all the wisdom; then cut out all the adjectives. I’ve cut some of my favorite stuff. I have no compassion when it comes to cutting. No pity, no sympathy. Some of my dearest and most beloved bits of writing have gone with a very quick slash, slash, slash. Because something was heavy there. Cutting leads to economy, precision, and to a vastly improved script.”
ON THE WRITING METHOD
“I always write a prose treatment. I write about half the story in prose to keep order among all the elements of the plot so I don’t get stuck when I do the screenplay.”
“My dialogue is precise. And it’s true. I think out the truth of what the people are saying and why they’re saying it. Dialogue comes because I know what I want my characters to say. I envision the scene; I can imagine them up there on the screen; I try to imagine what they would be saying and how they would be saying it. and I keep it in character. And the dialogue comes out of that.”
ON THE THEME
“The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning. Doesn’t always happen. You think you have a theme and you then start telling the story. Pretty soon the characters take over and the story takes over and you realize your theme isn’t being executed by the story, so you start changing the theme.”
“Names are fun. In Hospital I used a lot of mystery writers. Had a nurse named Christie. A doctor is named Chandler. Sometimes I go to baseball box scores and pick out names. Sometimes I keep characters from one project to another — Arthur Landau, a lawyer, runs through a variety of things.”
Norman Mailer presents him with the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 1977 Oscars for his script for Network. Mailer here is the east coast literary asshole at the Oscars who brings up Voltaire and quotes him about homosexuality to make some sort of point I can’t quite decipher. But it is rather offensive in 2020 to hear it and his using it as a contextual construct to make that convoluted point. The sweetness and dignity of Chayefsky in comparison – who seemed rather offended by it all in-the-moment – is both a debunking and a purification all at the same time. Mailer’s preening gave way to Chayefsky’s humility. Mailer’s perverting of the ceremony for his own ends was met by Chayefsky’s subverting of his perversion by owning the terminology thrust upon him by Mailer. It is all quite queer. And queer. Two straight men trying to decide in the show biz sense who was being the straight man to whom.