Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature

Chekhov and the Circus

L. Gavrilenko

Written: 1960
Source: The Soviet Circus: A Collection of Articles, 1967
Translated: Fainna Glagoleva;
Compiled: Alexander Lipovsky;
Photographs: Y. Savalov and others;
HTML Markup: For in February, 2002.

"Gilai, would you like to go to the circus today? If so, we'll expect you at 6:30, if not, lend me your season pass (Ivan and I are going)." This is a note written by Anton Chekhov to his friend, the writer Gilyarovsky.

"Chekhov and the circus?" the surprised reader will say. At first glance one might truly wonder what there is in common between Chekhov, that sensitive recorder of life, a man of deep and hidden thoughts and feelings, and the bright, eccentric spectacle we call the circus. Chekhov's contemporaries would not agree.

"Whenever Anton Pavlovich came to Moscow we went to Salamonsky's Circus. He loved the clowns and comedians and laughed like a child," wrote A. Vishnevsky, an actor of the Moscow Art Theatre and close friend of the author.

During Chekhov's voyages through Italy and France he went sightseeing, visited museums and galleries, and never once missed a chance to take in a circus performance. Chekhov's interest in the circus was not merely a passing fancy. He dreamed fervently of the future well-rounded individual in whom "everything must be beautiful" and always admired the physical perfection, skill and courage of circus performers.

"Whenever I came to Melikhovo, Chekhov and his father, Pavel Yegorovich, would take me to see the horses grazing beyond the house. They would be very pleased if I showed them some riding tricks," Gilyarovsky wrote, who had been a circus performer in his youth.

It was this courage, skill and grace that made Chekhov so enamoured of the bright lights of the circus. He often associated his own good spirits and feeling of well-being with the circus.

However, Chekhov was never just another man in the audience. The circus, this tiny, unusual island of Russian life, attracted the writer in him from the very beginning.

In Chekhov's column "Fragments of Moscow Life" one also finds descriptions of circus life. Chekhov wrote this column for Oskolki, a magazine published in Petersburg, for nearly three years. There was more to it than social chatter, for he wrote of the social contradictions of his time. Once, a group of rich merchants on a spree had the trained pig that belonged to the famous clown Tanti roasted for them. In payment they tossed Tanti the tremendous sum of 2,000 rubles. This fact, as reflected in Chekhov's column, acquired its true social significance. The performer's humiliation, the trampling of his human dignity in a society where money was god, was by no means an unusual event at the time.

Chekhov was fascinated by the wit and satire of Vladimir Durov. Following is an excerpt from one of his articles, dated 1885, and written after he saw Durov perform.

"Moscow is terribly addicted to swinishness. Everything concerning swine, beginning with jellied suckling-pigs and horse-radish and ending with a swine triumphant, is greeted with open arms here. In Moscow, swines that are not only triumphant themselves but cheer the populace as well are held in especial esteem.... When the merchants 'gobbled up' Tanti's pig, the animal's place was not vacant long. The clown Durov trained another pig, thus taking the mournful Muscovites' minds from, the deceased, who had but recently been digested in the merchants' stomachs. Durov's ingenue provides the audience with the greatest of aesthetic pleasures. She dances, grunts on command, shoots a pistol and, unlike so many Moscow oinkers, reads the newspapers. During Durov's last performance he presented, as one of his tricks, a pig reading the papers. It was offered a variety of newspapers but indignantly refused each of them in turn, grunting suspiciously all the while. At first, they thought that pigs hate publicity, too, but when the animal was offered a copy of The Moscow Leaflet, it oinked happily, wiggled its tail and, pressing its snout to the paper, shook its head excitedly. Such swinish delight gave Durov the right to make a public statement to the effect that all papers are intended for people, while the popular Moscow Leaflet.... Avid readers of the Moscow Leaflet who were present at the time were not annoyed. On the contrary, they were delighted, and applauded the pig vigorously."

Chekhov continued in the same sarcastic vein, continuing the satire of the Russian clown, revealing its deeper significance. There rises from the pages of his column the symbolic image of a swine triumphant, the embodiment of the dark epoch of the 80s.

Chekhov was quick to notice the purely business-like, mercenary nature of many of the "sports and circus" performances at Lentovsky's famous Hermitage Gardens.

"From all corners of the world," Chekhov wrote in his column, "people walk and run to Moscow in quest of the prizes: all sorts of 'Austrian officers,' the famous sprinter who ran races in the presence of His Highness the Turkish Sultan, human birds, human snakes, human scorpions. All the hotel rooms and every nook and cranny are now occupied by these talented individuals, so close to the heart of all Muscovites." In 1884, Chekhov wrote In Bad Society. In the second edition the title was changed to Kashtanka. There are two versions of the origin of the story's theme. In the first, Laikin, the publisher of Oskolki, insisted that it was he who had told Chekhov about a dog named Kashtanka. In the second, Vladimir Durov, in his book My Animals, gives a detailed description of an event that happened to him and which he later related to Chekhov:

"Kashtanka was a young chestnut-coloured dog, the first of my trained dogs. Before I got her she belonged to a poor cabinetmaker. Kashtanka was lost, she had lost her master and finally ended up with me. The story of this dog served as the basis for A. P. Chekhov's story Kashtanka, which he heard from me. I remember the time I first saw Kashtanka as if it were yesterday. It was winter, and it was snowing heavily. A small chestnut dog pressed close to the door of my house, whining helplessly, not knowing which way to go or where to seek warmth. The snow kept coming down, covering it from head to tail, transforming it into a white shapeless mound with two large sad eyes.

"The dog was tired and sleepy. Suddenly, somebody pushed the door open. The dog jumped up and saw a short, clean-shaven man in an overcoat. This, of course, was me. The dog looked at me through the snowflakes on its eyelashes and probably sensed that I meant no harm. I brushed the snow from its back and called it after me. The dog came in and remained in my house thereafter. I began training it. Soon it showed such progress that it began performing in the circus with my other four-legged and feathered actors. Once, however, Kashtanka was the cause of a great commotion in the middle of our act. Kashtanka was going through her paces when she suddenly stopped and looked up to where a familiar voice had called to her. The cabinetmaker, her former master, had one of the balcony seats. Ignoring the crowd and my command, the dog scampered up through the rows to her former master." It is difficult to say which of the two stories served as the basis of Chekhov's story. However, there can be no doubt that Chekhov "borrowed" Vladimir Durov for his clown. Durov was the most popular clown in the Russian circus and Chekhov was personally acquainted with him.

The description of the clown in Chekhov's story, the "short, round man with a clean-shaven plump face," is a true portrait of Durov. However, what is most important is not the portrait resemblance, but a resemblance in character and attitude. In describing his clown, Chekhov reveals the noble traits of the wonderful performer and innovator. He has created a man of great spiritual beauty and revealed his kindness, gentleness and true love of animals. He speaks of the work of a circus performer as of a true art form, based on persistent and inspired toil. The gentle humour of this personage makes him more likeable still.

Chekhov does not seem to bring his character into direct contact with the difficulties of life, but anyone who has read the story will recall the clown's sadness and loneliness. Herein lies the deeper meaning of the story, the bitter life of a circus performer in tsarist times.

Thus in the truly humane traditions of Russian literature did Chekhov approach one of the lesser themes of his work, the theme of the circus.