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A Wife Like the Moon

(No record of where and when printed)

It seems to be almost axiomatic that all 19th-century Russian artists were sick either in body or in mind. Tchaikovsky suffered from nightmarish delusions, Dostoyevsky was an epileptic, Mussorgsky a drunk. By comparison, Anton Chekhov, who died from tuberculosis in his thirties and whose special yearning was for a part-time wife, was practically normal.

The story of Chekhov’s three-year marriage to an actress and the courtship by correspondence which preceded this unexpected event was the theme of last night’s enterprising Granada play by Anne Allen, ‘A Wife Like the Moon’ (ITV).

Based almost entirely on letters and memoirs written by Chekhov his bride Olga Knipper, and his sister Masha, it revealed the author of ‘Uncle Vanya’ in a more or less perpetual state of dither and bad health. The prospect of marriage, at any rate in the normal sense of that condition, was almost too traumatic to contemplate: “Give me a wife,” he wrote, “who like the moon, doesn’t appear in my sky every day.” His natural indecision was exacerbated by the ambivalent attitude of Masha, who encouraged the courtship until it reached its logical climax, then rounded on her brother: “You have stunned us all!”

Poor old Chekhov. Anxiously he tried to explain that his marriage wasn’t, well, like other people’s marriages: “It will not in any respect alter my way of life,” he wrote to Masha, “everything will remain exactly as it was.” Busy writing his plays, he remained snugly in Yalta, while Olga hurtled across the length and breadth of Russia, even when pregnant, to act in them. Whatever other criticisms may be levelled at the last Czarist Russia, there can’t have been much wrong with the railway system.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this unlikely union was the genuine feeling it inspired. Chekhov lovingly addressed his Olga as “my doll,” “my darling pony” and even “my dog,” while Olga recorded after one of their separations that she could “hardly bear to make the bed.”

Between them, the ingenuous Miss Allan and her director, Julian Amyes, produced a touching and tender evocation of an extraordinary three-sided relationship. Michael Pennington made a splendidly eloquent, if a shade too normal-seeming, Chekhov, while it was a treat to hear Prunella Scales in the full rich warmth of her natural voice of Olga, instead of Sybil Fawlty’s croak. Isabelle Amyes supplied the right touch of querulousness as Masha.

All that was wrong with ‘A Wife Like the Moon’ was its length. An hour and a half is a long time on television, especially for a three-handed conversation piece with virtually no action except Chekhov’s death after drinking a glass of champagne. What a good job the authoress wasn’t tempted to explore the further relationship of Olga and Masha: they both survived to the late 1950s.

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