Love Burning in an Envelope

Buried deep in the letters collected in "Dear Writer, Dear Actress" is the plot of Chekhov's greatest (unwritten) masterpiece. For this volume of correspondence between the playwright and his wife, actress Olga Knipper of the Moscow Art Theater, spans a five-year love affair which was based on separation and laced with pain and tender frustration. By the time the couple met in April 1899, the 38-year-old Chekhov was already in the advanced stages of tuberculosis and was forced to spend much of his time in Yalta in an effort to preserve the tattered remnants of his health. Because Knipper did not want to give up a blossoming career on the Moscow stage, they spent a great deal of time apart. She was forced to lavish on Chekhov's plays the constant care and attention she was unable to confer upon his person. Add to this scenario Chekhov's sister Masha -- a jealous, overbearing spinster who lived exclusively through her brother's achievements and deeply resented the intrusions of this society actress -- and you have a drama to eclipse such classics of the modern stage as "Uncle Vanya," "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard." Editor and translator Jean Benedetti, in her introduction to the volume, draws attention to the curious, playful formality of the letters. Chekhov's squeamishness and fear of intimacy results in high, impregnable barricades of pet names, in-jokes and skittish word-play, all of which Knipper adoringly reciprocates. Along with the "Actress" and "Writer" of the title, they coined a host of other colorful appellations: doggy, baboon, granny, sperm whale and, for him, Antonius Academicus. The letters are littered with references to toothaches and the weather, which was a subject upon which their entire lives depended. The slightest climactic change could keep the couple apart for months. The Russian postal system also leaves its mark with lost or late letters prompting flurries of paranoid recrimination -- as does the effervescent life of the Russian theater during this period with its curious mixture of radical experimentation, bitchiness and dissipation. "I'm quite drunk, Anton!," Knipper wrote in 1901, after a raucous backstage party, "Forgive your dissolute wife!" References to Chekhov's plays are rare and confined to the mutual interests. Knipper, naturally enough, was preoccupied with the difficulties presented to her as an actress by Chekhov's magnificently subtle and dangerously brittle writing. In turn, he divulges to his lover and wife surprisingly little about the creative process (this was reserved for more serious, male companions). Nonetheless, it is exciting to learn, through casual references and scraps of information, that masterpieces are growing and taking shape in both Chekhov's mind and on paper. But the real beauty of the collection is that, out of a mishmash of triviality, the power and the pain of their relationship sporadically emerges. After the marriage in 1901 -- which was a typically curious affair complete with a sham-reception unattended by bride and groom -- Chekhov's sister sent Knipper a brazen letter laying down ground rules for their m?nage ? trois. Though Knipper at first reacted with restraint, the conflict broke through the surface after she miscarried their baby (which had already been christened Pamphil) the following year. Knipper's fear that she and her "dissolute" lifestyle were being blamed for the loss was accentuated by Masha's failure to invite her, soon afterwards, to Yalta: "There was a clear disinclination," wrote Knipper, in what was perhaps the most forthright moment in their relationship, "for you to be with me when I was ill. I realize your stay in Moscow did your health no good, particularly when you had a sick wife, but these rumors [that Knipper was not invited] upset me and I wrote and told her so." The relationship at this point seems to have gone into decline along with Chekhov's health. The letters become markedly less frequent. But the playwright's impending death in 1904 revives their love and the last section is, by far, the most poignant. Benedetti cheats, as she does throughout in order to plug the holes in the epistolary narrative, by inserting a section of Knipper's memoirs which describes Chekhov's final moments. But the real revelation for me came from reading the letters written after Chekhov's passing: "Dearest darling sweetheart, it's so long since we had a chat. I've been so unkempt, so overwrought you wouldn't have liked me at all. I feel as though I am on my knees before you, leaning my head against your breast, hearing your heart and you are tenderly stroking me. Anton, where are you?" Her true feelings about Masha finally pour out: "Did you know the way things were between us? Jealousy, pure and simple. We love each other very much but she felt I was taking everything away from her -- her home, you -- and was behaving like some sacrificial victim." On the whole, Benedetti has done a good job both in formulating the concept and its execution. The somewhat plodding introduction does contain interesting information regarding the circumstances of the love affair. It describes Knipper's background: she was born into a German middle-class family, and was only allowed to take to the stage because her father's death left the family in financial difficulty. The letters are arranged into four sections: "Friend," "Lover," "Wife" and "Widow." It is fascinating to see how the language and intimacy changed gears in each new stage of their relationship. Benedetti could do little to mitigate the mundane nature of much of the correspondence but, strangely enough, the gravitational pull toward the commonplace is far more evident in Chekhov's letters than in Knipper's. While he may have been an infinitely better writer, her fiery little missives burn with the true spirit of a sardonic and incandescent theatrical sensibility. With its stark illumination of quotidian failures and desires, "Dear Writer, Dear Actress" offers little to those seeking insight into Chekhov's writing, or Knipper's status as an actress. But it does reveal the silly, flippant and all-too-tragically human side of two figures who helped plot the course of 20th century theater. "Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper," edited and translated by Jean Benedetti, Methuen, 292 pages, ?16.99 ($28.48).