A while ago I was browsing in the superb London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury, when my eye was caught by the thick spine of this book. The complete plays? What, all of them? I took it down from the shelf, opened it, and with widening eyes realised that a fine upstanding man, to whom I for one shall be always grateful, had taken it into his surely noble head to translate into English every single play, however short, however obscure or fragmentary, that Anton Chekhov ever wrote.
What a humane, if not long-overdue, undertaking. And what a find, especially if, like me, you consider Chekhov to be one of the two or three greatest playwrights since Shakespeare - not to mention the finest ever short story writer.
The name of the wonder-worker who has presented the world with this banquet of a book is Laurence Senelick, a professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University in Massachusetts. There are now quite a few `Plays of Chekhov` out there, usually with the four major plays, from The Seagull (which, as Prof Senelick rightly points out, should be titled simply The Gull - `Chaika` in Russian - as zoologically there is no such bird as a `seagull`, and anyway the play takes place by a lake, far from any sea) to The Cherry Orchard, some including the very fine earlier play Ivanov, others still finding space for a small selection of the short plays, or vaudevilles.
What you get here is everything! After 50 pages including a Preface, brief biography of Chekhov`s life, a chronology, a very welcome Guide to Transliteration & Pronunciation, and a short introduction, the rest of this astonishing work of scholarship - over 1000 pages` worth - consists of (as far as we know) every piece of dramatic writing Chekhov ever produced. The sections are: `Early Experiments` (which includes the play we know of as Platonov, mutated in recent years into versions by not only Michael Frayn, as Wild Honey, but also David Hare & Trevor Griffiths), `Collaboration` (a short play he wrote with one Ivan Shcheglov), `Humorous Dialogues and Parodies` (all new to me), and `Plays` - the latter taking us from vaudevilles such as Swan Song, The Evils of Tobacco, The Bear and The Proposal, through to the masterpieces of his later years.
Introductions and footnotes to each play are copious, including colourful, as well as helpful, information concerning the characters` names, which were often chosen - or made up! - by Chekhov for their derivational overtones, or merely for their allusiveness (somewhat lost in translation, but useful for an actor or director to know).
Oh, and if you`re wondering how Senelick translates the last words, said by Firs, in the last play, The Cherry Orchard, which I`ve seen rendered as `nincompoop`, silly-billy` and similar self-deprecations in other versions, here the old retainer calls himself a `half-baked bungler`. Well, it`s different.
The translations seem to me to be excellent. I also have those by Frayn (Methuen, reliably cobweb-free), Carson (Penguin, very fine, with an exemplary Introduction) and Michael Henry Heim (Modern Library, from the US, fresh & actable). This being an American book (I have the paperback edition) it is printed as clearly as you could wish, on good paper, and is well-bound.
If you are a Chekhophile like me, you`ll want this book. If you`re a director, actor, or in any way involved in theatre, one day you`ll just have to have it.
OSNOVA! - as a Russian would say. Essential!