Literature Annotations


Chekhov, Anton P. and Frayn, Michael
Wild Honey


Genre Play (104 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Alcoholism, Communication, Family Relationships, Father-Son Relationship, Human Worth, Impaired Physician, Love, Marital Discord, Scapegoating, Sexuality, Trauma
Summary

According to the Soviet version, in 1921 Russian scholars discovered the manuscript of a "lost" play by Chekhov among his papers in a safety deposit box in a bank in Moscow. In reality, the play wasn’t lost at all. During the turmoil of the Revolution in 1918, Maria Chekhov, Anton’s sister, had placed in the safety deposit box papers and manuscripts that she considered particularly valuable.

Subsequently, she was unable to travel to Moscow from her home in Yalta until 1921, because of the continuing Civil War in southern Russia. By the time she did return to Moscow, the Communists had "liberated" her brother’s safety deposit box and made their amazing discovery. The title page of the manuscript was missing, so scholars named the play "Platonov" after its major protagonist.

"Platonov" is a huge wreck of a play with numerous characters and subplots that would require about six hours to perform. It is obviously Chekhov’s earliest known play. The majority belief is that it was written between 1880 and 1882, during his first or second year of medical school. Most critics stress its many dramatic faults. However, as Michael Frayn points out in his introduction to "Wild Honey," the play is more remarkable for its strengths than its weaknesses, especially considering that a 21 or 22-year-old medical student wrote it. By carefully pruning the underbrush, Frayn has created a clearly Chekhovian comedy that takes perhaps two and a half hours to perform.

The story takes place in a provincial country estate (so what else is new?), where the widowed landowner returns for the summer after spending the winter months in Moscow. All the local friends and hangers-on gather to greet her, including among others two elderly suitors, the district doctor, and Platonov (the schoolteacher) and his wife. The widow wants to have an affair with Platonov--in fact, three women, one of them married, vie for Platonov’s attention; while Platonov, for the most part, tries to remain faithful to his wife.

The first scene of the second act is a classic comedy of errors. It takes place at night in the forest, just outside Platonov’s house where his wife is sleeping. Anna Petrovna, the landowner, appears out of the darkness and wants to spirit Platonov off to the summerhouse to make hay. But various other characters, some of them drunk and some sober, keep interrupting this rendezvous. One of them is Sofya, married to Platonov’s best friend, who wants to run away with him. The comings and goings in this scene are hilarious--reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s comedies in which each character misinterprets what every other character says or does.

The play ends, though, on a dark note, or at least a sobering note. Platonov’s wife has left him due to these misunderstandings, and each of the three other women is closing in for the (metaphorical) kill. He decides to run away, and the play ends as he is running down the tracks distractedly, not paying any attention to the train that overtakes him from behind and kills him. This is not a tragic death; it’s funny, but also very sad. Platonov is, after all, a good man, even though weakness and indecision led to his downfall and meaningless death.

Commentary

Wild Honey has appeared reasonably successfully in theaters throughout the world, including on Broadway (1986). I can’t judge how much credit for the play goes to Chekhov and how much to Michael Frayn, who is one of our finest contemporary playwrights. Nonetheless, the play deals with Chekhovian themes and is steeped in his ambience. Nowadays, we tend not to remember that Chekhov began his writing career with comic sketches and wrote several successful short farces for the theater. (See The Bear and On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco in this database.) "Platonov" was written in this early period.

Dr. Triletsky, the young physician in this play, is one of Chekhov’s first known physician characters, along with Dr. Toporkov of Late-Blooming Flowers (1882, see this database). In Frayn’s version at least, Triletsky is a callow but likeable young man whose main medical role in the play is to get so drunk at Anna Pavlovna’s party that he forgets he was called to see a sick peasant. His main personal role is to be cuckolded by Platonov, his best friend.

PublisherMethuen
Edition1984
Place PublishedLondon
MiscellaneousWild Honey is an adaptation of an early unnamed play by Anton Chekhov; the adaptation and translation are by Michael Frayn.
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 04/28/05
Last Revised 05/09/05