In Chekhov’s third full-length play, 'Three Sisters', the lovesick major, Vershinin, has this line or two, early into Act One: “It’s nice living here. But there’s one strange thing, the station is fifteen miles from the town. And no one knows why.”
At drama school, I was the assistant director on a production of this play and we spent hours, litearally, hours and hours, poring over every line, every word, every sentence, trying to understand the hidden meanings of this fine piece of writing, but no one could make any sense of that line. It had no relevance to anything else said or done, before or after. No one could make head nor tale of the motivation to offer the actor playing Vershinin, until somebody lighted upon an obscure scrap of research.
When Stanislavski used to direct and produce Chekhov’s plays at the Moscow Arts Theatre, he would infuriate the playwright by always adding a sound effect of a train in the distance at some point in the performance. So irritated was the writer, that by the time he got around to the 'Three Sisters', he set a trap to thwart the director; by adding in the line about the train being fifteen miles away, he made it impossible for Stanislavski to plausibly use the sound effect, if he’d tried, he would have left himself open to a challenge from the playwright that he would lose.
What was Konstantin (Sergeevich) Stanislavsky playing at?
When I was but a mere boy, no taller than the largest volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, I would spend a week of my summer holidays with my maternal grandparents, just south of London near Kingston-Upon-Thames, not too far away from Epsom Downs where they run the Derby. Tucked up in my bed of a summer’s evening, I would oft been lulled asleep by the rhythmic, distant clatter of trains, not too far away. Already in possession of a fertile mind, I would imagine that the trains were carrying day trippers from the races back to the centre of London town; men with their bellies full of brown ale, resting their heads on the shoulders of their long-suffering wives in the softly-lit railway pullman carriages.
For it is something similar that Stanislavsky was aiming at too. He knew that, for some reason, the sound of a train in the distance is a wistful, if not wishful, late evensong to the human ear and wanted to use that to serve a purpose wherever he may have put it in the play. He was, maybe, manipulating his audience with sound in much the same way that we have our thoughts and feelings toyed with in the cinema today. The famous Russian acting teacher and director wasn’t alone in knowing what he knew.
Allow me to quote you a few lines of lyricism from Paul Simon, he, once of Simon & Garfunkel:
Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance
Everybody thinks it’s true.
What is the point of this story, what information pertains?
The thought that life could be better
is woven indelibly, into our hearts and our brains.
This from his song ‘Everybody Loves The Sound Of A Train In The Distance’, a song about a young couple who court, marry, have a child, split, but then get together every now and then. Here’s the lines that immediately precede those I’ve just shared
And now the man and the woman, they remain in contact
Let us say it’s for the child
But with disagreements about the meaning of a marriage contact
Conversation’s hard and wild
But from time to time, he just makes her laugh
She cooks a meal or two.
I don’t know about you, but I can imagine that family of three at the meal table, the man and woman, neither, giving voice to a silent lament for what could have been, what promise that probably will never come to pass, that lies away in the distance. Life could better somewhere .....somewhere where that train is travelling to?
Day #93 Tip: Symbolism is a writer’s tool best used delicately
I’m going to quote Robert McKee verbatim here, when he talks about the “screenwriter as poet”. He refers to the writer’s skill for expressivity by talking about something he calls an “Image System”.
“An IMAGE System is a strategy of motifs, a category of imagery embededded in the film that repeats in sight and sound from beginning to end with persistance and great variation, but with equally great subtlety, as a subliminal communication to increase the depth and complexity of aesthetic emotion.”
For more on this, check out McKee’s book ‘Story’.
Whilst working on that same production of ‘Three Sisters’ someone relayed an anecdote about Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins. Olivier had been working with the young Tony Hopkins in something and had cast him in the upcoming production of 'Three Sisters' that Sir Larry was about to direct, at the National Theatre. Leaving the theatre one dark night, wherever they were, and engaged on a walk together, Hopkins was anxious to make conversation with the great man and asked what vision he had for his production of the Chekhov classic?
Apparently, Olivier stopped dead in his tracks, gazed into the distance and said “I see string”, then carried on a-pace. Whoever had first told this tale, went to see this prouction at the National and said that, from start to finish, through Acts One, Two and Three, the stage was adorned, entangled and wash with string and rope; no one could quite understand why?
Larry, Stanislavski, Paul Simon....they all could.