How many “Romeos” and “Juliets” have been produced under the pens of playwrights since the time of Shakespeare? The plot centering on a young man and woman falling in love amid a background of family rivalry has prevailed as an all-time classic, earning the tears of audiences for centuries. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) clearly realized that such a plot had been used to its maximum, for he chose to challenge and satirize the age-old story of family versus love by placing the lovers at odds with each other despite a supportive father. In so doing, Chekhov managed to elicit tears of laughter rather than tears of sorrow from his audiences. His one-act masterpiece A Marriage Proposal features an intriguing character, Tschubukov, who, as father of Natalia, the augmentative bride-to be, becomes increasingly excited as an innocent dispute between his daughter and her suitor escalates. Tschubukov’s excitement could be construed by a reader of the play as an expression of jubilation, cynicism, or desperation. Thus, as in all great works for the stage, the director is free to interpret one of the main characters of the play in any number of contrasting ways. The interpretation of choice must, of course, be justified by evidence found in the script and, ultimately, must ring true for viewers and bring maximum satisfaction to audiences at large. Given the chance to direct A Marriage Proposal, I would portray Tschubukov as a father who reaches the end of his wits and becomes utterly desperate for a wedding by the close of the play.
It is not only plausible but likely that Tschubukov is acting out of desperation when he exclaims, near the end of the play, “Get married! Quick, and then go to the devil! She’s willing! She’s agreed! Only leave me in peace!” (Chekhov, 245). At the beginning of the script, when Lomov asks Tschubukov for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Natalia’s father is elated at the prospect. “It has been my dearest wish!” answers Tschubukov, suppressing a tear (Chekhov, 236). He goes on to say that he has always loved Lomov like a son. If Tschubukov had his way, the play would end here, before the hysterical quarrel between the young couple begins. The fact that Tschubukov so readily agrees to a marriage indicates that he has been hoping for this proposal for some time. After all, Natalia is twenty-five, a ripe age for a bride at the end of the nineteenth century. It is, apparently, for the very reason that Tschubukov has been looking forward to his daughter’s marriage that he becomes frustrated and, finally, desperate for this union as petty accusations distance Natalia and Lomov from each other emotionally.
One might argue that the script does not explicitly reveal a preexisting intention on the part of Tschubukov to marry his daughter off, that he is just as surprised as he is overjoyed at the idea of a wedding. Such a critic could insist that a couple of arguments between the potential bride and groom would not realistically provoke desperation in Tschubukov, who has known his daughter and Lomov all their lives and has not yet been impatient about their possible marriage. This argument assumes there could be only one reason for Tschubukov’s desperation: he has an incredible desire for his daughter to marry Lomov. However, considering the harsh (though hilarious) words exchanged between the two younger people, Tschubukov might very well wish for them to get married right away so that he does not have time to change his mind about accepting Lomov as a son-in-law. Despite his underlying desire to witness an official engagement between the two young people, Tschubukov gets caught up in the heated debate involving ownership of the meadows that adjoin his family’s land and that of Lomov’s family. Having lost sight of his own goals, Tschubukov experiences mounting desperation that could have arisen as a response to his own opposition to what he really wants as well as to the conflict between Natalia and Lomov. One could easily believe that Tschubukov is desperate for the engagement to take place before his own temper gets the better of him and prevents him from agreeing to something that he wishes to occur.
Whether a desperate Tschubukov is the only Tschubukov worthy of the stage is a subject to debate. A director might choose to represent Tschubukov as an ecstatic supporter of an upcoming marriage at the closing of the script. An air of jubilation would certainly not be out of character, since Tschubukov did greet the idea of a proposal with enthusiasm when the play began. Perhaps Tschubukov, like his daughter, is easily able to overcome his own irritation when Lomov finally remembers the purpose of his visit. Tschubukov has been fond of Lomov for as long as the young man has lived, so a mere quarrel between Lomov and Natalia need not completely alter Tschubukov’s opinion of the young man. Audiences attending a production of the play in which jubilation fills Tschubukov’s character at both ends of the script would leave the theatre with a certain degree of satisfaction. As Shakespeare is famous for writing, “all’s well that ends well.” Indeed, all will have ended well if Tschubukov can leave the stage without suffering even a hint of agitation and if the young couple can rest assured that their marriage will not be met with parental opposition.
Nevertheless, to portray Tschubukov as a gleeful father at the end of the script is to miss out on a wonderful opportunity for comic expression. No one could deny that a man who desperately awaits his daughter’s wedding so that he does not have to face his own doubts about the marriage is displaying a humorous state of affairs. By contrast, a man who anticipates his daughter’s marriage exuberantly following his future son-in-law’s selfish display of emotion is not likely to fill a playhouse with uproarious laughter. An exceedingly forgiving father displays a quality of an ideal parent, and any character that can be placed in the category of the ideal is missing the idiosyncrasies that would otherwise make the individual humorous, even loveable. One might question why idiosyncratic behavior is necessary, or even desirable, for a character of the stage. When we observe the great works in the history of theatre or cinema, however, the need for uniqueness and imperfection becomes apparent. Alfred P. Doolittle, the father of Doolittle in My Fair Lady, is an alcoholic whose only concern for his daughter is how much money she can bring him (Lerner and Shaw). Despite his barbarity, he is a magical character who often steals the show. A Tschubukov plagued with desperation is blessed with similar show-stealing possibilities.
An unrelenting critic of the desperate Tschubukov interpreter might opt for a Tschubukov who becomes filled with cynicism before the close of the curtain. One could imagine, upon hearing the words “She’s willing! Well? Kiss each other and – the devil take you both,” (Chekhov, 245) Tschubukov cynically demanding an immediate wedding, knowing full well that the marriage is doomed to failure. This take on Tschubukov’s character is workable, considering the altercation that had gone on minutes before the engagement took place. Humor could undoubtedly be gleaned from a cynical portrayal of Tschubukov following the heated dispute between the young lovers. However, it would be difficult for an actor to portray cynicism without running the risk of confusing the audience. Delivering dialogue in a cynical manner requires a certain amount of subtlety, which makes it easy for an actor’s intentions to be mistaken. Spectators unaccustomed to cynicism in literature or on the stage might perceive a cynical Tschubukov as either angry or flippant. Having the actor utter his final lines with desperation is less risky, since an audience is bound to understand that the character is indeed desperate.
It appears, after considering the alternatives, that the character Tschubukov is best acted with an aura of desperation at the closing of the play. Still, it needs to be emphasized that this choice of characterization is not determined by the script. As in any great work for the stage, this play offers much leeway for creativity and artistic decision-making. A spectator who views the play three times will likely witness three different interpretations and will, in effect, be seeing widely divergent productions. The opportunity A Marriage Proposal presents for creating contrasting stage productions allows theater-goers to observe the play multiple times without succumbing to boredom. This durability is a great feat for any playwright.
Chekhov, Anton. A Marriage Proposal. Introduction to Literature: Drama. Ed. N. Didicher. Boston: Pearson Custom. Publishing 2006. 236, 245
My Fair Lady. Lerner, Alan J. Shaw, George B. Warner Bros., 21 Oct. 1964.