Which is worse—chloroforming a classic in costumed torpor or shooting it up with stylistic crack? This month, Chekhov and Büchner have been subjected to antithetical distortions on New York stages.

Chekhov’s Seagull had two premières, the first in Saint Petersburg, in 1896, where everything went wrong. The production was rushed, to accommodate a prima donna who needed a vehicle. There were but nine rehearsals. At the last minute, the star withdrew, but her disappointed claque filled the house on opening night. The audience, mistaking the protagonist’s arty bombast for Chekhov’s own, took to laughing not just at the absurd but at everything. It was a disaster. “I was thrown out of Petersburg like a bomb,” wrote Chekhov to Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a friend who shared his dissatisfaction with the melodramatic conventions of the Russian theater and was about to remedy the situation. In...


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