Franz Kafka

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"A Tragic Actor" by Anton Chekhov, Full Text in English; from "The Schoolmistress and Other Stories" (1897) by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

Young Chekhov (left) with brother Nikolai in 1882


IT was the benefit night of Fenogenov, the tragic actor. They were
acting “Prince Serebryany.” The tragedian himself was playing Vyazemsky;
Limonadov, the stage manager, was playing Morozov; Madame Beobahtov,
Elena. The performance was a grand success. The tragedian accomplished
wonders indeed. When he was carrying off Elena, he held her in one hand
above his head as he dashed across the stage. He shouted, hissed, banged
with his feet, tore his coat across his chest. When he refused to fight
Morozov, he trembled all over as nobody ever trembles in reality, and
gasped loudly. The theatre shook with applause. There were endless
calls. Fenogenov was presented with a silver cigarette-case and a
bouquet tied with long ribbons. The ladies waved their handkerchiefs and
urged their men to applaud, many shed tears.... But the one who was
the most enthusiastic and most excited was Masha, daughter of Sidoretsky
the police captain. She was sitting in the first row of the stalls
beside her papa; she was ecstatic and could not take her eyes off the
stage even between the acts. Her delicate little hands and feet were
quivering, her eyes were full of tears, her cheeks turned paler and
paler. And no wonder--she was at the theatre for the first time in her

“How well they act! how splendidly!” she said to her papa the police
captain, every time the curtain fell. “How good Fenogenov is!”

And if her papa had been capable of reading faces he would have read
on his daughter’s pale little countenance a rapture that was
almost anguish. She was overcome by the acting, by the play, by the
surroundings. When the regimental band began playing between the acts,
she closed her eyes, exhausted.

“Papa!” she said to the police captain during the last interval, “go
behind the scenes and ask them all to dinner to-morrow!”

The police captain went behind the scenes, praised them for all their
fine acting, and complimented Madame Beobahtov.

“Your lovely face demands a canvas, and I only wish I could wield the

And with a scrape, he thereupon invited the company to dinner.

“All except the fair sex,” he whispered. “I don’t want the actresses,
for I have a daughter.”

Next day the actors dined at the police captain’s. Only three turned
up, the manager Limonadov, the tragedian Fenogenov, and the comic
man Vodolazov; the others sent excuses. The dinner was a dull affair.
Limonadov kept telling the police captain how much he respected him, and
how highly he thought of all persons in authority; Vodolazov mimicked
drunken merchants and Armenians; and Fenogenov (on his passport his name
was Knish), a tall, stout Little Russian with black eyes and frowning
brow, declaimed “At the portals of the great,” and “To be or not to
be.” Limonadov, with tears in his eyes, described his interview with the
former Governor, General Kanyutchin. The police captain listened, was
bored, and smiled affably. He was well satisfied, although Limonadov
smelt strongly of burnt feathers, and Fenogenov was wearing a hired
dress coat and boots trodden down at heel. They pleased his daughter and
made her lively, and that was enough for him. And Masha never took her
eyes off the actors. She had never before seen such clever, exceptional

In the evening the police captain and Masha were at the theatre again.
A week later the actors dined at the police captain’s again, and after
that came almost every day either to dinner or supper. Masha became more
and more devoted to the theatre, and went there every evening.

She fell in love with the tragedian. One fine morning, when the police
captain had gone to meet the bishop, Masha ran away with Limonadov’s
company and married her hero on the way. After celebrating the wedding,
the actors composed a long and touching letter and sent it to the police

It was the work of their combined efforts.

“Bring out the motive, the motive!” Limonadov kept saying as he dictated
to the comic man. “Lay on the respect.... These official chaps like
it. Add something of a sort... to draw a tear.”

The answer to this letter was most discomforting. The police captain
disowned his daughter for marrying, as he said, “a stupid, idle Little
Russian with no fixed home or occupation.”

And the day after this answer was received Masha was writing to her

“Papa, he beats me! Forgive us!”

He had beaten her, beaten her behind the scenes, in the presence of
Limonadov, the washerwoman, and two lighting men. He remembered how,
four days before the wedding, he was sitting in the London Tavern with
the whole company, and all were talking about Masha. The company were
advising him to “chance it,” and Limonadov, with tears in his
eyes urged: “It would be stupid and irrational to let slip such an
opportunity! Why, for a sum like that one would go to Siberia, let alone
getting married! When you marry and have a theatre of your own, take me
into your company. I shan’t be master then, you’ll be master.”

Fenogenov remembered it, and muttered with clenched fists:

“If he doesn’t send money I’ll smash her! I won’t let myself be made a
fool of, damn my soul!”

At one provincial town the company tried to give Masha the slip, but
Masha found out, ran to the station, and got there when the second bell
had rung and the actors had all taken their seats.

“I’ve been shamefully treated by your father,” said the tragedian; “all
is over between us!”

And though the carriage was full of people, she went down on her knees
and held out her hands, imploring him:

“I love you! Don’t drive me away, Kondraty Ivanovitch,” she besought
him. “I can’t live without you!”

They listened to her entreaties, and after consulting together, took
her into the company as a “countess”--the name they used for the minor
actresses who usually came on to the stage in crowds or in dumb parts.
To begin with Masha used to play maid-servants and pages, but when
Madame Beobahtov, the flower of Limonadov’s company, eloped, they made
her _ingenue_. She acted badly, lisped, and was nervous. She soon grew
used to it, however, and began to be liked by the audience. Fenogenov
was much displeased.

“To call her an actress!” he used to say. “She has no figure, no
deportment, nothing whatever but silliness.”

In one provincial town the company acted Schiller’s “Robbers.”
 Fenogenov played Franz, Masha, Amalie. The tragedian shouted and
quivered. Masha repeated her part like a well-learnt lesson, and the
play would have gone off as they generally did had it not been for
a trifling mishap. Everything went well up to the point where Franz
declares his love for Amalie and she seizes his sword. The tragedian
shouted, hissed, quivered, and squeezed Masha in his iron embrace. And
Masha, instead of repulsing him and crying “Hence!” trembled in his
arms like a bird and did not move,... she seemed petrified.

“Have pity on me!” she whispered in his ear. “Oh, have pity on me! I am
so miserable!”

“You don’t know your part! Listen to the prompter!” hissed the
tragedian, and he thrust his sword into her hand.

After the performance, Limonadov and Fenogenov were sitting in the
ticket box-office engaged in conversation.

“Your wife does not learn her part, you are right there,” the manager
was saying. “She doesn’t know her line.... Every man has his own
line,... but she doesn’t know hers....”

Fenogenov listened, sighed, and scowled and scowled.

Next morning, Masha was sitting in a little general shop writing:

“Papa, he beats me! Forgive us! Send us some money!”

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