In my last year of undergraduate studies, I was introduced to Anton Chekhov when I performed in Wendy Wasserstein’s one-act play The Man in a Case and Michael Frayn’s The Alien Corn: adaptations of two of the many short stories by the prolific Russian writer.
In the following years I continued coming back to his work as actor, director, and playwright in of a revival at my college of that first production, a mounting of Frayn’s The Sneeze and Other Plays at the Warehouse Theatre one summer, Three Sisters in graduate school, a new translation/adaptation of Uncle Vanya with my friend Moti Margolin who also played the title role at The Space in NYC, summer productions with then-current students of my college, and several productions with high school students when I taught in Sydney.
His work is just really good.
After a period of some familiarity, I began to adapt his short stories on my own. Chekhov wrote hundreds of them, and not all have been translated. But from what I was able to find, I was always looking for material to adapt for the stage.
Here is one of the first I adapted.
(Note: If anyone wishes to use any of the scripts posted here for performance, please do! Just drop me a line to let me know they actually getting some use, and I’d appreciate being acknowledged in some way if the production is more substantial than scene-study work.)
How I Came to be Lawfully Wed
a one-act play adapted by John Knauss
from a short story by Anton Chekhov
IVAN: a young man
ZOE: a young woman
LAPKIN: Ivan’s father
NADIA: Ivan’s mother
STEPKA: a servant
A country garden at dusk. The remains of a light dinner are on an outdoor table. IVAN and ZOE sit at opposite ends of the table silently without making eye contact. NADIA and LAPKIN stand off to one side, murmuring to one another in a hushed argument.
LAPKIN: (turning; to IVAN and ZOE) Well! Dinner’s in the belly and the evening grows dark. (to NADIA) Perhaps we should leave these two and take a stroll in the garden, my dear Nadia. As they say, “After lunch: rest. After dinner: walk a mile!”
NADIA: (annoyed with him) Who says that?
LAPKIN: (gives her a dirty look and pulls IVAN aside) Go ahead, my boy! Tell her how much you love her! And that you want to marry her! Quickly, now!
IVAN: (whispering back) But I don’t want to marry her. I don’t have any feelings for her!
LAPKIN: (shaking his fist to heaven) “They gave the naked man a shirt and he said it was too thick!” (to IVAN) No one cares what you want, you idiot!
(LAPKIN gives IVAN an angry stare and exits with NADIA.)
IVAN: (aside) Oh, lord. Here we go.
(IVAN coughs discreetly, wipes his brow, and moves to sit beside ZOE. Neither speaks for a long, awkward moment.)
IVAN: (finally, forcing himself) Well, Zoe Andreyevna. We’re finally alone together this evening. And that’s a very good thing, too, because the darkness must be able to hide the nervousness written on my face. Nervousness surrounding the very strong feelings which I have about you and the situation we now find ourselves in.
(IVAN wipes his brow again. ZOE has begun to shake imperceptibly.)
IVAN: (listening) Do you hear that nightingale? He’s singing to his love—so they say. But me? All alone in this world, who can I sing to? (aside) God… bless our parents…! But they should be thrown into hell for this. At least for a week. (to ZOE again) All my happiness rests in a single person. (he is not speaking of ZOE) I feel strongly for her. Her gentle laughter. Her warm embrace. Her long locks of– (looking at ZOE’s hair) brown hair… I love her, and if she weren’t able to return my love, then I’d be lost… empty. (a long pause; then IVAN speaks begrudgingly) You’re that person, Zoe Andreyevna. You’re my happiness. Could you find it in your heart to love me in return? (a pause; then quite matter-of-fact) If not, you can just let me know, and–
ZOE: (whispering) Okay.
IVAN: (a look of horror and shock coming over his face) What?
ZOE: (suddenly bursting into tears) I’ll find a way to love you in return, Ivan Ivanych.
IVAN: No—wait. What are you saying?! That’s insane! (leaping up) Zoe, just forget everything I said! For God’s sake, don’t believe a word of it! I’m not in love with you! I just made that all up! (ZOE looks shocked) But come on… you don’t love me, either! This is ridiculous! Listen to me. We don’t have to go through with this. We know our parents are forcing us to marry just for money!
ZOE: So you just made all of that up?
IVAN: Well… to some extent. What love is there between us, really? We’ve know each other for years, but– nothing personal, but I’d rather have a millstone tied around my neck than go through with this farce of our parents!
ZOE: (bursting out) It’s true! I’d kill myself on our wedding night if we went through with it, Ivan Ivanych! Just the thought of it makes me want to vomit!
IVAN: (joyfully) That’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever said to me, Zoe Andreyevna! (ZOE laughs as well) Well then, it’s as simple as that! What right do they have to do this? What do they think we are? Puppets? Dogs? We won’t get married just for their sake! I’m going to tell my parents right now I won’t marry you—and that’s the bottom line! (ZOE has stopped crying) I’m going to tell them right now! (quickly sets himself down beside her) And you tell them with me. Tell them that you don’t love me– that it’s Nikolai you love. And I’ll be the first to shake Nikolai’s hand!
ZOE: (happily) And you’re in love with someone else too, aren’t you? You’re in love with Marie De Beux! That was her you were talking about a moment ago.
IVAN: So what if she’s not Russian Orthodox and she’s not rich? I love her for her mind and her– (catching himself) her many… edifying qualities. My father can beat me half to death, but I will marry her! I love her. And I don’t want to live another day without her. I’m going right this minute– let’s both go and tell them. (taking her hands and kissing them) Oh, thank you, my dear Zoe. You’ve made me so happy! (calling offstage) Papa! Mother!
ZOE: And if you only knew how happy you’ve made me, Ivan Ivanych! To think that we might have gone through with it out of fear of our parents. Imagine that!
(ZOE embraces him and kisses his forehead. There is a brief, awkward moment of genuine connection, and then the two separate clumsily.)
ZOE: But our parents will be so angry! I can hear my father now, his great voice thundering…
IVAN: So let them bellow! They can beat us– even throw us out! At least we’ll be happy!
ZOE: Yes! Happy!
(They take one another’s hands, laughing. LAPKIN and NADIA suddenly enter, seeing the two together and teary-eyed.)
LAPKIN: Ho-ho! Well, that was quick! No beating around the bush, eh? As they say, “When rubles fall from heaven, be sure you have a sack!” Nadia–
IVAN: –Wait, father. Zoe Andreyevna and I have something to say.
LAPKIN: Of course you do, my dear boy! We can read it written all over your faces. No need to tell us– we’ve known you two were mad about each other for years now! (NADIA gives LAPKIN a dirty look, and he turns quickly to call the servant) Stepka! Champagne!
IVAN: No, you don’t understand–
LAPKIN: –After all, two lovely young birds like yourselves nesting so near one another your whole lives… Congratulations and many blessings on both of your heads!
NADIA: (kissing ZOE and taking her in a tender embrace) Welcome to our family, Zoe Andreyevna.
IVAN: (trying to pull LAPKIN aside) Listen to me, father.
(STEPKA enters with champagne.)
LAPKIN: (pushing IVAN away) No more words! “The empty barrel is louder than the full.” (beginning to pour the champagne) A toast to you, my children! May our families, who have known one another for centuries, remain knit together until the Day of Judgment, when the—
IVAN: (clutching desperately at LAPKIN) Father!
LAPKIN: (disentangling himself from IVAN) Good Lord Almighty! (shifting) Let us pray. We thank you, Good Lord Almighty… who in your infinite wisdom and good pleasure have thrown the great harness of love and bridle of commitment over these two dear children… we thank you for your many provisions in these times of want–
(IVAN throws a champagne glass to the ground)
LAPKIN: (responding to the shattering glass with a jump) Za zdrovje! (lifts his own glass in a toast) To your betrothal! (shatters the glass on the ground as well) Ha ha! It’s all official now!
(ZOE has begun to shake again.)
ANNA: Oh, my child! Your eyes are filled with tears of joy. (to IVAN, who is now looking at ZOE worriedly) I remember when your father proposed to me…
LAPKIN: Ho ho! Quite a day, that!
NADIA: (giving LAPKIN a look) To speak the truth, it wasn’t a very happy one for me. (to ZOE) You see, I didn’t want to marry him.
(ZOE bursts into tears.)
LAPKIN: But as they say, “The appetite comes during the meal.” Or something to that effect. Speaking of which—let’s go! There’s more celebration waiting with Zoe’s parents!
(Frozen tableau; lights fade.)
IVAN: (breaking out of the tableau) And so… enterprises of great pitch and momentany, with this regard turn awry and lose the name of action. (pause) Or something to that effect. In spite of everything, Zoe and I were lawfully wed within a month’s time. And you know what? Neither of us killed ourselves on the wedding night. But we did try to kill one another many times over the past fifty years. (he lifts a glass) Here’s to that great harness of love and bridle of commitment. Marriage. (drinks) Until you can think of a better way.
(He looks one long final draught to drain the glass as the lights fade out.)