MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: THE SCREENPLAYS.
THE FINAL CHAPTER OF DR. CHEKHOV. (1990)
PUBLISHED IN 2022 BY PAPER DRAGON PRODUCTIONS.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘Michael Armstrong is creating history by being the first film-maker to publish his entire screenwriting output. With the original uncut screenplays in print for the first time ever and peppered with a mixture of wildly entertaining anecdotes, astounding behind-the-scenes revelations, creative and educational insights and brutal ‘no holds barred’ honesty, these books are guaranteed to provide a completely new kind of reading experience while offering a unique insight into the movie industry. Starting from his first professional screenplay written in 1960 when he was only fifteen and which he subsequently directed in 1968, the books will ultimately encompass a career that has spanned over fifty years. The books will include not only those screenplays which made it onto a cinema screen but, for the first time ever, all those that didn’t- and the reasons why…’
‘You can’t stop him writing. It’d be like stopping him breathing.’
‘I wouldn’t want to be known as the man who killed Anton Chekhov.’
‘The worst thing’s my haemorrhoids. I’ve had them for years but, now, it’s like they’ve taken on a life of their own.’
I think this is my favourite screenplay of Michael Armstrong’s, and this is the guy who penned the screenplays for MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970), a gruesome but frighteningly real depiction of eighteenth-century witch-burnings, THE BLACK PANTHER (1976), the story of Donald Neilson, the British armed robber, kidnapper and murderer who abducted wealthy British teenager Lesley Whittle in 1975, and HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1982), the only film in the history of cinema to star horror legends Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and John Carradine all together.
This screenplay tells a part of the story of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), the Russian medical doctor, playwright and short story writer whom some people consider to be the greatest writer who ever lived. Certainly he’s Michael Armstrong’s personal favourite author. I devoured the screenplay book as if it were a shockingly sexy bonkbuster or unputdownable thriller, not even setting it aside to eat.
It’s so full of gossip, inside information, humour, bitchiness and wit that it makes you feel like you’re genuinely privy to a slice of Anton Chekhov’s life, and that it was a life of variety, romance, learning and culture mixed with the inevitable sadness and loss.
When we meet the man himself, he is living in splendour in his mansion with his doting mother Yevgenia, his embittered father Pavel, a failed shopkeeper who used to beat his offspring savagely when they were young, a servant, Katerina, a drunken but satisfactory cook called Darya and, most important of all, his devoted sister Masha. Masha adores Anton and is prepared to embrace a life of perpetual spinsterhood in order to be able to take better care of him. That’s some sisterly devotion.
Anyway, the screenplay starts off with Chekhov reacting with anger to a poor reception of his play, THE SEAGULL. He is determined to have done with the theatre from then on. Until his pal, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko decides, A, to open his own theatre company, and, B, to include Anton’s play THE SEAGULL in its opening season…
Anton: ‘No thanks! I’ve already had my fingers burnt twice. A third time and I’d probably be entirely incinerated.’
Chekhov has some fixed ideas about his own value as a writer:
Anton: ‘… the reason I don’t pursue writing exclusively is because I don’t personally think I’m all that good at it whereas I find being a doctor a more reliable and, indeed, rewarding job. If you’d like an analogy, you might say, I’m married to medicine and writing’s my mistress…’
He also comments: ‘I’m just a short story writer considered fashionable in drawing room circles but of no real worth elsewhere.’
So, will Chekhov allow his chum to perform THE SEAGULL in his theatre? That remains to be seen, dear reader. But hear this. Chekhov is full of statements of intent and fixed ideas about things, but he has been known to change his mind.
For example, here’s what he thinks about marriage:
Anton: ‘I’ll never get married. I know women too well. They’ll lie to you at least five times before they’ve even had time to wear out a pair of shoes.’
So, why, if he feels so strongly against mawwidge (The Princess Bride), I mean, marriage, why does he find himself thoroughly spliced in holy matrimony to one of Russia’s most famous actresses, Olga Knipper, halfway through the book? Heh-heh-heh. Looks like Russia’s hottest literary bachelor has been caught, hook, line and sinker…
Masha and Olga are friends at first, until Masha discovers that Olga, whom she supposes to be a gold-digging hussy and social climber, has gone and married Anton on the sly. Well, I never…! The very idea.
Each of them struggles to be mistress of the house and mistress to Anton, while Anton is content not to make a choice but continues to let himself live comfortably and do his writing and doctoring while being fussed over and pampered by his two ladies. The scenes where the two women openly fight over this one man are hilarious, and could just as easily be set in today times. ‘Get yo’ filthy hands off my fella, bitch!’
Mind you, the poor chap is dying…
Anton to his doctor: ‘Dr. Obolonsky, let’s save a lot of time by my saying I do know what’s wrong with me. My brother Nikolai died of it. I know there’s no cure.
Dr. Obolonksy: How long have you known you’ve had it?
Anton: Since the first signs. The only thing I haven’t been certain of was its state of advancement.
Dr. Obolonsky: Until today.
Anton: Until today.
We know this from quite early on, so we can see how Chekhov tries to live his life in the present without worrying too much about the future, in so far as it’s possible for him to do so. He writes his plays and his stories, and he carouses and hobnobs with the great artists of the day like Ivan Bunin, Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy, even Sergei Rachmaninoff and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the famous composers.
He has his family, who worship him, and Olga, who double-worships him, lol, though he claims not to like all the fussing. Yeah, right. Here is Anton, telling his sister Masha the almost outrageous conditions under which he has agreed to marry Olga:
Anton: ‘I told her I wasn’t remotely interested in marriage unless it guaranteed absolutely no change in my life, whatsoever; not in my working habits, my relationships- especially with friends and family . . . and with you, my dearest and closest and only true friend.’
Masha: ‘And she agreed?’
Masha looks at him cynically. ‘And you believed her?’
Typical bloke, wanting it all his own way.
When Masha is told by a friend, Ivan Bunin, that she should use Anton’s marriage to Olga as a great opportunity to go off and start enjoying her own life, she replies: ‘My own life? I don’t even know what that is.’
Well, now’s your chance, Masha, love.
Anton gets so lonely when Olga is off actressing. He says on one such occasion to Maxim Gorky: ‘Melville’s a good writer but he does go on a bit,’ to which Gorky replies: ‘Clearly a great white whale’s no substitute for an absent wife.’ Snigger.
Those of you who know me and my writing will know that I’ve been reviewing Michael’s screenplay books for the last few years. The gorgeous thick book of THE FINAL CHAPTER OF DR. CHEKHOV (1990) makes for deeply absorbing reading.
It, or any of Michael’s glossy and luxurious film script books, would make the perfect Christmas present for the film fan in your life. Or you could buy it for yourself, and to hell with them…! You know they’re only gonna buy you a LYNX gift set in return…
You can buy this book and all of Michael’s other books as well at the following links:
‘Once you can actually see death directly ahead of you, beckoning to you: days, months, years suddenly seem to fly by, which makes you very conscious of your mortality . . . and that, I find, is a most humbling experience . . .’ Anton Chekhov to a friend.