Jan. 29, 2014

A Hundred Years from Now

by David Shumate

I'm sorry I won't be around a hundred years from now. I'd like to
see how it all turns out. What language most of you are speaking.
What country is swaggering across the globe. I'm curious to know
if your medicines cure what ails us now. And how intelligent your
children are as they parachute down through the womb. Have
you invented new vegetables? Have you trained spiders to do your
bidding? Have baseball and opera merged into one melodic sport?
A hundred years....My grandfather lived almost that long. The
doctor who came to the farmhouse to deliver him arrived in a
horse-drawn carriage. Do you still have horses?

"A Hundred Years from Now" by David Shumate from Kimonos in the Closet. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer and revolutionary Thomas Paine (books by this author), born in Thetford, England (1737). He's best known for writing Common Sense (1776), the pamphlet that convinced many Americans, including George Washington, to fight for independence from England. The original title Paine came up with for the pamphlet was Plain Truth.

Thomas Paine said, "He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Edward Abbey (books by this author), born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (1927). When he was 17 years old, he saw the desert for the first time as he hitchhiked and rode the rails across the country. He returned to the East to work for a short time as a caseworker in a welfare office, but then he went back to the Southwest to work as a fire lookout and ranger in Arches National Park. He worked there for three years, and turned the experience into the book Desert Solitaire (1968). He's best known for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), about a gang of four "environmental warriors" who liberate sections of the Utah and New Mexico wilderness through sabotage.

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Comedy is a serious business," actor W.C. Fields, born William Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania (1880). He also wrote screenplays, including for the films The Bank Dick (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

He ran away from home as a child, stole to survive, got in a lot of fistfights, and was arrested often. He was a fabulously skilled juggler, and at 14 he honed his juggling act and joined the carnival. He went from juggling to doing a witty comedic routine, and then to acting in films. He toured a lot, and the more famous he became, the more he drank. When he was filming movies, he kept a flask of mixed martinis near at hand, referring to it as his "pineapple juice." He often quipped about his drinking, saying things like, "Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water." And, "Everyone must believe in something. I believe I'll have another drink." And, "If I had to live life over, I'd live over a saloon."

It's the birthday of playwright Anton Chekhov (books by this author), born in Taganrog, Ukraine (1860). Before he became a playwright and a master of the modern short story, he planned to become a doctor; in fact, he started writing as a way to make extra money to support his family while he was in medical school. He sold some comic sketches to a variety of newspapers in St. Petersburg, and gained a reputation as a good "lowbrow" writer — a skill he inherited from his mother Yevgeniya, who was a gifted storyteller. In spite of the rigors of medical school and the demands of an active social life, Chekhov managed to be very prolific; he even wrote a novel (The Shooting Party [1884]). He finished medical school and worked as a doctor for eight years, and though medicine was his chief occupation, he never fully gave up his literary pursuits during that period. In a letter, he wrote, "Besides medicine, my wife, I have also literature — my mistress."

In 1892, he bought an estate 40 miles outside of Moscow and moved to the country to write full time, although he still gave free medical care to the peasants on his estate. Over the next six years, he mainly wrote short stories, although it was during this time that he wrote the play The Seagull (1896). He drew criticism from the Russian literary establishment for his failure to incorporate political positions or social criticism into his work. He didn't pass judgment on his characters or teach any moral lessons. He said, "A writer should be as objective as a chemist."

Around the turn of the 20th century, Chekhov began to focus less on stories and more on plays. He wrote for the Moscow Art Theatre, which was founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski in particular had a reputation in the theatrical world as a real innovator with a naturalistic style. On the surface, many of Chekhov's plays seemed to be tragic, but he had written them as comedies, even farces; he hoped that Stanislavski would recognize this and steer clear of sentimentality and melodrama. Sadly, he was disappointed. Stanislavski tended to place heavy emphasis on scenes that Chekhov had intended to be subtle and indirect. This was particularly evident — and troublesome — in Chekhov's last play, The Cherry Orchard (1904). Chekhov had spent years thinking about the story before he ever began to write it. It's the story of an aristocratic family that is about to lose its land to pay off their debts, and although they are upset about the loss, they do nothing to stop it. Chekhov wrote it as a comedy, and although there were tragic elements, he intended the overall tone of the play to be lively. Nevertheless, Stanislavski insisted on presenting the play as a ponderous tragedy. Where Chekhov had written that characters should be "speaking through tears" and wanted the actors to indicate this through facial expressions only, Stanislavski directed the actors to sob openly and dramatically. Chekhov was livid, and although he was seriously ill with tuberculosis by this time, he took an active part in the production to try to salvage the play. He traveled to Moscow against his doctor's orders and worked furiously to revise and edit the play and supervise rehearsals. The Cherry Orchard premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre on January 17, 1904, and even though Chekhov was still convinced that Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko didn't understand the play, it was a great commercial and artistic success. He was second only to Tolstoy as a literary celebrity.

A few months later, Chekhov went to Germany to take a spa treatment on the advice of his doctor. While in Badenweiler, he suffered a series of heart attacks. The doctor offered him sips of champagne, which was supposed to be beneficial to people with heart conditions. Chekhov remarked that he hadn't had champagne for ages. He then turned on his side, closed his eyes as if to take a nap, and died.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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