Finding the Jesuit spirit of theater in Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’

The author and actress Allysa Clausen perform in "Three Sisters."The author and actress Allysa Clausen perform in "Three Sisters." Photo by Jim Williams courtesy of Creighton University Fine and Performing Arts Dept. 

I’m nearly sixty. I’m an old man, a lonely old man, a kind of useless old man.

           — Chebutykin in "Three Sisters" by Anton Chekhov


Though I, too, am nearly 60, I would not call myself lonely and useless. I do, however, feel my life slowing down, and I am ready to step aside to let others achieve more. I empathize with Chebutykin.

When my friend and theater director Alan Klem asked me to do the role of Chebutykin in Brian Friel’s translation of Chekhov’s play “Three Sisters,”my first response was to ask him if he was out of his bleedin’ mind. I had not taken on an acting role in a live theater production for more than 10 years. But Alan had cast me in his first play, over 30 years ago, the first semester that we both arrived on campus of Creighton University (he as an assistant professor, me as a student). Now, three decades on, Alan told me he was thinking of retiring. This might be the last show he directed. The first and the last, the alpha and the omega. It seemed fitting, somehow.

I read the script. Ivan Chebutykin was the physician attached to the Prozorov family—the family of the three sisters. The progression of the play showed him bumbling around their home as a sort of mascot, searching for relevance as sweeping events swirled around him. This was a role written for me.

He was searching for relevance as sweeping events swirled around him.

This is a great era. It’s just people who are small.

How true are Chebutykin’s words. Meant for a turn-of-the-century Russian audience, they are so relevant to our current divisive and often dysfunctional society. After the distressing events of the past year in the United States—politically, socially, morally—I felt bankrupt of opportunities to touch beauty, to surround myself with it. I wanted to be transported outside this everyday frame where small people on the national news made an outsize impact on the country.

I needed to play, to be in play and by extension, to be in a play.

“My own good! Who gives a damn about that, my love?

The chair of my department, the dean, my wife—they all told me: “You apply for tenure and promotion this coming summer.” I’m a Johnny-come-lately to the faculty ranks. I cut my teeth as a student at Creighton in the 1980s. Eventually I took on a full-time staff role, worked my way up through six positions here in 25 years, then pursued night school and summer courses. I received my Ph.D. and a tenure-track faculty role just five years ago.

As an assistant professor in computer science, common sense told me to politely decline the invitation and focus on my dossier. Had I not been swept away by the music in the script, the beauty in the words and the startling and courageous young women who were the namesakes of the play, I would have opted to decline.

I felt bankrupt of opportunities to touch beauty, to surround myself with it.

The Jesuits have long understood that theater allows for God to work in the lives of the community in ways otherwise unattainable. Producing school plays was a fundamental part of Jesuit pedagogy in the 16th and 17th centuries. The historian Kevin Wetmore traces Jesuit theater back to the origins of the Society of Jesus itself, with the spirit of theater embodied within St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. At my institution, our mission statement calls for every person to pursue truth in all its forms. Truth emerges when a group of people gathers to perform roles and others gather to watch. An odor of sanctity arises on the occasion of the well-wrought play offered before an audience well disposed to receiving it. It feels almost sacramental to me. I accepted. For my own good.

Rubbish rubbish rubbish.

One can tell rubbish by its odor. As I approach my senior years, I cannot help but catch an occasional whiff of my oncoming death. I try to appreciate life more. The things that are truly of value to me—seeing a student in class finally “get it” or a lady in line at the DMV sharing a photo of her grandchild—these cannot be stuffed into any box or suitcase. Yet I carry them with me as surely as any coin to gain passage over the river Styx. The remainder, as Chebutykin declaims, is rubbish, even to me now. How more apt the label will be after I am dead.

You’re asking me? What are you asking me for? I wouldn’t know. I don’t remember.

My biggest fear as I took the stage for rehearsals was forgetting my lines. My mother had died from Alzheimer’s disease a few years back. Ever in the back of my mind—when I try to find a word in everyday conversation that won’t reveal itself or when I’m halfway to work and I wonder if I fed the cats—is my mother’s slow surrender to oblivion.

I was not afraid for myself. I can handle a little embarrassment. It happens every now and then, sometimes in class. “What was I saying?” or “Where was I?” The students giggle, share sidelong glances. Silly absent-minded professor. “Dopey doctor.”

The spirit of theater is embodied within St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.

But how would it play on stage, among students who have chosen theater as their life’s ambition, as their means of daily labor and already meager sustenance? There are key moments of grace in everyone’s life—moments where Jesus slips through the curtains we have drawn around ourselves and beckons us to follow him. For actors, this often happens onstage, in one of those “perfect storm” moments where the actor stops playing a role and begins acting as an instrument of the Gospel. Would I blow their chance at having everything click into place in a show? Would a lovely moment on stage be derailed by a “dopey doctor” stumbling around the set, drunk with his own ego, dead set on denying that his youth is “all gone, gone, gone.”

I’m perfectly all right, thank you very much indeed.

The show opened. The lines were there. Every performance. Sure, I had the occasional muff—it happens to every actor. I am human. Unlike the young, elastic minds of the students, sometimes a day full of teaching, advising and endless meetings chased the words out of my head. Every night, before every appearance on stage, I had to grab my script and recall them to the front of my mind. Even before the closing act of the closing performance, I stood, script in hand, and reviewed my lines. Putting the music of Brian Friel’s translation back into the basket. Letting the words of a computer science instructor fall out for a few hours. Not a bad trade at all.

But when I get my pension in twelve months time I’ll come back and spend the remainder of my days here with you. Straight back to the sun like a migrating bird.

Throughout the play, Dr. Chebutykin is cruising toward retirement. But Act IV finds him in military uniform, preparing to accompany departing troops. At first he plans to return home once he secures his pension. Then he discovers there may be no one waiting when he does.

“What about me?” I thought. “Is there a next show for me?”

What will my life be like “in twelve months [sic] time,” as Chebutykin so arbitrarily frames his future. A lot has happened at Creighton over the last year. A computer science faculty colleague died unexpectedly just before the semester began. Just a few days later, one of our majors died in a car accident—and another was badly injured. We prefer to think of these as rare events, but when we look back at the past year at any given moment, is there ever a year that is totally devoid of death and tragedy? What events will define the coming year? Twelve months is a lot of time, especially for folks like me with well-worn body parts and dispositions. Dr. Chebutykin is not sure if he will return in a year or to whom he will return.

Is it this same ambivalence that hollowed me at the end of our run? As my play-space (literally and metaphorically) emptied little by little, the cast and crew emptied the stage of its props and set pieces. In a few hours, the production was reduced to a blank slate, waiting to be filled with the next show. “What about me?” I thought. “Is there a next show for me?” As Chebutykin so aptly says, “God alone knows.”

Rubbish. For God’s sake

The big pieces of plywood and two-by-fours from the set were stored to be reused in other shows. The small pieces were thrown into the dumpster as rubbish. When I was a young man, I simply sloughed off my stage characters at the end of each play’s run, keeping the major revelations but tossing everything else away.

I am afraid that is not so easy to do now. The little things now refuse to be discarded from my memory: The sing-alongs in the make-up room before a performance. The inspired hand—a combination of technical training and God’s creative force—that moved mine to make just the right gesture for that night, that scene. Those moments I picked up a line for someone else, and someone else did it for me.

A younger me probably would have sent these tiny events along with the rubbish to the dumpster. But a me who is “nearly 60” has finally learned that these little things do not look or smell like rubbish. They smell like sacraments.

The role had been written for me.

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