… in short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because — I don’t know why!
— Anton Chekhov
I’ve been obsessed with the short stories of Anton Chekhov for years, but it was a radio presentation of his play Uncle Vanya about a decade ago by the Reduced Shakespeare Company that really caught my ear. Here it is in full:
“Are you Uncle Vanya?”
In the unlikely event that you’ve never heard of the company, here’s a snapshot courtesy of Wikipedia:
The Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) is an American touring acting troupe that performs fast-paced, seemingly improvisational condensations of different topics. The company’s style has been described as “New Vaudeville,” combining both physical and verbal humour, as well as highbrow and lowbrow.
Known as the “Bad Boys of Abridgement,” the RSC has created ten stage shows: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) in 1987, The Complete History of America (abridged) in 1992, The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) in 1995, The Complete Millennium Musical (abridged) in 1998, All the Great Books (abridged) in 2002, Completely Hollywood (abridged) in 2005, The Complete World of Sports (abridged) in 2010, The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged) in 2011, The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) in 2013 and William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) in 2016. The company tours in the U.S. and U.K., and has performed in Belgium, Netherlands, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Singapore, Barbados, Bermuda, Israel, Qatar and Ireland. The Reduced Shakespeare Company is also heard on NPR (National Public Radio in the U.S.) and the BBC.
The troupe has been around since 1981, when founder Daniel Singer trimmed Hamlet to a four-actor, 25-minute tour de force. Honey, I shrunk the Bard.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company has been cited in the Guinness Book of World Records for having mounted the longest-running Shakespeare production in London’s West End. The show opened at the Criterion Theatre on March 7, 1996, and closed on April 3, 2005.
On April 23, 2014, the Sweet Swan of Avon’s 450th birthday, the company went into the record books again after presenting the world’s highest theatrical performance (Seth Rogen reruns excluded), a one-hour performance of the Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged) at an altitude of 37,000 feet, tucked aboard the aisles of an easyJet flight from London to Verona. Shakes on a plane.
One couldn’t expect audiences to shell out good money for stagings of classic works as concise and cryptic as RSC’s version of Uncle Vanya, one supposes. Arrive 10 seconds late and one would have missed the whole thing. Thus occasioning a one-off “fuck off” from even the most cultivated and delicate of theatregoers.
But here in an essay format, it’s possible — desirable, some would say — to pare some of the fat from even a 25-minute version of Hamlet. For example, the whole existential hullabaloo could be distilled as:
“Are you Uncle Claudius, the newly crowned king of Denmark who killed my father and married my mother?”
“Ja, last time I checked.”
“Well golly gee willikers, now what am I going to do?”
If you cut out all the bluster and conniving, King Lear comes down to:
Goneril, Regan and Gord: “I’m not Cordelia, I will not be there.”
Lear: “And my poor fool is hanged!”
In a post-literate, largely uncisgendered AI era, where only we few — we happy few, we band of genderfluid, agender, bigender, trigender, pangender brothers, sisters and two-spirited what-have-yous — can be bothered to skim the Coles Notes version of Coles Notes, which equates to every seventh panel of our Classics Illustrated Comics collections from the fifties, there’s no reason why this convenient, reader-friendly format couldn’t be extended to any literary work.
Some humble examples:
Moby-Dick; or, Better to Sleep with a Sober Cannibal than a Drunk Christian
Listen ye, for Moby-Dick is a tale of the sea, of a vengeful captain and his crew on a perilous quest to hunt down the mighty white whale that took his leg. The journey is fraught with danger and adventure, testing the limits of man against nature, leading to a climactic and tragic showdown that leaves one pondering the mysteries of life and the ironies of fate. Hey, I just met you and this is crazy but here’s my number, so call me, Ishmael.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
The gull sees farthest who flies highest.
Don’t look up when he flies o’er.
The Old Man and the Pee
Why do old men wake so early?
Is it to have one longer day? “Piss,” he said, softly, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead.”
Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, so call me maybe.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Huck, refusing to betray escaped slave Jim and thereby boldly defying the biblical sanctioning of slavery clung to by Southern antebellum society: “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”
Chorus of officious, ass-covering, virtue-signalling school district officials: “N-word! Banned!”
Huck: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
To Kill a Mockingbird:
Atticus Finch: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Ron DeSantis: “Critical-race theory and oppressive woke-ocracy!”
Republican maenads: “Up with gas stoves, down with woke Lego, unsexy M&Ms and leftist banks that let N-words handle our money!”
Reflecting on how the Tucker Carlson crowd never seemed to have a problem with the racist-as-fuck way California raisins heard it through the grapevine, I suddenly felt the Holy-as-Fox spirit move across the water and realized I could channel my inner undergrad to get the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT to do all the heavy lifting.
I opened an account and tentatively asked whether it could provide a three-sentence description of the great James Joyce novel Ulysses in the style of Yosemite Sam. What I got back in a second or two reads more like a spoof of a book jacket blurb than a mini-play, but it was instructive nonetheless:
Yee-haw! Ulysses is a wild ride through a single day in Dublin, following the adventures of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as they navigate the city and their own inner struggles. The language is as fiery as a shotgun blast, with Joyce throwing everything he’s got into this epic masterpiece. It's a rootin’ tootin’ good time that’ll leave you breathless!
Wuthering Heights as summarized in three sentences by Bart Simpson?
So, Wuthering Heights is about these two families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons, and their crazy feud. The main characters are Heathcliff and Cathy, who are like totally in love but they can’t be together because of all the drama. It’s a real classic, man.
Pride and Prejudice à la Walter Brennan:
Pride and Prejudice is a story of love and courtship in Regency-era England, where Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy must navigate the social expectations of their time to find happiness. With colourful characters like the foolish Mr. Collins and the flighty Lydia Bennet, this novel is a hootin’ and hollerin’ good time that’ll leave you grinnin’ from ear to ear. So grab a sarsaparilla and settle in for some down-home romance!
War and Peace through the tastebuds of Cookie Monster:
Ooh, War and Peace is a big book, but it’s also a tasty one! It’s full of adventure, romance, and of course, cookies! With so many characters and so much going on, you won’t be able to put it down – unless you need to go get more cookies, of course!
Peyton Place, encapsulated by the King James Version of the Bible:
And it came to pass in the town of Peyton Place that the people were filled with desire and deceit. For there were hidden sins among them, and the passions of the flesh did run rampant. Yet in their midst there were those who sought to bring the truth to light, and to heal the wounds of the broken-hearted.
Madame Bovary, the Fozzie Bear edition:
Wocka wocka, it’s Madame Bovary! Emma is a lady who’s got it all, except what she really wants — adventure! She tries to find happiness through love and material things, but things don’t quite work out as planned. It’s a cautionary tale about the importance of being true to yourself, wocka wocka!
The Hound of the Baskervilles if Mickey Spillane had got to the crime scene first:
Alright, dollface, let me lay it out for ya. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a classic detective yarn with more twists and turns than a back alley in Brooklyn. It’s got everything you want in a mystery — a cursed family, a spooky mansion, and a ferocious hound that’s out for blood. So if you’re looking for a real page-turner, grab yourself a copy and get ready to be on the edge of your seat.
The Republic by A.A. Milne:
Once upon a time in a land called Greece,
There lived a man named Plato, a philosopher with great expertise,
He wrote a book called The Republic, exploring justice and society’s keys.
The Great Gatsby by Dr. Seuss:
In West Egg town, a mystery looms,
A man named Gatsby, with grand ballroom.
He longs for love with his lost flame,
But finds the cost is more than fame.
Oedipus Rex as conceived by Edward Lear:
There once was a king from Thebes
Whose fate was as cruel as it grieves
He killed his own father
And married his mother
His tragedy no one perceives.
Not half bad, but I flatter ourselves that we’re still at a point where even a reduced human mind can penetrate the heart of the art more deeply and just as pithily as an ingeniously programmed chatbot. At least, isn’t it pretty to think so?
Re. Oedipus the King, for example, I much prefer the great Tom Lehrer’s take on a man who really loved his mother:
So be sweet and kind to mother, now and then have a chat
Buy her candy or some flowers or a brand new hat
But maybe you had better let it go at that.
Letting it go at that is also a timely reminder of “Chekhov’s gun,” a more articulate statement of the principle that the good doctor enunciated at the beginning of this tilt:
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
With that admonition in mind, here is Portnoy’s Complaint, the 1969 novel that made Philip Roth so famous and famously miserable, in the style of moi-même:
Is this a liver which I see before me?
A Christmas Carol as reimagined by Cocaine Bear:
Scrooge: “Bear, humbug!”
Cocaine Bear: Gobble, chomp, champ, guzzle, slurp.
Medic: “Beth, we should go.”
The complete works of Chekhov, abridged:
Kirk: “How close will we come to the nearest Klingon outpost if we continue on our current course?”
Chekov, abridged spelling: “Ah, one parsec, sir. Close enough to smell them.”
[Grins broadly as larval eel placed by Khan Noonien Singh peers mischievously out of ear]