Anton Chekhov's full-length masterpieces may be considered comedies, yet they are filled with dour moments, failed loves, and sometimes even death. This is especially true in his play The Seagull -- a comedic drama which ends with a suicide. Although other plays such as Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard do not culminate in such an explosive resolution, a feeling of hopelessness permeates each of Chekhov's plays. This is a sharp contrast to some of his more jovial one act comedies. "The Marriage Proposal," for example, is a delightful farce that could have ended very darkly, but the playwright instead maintains its energetic whimsy, concluding in a successful albeit combative engagement.
The main character, Ivan Vassilevitch Lomov, is a heavy-set man in his mid-thirties, prone to anxiety, stubbornness, and hypochondria. These flaws are further amplified because he becomes a nervous wreck when he tries to propose marriage.
Stepan Stephanovitch Chubukov owns land next to Ivan. A man in his early seventies, he gladly grants permission to Ivan, but soon calls off the engagement once an argument over property ensues. His chief concerns are maintaining his wealth and keeping his daughter happy.
Natalya Stepanovna is the female lead in this three person play. She can be jovial and welcoming, yet stubborn, proud and possessive, just like her male counterparts.
Plot Summary of "A Marriage Proposal":
The play is set in rural countryside of Russia during the late 1800s. When Ivan arrives at the home of the Chubukov family, the elderly Stepan assumes that the well-dressed young man has come to borrow money. Instead, Stepan is pleased when Ivan asks for his daughter's hand in marriage. Stepan whole-heartedly bestows his blessing, declaring that he already loves him like a son. The old man then leaves to fetch his daughter, assuring the younger man that Natalya will graciously accept the proposal.
While alone, Ivan delivers a soliloquy, explaining his high level of nervousness, as well as a number of physical ailments that have recently plagued his daily life. This monologue sets up everything that unfolds next.
Everything is going well when Natalya first enters the room. They chat pleasantly about the weather and agriculture. Ivan attempts to bring up the subject of marriage by first stating how he has known her family since childhood. As he touches upon his past he mentions his family's ownership of the Oxen Meadows. Natalya stops the conversation to clarify. She believes that her family has always owned the meadows, and this disagreement ignites a caustic debate, one that sends tempers flaring and Ivan's heart palpitating.
After they yell at each other, Ivan feels dizzy and tries to calm himself down and change the subject back to matrimony, only to get immersed in the argument yet again. Natalya's father joins the battle, siding with his daughter, and angrily demanding that Ivan leave at once.
As soon as Ivan is gone, Stepan reveals that the young man has planned to propose to Natalya. Shocked and apparently desperate to be married, Natalya insists that her father bring him back. Once Ivan has returned, she tries to bend the subject toward romance. However, instead of discussing marriage, they begin to argue over which of their dogs is the better hound. This seemingly innocuous topic launches into yet another heated argument. Finally, Ivan's heart cannot take it anymore and he flops down dead. At least that's what Stepan and Natalya believe for a moment. Fortunately, Ivan breaks out of his fainting spell and regains his sense enough for him to propose to Natalya. She accepts, but before the curtain falls, they return to their old argument regarding who owns the better dog.
In short, "The Marriage Proposal" is a delightful gem of a comedy. It makes one wonder as to why so much of Chekhov's full length plays (even the ones labeled as comedies) seem so thematically heavy.
Silly Vs. Serious:
So, why is "The Marriage Proposal" so whimsical whereas his full-length plays are realistic? One reason that may account for the silliness found in this one-act is that "The Marriage Proposal" was first performed in 1890, when Chekhov was just entering his thirties and still in relatively good health. When he wrote his famous comedy-dramas his illness (tuberculosis) had more severely affected him. Being a physician, Chekhov must have known that he was nearing the end of his life, thereby casting a shade over The Seagull and the other plays.
Also, during his more prolific years as a playwright, Anton Chekhov traveled more and beheld many impoverished, marginalized people of Russia, including inmates of a penal colony. "The Marriage Proposal" is a humorous microcosm of marital unions among the Russian upper class in late 19th century Russia. This was Chekhov's world during his late 20s. As he became more worldly, his interests in others outside the middle classes increased. Plays such as Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard feature an ensemble of characters from many different economic classes, from the wealthiest to the most impoverished.
Finally, one must consider the influence of Constantin Stanislavski, a theater director who would become one of the most important figures in modern theater. His dedication to bringing a naturalistic quality to drama may have further inspired Chekhov to write less silly plays, much to the chagrin of theater goers who like their comedies broad, loud, and full of slapstick.