Feb '03 [Home]


Chekhov as Adult Entertainment

by Paul Pierog

. . .

I spent a year acting plays by Anton Chekhov at what was arguably the world's most successful adult entertainment establishment, Show World, at 8th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City.

Show World, part of the Times Square area, was a target for environmental improvement. There was a 60/40 law passed to implement closing places like that. Sixty percent of some adult establishments had to be devoted to non-adult entertainment business. (I take it we all know what 'adult' means—it doesn't mean enjoying the works of Anton Chekhov. That's not adult entertainment.)

Off Broadway entrepreneur Aaron Beall's Chekhov Festival garnered publicity in major New York press that served the owners of the notorious establishment well in the courtroom, since it denoted Show World as a place of culture and allowed it to stay in business.

Show World did close its live shows, keeping open the adult bookstore. It did not sell books by Anton Chekhov. For over two years, dozens of people continued to arrive from all over the world looking for the renowned but long absent erotic entertainment. The owners slapped a notice up throughout the center to announce what was missing. It read: "No Live Girls."

Mr. Beall used this concept as a title for a No Live Girls Festival. It featured live girls.

As dramaturge of the Chekhov festival, I worked up an extensive Chekhov story project, a readers' theater concept reviewing Chekhov stories. I happened to show the project to the editors of this magazine, who noted its meager erotic mentionings and asked me to look at the erotic in Chekhov.

At first glance, of course, there isn't any. Yet, examined more deeply, Chekhov's work is profoundly erotic.

Chekhov's one story about a young man visiting a place like Show World results in the title of the story, "A Nervous Breakdown." The young man cannot limit himself to a sufficiently uninvolved erotic experience.

     Vassilyev longed to talk to the young lady about many things. He felt an intense desire to find out where she came from, whether her parents were living, and whether they knew that she was here; how she had come into this house; whether she were cheerful and satisfied, or sad and oppressed by gloomy thoughts; whether she hoped some day to get out of her present position.  . . .  But he could not think how to begin or in what shape to put his questions so as not to seem impertinent. He thought for a long time, and asked:
    "How old are you?"
    "Eighty," the young lady jested. . . . 

The story, "Two Beauties", is simply about the hit, the jolt of attractiveness, and the complexity of response that goes into it. The first beauty is simply a woman seen by a boy.

     But little by little I forgot myself, and gave myself up entirely to the consciousness of beauty . . . I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstasy, nor enjoyment . . . , but a painful though pleasant sadness. . . . I felt sorry for myself. . . . I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again.

The second beauty is simply a woman seen by a working man, the type of man to appear from any port in the world at Show World, unprepared to see a disappointing sign that says "No Live Girls."

     The guard . . . wore a look of tenderness and of the deepest sadness, as though in that girl he saw happiness, his own youth, soberness, purity, wife, children; as though he were repenting and feeling in his whole being that that girl was not his. . . . 

"Two Beauties" recounts the views of many men as onlookers with their complex, but anonymous, lost individual experiences.

However, as in "A Lady With A Dog", the dubious inner quandary does not always prevent indulgence.

     Repeated and bitter experience had taught him that every fresh intimacy, while at first introducing such pleasant variety into everyday life, and offering itself as a charming, light adventure, inevitably developed . . . into a problem of excessive complication leading to an intolerably irksome situation. But every time he encountered an attractive woman he forgot all about this experience. . . . 

Indeed, being able to give this experience could be a high, in this same story engaged in by a male.

 . . . he felt quite at home among women, and knew exactly what to say to them, and how to behave; he could even be silent in their company without feeling the slightest awkwardness. There was an elusive charm in his appearance and disposition which attracted women and caught their sympathies. He knew this. . . . 

Indeed, in "Anna By The Neck", Anna turns this high into a lifestyle, through marrying an much older man whom she does not love.

     Anna invited purchasers and got money out of them, firmly convinced by now that her smiles and glances could not fail to afford these people great pleasure. She realized now that she was created exclusively for this noisy, brilliant, laughing life, with its music, its dancers, its adorers. . . . 

As demonstrated in "Ariadne", the pleasures of loveless eroticism can take great effort to consummate.

     Ariadne tried hard to fall in love, she pretended to, she even swore she loved me. But I am a nervous and extremely sensitive man; when I am loved, I can feel it even at a distance, without vows and assurances, but with Ariadne I immediately felt a coldness in the air, and when she talked to me of love I seemed to be listening to the singing of a nightingale made of metal. Ariadne herself felt that she was lacking in conviction. . . . Why, one evening on the river bank, she flung her arms round me impulsively and kissed me, but I could see from her eyes that she did not love me, that she had embraced me merely out of curiosity, to test herself, to see what came of it. And I was horrified.

However, in spite of the challenges, all the world is a Show World, and many find it worth the price of the show. In "Terror", the truth creates a bond that allows a man to sleep with this best friend's wife. The truth is negotiable in life and in Show World, and, as in any other great adult entertainment center, you will get what you pay for; so, if you want to, you'll probably enjoy the show.

     Let me exploit your affection, then, and tell you the full truth. My family life, which you think so enchanting. . . .  It's my chief misfortune, it's what scares me most. I made a strange and foolish marriage. I was madly in love with Mary before we married, I may say, and I courted her for two years. Five times I proposed, but she refused me because she didn't care for me at all. On the sixth occasion I went down on my knees, aflame with passion, and besought her hand like one begging for mercy. She said yes.
     "I don't love you," she told me, "but I will be faithful to you."
     I was delighted to accept this condition.

In life and in Chekhov, you get what you're willing to pay for.

(Paul Pierog is an eclectic artist and teacher. He is currently a Creative Literature Specialist for Queens Child Guidance Center's afterschool program at PS24 in Queens. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, he has worked as an actor, director or writer in print, theater, television and film. He writes often for the magazine.)