Anton Chekhov's Sakhalin Island to be brought to life on stage by British neuroscientist

Professor Jonathan Cole has received funding from The Wellcome Trust

Anton Chekhov is remembered for his great works of fiction and – after Shakespeare – is the second most performed playwright in history. But he was also a qualified doctor who made a curious and perilous trip in 1890 to a remote penal colony in Tsarist Russia where he tried to write a medical thesis on the lives of its abject prisoners.

The journey was in fact spurred by Chekhov’s social conscience as a writer and represented the tradition of civic mindedness that dominated the Russian literary scene since the 1860s. His dissertation on the labour camp of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Pacific coast was in the end rejected by the medical establishment of his day, but it has lived on as his only work of non-fiction which next year [2014] will become the subject of a dramatic portrayal conceived and written by a British neuroscientist.

Professor Jonathan Cole, a clinical neurophysiologist at Southampton University, has received just over £100,000 from the Wellcome Trust to bring Sakhalin Island to the stage as a one-man show performed by theatre artist Andy Dawson – the two have collaborated in the past on a medically-influenced performance about physical disability called The Articulate Hand.

The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest medical research charity, normally funds state-of-the-art scientific research but its decision to finance the dramatisation of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island fits into its broader remit to encourage the marriage of the “two cultures” of the arts and sciences.

The aim of the drama is to bring Sakhalin Island and its inhabitants alive as a series of performances or movements that would portray both the horror and the humour of the colony and its inhabitants, Professor Cole explained.

“It’s a one-man thing. There are going to be vignettes. Some will be theatrical, some will be humorous – and some not – and there will passages of spoken text from the time,” he said.

“One of the difficulties of putting art and science together is that one is trying to piggyback on the other. Art has expression but wants something to express,” he explained.

“It’s difficult to get a true symbiosis between art and science. Science has lots of facts and some ideas, but it wants to be able to communicate them, to humanise them. Getting the balance between those two, where both are essential, is really difficult.”

Professor Cole came across Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island – still published by Alma Classics – almost by chance but was immediately smitten by Chekov’s detailed and realistic descriptions of his perilous three-month journey to the island and the people he met there during his two-month stay as a medical practitioner.

The prisoners, sometimes accompanied by their children, had to walk across Siberia to Sakhalin, which lies off the Russian east coast to the north of Japan. It took them three years, an unimaginable and inhumane journey, especially for the children, and that was even before they had begun their sentence of hard labour.

Chekov’s accounts include the heart-rending description of a six-year-old girl running after and holding on to the fetters of her criminal father, and the young teenage boy who had known no other life since his arrival on the island as a baby.

Some of the prisoners were permanently chained to wheelbarrows for years as a sadistic punishment to restrict their movements. Others tried to escape the enclosure of the colony, knowing there was no escape from the island itself.

“Sakhalin Island is by far the longest work of Chekhov, and the one that took him longest to write. It’s his only work of non-fiction, yet it seems to be fairly well ignored by Chekhovians,” Professor Cole said.

“I lot of people would not have considered what effect going to Sakhalin would have had on Chekhov,” he said.

Apart from lancing a few boils, Chekhov does not seem to have practised much medicine on Sakhalin, preferring instead to concentrate on gathering stories and anecdotes of the broken people who lived in the “katorga”, a Tsarist forerunner of the Soviet gulags.

During the time he spent on the island, Chekhov made a census of the colony’s 10,000 inmates, interviewing each one of them personally, ostensibly as a scientific record, but with the observant eye of a talented storyteller. Professor Cole has had many of the census cards translated into English to be analysed statistically to see if they can provide any further scientific insight into the penal colony.

“Chekhov said he used the census to just get his foot in the door to talk to people. He didn’t claim the census would be of much use….We can’t claim that Chekhov at the time was in the forefront of science or medicine. But it allows us to reflect on the medicine of that time,” Professor Cole said.

“One of the reasons why doctors became socially active was to change the conditions to reduce the infectious disease rate….Chekhov said the future of medicine is preventative medicine, which in those days it was,” he said.

Chekhov seems to have been stung by the criticism of his radical friends for not being radical enough, so going to Sakhalin to report on what he saw was an expression of his social conscience, Professor Cole said.

The social reform movement in Russia had begun in the 1860s but Chekhov believed it still had some way to go to bring about real change. “The much-extolled ‘60s did nothing for the sick and imprisoned, transgressing thereby the major precepts of Christian civilisation,” Chekhov wrote in a letter to a friend, the newspaper magnate Aleksey Suvorin, just before he left for Sakhalin in 1890.

“Nowadays at least something is being done for the sick, but for those in prison – nothing. The study of confinement in prison is of no interest whatsoever to our lawyers and legal experts,” Chekhov wrote.

When Chekhov returned from Sakhalin he lobbied for prison reform and seemed to be deeply influenced by his experience – on one occasion saying wistfully that “everything is Sakhalinised”.

But perhaps the best insight into what he thought about Sakhalin comes in another letter to Suvorin written immediately on his return: “Whilst I was living on Sakhalin, I experienced merely a certain bitter taste deep inside me, as if from rancid butter, but now, in retrospect, Sakhalin appears to me to be utter hell.”

Additional research by Ines Connor

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own