‘The Bear’: Theater of the Absent

As autumn rounds the corner, I find myself looking for literature to gear me up for cool weather, thick sweaters and cozy environments. Unfortunately, there are few plays that create that atmosphere. Instead, theater that reminds me of fall tends to focus on the macabre. Beautiful fall colors are a result of death, after all.

One literary device that has always fascinated me is when the absence of someone sparks a story. Anton Chekhov’s one-act black comedy The Bear is a great example of how the absence of a character can create the world of the play and drive its action, and even more interestingly, how a character can be present without a presence. 

The Bear opens with the young widow Popova mourning her late husband, Nicolai. Popova has declared that she shall never again leave the house and will wear widows’ weeds – black mourning garments – for the rest of her days to show Nicolai how faithful she is to him. 

We soon learn, however, that Popova’s dedication to Nicolai comes not from love, but from anger: Nicolai had been an unfaithful abuser while he was alive, and Popova is steadfast in her spite.

Enter Smirnov, a smarmy, misogynistic landowner who has come to collect a large debt that Nicolai owed him. Smirnov must pay the mortgage on his home the next day, so he’s determined to collect this debt by dawn. Unfortunately for Smirnov, Popova doesn’t have the money on hand, and she tells him it will take two days before she can settle the debt.

Both are unwavering in their stubbornness, and thus we watch the two characters lock horns during the course of the play. 

The Bear excels in subverting expectations. It turns almost every idea it introduces upside down by the end of the piece: Popova will mourn her husband for the rest of her life out of spite. Smirnov hates women because none have loved him. The two have vowed never to love again, but I think you can guess what happens next. 

My favorite subversion comes near the end, when Popova is so full of anger that she grabs Nicolai’s pistols and challenges Smirnov to a duel so they can settle things as men would – but she’s never fired a gun before, so she asks Smirnov to teach her how.

The Bear is written for a cast of just three performers, one of whom spends the majority of the performance offstage. There are few stage directions in the original text, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but the few details that are included are important. 

The play begins with Popova looking at a photograph of her late husband, and it remains on stage for the entirety of the play. Not only has Nicolai left both Popova and Smirnov to contend with life-altering circumstances – her commitment to lifelong mourning, and his home and livelihood on the line – but Nicolai’s visage also looms over the action the entire time and represents the absent character who serves as the impetus for the play’s progression.

The widow and the debt collector are the stars of the show, but Nicolai is the most important character in the play, despite never setting foot on stage.