Ben Brantley reviewed The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov in the New York Times and it got me curious to read more of the 19th Century Russian’s work. I knew I had a collection of his short stories buried somewhere so I looked through literally every shelf in the house and finally found the thing. A striking title of one short story caught my eye, from 1885, “The Cure For Drinking.”
Chekhov instantly conjures the frenzy surrounding the piss-drunk arrival of a top-billed traveling entertainer to the theater where he is to perform. The theater manager is hysterical. For months, the town has been plastered with life size posters announcing the triumphant arrival of the celebrated comedian. A string of performances, along with the theater’s reputation and financial survival, hang in the balance. The cast hairdresser is summoned to administer his infamous, brutal treatment for curing an alcoholic binge. He starts out by cold clocking the guy in the back of the head. The vain performer looks up, stunned. This stage diva can’t believe this burly scruffian, this nobody has deigned to abuse him. The hairdresser dispenses his signature brand of sympathy.
“Cry! Cry out, you devil, you! The worst is yet to come! Now listen: if you say one more word, or make the slightest movement, I’m going to kill you! I shall kill you without a regret. There is no one, brother, to intercede for you; even if you were to fire a cannon, nobody would come. But if you are quiet and submissive, I’ll give you a little vodka. Here’s your vodka!” Grebeshkov took a pint of vodka out of his pocket and flashed it before the drunk man’s eyes. At the sight of the object of his passion, the drunken man forgot all about his beating and whinnied with delight. The hairdresser then took a dirty little piece of soap from his vest pocket and stuck it into the bottle. When the vodka became cloudy and soapy he set about adding all sorts of junk to it: saltpeter, ammonium chloride, alum, sodium sulphate, sulpher, resin and various other ingredients that are sold in a chandlery. The drunk peered at Grebeshkov, avidly following the movements of the bottle. The hairdresser burned a scrap of rag, poured the ashes into the vodka, shook it and approached the bed. “Now drink! At once!”
The addled performer snatches the bottle and sucks down the poison. It takes a week, but the man is cured, and the theater survives its crisis.
The story reminded me of a recent newspaper article about the harsh detox centers gaining traction in Russia. They have a hard core drug addiction epidemic in Russia, lots of heroin, as well as genetically encoded alcoholism, for good measure. Because an off-the-street Russian addict can’t afford a top-flight, Beverly Hills-style luxury rehab center, the treatment they do receive can be crude. Apparently it is effective, though. At least for some of the people some of the time.