Anton Chekhov Drama Analysis
Anton Chekhov was talking about other writers when he said, “The best of them are realists and depict life as it is, but because every line they write is permeated, as with a juice, by a consciousness of an aim, you feel in addition to life as it is, also life as it should be, and it is that that delights you.” These very qualities that Chekhov praises in other great writers are the qualities in his greatest plays, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, plays that continue to delight audiences throughout the world, though that delight is sometimes expressed in tears.
Chekhov has been called a depressing writer, one who bring tears to an audience’s eyes, but he rejected that view adamantly, saying that he had never wanted tears: “I wanted something else. I wanted to tell people honestly: ‘Look at yourselves. See how badly you live and how tiresome you are.’ The main thing is that people should understand this. When they do, they will surely create a new and better life for themselves.” Audiences will continue to be moved to tears by Chekhov’s plays, but his words give his audience a way of understanding the main ingredients of his greatness. His powers of observation and his honesty permitted him to create characters readily recognizable as human, characters sharply individualized yet representative. He was convinced of the need for unceasing striving, a belief that pervaded his life and work; and he had a faith that the future would bring a better life for humankind.
Chekhov’s exceptional powers of observation, no doubt sharpened by his scientific training, enabled him to bring to the stage living characters. This was the single guiding purpose of Chekhov’s early writing, to show “life as it is.” This purpose, however, could not sustain him for long, and especially after his crises in 1889 and his trip to Sakhalin in 1890, he came to believe that “A work of art should express a great idea.” If Chekhov’s plays can be said to have a great idea, it must be that human beings must work ceaselessly and that their labor must be accompanied by a faith in the usefulness of that work, a faith in the future. In all his best plays, the themes of work, faith, and purpose are present, and in all there is a stab of pain and pity at the recognition of how often humans are idle, how many there are who do no work, how many who work to no end, how few who possess faith, how difficult it is to persevere in one’s faith, how often dreams are not fulfilled, and how transient is all human happiness. Chekhov’s purpose, however, went beyond the pain of recognition. He hoped that when people recognized themselves in his characters, they would go on to “create a new and better life.”
Chekhov did not begin his dramatic career with the happy mixture of observation, purpose, and knowledge of the stage that was to characterize his later work. His earliest play, untitled by Chekhov but commonly referred to as Platonov, is a long and rambling work, full of dramatic stereotypes and heightened, exaggerated scenes, with little of the flavor of his later works. His next full-length play, Ivanov, was staged and was a popular success, but Chekhov was not satisfied with it, for good reason. It, too, was stilted and did not in Chekhov’s view reflect the truth about human life. By the end of the 1880’s, Chekhov had already formed the opinion that “A play ought to be written in which people come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards . . . because that is what happens in real life. Life on the stage should be as it really is and the people, too, should be as they are and not stilted.” Chekhov would need a new kind of drama to embody such perceptions, and he was not successful at creating it until 1896. His first attempt at a new drama, The Wood Demon, first performed in 1889, failed so badly that Chekhov turned away from drama for six years. During this time, he achieved fame for his fiction. As fame brought more money and therefore allowed him more time to work on each piece, he wrote longer and longer pieces, and so was gradually led back to full-length drama.
Ultimately, Chekhov found a way to fulfill his dream of capturing real life on the stage by rejecting the dramatic conventions of his time. Although the drama of his contemporaries focused on action, often melodramatic action, Chekhov’s last plays are primarily works of inaction, works in which the needed action takes place offstage. Chekhov prevents the audience from being distracted by activity, focusing attention on the inner lives of his characters.
These inner lives are often both painful and ridiculous. It has long been a difficulty for critics that Chekhov called The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard comedies and insisted that they were not tragic. In truth, many of the characters in his plays are absurd: Their concerns are ridiculous, and the detached observer must confess that they are silly. It is a rare viewer, however, who can be detached about Chekhov’s characters. The audience simultaneously recognizes the foolishness and the humanity of the characters, touched by the recognition of how real the characters’ problems are to them, how impossible the characters find it to extricate themselves from their problems. Some of their dreams are absurd, but they do not know how to help themselves, and so their lives pass them by without teaching them how to live. Chekhov shows convincingly “what fools these mortals be,” but the audience, being mortal, is moved to pity, not laughter.
The Seagull was partially inspired by events in Chekhov’s life. Chekhov had for years known a woman named Lydia, or “Lika,” Mizinova, who was apparently in love with him; he was seemingly less in love with her. They were very close, but Chekhov was not interested in marriage, and Lika turned her attention to another man, I. N. Potapenko, a married friend of Chekhov. The two had an affair that resulted in Lika’s pregnancy and her abandonment by Potapenko. She went to Europe to deliver the baby, but the baby died soon after Lika’s return to Russia. The episode no doubt disturbed Chekhov, and there is some indication that he felt a degree of guilt in the matter. Nina, a central character in the play and the only one who finds an answer for her life, is based on Lika, whose true experience provides the central theme of The Seagull.
The play opens at the country estate of Sorin, a retired justice. His sister, Arkadina, an actress, is making a visit to her brother’s home with her lover, the writer Trigorin. Living with Sorin is Arkadina’s twenty-five-year-old son, Konstantin Trepliov, who, as the play begins, is about to stage a play that he has written for the benefit of his mother and the other guests on the estate. The play features Nina, whom Trepliov loves. Also attending the performance are Dorn, a doctor; Medvedenko, a schoolmaster; Shamrayev, Sorin’s bailiff; his wife, Polena, and their daughter Masha. Masha sets the tone of Chekhov’s play with her first lines. When Medvedenko asks her why she always wears black, she replies that she is “in mourning for my life.” Medvedenko loves Masha and wants to marry her, but Masha feels nothing for him and loves Trepliov instead. In turn, Trepliov cares nothing for Masha and focuses all his dreams on Nina. As Trepliov’s play gets under way, strain is plainly seen in the relationship between Arkadina and her son. Trepliov wants very much to impress his mother with the play, but she interrupts it several times with her comments. Arkadina claims that her son has no talent, but Dorn sees some power in the play, though he thinks it lacks a “definite idea.” Nina complains that the play has no living characters, but the novice playwright defends himself by claiming that plays ought not to show things as they are, or as they ought to be, but rather as they appear to us in our dreams, an attitude that would get little sympathy from Chekhov.
Chekhov would certainly sympathize, however, with the most prevalent problem in the play: unrequited love. Trepliov yearns for the love of his mother but does not receive it, Nina becomes enamored of Trigorin and ends up running off to meet him in Moscow, and Arkadina also wants the love of Trigorin but must settle for dominance over him: He loves no one. Dorn comments on the situation at the end of act 1 with the lines, “How distraught they all are! And what a quantity of love about! . . . But what can I do, my child?” One can almost hear Chekhov directing these words to Lika Mizinova.
Acts 2 and 3 develop Nina’s infatuation with Trigorin and the relationship between Arkadina and Trepliov. Nina is impressed by Trigorin’s fame and occupation and thinks only of him. Trepliov sees that he has lost his mother to Trigorin and that he is losing Nina as well. He is wrought up enough to kill a seagull and present it to Nina, telling her that he will soon kill himself as well. Trigorin comes on the scene shortly after Trepliov leaves, and the scene gives him an idea for a story, as he tells Nina in a speech that foreshadows their future affair: “A young girl, like you, has lived beside a lake since childhood. She loves the lake as a seagull does . . . but a man comes along, sees her, and having nothing better to do, destroys her, just like this seagull here.” This “idea” is of great symbolic importance because it is the first example of a perspective that will come up again and again in Chekhov: The greatest destruction is casual, ignorant, rooted in idleness. Nina understands nothing of the implications of the speech and, by the end of act 3, the affair is arranged.
Trepliov, true to his word, shoots himself but suffers only a grazed head. Nina is “casual” about the injury, and Arkadina, though maternal for a few moments, soon begins to argue with her son again.
In act 4, which opens two years later, Trigorin and Arkadina return to visit Sorin, who is ill. In the two-year interval, Masha has married Medvedenko in an attempt to put Trepliov out of her mind, and they now have a child but essentially nothing has changed: Medvedenko still spends all his time worrying, either about his daughter or about money, and Masha, still yearning for Trepliov, is cruel to her husband and has virtually abandoned her child. Trepliov has succeeded in publishing but has found no contentment. Nina, after running away with Trigorin, became pregnant. He abandoned her, she lost her child, and her acting career is floundering.
While the rest of the company go to a late supper, Nina comes on the scene, drawn by the news that Arkadina and Trigorin have returned. She converses with Trepliov, and clearly he still loves her. Of all the characters in the play, only Nina has changed. She has suffered greatly, but she has learned from her trials; as she tells Trepliov, “what really matters is not fame, or glamour . . . but knowing how to endure things.” Nina then leaves to pursue her acting career in an obscure village; she still loves Trigorin, but that does not stop her from living. Trepliov, however, does not have Nina’s faith. With the final realization that she is gone from his life and that his mother has no need of him, he has no use for himself, and he goes offstage and shoots himself. The rest of the characters, playing cards as they hear the shot, send Dorn out to investigate. They accept his explanation that the noise was just a bottle of ether exploding; as the curtain falls, Dorn takes Trigorin aside to give him the news of the shooting and to tell him to take Arkadina back to the city lest she find out. Thus the audience hears of the shooting as the card game continues, and really nothing is changed.
The play ends on the same note on which it began. If Masha started the play mourning her life, she has not stopped mourning during the two years of the play’s action, and though she has a husband and a child, she cannot be said to live. Trepliov, too, has spent his time mourning rather than living, and if his death brings about no change, that is not surprising, for his death is no different from his life. Arkadina starts the play wrapped in her idleness, incapable of feeling or understanding her son’s misery, and it is not at all surprising that she plays cards as he shoots himself. Change can be seen only in Nina, who has learned not to fear life, and who works toward a future goal with faith and dedication.
The exact date of composition of Uncle Vanya is unknown, but it is known that it had been performed for some time in rural theaters before it was performed by the Moscow Art Theater. In fact, though Chekhov claimed that it was a totally new play, acts 2 and 3 are taken almost completely from his earlier failure, The Wood Demon. Although Uncle Vanya had its beginnings in The Wood Demon, it is in fact a very different play. While the earlier play was a failure, Uncle Vanya is a convincing, deeply moving work, perhaps Chekhov’s most touching play.
Uncle Vanya is subtitled “Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts,” and all the action of the play takes place on the estate of Serebryakov, who has recently come there to live with his young, beautiful second wife, Yelena, after retiring from his university position. Their arrival proves a disturbance to those who have been living on or about the estate, especially Sonya, Serebryakov’s daughter; Vanya, Sonya’s uncle, the brother of Serebryakov’s first wife; and Astrov, a doctor who is Vanya’s friend. Both Serebryakov and Yelena have a hand in the crisis.
Vanya and Sonya have devoted their lives to managing the estate, saving and scrimping to send every spare ruble to Serebryakov, thinking him talented, even brilliant. When he arrives on the estate, however, he is seen to be another sort of man. He suffers from gout, is perpetually in a bad mood, thinks of no one but himself, and disturbs the routine of the estate,...
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