Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 1860-1904
See also Anton Chekhov Short Story Criticism.
Chekhov is one of the most important playwrights in all of Western drama. His name has been linked with those of Molière, Schiller, and Shakespeare for the impact his work has had on the history of theater. With a small handful of plays he overthrew the long-standing tradition of works that emphasize action and plot, in favor of dramas that treat situation, mood, and internal psychological states. The content and dramatic technique of Chekhov's four masterpieces, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard inaugurated fundamental changes not only in the way plays are composed but in the way they are acted, a revolution that persists to this day in works written for film and television, as well as those composed for the stage.
Chekhov's grandfather was a serf who bought his freedom, and his father was the owner of a small grocery business in Taganrog, the village where Chekhov was born. When the family business went bankrupt in 1876, the Chekhovs, without Anton, moved to Moscow to escape creditors; Anton remained in Taganrog until 1879 in order to complete his education and earn a scholarship to Moscow University. There, he studied medicine and, after graduating in 1884, went into practice. By this time he was publishing sketches, mostly humorous, in popular magazines. Chekhov did this to support his family, and, although he wrote literally hundreds of these pieces, he did not take them very seriously. In 1885, however, he moved to St. Petersburg and became friends with A. S. Suvorin, editor of the journal Novoe vremja, who encouraged the young writer to develop his obvious gifts.
At this time, and for several years afterward, Chekhov's writings were profoundly influenced by Leo Tolstoy's ideas on ascetic morality and nonresistance to evil. But after Chekhov visited the penal settlement on the island of Sakhalin, which he would make the subject of a humanitarian study, he rejected Tolstoy's moral code as an insufficient answer to human suffering. In the late 1880s Chekhov began to produce what are regarded as his mature works in the short story form. At the same time he began experimenting with the writing of plays. In the 1880s he composed a number of comic one-act plays, or "vaudevilles," often adapted from his short stories. Ivanov, his first full-length work (aside from the early untitled and never-performed drama commonly referred to as Platonov), was staged in 1887, and The Wood Demon appeared two years later. Both Ivanov and The Wood Demon were unsuccessful when they were produced. His first major work as a dramatist, The Seagull, was also a failure when it was staged in a disastrous 1896 production at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. A discouraged Chekhov vowed never to write for the stage again. However, two years later, in their debut season, the Moscow Art Theater mounted an acclaimed revival of The Seagull which established both Chekhov as an accomplished playwright and the Moscow Art Theater company as an important new acting troupe.
Around this time Chekhov rewrote The Wood Demon, transforming it into Uncle Vanya. The new play was performed several times in the Russian provinces before it received its first professional staging by the Moscow Art Theater in 1899. The same company also presented the first performances of Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). In 1901 Chekhov married Olga Knipper, an actress with the Moscow Art Theater. Because of his worsening tuberculosis, from Which he had suffered since 1884, Chekhov was forced to spend most of his time in the Crimea, where, it was believed, the warm southern climate was better for his condition, and in European health resorts; consequently, he was often separated from his wife, who typically performed in Moscow. He died in a Black Forest spa in 1904.
Chekhov's interest and participation in the theater had its origins in his schooldays at Taganrog, when he acted and wrote for the local playhouse. His first serious effort in drama was written in 1881, during his residence in Moscow. This work, Platonov, initiated the first of two major periods of the author's dramatic writings. The works of this first period are conventional melodramas characterized by the standard theatrical techniques and subjects of the times. Platonov, a long and somewhat declamatory social drama, features a leading character whose reformist ideals are negated by the indifference of others and by his own ineffectuality. Chekhov's next drama, Ivanov, is less bulky and more realistic than its predecessor, though critics still view it as a theatrically exaggerated and traditional piece. Written during the Tolstoyan phase of Chekhov's works, The Wood Demon was his first attempt at the artistic realism fully achieved only in his later dramas. This didactic morality play on the theme of vice and virtue is criticized for the same dramatic faults as the other works of this period.
The dramas of Chekhov's second period constitute his major work in the theater. These plays are primarily noted for their technique of "indirect action," a method whereby violent or intensely dramatic events are not shown on stage but occur (if at all) during the intervals of the action as seen by the audience. Chekhov's major plays, then, contain little of what is traditionally regarded as "plot," and consist primarily of quotidian activities performed by the characters and conversations in which allusions to the unseen events are intermingled with discussions of daily affairs and seemingly random observations. Though not portrayed on stage, momentous events are thus shown by the characters' words and actions to be pervasive in their effects. By focusing more closely on the characters' reactions to events than on the events themselves, Chekhov's plays are able to study and convey more precisely the effects of crucial events on characters' lives. Although Chekhov utilized elements of this method in Ivanov and The Wood Demon, these works remain in essence traditional melodramas. The first drama in which the technique of indirect action is extensively employed is The Seagull. In this play, the highly charged, traditionally "dramatic" events—the affair between Trigorin and Nina, Treplev's suicide attempts—occur off stage. No "crises" in the usual sense are shown. What are presented are the precipitating events and consequent effects on the characters—Treplev's and Nina's idealism and the subsequent despair of the one and the resignation of the other. Even though Treplev's suicide attempts and Trigorin's seduction of Nina are resolutely kept off stage, their presence points to the fact that Chekhov was thus far unable to completely eradicate melodramatic elements from his work. Likewise, Vanya's attempt to shoot Serebriakov in Uncle Vanya and Tuzenbach's death in a duel in Three Sisters are remnants of the older tradition which Chekhov was unable to do without. Only The Cherry Orchard appears free of such theatrical "high points." In this play no-one dies. No shots are even fired—either on or off stage.
The static quality of Chekhov's plays, in which nothing much seems to happen, is evoked by their content as well as their apparent "plotlessness." A common theme throughout Chekhov's four major plays is dissatisfaction with present conditions accompanied by a perceived inability to change oneself or one's situation. Treplev tries and fails to revolutionize the nature of drama. Uncle Vanya feels he has wasted his life supporting the fraud Serebriakov and believes he has no alternative but to continue on as he has. The three sisters feel smothered in the stultifying atmosphere of a provincial town and appear incapable of taking action to realize their dream of returning to Moscow. Ranevskaya and Gaev are faced with the loss of their beloved childhood home but cannot act decisively to prevent its sale. Chekhov escapes pessimism in these works by including characters who express optimism—or at least some degree of hopefulness—regarding the future. Sonya in Uncle Vanya, Vershinin in Three Sisters, and Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard all anticipate some future state in which all present ills and discontents will be remedied.
The past, too, as well as the future, exerts significant influence on the behavior of Chekhov's characters. To Treplev in The Seagull, Arkadina and Trigorin represent the artistic past that he is attempting to overthrow. Vanya feels the burden of the past in the form of the years wasted supporting Serebriakov. Masha, Irina, and Olga long for the Moscow of their childhood. Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard is tormented by the memory of her drowned son and her subsequent flight to Paris. But it is the present that concerns Chekhov most in these plays. Affected by the past, leading to some unseen future, the present with all its complexities and uncertainties is the stuff of which Chekhov's plays are made. Life as it is really lived, rather than highly melodramatic and theatrical incidents, Chekhov insisted, is the proper subject for plays. "After all, in real life," he observed, "people don't spend every minute shooting at each other, hanging themselves, and making confessions of love. They don't spend all the time saying clever things. They're more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and talking stupidities—and these are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is, and people as they are.… Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives are being broken up."
Although the Moscow Art Theater production of The Seagull was a great success for both the company and the playwright, Chekhov was infuriated by the staging, contending that director Konstantin Stanislavsky had ruined the play. The sets, the lighting, the sound effects—which, famously, included the croaking of frogs and the chirruping of crickets—and the acting all emphasized elements of tragedy in a play that its author vehemently insisted was a comedy. A similarly heated disagreement arose between author and director over The Cherry Orchard, which Chekhov subtitled "A Comedy," but which, in the Moscow Art Theater staging, was presented as a nostalgic parable on the passing of an older order in Russian history. Stanislavsky and his actors stressed, to Chekhov's dismay, the pathos of the characters' situation.
Chekhov never applied the term "tragedy" to his works: aside from labelling The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard "comedies," he called Uncle Vanya "Scenes from Country Life" and Three Sisters simply "A Drama." Nevertheless, the plays have routinely been interpreted as tragedies in countless performances and critical studies. Until recently, actors, directors, and scholars alike perceived a mood of sadness and despair blanketing all of Chekhov's major plays. Among such interpreters, Chekhov has earned a reputation as a portrayer of futile existences and as a forerunner of the modernist tradition of the absurd. The view of Chekhov as a pessimist, however, has always met with opposition, especially from Russian critics, who have seen him as a chronicler of the degenerating landowner classes during an era of imminent revolution.
A common response of early reviewers of performances of Chekhov's works throughout Europe and North America was to dismiss the plays as meaningless assemblages of random events. Early critics censured their seeming plotlessness and lack of "significant" action. However, much critical attention has subsequently been paid to the organizational and structural principles of Chekhovian drama. Scholars have shown that by the meticulous arrangement of sets, sound effects (including verbal effects: witness, for example, the "Tram-tam-tam" exchange between Masha and Vershinin in Act III of Three Sisters), and action, as well as the characters' speeches, Chekhov creates scenes and situations which appear static and uneventful on the surface but which are charged with significance and meaning. (It was the care with which he had arranged the various elements of his plays that led to Chekhov's exasperation with Stanislavsky: the director's myriad stage effects obscured or obliterated the delicate balance of parts that the writer sought.)
The subtlety and indirection of Chekhov's method of presentation required a new style of acting, free of the big gestures and declamation characteristic of traditional acting. A restrained, allusive style was essential, and here Chekhov was well served by the Moscow Art Theater, with its new emphasis on internalizing character and conveying elusive psychological states. Scholars and theater historians have repeatedly stressed that Chekhov, together with Stanislavksy and the Moscow Art Theater, forever transformed the ways in which plays are conceived, written, and performed.
The reception, then, of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard extends far beyond theater reviews and critical studies, and the influence of these plays continues to be felt by writers, actors, directors throughout the world.
SOURCE: "Principles of Structure in Chekhov's Plays," in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, Prentice-Hall, 1967, pp. 69-87.
[The following is an abridged version of an essay that was first published in Russian in 1948. Skaftymov addresses the "question of the unity of form and content" in Chekhov's plays.]
There is a rather large and in many respects substantial body of secondary literature on Chekhov's dramaturgy.
Contemporaries noted a peculiarity in Chekhov's plays at the time of the first productions. At first they interpreted this peculiarity as Chekhov's inability to manage the problems of continuous living...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov's Last Years: His Approach to Drama," in Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study, George Allen & Unwin, 1966, pp. 219-44.
[In the following excerpt from a work that was first published in 1950, Hingley examines the essential characteristics of Chekhovian drama.]
A 'Revolutionary' Dramatist
Chekhov was admirably fitted to become the leading dramatist of the Moscow Art Theatre because he thoroughly agreed with Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky in wanting to get away from the conventions and atmosphere of the existing Russian stage. His four major plays—The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and...
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SOURCE: "Introductory," in Chekhov the Dramatist, Hill and Wang, 1960, pp. 13-49.
[In this essay, Magarshack explores Chekhov's views on art and the Russian theater of his day, as expressed in his letters and occasional writings.]
The plays of Chekhov, like those of any other great dramatist, follow a certain pattern of development which can be traced through all its various stages. His last four plays, moreover, conform to certain general principles which are characteristic of the type of indirect-action drama to which they belong. Chekhov himself was fully aware of that. Already on November 3rd, 1888, in a letter to Alexey Suvorin,...
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SOURCE: "The Bizarre Element in Čechov's Art," in Anton Cechov, 1860-1960: Some Essays, edited by T. Eekman, E. J. Brill, 1960, pp. 277-92.
[In this essay, Timmer traces Chekhov's use of the "bizarre, " defined as "a statement, or a situation, which has no logical place in the context or in the sequence of events, the resulting effect being one of sudden bewilderment. "]
A study in literature, whether on Gogol', Dostoevskij or Cechov is bound to involve a study in anti-reason: it cannot limit itself to a study of aesthetic laws only, unless we are prepared to assume that the grotesque, the bizarre, the absurd elements in the works of these...
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SOURCE: "The Sound of the Breaking String," in The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Schocken Books, 1983, pp. 289-301.
[In the following excerpt from a work that was first published in 1966, Valency places Chekhov in the context of the social and cultural upheavals of his time.]
Chekhov's drama, like Ibsen's, represents a world in transition. In Ibsen's Norway, wherever that might be, the impact of modern thought in the latter half of the nineteenth century brought about a relatively peaceful revolution. In Russia the idea of the state was formulated along particularly rigid lines, and the transition from the old to the new was accompanied by impressive...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov's Plays," in Saturday Review, Vol. L, No. 27, 8 July 1967, p. 18.
[In this essay, Rexroth comments on the profound change in the nature of drama brought about by Chekhov.]
It comes as a bit of a shock to sit yourself down and deliberately think, "In the first half of the twentieth century, the position once occupied in ancient Greece by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides was held, in the estimation of those who sought serious satisfaction in the modern theater, by Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov." What had happened in two thousand years? Had it happened to the audiences, or to the playwrights, or to the self-evolving art of drama? Or was the change...
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SOURCE: "Chapter 7," in Anton Chekhov, A. S. Barnes & Co., 1970, pp. 70-82.
[In the essay below, Priestley admires the psychological depth of Chekhov's characters, arguing: "It is this depth, where consciousness dissolves into the fathomless unconscious, where new half-realized meanings gleam and then vanish like fish in some deep lake, that constantly renews for us the fascination of [Chekhov's] drama. "]
The first Chekhov play I ever saw was The Cherry Orchard. This was in 1925 when it had its first London run. (There had been a single Stage Society performance as far back as 1911.) I took a girl with me, an intelligent girl who was a newly...
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SOURCE: "Introduction," in The Real Chekhov: An Introduction to Chekhov's Last Plays, George Allen & Unwin, 1972, pp. 9-18.
[In the following, Magarshack examines misinterpretations of Chekhov's plays by theater directors, translators, and others.]
The stage is a scaffold on which the playwright is executed.
Chekhov's chief executioners both in Russia and England (not to mention the United States) have been the directors, who quite consistently disregard Chekhov's intention in writing his plays, inevitably producing a crude distortion of their characters and a...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov and the Craft of Theater," in Anton Chekhov, translated by Edith Tarcov, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972, pp. 62-84.
[In the essay below, Melchinger investigates the ways Chekhov overthrew the theatrical conventions of his day.]
In 1902, Chekhov wrote to Alexander Tikhonov:
You say you wept over my plays. You are not the only one. But I did not write them for this. It was Stanislavsky who made them so tearful. I intended something quite different.
Chekhov's judgment of Stanislavsky's productions of the Chekhov plays—as numerous passages from letters and witnesses'...
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SOURCE: "Anton Chekhov," in A Panorama of Russian Literature, Barnes & Noble, 1973, pp. 175-86.
[In the following excerpt, Lavrin investigates Chekhov's "method of showing the tragic nature of everyday existence in its ordinary everyday conditions. "]
The impact of Chekhov on world literature seems in some respects stronger than that of any other modern Russian author after Dostoevsky. This applies to his plays even more than to his stories,1 since he happens to be one of the reformers of the modern theatre and drama. Chekhov himself proclaimed (in one of his letters) the theatre of his time a 'skin disease, a world of muddle, of stupidity and...
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SOURCE: "Anton Chekhov," in The Art of Celebration, Faber and Faber, 1979, pp. 110-22.
[In this excerpt, Mudford explores how Chekhov's characters struggle between present despair and hope for the future.]
What beautiful trees—and how beautiful, when you think of it, life ought to be with trees like these!
Three Sisters, Act Four
Tolstoy once complained to Chekov in conversation: 'You know I cannot abide Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse.1 Chekov's plays lacked, in his opinion, a point of view. Chekov, who felt an unequalled love and affection for Tolstoy,...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov's Plays," in Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 126-56.
[Kirk provides a detailed examination of each of Chekhov's full-length plays.]
Chekhov wrote his first plays at the age of eighteen, but all that survived of those efforts are the titles: a drama Without Fathers, a comedy Laugh It Off If You Can, and a one-act comedy "Diamond Cuts Diamond." (These titles are mentioned by Chekhov's eldest brother, Aleksandr, in a letter of October 14, 1878.) The manuscript of the earliest preserved play by Chekhov was discovered after his death and published in 1923. Because of the missing title page it was published as A...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov's Contribution to Realism," in Modern Drama in Theory and Practice, Volume 1: Realism and Naturalism, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 81-91.
[In the excerpt below, Styan views the inducement of ironic detachment in the audience as Chekhov's most important contribution to realist theater. Styan states: "It is this effect of distancing, together with the troubling relevance of his human and social themes and the elusive lyricism of his stage, which has made Chekhov an immeasurably pervasive influence on the form and style of realistic drama in the twentieth century."]
The Moscow Art Theatre went on to produce the last plays of Anton Chekhov...
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SOURCE: "Introduction," in Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 1-15.
[In the following essay, Peace focuses on the "emotional atmosphere" or "mood" Chekhov evokes in his plays.]
Chekhov, as a playwright, is the inheritor of a Russian tradition which, deeply indebted to Western models, nevertheless has its own recognisable idiom; in the words of one critic it exhibits 'a magnificent picture gallery, but no great narrative ingenuity'.1 Although this characterisation specifically refers to the 'comedic tradition that leads from Griboyedov to Chekhov, the observation is broadly true for Russian literature as a whole, with...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov," in The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in Modern Drama, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984, pp. 50-76.
[In the following essay, Kane investigates Chekhov's use of language and silence in his plays, arguing: "Aware that speech, like time, is an anthropocentric effort to limit, control, and elucidate the chaos of experience, Chekhov relies on the unspoken to expose and examine the elusive and the enigmatic both within and beyond man. "]
Anton Chekhov, respected for the concision, objectivity, sensitivity, and humanity of his short stories, began writing for the theatre in the 1880s. He was, in the opinion of Robert...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov's Realism," in Soviet Literature, No. 1 (442), 1985, pp. 154-60.
[In the following essay Palievsky discusses Chekhov's positive depiction of the common people, maintaining that the writer "formed an invisible link between a high ideal and the perceptions, requirements, tastes and foibles of the ordinary man. "]
Chekhov, viewed in historical perspective, gives the ideal of Russian literature a new impetus or, perhaps, considering the distinctive features of his work, one should say that he gives it new substance. In him, literature regains its primary solidity, restores and develops its sovereign mode of thought and image of life, and its objectivity is...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov and the Modern Drama," in A Chekhov Companion, edited by Toby W. Clyman, Green-wood Press, 1985, pp. 135-45.
[In the essay below, Esslin assesses the impact of Chekhov's revolutionary dramatic technique on the history of Western theater.]
Anton Chekhov was one of the major influences in the emergence of a wholly new approach to the subject matter, structure, and technique of dramatic writing at the end of the nineteenth century. It can be argued that he, in fact, occupies a key position at the point of transition between a millennial convention of "traditional" and the emergence of "modern" drama.
What was it that the "modern" drama...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov's Dramatic Technique," in A Chekhov Companion, edited by Toby W. Clyman, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 107-22.
[In the following essay, Styan looks at the characters, settings, plots, and moods of Chekhov's plays.]
As the years pass and as Chekhov's plays are given different treatments and exposed to new and larger audiences, it grows increasingly clear that Chekhov was the complete playwright. In his awareness of the needs of the stage and its actors it might be said that he was also a complete man of the theatre. He held to a minimum of rules for writing a play, and he ruthlessly abandoned others that had been sanctified by centuries of tradition, but...
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SOURCE: "The Mosaic Design," in Chekhov and O'Neill: The Uses of the Short Story in Chekhov's and O 'Neill 's Plays, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986, pp. 68-117.
[In the following excerpt, Egri demonstrates how themes and motifs from Chekhov's short stories are incorporated into "mosaic patterns " in Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.]
The most intricate and refined strategy of composing a dramatic whole out of short-story-like units is the application of the mosaic design. It represents a total integration of short-story-oriented elements, minor motifs, even fragmentary motives, into a dramatic pattern. How conscious Chekhov was of the nature and merits of the...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov's 'Modern Classicism,'" in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 65, No. 1, January 1987, pp. 13-25.
[In this essay, Peace uncovers elements of Greek classical tragedy in The Seagull and Three Sisters.]
Chekhov's real career as a dramatist may be seen as having begun with The Seagull: it marks the onset of the truly Chekhovian theatre. In this play the young writer Treplev issues something in the nature of a manifesto with his denunciation of the conventional theatre of his day and the staging of his own play, designed to impress (and to reproach) his mother—a pillar of that theatre, and her lover—the established writer...
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SOURCE: "Stuffed Seagulls: Parody and the Reception of Chekhov's Plays," in Poetics Today, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1987, pp. 285-98.
[In the essay below, Senelick surveys works that caricature and satirize Chekhov's dramas.]
Parody, the late Dwight Macdonald has declared, is "an intuitive kind of literary criticism, shorthand for what 'serious' critics must write out at length" (1969:xiii).1 At its most refined, parody speaks to the in-crowd, those who are closely acquainted with the text being parodied, and who can best appreciate the accuracy of the parodist's hits. In its perception of an author's foibles and tics, parody must be as astute and as keen as any...
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SOURCE: "Introduction," in Chekhov for the Stage, Northwestern University Press, 1992, pp. 1-16.
[In this essay, Ehre discusses Chekhov's efforts to "capture common reality" in his plays.]
Anton Chekhov was born in the provincial town of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov in 1860. His father was a grocer; his grandfather had been a serf. A difficult childhood—poverty, an ambitious and tyrannical father, a long-suffering mother—left its scars: "In childhood I had no childhood." He was gregarious but had a streak of melancholy in his nature and fled from intimacy. "No one," his friend Ivan Bunin wrote, "not even those closest to him, knew what went on deep inside him. His...
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SOURCE: "Chekhov and the Bubble Reputation," in Chekhov Then and Now: The Reception of Chekhov in World Culture, edited by J. Douglas Clayton, Peter Lang, 1997, pp. 5-18.
[The following is the text of an address Senelick delivered at a 1994 symposium on Chekhov's reception. Senelick traces shifts in the author's reputation over the years.]
When Douglas Clayton asked me to deliver the keynote address to this illustrious assemblage, my first impulse was to entitle it "Confessions of an Inveterate Chekhovian." From my earliest memories, as the grandchild of Russian émigrés and in particular of an ochen ' kul'turnaia babushka, as a child playgoer and a child actor...
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