Anton Chekhov’s oeuvre opened Russian literature and world drama to the art of everyday trifles and occurrences. In exploring Russian society, Chekhov questioned the purpose of life, but he was less interested in finding an answer than in posing the right questions.
To understand Chekhov’s drama, it is necessary to understand the milieu in which he wrote, the innovations that were changing Western theater practices, and the stance of the dramatist himself. Russia in the 1880’s and 1890’s was experiencing the erosion of rigid class distinctions that had characterized the ancien régime. Much of the landowning gentry was impoverished and under the necessity of selling off parcels of their large estates to the rising mercantile and industrial class. Serfdom had finally been abolished, and the enormous peasant class was faced with both displacement and new opportunities. The age of those great Russian novelists Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy was coming to a close, and as it did it was opening the way for a new kind of art. Throughout Western civilization, science and technology were modifying the lenses through which artists and philosophers looked at the world and humanity’s place within it.
This was the age of literary realism and naturalism, and writers began to focus on the lives and problems of ordinary people. On the stage, the theater of social consciousness pioneered by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg gave rise to a new kind of dramaturgy and stagecraft. Chekhov took the realistic innovations of the Scandinavians one step further in creating his kind of naturalistic drama, a drama with no real beginnings or endings, and one that recognizes the complexities and continuities of life.
Chekhov, trained as a physician, was eminently suited for this kind of examination. His practice had carried him to all the levels of Russian society and intensified his objective observational powers. Initially acclaimed as a short story writer, he began to write for the theater in the early 1880’s. The four plays considered his masterpieces—Uncle Vanya, Chayka (1896; The Seagull, 1909), Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters, 1920), and Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908)—emerged from the period during which Konstantin Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre, where Chekhov’s plays first found successful productions. Chekhov did not, however, approve of the highly realistic and tragically inclined interpretations that the...
(The entire section is 1050 words.)