Illustration of a chopped down cherry tree that was cut into logs

The Cherry Orchard

by Anton Chekhov
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How does Anton Chekhov's writing differ from Ibsen's?   

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So far as elements such as the actual texture and diction of these two writers are concerned, I'm only able to rely on their transators' skills and accuracy, like most of us in the English-speaking world. With regard to the content, dramaturgy, and ideas behind their plays, I would make...

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So far as elements such as the actual texture and diction of these two writers are concerned, I'm only able to rely on their transators' skills and accuracy, like most of us in the English-speaking world. With regard to the content, dramaturgy, and ideas behind their plays, I would make a few basic observations at the risk of oversimplifying.

In his best-known plays, Ibsen focuses on the inner conflict of a single character, such as Nora in A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, and Stockmann in An Enemy of the People. Their struggles within themselves are magnified by, or for the most part caused by, a hostile or indifferent outside world. Hedda, for instance, though she isn't supposed to be a particularly "virtuous" person, comes across positively to most of us, I think, because all the people around her are either hypocritical, unfeeling toward her, or both. Ibsen's dramas are intensely personal, casting a sharp spotlight on individuals and their private tragedies.

Chekhov is different, for the most part. In The Cherry Orchard there is a panoply of characters, and the actual drama being enacted is part of the background of social and historical changes taking place in Russia 120 years ago. The cast seem to represent all of Russia. Lyubov Andreevna and her family are unable to pay their debts and must auction their estate. They are symbols of the Russian gentry as a whole, and their beloved cherry trees are symbols of the past. The world of the future is represented by Lopakhin, the merchant descended from serfs who buys the estate, and by an intellectual, the perpetual student Trofimov. The play could only take place in Russia; a transfer of the setting to another country would require massive changes. Ibsen's plays, on the other hand, though set in Norway, could really take place anywhere in the middle-class world of that time. In addition, there is less "action" in a Chekhov play and more extended talk and philosophizing. Ibsen's plays have more of the straightforwardness and purposeful dialogue that became the norm in what I would regard as the dominant dramatic form of the following century: film.

Still, it's perhaps true that Ibsen and Chekhov have more in common than initially meets the eye. Both are realists, and yet both prefigure the modern theatre. Both deal with social issues and the changing world of their time. And both portray unusual types of individuals that previous dramatists had, for the most part, shied away from.

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Anton Chekhov, who was a physician by training, lived 1860–1904, primarily in Russia, but he also traveled in Europe. His early writings were humor and fiction, but he turned to plays in 1895. His substantial reputation is based on just four plays.

Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian, lived from 1828 to 1906. As a child, he experienced his family’s social demotion through bankruptcy. Ibsen also studied medicine, but not for long. Establishing a successful theater writing career, he turned against Norwegian politics and spent much of his adult life outside the country, especially in Italy.

Both men are considered realists, who wrote primarily about the middle and upper classes of their respective countries and attended as well to the declining status of the landed gentry in light of the class conflicts that were increasingly dividing society in the late nineteenth century. Both authors created memorable female characters.

The differences between them apply mostly to the authors’ attitudes toward their characters. Chekhov’s works tend to have some humor but an overall melancholy aura. Because his empathy for the characters is apparent, the audience is likewise inclined to regard them positively, even those who are self-absorbed and faintly ridiculous, such as Uncle Vanya. Even his most unpleasant heroine, the manipulative Natasha, can be seen as motivated by maternal concern. Ibsen, in contrast, created few, if any, genuinely likable characters. While audiences might understand why Nora has to flee her house, for example, they are less inclined to forgive Hedda for her behavior or even for her suicide. Ibsen projects a bleak vision with little faith in the positive effects of personal qualities or social reform.

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Henrik Ibsen is considered the father of Modern Realistic Theatre. His writing style is concise, objective, and natural. He does not include allegorical symbolism in his work, nor does he add solliloqui, asides, nor inner thoughts to his characters. All his characters are well-rounded and typical of their social and economical sphere. He took the well-made play formula and integrated topics that are often considered controversial to include prostitution, venereal diseases, and the role of women in society.

Anton Chekov, contrastingly, is more into symbolism, psychological issues, and inner exploration. He also writes realistically, since his characters are often victims of their own fates. There is a hint of hope in tragic situations, and there is always an easy solution to the problem of the story.

What makes both writers similar is that they assign causes and effects, actions and consequences to their characters. There is no "miracle dust" that would come out of nowhere to get a character out of a scrape. Also, all their characters will suffer the consequences of whatever actions they choose to do.

 

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