Anton Chekhov

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Anton Chekhov Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 5,777 words.)