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.