Anton Chekhov

(b. Jan. 29 [Jan. 17, Old Style], 1860, Taganrog, Russia-d. July 14/15 [July 1/2], 1904, Badenweiler, Ger.)

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a major Russian playwright and master of the modern short story. He is regarded as the outstanding representative of the late 19th-century Russian realist school.

Chekhov, the son of a former serf, became a doctor in He began his writing career as the author of anecdotes for humorous journals, signing his early work pseudonymously. By 1888 he had become widely popular with a “lowbrow” public and had already produced a body of work more voluminous than all his later writings put together.

He had also experimented in serious writing, providing studies of human misery and despair at variance with the frenzied facetiousness of his comic work. Gradually this serious vein absorbed him and soon predominated over the comic.

In 1888, Chekhov published his first work in a leading literary review, Severny vestnik (“Northern Herald”). With the work in question-a long story entitled “Steppe”-he at last turned his back on comic fiction. “Steppe,” an autobiographical work describing a journey in the Ukraine as seen through the eyes of a child, is the first among more than 50 stories published in a variety of journals and selections between 1888 and his death in 1904.

Chekhov also wrote several profoundly tragic studies at this time. The play Ivanov (1887–89) culminates in the suicide of a young man nearer to the author’s own age. Together with other works of this period, this play belongs to a group among Chekhov’s works that have been called clinical studies. They explore the experiences of the mentally or physically ill in a spirit that reminds one that the author was himself a qualified-and remained a sporadically practicing-doctor.

By the late 1880s many critics had begun to reprimand Chekhov for holding no firm political and social views and for failing to endow his works with a sense of direction. Such expectations irked Chekhov, who was unpolitical and philosophically uncommitted. In early 1890 he suddenly sought relief from the irritations of urban intellectual life by undertaking a one-man sociological expedition to a remote island, Sakhalin.

During the years just before and after his Sakhalin expedition, Chekhov had continued his experiments as a dramatist. His Wood Demon (1888–89) is a long-winded and ineptly facetious four-act play, which somehow, by a miracle of art, became converted-largely by cutting-into Dyadya Vanya (Uncle Vanya), one of his greatest stage masterpieces. The conversion-to a superb study of aimlessness in a rural manor house-took place some time between 1890 and 1896; the play was published in 1897. Other dramatic efforts of the period include several of the uproarious one-act farces known as vaudevilles: Medved (The Bear), Predlozheniye (The Proposal), and others.

Chayka (The Seagull) was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1896. This four-act drama, misnamed a comedy, was badly received; indeed, it was almost hissed off the stage. Chekhov was greatly distressed and left the auditorium during the second act, having suffered one of the most traumatic experiences of his life and vowing never to write for the stage again.

Two years later, however, the play was revived by the newly created Moscow Art Theatre, enjoying considerable success and helping to reestablish Chekhov as a dramatist. The Seagull is a study of the clash between the older and younger generations as it affects two actresses and two writers, some of the details having been suggested by episodes in the lives of Chekhov’s friends.

In March 1897 Chekhov had suffered a lung hemorrhage caused by tuberculosis, symptoms of which had become apparent considerably earlier. Never a successful financial manager, Chekhov attempted to regularize his literary affairs in 1899 by selling the copyright of all his existing works, excluding plays, to a publisher for 75,000 rubles, an unduly low sum.

Chekhov’s two last plays-Tri sestry (1901; Three Sisters) and Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard)-were both written for the Moscow Art Theatre. But much as Chekhov owed to the theatre’s two founders, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstanin Stanislavsky, he remained dissatisfied with such rehearsals and performances of his plays as he was able to witness. In Three Sisters Chekhov sensitively portrays the longings of a trio of provincial young women, while in The Cherry Orchard he offered a poignant picture of the Russian landowning class in decline, portraying characters who remain comic despite their very poignancy. Less than six months after its first performance Chekhov died of tuberculosis.

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