Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is considered Russia's greatest playwright. While Dostoevsky explored the dark side of the Russian soul and Turgenev and Gorky exposed the hardships of the lower classes, Chekhov used drama as a way to explore a more universal soul using Russian settings and symbols.
Chekhov wrote in mainly two genres: the short story and drama. He is regarded as a realist who examined the foibles of individuals rather than society as a whole. His plays The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull , and The Three Sisters continue to be performed worldwide.
When Tennessee Williams was asked who his three favorite writers were he answered: "Chekhov! Chekhov! Chekhov!" Neil Simon also greatly admired him and called him the "good doctor." The renowned critic Richard Gilman refereed to him as "St. Anton."
Book: Anton Chekhov: A Life by Donald Rayfield (Henry Holt, 1998). V.S. Prichett wrote a biography about Chekhov. Many say the biography by Ernest J. Simmons is the best. If Only We Could Know! An Interpretation of Chekhov by Vladimir Kataev (Harvey Pitcher, 2002) is good summary and analysis of his literary works; Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm (Random House, 2002) is credited with finding “wild and strange” elements in Chekhov’s stories.
Chekhov's Early Life
Chekhov was born in Taganrog on the Sea of Azov—in an area of southern Russian near the Crimean Peninsula—on January 17, 1860. The son of modest shopkeeper and the grandson of a freed serf, he endured a childhood of poverty, disease and stress under his tyrannical father.
Chekhov rarely spoke or wrote about his childhood. Some of his stories are believed to refer to his childhood. In Three Years (1895) he wrote, "I can remember my father correcting me—or, to speak plainly, beating me—before I was five years old. He used to thrash me with a birch, pull my ears, hit me on the head, and every morning when I woke up my first thought was whether he would beat me that day."
When Chekhov was sixteen his father's store failed, and his fled to Moscow with the rest of the family to escape debtor's prison. Anton was left behind in Taganrog. He boarded with a family friend, entertained his classmates with skits and stories, and did well enough in school to earn a scholarship.
Chekhov in Moscow
When Chekhov joined his family in Moscow he found his father was a failure and his family was destitute except for a little money his brother brought in writing and making illustrations for humor magazine. Chekhov quickly became the head of his family.
In Moscow, Chekhov studied medicine with a scholarship and supported his family financially by publishing short stories, anecdotes, jokes and articles. By the time he received his medical degree from the University of Moscow in 1884 at the age of 24, he had decided he was more interested in being a writer than a doctor but he opened up a medical practice anyway. He never made much money as a doctor as he mostly treated peasants for free.
With money he made from writing Chekhov moved his family into a comfortable house on an estate south of Moscow. Anton wrote stories, attended classes and took care of the family garden. His mother cooked, his sister and brother helped with the gardens, and his father, who had become a religious fanatic, locked himself in his room, with herbal medicines.
Chekhov's Character and Health
Chekhov has been described as "thoughtful, unassuming and generous to a fault". Despite the demands of a double career as writer and doctor and large circle of family and friends, he found time to visit penal colonies, treat plague and cholera victims and needy peasants for free, and establish public libraries and schoolhouses for the underprivileged. Tolstoy called him "a beautiful, magnificent man." [Source: Clare Cavanagh, New York Times, March 15, 1998]
Gogol wrote "in the presence of Anton Pavlovich, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself." Chekhov's modesty, Thomas Mann wrote "was an extremely appealing trait, but it was not designed to exact respect from the world. And one could say it set the world a bad example."
Chekhov could also be cold, caustic and distant. He often callously dismissed former lovers, needy friends and relatives. The general impression is that he was this was so he could meet all his duties and commitments and still have time to write. A fellow writer commented, "really you have to be an egoist like Chekhov to manage to get anything done." It has been said that Chekhov suffered from he called "autobiographophbia". He told prospective biographers to "write what you want: If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical."
Chekhov was often in poor health. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis when he was in his 20s and suffered from diarrhea, hemorrhoids and often coughed up blood. He spent much of his adult life in spas and sanitariums. He close Yalta on the Black Sea as his hometown because of its mild climate.
Chekhov and Women
Chekhov once warned never fall in love in the countryside as "there is no more dangerous place to get married than in the open air." To combat the onset of love Chekhov recommended a concoction of herbs, vodka, turpentine and the ashes of burnt pages of a St. Petersburg newspaper. If that didn't work he suggested professing one's love "in high style, in Greek or Latin."
Chekhov was very handsome, witty and charming. Even through the British writer V.S. Prichett accused him of having a low "sexual temperature," it turns out the opposite was true. Women were drawn to him and he made few efforts to resist temptations. His letters were often filled with graphic sexual details, he enjoyed in arranging complicated love triangles and he shared lovers with friends and family members and even other women. One of his lovers joked, "You have two diseases, amourness and spitting blood."
Chekhov's biographer Donald Rayfield believes that Chekhov was a misogynist who believed that women were manipulators who tormented men. He wrote that the author viewed women as obstacles to "his creative and personal freedom” and pursued encounters with women that were "lighthearted, even anonymous and certainly without emotional involvement." Rayfield compared Chekhov to a cheetah "which can only mate with a stranger." When Chekhov dismissed his mistresses he reportedly kept notes on their behaviors and then incorporated them into plays such as The Seagull and Three Sisters.
Chekhov resisted commitment until late in life. In 1901, Chekhov married the actress Olga Knipper. He died three years later. Chekhov began his relationship with Knipper long before they were married. She was devoted to him and had proposed to him many times but he had refused because his poor health. She sent a continuous flow of love letters when he was convalescing and finally he accepted one of her proposals. Knipper divided her time between Chekhov's home in Yalta and the stage in Moscow, where she had a long-running affair, with Chekhov's approval, with director Vladimir Nemiroich-Danchenko. Chekhov reportedly approved of the arrangement because it gave him time to write.
Chekhov on Writing
In the beginning, Chekhov wrote strictly for money. Although writers were generally poorly paid he managed to make a small fortune because he was able to write so effortlessly, so steadily and publish so much. His imagination seemed limitless and could often whip off a couple of stories in a single day.
In a letter to a close friend, Chekhov wrote: "The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an imperial witness. I heard two Russians in muddled conversation about pessimism, a conversation that solved nothing: all I am bound to do is reproduce that conversation exactly as I heard it...Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language."
Chekhov was influenced very much by Constantin Stanislavski, a dramatist who attempted to make theater more realistic, humanistic and in touch with proletariat concerns. Chekhov’s works often conveyed a strong moral authority but at the same time explored the complexity and truths in life. The Chekhovian scholar Vladimir Kataev said that Chekhov saw human nature as “the nature of illusion, delusion and false opinion” and that he saw he is role a writer was an “angle of vision on reality.” Chekhov himself said “complexity is a synonym of truth.”
Chekhov's Early Literary Career
Chekhov pursued his careers as a doctor and as a writer simultaneously. "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress," he once wrote. "When I get fed up with one. I spend the night with the other." The money he made was often used to support his extended family.
Chekhov’s early stories tended to be humorous and boisterous, often bordering on the absurd. His stories were both playful and dark and he experimented a great deal with characterization and language at the expense of plot. Russians cherish these stories but only a few had been translated to English until recently. Most are undistinguished.
Among his early works were A Hypnotic Sense, about a man who goes into a trance when money is placed in his hand, and How I Came to be Lawfully Wed, about a loveless couple forced into marriage by their parents told from by the couple on their silver anniversary. By the time he was 26, Chekhov had published more than 400 stories and vignettes and made enough money to move his poor family into a comfortable house.
Chekhov, the Story Writer
Chekhov is considered by some to be the greatest short story writer who ever lived. Yet Chekhov himself apparently didn't think much of his stories, which he referred to as "little trifles" and "literary excrement." Chekhov wrote several short stories under the name Anton Man Without Spleen. He wrote others under Antosha Chekhonte. Towards the end of his life he remarked, "Chekhonte wrote a great deal which Chekhov finds hard to accept."
Chekhov wasn't really taken seriously until he started writing short stories. In 1886, he published the acclaimed Motley Stories and began writing for larger sums of money for the newspaper New Times. In 1888, he was awarded the Pushkin Prize for In the Twilight which, along with The Steppe, helped cement Chekhov's reputation as one of Russia's leading young writers. Later stories that won acclaim include The Bishop, The Duel, and Gusev.
The Lady with the Lapdog (1899) is considered one Chekhov's greatest works. It explores love, sexuality and death. One of the most famous passages goes: "The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us...And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection...Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surrounding—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think to do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence."
Chekhov as a Playwright
Chekhov's plays are remembered more for their realistic characters and their raw emotions than their plots and action. The central characters are often brooding, misunderstood people who desperately long to improve their lives. Foreigners sometimes view the gloomy mood of the plays and the excessive moaning and groaning to be distinctly Russian. Russians, on the other hand, are embarrassed by the excessive behavior.
The term Chekhovian has come to mean a narrative that suggest rather than shows things, using hints, allusions, inferences and small details. The characters often talk a lot but don’t understand each other in the words of one critic they are “always a few steps ahead or behind each other.” Chekhov first and foremost was a humanist and a realist. His plays often begin with characters commenting on how something “seems” to be so and ends with a discovery summed up by the line in Three Sisters, “If only we could know!” Happy endings are not something that people associate with a Chekhov play.
The situation at the beginning of the play is often the same as at the end. In the body of Chekhov’s work the characters make discoveries and admire the need to make changes but often fall back on their old ways. This is arguably the formula of much of Russia’s serious drama. Chekhov’s plays often feature characters who can not change even though they are living in world that is changing dramatically around them.
In 1888, Chekhov wrote his first serious full-length play, Ivanov, which was generally well received. This was followed by The Wood Demon (late called Uncle Vanya), which dealt most closely with love and sexuality and was a miserable failure.
The first production of his famous play The Seagull (1896) was equally horrific: the St. Petersburg audience booed him from the stage and he vowed never to write a play again. The disaster was partly the result of the fact that the show was a benefit for a beloved comic actress and many of those in the audience were her fans. They expected a lowbrow comedy but instead got a highbrow one with a tragic twist at the end. Chekhov never liked St. Petersburg anyway. Fortunately, he found a producer and director that understood what he was trying to achieve. When The Seagull was performed again two years later in the Moscow Art Theater in 1898 it was a great success, as was Three Sisters which was performed there a few years later.
Chekhov's most praised and enduring play, The Cherry Orchard, was about an aristocratic family that fell on bad times and was forced to sell their land to a former serf, who chopped down their cherished cherry orchard to make room for a development of summer cottages. The play symbolized the transition from old aristocratic Russia to something new. Its premier took place on Chekhov's birthday only a few months before he died.
In the Cherry Orchard, Chekhov wrote: "Humanity goes forward, perfecting its powers. Everything that's unattainable now will someday become familiar, understandable; it is only that one must work and help with all one's might those who seek the truth."
Chekhov' Later Life
In 1890, Chekhov made a 6,500 mile journey to Sakhalin island, north of Japan, to survey the population at a penal colony there. He suffered greatly on the trip and when it was finished wrote Gusev, a brilliant story about the acceptance of death. Recalling the trip he wrote, "I have seen Ceylon, and it is heaven: And now I have seen Sakhalin, and it is hell...The residents live their sleepy, drunken lives and in general live hungrier and more naked than God created them.” There was “something not Russian” about their lives. “If only those who wanted to live here, Sakhalin would be deserted”" The trip to Sakhalin was regarded as a turning point in his life. Afterwards he was consumed with the idea of collective guilt and responsibility and produced four theatrical masterpieces.
Chekhov lived in a villa in Yalta during the last five years of his life, suffering from the final stages of pulmonary and intestinal tuberculosis. He wrote Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Lady and the Lapdog and the Bishop there. Chekhov described Yalta as "a mixture of something European that reminds one of views of Nice, with something cheap and shoddy. The box like hotels in which unhappy consumptive are pinning, the impudent Tatar faces, the ladies' bustle with their very undisguised expressions of something very abominable, the faces of the idle riche, longing for cheap adventures, the smell of perfumery instead of the scent of cedars, and the sea, the miserable dirty pier, the melancholy lights far at sea, the prattle of young ladies and gentlemen who have crowded here in order to admire nature of which they have no idea—all this is taken together produces such a depressing effect and us so overwhelming that one begins to blame oneself for being biased or unfair."
Chekhov died on July 2, 1904 of tuberculosis. He was incredible productive, considered that he died when he was only 44. He was never awarded a Nobel prize partly due to Swedish prejudice toward the Russian arts.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016