Anton Chekhov


Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born on January 16th,1860. He was a Russian doctor who also had a successful career in writing short stories and plays. His writing began with comic sketches and he quickly became famous for his many short stories. However, it was later in his life that he decided to become a playwright. His plays are best known for their simple plots and traditional themes, believing that “what happens on stage should be just as complicated and just
Anton Chekhov, 1889
as simple as things are in real life.”[1] Anton wrote a total of sixteen plays, twelve of which became popular and made it to the stage. Shortly after writing his last play The Cherry Orchard, he died at 44 of tuberculosis.

1. Biography

Anton Chekhov was born on January 16th, 1860 in Taganrog, Russia. He was the third son of seven children; five boys and two girls. [2] Anton’s father, Pavel Egorych Chekhov, was an emancipated serf with no real formal education.[3] He ran a store where Anton, along with his brothers, often worked long hours. A religious man of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Pavel enrolled his sons in the choir he founded. Anton’s mother, Eygenia Iakovlevna Morozov, was a daughter of a cloth merchant who also had no formal education. Pavel’s style of parenting was heavy handed and Eygenia used her love for her children to survive her husband’s tyranny.[4] Chekhov later said, “Our talents we got from our father, but our soul from our mother.”[5]
Chekhov Biography.JPG
Anton’s Family,1874(left to right) Standing: Ivan, Anton, Nikolay, Aleksandr & Mitrofan Egorovich. Sitting: Mikhail, Maria, Pavel, Eugenia, Ludmila Pavlovna & son, Gorgiy

In September 1867, Chekhov was enrolled in the parish school attached to the Greek Church of St Constantine and St Helen. In August 1868, Anton was enrolled into the gimnazia.

In 1870, Pavel’s debts started to increase and in September 1871 Anton’s youngest sister, Evgenia died. By 1874, Pavel gave up his store and moved the family into a new home he had built. On April 23, 1876, Pavel left his family and headed for Moscow. He owed too much to others and fled, leaving Anton to deal with it. At sixteen, he became head of the household. Selling off household items and being paid to tutor, Anton struggled to help his family.
Anton, 1883

As the rest of his family joined Pavel in Moscow, Anton stayed behind. He moved in with Gavriil Selivanov in exchange for tutoring his niece and nephew. He became interested in medicine and had his heart set on Zürich University. However, his oldest brother Aleksandr, convinced him to go to Moscow University. In 1879, Anton reunited with his family in Moscow. He enrolled in the University’s five year medical program. In 1884, at the age of 24; Anton set himself up as a general practitioner.[6]
Anton & midshipman, G.N. Glinka, returning from Sakhalin

In 1890, Anton traveled to Sakhalin Island where he spent several months studying the conditions of the island by conducting interviews. He returned by ship through Hong Kong, Singapore, and Ceylon. Anton used his experience in his writing and as a result reforms were made in regards with the treatment of prisoners and the administration of the colony.[7] After his return, he settled at a small estate in Melikhovo. He built a clinic where he often forgot to charge the people he saw a fee.[8]
Anton, 1904

By 1897, Anton could no longer ignore his sickness and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was forced to move to milder climates. His remaining years he went back and forth from Yalta on the Black Sea to various French and German spas. At the age of 40, Anton married actress Olga Knipper. The marriage was perfect for him because Olga was in Moscow most of the time while he was in Yalta. In the past, Anton was remote with women, unable to commit and had a reputation as a ladies man. In June 1904, doctors sent a terminal Anton to Badenweiler. At this health resort in the Black For
Anton & Olga, 1901
est, Anton died at the age of 44 on July 2.[9]

2. Theatre

As a child, Anton was attracted to the theatre. The Taganrog Theatre was regarded by the school as a moral threat to the students. Only after the inspektor approved a play, were the students allowed to attend. Anton’s father, Pavel, saw the theatre as a “gateway to hell.” In 1873, a young new inspektor was hired and the views on theatre changed. Even though he was dismissed a year later, Anton was hooked on theatre. The first play that Anton saw was Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène.[10]

Anton played in leading roles in amateur performances alongside his siblings. He played comedic characters such as the Mayor in Government Inspector and Chuprun in the opera The Military Magician.[11] His brother, Mikhail, recalls that “he was always organizing amateur plays at home.”[12]

3. Earliest Writings

During his years at gimnazia, Anton wrote two plays: a drama, Without Patrimony and a farce, The Hen Has Good Reason to Cluck. As a medical student years later he attempted to revise both plays even as he wrote another farce called The Cleanshaven Secretary with the Pistol. These earlier plays were never submitted to the government censorship office, which was responsible for passing or forbidding plays to be performed, and were therefore lost. [13]

His writing career began as a way to support his family financially and to pay for his education. Anton wrote a number of humorous sketches under the pseudonym “Antosha Chekhonte.” His writing was diverse: theater notices, articles, advertisements and even captions to cartoons. He eventually debuted in the New Times. Suvorin, who remained a close friend, was the editor of this newspaper. And it was D.V. Grigorovich who pointed Anton out to Suvorin.[14]

Anton didn’t take his writing seriously and instead aspired to use his medical training to help humanity. But a letter from Grigorovich encouraged Anton to pursue his writing seriously. In his letter, Grigorovich told Anton he wasn’t doing justice to his gift as a talented writer. After this, Anton became more serious about his writing, specifically his long story The Steppe awarded him the Pushkin Prize in 1888.[15] By this time, Anton had already started writing plays and achieved success as a playwright in his remaining years.

4. Plays

4.1 Ivanov

At the request of Fyodor Korsh, Anton wrote Ivanov for the Korsh Theatre in Moscow. Chekhov completed this full length play in less than two weeks.[16] The play was first written in 1887 and was Anton’s first play to be performed.[17] It opened on November 19, 1887 at the Korsh Theater and Vladimir Davydov played the role of Ivanov. Alexandra Glama-Meshcherskaya played Sarah; Nikolai Svetlov played Misha Borkin, and Ivan Kiselevsky played Count Shabelsky.[18] Anton was criticized for neglecting boundaries within the genre and inserting domestic tragedy in a comedy. In this version, the last act shows Ivanov dying of a heart attack on his wedding day. Even the more positive reviews found this ending to be cold. [19]

However, the play was still successful but Anton wasn’t satisfied. About a year later while preparing Ivanov for the St. Petersburg production was when Anton realized that his play was being misunderstood. He decided to make revisions.[20] He shortened the scenes with the best man. Anton replaced the comical episodes of the wedding supper, toasts, and Ivanov’s drunkenness with more emotional passages. Anton also cut out Ivanov’s financial dealings with Lebedev. The ending was altered to Ivanov dying offstage in a suicide by pistol.[21] The new version of Ivanov opened in St. Petersburg on January 31, 1889. This second version is the one that is seen produced today.[22]

4.2 Swan Song
This one act sketch is a dramatization of Chekhov’s short story Kalkhas, which he had written in 1886.[23] Anton wrote Swan Song in 1887 and it was performed at the Korsh Theatre in Moscow on February 1888. The character of Svetlovidov, an elderly actor at the end of his career, talks about the realities of his life as an actor. The play was written for the comic actor, Vladimir Davydov.[24]

4.3 The Bear

Anton wrote this one act play in 1888. Originally it was found unsuitable for the stage by the censor. Those higher up in the censor would reverse this decision if Anton agreed to cut some things out of the play.[25] The Bear then premiered at Korsh Theater on October 28 1888. Nataliya Rybchinsk played the role of Popova and Anton’s childhood friend Nikolay Solovtsov played Smirnov.The play was a huge success, the audience laughed and newspapers praised it.[26]

The plot of the play comes from Pierre Berton’s Les Jurons de Cadillac, une Comedie en une acte and the ancient Roman story ‘The Widow of Ephesus.’[27] The Bear features a widow, Popova, who mourns the loss of her unfaithful husband and Smirnov, who believes he has a hatred for women. Both characters pretend to be more than they actually are but when they come together, their roles change. It is Popova who picks up a gun and challenges Smirnov to a duel. However, the self-proclaimed misogynist can’t seem to face off with her. By the end, the two fall into each other’s arms.[28]

4.4 The Proposal

This comic sketch is in one act and despite the name, there is no proposal. It was written around the same time as The Bear
Anton reading "The Seagull" to actors of MAT. Stanislavsky stands behind his left shoulder & Olga to his right
in 1888.[29]

4.5 The Seagull

Anton began writing this play in October 1985 and finished it in November. The play contrasts two artists, writer Trigorin and actress Arkadina with two younger artists, writer Konstantin Treplyov and actress Nina Zarechnaya.It opened on October 17 1896 at the
Alexandrinksy Theater in St. Petersburg. Yevtikhy Karpov directed the play and Vera Kommissarzhevskaya played the role of Nina.[30]

The performance was received poorly by the audience and the newspapers gave The Seagull bad reviews. The actors insisted on playing it as a tragedy and the audience was confused by the characters behavior and their lack of motivation. In 1898, Stanislavsky produced this play at the Moscow Art Theater and it became a success. [31]

4.6 A Reluctant Tragic Hero

This is also seen translated as A Tragedian in Spite of Himself. Anton wrote this play in 1899. It is a one act play where the character Tolkachov asks Murashkin for a gun. After he tells Murashkin all the things wrong in his life, Murashkin asks Tokachov to do him a favor. The short comedic play ends with Tolkachov chasing Murashkin.[32]

4.7 The Dangers of Tobacco

This has also been translated as On the Harmfulness of Tobacco. It is a one act monologue where the lecturer, Nyukhin, is supposed to give a lecture on the dangers of tobacco. However, he instead tells the audience about his unhappy life.

The original version was written in 1886 and was revised in 1887, 1889, 1890, and 1902. Anton completed his revisions and the final copy in 1903. This one act play was also written for the comedic actor, Vladimir Davydov.[33]

4.8 The Wedding Reception

This is another one act play that can be seen also translated as The Wedding. The comedy of the play is centered on the characters pretensions taking place at the wedding reception of Dashenka and Aplombov. Anton wrote this play in 1889. The play was first performed in Moscow on November 28th in 1900 at the Hunt Club for the Society of Art and Literature. [34]

4.9 The Festivities

The title for this one act play has also been translated as The Jubilee and The Anniversary. It is about the fifteenth anniversary of the opening of a bank where the celebration turns into chaos.Anton wrote this comic sketch in 1891. [35]

Stanislavsky, as Dr. Astrov, & Lilina, as Sonya, 1899

4.10 Uncle Vanya

This is the product of Anton’s play The Wood Demon that he wrote in 1889. The Wood Demon was produced in several provincial theaters but it wasn’t successful. After its failure, Anton reworked it into the more successful version in1896.[36] The major characters in this play can be placed on an age scale. The Professor is old and whines, Sonya is young and hopeful, Vanya and Astrov are middle aged a
Stanislavsky as Dr. Astrov, 1899
nd worry that they have been failures in life. The characters all seem destined to make the wrong choices. The play turns in a circle, the ending mimics the opening in gestures and words.

It opened at the Moscow Art Theater on October 26, 1899, although it was performed earlier in smaller theatres. Critics were torn on whether the play is meant to be taken literally or ironically.[37]

4.11 The Three Sisters

Anton began w
First Edition of "Three Sisters" Pub. 1901 by Adolf Marks
riting this play while at Yalta in the summer of 1900. In the early fall, he revised it while in Moscow.[38] But he had difficulties writing this play because of worries about how it would be handled due to its three heroines.
The three sisters are trapped in a Russian town and long for the excitement of Moscow as they lament the passing of better times. The play centers on time and the process of loss is seen over the course of many years. Time seems to make the characters forgetful; eventually the sisters forget that they wanted to escape to Moscow. Anton concludes the play with the three sisters insisting on continuing to hope when all hope has been lost.[39]

This play opened in January 1901 at the Moscow Art Teatre. Anton specifically wrote this play for Stanislavisky to produce. Even though Anton fled during rehearsals because he feared this play wouldn't end up a success, he still had a close relationship with the playhouse. Anton was often asked his advice on how to interpret certain aspects of the play.[40]

4.12 The Cherry Orchard

It is thought that Anton started writing this play in 1901 and completed it in 1903. This was Anton’s last play before his death. The play features the character Luibov Ranevsky, an aristocratic woman who has the bad habit of giving away money. She has been away in Paris for many years and returns, with her family, to the orchard bec
Act III "The Cherry Orchard" in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre
ause it’s about to be put up for auction. Luibov doesn’t have the money to hold on to the estate. Rather than coming up with a way to do so, she throws a party on the day of the auction. Offstage, Lopakhin, a business man with peasant origins, buys the property. Excited, he shares the news with Luibov and the others. In the end, Lopakhin decides to go along with cutting the orchard down to build vacation homes. The play shows little action, rather the characters discussing what they should do.
The universal theme of not having enough money is present in this play. Luibov doesn’t have the money to keep the estate because of her poor spending. Lopakhin is under the impression that he doesn’t have enough because of his insecurity.

The play opened on January 17, 1904 and marked twenty five years of literary activity.[41] Although very ill, Anton arrived just before the last act and was called up on stage by the audience. He was pale and hardly able to standup on stage as speeches were made in his honor.[42]

4.13 Other

Titiana Repina was a short play he wrote as a private joke for his friend Suvorin. Anton’s plays, On The Main Road and Platonov, are two drafts that he ended up abandoning. [43]

5. Themes & Style

All of Anton’s plays are based on traditional themes of middleclass: hopeless love, money, marriage, and home ownership. He was interested in trying to write what the audiences wanted to see.[44]

In Anton’s plays, no hero comes to save the day and the victims are indifferent to approaching disaster. His characters tend to forget about the dilemmas they are about to face by focusing on other things; the weather, love, their lives, miseries and disappointments. Anton shows the audience characters that are weak and suffering. However, they don’t let a particular incident dictate their lives. They stick to daily routines and remain themselves.[45]

Anton’s style differed radically from his predecessors even though he never fully did away with elements of melodrama. He placed less emphasis on plot and the action was offstage. Anton used natural dialogue, where the unspoken was just as important as the spoken. It is in the gaps between words and emotions that he revealed the problem of communication.[46]

Some critics have thought the idea of reality in Anton’s plays is pessimistic. While other see his view as progressive and optimistic. There are even a few who think Anton doesn’t provide any vision of reality in his plays.[47] However, the continued popularity of Anton's plays on stages around the world suggests that the themes and the character remain relevant.[48]

6. Quotations

6.1 From Chekhov
Anton at his Melikhovo Estate

  • “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other.” ~ in a letter to A.S. Suvorin (Sept. 11,1888)

  • “A writer must be as objective as a chemist: he must abandon the subjective line; he must know that dung-heaps play a very reasonable part in a landscape, and that evil passions are as inherent in life as good ones.” ~ in a letter to M.V. Kiselev (Jan. 14, 1887)

  • “Things on stage should be as complicated and as simple as in life. People dine, just dine, while their happiness is made and their lives are smashed. If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last Act.” ~ his rules on writing drama

  • “In one-act pieces there should be only rubbish--that is their strength.” ~ in a letter to A.S. Suvorin (Jan. 6, 1889)

  • “It seems to me that however boring it might be, there is something new in my play. And incidentally, in the entire play there is not a single gun shot.” ~ in a letter to Olga Knipper about his play The Cherry Orchard

  • “The stage demands a degree of artiface…you have no fourth wall. Besides, the stage is art, the stage reflects the quintessence of life and there is no need to introduce anything superfluous on to it.” ~ to an actor during rehearsals at the MAT for The Seagull

6.2 From Others

Anton & Tolstoy in Yalta

  • “There was a time when our productions of Chekhov were appallingly bad. Incredibly long pauses, ponderous rhythm, dreary tempo. When we perform Chekhov like that, we reduce him to the ordinary, to a Chekhov ‘generalization’.” ~ Stanislavsky, stressing rhythm in Chekhov’s plays

  • “Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life…Chekhov has created new froms of writing, completely new, in my opinion, to the whole world, the like of which I have not encountered anywhere…Chekhov has his own special form, like the impressionists.” ~ Tolstoy

  • “One of the basic principles of Chekhov’s artistic work is the endeavor to embrace all of Russian life in its various manifestations, and not to describe selected sphere, as was customary before him. The Chekhovian grasp of Russian life is staggering; in this respect, as in many others, he cannot be compared with anyone…” ~ Boris Eikhenbaum

  • “The atmosphere of Chekhov’s plays is laden with gloom, but it is a darkness of the last hour before the dawn begins.” ~ Maurice Baring

  • “No writer excels in conveying the mutual unsurpassable isolation of human beings and the impossibility of understanding each other.” ~ D.S. Mirsky, 1926.

  • “It seems to me that in the presence of Anton Pavlovich, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself.” ~ Maxim Gorky

  • “What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!” ~ Tennessee Williams

7. Resources


Knowles, Elizabeth M.“The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.” Oxford University Press, 1999.
Bloom, Harold. Ed. “Anton Chekhov” Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Sekirin, Peter. “Memories of Chekhov: Accounts of the Writer From His Family, Friends and Conpanions.” McFarland, 2011.
Devlin, Albert J. “Conversations with Tennessee Williams.” University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
See Notes Above
  1. ^ Senelick, Laurence Ed. “The Complete Plays Anton Chekhov.” W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. xv-xxv.
  2. ^ See Note 1
  3. ^ Karlinsky, Simon. Ed "Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: selected letters and commentary." Northwestern University, 1973.
  4. ^ Rayfield, Donald. “Anton Chekhov: a life.” Northwestern University Press, 1998.
  5. ^ See Note 1
  6. ^ See Note 4
  7. ^ Peaver, Richard and Larissa Volokhonsky. “Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov.” Random House Digital Inc, 2009.
  8. ^ Payne, Robert. "Forty Stories." Random House Digital Inc, 2011
  9. ^ See Note 1
  10. ^ See Note 4
  11. ^ See Note 1
  12. ^ Sekirin, Peter. "Memories of Chekhov: Accounts of the Writer from His Family, Friends and Contermporaries." McFarland, 2011.
  13. ^ See Note 1
  14. ^ Miles, Patrick and Harvey J. Pitcher. Ed. "Early Stories." Oxford University Press, 1999.
  15. ^ Brodskaya, Marina. "Five Plays." Stanford University Press, 2010.
  16. ^ See Note 3
  17. ^ See Note 1
  18. ^ See Note 3
  19. ^ Carson, Peter. "Plays: Ivanov; The Seagull; Uncle Vanya; Three Sisters; The Cherry Orchard." Penguin, 2002.
  20. ^ See Note 3
  21. ^ See Note 19
  22. ^ See Note 3
  23. ^ Tickoo, M.L. "Spotlight: An Anthology of One Act Plays." Orient Blackswan, 1978.
  24. ^ Whyman, Rose. "Anton Chekhov." Routledge, 2010.
  25. ^ See Note 24
  26. ^ See Note 1
  27. ^ See Note 24
  28. ^ See Note 1
  29. ^ See Note 24
  30. ^ See Note 3
  31. ^ Ehre, Milton. "Chekhov for The Stage: The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard." Northwestern University Press, 1992.
  32. ^ See Note 24
  33. ^ See Note 24
  34. ^ See Note 24
  35. ^ See Note 24
  36. ^ Covan, Jenny. “Uncle Vanya: A Comedy in Four Acts.” The University of Michigan, 2008.
  37. ^ See Note 31
  38. ^ Covan, Jenny. “The Three Sisters: A Drama in Four Acts.” The University of Michigan, 2008.
  39. ^ See Note 31
  40. ^ See Note 38
  41. ^ Schmidt, Paul. “The Plays of Anton Chekhov.” HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.
  42. ^ See Note 4
  43. ^ See Note 41
  44. ^ See Note 41
  45. ^ See Note 31
  46. ^ Terras, Victor. Ed. “Handbook of Russian Literature.” Yale University Press, 1985. 112.
  47. ^ Borny, Geoffrey. “Interpreting Chekhov.” ANU E Press, 2006.
  48. ^ Allain, Paul and Vera Gottlieb. Ed. “The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov.” Cambridge University Press, 2000.