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About the Playwright: Anton Chekhov

By Heidi N. Madsen
From Insights, 2000

 

Anton Chekhov was neither a liberal nor a conservative, feminist nor monk--nor was he entirely indifferent. He dealt with cold realism, in the irony of unfulfillment, and, like Hemingway, he disapproved of adjectives. He detested arbitrariness, though he believed without bias that it equitably and universally existed. In the merchant’s house, at the police station, in literature, in science and among the young it existed.

Chekhov did not look the part of an author or a playwright; his physical appearance most stereotypically resembled his alternate profession as a doctor. Medicine was his “lawful wife,” and writing was his “mistress,” and for this reason, to read Chekhov’s writing we must don the white clinician’s jacket and the gloves and look at the human plight more scientifically. We must not allow ourselves to view the autopsic style of Anton Chekhov with too much morbidity. His heroes, perhaps as did his patients, speak, love, marry, give birth, and die. Physicians, as Chekhov was, must seek to be non-judgmental, even detached, and observe only with clinical precision. The surgeon’s table is sterile, his tools cold and hopefully lacking in pretentiousness; and, omitting political, religious, and philosophical views, Chekhov wrote with the same medical ministrations. His wife, actress Olga Knipper, wrote to him in 1901: “My heart aches when I think of the quiet sadness that seems to be so deeply entrenched in your heart.” To which Chekhov replied: “But darling, that is utter nonsense!” (Rene and Nonna D. Wellek, editors, Chekhov: New Perspectives. [New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1984], 33).

Anton Chekhov was born in the Azov seaport of Taganrog. In 1884 he published twenty, of an eventual two hundred, pieces in his first book, Tales of Melpomene; published his only novel, A Shooting Party, and graduated medical school. The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy was Chekhov’s favorite book, but he was only partly influenced by his Russian contemporaries and did not mimic their styles. Some disapproved, including Tolstoy, but Chekhov was a transitional writer--the bridge between classical and contemporary literature. He also must be given credit for his particular revolution of theatre itself. Instead of the actor being given full reign on stage, his plays were designed to subjugate the actor directly to the text. Words, the words on the script, were responsible for mood and for staging, and it was not how or what the characters said that was most important, but more why they said it. No longer was the dramatist entirely at liberty to interpret. Donna Rayfield suggested that one of his motives in doing this was to antagonize actors as well as audience members (The Cherry Orchard: Catastrophe and Comedy [New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994], 7).

However, as stated earlier, Chekhov was not a radical; he did not try to force opinions upon others. In fact, his resolve to leave his stories and plays in a way unresolved, reveals him as unassuming, noncommittal, and almost undecided in most kinds of politics. A good example of this was pointed out by Professor Nilsson, that stage directions may sometimes consist of opposing parts: “cheerfully, through tears” (Welleck, 95). We do know that Chekhov did not believe life to be a series of resolutions; happy endings in his opinion were almost nonexistent.

His most successful plays were Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. These owe their initial success to director Konstantin Stanislavsky, the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre and the father of “method acting,” a technique which influenced actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean. In fact, prior to Stanislavsky’s directions, the plays were disastrously received.

Anton Chekhov was a writer who refused to pretend. In his stories “men are always being caught buttoning their trousers and women pulling up their stockings” (Frank O’Conner. New York Times Book Review, “A Writer Who Refused to Pretend,” 17 Jan. 1960). Perhaps it was just part of his numerous, intended. and ultimately successful ironical effects.


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