Chekhov's father, Pavel, was a religious zealot and family tyrant who terrorized Anton and his two older brothers, Alexander and Nicolai. Although the three younger children recalled a much less terrifying figure in Pavel, Chekhov remarked to Alexander in an 1889 letter reprinted in Avrahm Yarmolinsky's Letters of Anton Chekhov , "Despotism and lying mangled our childhood to such a degree that one feels queasy and fearful recalling it." The writer's mother, Yevgeniya, was an excellent storyteller, and Chekhov is supposed to have acquired his own gift for narrative and to have learned to read and write from her.
At the age of eight he was sent to the local grammar school, where he proved an average pupil. Rather reserved and undemonstrative, he nevertheless gained a reputation for satirical comments, for pranks, and for making up humorous nicknames for his teachers. He enjoyed playing in amateur theatricals and often attended performances at the provincial theater. As an adolescent he tried his hand at writing short "anecdotes," farcical or facetious stories, although he is also known to have written a serious long play at this time, "Fatherless," which he later destroyed.
The first real crisis in Chekhov's life occurred in 1875, when his father's business failed. Threatened with imprisonment for debt, Pavel left to find work in Moscow, where his two eldest sons were attending the university. Yevgeniya, left behind with Anton and the younger children, soon lost her house to a local bureaucrat who had posed as a family friend. She and the children departed for Moscow in July, 1876, leaving Anton in Taganrog to care for himself and finish school. The episode provided him with a theme--the loss of a home to a conniving middle-class upstart--that was to appear later in the short story "Tsvety zapozdalyie" ( "Late-blooming Flowers," 1882), and to mature in his last play, Vishnyovy Sad: Komediya v chetyryokh deystriyakh (The Cherry Orchard: A Comedy in Four Acts, 1904). The family struggled financially while Pavel looked for work, and Chekhov helped by selling off household goods and tutoring younger schoolboys in Taganrog. In 1877 Pavel found a position in a clothing warehouse, and in 1879 Chekhov passed his final exams and joined his family in Moscow, where he had obtained a scholarship to study medicine at Moscow University.
Chekhov was first prompted to write less by an urge toward artistic expression than by the immediate need to support his family. His earliest efforts at publication, after his move to Moscow, were directed at the lowbrow comic magazines that flourished during this period of political repression in Russia, when to speak directly and critically of the imperial government and its vast bureaucracy could doom a writer to the penal colony of Sakhalin Island in Siberia. But Chekhov, who was never politically motivated in his writings or committed in his personal views, was not in danger of provoking official ire. Although he believed strongly in artistic freedom and scientific progress, "politically speaking," revealed Ronald Hingley in A New Life of Anton Chekhov, "he might as well have been living on the moon as in Imperial Russia." Chekhov had read and enjoyed the comic weeklies since his schoolboy days, was under no illusions about their literary standards, and simply sought the income they provided. His first published piece appeared in the St. Petersburg weekly Strekoza ("Dragonfly") in March, 1880. Many more items followed during the next three years in similar journals and under various pseudonyms, the most common being "Antosha Chekhonte," a nickname bestowed upon Chekhov some years before by his favorite grammar school teacher.
In 1882 Chekhov met Nicolas Leykin, the owner and publisher of Oskolki ("Fragments"), the finest of the St. Petersburg comic weeklies, to which he began submitting most of his better work. Oskolki was distinguished from the general run of comic periodicals by the firmness of Leykin's editorial control and his friendly acquaintance with the St. Petersburg censor, which allowed Oskolki to be a bit more outspoken than its competitors. Leykin insisted on very short items, no more than two and one-half pages, with a consistently comic tone throughout. While the young writer resisted the uniformly comic requirements, the restrictions on length proved salutary to Chekhov, who was to become the first modern master of a spare and economical prose style in fiction.
The years 1883 to 1885 were very productive for Chekhov, who was in desperate need of money; but in the general litter of tired jokes and farcical trivia that came from his pen at this time, only a few stories stand out: "Smert' chinovnika" ("The Death of a Government Official," 1883), "Tolsty i tonki" ("Fat and Thin," 1883), "Doch Al'biona" ( "The Daughter of Albion," 1883), "Khameleon" ("A Chameleon," 1884), "Ustritsy" ( "Oysters," 1884), "Strashnaya noch" ("A Dreadful Night," 1884), "Yeger'" ("The Huntsman," 1885), "Zloumyshlenniki" ("The Malefactors," 1885), "Neschastye" ("The Misfortune," 1885), and "Unter Prishibeyev" ("Sergeant Prishibeyev," 1885). To these early writings of quality must be added Chekhov's only attempt at a novel, the serialized Drama na okhote ( The Shooting Party, 1884).
Making their first appearance among these brief vignettes and jokes are the themes that predominate in Chekhov's fiction: the obsequiousness and petty tyranny of government officials; the sufferings of the poor as well as their coarseness and vulgarity; the vagaries and unpredictability of feeling; the ironical misunderstandings, disillusionments, and cross-purposes that make up the human comedy in general. But Chekhov's art was also developing during the mid-1880s to embrace more serious themes--starvation in "Oysters," abandonment in "The Huntsman," remorse in "The Misfortune." The narrative began to identify more closely with a particular character's point of view and to show more atmosphere or mood by evoking through concrete details the emotions at work in a character's mind.
One of the earliest examples of what D. S. Mirsky in his Modern Russian Literature essay labeled "biography of a mood" appears in "The Huntsman," which presents a roving peasant who refuses to go home with his wife because he prefers the freedom of a sporting life--as a "shooter" for the local landowner--and cohabitation with another woman. Here, as so often in Chekhov's mature stories, there is no real plot, no dramatic emotional flare-up, only a moment of confrontation which radically condenses the life histories of both husband and wife. In this moment nothing changes in their relationship or promises to change. Details of the scene--the heat and stillness, the road stretched "taut as a thong"--reflect both the hopeless stagnation of the couple's marriage and the tension of this encounter.
Chekhov's interest in more serious writing found its first outlet in the newspaper Petersburgskaya gazeta ("The Petersburg Gazette"), to which, in 1885, he began sending stories that Leykin and other comic editors had rejected as unsuitably somber. Here Chekhov found no restrictions on length or tone. Soon after his first visit to St. Petersburg in December, 1885, he was invited to write for the most respected of the city papers, Novoye vremya ("New Times"), owned and edited by the conservative anti-Semite Alexis Suvorin, who insisted that Chekhov now publish under his own name. Chekhov was not particularly bothered by Suvorin's political views. Although the young writer was to receive harsh criticism from the left-wing intelligentsia for publishing with Suvorin, he was much more upset at having to abandon his pseudonym: still considering literature, even at this point, to be second in importance to medicine, he had hoped to reserve the use of his real name for future medical publications. "Besides medicine, my wife," he wrote Alexander in a letter printed in Yarmolinsky's collection, "I have also literature--my mistress."
By 1886, however, Chekhov was becoming a well-known writer in St. Petersburg. He had already published one collection of magazine stories in 1883 and another, Pestrye rasskazy (Motley Tales), was to appear in May. According to Ernest J. Simmons in Chekhov: A Biography, a letter reached Chekhov in March from D. V. Grigorovich, the dean of Russian letters, praising "Antosha Chekhonte" 's work as showing "real talent," which "sets you in the front rank among writers in the new generation." It was one of the few laudatory remarks on his writing by which the typically undemonstrative Chekhov seemed genuinely moved, and his appreciative reply to Grigorovich was uncharacteristically enthusiastic and effusive.
The years 1886 to 1887 were the most productive of Chekhov's career. Though he was still writing stories in an ironically comic vein, such as "Roman s kontrabasom" ( "Romance With Double Bass," 1886), "Mest" ( "Revenge," 1886), and "Proizvedeniye iskusstva" ("The Work of Art," 1886), his more serious plots were becoming attenuated almost to the point of stasis. In addition, while sounding a strong note of pathos, as in "Van'ka" ( "Vanka," 1886), Chekhov maintained strict authorial detachment: "Grisha" ("Grisha," 1886), "Ved'ma" ("The Witch," 1886), "Svyatoy Noch'yu" ("Easter Night," 1886), "Toska" ("Heartache," 1886), "Verochka" ( "Verochka," 1887), and "Potseluy" ("The Kiss," 1887) all demonstrate Chekhov's growing ability to render life from within the minds of his characters through the registration of significant details and to portray experience without preaching or attitudinizing.
It was precisely for his refusal to pass judgment on even his most despicable characters--in stories like "Anyuta" ( "Anyuta," 1886), "Zhiteyskaya meloch" ("A Trifle From Life," 1886), "Vragi" ( "Enemies," 1887), and "Tina" ( "Mire," 1886)--that Chekhov received his most negative criticism. Even his friend and country-house landlady, Mariya Kiselev, could not refrain from scolding him for "rummaging in a dung heap," to which he replied, as Yarmolinsky's collection shows, in a manner thoroughly compatible with his medical training and outlook: "To think that it is the duty of literature to pluck the pearl from the heap of villains is to deny literature itself. Literature is called artistic when it depicts life as it actually is.... A writer should be as objective as a chemist." As for trying to instruct his readers, which was the principle task of any great writer according to contemporary critics of Russian culture, he later wrote to Suvorin in a letter printed by Yarmolinsky, "You are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is obligatory for an artist." Granted Chekhov's strictures on authorial preaching, however, many stories from this period--for example, "Vstrecha" ("The Encounter," 1887), "Nishchy" ("The Beggar," 1887), "Beda" ("In Trouble," 1887), and "Khoroshyie lyudi" ("Excellent People," 1886)--show the unfortunate moralizing tendencies of Leo Tolstoy, who had by this time become an object of admiration for the young writer.
Despite the general brightening of the Chekhov family's monetary prospects throughout the 1880s, debts continued to mount, mostly due to the spendthrift habits of the older brothers, Alexander and Nicolai, debts which Anton undertook to pay. At the same time his health had been deteriorating since December, 1884, when he had suffered his first episode of bloody sputum and painful lungs, symptoms of the tuberculosis that was eventually to kill him. Though a doctor himself, having received his medical degree in the summer previous to his first attack, Chekhov spent most of his remaining years denying that there was anything seriously wrong with him. Nevertheless, by the summer of 1887, debt, ill health, and the prodigious effort of writing to keep pace with family expenses forced Chekhov to take a vacation trip to the Steppes and eastern Ukraine, including a visit to Taganrog.
The trip refreshed Chekhov's boyhood memories and provided material for his first publication in a serious literary, or so-called "thick," journal, Severny vestnik ("The Northern Herald"), in March, 1888. "Step" ( "The Steppe") tells the story of a nine-year-old boy's journey across the vast plains of southern Russia with his merchant uncle and a local priest. Considered too long, impressionistic, and plotless by the popular press, "The Steppe" marked Chekhov's entry into the ranks of the major Russian writers and the beginning of his artistic maturity. Later in 1888 he received the Pushkin Prize from the Division of Russian Language and Letters of the Academy of Sciences for his collection of stories, V sumerkakh (In the Twilight), published the previous year. Typically, he declared himself unimpressed. This collection and later ones--Rasskazy ( Tales, 1888), Detvora (Children, 1889), and a collection whose title has been translated as "Gloomy People" (1890)--went through many editions.
Meanwhile, Chekhov had made his theatrical debut in the autumn of 1887 with the premiere of his four-act play, Ivanov, at the Korsh Theater in Moscow. He had written two earlier one-act plays, neither of which had been produced, and a very long, melodramatic, four-act potboiler, Platonov, which was neither produced nor published in his lifetime. In Ivanov, a middle-aged landowner beset by debts and weary of marriage seeks an affair with a neighbor's daughter while his Jewish wife, Sara, rejected by her family for marrying a Gentile, is dying of tuberculosis. The play marks a great advance over the histrionics and verbosity of Platonov but shows little of Chekhov's later experimentation with understatement, anticlimax, and implied feeling. Audience and critical reaction was polarized: on the one hand, the play was very well made, so good, in fact, that Hingley in A New Life of Anton Chekhov deemed it superior to Chayka: Komediya Chetyryokh deystviyakh (The Seagull: A Comedy in Four Acts), Chekhov's first truly innovative contribution to modern drama. On the other hand, the playwright had refused to represent his hero's behavior in an unfavorable light and even showed the only character who denounces Ivanov, Sara's doctor, Lvov, to be self-righteous and narrow-minded. This constituted another instance in which Chekhov's objectivity violated the canons of Russian literary taste.
From 1888 to 1890 Chekhov continued to write for the theater. In addition to a new but poorly received four-act play, Leshy (The Wood Demon, 1889), he wrote four one-act farces, Medved' ( The Bear ), Predlozheniye (The Proposal), Tragic (A Tragic Role), and Svad'ba (The Wedding ), all quite successful. On January 31, 1889, Ivanov opened its St. Petersburg run at the Alexandrine Theater to extremely favorable reviews. But Chekhov, bending under the strain of overseeing rehearsals, advising his producers, and dealing with the press, was becoming morose and irritated at his success. He declared himself "bored" with Ivanov and contemptuous of theatrical people. In general, he was impatient with praise because it seldom matched his own highly critical self-estimation, while fame brought with it heightened public expectations and unsolicited advice. It also brought visitors, and even toward welcome visitors Chekhov often felt ambivalent. When alone with his family, as at his rented country house in Babkino or in summer residences at Luka in the Ukraine, he longed for company and the excitement of city life. But he quickly grew tired of guests because they kept him away from his work.
After 1888 Chekhov's fiction diminished in quantity but increased in quality. He began trying to write longer stories without sacrificing conciseness. To the period from 1888 to 1890 belong such prized works as "Nepriyatnaya istoriya" ("An Awkward Business," 1888), "Krasavitsy" ( "The Beauties," 1888), "Spat' khochetsya" ("Sleepy," 1888), and his two brilliant long stories, "Imeniny" ("The Name-Day Party," 1888) and "Skuchnaya istoriya" ("A Dreary Story," 1889).
These two works, along with "Sleepy" and "The Seizure," are among the finest instances of what Oliver Elton in Chekhov: The Taylorian Lecture called the "clinical study": stories drawing on Chekhov's medical expertise and depicting psychosomatic illness or the psychological effects of physical disease or distress. It was a form he had used in earlier stories such as "Oysters" and "Tif" ("Typhus," 1887) but had never before developed at such length or with such skill. In "The Name-Day Party" a pregnant wife, hurt and infuriated by her husband's failure to share his professional concerns with her, must cope with the added pressures of entertaining the guests at his name-day party. This superb study of the emotional effects of marital and social hypocrisy ends with a harrowing description of the wife's experience of miscarriage, which results from the day-long physical and mental strain. Chekhov claimed that many of his female readers attested to the accuracy of this story's description of labor pains, a description based on his clinical observations.
In "A Dreary Story" a dying medical professor, Nicolai Stepanovich, recounts at length his final months, his night fears and insomnia, his impatience with colleagues and weariness with family affairs. Alarmed by his own indifference to his daughter's elopement with a scoundrel and vulgarian, he registers that indifference as "a paralysis of the soul, a premature death," and discovers within himself only a bundle of peevish desires uninformed by any "general idea, or the god of a living man." When his ward, Katya, a disillusioned actress who has been seduced and betrayed and who is beset by the advances of a new unwanted suitor, begs for Nicolai's advice, he cannot reply, leaving her bitterly disappointed. Having discovered the meaninglessness of life, the professor is now useless to the living.
Scholars have drawn numerous parallels between Chekhov and his protagonist in "A Dreary Story," particularly in the professor's pessimistic and cynical opinions on life, on the academic professions, and on the theater, despite Chekhov's own vigorous disclaimers to Suvorin, recorded by Simon Karlinsky in Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: "If I present you with the professor's ideas, have confidence in me and don't look for Chekhovian ideas in them." In any case, the theme of life's meaninglessness recurs often in the writer's later work, along with a healthy skepticism--but never cynicism--toward the possible fulfillment of human hopes. It is far from true that, as Lev Shestov maintained in Anton Tchekhov and Other Essays, Chekhov was doing only one thing in his writing, "killing human hopes"; but it is a rare occasion in his fictive universe when expectations of happiness--especially in matters of the heart--are fulfilled. At the same time, Chekhov strongly believed in scientific and technological progress--slow though it might be in coming--and was a thoroughgoing pragmatist, like another character of his, Dr. Astrov, the conservationist and physician in Dyadya Vanya: Stseny iz derevenskoy zhizni v chetyroykh deystviyakh (Uncle Vanya: Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts). The author believed in doing one's best for today, letting tomorrow take care of itself, and remaining open to the joys of life, however vulnerable to subsequent disappointment such openness might leave one. Chekhov's least likeable characters are nearly always energetic and efficient but indifferent to deeper human feelings, or else so benumbed by suffering and privation as to have died emotionally, like the narrator of "A Dreary Story" or the Siberian ferryman, Semyon, of "V ssylke" ("In Exile," 1892).
By early 1890, Chekhov's spirits were low. His brother Nicolai had died the previous summer after a protracted bout of tuberculosis. In the autumn, The Wood Demon had been rejected by two theaters and had closed for good after three performances at a third. A projected novel had been abandoned after two years of intense work, and the liberal press was attacking him for his "unprincipled writing." On top of everything else, Chekhov was bored. In April, after months of preparation, he set off to visit the eastern Siberian penal colony of Sakhalin Island to take a census of its inhabitants, interview its officials, and write a report on conditions there. Though he cited scientific, humanitarian, and literary reasons for his unusual decision, and a vague desire to "pay off my debt to medicine," according to a letter printed by Yarmolinsky, Chekhov was motivated principally by the need for a radical change of scene.
The trip was arduous and hazardous, even for a healthy man: five thousand miles across the Siberian wilderness, three thousand by horse-drawn cart along the infamous trakt, the dirt road that spanned Siberia. On arrival, Chekhov observed and carefully recorded the misery of life on the five-hundred-mile-long island, conducting some 160 interviews a day. In October he sailed for Odessa by way of Vladivostok, Hong Kong, Singapore (which he found depressing), Ceylon (which he thought a paradise on earth), and Port Said, arriving December 1. Once in Moscow, he joined his family in their new lodgings on Malaya Dmitrovka Street. Material based on his eastern journey later appeared in "Gusev" ( "Gusev," 1890), "In Exile" (1892), and "Ubiystvo" ( "Murder," 1895).
From February to March of 1891, Chekhov worked on "Duel" ("The Duel," 1891), a long story set in the Caucasus and depicting the antagonism between a young, Bohemian romantic and idealist, Layevsky, and a cold-blooded, hard-working, ambitious zoologist, von Koren, who has fanatical convictions about the need to "exterminate" social "drones" like Layevsky. Typically, their creator refuses to take sides in the dispute, although Layevsky reforms at the end. In March and April, Chekhov journeyed with Suvorin and his son to Italy and France, locales which appeared later in Rasskaz neizvestnovo cheloveka (An Anonymous Story, 1893) and Ariadna (Ariadne, 1895). That summer, he lived at Bogimovo in a mansion provided for the season by an admirer of his work. There he began a scholarly book, Ostrov Sakhalin (Sakhalin Island), finished "The Duel," and wrote "Baby" ("Peasant Women," 1891). In September he returned to Moscow where he spent the winter working on "An Anonymous Story," "Zhena" ("My Wife," 1892), and a work whose title is translated as "The Butterfly" (1892).
In March, 1892, Chekhov and his family moved to his newly purchased country estate at Melikhovo in Moscow District. Here they remained in residence until 1899, their longest--and happiest--stay in any one home. Chekhov the landowner was on good terms with the local peasants, treating their medical problems free of charge, paying for his own dispensary, financing and overseeing the building of schools, and organizing measures against the cholera epidemics of 1892 and 1893. His experiences greatly influenced his depiction of peasant life in such mature works as "Muzhiki" ( "Peasants," 1897) and "V ovrage" ("In the Ravine," 1900), the former of which caused a furor when first published because Chekhov refused to sentimentalize or idealize his peasants in the accepted manner of such promoters of unsophisticated wisdom as Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. At one point, "Peasants" even reads like an indictment of the peasantry for its brutality, greed, and sordidness. While the narodniks, or "peasant fanciers," of the liberal press excoriated Chekhov, the Marxists praised the story for its realistic portrayal of class conditions.
Dissatisfied, as ever, with staying in one location for too long, Chekhov made frequent trips to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the south of Russia. Everywhere he went he was welcomed, praised, and celebrated with parties, but he felt rather distant from it all and soon wearied of the social round. At about this time Chekhov apparently took his first mistress, Lydia Yavorsky, an actress at Moscow's Korsh Theater. It was not a passionate affair. Chekhov had always manifested a somewhat fastidious attitude toward sex, commensurate with his generally stolid or passive temperament, and seemed to believe that unrestrained sexual activity contributed to senility. As Hingley delicately put it in A New Life of Anton Chekhov, "We are certainly entitled to deduce that he was somewhat undersexed." Chekhov's very brief "engagement" to his sister's Jewish friend, Dunya Efros, in January, 1886, is treated so lightly and ironically in his letters to his friend, Bilibin, as to lead Hingley in A New Life to regard it as a private joke.
Other women figured in Chekhov's life during the early 1890s, including Lydia ("Lika") Mizinov, another friend of his sister's whose intense love for him he reciprocated only as friendship, and Lydia Avilova, wife, mother, and minor writer, who, at their first meeting, managed to convince herself that Chekhov felt toward her a passionate, undying love that was stifled only by guilt over her marital status. Mizonov finally turned her attentions to Chekhov's friend, the Ukrainian writer Ignatius Potapenko, a married man; Chekhov used the affair as a model for the relationship between Trigorin, the writer, and Nina, the aspiring actress, in The Seagull, much to the chagrin of Mizinov and Potapenko. As for Avilova's allegations presented in her memoirs Chekhov in My Life, most modern scholars--with the exception of David Magarshack, who added an appendix to the 1970 reprint of Chekhov: A Life specifically to refute Ernest Simons's dismissal of Avilova's claims--see them as highly subjective interpretations unsubstantiated by corroborating evidence in Chekhov's notebooks and correspondence.
During his stay at Melikhovo, Chekhov began to publish more frequently in the liberal press, particularly in Russkaya mysl ("Russian Thought") and Russkiye vedemosti ("The Russian Gazette"). His trip to Sakhalin and the publication of a chapter on escapees in late 1891 were admired by left-wing critics and helped to patch up a quarrel between Chekhov and V. M. Lavrov, the editor of Russkaya mysl. After two years of hesitation over possible censorship, Chekhov sent Lavrov Sakhalin Island, minus the last four chapters, for serialized publication from October, 1893 to July, 1894. The entire work was printed in the journal during 1895. Chekhov's longest piece by far, it was hailed by liberals as a signal contribution to the movement for prison reform. Over the ensuing years Russkaya mysl was to publish The Seagull, Tri syostry: Drama v chetyryokh deystviyakh (The Three Sisters: A Drama in Four Acts), and thirteen of Chekhov's finest stories, including Palata No. 6 (Ward Number Six, 1892), in which the irresponsible director of a decrepit insane asylum ends up committed to his own ward. According to W. H. Bruford in Anton Chekhov, Communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin, reading the story as an allegorical representation of a repressive society, later wrote, "When I had read this story to the end, I was filled with awe. I could not remain in my room and went out of doors. I felt as if I were locked up in a ward too."
Ward Number Six and a later story Moya zhizn ( My Life, 1896), the account of a young man who defies his architect father to work as a common laborer, mark Chekhov's final experiments with the Tolstoyan philosophy of pacifistic resistance to evil. Tolstoy was still, however, a towering object of Chekhov's admiration because of his two great novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the latter of which had influenced Chekhov's writing of "The Name-Day Party." In August, 1894, Chekhov visited Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's family estate, and the two became good friends despite their divergent views on the role of literature and the arts.
Other outstanding works from Chekhov's Melikhovo period include a study of intellectual megalomania, "Chorny monakh" ("The Black Monk," 1894), "Babye tsarstvo" ("A Woman's Kingdom," 1894), "Volodya bol'shoy i Volodya malen'ki" ("The Two Volodyas," 1894), "Tri goda" ( "Three Years," 1895), "Ariadne" (1895), "Skripka Rotshil'da" ( "Rothschild's Fiddle," 1895), "Na podvode" ("In the Cart," 1897), "Vrodnom uglu" ("At Home," 1897), and the so-called "trilogy" of stories--one whose title has been translated as "A Hard Case" (1898), "Kryzhovnik" ( "Gooseberries," 1898), and "O lyubvi" ("Concerning Love," 1898)--each of which is told by one narrator to characters who figure as narrators in the other two stories. All three stories focus on a failure to grasp the essential joys of life by not taking advantage of opportunities that come only once in a lifetime, for fear of making a mistake.
From October to November, 1895, Chekhov wrote The Seagull, a play that deliberately flouts the stage conventions of nineteenth-century theater: it has no starring role, its dramatic action declines rather than builds with each act, and it eschews dramatic crises and the direct representation of powerful feelings. Yarmolinsky's Letters records the playwright's own assessment of his art in The Seagull : "I began it forte and wound it up pianissimo--contrary to all the precepts of dramatic art." As his first effort in a radically new form of dramatic composition, The Seagull reveals the full extent of Chekhov's originality. But the play is flawed by heavy-handed symbolism borrowed from the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen--the use of the dead seagull to represent hopes betrayed; and the work contains an ambivalence of tone that does not resolve itself, as it does in the later plays, into a perfect balance of opposites. While Donald Rayfield argued in A Chekhov Companion essay that the play is in many ways meant to be "farcical," critics are generally undecided about how seriously to take its subtitle, "A Comedy in Four Acts," since the work treats the ruin of a young woman's life and the suicide of the young man who once loved her.
The Seagull's premiere on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrine Theater in St. Petersburg was a complete disaster, due as much to the circumstances in which the play was produced as to its originality. Besides being under-rehearsed, The Seagull was scheduled for the benefit night of a well-known comic actress, for whom there was no part in the play. Her assembled fans were displeased with what they felt was highbrow experimentation, and a riot ensued. Though later performances were well received, theater management decided to close the play after only five performances. Chekhov was devastated and swore never again to write plays. He was nevertheless devoting a great deal of effort to revising The Wood Demon, the 1889 stage failure that eventually became the play Uncle Vanya.
On the evening of March 22, 1897, Chekhov suffered a violent hemorrhage of the lungs while at dinner with Suvorin in Moscow. He was hospitalized for two weeks, during which time he suffered a second hemorrhage. He then had to acknowledge his illness. During the ensuing summer at Melikhovo, he stopped writing completely, cut back on all his activities, and his health began to improve.
For the winter of 1897 to 1898, Chekhov sought a climate favorable to his health, resuming his writing in Nice on the French Riviera. In France at this time controversy was stirred by the Dreyfus affair, in which military officer Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly tried and imprisoned for treason against France; Chekhov took an interest in the case, particularly after the publication of Emile Zola's "J'accuse," a defense of the court-martialed Jewish lieutenant. Support for Dreyfus also earned Chekhov's partisanship, which led to a break with his friend Suvorin, whose Novoye vremya was publishing vehemently anti-Semitic attacks on the Dreyfusards.
In Nice Chekhov was contacted by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, cofounder along with Constantin Stanislavsky of the new Moscow Art Theater, which was intended to stimulate public taste for the "new drama." Nemirovich-Danchenko was ecstatic about The Seagull and persuaded Chekhov to let him produce it as part of the troupe's first season. From that point on, Chekhov's activities as a dramatist and those of the Moscow Art Theater were intertwined. In September, 1898, on his way to winter in Yalta, Chekhov attended rehearsals of his play and was introduced to the members of the new theater troupe, including Olga Knipper, the actress who later became his wife. On December 17, 1898, the Moscow Art Theater performed The Seagull for the first time since its disastrous premiere. At the end of the first act, after a stunned silence, the audience exploded into applause. At their insistence, a telegram was sent to Chekhov in Yalta to tell him of his success.
During Chekhov's stay in Yalta that winter he purchased land on which to build a new villa and bought a seaside cottage not far from the city. His stories from this time, such as "Novaya dacha" ("New Villa," 1898), and especially "Po delam sluzhby" ("On Official Business," 1898), show a growing awareness of the rift between the upper and lower classes and a new concern for social justice. It was at this time, perhaps not coincidentally, that he became friends with a young writer of social conscience, Maksim Gorky. In early 1899 Chekhov was elected an Honorary Academician of the Pushkin Section of Belle Letters of the Academy of Sciences.
Chekhov divided his time between Melikhovo and Moscow during the spring and summer of 1899, helping the Maly Theater in its preparations for the Moscow premiere of Uncle Vanya, which had been making the rounds of provincial theaters since its appearance two years before in Chekhov's collected plays. Except for its principal characters and central theme, Uncle Vanya is almost unrecognizable as a later version of The Wood Demon. The play focuses on the Voynitsky household, plunged into turmoil by the sudden appearance of the now nearly senile Professor Serebryakov, the intellectual brother-in-law for whose benefit "Uncle" Vanya Voynitsky, to manage the family estate, has sacrificed his adult life. In representing this situation Chekhov fulfilled the promise of The Seagull : he created a perfectly orchestrated tragicomedy of nuanced pauses, significant breakdowns and cross-purposes in conversation, elusively symbolic objects, and farcical violence, all pointing up the unrecoverable loss of a whole and meaningful life.
However, the play was much too ambiguous for the Theatrical and Literary Committee that administered the imperial theaters, of which the Maly was one. They voted to send Uncle Vanya back to its author for cuts and changes. Chekhov took the opportunity to withdraw the play and submit it to his new friends at the Moscow Art Theater, where it became the talk of the autumn season in Moscow after its first performance on October 26, 1899.
From October to December, 1899, Chekhov worked on his last group of stories--"Na Svyatkakh" ("At Christmas," 1899), "In the Ravine" (1900), and "Dama s sobachkoy" ( "A Lady With a Pet Dog," 1889)--the last of which Virginia Llewellyn Smith, in Anton Chekhov and the Lady With a Dog, called "a summary of the entire topic" of "Chekhov's attitude to women and to love." Meanwhile, he and Olga Knipper had begun exchanging letters after her short visit to Chekhov's Yalta villa the previous April, when the Moscow Art Theater had made a Crimean tour. During the summer of 1900 the two became lovers, but only after Olga first made a point of securing the friendship of Chekhov's sister, Mariya, and the good will of the Chekhov household. By August Olga was playfully cajoling the writer in her letters from Moscow to marry her.
During October, 1900, Chekhov joined Olga in Moscow with the manuscript of The Three Sisters, to which he had devoted nearly all his energies since the new year. In The Hudson Review Howard Moss described The Three Sisters as "the most musical of all of Chekhov's plays in construction, the one that depends most heavily on the repetition of motifs," and yet a play that is "seemingly artless." Charles J. Rzepka declared in his Modern Language Studies essay that The Three Sisters continually invokes "a world of art" larger than life while, like life itself, betraying no "sense of ... a final cause" or "ultimate purpose." The Three Sisters was also the most difficult play, as it turned out, for Chekhov to complete to his satisfaction, and he was still revising it on his arrival in Moscow. Ominously, the Art Theater actors and producers felt it to be unplayable. Irritated, as much with Moscow in general as with the players, and feeling definitely uncomfortable with Olga's constant presence, Chekhov took a brief trip to St. Petersburg and then left for Nice; from there he sent back to Moscow revised versions of Acts III and IV and detailed stage directions for The Three Sisters.
In general, Chekhov was unhappy with most of the Art Theater's productions of his plays because of Stanislavsky's tendency to overplay and underscore scenes that Chekhov had conceived as exquisitely understated and indirect. This clash of interpretative styles became very clear during rehearsals for The Three Sisters, where the real tragedy appears not in such events as the killing of Irina's suitor, Tusenbach, by the ironical dandy, Solyoni, nor in the success of Natasha, the grasping and ruthless sister-in-law of the Prozoroffs, but in the agonizing stultification of three lives that are finally smothered under the weight of everyday occurrences. When The Three Sisters premiered on January 21, 1901, response was lackluster, criticism lukewarm. The public did not know how to receive the play. This news reached Chekhov as he was touring Italy.
After he returned to Yalta in early 1901, Olga increasingly pressured Chekhov to marry her. She did not want to spend time with him and his family in Yalta, living in his house and secretly joining him in his room at night. In May, Chekhov reluctantly agreed to matrimony and joined Olga in Moscow to exchange vows. His sister, Mariya, was bitterly hurt, even "nauseated," by the event, but while her year-old relationship with Olga was temporarily strained, the two ultimately resumed a friendship that endured for many years after Chekhov's death. Contemporary accounts suggest that the marriage itself was something less than blissful. I. N. Altshuller, Chekhov's Yalta doctor, felt the liaison was a disaster for Chekhov's health. Chekhov's friend, the writer I. A. Bunin, was even more negative, seeing Olga's theatrical milieu as alien and threatening to her husband's peace of mind. Chekhov spent most of his time in the south while Olga performed with the Art Theater in Moscow or on tour, so the two lived as much apart as together. Olga would often write Chekhov from Moscow, describing wild cast parties and the amorous advances of fellow actors, apparently in order to excite jealousy in her rather passive husband. Chekhov, on his part, would frequently excuse himself from joining her in Moscow or, when with her, contrive reasons to take brief journeys away from her.
During the summer of 1901, in Yalta, Chekhov began coughing up blood once more, and his declining health prompted him to make his will. When he went to Moscow in September, he immersed himself in more rehearsals of The Three Sisters for the new season, personally producing Act III. On September 21 he saw it performed, and for perhaps the first time in his life felt perfectly satisfied with the interpretation of one of his plays. He was applauded in two curtain calls after Act III.
The following winter Chekhov's health worsened, but he continued to write, sending "Arkhiyerey" ("The Bishop") to "Zhurnal dlya vsekh" ( "Journal for Everyone") in February of 1902. Also that month Olga visited Chekhov in Yalta. In March she had a miscarriage, and for the next four months her health fluctuated drastically. By July she had recovered sufficiently to allow a six-week holiday for her and Chekhov at Stanislavsky's family estate, Lyubimovka. These were perhaps the happiest few weeks of the Chekhovs' married life: they enjoyed abundant food, drink, relaxation, good company, and, most important, good fishing. But Chekhov left Lyubimovka in mid-August without providing his wife with a sufficient explanation for his departure, and afterward he and Olga quarreled by letter for a month.
In August, too, Chekhov, along with his friend and fellow academician, Vladimir Korolenko, resigned from the Academy of Sciences in protest over the expulsion of Maksim Gorky, who had been elected the previous February. Czar Nicolas II, discovering that Gorky had a police record and was under surveillance in connection with recent student unrest, had expressed his "profound chagrin" at the younger writer's appointment. Chekhov's resignation had little effect on the Academy, but did much to bolster Chekhov's reputation with the liberal intelligentsia. Back in Yalta over the winter, separated from Olga for five months, Chekhov worked on his last story, "Nevesta" ("A Marriageable Girl," 1903), and set about writing the first draft of The Cherry Orchard, which he had been pondering for two years. He finished it in October, 1902, and sent it to Moscow for rehearsal.
By this time Chekhov's health had seriously worsened. He was irritable and impatient with everyone and became furious at Stanislavsky's and Nemirovich-Danchenko's misinterpretations of his new play. Unwilling to leave the play's production in their hands, he journeyed to Moscow against the advice of Dr. Altshuller and threw himself into preparations and rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard, revising and editing as he went along. It was obvious that he and Stanislavsky were working at cross-purposes once again. Chekhov had conceived the play as a comedy, a "farce," while Stanislavsky kept encumbering the staging with ponderous tragic nuance.
Indeed, The Cherry Orchard represents the perfect embodiment of that exquisite balance of tragedy and farce with which Chekhov so skillfully imbued his mature plays. This portrait of the economic exploitation of the Ranevskaya family--doomed devotees of a humane and life-loving tradition--by the middle-class vulgarian Lopakhin conveys the major themes of Chekhov's career placed in unresolvable but organic tension: the intrinsic value of opening oneself up to the beauty of the world and the love of others, and the foolishness of such openness in the face of the inevitable destruction of beauty and love. When it premiered on January 17, 1904, as part of a "Jubilee Celebration" of its author's twenty-five years as a writer, The Cherry Orchard was an immediate success. Later, back in Yalta, Chekhov was pleased by news of the play's successful opening in St. Petersburg on April 2, even though he remained convinced that the company did not really understand the play.
In May, quite near death, Chekhov left Russia on his doctor's orders for a spa at Badenweiler, Germany, taking Olga with him. Through most of June his health seemed to improve, but on June 29 he suffered a heart attack. He recovered, only to suffer another attack the next day. In the early morning hours of July 2, 1904, he awoke choking and delirious but had enough presence of mind to send for a doctor. While awaiting the physician Olga prepared some crushed ice to place on her husband's chest, but Chekhov protested, "You don't put ice on an empty heart." When the doctor arrived, Chekhov revealed, "Ich sterbe" ("I am dying"). Taking a sip of champagne, which at that time was considered salutary for heart victims, he remarked that he hadn't drunk champagne for ages, then turned on his side and closed his eyes. Moments later he was dead. In an ironic twist that he might have appreciated, Chekhov's body, sent back to Russia in a refrigerator car, was enclosed in a box marked "oysters."
Chekhov's influence on the modern short story and the modern play was immense. Among his innovations were his economical husbanding of narrative resources, his concentration on character as mood rather than action, his impressionistic adoption of particular points of view, his dispensing with traditional plot, and, as Charles May declared in an essay collected in A Chekhov Companion, his use of atmosphere as "an ambiguous mixture of both external details and psychic projection." In all these regards Chekhov had an immediate and direct impact on such Western writers as James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, and Sherwood Anderson; indirectly, most major authors of short stories in the twentieth century, including Katherine Anne Porter, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Bernard Malamud, and Raymond Carver, are in his debt.
With respect to twentieth-century drama, few playwrights with so small an oeuvre have wielded such vast influence over the course of literary history. With Ibsen and Strindberg, Chekhov pioneered what Magarshack in Chekhov the Dramatist called the "indirect action" play: he used understatement and broken conversation, off-stage events and absent characters as catalysts of tension, but retained a strict impression of realism. He went further than his contemporaries in his rejection of the classical Aristotelian plot-line, in which rising and falling action comprise an immediately recognizable climax, catastrophe, and denouement. In Chekhov's mature plays, realism extended to the strict coincidence of stage time with real time, so that it was the elapsed time between acts, sometimes extending over months or years, that showed the changes taking place in characters. Thus, as Martin Esslin pointed out in an essay appearing in A Chekhov Companion, "the relentless forward pressure of the traditional dramatic form was replaced by a method of narration in which it was the discontinuity of the images that told the story, by implying what had happened in the gaps between episodes." At the same time, Chekhov's realism was not a simple transcription of life but a highly structured portrait subtly held together by complex networks of verbal imagery, repeated sounds and phrases, ambiguously suggestive or simply enigmatic props--all of which made up what has come to be known as the "subtext" of a Chekhov play.
Among Western playwrights, George Bernard Shaw was the first to grasp Chekhov's intentions and techniques, and he modeled his own "Heartbreak House" (1919) on The Cherry Orchard. Yet it was not until the mid-1920s that Chekhov caught on with English audiences, becoming one of the trio of major dramatists regularly performed in British playhouses, along with Ibsen and Shakespeare. His influence on English playwrights other than Shaw, up to and including Harold Pinter, has been less direct, but no less powerful. In American drama the notion of "subtext" that Chekhov originated informs many of the works of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, and William Inge. Chekhov's methods also anticipate Bertolt Brecht's technique of "Vefreundungseffekt" ("estrangement") and Samuel Beckett's dramatic stasis and derealization; although Kenneth Rexroth's contention in Classics Revisited that "Chekhov's is truly a theater of the absurd," may overstate the case, Richard Gilman nevertheless concurred with Rexroth in The Making of Modern Drama.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Chekhov's canon is the diversity of responses it excites. Early portraits of the man and his work tended toward sentimentality: Gorky in Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov recalled the "quiet, deep sigh of a pure and human heart," and Nina Andronikova Toumanova in Anton Chekhov: Voice of a Twilight Russia described a "gentle soul ... in desperate fear of life," taking refuge "in a queer world of silvery twilight and dark shadows." The modern portrait of Chekhov, while much more nuanced and complex, is also contradictory. In Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art, Donald Rayfield detected at least three different Chekhovs emerging from the critical canvas, "optimist, pessimist, decadent, [and] scientific impressionist"; in an essay appearing in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, John Gassner sees two figures: on the one hand, "an artist of half-lights, a laureate of well-marinated futility, and a master of tragic sensibility," and on the other, "a paragon of breezy extroversion."
Nearly all his commentators concur that Chekhov was a master ironist, but not all agree on just when he was being ironic. In The Cherry Orchard, for instance, is the student Trofimov--"buoyant, enthusiastic, and filled with hope" about the progress of humanity--indeed "Chekhov's spokesman," as Ruth Davies contended in The Great Books of Russia? Or is he simply a "queer bird," as the character Madame Ranevskaya tells him, someone whose "talk," asserted Joseph Wood Krutch in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate, "like that of nearly all Chekhov's characters, will never be anything but talk"? Does the cherry orchard itself symbolize, as Krutch insisted, "the grace and beauty of the past which is being sacrificed because it has no utilitarian value"? Or is it what Magarshack identified in Chekhov the Dramatist as "a purely aesthetic symbol" that expresses "the destruction of beauty by those who are utterly blind to it"? These are the kinds of questions excited by the enigma that was Chekhov--lyricist and realist, comedian and tragedian, ironist and progressive. Perhaps, in the end, as Hingley suggested in A New Life of Anton Chekhov, Chekhov was himself "that tantalizing phenomenon: a Chekhov character."
From: "Anton Chekhov." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2009.