When I am asked which playwright to study to learn the craft of writing for the stage, I say, "Chekhov."
Chekhov was not a product of the privileged elite. His father was an emancipated serf. The family of seven lived in a wretched little hamlet on the Black sea, where Anton's fanatical father beat his children mercilessly, on the pretext of instilling morality. This treatment did not endear Chekhov to the Christian church but it created his lifelong hatred of cruelty.
When Chekhov was sixteen, the family absconded, creditors in hot pursuit, leaving Anton to fend for himself. He educated himself at the library. Three years later, he received a scholarship to medical school in Moscow. There, he found his family living in one room in the brothel district. To raise money, he started writing funny pieces for newspapers: squibs, sketches, satirical observations from life. His first story is said to have bought a pie for his mother's birthday. He supported his entire family, training to be a doctor by day and writing in the evenings. "Medicine is my lawful wife," he wrote, "literature my mistress." However, the strain of maintaining two professions was intolerable, and by the time he was twenty, Chekhov had consumption.
On a visit to St Petersburg, Chekhov discovered he was famous for his syndicated stories. Three years later, he received the Russian Academy's prestigious Pushkin prize for literary achievement.
In his late twenties, for reasons known only to himself, Chekhov undertook a 2,000-mile journey to the notorious penal colony of Sakhalin, in Siberia. Here he wrote stories about the appalling conditions and abuse suffered by the prisoners. In his thirties, he bought an three-hundred-acre estate south of Moscow where he planted trees, built schools, endowed libraries and treated thousands of peasants, unpaid.
Chekhov wrote an estimated 8oo short stories, everything from one-page jeux to novellas, only half of which have been translated. "I could write a story about an ash-tray," he said. He invented the modern short story by changing the thrust of the narrative from mere relation of events to the revelation of character through incident.
Chekhov always insisted that his literary skill, his perceptive and penetrating understanding of men and women, was honed by his medical training. He examined the society he found around him, taking samples, studying the specimens in detail, and presenting its truth in brief but vivid moments of human interaction. Chekhov's stories evolved into profound psychological studies of the people of Russia during the last years of the 19th century, to the moment before the Russian revolution exploded. To read Chekhov is to experience the everyday details of history. Though his observations of human behavior are scrupulously honest, his response is not cynicism or sentiment but laughter--ironic and sometimes sad and regretful. But the socially responsible, workaholic, vegetarian doctor always has a twinkle in his eye.
In his later years, Chekhov began to write for the theatre. His first major work, The Sea Gull, explores the theme of what makes a creative artist and introduced a new style of realism to Russian theatre. It was booed off the stage. A few years later, Stanislavski produced Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Moscow Art Theatre with great success and followed it with a revival of The Sea Gull. The principal female role was played by the great actress Olga Kneiper. Well-to-do audiences wept at the existential plight of aristocrats marooned on their estates; Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies; Stanislavski patted him on the head and told him he did not understand what he had written.
As Chekhov's health deteriorated, he moved to the warmer climate of Yalta. In 1901, Three Sisters opened, again featuring Olga Knieper. She and Chekhov were married, in a sanitarium. Forced to spend much time apart, they wrote each other almost daily.
His last short story, The Betrothed (1903), displayed a determination to break with the past and a new hopefulness about the future. On January 17th, 1904, Chekhov's 44th birthday, his last play opened. The Cherry Orchard depicts the twilight of an era; but Chekhov would not live to see the dawn of the next.
In a sanitarium in the Black Forest, the doctor ordered champagne to ease his breathing. As related by Olga, "He picked up his glass, turned to me, smiled his wonderful smile and said, 'It's been a long time since I've had champagne.' He drank it all to the last drop, lay quietly on his left side, was soon silent forever. The stillness was broken only by a huge nocturnal moth, which kept crashing painfully into the light bulbs. Then, the cork flew out of the half-empty champagne bottle with a tremendous noise." A detail of his funeral might have appeared in one of his stories. His body was brought back to Russia in a refrigerated freight car on which was written in large letters, For Carting Fresh Oysters.
After the Bolshevik revolution, the theatres were reopened in Moscow. Seats formerly for the very rich were available free. Now they were occupied by workers whose laughter at the excessive self-pity and boredom of the leisured classes filled the theatre to the rafters.
Today, Chekhov's plays are performed in the Moscow Art Theatre in Stanislavksy's productions, the stage movement and costumes identical to the first performances. Today's audience sees the joke, even when the sentiments expressed, the strategies and self-deceptions employed by those indelible characters, are uncomfortably familiar to our own behavior and we are forced to admit that, ultimately, the joke is on us. Chekhov's ironic sensibility, his constant awareness of the bewildering and apparently senseless complexity of life are tempered with a great affection for all who are trapped on the treadmill of modern civilization.
Chekhov's stories work, not because he expounds a philosophy or recommends a morality but precisely because he does not. Chekhov shows, without comment, people as they are. "Man will only change," he wrote, "when you show him what he is."