Anton Chekhov – Great Russian Writer and Playwright

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (Russian: Антон Павлович Чехов)

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860 - 1904), was a Russian playwright and master of the modern short story. His best plays and short stories have very simple plots, but this simplicity reveals deep emotions and hidden thoughts of the characters creating an unforgettable impression on the readers. Chekhov is regarded as the outstanding representative of the late 19th-century Russian realist school.

Anton Chekhov was born in the Black Sea port of Taganrog. His grandfather used to be a serf, but he managed to purchase his family's freedom. His father Pavel Chekhov owned a grocery shop. Little Chekhov used to spend a lot of time there. He learned to observe the everyday lives of different people and his ability to listen later became one of his most valuable skills as a writer.

Unfortunately, Pavel Chekhov wasn't successful in his business. In 1876, he was declared bankrupt, so he moved with the family to Moscow to make a fresh start. Anton Chekhov stayed in Taganrog to finish his education and supported himself by working as a tutor for younger boys. In 1879, he joined the family and enrolled in the medical school at I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University.

By the time of Anton's graduation in 1884, his father was no longer earning a living. So Anton Chekhov supported his family through his freelance earnings as a journalist and writer of comic sketches. In the same year, the first symptoms of tuberculosis appeared, but Chekhov couldn't afford to stop his work as a physician or make a pause in his writing in order to get treatment.

In 1887, Chekhov took a trip to Ukraine and fell in love with the beauty of the steppe. In 1888, he published his first novel in a leading literary review called Severny Vestnik ("Northern Herald"). The novel described a journey in the Ukraine as seen through the eyes of a child sent away from his family. It was the first among more than 50 stories published in a variety of journals between 1888 and his death in 1904.

End of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was the time when artists and scholars debated the purpose of literature. Some felt that literature should offer "life instructions." Others felt that art should simply exist to please. Chekhov mostly agreed with the latter view. But at some point in this life he became obsessed with an idea of a prison reform. In early 1890, he even took an expedition to a remote island, Sakhalin, which was an imperial Russian penal settlement. Chekhov stayed there for three months, interviewing thousands of convicts and settlers for a census. After his return, he published his findings as a research thesis called The Island of Sakhalin (1893 - 1894).

In 1892, Chekhov bought a country estate in the village of Melikhovo, about 50 miles south of Moscow. He moved there with his parents and his sister Maria. The Melikhovo period was the most fruitful for Chekhov as a short story writer. During those six years, he wrote "The Butterfly," "Neighbors" (1892), "An Anonymous Story" (1893), "The Black Monk" (1894), "Murder," and "Ariadne" (1895). He worked as a doctor, charging poor people nothing for his services. He also took the responsibilities of the landlord very seriously, so he built three schools, a fire station, and a clinic.

In some of his stories of the Melikhovo period, Chekhov attacked the teachings of Leo Tolstoy. He used to be Tolstoy's follower at first, but later Chekhov rejected those doctrines. He illustrated his new view in one particularly outstanding story called "Ward Number Six" (1892). The story pictures an elderly doctor who shows himself nonresistant to evil refusing to do anything in order to change the appalling conditions in the mental ward of which he has charge — only to find himself later a patient of the same ward.

Chayka (The Seagull) is Chekhov's only dramatic work composed during the Melikhovo period. It received a disastrous response on opening night. The audience actually booed during the first act. Fortunately, innovative directors Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko believed in Chekhov's work. Their new approach to drama invigorated audiences. The Moscow Art Theatre restaged The Seagull and it was a triumph.

Soon after, the Moscow Art Theatre, led by Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko, produced the rest of Chekhov's masterpieces: Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1900), and The Cherry Orchard (1904).

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In March 1897 Chekhov suffered a major lung hemorrhage caused by tuberculosis. Chekhov had to sell his Melikhovo estate. He built a villa in Yalta, the Crimean coastal resort. From then on, he spent most of his winters there. Both his plays Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard were written in Yalta. Soon Chekhov had become attracted by a young actress, Olga Knipper, who was starring in his plays. He married her in 1901; the marriage probably marked the only profound love affair of his life. But since his wife continued to pursue her acting career and Chekhov was badly ill, they lived apart during most of the winter months and had no children. In 1904, Chekhov died of tuberculosis in Badenweiler, Germany, where he was together with his wife.

During and after his lifetime, Anton Chekhov was adored throughout Russia. Aside from his beloved stories and plays, he is also remembered as a humanitarian and a philanthropist. However, Chekhov remained largely unknown to the international audience until after World War I when his works were finally translated by Constance Garnett (into English) and others.

One of the first non-Russians to praise Chekhov's plays was George Bernard Shaw, who subtitled his Heartbreak House "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes," and pointed out similarities between the predicament of the British landed class and that of their Russian counterparts as depicted by Chekhov: "the same nice people, the same utter futility."

In the United States, Chekhov's reputation grew together with the influence of Stanislavski's system of acting, with its notion of subtext: "Chekhov often expressed his thought not in speeches," wrote Stanislavski, "but in pauses or between the lines or in replies consisting of a single word ... the characters often feel and think things not expressed in the lines they speak." This subtextual approach to drama influenced many well-known playwrights, actors, and screenwriters.

Alan Twigg, the chief editor and publisher of the Canadian book review magazine BC Bookworld wrote, "One can argue Anton Chekhov is the second-most popular writer on the planet. Only Shakespeare outranks Chekhov in terms of movie adaptations of their work, according to the movie database IMDb. ... We generally know less about Chekhov than we know about mysterious Shakespeare."


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