Meet Anton Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in 1860 in the small port town of Taganrog, Russia, where he lived until he was 19. He worked in his family’s dry goods shop until his father’s bankruptcy prompted their move to Moscow, which left Anton to complete his schooling in Taganrog alone. He rejoined his family to attend Moscow University, becoming a medical doctor as well as the main breadwinner of the family. During his first years in medical school, Chekhov began to write short satiric character sketches for journals and magazines. His output at this time was staggering; it would greatly outnumber his later, more “serious” work. These sketches gained a mass following, and as he began to turn his attention to short stories—he is considered a master of the form—as well as non-fiction and drama, humor remained a foundational element in his work.

His early plays were short farces. Although his first two full-length plays are not considered the equal to his final four, both Ivanov (1887) and The Wood Demon (1889) found Chekhov experimenting with the mix of comedy and disappointment that he would perfect in the plays widely considered his masterpieces: The Seagull (1895), Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). The premiere of The Seagull in 1896 was panned by audiences. Devastated, Chekhov refused performances of his work until Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko of the Moscow Art Theatre convinced him to let the theatre revive The Seagull in 1898. Under the direction of Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky—and in spite of creative differences between the playwright and the directors—the production was a resounding success.

This relationship would be the most fruitful collaboration of his career. All of Chekhov’s future plays received productions at the Moscow Art Theatre, where Stanislavsky developed his now world-famous acting method, focusing on subtext, living in the character, and non-declamatory delivery of text. This revolutionary style of acting was well-suited to Chekhov’s experiments in capturing the texture of life as he experienced it. Despite this artistic synergy, Chekhov was never entirely satisfied with Stanislavsky’s interpretation of his work. He was continually frustrated by heavy, overburdened performances, as Chekhov insisted that his plays were innately comic, requiring a lightness and humor that seemed to contradict the content. “What happens on stage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life,” said Chekhov, “People are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.”

Though his health started to deteriorate in 1897, Chekhov continued to write in multiple genres and participate actively in rehearsals. Despite his literary celebrity, he remained active in his community, building schools and hospitals, digging wells, organizing aid during famine and cholera epidemics, and practicing medicine (“Medicine is my lawful wife,” he wrote in 1888, “and literature is my mistress.”) He loved the country and nature, but often longed for society and movement, especially when his poor health made it impossible to travel to Moscow. Uncle Vanya, which he had published in 1898, premiered in 1899, though Chekhov was too ill to attend. Three Sisters premiered in 1901, the same year he married Olga Knipper, an actress who was the first Masha at Moscow Art Theatre. The Cherry Orchard, his final work, premiered in 1904, and he died seven months later, at age 44.

Though he was already a celebrated literary figure in Russia, Chekhov gained international fame when his work was translated into English by Constance Garnett in 1916, and later, when his complete works and letters were compiled and published in 1944. Chekhov's short stories changed the genre, capturing the paradoxes of human behavior with sparseness, humor, and deep humanity. This vision likewise revolutionized dramatic literature in Chekhov’s time and ever since—Chekhov’s influence is clear in the work of Amy Herzog, Richard Nelson, Amy Baker, and Rachel Bonds, among generations of others.

Chekhov’s image of human foibles in their oddities and resilience endure because they feel familiar, generous, and so very true. As Paul Schmidt writes in the introduction to his translation of Chekhov’s plays: “…if any one author ever had a sense of the human comedy, the heartbreaking ridiculousness of our everyday behavior, it was Chekhov.”

Taylor Gaines