Chekhov's Revolutionary Restructuring of the Dramatic

One of the founders of theatrical realism, Anton Chekhov’s radical contribution to theatrical literature is perhaps also the most perpetually misunderstood. Cursory interpretations of his work often lead to blanket statements such as: “His plays create mood,” or “They depict the lifestyle of Russia’s bored provincial elites,” or “Nothing happens in a Chekhov play.”  This grasping for the particular meaning in Chekhov’s project is understandable. Chekhov’s plays have no precedent in the theatrical canon, intent as they are on redefining what can be called “dramatic.”

“The art of writing is the art of contracting,” Chekhov wrote. “I know how to talk briefly about big things.” Chekhov’s plays defiantly lack classical plot structure; there is no Aristotelian arc, no satisfying denouement. His plays disrupt the basic dramaturgical habits of causality: nothing in Three Sisters’ Act One causes anything in Act Two to happen, and the same holds for Acts Three and Four.  Instead of organizing his plays around tightly linked external or physical events, Chekhov aimed to create a detailed, particular, and familiar picture of action playing out on a life-sized scale—representative moments spread over time that chart the journeys from optimism to understanding that many of his characters inevitably make. Two-hour plays that hold whole lives. Plays that talk briefly about big things.

A compulsive observer of human behavior, Chekhov was obsessed with creating characters and situations that were fiercely realistic, experiencing their lives without crests and plunges, where emotional action and inner turmoil reign supreme. These characters’ language is colloquial and provisional—they speak in fragments and double back on themselves. The dialogue is subtext-heavy, full of shadows; characters make implicit confessions of sorrow, as in Irina’s “I’ve forgotten everything. I can’t remember the Italian word for window or ceiling… every day I forget more and more.”  As translator Paul Schmidt observed of Chekhov’s linguistic strategies, “Silences of missed opportunity, the nonsense phrase that suddenly seems laden with meaning, the jealousies and envies and despairs that drive people to drink instead of expressing their feelings—all are revealed in an increasingly fragmentary language.”

The significant physical events of Chekhov’s major plays take place offstage—a muffled gunshot standing in for a duel. And when a potential moment for melodrama raises its head, the play acknowledges it only to move pointedly past it, as when an illicit affair in Three Sisters is confirmed only once and goes unaddressed by every other character on stage. Instead Chekhov’s work deals in what actor and teacher Stella Adler called “indirect action”—rather than follow the consequences of the events that would anchor the melodramas of Chekhov’s day, Chekhov’s characters react to action going on elsewhere, often within their own hopes, anxieties, and embarrassment.

In another telling contrast to the dramaturgical engine of nineteenth century popular drama, Chekhov refuses to characterize his characters in terms of success or failure. His late tragicomedies don’t hinge on outcomes, solutions, successes or failures, blame or innocence. Instead, these plays chart their characters’ psychology in shades, without the villains or heroes of the popular stage. Characters may do things that other characters, or even the audience, don’t like, but their motivations are in place, and empathy is always, if infuriatingly, possible. Scholar Richard Gilman locates much of Chekhov’s revolutionary power in this refusal to offer a thesis on behavior or morality, writing, “It isn’t too much to say that no playwright after Shakespeare did more than Chekhov to give drama that fertile indefiniteness, the sense of values behind values, by which consciousness is made to expand.”

This is why Chekhov has endured as a paragon of masterful, intimate, and altogether revolutionary playwriting; The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard subvert centuries of dramatic conventions with their unpredictable narrative arcs, minimal physical action, language that approaches feelings sideways, and morally ambiguous characters. In exchange, he captures something of the confusion and glory of the feeling of being an imperfect person in an imperfect time. As critic Wendy Smith writes, “Chekhov invites us to be tolerant and accepting, to see the inevitability of change, but to understand that it brings loss as well as gain. His characters can be foolish, selfish, oblivious, wrongheaded, even hurtful, but their longings and loneliness are so evident, we can’t help but love them.”