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A CurtainUp Feature: Playwrights
An Overview of Anton Checkov's Career
By Elyse Sommer
Trademarks Of Chekhov's Plays
Links to Reviews and Books
Chekhov was born in 1860 and died in 1904.
While the leading characters in his plays come from the upper social strata, his own background is quite another story. His grandfather was a serf who by dint of hard toil purchased the family's freedom. Chekhov's father rose to the lower middle class by virtue of owning a general store with its profits garnered from short-changing and short-weighting the customers. He was also a despot and brutal disciplinarian subjecting his son to a miserable childhood and the rigors of a rigid religious education.
When the Chekhov family moved to Moscow, young Anton was left behind, not rejoining the family until he was nineteen and enrolled in medical school. He became a doctor in 1884, at age twenty-four. Contrary to current economics, having a medical practice was hardly the stuff of a good income. Chekhov writing was thus not an avocation supported by his medical practice but undertaken to make money. He continued to involve himself in worthy health projects throughout his life, however; for example, he organized famine relief, supervised cholera centers and education programs for peasants. His approach to these medical causes was that of the doctor who must keep his emotions in check in order to be an effective practitioner; in short, he was sympathetic but emotionally detached. This is something to bear in mind for those seeking social messages in his plays. It was being a doctor as well as an artist which no doubt influenced his characterizations. He presented his characters non-judgmentally, sympathetically but without championing any as heroes or denouncing others as villains. His being a doctor as well as an artist no doubt also contributed towards this compassionate portrayal of his characters.
His dual life seemed to suit him, as evidenced by a much quoted comment: Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity. Even some of our more prolific current writers of genre novels would be hard put to match his enormous output which consisted of some 600-800 tales, novellas and plays. He gained recognition quite early (by age 28)..
His many non-dramatic writings notwithstanding, Chekhov was not a short story writer who later became a dramatist. He wrote his first full length play while still in high school and was only twenty-seven when his his first major play, Ivanov, was performed in 1887. It was written on request for a full length play by the Moscow Art Theater. While it did not create much of a stir the first time around, it did meet with considerable success when it resurfaced in St. Petersburg later that same year. A really fully realized production by the Moscow Art Theater did not come until 1904, after the playwright's death.
November 19, 1997 Addendum: According to the program notes for the Lincoln Center Production, the actor playing Ivanov's uncle got all his lines wrong in Act One. In Act Two the drunken party guests were in fact drunk and the ensuing improvisation and knocking about of furniture sent Chekhov off vowing never again to have anything to do with the theater.
While Ivanov, with its pistol shot denouement, was probably the most melodramatic of his dramatic works, it did embody many of the trademarks (see below) of his later and more mature work. Its psychological portrait of a man whose inner conflicts are on a collision course with the external pressures of life may well make the Lincoln Center revival one whose time has come
Lines like Ivanov's angry "Shut up you Jew!" to his wife during a marital confrontation contributed to the common sentiment that Chekhov was an anti-Semite. Yet he vigorously defended Zola in the famous Dreyfus case. On a similar note, accusations that he was unsympathetic to the lower classes should be tempered by the fact that he did satirize the gentry.
The actress Olga Kipper, who played Irena in The Sea Gull (in 1896), later became Madame Chekhov. Their marriage was marked by separation, with her spending time in Moscow performing while he was increasingly in Yalta for his health (he contracted and died from tuberculosis).
On the night that The Cherry Orchard opened in January of 1904 Chekhov hardly had strength to stand through the ovation he received. He died in July of that year
The Trademarks Of Chekhov's Plays
Chekhov's plays are populated largely by the disappointed gentry of the 80's and 90's. These are people who could not adjust to the new, repressive form of life. They tend to be alienated from their erstwhile isolated grandeur and to feel pessimistic about a future they may have dreamed about in the 60s and 70's but but which now seem hopelessly unattainable.
Chekhov's reputation rests on his realism. Except for the climactic ending of each act in Ivanov, (especially the last one), the plays gain their tension and drama from the subtexts of people dispossessed of home, ideals, vigor and love. His realism derives from his portraits of his characters' lives in all their daily minutia.
The "action scenes" in a Chekhov play tend to take the form of arrivals and departures. The bustling arrivals provide a perfect dramatic means for bringing all the characters together and filling in the details of their lives. The Cherry Orchard, for example, begins with the gaiety surrounding Ranevskaya's arrival ends with a melancholy thud at her departure.
Chekhovian dialogue is similar to counterpoint in music. Characters talk from within the shell of their own miseries. They talk more at than to each other so that we have conversations where no one seems to be listening to anyone but themselves..
Chekhov was a great sound effects artist, though the most typically symbolic sounds are off-stage. In The Cherry Orchard , for example, the distant sound of the axes against the trees and the "Jewish orchestra" playing at the mock ball underscore the emotions coming to the fore on the stage.
Nature and Time's passing are also strong symbolic presences in Chekhov territory. Blooming trees bring a synchronous blossoming of childhood memories. Announcements relating to the passing of time are everywhere. We hear what time of day it is, what month and of course about how fast time is passing (and leaving these characters behind?).
Chekhov: As a "Message" Dramatist
Unlike Arthur Miller, whose plays are a platform for his strong social consciousness, Chekhov was an observer, without any particular or consistent political or religious philosophy. He dramatized what he saw, without making any judgments or expecting to effect any social changes. It's up to the audience to make what it will of the human canvas he spreads before them.
Links to Reviews and Books
The Black Monk— chamber opera adaptation of Checkhov's story of the same name. (Off-Broadway 2008)
Chekhov plays reviewed and on file:
Four One-Acts at Shakespeare & Co. (Berkshires, 2003)
The Coffee Trees, Arthur Giron adaptation of The Cherry Orchard(Off-Broadway 2007) The Cherry Orchard (Classic Stage 2011)
The Cherry Orchard (London -National Theater 2011)
The Cherry Orchard(Bridge Project 2009)
The Cherry Orchard (Los Angeles 2006)
The Cherry Orchard (Los Angeles 2006)
The Cherry Orchard (Off-Broadway 2005)
The Cherry Orchard (Williamstown Theatre Festival 2004)
The Cherry Orchard (London 2003)
The Cherry Orchard (Moscow Sovremennik Theatre Company)
The Cherry Orchard/Chekhov (London)
The Cherry Orchard/Chekhov (Pearl Theatre)
Reviews from the Chekhov Now Festival--2002
A Vanya Double Bill that includes a gender switch
Chekhov Getting His Due (covering several Chekhov Festivals)
Four Of a Kind (one-acts, Berkshires
Ivanov (London 2002) Ivanov (London 2008)
Ivanov (Classic State 2012)
Oh! Mr. Chekhov! -- part of Shakespeare & Company's Wharton One-Acts 2000, adapted from incidents in The Undiscovered Chekhov: Thirty-Eight New Stories by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, translated by Peter Considine
The Harmfulness of Tobacco --presented as a curtain raiser for a Christopher Fry play
The Notebook of Trigorin '. a "free adaptation" of Chekhov's The Seagullby Tennessee Williams (DC)
The Seagull/Thomas Kilroy adaptation (Off-Broadway2013)
The Seagull(Los Angeles Deaf West)
The Seagull: A Comedy in 4 Acts (NAATCO National Asian American Theatre Company) br> The Seagull (2008)
The Seagull. Sir Peter Hall's London production of a new Tom Stoppard translation was part of Joe Green's July 1997 London roundup article
A Seagull in the Hamptons/ (McCarter/New Jersey 2008)
The Seagull: The Hamptons: 1990(adaptation)
The Seagull (2001 Central Park)
The Seagull (Blue Lights Company
The Seagull (BAM 2007)
The Seagull(Pearl Theatre Co. March 1999)
The Seagull (London 2006)
The Seagull (Broadway 2008)
The Seagull (Classic Stage 2008)
Three Sisters (Philadelphia 2014)
Three Sisters (New version by Sarah Ruhl at Yale Repertory)
Three Sisters(Classic Stage New York 2011)
The Three Sisters (Williamstown Theatre Festival 2008)
The Three Sisters (London -- National August 2003)
The Three Sisters (London 2003)
The Three Sisters (CSC--On the Verge series, 2005)
The Three Sisters (La Mama production 1997)
The Three Sisters (Roundabout Production 1997 )
The Three Sistersat the Brooklyn Academy of Music 1997
3 Sisters on Hope Street-Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman after Anton Chekhov (London 2008)
Three Sisters, Hope Despair and Vodka/ Chekhov(London 2010)
Three Sisters (Classical Theater of Harlem 2009)
Vers La Flammr,a theater dance piece based on Chekhov stories
Uncle Vanya /Anton Chekhov, Robert Icke (London 2016)
Uncle Vanya (2014 Pearl Theater)
Uncle Vanya(Vaudeville Theatgre, London 2012)
Uncle Vanya(SoHo Rep 2012)
Uncle Vanya (London-PrintRoom 2012)
Uncle Vanya(Off-Broadway-Target Margin 2012)
Uncle Vanya (Sydney Theatre Company' at the Kennedy Center in DC)
Uncle Vanya(Off-Broadway 2010)
Uncle Vanya (CSC-Off Broadway 2009)
Uncle Vanya (Barrington Stage 2007)
Uncle Vanya (London, Mamet adaptation 2007)
Uncle Vanya (London-Bite 2005)
Uncle VanyaRoundabout production with Derek Jacobi
Uncle Vanya (Jean Cocteau off-Broadway)
Uncle Vanya Donmar Warehouse production
Uncle Vanya reviewed in Les Gutman's December DC Report
Uncle Vanya (London, and touring 2008)
Uncle Jack Jeff Cohen's rewritten version of Uncle Vanya
Vers Flamme --a dance adaptation of 5 Chekov stories by Martha Clarke
Visit our book store for a recommended anthology that includes all the plays we've reviewed and a brand-new biography by Donald Rayfield -- The CurtainUp/Amazon Book Store
Chekhov's plays are studded with quotable dialogue. Following are some pronouncements by leading characters in the much produced The Three Sisters. For additional quotes from that play see our Quotes From Past and Present Plays
I often wonder what it would be like if we could begin our lives over again. . .as if the life we'd already lived were just a rough draft and we could begin all over again with the final copy. . . If that happened I think the thing we'd all want most would be not to repeat ourselves.
--Vershinin, Act 1. Vershinin, a family friend and eventually the middle sister Masha's lover, is thinking about his own unhappy marriage. For the sisters a new beginning would mean leaving the provincial town where they've been trapped for eleven long and frustrating years and returning to the more culturally stimulating life of Moscow.
After we're dead, people will fly in balloons, fashions will change, the sixth sense will be discovered, and for all I know, even be developed and used. . .But life itself won't be very different; it will still be mysterious, always difficult, yet filled with happiness. And in a thousand years people will still sight and complain 'How hard life is!'--and yet they'll still be afraid of death and unwilling to dies, just as they are now
--Tusenbach, Act 2 when the sisters and the various players in the drama are assembled. Vershinin has announced his desire for tea, adding "Well, if we can't have any tea,let's philosophize a bit, anyway"--and it is in the course of this "philosophizing" that the baron who repeatedly announces his desire to experience real work, makes the above statement. While the advances we now anticipate are different, the essence of what he says remains true.
When you read a novel, everything in it seems too trite and obvious. It's so understandable--but when you fall in love yourself, you suddenly discover that no one really knows anything, and you've got to make your own choices
--Masha, Act 3, after she's come to realize that the man she married at 18 was good but not brilliant, has just confessed her affair with Vershinin to her sisters.
Oh where has it gone?--What's become of my past when I was young and gay and clever, when I had beautiful dreams and was full of ideas, and the present and the future were bright with hope? Why do we become so dull, so ordinary, so uninteresting, almost before we've begun to live?
--Andrey, in the leitmotiv cry of the tragic story of dreams shattered in part by external circumstances and in part by characteristic weaknesses.
Whether presented true to the original text or modernized, Uncle Vanya remains one of Chekhov's most popular examples of how closely he allied tears and laughter. Theater buffs can rattle off at least four or five memorable Vanyas they've seen and quote many of it's quotable passages.
I've not lived, not lived, I tell you. Thanks to you the best years of my life have been thrown down the drain. --Vanya, in his outburst at the brother-in-law who not only never thanked him for maintaining the estate he inherited from his wife, Vanya's dead sister, but wasting his loyalty on an intellectual fraud. Here's an Americanized, updated rendition of that speech from Jeff Cohen's Uncle Jack: You ruined my life you sonuvabitch! I am just as gifted as you -- just as intelligent. I'd send you my short stories and you'd give me your phony praise because you knew I'd keep sending you your goddam checks. But you also filled me with false hopes because you knew that if I was published I would eclipse you! Deny it! Go ahead -- deny it! You told me I wrote like Cheever. Like Mailer. I BELIEVED YOU! --Jonathan "Jack" Vaughn.
And you and I, Uncle dear, shall behold a life which is bright and beautiful and splendid. We shall rejoice and look back on our present misfortunes with feelings of tenderness, with a smile. And we shall find peace. We shall, Uncle, I believe it with all my heart and soul. We shall find peace. -- the finale in which Sonya, the plain niece who clings to her belief that she and her disillusioned idealist Uncle Vanya will find peace. Chekhov made the following statement after finishing his first play, Ivanov which he rewrote frequently butwith which he never felt wholly satisfied. The quote appeared in David Hare's introduction to his adaptation of the play opening at Lincoln Center 11/20/97. ( Our Review):
I've tried to be original. I have not introduced a single villain or a single angel (though I haven't been able to abstain from fools); nor have I accused or vindicated anyone. Whether or not I've succeeded I can't tell. Korsh and the actors are sure the play will work. I'm not so sure. The actors don't understand it and say the most ridiculous things, they're badly miscast. I'm constantly at war with them Had I known I'd never have gotten involved with it.
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