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Stories, Poems and Humor
Left Book Author Profile
Chekhov, Anton
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Chekhov, Anton

At Christmas Time [Stories]



Biography

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (An-TOHN PAH-vloh-vich CHEH-khoff) (b. January 29, 1860 in Taganrog, Russia - d. July 14 or July 15, 1904 in Badenweiler, Germany), major Russian playwright and master of the modern short story.


Life


He qualified as a doctor in 1884 although he rarely practised. In his hundreds of stories and novellas, which he wrote while practicing medicine, Chekhov adopts something of a clinical approach to ordinary life.


After a successful production of The Seagull by the Moscow Art Theatre, he wrote three more plays for the same company: Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. In 1901 he married Olga Leonardovna Knipper (1870-1959), an actress who performed in his plays.


The movement toward Naturalism in theatre that was sweeping Europe reached its highest artistic peak in Russia in 1898 with the formation of the Moscow Art Theatre (later called the Moscow Academy Art Theatre). Its name became synonymous with that of Chekhov, whose plays about the day-to-day life of the landed gentry achieved a delicate poetic realism that was years ahead of its time. Konstantin Stanislavsky, its director, became the 20th century's most influential theorist on acting.


Chekhov visited western Europe in the company of A.S. Suvorin, a wealthy newspaper proprietor and the publisher of much of Chekhov's own work. Their long and close friendship caused Chekhov some unpopularity, owing to the politically reactionary character of Suvorin's newspaper, Novoye vremya ("New Time"). Eventually Chekhov broke with Suvorin over the attitude taken by the paper toward the notorious Alfred Dreyfus affair in France, with Chekhov championing Dreyfus.


Chekhov died of tuberculosis and is now buried in Novodevichy Cemetery.


Assessment


Anton Chekhov was Russia's, and perhaps the world's, foremost story writer. He was also a pioneering dramatist whose four last plays (The Seagull, The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard) are the opposite of conventionally dramatic, depending for their impact (as do his stories) on hints and cunning anticlimaxes.


Late in the 19th century Anton Chekhov revolutionized the short story. No other storywriter so consistently as Chekhov turned out first-rate works. Though often compared to Guy de Maupassant, Chekhov is much less interested in constructing a well-plotted story; nothing much actually happens in Chekhov's stories, though much is revealed about his characters and the quality of their lives. While Maupassant focuses on event, Chekhov keeps his eye on character.


The typical Chekhovian story has little external plot. The point of the story is most often found in what happens within a given character, and that is conveyed indirectly, by suggestion or by significant detail. It is often said that nothing happens in Chekhov's stories and plays, but he compensates for any lack of outward excitement by his original techniques for developing internal drama. His main themes are work and love, but his characters find lasting satisfaction in neither activity. His younger characters are usually portrayed as victims of illusion, the older ones as victims of disillusionment. The passage of time is a constant preoccupation, as are the trivialities of life and the desultory and unsuccessful search for its meaning.


Especially noteworthy amongst his stories are "Skuchnaya istoriya" (written 1889; "A Dreary Story"), "Duel" (written 1891; "The Duel"), "Palata No. 6" (written 1892; "Ward Number Six"), "Kryzhovnik" (written 1898; "Gooseberries"), "Dushechka" (written 1899; "The Darling"), "Dama s sobachkoy" (written 1899; "The Lady with the Lap Dog"), "Arkhiyerey" (written 1902; "The Bishop"), and "Nevesta" (written 1903; "The Betrothed").


Stories like "The Grasshopper" (1892), "The Darling" (1898), and "In the Ravine" (1900)--to name only three--all reveal Chekhov's perception, his compassion, and his subtle humour and irony. One critic says of Chekhov that he is no moralist--he simply says "you live badly, ladies and gentlemen," but his smile has the indulgence of a very wise man.


As samples of the Russian epistolary art, Chekhov's letters have been rated second only to Aleksandr Pushkin's by the literary historian D.S. Mirsky. Although Chekhov is still chiefly known for his plays, critical opinion shows signs of establishing the stories--and particularly those that were written after 1888--as an even more significant and creative literary achievement.


In his dramatic works Chekhov sought to convey the texture of everyday life, moving away from traditional ideas of plot and conventions of dramatic speech. Dialogue in his plays is not smooth or continuous: characters interrupt each other, several different conversations often take place at the same time, and lengthy pauses occur when no one speaks at all. His plays commonly feature the struggle of a sensitive individual to maintain his integrity against the temptations of worldly success. A recurring theme is the pointlessness of radical, human/mechanical change, versus the powerful inertia of slow natural/organic cycles.


One of the actors once told Chekhov that Stanislavsky intended to have frogs croaking, the sound of dragonflies, and dogs barking on the stage. "Why?" Chekhov asked with a note of dissatisfaction in his voice. "It is realistic," the actor replied. "Realistic," Chekhov repeated with a laugh, and after a slight pause he said: "The stage is art. There is a canvas of Kranskoi (a famous Russian painter) in which he wonderfully depicts human faces and substituted a real one. The nose will be realistic but the picture will be spoiled."


"The stage reflects in itself the quintessence of life, so one must not introduce on it anything that is superfluous," he said.


Chekhov disliked Symbolist drama and Konstantin's play parodies it in The Seagull. All the same, he confessed that one of his great influences was Maeterlink. And then there was Ibsen: without The Wild Duck (one of Chekhov's favorite plays) The Seagull would not be as it is, indeed perhaps would not exist at all.


Influence


Though already celebrated by the Russian literary public at the time of his death, Chekhov did not become internationally famous until the years after World War I, by which time the translations of Constance Garnett (into English) and of others had helped to publicize his work. Yet his elusive, superficially guileless style of writing--in which what is left unsaid often seems so much more important than what is said--has defied effective analysis by literary critics, as well as effective imitation by creative writers


Chekhov's plays were immensely popular in England in the 1920s and have become classics of the British stage. In the United States his fame came somewhat later, through the influence of Stanislavsky's technique for achieving realistic acting. American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Clifford Odets have used Chekhovian techniques, and few important writers of short stories in the 20th century can have escaped Chekhov's influence entirely.


The work by British playwright Michael Frayn is often compared to that of Anton Chekhov for its focus on humorous family situations and its insights into society. Frayn also translated and adapted several plays by Chekhov.


The delicate stories by Katherine Mansfield New Zealand-born English master of the short story reveal the influence of Anton Chekhov.


John Cheever has been called "the Chekhov of the suburbs" for his ability to capture the drama and sadness of the lives of his characters by revealing the undercurrents of apparently insignificant events.


Vivien Leigh ended her career in triumph in the 1966 in New York staging in Anton Chekhov's play Ivanov.


Vanessa Redgrave appeared as Nina in Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull (1968).


German theater director Peter Stein, the artistic director of the politically radical Berlin Schaubühne, included in his final productions for the Schaubühne Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters (1984).


French film director Louis Malle's last film, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), follows a rehearsal in New York City of Uncle Vanya, a play by Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov. Starring the same two principle actors of My Dinner with André, Vanya on 42nd Street blurs the distinction between life and theatrical performance.


British stage and motion picture actor Sir Anthony Hopkins directed, scored, and starred in 1996 the film August, an adaptation of the play Uncle Vanya.


The American theater critic and educator Robert Brustein has adapted numerous plays, including works by Chekhov and Ibsen.


The Russian film director Nikita Sergeevich Mikhalkov made Dark Eyes (1987) in Italy with Marcello Mastroianni, based on the short stories by Anton Chekhov, a writer who has deeply influenced him.


Master of the short story, the British author Victor Sawdon Pritchett's short stories are prized for their craftsmanship and comic irony and have been compared to those of Anton Chekhov.


Playwright and character actor Wallace Shawn has played in the film made from the Anton Chekhov play Vanya on 42d Street (1994), where he played Vanya.


The versatile American actor Kevin Spacey played in plays by Chekhov.


Belgian-born American playwright Jean Claude Van Italliehas also adapted works by Chekhov and other Russian writers in English dramatic versions.


Lanford Wilson is one of the most prolific playwrights in contemporary American theater. His version of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters was produced in New York City in 1997.




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