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Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov grew up in the Russian town of Taganrog. He spent much of his childhood quietly sitting in his father's fledgling grocery store. He watched the customers and listened to the their gossip, their hopes, and their complaints. Early on, he learned to observe the everyday lives of humans. His ability to listen would become one of his most valuable skills as a storyteller.
His father, Paul Chekhov, grew up in an impoverished family. Anton's grandfather was actually a serf in Czarist Russia, but through hard work and thriftiness, he purchased his family's freedom. Young Anton's father became a self-employed grocer, but the business never prospered and eventually fell apart.
Monetary woes dominated Chekhov's childhood. As a result, financial conflicts are prominent in his plays and fiction.
Despite economic hardship, Chekhov was a talented student. In 1879, he left Taganrog to attend medical school in Moscow. At this time, he felt the pressure of being the head of the household. His father was no longer earning a living. Chekhov needed a way to make money without abandoning school. Writing stories provided a solution.
He began writing humorous stories for local newspapers and journals. At first the stories paid very little. However, Chekhov was a quick and prolific humorist. By the time he was in his forth year of medical school, he had caught the attention of several editors. By 1883, his stories were earning him not only money but notoriety.
Chekhov's Literary Purpose
As a writer, Chekhov did not subscribe to a particular religion or political affiliation. He wanted to satirize not preach. At the time, 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. For the most part, Chekhov agreed with the latter view.
"The artist must be, not the judge of his characters and of what they say, but merely a dispassionate observer." -- Anton Chekhov
Chekhov the Playwright
Because of his fondness for dialogue, Chekhov felt drawn to the theatre. His early plays such as Ivanov and The Wood Demon artistically dissatisfied him. In 1895 he began working on a rather original theatrical project: The Seagull. It was a play that defied many of the traditional elements of common stage productions. It lacked plot and it focused on many interesting yet emotionally static characters.
In 1896 The Seagull received a disastrous response on opening night. The audience actually booed during the first act. Fortunately, innovative directors Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danechenko believed in Chekhov's work. Their new approach to drama invigorated audiences. The Moscow Art Theatre restaged The Seagull and created a triumphant crowd-pleaser.
Soon after, the Moscow Art Theatre, led by Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danechenko, produced the rest of Chekhov's masterpieces:
- Uncle Vanya (1899)
- The Three Sisters (1900)
- The Cherry Orchard (1904)
Chekhov's Love Life
The Russian storyteller played with themes of romance and marriage, but throughout most of his life he did not take love seriously. He had occasional affairs, but he did not fall in love until he met Olga Knipper, an up-and-coming Russian actress. They were very discreetly married in 1901.
Olga not only starred in Chekhov's plays, she also deeply understood them. More than anyone in Chekhov's circle, she interpreted the subtle meanings within the plays. For example, Stanislavski thought The Cherry Orchard was a "tragedy of Russian life." Olga instead knew that Chekhov intended it to be a "gay comedy," one that almost touched upon farce.
Olga and Chekhov were kindred spirits, though they did not spend much time together. Their letters indicate that they were very affectionate to one another. Sadly, their marriage would not last very long, due to Chekhov's failing health.
Chekhov's Final Days
At the age of 24, Chekhov began showing signs of tuberculosis. He tried to ignore this condition; however by his early 30s his health had deterorated beyond denial.
When The Cherry Orchard opened in 1904, tuberculosis had ravaged his lungs. His body was visibly weakened. Most of his friends and family knew the end was near. Opening night of The Cherry Orchard became a tribute filled with speeches and heartfelt thanks. It was their was of saying goodbye to Russia's greatest playwright.
On July 14th, 1904, Chekhov stayed up late working on yet another short story. After going to bed, he suddenly awoke and summoned a doctor. The physician could do nothing for him but offer a glass of champagne. Reportedly, his final words were, "It's a long time since I drank champagne." Then, after drinking the beverage, he died
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. While living in the country, he often attended to the medical needs of the local peasants. Also, he was renowned for sponsoring local writers and medical students.
His literary work has been embraced throughout the world. While many playwrights create intense, life-or-death scenarios, Chekhov's plays offer everyday conversations. Readers cherish his extraordinary insight into the lives of the ordinary.
Malcolm, Janet, Reading Chekhov, a Critical Journey, Granta Publications, 2004 edition.
Miles, Patrick (ed), Chekhov on the British Stage, Cambridge University Press, 1993.