“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” —Anton Chekhov
I had a great teacher, one of many, who used to say that Chekhov was an “impressionist” writer. As such, I believe my teacher meant, that Chekhov was trying to emphasize his own perception of a subject, more than the subject itself. Like an impressionist painting, conveying the “feeling” or the “emotion” of a sunset, more than the exact image of a purple skyline on a landscape.
Chekhov’s subject is the interaction between people and society. A society created by man against itself. Products of the remnants of the Industrial Revolution, the men and women of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s navigated the desperate need to cling to the social and religious mandates that gave them their place in society and life itself. For Russia, the times were particularly confusing and convoluted if you were an aristocrat, who now, had to deal with ex-slaves who had become bourgeois. The rigid structures of nobility life were shaken by a new social class of people, who now interacted in politics and influenced social life. Planting unknowingly, the seeds of socialism, these people believed more in sacrifice and hard work than pedigree and bloodline and shattered the lives of the unprepared upper classes.
Chekhov was a protagonist in the changing russian society and a privileged observer. He knew how to translate the changes of a society emerging into modernity and industrialization with brilliant lucidity and a genius sense of comedic timing and since his “subjects” are human beings, it was through the use of dialogue and silences that he chose to expose these impressions, producing some of the most compelling dramatic pieces in theatre history.
His dramas expose the immense impossibility of the modern man to act upon his desires. His plays are usually set in rural homes, where the characters suffer boredom and monotony, clinging to a way of life that has lost its purpose. They feel like the last cultural stronghold against the vulgarity of modern ways. To expose this, Chekhov was brave enough to present the banality of boredom and ordinary daily life as a dramatic problem and he has been tremendously criticized as well as praised for it.
He defended his style once: “Men eat, sleep, smoke and say banal things, yet, they destroy themselves”.
His dialogues seem to have no purpose or motive, yet they are extremely revealing of the characters emotions and passions.
He revolutionized both theatre and literature by writing stories about people’s inner lives through ordinary conversations, silences and the impossibility to communicate. He examined illusion, disappointment and failed dreams in all of his works, clearly exposing his own disillusions and the heartache of the ones around him, exposing the cruel irony of ordinary living. Chekhov used humor above all to magnify the banality of people’s concerns and the inconsequential details of their lives, as if he wanted to laugh at the inevitable tragedy of human insignificance.
Anton Chekhov was born in a sea village, Taganrog, that influenced his writing and way of life, forever needing the tranquility of the country or a small beach town, but yearning for the excitement of Moscow’s urban life. His family led a privileged life and all the children acquired education, but when his father went bankrupt, part of the family had to flee to Moscow, where they lived in poverty. Anton stayed behind, studying to become a doctor. He received horrifying news about the economic debacle of the family, the country and his mother’s psychological stability. To make ends meet and pay for his education, he tutored and wrote short sketches for the local newspaper, which quickly made him a household name. When he graduated, he joined his family in Moscow, but unlike today (!) he found that he could make very little money as a doctor, compared to the money he was making as a writer, which even allowed him to provide for his whole family.
Although his short stories were celebrated and praised all over Russia, his first play “The Seagull” was a horrendous flop when it opened in 1896 in St Petersburg. Theatre goers and critics booed and scared Chekhov’s confidence as a writer for the rest of his life. He was ready to give up the theatre forever, but a certain theatre director named Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko was impressed and called upon (now) legendary actor/director and teacher Constantin Stanislavsky to give it another try at the new and innovative Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky’s attention to the character’s psychological subtleties not only fascinated Chekhov and revived his interest in the theatre, but also made “The Seagull” a success. “Uncle Vanya”, “The Three Sisters”, “Ivanov” and “The Cherry Orchard” followed, all to great success and earnest artistic pleasure for Stanislavsky and the daring actors of the Moscow Art Theatre. Chekhov would never sit through an opening night ever again, though, afraid of failure and criticism, he awaited feedback isolated in his country house.
The Moscow Art Theatre had changed his professional life but also his personal life. After years of indulging in the pleasures of bachelorhood, dismissing married life as the death of an artist’s development, he met Olga Knipper, The Moscow Art Theatre’s most prominent actress, the first Irina of “The Seagull”. The correspondence between the two reveals a relationship of deep trust, love and respect for each other. Their letters are all addressed with “Dear Writer” or “Dear Actress”. They spent long periods of time apart, while she lived in Moscow attending to her acting career, he wrote his masterpieces in the solitude of the country assisted in household matters by his dedicated sister.
I only found out recently that he was a doctor. After many years of reading him and studying him as one of history’s most innovative writers, I now find the fact that he was a doctor a fascinating detail.
“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other” – A.C
In his letters, one can grasp the inner suffering of Chekhov himself, going through the untimely death of his alcoholic brother, the suicide of several of his friends and the private lives of many of his patients. The sensibility of the writer, made the doctor in him care for his patients beyond their physical symptoms, unknowingly linking psychology with physiology. He suffered for them, for his friends and family.
“A doctor has terrible days and hours. I would not wish them on anyone. Among doctors, it is true that there are ignorant and rude people, as also among writers, engineers and people in general. But these terrible hours and days that I am speaking of only happen to doctors. And for that I say much will be forgiven them. A country wife was carting rye, and tumbled head first off the cart. Smashed herself dreadfully. Concussion of the brain, strain of the neck muscles, vomiting and great pain and so on. They brought her to me. Moans and ohs and ahs. She implores God for death. Yet her eyes are fixed on the peasant who brought her in and she mumbles” “Have done with the lentils, Krylla, thresh them later but get threshing the oats now.” I tell her that talk about oats could be put off for really there’s something of a more serious nature to talk about, but she tells me “He’s got very good oats.” A bustling greedy country wife. Such people find it easy to die.” Anton Chekhov Letters.
Many believe that the real reason why Chekhov wouldn’t marry was because after his first coughing spit with a lung hemorrhage in 1897, being a doctor, he knew that his end was near. In a letter in 1888 he wrote: “I noticed a couple of times that I was bringing up blood, sometimes in large quantities so that I could taste it the whole time and sometimes more slightly. Each winter, autumn, spring and especially when the weather is humid I cough. But all this only frightens me when I see blood. There is something very ominous in the slow trickle of blood from the mouth, seen in the glow from the fire. But when there is no blood I am not worried and do not threaten literature with “yet one more loss.”
He saw his brother die of tuberculosis, a niece and many friends and patients. Long before the invention of the X-ray or antibiotics, people died inevitably of what today is known as TB and for which there is not only a cure, but also a vaccine.
Chekhov spent the last few years of his life traveling to warmer climates, outliving his disease for much longer than anticipated, writing his masterpieces in a race against time. In 1904, while staying at a health spa in Germany the disease caught up. In between coughing blood and a delirious fever, he sat up, drank champagne and told his wife: “I am dying”. Then he turned on his side and passed.
Raymond Carver’s short story “Errand” narrates his death in fascinating and truthful detail. You can read it in The New Yorker Archives June 1st, 1987 issue.
He left behind an impressive body of work, changing playwriting, literature, acting and theatre history forever. His characters, trapped in deep desolation within their silent misfortunes, speak up for his tremendous sensibility and concern for humanity’s role in modernism.
“You often complain to me that people “don’t understand” you. But even Goethe and Newton made no such complaints. Christ did, true, but he was talking about his doctrine, not his ego. People understand you all too well. If you don’t understand yourself, then it’s nobody else’s fault.” Letter to his brother, 1896 .
A good short documentary on Chekhov