This article was originally
published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher
Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 349-50.
THE most important dramatist which Russia has so far produced is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), a physician of Moscow who left, besides many fine short stories, a few dramas which are strikingly original. Chekhov combined a naturalistic method with a philosophic mind and a humanitarian gentleness of temper. At least four of his plays -- The Sea Gull, The
Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and The Three Sisters
-- have become widely known throughout the world, particularly
through the interpretation of the Moscow Art Theater players.
The Cherry Orchard is perhaps most typical both of the
author's method and of his success in creating "atmosphere."
The surviving members of an ancient land-holding family come
back from Paris to find that their country place is about to
be sold at auction for debts. A family frient and former peasant,
now a prosperous merchant, suggests that they cut down the cherry
orchard and built little cottages which they can rent out and
thus pay off their debt; but family pride and a general spirit
of procrastination will not permit them to consent to such a
solution. In their natures, sorrow over trouble and levity over
responsibilities are inextricably mixed. They can take nothing
seriously. They argue and talk it all over in their own charming
fashion until finally the house is sold over their heads and
the sound of the axe is heard in the beloved orchard. When they
leave, with characteristic absent-mindedness they accidentally
lock the faithful old servant, Firs, in the empty and abandoned
house. That is all: there is no struggle, nothing that could
technically be called a plot; yet on the stage the representation
is full of suspense and pathos. The author's conception is intense,
though detached. There is no hint of social "problems"
or blame for anybody or any party -- only a tender, acute delineation
of weak, delightful people. Among the naturalists of the theater,
Chekhov and Synge
alone have been able to achieve the classic tragic note. Their
scenes rise out of human experiences, wherein love and tenderness
and family relationships have had their due meed. Especially
with Chekhov does one feel the presence of an understanding heart;
nothing escapes his observation, yet all is rendered with sympathy
The following biography was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 59-60.
Anton Chekhov was born at Taganrog, Russia, in 1860. His early years were spent as assistant to his father, who was a provisions merchant. The youth was from the first a close observer of humanity and continued to be so throughout his life. At the age of seventeen, he wrote a verse tragedy, which he afterward destroyed. Soon after, he entered the University of Moscow for the purpose of studying Medicine; at the same time he was engaged in the writing of short stories, the first of which was published in 1880. He then "secured a position connected with several of the smaller periodicals," and continued to print his stories, which were eminently successful. In 1880 he was graduated and, soon after, devoted himself to the practice of his profession. The year after the publication of his first collection of stories (1887) he was forced, on account of ill-health, to go south. Three years later he became resigned to a life of sickness. For almost the remainder of his years, he made his home in the Crimea, and there wrote five full-length plays, most of which were eventually successful. In 1904, the year of his death, when The Cherry Orchard was produced, Chekhov came to be regarded as a dramatist of the first rank. He died in a little village of the Black Forest, in Germany.
As opposed to the more or less unconscious negligence of dramatic technique observed in the plays of Tolstoy and Gorky, we find in those of Chekhov a deliberate intent to cast off most of the conventions clinging to established forms. This dramatist avoids the obvious struggles, the time-worn commonplaces and well-prepared climaxes that go to the making of most plays; he rather spreads out the canvas for our contemplation, not seeking to enlist our sympathies for individuals, but showing us merely the spectacle of humanity as he sees it. In so far as he succeeds in his attempt, his work becomes art, but because few audiences are able to lend their attention to apparently casual conversation and to the delineation of ordinary characters, his plays can be appreciated only by audiences which are sufficiently educated and interested in these things.