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ANTON CHEKHOV (1860-1904)

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 and pity.

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.