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Anton Chekhov: A man out of his time

Anton Chekhov transformed theatre. But many critics and audiences of his era were not so enamoured by the change, writes CHARLIE CONNELLY

Anton Chekhov, in the centre, reads a script to actors from the Moscow State Art Theatre in 1898 - Credit: Getty Images

“The Glasgow Repertory Theatre Company have again rendered a good service to the dramatic art in producing this example of a Russian playwright’s work,” said the theatrical trade paper the Era in November 1909, “though it is unlikely that the play could, in any circumstances, become popular”.

The play was the first performance in Britain of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, now one of the most performed and best-loved works in the stage repertoires of these islands. Two years later The Cherry Orchard, arguably Chekhov’s masterpiece, was performed in London for the first time.

“Queer, outlandish and silly,” was the verdict of the Times. “The players did their best; it was not their fault that the entertainment was not entertaining.”

These were not opinions based entirely on parochialism or cultural differences either. Much of the first Russian performance of The Seagull in St Petersburg in 1896 was all but drowned out by booing and heckling. Vera Komissarzhevskaya, playing Nina, lost her voice trying to make herself heard over the din.

His plays and his masterful short stories are widely performed, read and enjoyed today but Anton Chekhov was in many ways a man out of his time. Where 19th century theatre audiences had been used to plays with a solid narrative performed by actors declaiming their lines with expansive gestures, Chekhov’s work required a more subtle, natural delivery.

Rather than lead the audience through a story Chekhov set out to create a mood. He had no desire to dictate themes or push a political or philosophical agenda. Chekhov’s was work to ponder, slices of life and character that required a little more input than just reading or watching. During his lifetime this approach made Chekhov the target of hostile criticism, often from people frustrated that he defied convenient pigeonholing and couldn’t be placed within a particular school of political thought or philosophy.

“It doesn’t seem to me that it is the job of writers of fiction to decide questions like God, pessimism etc,” he wrote to his lifelong friend Alexei Suvorin. “The writer’s task is only to describe those who have said or thought something about God and pessimism; how, and in what circumstances. The artist should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.”

It was an original approach that may have baffled some, but Chekhov went on to become one of the most influential writers in world literature. Not only that, he changed both the theatre and the art of the short story forever.

If his work didn’t fit neatly among that of his contemporaries, Chekhov himself was a very different character from the other great pre-revolution writers in Russia. He never fought a duel, didn’t become a spiritual guru living a life of conspicuous abstinence and certainly didn’t emerge from the privileged ranks of the nobility (his father was a bankrupt grocer).

He might have become one of the greatest fictional portraitists of the human condition but he only began writing in earnest in order to earn extra cash, selling jokes and vignettes to newspapers and periodicals rather than feverishly scribbling away at gigantic novels.

Even when he died at a Black Forest health spa in 1904 after many years of ill health there was no grand ceremony, despite his fame. His body was taken back to Russia in a goods van marked ‘Fresh Oysters’ and, in a turn of events that could have been drawn from one of his own stories, Chekhov’s funeral cortege became swamped by that of a highly decorated general. Some mourners ended up following the wrong hearse. It was all part of the appealing unashamed ordinariness of Anton Chekhov, a facet of his character contemporaries found irresistible.

“In the presence of Anton Pavlovich everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself,” said Maxim Gorky.

Chekhov grew up in Taganrog, close to the Black Sea, the son of an abusive father who combined vicious beatings of his children at home with a fanatical brand of Christian piety in public. Hypocrites would go on to feature strongly in Chekhov’s fiction as the adult writer sought to process a traumatic childhood. The trauma remained vivid, however.

“Despotism and lies destroyed our own childhood, so much so that we become sick and fearful when we remember it,” he wrote to his brother years later.

When his father took the family to Moscow to escape creditors, 16-year-old Anton stayed behind, funding himself by writing satirical stories and aphorisms for magazines under a range of pseudonyms.

“I was born, grew up, went to school and began to write in an atmosphere in which money played a shockingly major role,” he recalled of his early literary activity. “I attempted to write anything except novels, poetry and denunciations.”

He secured a scholarship to study medicine in Moscow and once qualified began practising as a physician, still churning out his daily gags and snippets in his spare time. Writing made up a vital part of his income: where most of his medical contemporaries aspired to cosy general practice treating the wealthy of Moscow or St Petersburg Chekhov was determined to work among the poor, usually for free when his patients had no means to pay. Medicine, he said of this period, was his wife, literature his mistress.

It took a letter from Dimitry Grigorovich, a writer of venerable age but one who had been part of Dostoevsky’s circle, to convince Chekhov that writing might be something for him to pursue more seriously. The pair had met briefly in St Petersburg, then Grigorovich had been greatly impressed by Chekhov’s story The Huntsman when he saw it in the newspaper Novoye Vremya. Stop writing just for short-term deadlines, he urged in 1886, slow down and think about the best ways to develop your talent.

“Your letter, beloved bearer of good tidings, struck me like a bolt of lightning,” Chekhov replied. “I almost burst into tears.”

From that moment the roles of medicine and literature changed places in his life, even if it was sometimes a tricky balancing act. In 1892 he relocated to Melikhovo, a rural estate south of Moscow, to work on his writing away from the city only for a cholera epidemic to break out almost as soon as he arrived, keeping him busy treating the local poor.

“The peasants are coarse, dirty and suspicious,” he wrote to a friend, “but the thought that our efforts will not be completely in vain stops one noticing any of this.”

As well as funding his medical work among the disadvantaged, Chekhov’s writing allowed him to undertake wider philanthropic work. He supplied local libraries with a range of books, built schools, funded much-needed roadbuilding projects and established a clinic for recovering alcoholics. In 1890 he made a three-month journey to the prison colony of Sakhalin to interview inmates for a census and was so appalled by their treatment and the conditions he published his observations as The Island of Sakhalin, causing a sensation.

This tireless work was possibly inspired by the knowledge from a young age that he was dying from tuberculosis. Chekhov began coughing up blood during his final year of medical school and a major lung haemorrhage in 1897 forced a move to a warmer climate than Melikhovo. He spent occasional winters in Nice and built a house at Yalta, where Tolstoy came to visit while also in the area for the benefit of his health.

“I have loved no man as I have loved him,” Chekhov wrote to a friend. “When literature has a Tolstoy, it is easy and gratifying to be a writer.”

In true Chekhovian fashion there was a contradictory follow-up. He might have loved Tolstoy and praised his work, but the praise could not remain unqualified when it came to Tolstoy’s ascetic lifestyle.

“Reason and justice tell me there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than there is in chastity and abstaining from meat,” he wrote.

It was just the kind of honest, mild subversiveness that had baffled those British reviewers when they saw Chekhov’s work performed for the first time. No assumptions could be made. Expectations needed to be left in the foyer. On the stage, as on the page, Chekhov was reflecting humanity back at itself. Every flaw, every inconsequence, the non-linear nature of life itself would be distilled and presented without apology or explanation until audiences and readers understood in his work what they needed to understand about themselves.

“Everything on this earth,” he wrote in 1887, “is relative and inexact.”