• Susana Aikin

CHEKHOV AND MODERN RUSSIAN THEATER

Updated: Jan 24, 2019

In my novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, Lily is an actress working in London at the end of the 19th century, who travels to Russia hoping to meet playwright Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavky, but life and other adventures get in the way. However she manages to learn Russian and ends up translating one of Chekhov’s plays, Uncle Vanya, with the intention of bringing it to London stages.
Read further below on Chekhov and Russian theater at the turn of the century; on the avant-garde Moscow Arts Theater, and its brilliant actor/director Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov was a Russian writer, who is known as one of history's greatest short story masters and playwrights. He was born Anton Pavlovich Chekhov on January 29th, 1860 in Taganrog in the Russian Empire. His grandfather had been a former serf, who had bought his freedom. His father was a grocer, who was both tyrannical and a religious fanatic, but his mother was said to have had an amazing gift for telling stories, which she often did to her six children. Anton's father moved the family to Moscow to avoid debtor's prison, leaving Anton behind in Taganrog to attend school. To pay for his education Anton made money in a variety of ways, including selling short comic pieces to newspapers.


Chekhov with family and friends, circa 1882

In 1884 Chekhov obtained a degree as a doctor of medicine and decided to practice, although his writing had by now taken on a professional character. He often treated patients for free, while he earned money from his writing. But he always gave his medical calling a high place; doctors in his works are drawn with affection and understanding. He used to say, ‘Medicine is my wife: literature, my mistress.’


Anton Chekhov

It was not until the Moscow Art Theater production of The Seagull (1897) that Chekhov enjoyed his first overwhelming success. In 1899, Chekhov gave the Moscow Art Theatre a revised version of Uncle Vanya. Then The Three Sisters (1901) and his last play, The Cherry Orchard (1904), would go on to become one of the masterpieces of the modern theatre.


Anton Chekhov reading “The Seagull” to the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre

However, although the Moscow Art Theatre productions brought Chekhov great fame, he was never quite happy with the tragic style that director Konstantin Stanislavsky imposed on the plays. Chekhov always insisted that his plays were comedies. However, in spite of their stylistic disagreements, it was not an unhappy marriage, and these productions brought widespread acclaim to both Chekhov's work and the Moscow Art Theatre.


Moscow Art Theatre "The Seagull" premiere December 17th, 1898 directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko

Konstantin Stanislavsky as Astrov in the Moscow Arts Theater production of "Uncle Vanya," 1899

Chekhov considered his plays to be a kind of comic satire, pointing out the unhappy nature of existence in turn-of-the-century Russia. Perhaps Chekhov's style was described best by the poet himself when he wrote:

"All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves.”

Scene from "Uncle Vanya," film directed by Jed Harris, 1930

Chekhov created his own peculiar playwright style based on objectivity, brevity and compassion. He used delicate hints and subtle nuances in dialogues. He avoided stereotypes and political messages, in favor of cool, comic irony. His scattered scenes, the haphazard glimpses into the lives of his characters in seemingly trivial conversations, have succeeded in so concentrating the atmosphere of the Russia of his day that we feel it in every line we read. He was praised by writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Leskov. He was awarded the Pushkin Prize from the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1888.


Anton Chekhov and Leon Tolstoy

"Uncle Vanya," production of the Moscow Art Theater

"Uncle Vanya" portrays the visit of an elderly professor and his glamorous, much younger second wife, Yelena, to the rural estate that supports their urban lifestyle. Vanya, brother of the professor's late first wife, has managed the estate together with his niece Sonya, the professor's daughter by his first wife for a long time. Sonya is at first disquieted by this visit, and later devastated when the professor announces his intention to sell the estate, which is Vanya and Sonya's home, with a view to investing the proceeds to achieve a higher income for himself and his wife.


Osgood Perkins and Lillian Gish in "Uncle Vanya," film directed by Jed Harris, 1930

Uncle Vanya’s main themes are wasted lives and impossible loves. In the last scene, Vanya turns to his niece Sonya, bemoaning his misery, but Sonya tells him that they must endure their trials and wait for death. Laying her head on his lap, she conjures a vision of heaven while her uncle weeps. The play closes with her repeated refrain: "We shall rest, we shall rest!"

The title, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, is taken from a fragment of Sonya’s final speech in Uncle Vanya’s IVth and final act.


Stanislavski as Astrov & Olga Knipper as Yelena in "Uncle Vanya," 1899

The Cherry Orchard appeared in 1904 and was Chekhov’s last play. At its production, just before his death, Chekhov was celebrated as one of Russia’s greatest dramatists. This play depicts not just country life, but Russian life and character in general, in which the old order is giving way to the new. In his last work, we see the practical, modern, spirit invading the older vague and aimless existence so dear to the owners of the cherry orchard.


"The Cherry Orchard," Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York 1977

Already in 1884 Anton Chekhov began coughing up blood, but refused to tell his family that he had tuberculosis. In 1898, with his health failing, he bought a piece of land near Yalta and built a villa for himself, his mother, and his sister. At his home, he was visited by other literary greats including Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

He died of tuberculosis on July 14, 1904, at the age of forty-four, in a German health resort, and was buried in Moscow. Since his death, Chekhov's plays have become famous worldwide, and he has come to be considered the greatest Russian storyteller and dramatist of modern times.


Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898

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We Shall See the Sky Sparkling

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