A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Anton Chekhov

Russian playwright Maxim Gorky said of Chekhov that in his presence, "everyone felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more beautiful, more oneself. . . .All his life Chekhov lived in his own soul; he was always himself, inwardly free."  While "inwardly free," Chekhov at a young age had to assume financial burdens to care for his family.  He was born in Taganrog, Russia, in January 1860, the son of a small shopkeeper and the grandson of a serf.  On a scholarship, he went to medical school in Moscow, and began writing stories to earn money for the support of the family.  By the time he achieved his medical degree, he was becoming known as a writer; his first collection, Motley Stories, was published in 1886.

Although his first play, "Ivanov" was a failure, its characterization and dialogue  rose above the melodramatic plot, and  Chekhov persisted with his playwrighting, carrying on his country medical practice and writing stories as well.  Ivanov is a Hamlet-like figure, frustrated in love, depressed and tormented by his conscience.  Even in this early play, a Chekhovian style emerges that greatly influenced later playwrights.  The principal character, Ivanov, is self-absorbed; his conflicts are with himself, not with others , and the group or ensemble surrounding him are important in enhancing his characteristics by their misunderstandings of each other and in their inability to escape their static environment. 

Chekhov's next play, "The Sea Gull" again reveals insights into the individual characters, the group as a whole, and the surrounding environment. .  Arkadina, a famous actress, self-centered and demanding, arrives at the country estate of her brother Sorin with her lover Trigorin in tow, a famous writer.  Her son Konstantin (Kostya) is an aspiring playwright, and when he stages his avant-garde work on the estate, she ridicules it.  Appearing in Konstantin's play is Nina, a budding actress who falls in love with Trigorin and runs off with him only to return two years later, deserted by Trigorin but strengthened by the harsh realities she has had to face.  In the final scene she declares: "Now I'm a real actress, I act with delight, with rapture. . . .I know now, I understand, that in our work, Kostya -- whether it's acting or writing -- what's important is not fame, not glory, not the things I used to dream of, but the ability to endure."

The dead sea gull, which Kostya presents to her earlier, she has seen as a symbol of herself, but it also symbolizes Kostya, who, like the sea gull,  is shot down in his prime.  Chekhov's use of  symbols here and in "The Cherry Orchard" undoubtedly influenced Tennessee Williams.  Another Chekhov characteristic Williams employs is the use of comedy in a play that is serious.

An outstanding production of “The Sea Gull” in New York’s Central Park in the summer of 2001 starred Meryl Streep as Arkadina, Kevin Kline asTrigorin, and Christopher Walken as Sorin.  Mike Nichols directed the production by the New York Shakespeare Festival.

"The Sea Gull" Chekhov subtitled "A Comedy in Four Acts," but director Stanislavski and the actors at the Moscow Art  Theater  presented it as a tragedy.  According to Stanivslavski, Chekhov was amazed at the actors' first reading of "The Three Sisters": "he had written a happy comedy and all of us considered the play a tragedy and even wept over it."

The Stanivslavski approach to acting, internalizing the character to the extent that the actors are performing for themselves, not for the audience, may explain why some "method" actors from the Actors Studio failed to communicate what Tennessee Williams meant.   Elia Kazan, admitting in his autobiography that he failed to understand "Camino Real," a flop when he directed it, sounds like Stanivslavski commenting that he was unable to understand "the essence, the aroma, the beauty" of "The Sea Gull."  It should be remembered that both Chekhov and Williams when he started were trying to create a new type of drama, in revolt against the then accepted form of drama that prevailed, Williams against realism and Chekhov against melodrama.

"Uncle Vanya," Chekhov's next play, was even better than "The Sea  Gull" with the author's compassion deepening the characterization (like Williams) of the principals and secondary characters alike. Retired Professor Serebryakov arrives with his new young wife, Elena, at his estate, managed by his daughter Sonya (by his first wife) and his brother-in-law, Vanya.  In comic reversals with serious implications, Vanya and Sonya's admirer, Dr. Astrov, both fall in love with Elena.  Vanya realizes that the professor for whom he has been sacrificing himself is  second-rate and Sonya loses her chance at happiness with the doctor.  The professor departs, announcing his plans to sell the estate, and giving no thought  to how those depending on it will exist.  Now Vanya and Sonya have nothing left but their thankless work, keeping the books and managing the estate, "through a long, long chain of days and endless evenings."  Most recently, Derek Jacobi appeared on Broadway in the title role.

The tedium of their provincial surroundings stifles the principles in "The Three Sisters" as it did Sonya, Vanya, and Astrov in "Uncle Vanya."  Sensitive and intelligent, Olga, Masha, and Irina dream of escaping to a fulfilling life in Moscow, but their dreams are thwarted.   Natalya, the vulgar and selfish wife of their brother Andrei, assumes power in the household, displacing the family as the sisters finally face the truth: "nothing turns out as we would have it."  The military,  the last bastion of culture, are departing, bringing to an end  Masha's affair with Colonel Vershinin, and as their gay music fades, the sisters muse on their future.

"The Cherry Orchard: a Comedy in Four Acts" is Chekhov's masterpiece.   Charming, vain and  impractical,  Madam Ranevskaya returns from abroad with her teen-age daughter Anya  to her estate, managed by her equally ineffectual brother and her more practical adopted daughter Varya.  The beautiful cherry orchard symbolizes their life: luxurious, decorative, and of no use in the financial crisis facing them.  A self-made, successful merchant, Lopakhin, suggests that they can preserve the estate by putting the orchard to practical use as land for summer cottages, but they cannot hear of such desecration.  It is sold at auction, and Lopakhin is the buyer, who will put it to the use he suggested.  As the family leave to the sound of the axes falling upon the orchard, the octogenarian family servant, Firs, wanders about alone in the locked house.  He and the cherry orchard have been left to their fates.

Vanessa Redgrave gave a virtuoso performance as Ranevskaya in the   Royal National Theatre production of “The Cherry Orchard,”  which soon sold out and had to be transferred to the National’s largest theater, the Olivier, in 2001.  Redgrave’s Ranevskaya entered, on her return to Russia from Paris, dancing, weeping, and kissing the furniture; yet she failed to remember a housemaid’s name.  Corin Redgrave, brother to Vanessa, played Gayev, a social snob intolerant of hardworking businessman Lopakhin (Roger Allam), the only one capable of a plan for saving the house and its beloved orchard.  Trevor Nunn directed a perfect ensemble of actors, so important in a Chekhov production, where each character and incident and remark is integral to the whole. “The Cherry Orchard” is Chekhov’s last play, for at the age of forty-four he died of tuberculosis. He had been married to his star actress, Olga Knipper, for only a few years.