So far in this series we have seen some writers who are winding down at 40, others who were already dead at 40, or others yet who were still developing their craft at 40. But in the case of Anton Chekov, born 29 January 1860 and therefore turned 40 in 1900, 40 is in many ways the moment: the time for which he is remembered, for it is around this age that he wrote his most successful plays that were to secure his legacy.
It nearly wasn’t so. Though he had been writing short fiction for some time, his playwriting career had suffered a disastrous blow when The Seagull opened in St Petersburg in1896 to disdain and scorn – the audience booed and Chekhov was crushed. He was set to walk away from theatre, despite already having another play ready (Uncle Vanya), but Stanislavsky – the director since made infamous for his much misunderstood theory of method acting – took the play up and produced it two years later at the Moscow Arts Theatre, where it received a far more favourable response. Chekhov’s style of drama, with its focus on psychology of character and attention to detail, was a perfect fit for Stanislavsky’s vision of theatre, and after the success of The Seagull’s revival, the Moscow Arts Theatre also produced Uncle Vanya and two further plays – Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. All were a triumph and have remained so ever since.
Personally, he had recently lost his father, in 1898, though Pavel Chekhov is infamously remembered as an abusive husband who the young Anton held as a warning, and may well have influenced some of the more negative male characters in his plays. It was also around this time, in 1901, that Anton Chekhov married the actress Olga Knipper, ending 41 years of bachelorhood, though shortly after the two would begin a long-distance relationship as Olga returned to Moscow for her acting while Anton stayed at his recently bought estate in Yalta (this estate, bought after his father’s death, was a far remove from the poverty the family had faced in their youth as a result of Pavel Chekhov’s many debts).
I have said this is the time in which Chekhov produces the works for which he is best remembered; sadly it is also a time very close to his death, with the tuberculosis that Chekhov had been suffering from since 1897 finally taking him. Thus, just as he was in his zenith, professionally, his career was ended by the most arbitrary of means. He had lived just long enough to enter the twentieth century, and while the bulk of Chekhov’s life was in the nineteenth century, it was undoubtedly the twentieth to which his style of playwriting belonged, with his plays, alongside those of Ibsen and Strindberg, influencing a wave of naturalism and psychological drama as a direct contrast to the spectacle and melodrama of the nineteenth century.
Chekhov and Buckingham: Chekhov features in our preliminary module, Plays in Performance, while Uncle Vanya at the Almeida Theatre was one of this year’s theatre trips for the students.