Born January 17 (old style) 1860, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was raised in Tanganrog, near the Sea of Arzov. He was from a humbler background than any other great Russian author, the son of a grocer and the grandson of a serf.
Chekhov studied medicine at the University of Moscow, and would become a practicing doctor (like a later American writer of subtle skills, William Carlos Williams). He also managed to spend a lot of time writing, and a short story called ‘The Steppe’ gained him national attention when he was 28 years old.
He continued to publish stories like ‘The Duel’ (1890) that explored interesting theories concerning the starting point of man’s aggression, and the inescapability of such impulses as anger and fear. Chekhov concluded that we must learn to experience love and joy even when bound in conflict or anxiety.
One of his most famous stories was ‘The Peasants’, a flash of cultural realism depicting the sad life of Russia’s forgotten majority. This was widely read and today remains a powerful work, filled with more pathos than hope.
Chekhov also wrote plays, starting with one-acts heavily inspired by French comedies, and moving on to full length comedy-dramas. The first of his four greatest plays, “The Seagull”, was a flop when first produced in St. Petersburg in 1895, but became a surprise hit when it was revived by the progressive Moscow Arts Theatre two years later. The Moscow Arts Theatre now became the locale of an amazing (but tense) colloboration between two geniuses, the playwright Chekhov and the legendary director Stanislavsky, creator and namesake of the famous “Stanislavsky Method” of acting, later known simply as “Method Acting”, which would influence such American actors as Lee Strasberg, Marlon Brando, Stella Adler and Rod Steiger. Not surprisingly, the two geniuses often clashed over the tone of the Chekhov/Stanislavsky productions, because Chekhov preferred a lighter, comedic tone to Stanislavsky’s thunderous, tragic style.
Nevertheless, the two would produce three masterpieces to follow ‘The Seagull’: ‘Uncle Vanya’ (1899), ‘Three Sisters’ (1901) and ‘The Cherry Orchard’ (1904). The last play was a farcical tale about real estate in which a former peasant outwits the doddering and self-important inhabitants of a grand household. Perhaps this play reflects Chekhov’s own status as the successful descendant of a family of serfs (although the clever peasant who emerges victorious in this play receives no more sympathetic treatment than any other character).
The Moscow Arts Theatre was also where Chekhov met his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, who created the lead female roles in many of these plays.
Suffering from tuberculosis, Chekhov died in the German spa of Badenweiler in 1904. He was the last truly great Russian writer, many decades younger than the generation of legendary Russians that includes Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy. But he stands today on the top level of the pantheon of Russian literature, flanked only by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He did not write with the protean power of either of these giants, but instead with a subtlety, artfulness and avant-garde taste that none of his predecessors could have acheived.