Influencial people: Anton Chekhov

Besides his influence as a dramatist on acting Anton Chekhov was one of the most active playwriters of his time. People tend to compare him to Shakespeare. But his real fame came after his death in 1904

Born in Taganrog, Russia in 1860 he started studying medicine. At the same time he was engaged in the writing of short stories, the first of which was published in 1880. Reading his work, you might call him a close observer of humanity.

He finished his medical study in 1884. Visiting many sick people he learned a lot about social structures. Though he made little money from it he treated the poor free. Chekhov later concluded that charity and subscription were not the answer, but that the government had a duty to finance humane treatment of the convicts. His findings were published in 1893 and 1894 as Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin), a work of social science – not literature – worthy and informative rather than brilliant.

After the disastrous reception of The Seagull at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg, booed by the audience, 1896 Anton Chekhov renounced the theatre. But the play so impressed the theatre director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko that he convinced his colleague Konstantin Stanislavski to direct it for the innovative Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. Stanislavski's attention to psychological realism and ensemble playing coaxed the buried subtleties from the text and restored Chekhov's interest in playwriting. The play was described during the writing process by Chekhov himself as a 'comedy' with "a great deal of conversation about literature, little action, (and) tons of love."

Opposed to famous writers like Tolstoi and Gorky Anton Chekhov avoids the obvious struggles, the time-worn commonplaces and well-prepared climaxes that go to the making of most plays; He rather gives a palette for our contemplation, without appealing to our sympathy. He shows the lives of the people as he sees it. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.

Still with Anton Chekhov does one feel the presence of an understanding heart; nothing escapes his observation, yet all is rendered with sympathy and pity.

This is the first cross-cultural study of Chekhov's plays in production. Many now consider Chekhov a playwright equal to Shakespeare, and this book studies how the reputation evolved, and how the presentation of his plays varied and altered from their initial productions in Russia to the most recent postmodern deconstructions of them. Particular attention is given to the staging of Chekhov in Russia before and after the Revolution, and under different regimes; in the English-speaking world, in Western and Eastern Europe, as well as in Japan.

After directing The Seagull Konstantin Stanislavski subsequently also produced Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and premiered his last two plays, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. These four works present a challenge to the acting ensemble as well as to audiences, because in place of conventional action Chekhov offers a "theatre of mood" and a "submerged life" in the text. Chekhov found his plays' true expression in working with Stanislavski. Stanislavski's eye for subtext and psychological realism brought out the subtleties of Chekhov's texts.

The Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold captured Chekhov's theatre style with the following words: "Chekhov's art demands a theatre of mood."

In March 1897 Chekhov suffered a major haemorrhage of the lungs while on a visit to Moscow. With great difficulty he was persuaded to enter a clinic, where the doctors diagnosed tuberculosis on the upper part of his lungs and ordered a change in his manner of life. He moved to Yalta. Je married his wife, Olga Knipper, although he mainly remained in Yalta, she in Moscow. The literary legacy of this long-distance marriage is a correspondence which preserves gems of theatre history, including shared complaints about Stanislavski's directing methods and Chekhov's advice to Olga about performing in his plays.

By May 1904, Chekhov was terminally ill with tuberculosis. His death has become one of "the great set pieces of literary history",retold, embroidered, and fictionalised many times since.