Anton Chekhov (Playwright, 1860-1904) is one of the great writers of the modern period, famous and influential as a playwright and short story writer. Born in the provincial town of Taganrog, the grandson of a serf and son of a shopkeeper who fled to Moscow to escape creditors, Chekhov began writing while still a student in medical school, publishing humorous sketches and anecdotes to help support his family. Upon graduation, writing became his main interest and occupation, although he practiced medicine his entire life.
Chekhov’s earliest plays were short sketches, such as The Bear (1888) and The Wedding (1889), now considered comic masterpieces. With the encouragement of his editors and other writers, Chekhov began to aspire to more serious work, largely focused on short stories. He published over 500 stories in his lifetime, including the often-anthologized “The Lady with the Little Dog.” His early attempts at drama met with failure, but drew the attention of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Constantin Stanislavski, the directors of the Moscow Art Theater. They revived The Seagull in 1898 and premiered Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). His work found a home at the theater and helped lay the foundation for the international reputation of the Moscow Art Theater and of Stanislavki, whose theories of acting, which emphasize naturalism and ensemble, revolutionized twentieth-century theater.
At the age of 24, Chekhov suffered his first lung hemorrhage, caused by tuberculosis, a disease that required repeated periods of convalescence and was incurable, bringing an early death. As a physician, Chekhov knew his fate, but he did not get diagnosed or treated for many years. In 1892, he began splitting his time between Moscow and his small country estate of Melikhovo, about 40 miles south of Moscow, where he lived with his family, planted trees, built schools and a clinic, and treated the local peasants. In 1897, he was finally persuaded to enter a sanitarium, and consequently moved to a villa he built in Yalta, whose climate was more suited to his declining health. In 1901, he married the actress Olga Knipper, a member of the Moscow Art Theater, and died in 1904 in the German spa town of Badenweiler.
Together with Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Chekhov was instrumental in the development of modern drama. His contribution, so unique as to require the term “Chekhovian,” includes an emphasis on the detailed actions of daily life and the importance of subtext—unspoken emotions and motivations. His plays do not focus on the action, and there is no antagonist, finality or closure. Resisting the sensationalism and melodrama of his contemporaries, his tone is mildly ironic, and combines immensely comic moments with despondency, loneliness and other dark elements of the human condition. Chekhov’s characters surrender to life’s disappointments but do not give into despair. They experience the pain of self-recognition, question the meaning of human existence, but find solace, often in work. Chekhov’s influence can be seen in the later plays of George Bernard Shaw, such as Heartbreak House, and the work of Samuel Beckett.