January 29th marks the 157th year since Russian playwright and creator of short stories Anton Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia. Internationally, Chekhov is known for his achievements in writing, which gained popularity during the turn of the 20th century. One talent he displayed in his writing was the ability to perfect the mix of humor and heartbreak while digging deep into the emotions involved with being human.
His father was a merchant known to struggle financially and his mother was a fan of telling her six children stories, which is where Chekhov most likely first fell in love with narratives. In 1875, the Chekhov family relocated to Moscow, except for Anton, who stayed behind to complete his education. Four years later, Chekhov reunited with his family and began his venture toward Medical School.
Well on his way to becoming a doctor, Chekhov supported his family financially while he studied with some freelance writing. His first taste of success was found in magazines where he had comical shorts published under a pseudonym. Chekhov continued his path, working as a doctor and writing stories and plays.
Considered a chief contributor to the world of literature, Chekhov has produced many theatrical pieces and short stories to leave a long legacy for generations to come. We would like to take a look at three works by Anton Chekhov that we admire greatly.
1. The Seagull
This first drama – The Seagull – was produced the year after Chekhov wrote it, which was 1895, and it is the initial play of the four foremost theatrical writings by Chekhov. This dramatic play follows the troubles between some of his most memorable characters, Boris Trigorin, Nina, Irina Arkadina, and Konstantin Tréplev.
While Trigorin is considered by some to be the paramount male character created by Chekhov, there is no denying that his style of wholly ripened characters is evident in this piece and the full cast brings the story depth. Also, another technique Chekhov liked to use in his writing was to get the point across in a roundabout way, never directly.
Even though Chekhov is legendary for his achievements in literature and although it is the first of the four key theatrical works from the writer, this play did not do so well the night it opened. In fact, the audience was so unreceptive, Chekhov left the theater audience and watched more than half of it from back stage. It would be a success soon though, especially when Konstantin Stanislavsky staged it at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898.
At first Chekhov, did not believe his friends when they would send him letters of his plays success and even went as far as to say he was never going to write another play. Still, he stuck with it and the rest, as they say, is history. Of course, the plays that followed The Seagull were great successes.
In 1938, the Shubert Theatre in New York City staged a production of The Seagull and the role of Nina was performed by legendary German actress Uta Hagen, it was her first performance on Broadway. A more recent performance, 1992, was given at the Lyceum Theatre in New York starring Tyne Daly, Ethan Hawke, John Voight, and Laura Linney. Also, in July of 2001 through August of that same year, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Stephen Spinella, and Natalie Portman performed this Chekhov play for the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in a presentation for New York Shakespeare Festival that’s held in Central Park every summer.
2. Uncle Vanya
This next play was Chekhov’s next play as far as writing and premiering goes. Konstantin Stanislavski directed the first production and it opened in 1899 at the Moscow Art Theatre. Yet, this was not it’s true debut, it has some smaller productions as testers in smaller houses the year before the Moscow Art Theatre opening. Stanislavski also took on the lead role of Astrov while directing the performance and Olga Knipper, an actress of Russian-German descent, who was also to become Mrs. Anton Chekhov, played opposite Stanislavski in the part of Yelena.
A significant point about Uncle Vanya is that it was a version he had rewritten of a play he had written years before called The Wood Demon. He shaved the cast down to less than half of the original work included a suicide that was somehow rewritten into a botched murder. Also, it is said that the original ending was happy, where the ending of Uncle Vanya, well, we’re just going to let you find that out for yourselves.
Today, the Moscow Art Theatre still puts on this play regularly. Some famous thespians who have taken on roles in this work include Laurence Olivier, Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, William Hurt, George C. Scott, Donald Sinden, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtney, Trevor Eve, and Franchot Tone. In 1970 a Russian movie titled Dyadya Vanya was created by Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and in 1994 an American movie titled Vanya on 42nd Street was released with an adaption written by David Mamet. It starred Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn.
Interestingly, Sonya’s Story is an operatic adaptation of this Chekhov work composed by Neal Thornton and directed by Sally Burgess. It took the story and told it through the eyes of a different character.
The final Chekhov play we would like to discuss today is Three Sisters, which was created specifically for a production at the Moscow Art Theatre. Once again, Chekhov teamed up with Stanislavski but they incuded Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who is a respected director, writer, educator, and producer in the Russian and Soviet theatre. This time, Stanislavski, took on the role of Vershinin and the three women who played the titled sisters were Olga Knipper, Margarita Savetskaya, and Maria Andreyeva.
It is said that Chekhov wrote the part of Masha specifically for his wife. Stanislavski’s wife was also an esteemed actress and played the role of Natasha. Other notable actors were Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Leonid Leonidov. The reviews were both positive and negative and, it is said, that the writer and director had differences of opinion in the direction the play took.
Chekhov felt the direction of the play was too high-spirited and veiled the intricacies he had intended when writing the piece. He also felt that the only person to channel the character the way he had wanted was Knipper. On the opposite side, Stanislavski felt his decisions were in an attempt to highlight the desires and dreams the characters had, yet the sisters’ bleakness of the sisters was stark for viewers. Yet, this was a success and became popular none the less.
In the mid-1930s, John Gielgud performed in this at the Queens Theatre alongside Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave. Jessica Tandy starred in a 1963 production at the Guthrie Theater and in 1970 Laurence Olivier co-directed and performed in the role of Chebutykin in a production filmed for the American Film Theatre.