Thursday, January 17, 2013

Happy birthday, Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov
It is the birthday of Russian playwright and writer Anton Chekhov (1860), who is best remembered for his numerous short stories as well as four plays, The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), which continue to be produced by theater companies around the world. Chekhov is considered a master of the modern short story. He pioneered use of stream-of-consciousness, abandoning tradition story structure.

The comedy The Seagull concerns four characters, an ingenue, a fading star, a playwright and a writer, all of whom speak in subtext that suggests their inner turmoil. The play was such a departure from the melodrama popular at the time that the audience booed on opening night. Chekhov declared that night that he was finished writing plays. Later performances, however, were well received, though Chekhov did not attend them. Friends told him later that subsequent performances were more successful but he did not believe them.

The great Russian director Stanislavski eventually did a production of The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. Stanislavski produced a detailed outline for actors with actions that sought to reveal the inner action hidden beneath the characters' lines. Later, when he saw the play, Chekhov suggested that Stanislavski's outline be published with his play. The collaboration of the two artists is said to have been a key factor in the creative development of both of them.

The Lady with the Dog (1899) may be Chekhov's best short story. Writer Vladimir Nabokov said it was among the greatest short stories ever written. The story is set in Yalta and Moscow and tells of an affair between a woman from a small town and a Moscow banker who meet on vacation in Yalta.

Chekhov also wrote the novellas The Shooting Party (1884), The Steppe (1888), The Duel (1891), The Anonymous Story (1893), Three Years (1895), and My Life (1896). He also wrote a travelogue, A Journey to Sakhalin (1895). Many of Chekhov's letters to family and friends have been collected into several books.

Among his admirers were James Joyce (who emulated his stream-of-consciousness style), George Bernard Shaw (who noted the similarity between the Russian gentry about which Chekhov wrote and the English gentry), Tennessee Williams (who adapted The Seagull for a work of his own, The Notebook of Trigorin), and Ernest Hemingway (who called him an amateur but credited him with writing "about six good stories.")

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