Wednesday, February 14, 2018

My Favorite Russian: Anton Chekhov

What I love most about the work of Anton Chekhov is that two people can read the same Chekhov story, and one reader may burst into tears while the other giggles uncontrollably. He mixes playfulness and sorrow so well, it's hard to tell how to interpret his plays and stories, and that's part of the fun.

Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov grew up in the Russian town of Taganrog. He spent much of his childhood quietly sitting in his father's fledgling grocery store. He watched the customers and listened to their gossip, their hopes, and their complaints. Early on, he learned to observe the everyday lives of humans. His ability to listen would become one of his most valuable skills as a storyteller.

(He was the third child out of six...) 

Despite economic hardship, Chekhov was a talented student. In 1879, he left Taganrog to attend medical school in Moscow. At this time, he felt the pressure of being the head of the household. His father was no longer earning a living. Chekhov needed a way to make money without abandoning school. Writing stories provided a solution.

Chekhov the Playwright: 

In 1896 The Seagull received a disastrous response on opening night. The audience actually booed during the first act. Fortunately, innovative directors Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danechenko believed in Chekhov's work.

Their new approach to drama invigorated audiences. The Moscow Art Theatre restaged The Seagull and created a triumphant crowd-pleaser. Soon after, the Moscow Art Theatre, led by Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danechenko, produced the rest of Chekhov's masterpieces: Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

Happy Valentine's Day -- Love, Anton!

The Russian storyteller played with themes of romance and marriage, but throughout most of his life he did not take love seriously.

He had occasional affairs, but he did not fall in love until he met Olga Knipper, an up-and-coming Russian actress. They were very discreetly married in 1901.

Olga not only starred in Chekhov's plays, she also deeply understood them. More than anyone in Chekhov's circle, she interpreted the subtle meanings within the plays. For example, Stanislavski thought The Cherry Orchard was a "tragedy of Russian life." Olga instead knew that Chekhov intended it to be a "gay comedy," one that almost touched upon farce.

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