“His reputation now rests chiefly upon the four oblique and haunting plays he wrote in the last ten years of his life,” says playwright and novelist Michael Frayn in the introduction to a collection of his translations of plays by Anton Chekhov. “In fact, he was not really a natural dramatist. The page, not the stage, was his element… Even if he had never written a single line for the theatre he would still be one of the most marvellous writers to have lived.”
The four last plays, The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1898), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904), have amused, intrigued and puzzled audiences around the world for more than a century. Puzzled, because few are sure if the plays are to be taken as comedies since they are, as one critic put it, “so delicately poised between laughter and tears”. Chekhov himself described Uncle Vanya simply as “scenes from country life”.
Chekhov, the son of a grocer, was born in 1860 in Taganrog in what is now south-east Ukraine. When the business failed in 1875, the family moved to Moscow but Chekhov stayed behind at school, earned cash by coaching younger boys and joined his parents only in 1879. He trained as doctor and wrote short comic articles under a pseudonym to support his family. He graduated in 1884, gave up writing comedy pieces and began to publish serious short stories under his own name. Steppe, which appeared in a leading literary review in 1888, was the first of more than 50 published before he died. Ivanov, his first play, was produced in 1887 and The Wood Demon in 1889; it ran for only three days and was later reworked as Uncle Vanya. The four plays for which he is best known were produced with director and theatre theorist Constantin Stanislavski and his Moscow Arts Theatre.
In 1890, Chekhov made a hazardous 6000-mile journey to Sakhalin, a remote island and penal colony off Russia’s east coast where he studied the local population and wrote up his finding in a thesis. Seven years later, he suffered a lung haemorrhage caused by tuberculosis and moved to Yalta on the Crimea coast. He married Olga Knipper, an actress from the Moscow Art Theatre, in 1901. His health continued to decline and he died in a German health resort on July 15, 1904, six months after the first performance of The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov said of his work: “Narrative [fiction] is my legal wife and drama a flamboyant, rowdy, impudent mistress.”