|Chekhov with wife and leading lady Olga.|
The play opened on the celebrated author’s 44th birthday on January 17, 1904 at Moscow’s most prestigious theater under the direction of the man who would become famous as the founder of a new school of acting. The Cherry Orchard was also Anton Chekhov’s last completed work, finished months earlier after years of work on it. It and Constantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater would revolutionize 20th Century drama.
There had been earlier harbingers of a tectonic shift in theater, beginning with the work of Heinrik Ibsen in plays like The Doll’s House around 1880. Rooted in reality rather than heroics or melodrama, Ibsen’s plays were also drama of ideas, commentary on social mores and expectations. He had drawn the attention and appreciation of commentators like George Bernard Shaw then a London theater critic and essayist. Later in America Emma Goldman would lecture on them on the Lyceum Circuit. In Russia idealistic young writers and performers took notice.
The most formidable of all was Chekhov.
The future writer was born in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia in 1860. His father was born a serf but had risen in the world to become owner of a small grocer. He was devout to the point of fanaticism, the choir master at a local Greek Orthodox church, and a despot in the home. His mother, to whom young Anton was devoted had traveled widely as a child with her cloth merchant father and nurtured a softer side of him.
Anton and his brothers were educated in a local Greek academy and later at the municipal gymnasium—an advanced level school roughly equivalent of an American college prep high school. He was set back one year at age 14 for failure in Greek, to his father’s rage. During his schooling he sang in his father’s church choirs and in the choir of a local monetary.
His life was saturated with religion but the hypocrisy of his father’s behavior in contrast to Christian ideals soured him on the Church and led to his eventual atheism.
While he was attending school, his father abandoned the family by spending too much money constructing a house plunging the family overnight into desperate poverty. His father fled to Moscow where two older brothers were attending university to avoid debtor’s prison leaving behind his mother and Anton to try and save the house. Eventually the debts were paid by a local a man called Selivanov who took possession of the house—the genesis of a character and situation in The Cherry Orchard.
His mother joined the rest of the family in Moscow leaving Anton to board with Selivanov and finish his education at his own expense. He scraped together an income by tutoring and by catching and selling colorful finches in the local market. He also began contributing short sketches and articles to a local newspaper. Thus he began a literary career out of necessity, viewing it at first as just a means of survival. Every kopek he could afford was sent to his desperate family in Moscow along with long, loving letters meant to cheer his mother who was undergoing emotional and physical collapse.
Chekhov was also reading widely and deeply—Cervantes, Turgenev, Goncharov, and Schopenhauer being especially influential. He also conducted several love affairs with local girls and older women, including one with the wife of a tutor. He also began to experiment with drama, completing a manuscript for a full lengthy comedy/drama Fatherless. When he eagerly sent a copy to an older brother hoping for approval he was crushed when Alexander dismissed it as “an inexcusable though innocent fabrication.”
In 1879 he completed his gymnasium studies and gained admission to the medical school at I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University. Living with his family in the city, Anton found himself not only responsible for the cost of his education, but virtually the sole support of his family. In addition to rigorous studies he turned to a relentless daily output of writing. He wrote humorous sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian life, many under pseudonyms such as Antosha Chekhonte and Man without a Spleen.
He soon had a budding literary reputation and drew the attention of one of the city’s leading publishers, Nikolai Leykin who made him a regular contributor to his Oskolki (Fragments) journal in 1882.
In 1884 Chekhov graduated and was qualified to practice as a physician. He always considered medicine his primary occupation and practiced throughout his life. He later remarked “medicine was my wife, literature was my mistress.” Still, most of his income came from his writing, especially as in practice he donated much of his services to the poor.
Keeping up a relentless dual schedule as doctor and writer, Chekhov was able to help his family move increasingly comfortable loggings. But his health suffered and by the mid 1880’s he was coughing blood into his handkerchief—which as any reader knows is always the first sign of a doomed character. He refused to be examined for what he knew must be tuberculosis and kept up his work.
In 1886 the publisher of Novoye Vremya (New Times) in St. Petersburg, a newspaper of wide circulation and influence, made Chekov a regular contributor at double the pay of Oskolki. His contributions were a huge popular success and for the first time attracted attention of the Russian literary elite. Dmitry Grigorovich wrote to Chekhov after reading his short story The Huntsman, “You have real talent—a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation.” He advised him to slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality.
Chekhov was thunderstruck with the appreciation, “I have written my stories the way reporters write up their notes about fires—mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself.” But now he would take the advice—and take himself more seriously as a writer.
In 1887 this renewed dedication paid off when his first collection of stories, V Sumerkakh (At Dusk) won Chekhov the Pushkin Prize “for the best literary production distinguished by high artistic worth.” In the heady world of the Russian intelligentsia the 26 year old had arrived.
The same year, exhausted from over work and ill, Chekhov finally felt he could take a trip to rest and recuperate secure in the knowledge that his family was well provided for. He toured the Ukraine and was moved by beauty of the steppe. The trip inspired a novella about a young boy forced to leave home crossing plains in company of a priest and a merchant. Short on plot, the story views the journey through the eyes of each and the physical setting is a virtual fourth character. It was so unusual he at first had a hard time placing it, but eventually The Steppe found a home in Severny Vestnik (The Northern Herald), the writer’s first publication in a literary magazine instead of a newspaper. It also marked the beginning of his use of nature in his work—which continued right up to The Cherry Orchard and which is why many critics now regard him as one of the first environmental writers.
The next year, 1887, Chekhov was commissioned by a Moscow theater to write a play. He dashed off Ivanov in ten days in much the same machine like haste that he used to produce newspaper sketches. Although the play was a moderate success, the author hated it and told his brother he could not even recognize the words as his own. He subsequently heavily revised the script and it was produced anew in St. Petersburg to glowing reviews. Although not today considered part of the core Chekhov canon the experience whetted his appetite for drama and is a preview of the more mature work ahead.
In 1889 Chekhov’s brother Nikolay died of tuberculosis, plunging him into a deep depression. It was the basis of a morose tale aptly named A Dreary Story. As he recovered from his grief he became interested in another brother Mikhail’s research into prison conditions.
As a result in 1890 the frail Chekhov undertook a grueling journey to by train, carriage, and river steamer to the Russian far east penal colony, on Sakhalin Island. Ostensibly gathering census data, he interviewed officials, guards, inmates, and the inhabitants of the remote town. He witnessed firsthand casual brutality, regular beatings, the sale of women prisoners into prostitution, and the corruption of officials who pocketed funds for food, fuel, and clothing leaving inmates in desperate condition. He was especially moved by the plight of children imprisoned with their parents.
The journey resulted in a rather scholarly report, Ostrov Sakhalin (The Island of Sakhalin), which he hoped would stir the government to institute reform. Although it got the attention of intellectuals, the government itself was unmoved. For them the very purpose of exile prisons was to be hell on earth and the fate of prisoners of no consequence except as warning to others. He also referenced Sakhalin in his short story The Murder.
By 1892 Chekhov was wealthy enough to buy a small country estate, Melikhovo, about forty miles south of Moscow, where he lived with his family until 1899. He took delight in overseeing his farm and in planting numerous trees, including a much beloved cherry orchard, often musing on what they would look like in a century or so, long after he was dead. He also took seriously the role of a benevolent landlord. He cared for the peasants as a doctor through epidemics of cholera and a local famine due to crop failure. During his entire tenure there they came almost daily to his home where he tended them without charge and often traveled miles to attend those too ill or infirm to come in. He also built three schools, a fire station, and eventually a clinic in which to see patients.
Most importantly, for the first time Chekhov really mixed with all levels of society, getting to know them all from the lowliest serf to the local aristocracy, visiting them in their homes and having them at his. The experience opened up his writing and resulted in stories like Peasants which not only document their wretched, crowded living conditions, but treated the characters as fully formed individuals, not as either a stereotype or an empty symbol on which to hang a political polemic.
While in residence at his estate, Chekhov turned once again to drama. The Seagull opened on October 17, 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Considered the first of his classic plays, it had a large ensemble cast, significant sub-text in the dialogue, and violated theater convention by having the shocking suicide of one character occur not off stage, but in front of the audience for full shocking effect. The cast, classically trained actors, were uncomfortable and the director unable to pull together a coherent production. The audience began booing and jeering during the first act. Chekhov took refuge back stage. The leading lady lost her voice in shock. It was a humiliating failure.
Chekhov took it to heart and retreated to his estate vowing to be done with the theater. The play, however, continued its run and the performers became more comfortable. Audience warmed to it. If it was not a hit several important writers and critics saw promise in it, if placed in the right hands.
Those hands belonged to Constantin Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theater, the country’s most innovative and avant-garde company. They mounted a new production of The Seagull in 1898. It was a sensation. It renewed Chekhov’s confidence and Stanislavski commissioned more plays from the writer. The following year the company staged Uncle Vanya to equal praise.
During this period Chekhov’s health failed. He was finally persuaded to admit himself to a clinic where he was promptly diagnosed with tuberculosis and told to relocate to a warmer climate. Reluctantly, he left his beloved estate and with his mother and sister took up residence in Yalta in the Crimea. He was not entirely happy there despite entertaining famous and admiring visitors like Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. He referred to it as his “hot Siberia.” Despite planting new orchards, he was happier when he could get back to Moscow or was well enough to travel.
On one journey, he visited his old estate and was devastated to learn that his beloved cherry orchard there had been cut down for development by the new owners.
He could only work a few hours a day, not at his famous driving clip. It took him a year to finish his next script for Stanislavski, Three Sisters, which was inspired by the real life English Brontë had strong roles for the principle women. In fact, nuanced, believable women were becoming a hallmark of Chekhov’s work. One of the lead actresses in the 1901 production was Olga Knipper who the playwright, a notorious bachelor who had confessed his preference for brief affairs and the comforts of the brothel to marriage, wed very privately on May 25 of that year.
The two had met during rehearsals for the Art Theater’s production of The Seagull and had maintained a playful correspondence for years deepening into love and affection. She also had a leading role in Uncle Vanya. Chekhov wrote the juicy part of Masha, the middle and most artistically accomplished of the three sisters, for Olga. The author had previously told a friend that he could only marry under the conditions that, “she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her ... give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day.” Those were the exact circumstances of the apparently happy marriage—Chekhov spending most of his time in Yalta and she pursing here stage career in the city.
Chekhov’s health was failing as he began work on The Cherry Orchard and he knew it. Into the play he gathered strands from his life—his childhood and the loss his home, the devastation of his beloved orchard. He also gathered themes. He worked slowly, painfully and in almost total secrecy as if to utter a word about his project would doom it. It was only as he was nearly finished that while in Moscow comforting his wife on a miscarriage that he whispered the words Cherry Orchard in her ear.
The reception of The Cherry Orchard that cold birthday in 1904 with his wife on stage was maybe the highpoint of the writer’s life, a final vindication—and a valediction as well.
That spring after the run of the play Chekhov and Olga went to the German spa town of Badenweiler in the Black Forest in hopes that the waters would help his deteriorating condition. Despite cheerful notes home to his mother and sister, he knew he was dying.
Olga described the event on July 15, 1904:
Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe (“I’m dying”). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It's a long time since I drank champagne.” He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child.
His body was returned to Moscow packed in ice with a carload of oysters. Hundreds attended the funeral, and thousands accidently followed the funeral cortege of a general escorted by a military band thinking it was his. He was laid to rest in a church yard next to the father who had made his life miserable and who he had supported in his old age.
Olga never remarried. She continued a long and successful career as a member of the Moscow Art Theater and died in the city on March 22, 1959 at the age of 90.
The four plays produced by the Moscow Art Theater, especially The Cherry Orchard and dozens of superb short stories have out lived them both.
Within a very few years The Cherry Orchard and the other plays were translated into English and mounted on the London stage. Once again George Bernard Shaw was their champion. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield were among the writers influenced by his work.
In the U.S. Chekhov and Stanislavski rose in reputation in tandem through productions of the Group Theater and the development of the director’s ideas into what became known as method acting. American playwright including Eugene O’Neil, Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and Tennessee Williams were inspired. Around the world the theater was profoundly changed.
Of course over time, new generations of writers began to rebel against a new “classic” form. As early as the 1920’s writers like Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht, and later Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Becket would rebel at the conventions of naturalism. But they never totally supplanted it.
Today Chekhov’s plays are considered modern classics. The Cherry Orchard is consistently at or near the top of the most produced plays in the world, year after year.