Biography of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Chekhov is one of Russia's many important literary figures, and one of the greatest playwrights of modern times. He won the Pushkin Prize and is known for his short stories and plays, often combining elements of both comedy and tragedy. While works reflect the frequently turbulent developments specific to his homeland, their lasting appeal lies in Chekhov's talent for exploring universally human situations with grace and dexterity.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Tanarog, Russia, near the Sea of Azov, on January 17, 1860. The very fabric of Russian society was permanently altered when Chekhov was only one year old: on February 19, 1861, Russia's serfs were freed. Chekhov himself was the grandson of a serf, and the overturning of this older social order plays a central role in many of his writings.
When his father's business failed, the family moved to Moscow, a Russian center for intellectuals. There, Chekhov grew intellectually, although he developed in two different directions. On the one hand, at the age of twenty he attended medical school at the University of Moscow, preparing himself for his lifelong profession as a physician. While at medical school, Chekhov also began writing to help support his family. He worked as a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines; the respect he gained from these often humorous pieces encouraged Chekhov to begin writing serious short stories. Tolstoy, an older Russian contemporary of Chekhov's, was a great influence on the young writer and medical student. Chekhov was quoted as saying that medicine was his lawful wife and literature was his mistress, and he remained devoted to his two professions throughout his life.
Chekhov graduated from medical school in 1884, and while he began his life as a physician, the period after his graduation also marks the moment when Chekhov began writing seriously. During the late eighties, Chekhov wrote both short stories, such as The Bear in 1888, and The Wedding in 1889, and plays, which include Ivanov in 1887 and The Wood Demon in 1889. Although these works are only of moderate acclaim and are not the masterpieces that Chekhov is best known for, they form an important part of his development as a literary figure. For example, Chekhov came back to The Wood Demon in 1896, and after re-working it and re-titling it, the finished product, known as Uncle Vanya, propelled Chekhov's success and fame in his own life and to this day.
During the early 1890's, Chekhov's writing experienced something of a dry spell. Unfortunately, Chekhov suffered from health problems, and he spent much of the early nineties with his family or traveling to gentler climates. During this time of travel, Chekhov was able to pursue his interest in all things French, particularly French farce, a genre which marks his own theatrical comedy.
In 1896, Chekhov entered the period of creativity for which he is best known. At the turn of the century, he authored four plays, commentaries on Russian society, which have gained him lasting acclaim: The Sea Gull in 1896, Uncle Vanya (a derivative of 1889's The Wood Demon) in 1896, The Three Sisters in 1901, and The Cherry Orchard, his last great play, in 1904. Chekhov spent these years between Moscow and Crimea, dividing his time between his work and nursing his failing health. Olga Knipper performed in each of these four plays; in 1901, she and Chekhov married. The Cherry Orchard was first performed in Moscow on January 17, 1904, Chekhov's last birthday, with his wife in the leading role. Chekhov died of pulmonary tuberculosis on July second of that year, in Germany.
Chekhov changed the theatrical world with these four plays. He was often disappointed when they were performed as tragedies; although they each have sad elements to them, Chekhov believed that this darker side of the plays should in no way undercut the immensely funny comic elements, which pervade even in the seemingly darkest moments. This confusion of the comic and tragic genres is one of Chekhov's important contributions not only to theater, but to literature in general. Chekhov is also know for the emphasis he places on dialogue and off-stage action, otherwise known as "indirect action." The most important events in Chekhov's plays do not necessarily occur on Chekhov's stage; often, the audience experiences some of the most pivotal and dramatic action not by seeing it, but by hearing about it from the characters. This concept of indirect action is an innovation on the part of Chekhov, whose impact on theater and literature continues even today.