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Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky were both unsatisfied with the theatre and the art of acting in particular.  They decided to begin a new theatre company, The Moscow Art and Popular Theatre, which would transform the actor's approach to the art.  They gathered together like-minded actors and then looked for a play and a playwright who would be of interest to a theatre with a modern repertoire, they chose Anton Pavlovich Chekhov and his play The Seagull.

The grandson of a serf, Anton Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia, on the Sea of Azov, 29 January 1860, the third of five children.  Their mother was kind and loving, but their father, a struggling grocer, was a pious despot, and Chekhov always spoke regretfully of his hard-worked childhood.  The local gimnaziya gave him a good education, and he grew up as a lively, sociable boy, with a talent for comic impersonations of teachers and priests.  He entered the University of Moscow as a student of medicine and in 1884 he qualified as a doctor.  Since his father could only find poorly paid employment, the responsibility of supporting the family fell on Chekhov's shoulders, which he did diligently augmenting his income by journalism and by writing comic sketches.  By his late twenties he was a prolific writer of short stories, and won the Pushkin Prize for one of them.

The year 1889 saw the production of his first full-length play, Ivanov at the Alexandrinsky theatre in St Petersburg and while the actors had not been able to understand how he wanted his ideas conveyed, Ivanov was enthusiastically received.  However Chekhov was not a complacent man, nor was he ever to be deceived by popular success.  He began working on a new play; “I want to put on stage life as it really is,” he declared, “people as they really are, and not stilted”, this play was The Seagull.

Many of the now familiar complaints made against Chekhov as a dramatist were first made about The Seagull - the play has no plot, nothing happens, the characters talk only of trivialities – yet there are three complex love triangles, a suicide - though admittedly at the end of the play and ‘talk of trivialities' ignores the poetic language of the central theme and symbolism.

In short The Seagull was the herald of what is to come from the playwright: the minute observation of character, the eye for dramatic detail, the revealing silences and non-sequiturs, the distinctive atmosphere of time passing, of aimlessness and his compassion for the whole group, without exception, there are no villains and no romantic heroes.  It was these qualities, and the symbolism in particular, that drew Nemirovich-Danchenko to the play, and made both him and Stanislavsky so anxious to revive it for the new company they formed.

Chekhov was to become the catalyst of the Russian theatrical transformation whose effects were to be felt all over the world, he wrote prolifically, particularly between 1889-1904 not only plays and sketches but novels and short stories as well.  It was during this time that he wrote his most lasting plays Ivanoff (1890), The Seagull (1896), The Three Sisters (1901), Uncle Vanya (1902) originally The Wood Demon written in 1888 , The Cherry Orchard (1904)The strength of his plays, like those of Ibsen, appears to lie in the discussion of major themes or social questions.  His plays embody compassion in the true sense: a profound understanding and sympathy, he wrote to a friend,

“All I wanted was to say honestly to people: ‘Have a look at
yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!'  The
important thing is that people should realise that, for when they
do, they will certainly create another and better life for themselves.”

Chekhov often clashed with the two directors of the Moscow Art Theatre because he saw his plays as comedies and was disappointed that Stanislavsky's style tended to emphasise their tragic elements rather than the comic satire he intended.  Anton Chekhov died suddenly at the age of forty-four, in the German spa of Badenweiler in 1904, from consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis).  There were no children from his marriage to actress Olga Knipper.



Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National