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A Biography and Assessment of Anton Chekhov

Provides an overview of the technique of Chekhov's writings.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich????? Russian dramatist and short-story writer (1860-1904). One of the most important writers to grow out of the conditions of the pre-Revolutionary Russia was Anton Chekhov. His was a Russia of stagnant atmosphere where the poor suffered from severe want, the rich from idleness and boredom. Intellect and intuition were diverted into unproductive or, at best, official channels. Highly impressionable, Chekhov often complained of the stultifying effect of Russian life: ?It is very monotonous and boring; one day is very much like another?, he wrote at 44, shortly before his death. Perhaps his long and severe illness contributes to this general feeling of frustration. The tragedy of a life either not yet lived or already outlived emanates from Chekhov?s plays and stories.
His ancestors having been serfs, Chekhov always felt a sincere sympathy for the poor and oppressed, a feeling which was deepened by his contacts as a physician. He aimed at their betterment in his study of peasant life in the censuses he helped conduct and the projects he planned for them (i.e. people?s palace in Moscow). To oppose oppression and to lead the way out of drabness into a more purposeful future were his main concerns.
The writer Chekhov was most at home in short forms: the play and the short story. The subtle power of his descriptions of the pre revolutionary Russia is equaled only by Dostoevsky. Too human to perceive only one side of life, Chekhov never failed to see a bit of sunlight and beauty in a tragic situation. Yet, it is his simplicity in all its different manifestations which is most outstanding in Chekhov?s art. Constantine Stanislavski, director of the Art Theatre in Moscow, wrote of Chekhov?s plays (in My Life Art): ?They are plays written on the simplest themes which in themselves are not interesting. But they are permeated by the eternal and he who feels this quality in them perceives that they are written for all eternity?

For this conciseness as a storyteller Chekhov has been compared to Maupassant. Like the French storyteller, he excels in brevity and emphasizes the small detail. The life depicted in his stories is insignificant as such; the general tone is drabness. Their humor is that of satire, their tragedy is one of failure. In their brilliantly drawn contours and their poignancy, Chekhov?s stories perhaps outshine his plays.

The realism in Chekhov?s plays has had the effect of simplifying plot to stress characterization, environment, and underlying social philosophy. Chekhov?s plays thus mark the de-theatricalization of the stage through elevation of atmosphere above plot and transformation of the inner, seemingly passive battle with life, into vital dramatic material. The language of these plays gives the flavor of real conversation through incoherence, desultoriness, and digression. This is again made possibly by keeping the plot to a minimum.
By playing little attention to the development, climax, and denouement of the ply, Chekhov achieved his famous ?technique of understatement?. He avoided the ?big scene? and ignored the ?heroic hero?. In The Cherry Orchard (1904), for instance, the scene in which Lopakhin buys the estate must be considered the climax, but his statement of the fact seems so incidental and is received so quietly that its effect is quite different from the usual climactic scene. The figure of the ? unheroic hero? (who has many counterparts in modern world literature) first emerged in Chekhov?s play Ivanov (1889), in which man is portrayed as being oppressed_like the author himself- by the dullness and the commonplace qualities of life.
The best known plays of Chekhov, besides The Cherry Orchard, are The Seagull (1896), Three Sisters (1899), and Uncle Vania (1902). They give the reader or spectator a glimpse of life, but there is no definite beginning or end to the action; it is veiled and unveiled suddenly, quietly, and undramatically, offering no judgment and no moral. The fleeting moment with its delicate interplay of light and shadow, the laughter that ends in a groan, the smile on the verge of tears-these are the emotional undercurrents that permeate his plays. Chekhov also reflects the social undercurrents of pre-Revolutionary Russia. In an atmosphere of hopelessness, he portrays an idle aristocratic class craving to lose itself in pleasure and work. Vershinin, in Three Sisters, who has never worked in his life, prophesies that ?within another twenty-four or thirty years, everyone will work! Everyone?.
Although Chekhov?s dramas are realistically concerned with the problems of society, criticizing it and pointing to its future, they are first and foremost artistic portrayals of life. His ability to create atmosphere and to delineate characters, and his realization of aspects of lie seemingly insignificant but psychologically important, have made Chekhov the forerunner of modern playwrights like O?Neill, William Saroyan, and Tennessee Williams.

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