Anton Chekhov


by Pericles Lewis

In the plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), tragedy and comedy are inextricably intertwined. Although his major plays are suffused with an air of anxiety and pessimism akin to those of Henrik Ibsen, he insisted on calling The Seagull (1895) and The Cherry Orchard (1903) comedies. He gave Uncle Vanya (1896) the non-committal subtitle “Scenes from Country Life,” and called Three Sisters (1900) a “drama.” Yet none of these plays is either conventionally comic or tragic. In particular, the central aspect of Aristotelian tragedy, the climactic action entailing reversal or recognition, seems absent from Chekhov’s plays. In general, his Russian gentry are in decline, but the decline is gradual and irreversible. They undergo various minor illuminations in the course of the plays but never a blinding recognition that could lead to a change of fortune.

Chekhov, a doctor and the grandson of a serf, became famous as a story-writer before his first successes as a playwright. Doctors come and go in his plays, sometimes expressing wisdom and more often resignation. Generally seen by his compatriots as a naturalist, he was later interpreted by the Soviets as a chronicler of the rise of the bourgeoisie, the decline of the aristocracy, and the imminence of revolution (he died in 1904, the year before the first Russian Revolution). However, this interpretation depended on an avoidance of Chekhov’s dramatic innovations, which changed the nature of plot and its relationship to character. The plot of Ibsen’s first major play, The Seagull, is fairly conventional; Chekhov’s symbolism and self-conscious reflection on the nature of drama are the main features that distinguish this work from that of earlier realist and naturalist playwrights. In the last decade of his life, however, Chekhov wrote three masterpieces that increasingly resembled the symbolist drama of his fictional playwright Konstantin Treplev.

One of the characters in The Seagull complains about a play within the play that “nothing happens”— a complaint that has been repeated by critics of Chekhov’s later plays. In them, he turns away from conventions like the love plot, the climactic final gunshot, even the main character; instead Chekhov explores “the drama of the undramatic.”[1] Like life itself, Chekhov’s plots generally lack resolution. The loaded pistol of his famous aphorism provides an example. In Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the pistols go off, and if the first one wounds Lovborg in an unexpected way, the second provides a suitably dramatic climax. By contrast, in The Seagull, Konstantin attempts suicide between the first and second acts, and then finally succeeds in killing himself in the last scene. In Uncle Vanya, written a year later, Vanya wants to kill his brother-in-law Professor Serebriakov, a charlatan who has consumed all the money the family estate can produce. As Vanya complains, “For twenty-five years he’s been regurgitating other people’s ideas about realism, naturalism, all that bullshit.” At the end of the third act, Vanya, infuriated with the Professor, shoots at him twice, but misses. The shots do not result in any climactic action. Nothing changes. As Vanya observes in the fourth act, “Funny, isn’t it? I try to kill someone, nobody calls the police, nobody arrests me. Which means you all think I’m crazy.” Vanya thinks of killing himself with a vial of Dr. Astrov’s morphine, but Sonya convinces him to give the morphine back. The Professor and his second wife return to Moscow, and everything on the estate returns to normal, except that the characters are more disillusioned than ever. In his last work, The Cherry Orchard, a minor character boasts in the second act, “I always carry a loaded pistol.” He brandishes the weapon too. Yet, as Chekhov announced proudly, “There’s not a single pistol-shot in the whole play.”[2]

Chekhov’s plays move away from the focus on a central heroic figure. Instead of heroes or villains, the later plays tend to feature ensemble casts of characters who are neither particularly good nor particularly bad. In Three Sisters, the sisters are indeed heroines, but their actions are not typically heroic. Mainly, they endure. Throughout the play, the sisters dream of escaping their country estate and going to Moscow. Irina begs to be allowed to go at the end of the second and third acts. Gradually, however, their brother gambles away the family fortune, and at the end of the play the oldest, Olga, realizes: “of course, I’ll never get to Moscow….” As Richard Gilman has observed, the sisters’ waiting to go to Moscow resembles the Vladimir and Estragon’s waiting in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952), written half a century later. Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable(1953), would end with the line “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Chekhov sounds the same theme of endurance. At the end of Uncle Vanya, Sonya recognizes that nothing in her life or her uncle’s will change and says: “You and I, Uncle Vanya, we have to go on living. The days will be slow, and the nights will be long, but we’ll take whatever fate sends us.” At the end of Three Sisters, Masha says “we have to go on living.”

Like the realists and naturalists (and unlike his character Konstantin), Chekhov claims to represent the world as it is, without moral judgments. Most of the climactic action in his works takes place offstage, often before the beginning of the play. What takes center stage is conversation. Not exactly, as Irina puts it in The Seagull, “one long speech,” however; in Chekhov’s plays there are many short speeches and many long silences, only occasionally punctuated by a longer monologue. Characters who do make lengthy speeches, about the environment, or the problem of work, or the future of Russia, usually retract or ironize them. Chekhov’s characters often talk past each other, as if they are not hearing one another. Some, like the old butler Firs, in The Cherry Orchard, are in fact deaf. Chekhov defended the dialogue in his plays on realistic grounds: “Things on stage should be as complicated and yet as simple as in life. People dine, just dine, while their happiness is made and their lives are smashed.”[3] Here, Chekhov claimed to be exposing the drama of everyday life, and he does so, but at the same time the effect of non-sequitur in his speeches prefigures the later absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett or Eugène Ionesco.

Throughout Chekhov’s plays, any sort of resolution, comic or tragic, is deferred; he often presents courtships that go nowhere, instead of a conventional love plot. In The Cherry Orchard, the characters expect the successful businessman Lopakhin, the son and grandson of serfs, to propose to Varya, the adopted daughter of impoverished aristocrats. Yet, every time he is left alone with her he seems uneasy. By the end of the play, the family estate is sold to Lopakhin, and Chekhov seems to leave two possibilities open: a comic resolution in which Lopakhin marries Varya and the estate stays in the family, or a tragic one, in which the estate is destroyed for the sake of real estate development (a theme from Ibsen’s Master Builder). Yet, Chekhov resists every opportunity to dramatize this ending. Lopakhin meets with Varya, but instead of proposing he comments on the weather. Uncle Gayev plans to make a speech about the significance of the occasion, but the others dissuade him from speaking. In the final scene, while axes are heard chopping down the orchard offstage, the comic figure Firs reappears; elderly and ill, he has been left behind by the family, who thought he had been taken to an old age home. He has been locked in the house, which is soon to be demolished. So, he lies down on the stage and waits—for someone to come back, or simply for death to come get him. The scene can be played tragically, but it works better as farce. This is one reason why Chekhov insisted on calling the play a comedy. The Cherry Orchard does not resolve itself in marriage, like a conventional comedy, but it deploys farce to come to terms with the modern failure of resolution. For this reason, Chekhov complained about the lugubrious naturalistic staging of his plays at Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater, even though these performances made Chekhov famous. Although Chekhov’s representation of passing time, boredom, and silence can be justified in realist or naturalist terms, his plays continually gesture beyond the naturalistic theater, portending the disruption of naturalism in the twentieth century.[4]

  1. ↑ Richard Gilman, The Making of Modern Drama (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 1974), p. 120.
  2. ↑ Quoted in James McFarlane, “Intimate Theatre: Maeterlinck to Strindberg,” Modernism 1890-1930, p. 519.
  3. ↑ Ilia Gurlyand, “Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov,” quoted in Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A Life (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997), p. 203.
  4. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 184-187.