xxxxxThe dramatist and writer of short stories Anton Chekhov is a principal figure in Russian literature. He began writing in earnest when he was a medical student in the 1880s, and he was so successful that he continued writing throughout his life. He gained recognition with The Steppe in 1888 - describing a journey across the Ukraine - and the 50 or so stories he wrote over the next fourteen years earned him the reputation as one of the world’s greatest short story writers. His major works included A Dreary Story, Ward Number Six, The Murder, Ariadne, A Lady with a Dog, and The Hollow. His play The Seagull, staged in 1896 was a complete failure, but two years later, under the direction of Constantin Stanislavski, it was staged at the Moscow Art Theatre and was well received. Three highly successful plays followed: Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. In both his fiction and drama - centred mainly around the decline of the privileged classes - he replaced plot and action with a detailed analysis of his characters, their interaction with others, and the painful situations in which they found themselves. Today he is remembered especially for his stage productions - performed the world over - and for the influence he had upon the development of modern drama.

ANTON CHEKHOV  1860 - 1904  (Va, Vb, Vc, E7)


Chekhov: by the Russian painter Osip Braz (1873-1936), 1898 – Tretyakov Museum, Moscow. Steppe: by the Russian landscape artist Arkhip Kuindzhi (1842-1910), 1875. Strindberg: by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), 1892 – Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm, Sweden. Sunset: photo, Tate Modern, London.

xxxxxAnton Chekhov earned his place as one of the principal figures in Russian literature, first as a writer of short stories and later as a dramatist. The best of his short stories date from 1888 onwards and include A Dreary Story, Ward Number Six, The Black Monk, The Murder, A Lady with a Dog, and In the Hollow. The plays by which he is best known are The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, produced in the 1890s, and The Three Sisters and the Cherry Orchard, staged in the early years of the 20th century. These plays foreshadowed important techniques in the development of modern drama.

xxxxxChekhov was born in Taganrog on the Sea of Azov in the Ukraine. His early childhood was not a particularly happy one. His father, a pious, domineering man, made his son work in the family grocery shop, and forced him to sing in the church choir. He attended the local high school, but in 1876 his father’s business collapsed and the family was forced to move to Moscow, leaving the young Chekhov to fend for himself. He finished his schooling - supporting himself by giving lessons to younger boys and writing short pieces for the local newspapers - and then in the autumn of 1879 he rejoined his family in Moscow, bent on becoming a doctor. His parents, however, were struggling to make ends meet, and he needed to support them. So, while studying medicine at the Moscow State University, he earned money working as a free-lance journalist, and writing a string of witty stories about contemporary life for weekly periodicals. Such was his success as a writer that after qualifying as a doctor in 1884, he decided to devote much of his time to writing short stories. He produced sixteen in 1885 alone, including The Head of the Family, Old Age and The Huntsman, and these were well received. Early in 1886 he began writing for the New Times, a leading paper in St. Petersburg, and later in the year his first collection was published under the title Motley Stories. Then in the following year, a second collection, At Dusk, won him the coveted Pushkin Prize, awarded for a literary work of “high artistic worth”.

xxxxxChekhov was now recognised as a new talent, but fame was achieved at a price. By then he was not only exhausted by overwork but also by a serous illness. Soon after completing his medical studies he had begun to cough up blood - a symptom of tuberculosis - and by 1887 this condition had become much worse. He was forced to take a rest, and chose to enjoy the warmth of the Ukraine for some weeks. The result, on his return, was The Steppe, a short, partially autobiographical novel in which he described a journey across the steppe lands of southern Russia as seen through the eyes of a young boy (illustrated). The story lines - varied and interesting though they were - were firmly subordinate to the setting. His powerful descriptive passages - naïve at times - captured not only the natural beauty of this haunting wilderness, but also its vastness and permanence - in subtle contrast to human frailty and transience. Published in The Northern Herald a leading literary journal, in 1888, the maturity of this work marked a new phase in his writing career. He now adopted more serious themes, - though humour was often present - and it was the 50 or so stories that he wrote over the next fourteen years which earned him his reputation as one of the world’s greatest short-story writers. Notable among his early works were A Dreary Story, a penetrating study into the mind of an elderly man near to death, The Bet, The Duel and The Grasshopper.

xxxxxIn 1890, somewhat recovered in health and having acquired an interest in prison reform, Chekhov undertook a long and arduous journey of some 6000 miles to visit the penal settlement on Sakhalin Island off the Siberian coast. He was horrified by what he found, distressed particularly by the brutality of the prison officers and the plight of the children living in the camps. He saw it as the extreme limits of man’s degradation. On his return he published his findings in The Island of Sakhalin, a documentary of social value. Completed in 1894, it called for government reform of the penal system.

xxxxxAfter this demanding expedition, Chekhov settled down to the life of a country doctor. In 1892 he bought a country estate in the village of Melikhovo, about 50 miles south of Moscow, and this provided a home for his ageing parents and his sister Marigya. Over the next six years he produced some of his finest short stories. These included The Butterfly, Neighbours, An Anonymous Story, Ward Number Six, The Black Monk, The Murder (based on his time on Sakhalin), Ariadne and Peasants. Many of these works were centred around village life - a number being sketches rather than short stories - but later he turned to describing commercial and industrial life in stories such as A Woman’s Kingdom and Three Years. All these works provided a broad, penetrating study of Russian society in his day, and in this respect a number showed the influence of Leo Tolstoy.

xxxxxAnd it was during his time at Melikhovo that Chekhov’s career as a playwright began in earnest with the completion in 1895 of The Seagull, a drama revolving around the jealousy between a mother and her son. It was not his first attempt at writing for the stage. He had produced his first play, the four-act drama Ivanov, as early as 1887. This had met with some success - being commended especially for its originality - but Chekhov had been dissatisfied with it, and, after producing six further mediocre plays, including The Wood Demon of 1889, gave over more time to writing short stories.

xxxxxHisxventure with The Seagull also got off to a bad start. Premiered in Moscow in 1896 it was a complete flop. However, the following year he got to know Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), one of the founders of the Moscow Art Theatre, and failure turned to success. The play was premiered in 1898 and, under his direction, was enthusiastically received. Other plays then followed and established Chekhov as a pioneering dramatist. Uncle Vanya, staged in 1899, was a brilliant re-write of The Wood Demon, and turned a conventional melodrama into a brilliant study of wasted, unfulfilled lives within the privileged upper classes of Russian society.

xxxxxHis final two plays came after he moved to the Crimean coastal resort of Yalta following a serious recurrence of his tuberculosis. The Three Sisters, premiered in 1901, told of a bored, frustrated family in the Russian provinces, and three years later came his best known work The Cherry Orchard, the sale and destruction of which symbolized the decline of the semi-feudal order in Russia. All these plays, in fact, were variations on a theme: the passing of the old order during which the aristocratic and landowning classes lived lives of quiet desperation, struggling to preserve their cultural values against the rise of a new social elite.

xxxxxChekhov spent his last three winters at Yalta, and it was here that he was attracted to Olga Knipper, a leading actress in his stage productions. They married in 1901, but for much of the time they lived apart because of her acting commitments. In addition to his two plays, he wrote a number of stories while at Yalta, the best known being A Lady with a Dog and In the Hollow. During the last five years of his life he paid visits to the French Riviera and various health resorts to combat his illness, and it was while staying at a German spa at Badenweiler in the Black Forest in July 1904 that tuberculosis eventually brought about his death. He was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery. Today his house in Yalta is maintained as a memorial to his life and work.

xxxxxChekhov was an innovator in both his fiction and his drama. In depicting as he did the disintegration of aristocratic society in the Russia of his day, he chose to replace plot, action and climax by a detailed, almost clinical analysis of his characters, their interaction with each other, and the painful situations in which they found themselves. For the most part he extracted drama, pathos and humour from the mood and atmosphere created and intensified by the growing frustration, futility and boredom of a privileged class on the wane. His characters were not heroes, but victims who were falling prey to circumstances which they were unwilling or unable to control. As such they provided microscopic material for a subtle study of the inner realities of human nature under strain and stress within a humdrum, tedious existence. The drama came from within, via impressions and ideas, and his observations, often softened by humour, were moved by compassion, not by any social or political motive. In his stage productions - by which he is mostly remembered today - this psychological realism produced a “theatre of mood” wherein emotions and inner thoughts were laid bare, allowing the internal drama to unfold. Along with his contemporaries Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, he introduced a new kind of tragedy, employing a technique that he termed “indirect action”.

xxxxxChekhov, who produced hundreds of stories and more than a dozen plays, was a brilliant exponent of the modern short story, and one of Russia’s outstanding playwrights, but it was not until the 1920s, after the First World War, that his work came to be fully appreciated outside of his homeland. Today he is remembered especially for his stage productions - performed the world over - and for the influence he had upon the development of modern drama. However, his fiction has increased in popularity, as has his large amount of lively, witty letters, written throughout his career.

xxxxxIncidentally, such was the success of Chekhov’s plays under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky that the Moscow Art Theatre eventually adopted the seagull as its emblem and it became known as “the house of Chekhov”. However, Chekhov himself was not always pleased with Stanislavsky’s productions, feeling that his drama, not being without an element of comedy, deserved a somewhat lighter touch. ……

xxxxx…… Chekhov greatly admired the works of his countryman Leo Tolstoy, but the admiration was not fully reciprocated. Tolstoy liked some of Chekhov’s short stories, but was not wholly impressed with his drama and once told him - tongue in cheek - that his plays were even worse than those of Shakespeare. ……

xxxxx…… At one point Chekhov was a close friend of the wealthy publisher Aleksey Suvorin, and he paid his first visit to western Europe in his company. Eventually, however, the friendship came to an end over the infamous Dreyfus Affair of 1894. Chekhov supported Dreyfus in his struggle for justice, but Suvorin’s reactionary newspaper New Times came out strongly against the young Jewish army officer. ……

xxxxx…… Although he spent much of his time writing, Chekhov did practice as a doctor throughout his literary career. During his time at Melikhovo, in particular, he tended the poor, paying for the drugs out of his own pocket and travelling long distances to visit the sick. While there he helped in providing schools and a clinic, and later, when living in Yalta, he financed the building of a sanatorium.



August Strindberg

xxxxxThe Swedish dramatist and novelist August Strindberg (1849-1912) wrote more than 50 plays. Notable among his early works are the experimental dramas The Father and Miss Julie, both of which explore the battle between the sexes, and the naturalistic novels The People of Hemso and A Madman’s Defence. And his frank autobiography The Son of a Servant, also dates from these early times. In 1892 he suffered a serious mental breakdown and wrote little for six years. After this so-called “Inferno Crisis” - named after Inferno, the novel he wrote to describe this troubled period - his plays, such as To Damascus, A Dream Play, The Ghost Sonata, Advent and Dance of Death, were charged with symbolism and mysticism, and a number anticipated the movement known as Expressionism, whereby distortion is used to heighten emotional effect. A writer noted for his keen powers of analysis and his remarkable insight into human nature, he is recognised today as one of the most radical innovators in the theatre of his day. He wrote on a variety of subjects, but, along with the dramatists Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov - his fame rests on the outstanding contribution he made to modern drama.

xxxxxThe Swedish dramatist and novelist August Strindberg (1849-1912), together with Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, was a leading exponent of realism. He wrote more than 50 plays, some exploring the battle between the sexes (such as The Father and Miss Julie), others full of symbolism and mysticism, (such as Advent and Dance of Death), and a number based on Swedish historical figures. His prose work produced a number of outstanding novels, including The Red Room, The Natives of Hemso, The Scapegoat, and Black Banners, and he wrote on a multitude of subjects, but it was as an innovator in the theatre that he achieved lasting international fame. A man at odds with the world around him, he led a troubled existence, much of it spent wandering abroad, and the conflict between the sexes and the psychological trauma which fill his dramas are largely drawn from the marital problems and the mental anguish that characterised his own life.

xxxxxHe was born in Stockholm where, as he himself recorded, his childhood was affected by “emotional insecurity, poverty, religious fanaticism and neglect”. He attended the local primary school and then Stockholm Lyceum before enrolling at the University of Uppsala in 1867. He officially completed his studies in 1872, but throughout his student days he tried his hand at teaching, acting and journalism, and spent his summers writing on the Island of Kymmendo. His lack of success at this time drove him to drink and bouts of depression. In 1874, however, he gained employment as an assistant librarian at the Royal Library and it was while working there that he produced his first play of note, Master Olof - an historical drama based on the Swedish reformation.

xxxxxBut it was not until 1879 that his novel The Red Room, a powerful satire on Swedish society, brought him fame. Writing then became his main occupation, but controversy soon followed. His The New Kingdom of 1882, another withering attack upon Swedish institutions, including the royal family, caused uproar and drove him into exile. Apart from occasional visits to Stockholm, he was to spend the next seventeen years of his life living and working in various European countries

xxxxxMany of his early works, centred around the battle between the sexes, are naturalistic in style, creating as they do a blunt portrayal of everyday reality. As such they were quick to offend. His twelve short stories entitled Getting Married, for example, published in 1884, shocked the Swedish establishment for its misogyny and its “mockery of God’s word or sacrament”. He was eventually acquitted of blasphemy, but the book was confiscated, and the case left him deeply troubled in mind.

xxxxxThere followed three of his best experimental plays, each at odds with contemporary social convention: The Father of 1887, a domestic tragedy focusing on the inherent bitterness in a man/woman relationship; The Stronger, two years later, a brilliant one-act play about the role of women in society, and in 1889 Miss Julie, a poignant study of a sexual encounter doomed by social inequality. Naturalistic novels of this period included The People of Hemso (based on his time spent on Kymmendo), A Madman’s Defence, an account of his failed marriage, and By the Open Sea, written on his return to Stockholm. His frank autobiography The Son of a Servant also dates from this period.

xxxxxIn 1892, following the failure of his second marriage, Strindberg suffered a serious mental breakdown. Known as his “Inferno crisis” - he later wrote the autobiography Inferno to describe his psychological and spiritual suffering at that time - it was a mental illness that had long been in the making. He abandoned his literary career for six years and, suffering from hallucinations, periods of deep depression, and bouts of persecution mania, immersed himself in matters of the occult and sought solace in religion, claiming to have a mystical insight into the nature of God and the human Soul. And it was during this period of crisis, as a means of relief, that he turned to painting seascapes in the style of Turner - now highly valued - and conducted experiments in photography.

xxxxxStrindberg returned to his homeland in 1897 and by the following year the “Inferno Crisis” had run its course. The immediate result was the writing of To Damascus, a three-part drama in which the author is himself a wanderer, seeking spiritual contentment. Later works also bordered on the literary movement known as Expressionism, whereby distortion is used to heighten emotional effect. His two symbolic plays A Dream Play of 1901 and The Ghost Sonata of 1908 abandoned the realistic conventions of time, place and action. The first attempted to capture the form of a dream, devoid of time and space, and the second was filled with a host of weird characters, seen as real or, at times, as fleeting illusions. And symbolism and mysticism were the major ingredients of his Advent and The Dance of Death. Apart from these experimental dramas, this later period also saw the writing of a number of novels - such as Black Banners and The Scapegoat - some lyrical poems, and a series of historical plays, begun in 1889 and including Gustav Vasa of 1899.


xxxxxIn 1907 Strindberg assisted in the founding of the tiny Intimate Theatre in Stockholm, and the following year he moved into Blue Tower, his final home. His last play, the Great Highway, a symbolic work tracing his own life, was produced in 1909. This was his sixtieth year, and, in his honour, widespread celebrations were held in Stockholm to mark the occasion. He died of stomach cancer three years later, and Blue Tower became a museum dedicated to his life and work and housing his library.

xxxxxApart from producing more than 50 plays and a large number of novels and shorts stories, Strindberg wrote essays, poetry and works of history and travel. But it is as an outstanding playwright that he is remembered today. Noted for his keen powers of analysis and his remarkable insight into human nature, he ranks alongside Ibsen and Chekhov as a precursor of the modern drama. Through his plays, critical writings and original methods of production, he is recognised as one of the most radical innovators in the theatre of his day, and a leading precursor of the 20th century movements of Expressionism and Surrealism.

xxxxxIncidentally, during his career Strindberg corresponded with Friedrich Nietzsche, and the influence of this German philosopher - notably his idea of a constant struggle between stronger and weaker wills - can be seen in many of his works. He was also interested in the horror stories of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, and he numbered among his friends the French artist Paul Gauguin and the Norwegian symbolist painter Edvard Munch. The portrait of Strindberg above is by Munch. ……  

Xxxxx……XStrindberg entered into three tempestuous marriages. His first, to the Finnish noblewoman Siri von Essen, ended in divorce in 1891 and the loss of custody of  his four children. The second, to Frida Uhl, a young Austrian journalist, only lasted two years, coming to an end in 1895. His third, to a Norwegian actress named Harriet Bosse, ended in separation in 1904 and the loss of his fifth child. ……

xxxxx……XHere illustrated is one of Strindberg’s Turner-like seascapes entitled Sunset.