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Interpreting Chekhov

Interpreting Chekhov

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Interpreting Chekhov
    Book Description:

    The author's contention is that Chekhov's plays have often been misinterpreted by scholars and directors, particularly through their failure to adequately balance the comic and tragic elements inherent in these works. Through a close examination of the form and content of Chekhov's dramas, the author shows how deeply pessimistic or overly optimistic interpretations fail to sufficiently account for the rich complexity and ambiguity of these plays. The author suggests that, by accepting that Chekhov's plays are synthetic tragi-comedies which juxtapose potentially tragic sub-texts with essentially comic texts, critics and directors are more likely to produce richer and more deeply satisfying interpretations of these works. Besides being of general interest to any reader interested in understanding Chekhov's work, the book is intended to be of particular interest to students of Drama and Theatre Studies and to potential directors of these subtle plays.

    eISBN: 978-1-920942-68-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-ii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. iii-iv)
  3. Preface
    (pp. v-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Throughout his life, Anton Chekhov was highly critical of many features of the theatre of his day. His negative attitude towards directors and actors who presented his plays in a manner that displeased him led Chekhov to make the acerbic comment , ʹThe stage is a scaffold on which the playwright is executedʹ.³ Even the director who did the most to establish Chekhovʹs fame in the theatre, Konstantin Stanislavski, did not escape the playwrightʹs anger. The depth of Chekhovʹs discontent with theatre artists is well documented. As Philip Callow points out:

    There is no doubt that Chekhov was disillusioned with...

  6. Chapter 1. Chekhovʹs Vision of Reality
    (pp. 21-56)

    Some critics have argued that the vision of reality expressed in Chekhovʹs plays and short stories is deeply pessimistic, others that his view is essentially progressive and optimistic. There have even been critics who deny that Chekhov had any overall vision at all. Maurice Valency, for example, seems to think that a writer can simply describe life without having any world view underpinning that description. According to Valency:

    [Chekhov] had no theory of life to expound, no point to make, no thesis. It is quite unnecessary for the understanding of his drama to discuss his world view. If he had...

  7. Chapter 2. The Search for Form
    (pp. 57-92)

    If the first task of any director of Chekhov is to interpret the vision of reality expressed in his plays, then the second task is to come to an understanding of the particular form that Chekhov developed to express that vision. The distinction between form and content is difficult to make in Chekhovʹs case since both the manner and the matter of Chekhovʹs dramaturgy are determined by the playwrightʹs belief that dramatic art should be true to life.

    Chekhov was quite certain that literary artists should depict ʹlife as it isʹ. In 1887, in the much quoted letter to M....

  8. Chapter 3. Failed Experiments: The Early Plays
    (pp. 93-126)

    Chekhov did not immediately find the dramatic form that would function as the perfect objective correlative of his vision of reality. He began his career as a playwright by adopting the conventions of earlier well-established dramatic genres. As with his short-story writing, Chekhov underwent a period of literary apprenticeship before he was able to free himself from the use of these outdated and inappropriate techniques. As Simon Karlinsky points out: 'It was in The Seagull that this liberation first occurred, the creative breakthrough which made Chekhov as much an innovator in the field of drama as he already was in...

  9. Chapter 4. The Seagull: From Disaster to Triumph
    (pp. 127-168)

    Despite the fact that he felt that Ivanov (1887) had not been interpreted correctly by critics and theatrical practitioners alike, Chekhov had scored a minor theatrical success with that play. He was to endure the pain of seeing his next play, The Wood Demon (1889), fail miserably in its Moscow production. J. L. Styan is probably correct when he asserts that:

    The former was a success with the public because it was more closely modelled after the kind of melodrama which was common throughout Europe at that time; the latter was a failure because Chekhov had discarded too many of...

  10. Chapter 5. Uncle Vanya: ʹA Glimmer of Light Shining in the Distanceʹ
    (pp. 169-194)

    Uncle Vanya, which received its Moscow premiere in October 1899, appears to be in many ways a more conventional play than The Seagull. One reviewer of the Moscow Art Theatre 1924 touring production commented that ʹUncle Vanya is a play not far removed in construction from the old time melodrama thrillers of the American stageʹ.³

    Despite the playʹs apparent simplicity, it has proved to be just as open to radically opposing interpretations as any of Chekhovʹs dramas. Both in Russia and the West, the gloom and doom version of Uncle Vanya has tended to predominate with both critics and directors....

  11. Chapter 6. Three Sisters: ʹOh if we could only know!ʹ
    (pp. 195-224)

    Three Sisters, more than any of Chekhovʹs plays, has been read as a deeply pessimistic, almost nihilistic play, by many critics, both in Russia and in the West. Beverly Hahn described it as ʹa profoundly sad playʹ, before adding, ʹLionel Trilling calls it one of the saddest works in all literatureʹ.³ Many productions have likewise been extremely bleak affairs. Chekhovʹs so-called ʹpessimismʹ led one reviewer of Theodore Komisarjevskyʹs 1926 London production to describe the playwright as ʹthe dramatist of disillusionment, of frustrated hopes, and of human failure’.⁴ In 1984, Simon Karlinsky optimistically claimed: ʹIn the West, the durable cliché of...

  12. Chapter 7. The Cherry Orchard: Complete Synthesis of Vision and Form
    (pp. 225-262)

    A month after Chekhov had written to the actress Mariya Petrovna Lilina informing her that his new play, The Cherry Orchard, ʹhas turned out not a drama, but a comedy, in places even a farceʹ,³ her husband Stanislavski wrote to the playwright and informed him that the play ʹis not a comedy, nor a farce as you have written, this is a tragedy, whatever escape towards a better life you open up in the last actʹ.⁴ So began the interpretative controversy that has continued to this day. Unfortunately, the quarrel about which genre more aptly describes The Cherry Orchard has...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 263-266)

    Chekhov was fortunate to have had his plays performed by the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre. Whatever the agony he suffered seeing his plays presented in an uncongenial manner; whatever the limitations Stanislavski had as a director of his plays, Chekhov could not have found a group of actors more appropriately trained to perform his works. It was the system of acting devised by Stanislavski and taught to his students that made it possible for actors to explore the inner lives of their characters and to create the necessary subtext in performance. Without this acting system, there would have...

  14. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 267-302)
  15. Index
    (pp. 303-310)