ANTON PAVLOVICH CHEKHOV
One of Anton Chekhov's minor dramatic works, Medved (The Bear, sometimes translated as (The Boor) was written in 1888 and apparently held in low esteem by Chekhov, who described it as "a silly little French vaudeville," as Vera Gottlieb notes in The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov. Yet much of Chekhov's literary income was earned through performances of The Bear and similar plays. Better known for his short stories and longer dramas than for such farces, Chekhov is considered a master of nineteenth-century, Russian realism. (Realism involves an attempt to depict people, environments, and objects as they exist in everyday life.) Even in comic, one-act plays such as The Bear, he vividly depicts details of the everyday lives of common people. The action of such works is driven by the characters and their interactions with one another. In The Bear, a widow, who mourns for her husband seven months after his death, is approached by one of his creditors, a man in dire financial circumstances who desperately requires the money that the widow's husband owed him. The exchange between the widow and the creditor quickly progresses from polite to explosive, and the creditor, who expresses his negative opinion of women in general, is transformed by the spirit with which the widow argues with him. Yet the two agree to duel, and the widow's willingness to meet this challenge compels the creditor to profess his love for her. The play ends with the pair embracing. Despite Chekhov's disparaging remarks about The Bear, it
is known from his letters that he took the composition of such plays as seriously as he viewed the writing of his fiction and lengthier dramas.
Medved was originally published in 1888, in Moscow, Russia, and was later translated as The Bear by Julius West in The Plays by Anton Tchekoff, published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1916. The work is also available in The Cherry Orchard & Other Plays, published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1935 and in Plays by Anton Chekhov, Second Series, published by Hard Press in 2006.
The third son of Pavel Egorovich Chekhov and Evgeniia Iakovlevna Morozova, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (sometimes spelled Tchekoff) was born on January 17, 1860, in the city of Taganrog, Russia. (Chekhov's birthday is sometimes alternately listed as January 29, 1860, and the day of his death as July 15, 1904, instead of July 2, 1904, because two calendars were in use in the nineteenth century—the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar. The calendars differ in the way they calculate leap years.) Chekhov's father, an authoritarian man and a devout Orthodox Christian, owned a general store where Chekhov and his older brothers worked. The business ultimately failed, and in 1876, Pavel Chekhov fled from his debts and took his family to Moscow, where his two eldest sons lived. Anton Chekhov remained in Taganrog to finish secondary school. After finishing school in 1879, Chekhov received a local scholarship and enrolled in the medical school at Moscow University. In 1880, Chekhov published his first story in the journal Strekoza (Dragonfly). Thus began his prolific career as a short story writer, through which he supported his family. He continued to pursue his medical studies and graduated from Moscow University in 1884. The same year, using the pseudonym A. Chekhonte, he published his first collection of short stories, titled Skazki Mel'pomeny (Tales of Melpomene). Chekhov also opened a medical practice in 1884 and discovered, following his first pulmonary hemorrhage, that he suffered from tuberculosis. Over the next several years, Chekhov increasingly contributed to well-respected literary magazines and was praised as a talented newcomer in the world of literary fiction. Despite the critical praise Chekhov received during this time period, some reviewers felt that he shouldn't use his talent on trivial short stories.
Chekhov wrote the full-length play Ivanov in the fall of 1887, and it was produced in November of that year. It was published the next month and became a theatrical success. In 1888, Chekhov focused on his dramatic works, honing Ivanov and completing smaller works, including The Bear, which was published that year. In 1890, after months of planning the arduous and ambitious journey, Chekhov left for Sakhalin Island, a Russian prison colony (a community of prisoners and their families). He remained there for several months, gathering information for a census and material for a book. Following another year of various travels, Chekhov purchased a small estate south of Moscow, where he lived, wrote, and served the surrounding community as a physician. In the late 1890s, Chekhov's illness began to intensify, and he spent the winter of 1897 in Nice, France, with other tuberculosis sufferers. After returning to Moscow, Chekhov met an actress, Olga Knipper, who was to act in his play Diadia Vania (Uncle Vania), published in 1897 and produced in 1898. In addition to playwriting, he began Page 22 | Top of Articleto edit his earlier works of short fiction for another collection. He courted Olga, and the two traveled to Yalta, in what is now Ukraine, where Chekhov was having a new home built. In 1901, Chekhov and Olga married in Moscow. His last play, Vishnevyi sad (The Cherry Orchard), premiered in Moscow in 1904 and enjoyed the acclaim of theatergoers and critics. It was published the same year. In Badenweiler, Germany, a resort town where he and Olga had traveled to rest, Chekhov succumbed to tuberculosis; he died on July 2, 1904.
A play in one act, The Bear takes place in a single setting, that of the widow Elena Ivanovna Popova's home. The scene opens with Popova staring at a photograph. Her elderly footman (servant), Luka, is arguing with her. Luka bemoans the fact that Popova never leaves the house, that she has grieved too long the death of her husband Nicolai Mihailovitch. Luka exclaims that it has been an entire year since she has left the house. Telling her about the regiment stationed nearby, Luka informs Popova that the soldiers are handsome and that each Friday there is a ball at their camp. Luka also states that Popova's beauty will fade and that when she finally seeks to be admired by the officers, they will not look at her, adding, "It will be too late." In reply, Popova professes that she will never stop mourning Nicolai. Admitting that Nicolai was cruel and unfaithful to her, Popova insists that she will "be true till death," thereby proving to her late husband her own constancy and goodness. Luka insists that she stop talking this way and encourages her to go out for a walk or have one of the horses, Toby or Giant, harnessed so that she may go for a drive and visit neighbors. At the mention of Toby, her husband's favorite horse, Popova begins to weep and orders Luka to feed the animal an extra ration of oats.
A bell rings, and Popova, wondering who could be visiting her, instructs Luka to turn the person away. In his absence, she returns her gaze to the photograph. Speaking to it, Popova affirms her faithfulness once more and chastises her husband for his adultery. Luka reappears and informs Popova that a gentleman has arrived who demands to be seen despite Luka's efforts to send him on his way. She agrees to see the man, and as Luka leaves, Popova comments on her annoyance with people. She suggests that perhaps entering a convent might be necessary. A man enters, yelling at Luka, and then politely introduces himself to Popova as "Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov, landowner and retired lieutenant of artillery." Smirnov states that he has come regarding an urgent matter and further explains that Popova's husband died owing him over a thousand rubles. Additionally, Smirnov states, he must pay the interest on his own mortgage the next day, so he requires the money Nicolai owed him immediately. Popova informs Smirnov that while she currently does not have the money, her steward will arrive from town in two days, and upon his return, she will instruct him to settle the debt with Smirnov. Popova adds that it is "exactly seven months" since the death of her husband and that her current "state of mind" is such that she cannot attend to financial matters. An argument ensues between the two. Smirnov Page 23 | Top of Articlereiterates his dire need for the money, and Popova continues to insist that she does not have the cash to spare. Smirnov becomes more and more agitated, shouting and cursing at Popova. He tells her of the other people who owe him money, who also have an excuse as to why they cannot pay him. Popova chastises him for his language and tone of voice and exits the room. (Some editions of the text omit the stage direction indicating Popova's departure at this point, but it is clear that she leaves, as a stage direction for her reentrance appears shortly afterward.)
In Popova's absence, Smirnov continues to rant, stating that he has been "too gentle" with the people who owe him money, but that Popova might find out what he is really like. Concluding his tirade, he states that he will remain at Popova's house until she pays him. Complaining to Luka about what he believes is "silly feminine logic," Smirnov demands that Luka bring him some water. After bringing Smirnov the water he requested, Luka announces that Popova is ill and will not see him. Smirnov yells out the window to his driver, ordering him to unharness the horses, and then demands a glass of vodka from Luka. Shortly after Luka arrives with the drink, Popova reenters the room and asks that Smirnov stop shouting. However, both Popova and Smirnov resume yelling at one another about the debt, and Popova accuses Smirnov of being rude and not knowing how to properly behave around women. He begins to tease her, and attempts to shower her, sarcastically, with French pleasantries. Smirnov then launches into an extended speech about the lover he used to be, the women he used to woo, and how he believes all women are, in the end, unfaithful. This goads Popova into her own tirade about her cheating husband and her faithfulness. The argument returns to financial matters, and when Popova asks Luka to show Smirnov out, the creditor refuses to leave. Popova and Smirnov continue to shout at one another, while Luka wails in fear. Popova accuses Smirnov of being a boor, a bear, a monster, and a Bourbon (a derogatory reference to the French), and Smirnov is shocked that she would have the nerve to insult him. He suggests that she only feels free to do so because she is a woman and will not be subject to the same repercussions that a man would. Insisting that she pay for her insults and that if she wants "equality of rights" she will certainly get it, Smirnov challenges Popova to a duel. She accepts the challenge instantly and leaves to get her husband's pistols.
Smirnov ponders the spirit and nerve Popova possesses, marveling at her acceptance of the challenge. He admits to himself that he is no longer angry with her. Returning with the pistols, Popova asks Smirnov to show her how to use them. A fearful Luka departs, seeking the coachman and gardener to help prevent a catastrophe. Smirnov offers instructions to Popova, but informs her that he has no intention of shooting her. She asks him why he will not and accuses him of being afraid. Smirnov then confesses that he likes her. Popova responds with laughter. When Smirnov admits that he is nearly in love with her, Popova expresses her hatred of him. Threatening to shoot him, Popova remains adamant in the face of Smirnov's increasingly passionate proclamations of love. He even proposes to her but gets up to leave when it seems as if she will not have him. Popova stops him before he goes. Her brief speech that follows alternates between commands that he leave and insistence that he remain. When Smirnov moves toward the door, she asks where he is going but then yells at him to get out. As she continues to vacillate, Smirnov approaches her and embraces her. Despite Popova's protestations, Smirnov kisses her, just as Luka returns with the gardener, the coachman, and various workmen, all armed with tools. Popova turns to Luka and tells him not to give Toby any oats at all.
Luka is Popova's servant, an elderly footman. He speaks to his mistress in a familiar, fatherly way. Insisting that Popova has mourned her husband long enough, Luka describes his own brief mourning period following his wife's death. Luka advises Popova to visit the neighbors and to visit the soldiers' camp and attend their weekly balls. After Smirnov's arrival, Luka becomes increasingly fearful of the gentleman's shouting and insistence on remaining at Popova's house until he is paid. Luka is positively panic-stricken when Popova and Smirnov agree to a duel. Remaining politely deferential to Smirnov, Luka attempts on several occasions to ask Smirnov to leave, but when Smirnov responds with hostility and threats, Luka "clutches at his heart" and claims illness and shortness of breath. Weeping, he begs Smirnov to leave. Despite Luka's fear, he remains protective of Popova Page 24 | Top of Articleand departs to find reinforcements, leaving Smirnov and Popova alone together. Luka returns some time later with various workmen armed with an axe, a rake, a pitchfork, and poles. The men discover Smirnov and Popova kissing instead of arguing or dueling.
Elena Ivanovna Popova
Elena Ivanovna Popova is the widow of Nicolai Mihailovitch, who has been dead for seven months. She remains deep in mourning for her husband, and has vowed to mourn him for the rest of her life in order to prove her faithfulness to him. Despite Smirnov's initial show of respect for her, Popova is curt and abrupt. However, she does not attempt to shirk her husband's debt; rather, she offers to pay Smirnov within a few days, after her steward has returned from town. After she leaves and reenters, the stage direction indicates that her eyes are "downcast," perhaps suggesting that Popova is attempting to remain civil and respectful. When Smirnov refuses to leave, she quickly becomes fiery, insistent. When their ensuing argument turns to the topic of faithfulness, Popova's pain at having been betrayed by her husband reveals itself. Yet, as she affirms her intentions to remain faithful to him and mourn him until her death, her grief appears to transform into spitefulness and anger. Smirnov points out that even though she has chosen the life of a shut in, she still powders her face, hinting that she might in fact be interested in attracting a man. Indeed, though she is initially dismissive of Smirnov's compliments and insistence on his love for her, Popova hesitates when he attempts to leave. Confused, both with Smirnov's change of heart and by her own fluctuations in emotion, Popova cannot decide if she wants Smirnov to stay or depart. She continues to resist him until he embraces and kisses her. Following the kiss, though, Popova emphasizes the transference of her affections from her dead husband to Smirnov. She tells Luka not to reward the horse Toby with a ration of oats after all, demonstrating that she will no longer indulge her memories of her late husband. Significantly, it is Smirnov who sold the oats to Popova's husband, and it is this debt that he has come to collect; Popova is now aligning herself with her husband's creditor. By denying the horse the oats her husband purchased from Smirnov, and by transferring her affections to this man in particular, Popova not only rejects her husband's memory but snubs him as well. Her actions, while symbolic of the end of her mourning period, seem petty, as it is the innocent horse—whose only crime is having been the husband's favorite—who is punished.
While Popova's spirit impresses Smirnov, the fact that she is won over in such a short time by only his persistence and his kiss suggests that Popova may be as fickle as some of the other women whom Smirnov has already ridiculed. Additionally, Popova displays a capacity for deception. As Smirnov observes, she claims to want to shut herself off from society, yet she continues to be concerned about her appearance. Furthermore, she is clearly a strong-willed woman, unafraid of expressing her views, yet she attempts in various instances throughout the play to portray herself as more demure and reserved than she actually is. She apparently behaves this way for the sake of propriety, and yet she shows a blatant disregard for what her society deems proper by first verbally insulting Smirnov and then agreeing to the duel with him. Popova is a study in contradiction, and as such is the source of some of the play's humor. She is also a representation of both Chekhov's ability to create subtle, mutable characters with flaws and depth, and his willingness to do so even in a "simple" play.
Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov
Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov enters the play with a polite request of Popova, asking her to pay him the money Nicolai Mihailovitch, her husband, owed Smirnov for oats for horse feed. Popova's repeated response that she will be unable to pay him transforms Smirnov's demeanor from polite to hostile. He stubbornly intends to remain in her house until she pays him, and as their argument intensifies, he taunts and teases her. While Popova has reprimanded Smirnov for not knowing how to properly speak to a woman, he twists her desire to be treated respectfully into an opportunity to tease her about the way he believes women like to be wooed. He recounts stories about the women he has loved, who have been unfaithful to him. His challenge to a duel stems from Popova insulting him repeatedly, and Smirnov feels that if a man had carried on in such a manner, a duel would be the obvious way to address the situation. Yet his surprise at her response to the challenge triggers a transformation in his feelings for her. He feels that at last he has found a Page 25 | Top of Article"real woman." He finds that not only is he not angry with her any longer but that he actually likes her. As he explains to her the proper way to hold and fire a pistol, he begins to notice her physical beauty.
By the time Popova is ready to go into the garden to have the duel, Smirnov has resolved to shoot his pistol into the air to spare Popova. The more she insists she hates him, the more Smirnov falls for Popova. On his knees, he confesses his love for her. Popova continues to resist his advances but in a manner that is hesitating enough to give Smirnov hope. Emboldened by her confusion, which suggests to Smirnov that Popova might be willing to consider him as a suitor, Smirnov kisses her.
Death and Mourning
In Chekhov's The Bear, death, grief, and mourning are portrayed in a comic, lighthearted manner. Popova's husband has been dead only seven months, but her melodramatic comments, combined with Luka's exaggerations and comic reactions to Popova's grief, make the serious issue of death something to joke about. From the beginning of the play, Luka amplifies Popova's response to her husband's death, and through his exaggeration of the situation, he turns Nicolai's death and Popova's grief into something other than a serious event and an appropriate response. Furthermore, he attempts to legitimize the fact that he finds Popova's grief silly. Luka opens the play by chastising Popova for sitting in her house and not enjoying herself, adding that every other living creature is able to enjoy itself, even the cat outside. He claims Popova has not left the house in an entire year, even though we learn later that it has only been seven months since Popova has become a widow. In response, Popova defends herself, but her comments reflect an arguably exaggerated view of grief, in that she plans to grieve forever. She states that she will never go out again, as her life is over anyway; her husband is dead, and she has "buried" herself "between four walls." Luka, trying to be practical, replies that although Popova's husband is dead, it was God's will, and Popova has been right to mourn him. Yet she cannot mourn forever, he insists, explaining that when his own wife died, he grieved for her as well. He cried for a month, and "that's enough for her." The "old woman," as he repeatedly calls her, was not worth him wasting any more of his life on grief. Luka continues to complain about Popova never leaving the house due to her grief. He jokes that they live like spiders, never seeing the light of day, and that the mice have devoured his livery (uniform). Popova will not be swayed, and she expresses her determination to prove how much more faithful to her husband she was and will be than he ever was to her. She even bursts into tears at the mention of her husband's favorite horse. While Luka chides Popova for her extended mourning, Smirnov scoffs, believing that her mourning is really all a show, so that others will find her "mysterious" and "poetic." Finally, after Smirnov's feelings for Popova transform from anger into love, her grief dissolves as Smirnov kisses her. Because Popova's grief has already been the object of jokes since the beginning of the play, it does not come as a shock by the play's end that she is willing to put her grief aside and embrace Smirnov.
Love and Faithfulness
For Popova, love was something she felt for her husband until his death, and faithfulness became a duty, a point to prove afterwards. Readers learn in her opening exchange with Luka that Popova loved her husband, Nicolai, even though he treated her cruelly at times; she also admits that he was unfaithful to her. But Popova vows to be faithful to Nicolai until her own death, to show him how she loves. Alone and speaking to Nicolai's photograph, Popova states that she will show him how loving and forgiving she can be and asks if he is ashamed. Promising to keep herself locked away and faithful until her death, she calls him a "bad child," and bitterly recalls how he deceived her and left her alone for weeks at a time. After Smirnov's appearance, when their discussion has shifted from financial matters to matters of the heart, Smirnov makes a speech about the women he used to love, and how passionately he loved them. Yet he has been deceived by them, he insists, and asks Popova if she has ever known a woman "who was sincere, faithful, and constant." Popova, whose own life has been scarred by an unfaithful husband, rails at Smirnov, stating that the best man she ever knew, her husband, could not manage to be faithful. She describes the depth of her love for Nicolai, how she worshipped him. Popova discovered, she tells Page 26 | Top of ArticleSmirnov, "a whole drawerful of love-letters," following Nicolai's death. She has since admitted to herself what she probably suspected when Nicolai was alive—his trips away from home were opportunities for him to be unfaithful. Yet, in spite of Nicolai's deception and adultery, Popova states, she continues to remain faithful and will do so "to the very end." Her faithfulness, as her comments indicate, seems to be generated by her need to spite Nicolai after his death, to prove to him that she is stronger and better than him. As her whisperings to his picture suggest, she simply wants Nicolai to have the decency to feel ashamed of his actions. By the end of the play, as she begins to be swayed by the force of Smirnov's feelings, Popova shows a willingness to abandon her futile bitterness. In this sense, her embrace of Smirnov may be seen as an openness to a new relationship, despite the emotional risks involved.
Chekhov described the style in which The Bear was written as French vaudeville, which in this context refers to a short, light, comic play. It has alternately been deemed a farce, or a comic play featuring verbal humor, parody, unlikely scenarios, and a fast-paced plot. The essential element in a vaudeville or farce is comedy. Comic situations allow for the revelation of comic characterizations. Often, comic characters become caricatures, that is, exaggerated versions of a personality type, but critics have often observed that Chekhov managed to endow such characters with three-dimensional personalities. For example, Popova may exhibit some stereotypical characteristics, such as the fickleness in affection demonstrated by how easily Smirnov wins her over. At the same time, she is bolder in her reactions and much sharper with her wit than a typical caricature in this genre. While some French farces were complex and well-crafted, notes Vera Gottlieb in The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, Chekhov intended his farces to be light and entertaining, rather than suffused with deeper meaning. However, critics have observed the parallels between farces such as The Bear and Chekhov's more serious plays and stories. A characteristically Chekhovian feature, for example, is that the The Bear lacks the finality of an uplifting ending. While Popova and Smirnov embrace and may marry, it is clear from their earlier actions that their relationship will remain a volatile one.
The Reign of Alexander III
Czar Alexander III, ruler of the Russian Empire, came into power following the assassination of his father, Czar Alexander II, in 1881; he ruled until his death in 1894. A more conservative ruler than his father, Alexander III reversed policies that limited the authoritarian power of the czardom. Alexander III also sought to preserve Russia's cultural identity and protect the empire from Western liberalism. Governmental policies organized under the autocratic administration—one in which political power is held by one Page 28 | Top of Articlenonelected ruling figure—were designed to promote the supremacy of Russian nationalism, the Russian language, and a single religion, Eastern Orthodoxy. Alexander III enforced his harsh policies with the help of a secret police force. Political dissidents, including writers such as Chekhov's Russian contemporary Fyodor Dostoyevsky, were either executed or sent to forced labor camps, or penal colonies, in remote areas in Siberia.
While avoiding any direct confrontation with the authorities, Chekhov voluntarily visited Sakhalin Island, a Russian prison community, in order to document the living conditions and record statistics for a census. In addition to the political repressiveness of Alexander III's rule, there were great disparities among the social classes' basic living conditions. Chekhov lived in fear of poverty for much of his life. He was the grandson of a freed serf. (Serfdom was Page 29 | Top of Articleessentially a form of slavery in which agricultural laborers were legally bound to serve a landowner.) His father became somewhat wealthy as a merchant but was forced to flee with his family from the city of Taganrog, Russia, to Moscow, Russia, to escape the debts he had accrued when his business failed. Chekhov joined his family in their crowded basement apartment in Moscow after he completed his schooling. Although trained as a physician, Chekhov could not always depend on his medical practice for an income, and his income from writing was at times barely enough to provide a living for himself and his family. Still, Chekhov was better off than many Russians. Much of the country was gripped by a severe economic depression during the end of the nineteenth century. An increasingly industrialized nation, Russia was producing vast amounts of coal, iron, steel, and oil at the turn of the century. Such industries were powered by low-paid laborers, essentially the working poor, who endured deplorable living and working conditions. A small middle class consisting of professionals like doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, such as merchants and industrialists, was slow to expand. Society was largely polarized between the poor working class and the aristocratic, wealthy upper class. The oppression inherent in the authoritarian czarist government fueled the growing discontent among the struggling agricultural classes and the emerging proletariat (working class). These factors ultimately contributed to a massive social revolution in post-World War I Russia.
Russian Literary Realism
At the time when Chekhov was honing his literary skills, Russian literature was characterized by the social realism that developed under novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), whom Chekhov admired, and Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). Social realism developed as a reaction against the idealized view of the world explored by the romanticism of the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Social realists focused on the details of the daily lives of working-class people. They sought to depict the world as it existed. Chekhov adapted this type of realism, in his short stories and full-length dramas, to his own ends, portraying the ordinary occurrences in his characters' lives in a rich and honest way. He took pains to capture the colloquial (relating to the language of familiar conversation) tone of his subjects' speech, and he resisted the use of any forced plot elements. Rather, he let the characters and their interactions pace his stories. His farcical works, however, given that they adhered to the standards of the vaudeville genre in their use of exaggerations, unlikely scenarios, satire, and parody, could not be described as wholly realistic, even though they were in some ways similar to Chekhov's realistic works. For example, Chekhov's short plays, like his other works, are largely character-driven rather than plot-driven. Unlike many of his predecessors, Chekhov avoided topics that strayed toward metaphysics (a branch of philosophy pertaining to the nature of reality) or religion. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, literature was moving more toward abstraction and symbolism and away from both realism and idealism. This new movement was referred to as the decadent movement and was disparaged by Chekhov.
When Chekhov wrote The Bear, he had already established an impressive literary reputation. Contemporary critics in the late 1880s and 1890s often viewed The Bear and Chekhov's other lighthearted farces as somewhat beneath him. Chekhov himself was known to speak dismissively of such dramatic efforts. However, in The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, Vera Gottlieb points to letters in which Chekhov states that he took the writing of vaudevilles to be a serious literary endeavor. Modern critics like Gottlieb focus on the relationship of Chekhov's short farces to both his longer dramas and his exemplary short stories. Gottlieb argues that Chekhov's "short plays require redefinition within the context of the theatrical conventions of the time and as a major and serious part of Chekhov's achievement." Gottlieb also demonstrates how in Chekhov's short stories, full-length dramas, and short plays, including The Bear, Chekhov alternately addresses the serious and the trivial. Other critics focus on the reasons why his farces were so successful as farces.
Harvey Pitcher, in "Chekhov's Humour," an essay from A Chekhov Companion asserts that The Bear and another farce called The Proposal were Chekhov's best in this genre, particularly in the way they employed the "comedy of situation" as a means of exploring the "comedy of characterisation." Pitcher further emphasizes the "comic psychological inevitability" that is so Page 30 | Top of Articleeffective in the The Bear. The transformations Popova and Smirnov undergo by the play's end are demonstrative of a complete psychological process, he maintains. Like Pitcher, biographer Philip Callow observes in Chekhov: The Hidden Ground that of all of Chekhov's vaudevilles, The Bear was the most successful. Callow also quotes Chekhov as saying that he lived "on the charity of my Bear." The popular little play helped to financially support the modest dramatist.
Dominic is a novelist and a freelance writer and editor. In this essay on The Bear, she argues that Popova and Smirnov display sympathetic and realistic qualities that enable them to transcend their one-dimensional, farcical roots.
In Chekhov's short stories, it is often noted that an absence of plot is compensated for by complex characterizations. The interaction between the characters creates the action in the story. The extent to which the characters in the farce The Bear may be viewed as psychologically complex is debatable; yet, just as in his short stories, it is the interaction between the characters, in this case the grief-stricken Popova and the volatile Smirnov, that generates the action in the play. Few outside forces are at work; rather, it is the powerful force of their two personalities that sparks the play's energy and compels Popova out of her state of grief. On the surface, both Popova and Smirnov appear to be characters typical of a farce, a lighthearted play in which the comedy arises from ironic situations, parody, wordplay, and other forms of verbal humor. Popova's grief is made to appear overblown and is therefore sarcastically mocked, while Smirnov's negative attitudes toward women are humorously challenged by an odd attraction to Popova, which arises out of her loathing of and desire to duel with him. Despite the inherent comedy in this unlikely scenario, Popova and Smirnov both possess a past that is marred by betrayal and loss. It is this solemnity in the characters that balances the play's intentional frivolity and distinguishes the characters as something more than stock farce stereotypes, even if they are not the deeply complex and fully developed characters of Chekhov's acclaimed longer plays or finest short stories.
Popova is described in the dramatis personae, or character list, for The Bear as "a landowning little widow, with dimples on her cheeks," a description that gives the reader an overall impression of pleasantness. "Little" makes her seem vulnerable and nonthreatening, while "dimples" suggests a smiling face. Yet readers are introduced to her grief first through Luka's chastising and then through Popova's own words. Although Luka thinks there is something abnormal about the way Popova grieves—shutting herself away from the world and not leaving the house—and about the length of time she has been grieving (believing it has been "a whole year"), the fact remains that Popova Page 31 | Top of Articlehas lost a husband whom she professes to have loved dearly. Furthermore, she is not an elderly woman whose husband died after many years of marriage. Luka describes Popova as "young and beautiful." Presumably she had been looking forward to a lifetime of loving Nicolai, and he was taken from her at a young age. We also learn, through Popova, that her husband Nicolai has actually been dead for only seven months, not the "whole year" Luka has indicated. While Luka exaggerates and trivializes Popova's grief, it is not unreasonable to assume that a young woman who loved her husband would grieve for him for seven months. Add to this grief the fact that he was unfaithful to Popova, and her pain becomes even deeper and more understandable. Her sorrow at losing her husband is compounded by her feelings of bitterness and betrayal. In terms of romantic comedy, the fact that Nicolai was a cheating husband will make many readers despise him. His adultery enables the reader to therefore root for Popova—with a clear conscience—to find a new love. From a human standpoint, however, the combination of the betrayal and the untimely death of a beloved spouse does not lend itself to rapid emotional or psychological healing. Rather, seven months, or even "a whole year," may not be enough time for a person to feel healed, whole, and ready for new relationships.
Popova's grief is colored with melodramatic comments for comic effect. She states her determination to bury herself within the four walls of her home and vows to wear widow's weeds (black clothes indicating she is in a state of mourning) until "the very end." Yet her speech to Smirnov about her love and grief for Nicolai is poetic, heartfelt, and heartbreaking. She states that she loved her husband with all her being, "as only a young and imaginative woman can love," and that she gave him everything she had to give, that she "breathed in him." Her insistence on remaining faithful to him until her own death appears to be driven by her desire to prove to him how love and faithfulness should be, and by her desire to shame him. These intentions are mocked by Smirnov in a manner designed to heighten the comedy of the situation. He teases her, suggesting she is playing up her grief to attract attention, and adds that although she may appear to be sequestering herself, she nevertheless powders her face and takes the time to make herself attractive. Despite Smirnov's suspicions, Popova's intense need to prove that she is better than her dead husband is suggestive of the extent to which Nicolai's betrayal has wounded her. Smirnov may accuse Popova of manipulation, and she may at times behave in a melodramatic fashion, particularly at the play's end, when she vacillates so rapidly between wanting Smirnov to stay and wanting him to leave her home. But Popova cannot be viewed as a shallow stereotype, the pawn of farcical elements, or a caricature used simply for comic ends. Throughout the play, Popova remains a woman who has loved deeply and has suffered greatly. Her eagerness to argue and then to duel with Smirnov, as well as her reluctance in the last scene of the play to wholeheartedly accept his advances, suggest that while she may be taking the first tentative steps toward a new romance, her grief and bitterness remain just below the surface of her brave exterior.
Like Popova, Smirnov possesses a few characteristics of a typical farce character, but he also has a deeper, more serious nature that is revealed mainly through his long speech on the women he has loved. When Popova accuses Smirnov of not knowing how to act around women, he launches into a tirade in which he recounts the details of his past love life. One could easily dismiss Smirnov as a misogynist (a man who hates women), but a closer look at the insults he hurls at women as a group is suggestive of the fact that Smirnov, like Popova, has been wounded quite deeply by an unfaithful partner. His impertinent comments that mock Popova's grief and insult her personal integrity are delivered in a way that highlights Smirnov's own comic coarseness and emphasizes the characteristics in Popova that are meant to be viewed as amusingly frustrating. For Page 32 | Top of Articleexample, he teases Popova in French, as a mock-suitor, when she claims he is speaking in an inappropriate way to her. He also laughs at her concern for her physical appearance. Smirnov continues, stating that he has "refused twelve women" but then admitting that nine women have refused his affections. He has made a fool of himself for love, he confesses, suffering intensely, sacrificing much, loving "passionately, madly, every blessed way." Now, however, he holds women in very low esteem. Although he insults the intelligence of women and finds them to be shallow, his greatest grievance is that he finds women to be deceitful by nature; he declares them incapable of loving deeply. While he has suffered for love, Smirnov claims that he has loved shallow and conniving women. He also believes that most women, with the exception perhaps of "freaks and old women," are unable to be faithful and true. Given the length, intensity, and focus of this passionate speech, it seems that Smirnov was once capable of love, but painful experiences with unfaithful women have changed him. In fact, when he begins to acknowledge the ways in which Popova differs from the women he has known, he becomes angry for allowing himself to feel emotions he attempts to reject. Popova is different from other women, not only because of her defiant spirit, which impresses Smirnov, but also because of her willingness to prove her faithfulness to her dead, cheating husband. The issue of fidelity seems to matter as much to Popova as it does to Smirnov.
Smirnov's situation is quite comic; he professes his love to Popova over pistols, which he has just shown her how to fire and with which she is eager to shoot him. The humor largely overshadows his own sense of loss and betrayal, as well it should, given that the play is intended to be a farce. Nevertheless, the reality of the pain and suffering of love, betrayal, and loss grounds both Smirnov and Popova. They remain appealingly real and human, rather than evaporating into the stereotypes of blustering misogynist and hysterically grieving widow.
Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on The Bear, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt from one of Chekhov's letters, the author tells a friend about the cholera epidemic that occurred after the publication of his play The Bear.
To A. S. Suvorin….
My letters chase you, but do not catch you. I have written to you often, and among other places to St. Moritz. Judging from your letters you have had nothing from me. In the first place, there is cholera in Moscow and about Moscow, and it will be in our parts some day soon. In the second place, I have been appointed cholera doctor, and my section includes twenty-five villages, four factories, and one monastery. I am organizing the building of barracks, and so on, and I feel lonely, for all the cholera business is alien to my heart, and the work, which involves continual driving about, talking, and attention to petty details, is exhausting for me. I have no time to write. Literature has been thrown aside for a long time now, and I am poverty-stricken, as I thought it convenient for myself and my independence to refuse the remuneration received by the section doctors. I am bored, but there is a great deal that is interesting in cholera if you look at it from a detached point of view. I am sorry you are not in Russia. Material for short letters is being wasted. There is more good than bad, and in that cholera is a great contrast to the famine which we watched in the winter. Now all are working—they are working furiously. At the fair at Nizhni they are doing marvels which might force even Tolstoy to take a respectful attitude to medicine and the intervention of cultured people generally in life. It seems as though they had got a hold on the cholera. They have not only decreased the number of cases, but also the percentage of deaths. In immense Moscow the cholera does not exceed fifty cases a week, while on the Don it is a thousand a day—an impressive difference. We district doctors are getting ready; our plan of action is definite, and there are grounds for supposing that in our parts we too Page 33 | Top of Articleshall decrease the percentage of mortality from cholera. We have no assistants, one has to be doctor and sanitary attendant at one and the same time. The peasants are rude, dirty in their habits, and mistrustful; but the thought that our labours are not thrown away makes all that scarcely noticeable. Of all the Serpuhovo doctors I am the most pitiable; I have a scurvy carriage and horses, I don't know the roads, I see nothing by evening light, I have no money, I am very quickly exhausted, and worst of all, I can never forget that I ought to be writing, and I long to spit on the cholera and sit down and write to you, and I long to talk to you. I am in absolute loneliness.
Our farming labours have been crowned with complete success. The harvest is considerable, and when we sell the corn Melihovo will bring us more than a thousand roubles. The kitchen garden is magnificent. There are perfect mountains of cucumbers and the cabbage is wonderful. If it were not for the accursed cholera I might say that I have never spent a summer so happily as this one.
Nothing has been heard of cholera riots yet. There is talk of some arrests, some manifestoes, and so on. They say that A., the writer, has been condemned to fifteen years' penal servitude. If the socialists are really going to exploit the cholera for their own ends I shall despise them. Revolting means for good ends make the ends themselves revolting. Let them get a lift on the backs of the doctors and feldshers, but why lie to the peasants? Why persuade them that they are right in their ignorance and that their coarse prejudices are the holy truth? If I were a politician I could never bring myself to disgrace my present for the sake of the future, even though I were promised tons of felicity for an ounce of mean lying. Write to me as often as possible in consideration of my exceptional position. I cannot be in a good mood now, and your letters snatch me away from cholera concerns, and carry me for a brief space to another world….
I'll be damned if I write to you again. I have written to Abbazzio, to St. Moritz. I have written a dozen times at least, so far you have not sent me one correct address, and so not one of my letters has reached [you] and my long description and lectures about the cholera have been wasted. It's mortifying. But what is most mortifying is that after a whole series of letters from me about our exertions against the cholera, you all at once write me from gay Biarritz that you envy my leisure! Well, Allah forgive you!
Well, I am alive and in good health. The summer was a splendid one, dry, warm, abounding in the fruits of the earth, but its whole charm was from July onwards, spoilt by news of the cholera. While you were inviting me in your letters first to Vienna, and then to Abbazzio I was already one of the doctors of the Serpuhovo Zemstvo, was trying to catch the cholera by its tail and organizing a new section full steam. In the morning I have to see patients, and in the afternoon drive about. I drive, I give lectures to the natives, treat them, get angry with them, and as the Zemstvo has not granted me a single kopeck for organizing the medical centres I cadge from the wealthy, first from one and then from another. I turn out to be an excellent beggar; thanks to my beggarly eloquence, my section has two excellent barracks with all the necessaries, and five barracks that are not excellent, but horrid. I have saved the Zemstvo from expenditure even on disinfectants. Lime, vitriol, and all sorts of stinking stuff I have begged from the manufacturers for all my twenty-five villages. In fact Kolomin ought to be proud of having been at the same high school with me. My soul is exhausted. I am bored. Not to belong to oneself, to think about nothing but diarrhœa, to start up in the night at a dog's barking and a knock at the gate ("Haven't they come for me?"), to drive with disgusting horses along unknown roads; to read about nothing but cholera, and to expect nothing but cholera, and at the same time to be utterly uninterested in that disease, and in the people whom one is serving—that, my good sir, is a hash which wouldn't agree with anyone. The cholera is already in Moscow and in the Moscow district. One must expect it from hour to hour. Judging from its course in Moscow one must suppose that it is already declining and that the bacillus is losing its strength. One is bound to think, too, that it is powerfully affected by the measures that have been taken in Moscow and among us. The educated classes are working vigorously, sparing neither themselves nor their purses; I see them every day, and am touched, and when I remember how Zhitel and Burenin used to vent their acrid spleen on these same educated people I feel almost suffocated. In Nizhni the doctors and the cultured people generally have done marvels. I was overwhelmed with enthusiasm when I read about the cholera. In the good old times, when people were infected Page 34 | Top of Articleand died by thousands, the amazing conquests that are being made before our eyes could not even be dreamed of. It's a pity you are not a doctor and cannot share my delight—that is, fully feel and recognize and appreciate all that is being done. But one cannot tell about it briefly.
The treatment of cholera requires of the doctor deliberation before all things—that is, one has to devote to each patient from five to ten hours or even longer. As I mean to employ Kantani's treatment—that is clysters of tannin and subcutaneous injection of a solution of common salt—my position will be worse than foolish; while I am busying myself over one patient, a dozen can fall ill and die. You see I am the only man for twenty-five villages, apart from a feldsher who calls me "your honour," does not venture to smoke in my presence, and cannot take a step without me. If there are isolated cases I shall be capital; but if there is an epidemic of only five cases a day, then I shall do nothing but be irritable and exhausted and feel myself guilty.
Of course there is no time even to think of literature. I am writing nothing. I refused remuneration so as to preserve some little freedom of action for myself, and so I have not a halfpenny. I am waiting till they have threshed and sold the rye. Until then I shall be living on The Bear and mushrooms, of which there are endless masses here. By the way, I have never lived so cheaply as now. We have everything of our own, even our own bread. I believe in a couple of years all my household expenses will not exceed a thousand roubles a year.
When you learn from the newspapers that the cholera is over, you will know that I have gone back to writing again. Don't think of me as a literary man while I am in the service of the Zemstvo. One can't do two things at once.
You write that I have given up Sahalin. I cannot abandon that child of mine. When I am oppressed by the boredom of belles-lettres I am glad to turn to something else. The question when I shall finish Sahalin and when I shall print does not strike me as being important. While Galkin-Vrasskoy reigns over the prison system I feel very much disinclined to bring out my book. Of course if I am driven to it by need, that is a different matter.
In all my letters I have pertinaciously asked you one question, which of course you are not obliged to answer: "Where are you going to be in the autumn, and wouldn't you like to spend part of September and October with me in Feodosia or the Crimea?" I have an impatient desire to eat, drink, and sleep, and talk about literature—that is, do nothing, and at the same time feel like a decent person. However, if my idleness annoys you, I can promise to write with or beside you, a play or a story…. Eh? Won't you? Well, God be with you, then.
The astronomer has been here twice. I felt bored with her on both occasions. Svobodin has been here too. He grows better and better. His serious illness has made him pass through a spiritual metamorphosis.
See what a long letter I have written, even though I don't feel sure that the letter will reach you. Imagine my cholera-boredom, my cholera-loneliness, and compulsory literary inactivity, and write to me more, and oftener. Your contemptuous feeling for France I share. The Germans are far above them, though for some reason they are called stupid. And the Franco-Russian Entente Cordiale I am as fond of as Tolstoy is. There's something nastily suggestive about these cordialities. On the other hand I was awfully pleased at Virchow's visit to us.
We have raised a very nice potato and a divine cabbage. How do you manage to get on without cabbage-soup? I don't envy you your sea, nor your freedom, nor the happy frame of mind you are in abroad. The Russian summer is better than anything. And by the way, I don't feel any great longing to be abroad. After Singapore, Ceylon, and perhaps even our Amur, Italy and even the crater of Vesuvius do not seem fascinating. After being in India and China I did not see a great difference between other European countries and Russia.
A neighbour of ours, the owner of the renowned Otrad, Count X, is staying now at Biarritz, having run away from the cholera; he gave his doctor only five hundred roubles for the campaign against the cholera. His sister, the countess, who is living in my section, when I went to discuss the provision of barracks for her workmen, treated me as though I had come to apply for a situation. It mortified me, and I told her a lie, pretending to be a rich man. I told the same lie to the Archimandrite, who refuses to provide quarters for the cases which may occur in the monastery. To my question what would he do with the cases that might be taken ill in his hostel, he answered me: "They are persons of means and will pay you themselves…." Do you understand? And I flared up, and said I did Page 35 | Top of Articlenot care about payment, as I was well off, and that all I wanted was the security of the monastery…. There are sometimes very stupid and humiliating positions…. Before the count went away I met his wife. Huge diamonds in her ears, wearing a bustle, and not knowing how to hold herself. A millionaire. In the company of such persons one has a stupid schoolboy feeling of wanting to be rude.
The village priest often comes and pays me long visits; he is a very good fellow, a widower, and has some illegitimate children.
Write or there will be trouble….
Source: Anton Chekhov, "To A. S. Suvorin," in Letters of Anton Chekhov to His Family and Friends, translated by Constance Garnett, Macmillan, 1920, pp. 306-15.
In the following excerpt from an introduction to a collection of Chekhov's plays, West discusses Chekhov's comedies, including The Bear, and the Russian sense of humor.
The last few years have seen a large and generally unsystematic mass of translations from the Russian flung at the heads and hearts of English readers. The ready acceptance of Chekhov has been one of the few successful features of this irresponsible output. He has been welcomed by British critics with something like affection. Mr. Bernard Shaw has several times remarked: "Every time I see a play by Chekhov, I want to chuck all my own stuff into the fire." Others, having no such valuable property to sacrifice on the altar of Chekhov, have not hesitated to place him side by side with Ibsen, and the other established institutions of the new theatre. For these reasons it is pleasant to be able to chronicle the fact that, by way of contrast with the casual treatment normally handed out to Russian authors, the publishers are issuing the complete dramatic works of this author. In 1912 they brought out a volume containing four Chekhov plays, translated by Marian Fell. All the dramatic works not included in her volume are to be found in the present one. With the exception of Chekhov's masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard (translated by the late Mr. George Calderon in 1912), none of these plays have been previously published in book form in England or America.
It is not the business of a translator to attempt to outdo all others in singing the praises of his raw material. This is a dangerous process and may well lead, as it led Mr. Calderon, to drawing the reader's attention to points of beauty not to be found in the original. A few bibliographical details are equally necessary and permissible, and the elementary principles of Chekhov criticism will also be found useful.
The very existence of The High Road (1884), probably the earliest of its author's plays, will be unsuspected by English readers. During Chekhov's lifetime it was a sort of family legend, after his death it became a family mystery. A copy was finally discovered only last year in the Censor's office, yielded up, and published. It had been sent in in 1885 under the nom-de-plume "A. Chekhonte," and it had failed to pass. The Censor of the time being had scrawled his opinion on the manuscript, "a depressing and dirty piece—cannot be licensed." The name of the gentleman who held this view—Kaiser von Kugelgen—gives another reason for the educated Russian's low opinion of German-sounding institutions. Baron von Tuzenbach, the satisfactory person in The Three Sisters, it will be noted, finds it as well, while he is trying to secure the favours of Irina, to declare that his German ancestry is fairly remote. This is by way of parenthesis. The High Road, found after thirty years, is a most interesting document to the lover of Chekhov. Every play he wrote in later years was either a one-act farce or a four-act drama.
In The High Road we see, in an embryonic form, the whole later method of the plays—the deliberate contrast between two strong characters (Bortsov and Merik in this case), the careful individualization of each person in a fairly large group by way of an introduction to the main theme, the concealment of the catastrophe, germ-wise, in the actual character of the characters, and the creation of a distinctive group-atmosphere. It need scarcely be stated that The High Road is not a "dirty" piece according to Russian or to German standards; Chekhov was incapable of writing a dirty play or story. For the rest, this piece differs from the others in its presentation, not of Chekhov's favourite middle-classes, but of the moujik, nourishing, in a particularly stuffy atmosphere, an intense mysticism and an equally intense thirst for vodka.
The Proposal (1889) and The Bear (1890) may be taken as good examples of the sort of humour admired by the average Russian. The latter play, in another translation, was put on as a curtain-raiser to a cinematograph entertainment Page 36 | Top of Articleat a London theatre in 1914, and had quite a pleasant reception from a thoroughly Philistine audience. The humour is very nearly of the variety most popular over here, the psychology is a shade subtler. The Russian novelist or dramatist takes to psychology as some of his fellow-countrymen take to drink; in doing this he achieves fame by showing us what we already know, and at the same time he kills his own creative power. Chekhov just escaped the tragedy of suicide by introspection, and was only enabled to do this by the possession of a sense of humour. That is why we should not regard The Proposal, The Bear, The Wedding, or The Anniversary as the work of a merely humorous young man, but as the saving graces which made perfect The Cherry Orchard.
The Three Sisters (1901) is said to act better than any other of Chekhov's plays, and should surprise an English audience exceedingly. It and The Cherry Orchard are the tragedies of doing nothing. The three sisters have only one desire in the world, to go to Moscow and live there. There is no reason on earth, economic, sentimental, or other, why they should not pack their bags and take the next train to Moscow. But they will not do it. They cannot do it. And we know perfectly well that if they were transplanted thither miraculously, they would be extremely unhappy as soon as ever the excitement of the miracle had worn off. In the other play Mme. Ranevsky can be saved from ruin if she will only consent to a perfectly simple step—the sale of an estate. She cannot do this, is ruined, and thrown out into the unsympathetic world. Chekhov is the dramatist, not of action, but of inaction. The tragedy of inaction is as overwhelming, when we understand it, as the tragedy of an Othello, or a Lear, crushed by the wickedness of others. The former is being enacted daily, but we do not stage it, we do not know how. But who shall deny that the base of almost all human unhappiness is just this inaction, manifesting itself in slovenliness of thought and execution, education, and ideal?
The Russian, painfully conscious of his own weaknesses, has accepted this point of view, and regards The Cherry Orchard as its master-study in dramatic form. They speak of the palpitating hush which fell upon the audience of the Moscow Art Theatre after the first fall of the curtain at the first performance—a hush so intense as to make Chekhov's friends undergo the initial emotions of assisting at a vast theatrical failure. But the silence was almost a sob, to be followed, when overcome, by an epic applause. And, a few months later, Chekhov died….
Source: Julius West, "Introduction," in Plays: Second Series, by Anton Tchekoff, translated by Julius West, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916, pp. 3-6.
In the following introduction to a collection of Chekhov's plays, Fell provides biographical information on Chekhov and discusses the commercial success of The Bear, which Chekhov allegedly wrote overnight.
The last years of the nineteenth century were for Russia tinged with doubt and gloom. The high-tide of vitality that had risen during the Turkish war ebbed in the early eighties, leaving behind it a dead level of apathy which lasted until life was again quickened by the high interests of the Revolution. During these grey years the lonely country and stagnant provincial towns of Russia buried a peasantry which was enslaved by want and toil, and an educated upper class which was enslaved by idleness and tedium. Most of the "Intellectuals," with no outlet for their energies, were content to forget their ennui in vodka and card-playing; only the more idealistic gasped for air in the stifling atmosphere, crying out in despair against life as they saw it, and looking forward with a pathetic hope to happiness for humanity in "two or three hundred years." It is the inevitable tragedy of their existence, and the pitiful humour of their surroundings, that are portrayed with such insight and sympathy by Anton Tchekoff who is, perhaps, of modern writers, the dearest to the Russian people.
Anton Tchekoff was born in the old Black Sea port of Taganrog on January 17, 1860. His grandfather had been a serf; his father married a merchant's daughter and settled in Taganrog, Page 37 | Top of Articlewhere, during Anton's boyhood, he carried on a small and unsuccessful trade in provisions. The young Tchekoff was soon impressed into the services of the large, poverty-stricken family, and he spoke regretfully in after years of his hard-worked childhood. But he was obedient and good-natured, and worked cheerfully in his father's shop, closely observing the idlers that assembled there, and gathering the drollest stories, which he would afterward whisper in class to his laughing schoolfellows. Many were the punishments which he incurred by this habit, which was incorrigible.
His grandfather had now become manager of an estate near Taganrog, in the wild steppe country of the Dun Cossacks, and here the boy spent his summers, fishing in the river, and roving about the countryside as brown as a gipsy, sowing the seeds of that love for nature which he retained all his life. His evenings he liked best to spend in the kitchen of the master's house among the work people and peasants who gathered there, taking part in their games, and setting them all laughing by his witty and telling observations.
When Tchekoff was about fourteen, his father moved the family to Moscow, leaving Anton in Taganrog, and now, relieved of work in the shop, his progress at school became remarkable. At seventeen he wrote a long tragedy, which was afterward destroyed, and he already showed flashes of the wit that was soon to blaze into genius.
He graduated from the high school at Taganrog with every honour, entered the University of Moscow as a student of medicine, and threw himself headlong into a double life of student and author, in the attempt to help his struggling family.
His first story appeared in a Moscow paper in 1880, and after some difficulty he secured a position connected with several of the smaller periodicals, for which, during his student years, he poured forth a succession of short stories and sketches of Russian life with incredible rapidity. He wrote, he tells us, during every spare minute, in crowded rooms where there was "no light and less air," and never spent more than a day on any one story. He also wrote at this time a very stirring blood-and-thunder play which was suppressed by the censor, and the fate of which is not known.
His audience demanded laughter above all things, and, with his deep sense of the ridiculous, Tchekoff asked nothing better. His stories, though often based on themes profoundly tragic, are penetrated by the light and subtle satire that has won him his reputation as a great humourist. But though there was always a smile on his lips, it was a tender one, and his sympathy with suffering often brought his laughter near to tears.
This delicate and original genius was at first subjected to harsh criticism, which Tchekoff felt keenly, and Trigorin's description in The Sea-Gull of the trials of a young author is a cry from Tchekoff's own soul. A passionate enemy of all lies and oppression, he already foreshadows in these early writings the protest against conventions and rules, which he afterward put into Treplieff's reply to Sorin in The Sea-Gull: "Let us have new forms, or else nothing at all."
In 1884 he took his degree as doctor of medicine, and decided to practise, although his writing had by now taken on a professional character. He always gave his calling a high place, and the doctors in his works are drawn with affection and understanding. If any one spoke slightingly of doctors in his presence, he would exclaim: "Stop! You don't know what country doctors do for the people!"
Tchekoff fully realised later the influence which his profession had exercised on his literary work, and sometimes regretted the too vivid insight it gave him, but, on the other hand, he was able to write: "Only a doctor can know what value my knowledge of science has been to me," and "It seems to me that as a doctor I have described the sicknesses of the soul correctly." For instance, Trigorin's analysis in The Sea-Gull of the state of mind of an author has well been called "artistic diagnosis."
The young doctor-writer is described at this time as modest and grave, with flashes of brilliant gaiety. A son of the people, there was in his face an expression that recalled the simple-hearted village lad; his eyes were blue, his glance full of intelligence and kindness, and his manners unaffected and simple. He was an untiring worker, and between his patients and his desk he led a life of ceaseless activity. His restless mind was dominated by a passion of energy and he thought continually and vividly. Often, while jesting and talking, he would seem suddenly to plunge into himself, and his look would grow fixed and deep, as if he were contemplating something important and strange. Then he would ask some unexpected question, which showed how far his mind had roamed.
Success was now rapidly overtaking the young author; his first collection of stories appeared in 1887, another one in the same year had immediate success, and both went through many editions; but, at the same time, the shadows that darkened his later works began to creep over his lighthearted humour.
His impressionable mind began to take on the grey tinge of his time, but much of his sadness may also be attributed to his ever-increasing ill health.
Weary and with an obstinate cough, he went south in 1888, took a little cottage on the banks of a little river "abounding in fish and crabs," and surrendered himself to his touching love for nature, happy in his passion for fishing, in the quiet of the country, and in the music and gaiety of the peasants. "One would gladly sell one's soul," he writes, "for the pleasure of seeing the warm evening sky, and the streams and pools reflecting the darkly mournful sunset." He described visits to his country neighbours and long drives in gay company, during which, he says, "we ate every half hour, and laughed to the verge of colic."
His health, however, did not improve. In 1889 he began to have attacks of heart trouble, and the sensitive artist's nature appears in a remark which he made after one of them. "I walked quickly across the terrace on which the guests were assembled," he said, "with one idea in my mind, how awkward it would be to fall down and die in the presence of strangers."
It was during this transition period of his life, when his youthful spirits were failing him, that the stage, for which he had always felt a fascination, tempted him to write Ivanoff, and also a dramatic sketch in one act entitled The Swan Song, though he often declared that he had no ambition to become a dramatist. "The Novel," he wrote, "is a lawful wife, but the Stage is a noisy, flashy, and insolent mistress." He has put his opinion of the stage of his day in the mouth of Treplieff, in The Sea-Gull, and he often refers to it in his letters as "an evil disease of the towns" and "the gallows on which dramatists are hanged."
He wrote Ivanoff at white-heat in two and a half weeks, as a protest against a play he had seen at one of the Moscow theatres. Ivanoff (from Ivan, the commonest of Russian names) was by no means meant to be a hero, but a most ordinary, weak man oppressed by the "immortal commonplaces of life," with his heart and soul aching in the grip of circumstance, one of the many "useless people" of Russia for whose sorrow Tchekoff felt such overwhelming pity. He saw nothing in their lives that could not be explained and pardoned, and he returns to his ill-fated, "useless people" again and again, not to preach any doctrine of pessimism, but simply because he thought that the world was the better for a certain fragile beauty of their natures and their touching faith in the ultimate salvation of humanity.
Both the writing and staging of Ivanoff gave Tchekoff great difficulty. The characters all being of almost equal importance, he found it hard to get enough good actors to take the parts, but it finally appeared in Moscow in 1889, a decided failure! The author had touched sharply several sensitive spots of Russian life—for instance, in his warning not to marry a Jewess or a bluestocking—and the play was also marred by faults of inexperience, which, however, he later corrected. The critics were divided in condemning a certain novelty in it and in praising its freshness and originality. The character of Ivanoff was not understood, and the weakness of the man blinded many to the lifelike portrait. Tchekoff himself was far from pleased with what he called his "literary abortion," and rewrote it before it was produced again in St. Petersburg. Here it was received with the wildest applause, and the morning after its performance the papers burst into unanimous praise. The author was enthusiastically fêted, but the burden of his growing fame was beginning to be very irksome to him, and he wrote wearily at this time that he longed to be in the country, fishing in the lake, or lying in the hay.
His next play to appear was a farce entitled The Boor, which he wrote in a single evening and which had a great success. This was followed by The Demon, a failure, rewritten ten years later as Uncle Vanya.
All Russia now combined in urging Tchekoff to write some important work, and this, too, was the writer's dream; but his only long story is The Steppe, which is, after all, but a series of sketches, exquisitely drawn, and strung together on the slenderest connecting thread. Tchekoff's delicate and elusive descriptive power did not lend itself to painting on a large canvas, and his strange little tragi-comedies of Russian life, his "Tedious Tales," as he called them, were always to remain his masterpieces.
In 1890 Tchekoff made a journey to the Island of Saghalien, after which his health definitely failed, and the consumption, with which he had long been threatened, finally declared Page 39 | Top of Articleitself. His illness exiled him to the Crimea, and he spent his last ten years there, making frequent trips to Moscow to superintend the production of his four important plays, written during this period of his life.
The Sea-Gull appeared in 1896, and, after a failure in St. Petersburg, won instant success as soon as it was given on the stage of the Artists' Theatre in Moscow. Of all Tchekoff's plays, this one conforms most nearly to our Western conventions, and is therefore most easily appreciated here. In Trigorin the author gives us one of the rare glimpses of his own mind, for Tchekoff seldom put his own personality into the pictures of the life in which he took such immense interest.
In The Sea-Gull we see clearly the increase of Tchekoff's power of analysis, which is remarkable in his next play. The Three Sisters, gloomiest of all his dramas.
The Three Sisters, produced in 1901, depends, even more than most of Tchekoff's plays, on its interpretation, and it is almost essential to its appreciation that it should be seen rather than read. The atmosphere of gloom with which it is pervaded is a thousand times more intense when it comes to us across the foot-lights. In it Tchekoff probes the depths of human life with so sure a touch, and lights them with an insight so piercing, that the play made a deep impression when it appeared. This was also partly owing to the masterly way in which it was acted at the Artists' Theatre in Moscow. The theme is, as usual, the greyness of provincial life, and the night is lit for his little group of characters by a flash of passion so intense that the darkness which succeeds it seems wellnigh intolerable.
Uncle Vanya followed The Three Sisters, and the poignant truth of the picture, together with the tender beauty of the last scene, touched his audience profoundly, both on the stage and when the play was afterward published.
The Cherry Orchard appeared in 1904 and was Tchekoff's last play. At its production, just before his death, the author was fêted as one of Russia's greatest dramatists. Here it is not only country life that Tchekhoff shows us, but Russian life and character in general, in which the old order is giving place to the new, and we see the practical, modern spirit invading the vague, aimless existence so dear to the owners of the cherry orchard. A new epoch was beginning, and at its dawn the singer of old, dim Russia was silenced.
In the year that saw the production of The Cherry Orchard, Tchekoff, the favourite of the Russian people, whom Tolstoi declared to be comparable as a writer of stories only to Maupassant, died suddenly in a little village of the Black Forest, whither he had gone a few weeks before in the hope of recovering his lost health.
Tchekoff, with an art peculiar to himself, in scattered scenes, in haphazard glimpses into the lives of his characters, in seemingly trivial conversations, has succeeded in so concentrating the atmosphere of the Russia of his day that we feel it in every line we read, oppressive as the mists that hang over a lake at dawn, and, like those mists, made visible to us by the light of an approaching day.
Source: Marian Fell, "Introduction," in Plays, by Anton Tchekoff, translated by Marian Fell, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915, pp. 3-10.
Callow, Philip, "Medicine and Humor," in Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, Constable, 1998, pp. 34-57.
Chekhov, Anton, "The Bear," in The Cherry Orchard & Other Plays, Grosset and Dunlap, 1936, pp. 138-55.
Finke, Michael, "Anton Chekhov," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 277, Russian Literature in the Age of Realism, edited by Alyssa Dinega Gillespie, Thomson Gale, 2003, pp. 54-79.
Gottlieb, Vera, "Chekhov's One-Act Plays and the Full-Length Plays," in The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, edited by Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 57-69.
Pitcher, Harvey, "Chekhov's Humour," in A Chekhov Companion, edited by Toby W. Clyman, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 87-106.
Turkov, Andrei, "Introduction," in Anton Chekhov and His Times, compiled by Andrei Turkov, University of Arkansas Press, 1995, pp. ix-xv.
Brooke, Caroline, Moscow: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 2006.
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Chekhov lived in Moscow for much of his life, and his greatest dramatic works premiered there. In this volume, Brooke explores the many cultural rebirths Moscow has experienced and studies its appeal to the writers, artists, and composers who, throughout history, made the city their home.
Frank, Stephen P., Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856-1914, University of California Press, 1999.
Frank examines the relationship between crime, punishment, and social order in rural Russia. The time frame the author focuses on encompasses Chekhov's life, and Frank's work illuminates the historical and social contexts of Chekhov's stories and plays.
Gottlieb, Vera, Anton Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre: Archive Illustrations of the Original Productions, Routledge, 2005.
Gottlieb, a prominent theater historian, provides a collection of photographs from the original productions of Chekhov's plays at the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) and also offers translations of the introductions to the productions by the theater director and the literary manager at the MAT.
Rayfield, Donald, Anton Chekhov: A Life, Northwestern University Press, 2000.
Rayfield, a noted Chekhov scholar, offers a biography of Chekhov that is praised for its rich detail and comprehensive documentation.