This Day In Writing History
On January 29th, 1860, the legendary Russian writer Anton Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia. His father, Pavel, was a devout Orthodox Christian and choir director. Physically abusive to his wife and children, he made their lives hell and served as a model of hypocrisy and tyranny for his son's writings.
As a boy, Anton Chekhov attended a school for Greek boys and the Taganrog Gymnasium, which is now known as the Chekhov Gymnasium. In 1876, Chekhov's father mismanaged his finances while building a new house and bankrupted himself.
To avoid debtor's prison, the family fled to Moscow, where oldest sons Alexander and Nikolai were attending university. Anton was left behind in Taganrog to finish his schooling and work to support the family. His mother was devastated, both emotionally and physically drained.
To earn money, Anton did various odd jobs; he worked as a tutor, caught birds and sold them as pets, and took up writing, selling short stories to newspapers. He sent all the money he could spare to his family, along with humorous letters to cheer them up.
He became a voracious reader, delving into the works of Cervantes, Turgenev, Goncharov, Schopenhauer, and others. He also wrote his first play, a comic drama called Fatherless. He had many love affairs, including one with his teacher's wife.
In 1879, Chekhov completed his primary education, rejoined his family, and enrolled in medical school at Moscow University. He obtained his medical degree and became a doctor, but made little money as a physician, treating mostly poor people for free.
Not long after he began his practice, he started coughing up blood. By 1886, the attacks worsened, but he wouldn't admit to his family and friends that he had tuberculosis.
Chekhov returned to writing, and wrote prolifically, publishing many short stories in weekly newspapers and magazines, which earned him enough money to move his impoverished family into better housing.
He made a name for himself as a writer and was invited to write exclusively for the Novoye Vremya (New Times), one of the most popular papers in St. Petersburg.
It was owned and edited by millionaire newspaper magnate Alexey Suvorin, who was known to pay his writers generously. Suvorin and Chekhov would become lifelong friends.
After reading Chekhov's short story The Huntsman, 64-year-old Dmitry Grigorovich, a celebrated writer of the time, wrote to Chekhov, telling him "You have real talent - a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation." He advised Chekhov to slow down and concentrate on the quality of his writing instead of the quantity.
Chekhov wrote back that the letter had struck him "like a thunderbolt," saying "I have written my stories the way reporters write up their notes about fires—mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself." Actually, he often wrote with extreme care, and continually revised his work.
In 1887, with a little help from Grigorovich, Chekhov's short story collection At Dusk won him the Pushkin Prize. That same year, a theater owner named Korsh commissioned him to write a play. The play, Ivanov, was written in two weeks and premiered in November.
Chekhov found the whole experience "sickening," and in a letter to his brother Alexander, he humorously described the chaotic production. To Chekhov's amazement, the play was a hit with both critics and theatergoers. Two years later, in 1889, Chekhov's brother Nikolai died of tuberculosis, plunging him into a depression and influencing the writing of his short story, A Dreary Story.
Searching for a purpose in his own life, Chekhov took up the issue of prison reform. In 1890, he made an arduous journey by train, carriage, and river steamer to the penal colony on Sakhalin Island in the far east of Russia. The letters he wrote during the two and a half month journey are among his best.
What Chekhov saw on Sakhalin shocked and disgusted him; prisoners were being flogged, supplies embezzled, and women forced into prostitution. "There were times," he wrote, when "I felt that I saw before me the extreme limits of man's degradation." He was especially moved by the plight of the children who lived with their parents in the penal colony:
On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict with fetters on his legs who had murdered his wife. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.
Chekhov concluded that charity wasn't the answer - the government had a duty to finance humane treatment of prisoners. He published his findings in a non-fiction work of social science called Ostrov Sakhalin (Island of Sakhalin) (1893-1894).
In 1892, Chekhov bought Melikhovo, a small country estate 40 miles south of Moscow, and settled there with his family. He joked that "it's nice to be a lord," but took his responsibilities as a landlord seriously and helped the local peasants.
He organized relief for the victims of the famine and cholera outbreaks, built three schools, a fire station, and a free clinic where he treated peasants from miles around - even though his tuberculosis attacks increased.
Chekhov began writing his play The Seagull in 1894. It premiered two years later at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. The production was a disaster and Chehkov was so incensed that he renounced the theater and vowed never to write another play.
Theater director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko was impressed by The Seagull and convinced a colleague, Constantin Stanislavski, to direct a production for the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. Stanislavski's brilliant, innovative production was a hit.
His faith in the theater restored, Chekhov returned to play writing when the Art Theatre commissioned him to write more plays. The great Uncle Vanya, which Chekhov wrote in 1896, premiered at the Art Theatre in 1899.
In 1897, Chekhov had suffered a major hemorrhage of the lungs, so he finally went to a clinic, where his tuberculosis, located in the tops of his lungs, was diagnosed. The doctors advised him to make a major change in his lifestyle, so the following year, he bought land in Yalta and built a home there.
When it was completed, he moved in along with his mother and sister. In Yalta, Chekhov planted trees and flowers, kept dogs and tamed cranes as pets, and entertained his friends and fellow writers, including Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. He also wrote more plays for the Art Theatre.
Chekov really hated living in Yalta, which he described as a "hot Siberia," so he often visited Moscow or traveled abroad to get away from it. In May of 1901, at the age of 41, Chekhov married his girlfriend, Olga Knipper.
His marriage came as a surprise to many, because he had been called "Russia's most elusive literary bachelor" and preferred casual relationships and brothels to marriage.
His attitude is reflected in his classic short story, The Lady With The Dog, which told the tale of Dmitry, an unhappily married Moscow banker who believes that women are only good for one thing. So he engages in many meaningless affairs.
Then one day, while vacationing in Yalta, he meets Anna, a young woman who is walking her dog along the seafront. Smitten, he introduces himself. Soon, Dmitry and Anna begin a passionate affair which lasts until he returns to Moscow.
Back home and back in his daily routine, Dmitry finds himself haunted by his memories of Anna and determines to find her. Using business as a ruse, he goes to St. Petersburg and finds out where she lives. Afraid that she's found someone else, he returns to his hotel.
Later, he goes to see a production of the musical play The Geisha, thinking that Anna might be in attendance. He sees her with her husband. When the man steps out for a smoke, Dmitry greets Anna. Startled, she runs off, and he follows her.
When Dmitry finally confronts Anna, she tells him that she never stopped thinking about him, but begs him to leave, promising to visit him in Moscow. She keeps her promise, and Dmitry realizes that he has fallen in love for the first time in his life. The story ends with Dmitry and Anna trying to plan for a life together.
By 1904, Anton Chekhov was dying of tuberculosis. In June, he and Olga went to the German spa town of Badenweiler, where he wrote cheerful letters to his mother and sister telling them that he was getting better. He was really getting worse. He died on July 15th at the age of 44. This is how Olga described his death:
Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe ('I'm dying'). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: 'It's a long time since I drank champagne.' He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child...
Quote Of The Day
"The task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly." - Anton Chekhov
Today's video features the BBC production of Anton Chekhov's classic play, Uncle Vanya - starring Sir Anthony Hopkins! Enjoy!