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Why we still love Chekhov

Daily Telegraph 5th July 2004

A hundred years after the great Russian playwright’s death, Tom Payne asks five people who have staged his plays why they still work for modern audiences

When Anton Chekhov died in 1904, he had become a celebrated dramatist, although his fame rested on four plays - The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899) The Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).

The mention of his name summons up Russian intensity and a lost world, yet his plays are more performed than ever, suggesting that he speaks as clearly to our age as he did to his own. Indeed, his characters are fond of imaging what the world would be like “a hundred years from now.”.

Chekhov confounded those around him by saying, for example, that The Three Sisters, with all its festivities and social comedy, was “gloomier than gloom itself”; and although many have found a decaying bourgeoisie and rumblings of revolution in the Cherry Orchard, Chekhov called it a farce. But his work is so rich that a range of responses to it can convince us.

In the English-speaking world, writers have made him their own: Frank McGuinness has given us an Irish Uncle Vanya, John Bryne a Scottish one, and Michael Barrymore and Australian version, while others have placed Chekhov in the Home Counties. Here,people intimate with his work discuss the extraordinary breadth of his appeal.

Michael Pennington (played Chekhov in his one-man show based on the writer’s life; also the author of Are You There Crocodile?: Inventing Anton Chekhov)

“Chekhov changed our expectations of the theatre, although he would have thought of himself as a fiction writer and a doctor, too. Audiences too a while to get aboard, and the first performance of The Seagull was a fiasco. It was unlikely that had ever been seen in the Russian theatre, because of the mixture of comedy and tragedy, the seeming aimlessness of the dialogue, the profound ironies of his writing.

Shaw was one of the first people to champion Chekhov in this country; but for a long time the English tended to play Chekhov in a sentimental manner, which he would have detested. He was writing about the Russian gentry, who were almost superannuated by then, and he died the year before the St Petersburg massacre of 1905.

So he was on the cusp of the old world ending and an uncertain future. Before the war, we liked Chekhov because we felt the same, but it doesn’t account for why we like him now. I think English temperament  is close to Chekhov’s, because of the irony and the subtle, oblique way that emotion comes out in commonplace activities.”

Others included in the article were:

Peter Gill

Richard Briers

John Byrne

Michael Blakemore

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