Anton Chekhov at his home in Melikhovo with his dachshund Khina in 1897
Dan Rebellato’s 2010 play, Chekhov in Hell, opens with a quotation from Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright and author who died in 1904. He says ‘you ask me what life is. That’s like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot, and there’s nothing more to know’. Like Chekhov’s characters, Rebellato’s characters to search for an appropriate way to fill their lives, an action often left unfulfilled. In The Seagull, Semyon asks Masha, ‘Why do you always wear black?’ to which she replies, ‘I’m in mourning for my life’.
The Moscow Art Theatre at the end of 19th century.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko set about to reform Russian theatre. Their aim was to create a home for naturalism, in order to challenge melodrama’s dominance of theatre in Russia. They were heavily influenced by the work of other naturalist theatre companies in Europe, including André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris and the Meiningen Company in Germany. Naturalism may dominate our stages in the twenty-first century and seem like the most conventional of theatrical forms, but at the end of the nineteenth century it was seen as a highly radical approach to making theatre. As Stanislavksi recalls: ‘Our programme was revolutionary, we rebelled against the old way of acting, against affectation and false pathos, against declamation and bohemian exaggeration, against bad conventionality of production and sets, against the star system which ruined the ensemble and against the whole spirit of performance and the insignificance of the repertory.’
Find out more about the times in which Chekhov lived and worked.
Anton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to thecompany of the Moscow Art Theatre
When Anton Chekhov’s classic The Seagull premiered on 17 October 1896 in St. Petersburg at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, it was a complete failure both in the audience’s, the critics’ and Chekhov’s own opinion. The audience’s angry response to the play was both immediate and intense. They were hissing the performance by the end of the first act. They loudly criticised the play for its lack of action and recognisable characters. The actress playing Nina, Vera Kommissarzhevsky, whose work Chekhov had praised highly in rehearsals, was so terrified by the audience’s response that she lost her voice. How then did a play initially booed by its audience become, as Konstantin Rudnitsky argues, ‘one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama’?
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia in 1860.He was the third child of six to Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, a grocer. His grandfather had been a serf, who had managed to buy his family’s freedom in 1841. During his childhood, the young Chekhov and his siblings worked in the family store and studied at their local school.
The rehearsed reading gives the clearest sense yet of bodies on a stage – people – trying to do things to and get things from one another, rather than a series of talking heads showing off verbally. I do the voices a lot when I'm writing which gets you so far but hearing good actors, really good actors – as we had for the rehearsed reading of The Seagull – allows the play to emerge much more clearly. And this is terrifically exciting.