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. After his business went bankrupt in 1876, Chekhov’s family moved to Moscow to find work. His father secured a job as a labourer and his mother as a seamstress. Chekhov remained in Taganrog to complete his studies and worked as a tutor to support himself.
In 1879, Chekhov joined the rest of his family in Moscow and took on the role of chief breadwinner. He secured a place at the medical school of Moscow University and supported both himself and his family by writing humorous short stories for magazines. His first story was published in the magazine Dragonfly in 1880 and signed “Antosha Chekhonte”. His first printed book was Tales of Melpomene, a collection of six comedy pieces which he self-published in 1884. Chekhov’s writing soon gained him, not only financial rewards, but renown as well.
Chekhov graduated from medical school in 1884 and worked as a doctor until 1892. He considered medicine his poorly paid second career. He mainly treated peasants free of charger, as their poverty reminded him of his own childhood. He set up free clinics for the poor in provincial Russia and worked in the public hospital in Moscow. He treated patents during the cholera epidemic that swept Russia in 1891. Chekhov’s own health, however, was delicate. In December 1884, he coughed up blood and was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually kill him.
Chekhov’s first commercially published book, Motley Stories, was published in 1886. In 1887, Chekhov was elected to the Literary Fund, an honour only granted to the best writers of his day. At this point, Chekhov shifted away from writing humorous stories and concentrated on writing serious fiction which would ‘depict life as it actually is’ for intellectual magazines such as New Times. In 1888, one of his most famous short stories, “The Steppe”, was published in the prestigious Northern Messenger magazine and later in the year he was awarded the Pushkin Prize.
Alongside writing short stories, Chekhov began to dabble with the idea of writing for the stage. In November 1887, Chekhov was commissioned to write a comedic play, for Fiodor Korsh, which he completed in ten days. Chekhov presented Korsh with Ivanov, a four-act drama, which depicts Nikolai Ivanov, a man struggling to reclaim his former glory. The production was a success but in Chekhov found the experience ‘sickening’. His play The Wood Demon was written in 1888. Chekhov had a difficult time finding a suitable home for the play. The Maly Theatre rejected it and advised Chekhov to stick to writing short stories: ‘Your attitude to the stage and to dramatic form is too contemptuous, you respect them too little to write a drama.’ The play was eventually produced in 1889 by the Abramov Theatre in Moscow. It was a complete critical failure and withdrawn after only a few performances.
Chekhov abandoned writing plays and set off to investigate the conditions in a penal colony on the island of Sakhalin in Siberia. Chekhov was shocked at angered by what he saw there and published a serialised account of his experiences in the periodical Russian Thought between 1893 and 1894 called The Island of Sakhalin.
In February 1892, Chekhov was able to buy a large estate called Melikhovo, where he settled down with his family. He finally had more time to focus on his writing and built himself a lodge in the orchard in which to write. He took his responsibilities as a landowner very seriously. He built three schools, a fire station and a clinic and provided medical services to the local peasants.
In 1894, Chekhov turned to writing plays again and started work on The Seagull. The play was initially produced by the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in 1896. The production was a failure and Chekhov vowed never to write for the theatre again. The play did, however, catch the eye of the playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. He managed to get Chekhov’s permission to revive the play at the newly formed Moscow Arts Theatre in 1898. The production was directed by Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski specialised in psychological realism and ensemble work. He focused on extracting the intricate subtleties of Chekhov’s text. This production opened on 17 December and was an immediate success with both audiences and the critics. The production was such a success that the Moscow Arts Theatre adopted the seagull as its emblem.
Chekhov’s life was never short of romance, but in 1898 he met the actress Olga Knipper, who was playing Arkadina in the Moscow Arts Theatre production of The Seagull. They began a love affair and married in 1901.
The Seagull is considered the first of Chekhov’s four major plays, which were all produced at the Moscow Arts Theatre and directed by Stanislavski. Uncle Vanya (a reworking of The Wood Demon) premiered in 1899 and Three Sisters in 1901. The Cherry Orchard premiered in 1904, but Chekhov was upset by the way in which Stanislavski interpreted the play. He felt it was a comedy, whereas Stanislavski had focused on the play’s tragic elements. Chekhov complained that Stanislavski had “ruined” his play.
By May 1904, Chekhov’s delicate health had worsened. On the 3 June, Chekhov set off for the German spa town of Badenweiler with his wife Olga. He died there on the 2 July 1904. His body was transported back to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car. He was buried next to his father at the Novodevichy Cemetery.