Review: Who is Anton Chekhov?

March 22,2010

Ok, in today’s age, an answer to the above question is just a click away. It is convenient but do we really grasp the information? Does the life of Chekhov unfold in front of your eyes?  And so the “Who is….” series from the UMS, was very informative and entertaining. And relevant. As it was looking at Chekhov’s life in order to understand more about “Uncle Vanya”.

“Who is Anton Chekhov” consisted of two parts- a presentation on Chekhov’s life by Professor Makin and a talk by Kate Mendeloff about the challenges in directing “Uncle Vanya”.  There was also a scene from “Uncle Vanya”, enacted by  Residential College students.

Professor Michael Makin, from the department of Slavic Studies, started this presentation on Chekhov, in his very charming accent. His delivery was quick and very erudite and it goes to show how well he knows the subject matter at hand. Anyway, so who was Anton Chekhov?

Unlike all the popular Russian writers who were counts or members of the Russian nobility, Anton Chekhov was born to a serf as the third of six  surviving children. He attended a gymnasium- comparable to our English grammar school. His father went bankrupt and fled to Moscow leaving his children and wife behind.   Anton joined medical school and also took over the responsibility for the whole family. To pay his tuition fess and to support his family, he wrote stories and sketches.

He became a physician and suffered from tuberculosis for a long time.  Chekhov didn’t take his writing seriously until Dmitry Grigorovich, one of the leading Russian writers of the time sent him a letter telling him about his immense talent. Chekhov’s artistic ambition bloomed and he soon won a Pushkin Prize for the short-story collection- “At Dusk”.  From being the son of an impoverished serf, he became a landowner when he bought the small estate of Melikhovo.

Ok, so how is this all relevant?

It is important for us to understand Chekhov as a person before we understand Chekhov as a playwright or writer- as most of who he was and what he valued can be reflected in his characters and work.  Well, Chekhov wrote what he saw and about a life that he was immersed in. His writings abound with references to the simple country life and the trials faced by a Russian in those days. It is also important to understand his background as to why he stands out from among the other Russian writers.

That said, Professor Makin told us that as a playwright, Chekhov was a flop initially. His plays “the Sea Gull” and “the wood demon” were fiascos when they were first staged. To some extent, they were way ahead of their times as they lacked the melodrama. They were waiting for the right people to act and direct it. Everytime, Chekhov failed as a playwright, he threatened never to return to it. But he always came back.

The innovative  Moscow Art Theatre found by Stanislavski for doing “naturalistic” theatre was what Chekhov needed. The production of “The Seagull” by Stanislavski was a huge success. Subsequently, Chekhov wrote his other plays for the Moscow Art Theatre  and “Uncle Vanya” is one of them.

“Uncle Vanya” is the story of Vanya (duh!), who is the uncle of Sonya (Actually it is a cleaned-upversion of “The wood demon”). He takes care of Sonya’s farm which was bequeathed to her by her now deceased mother. The two of them send the proceeds from the farm to Professor Serebryakov. The Professor marries a woman who is very young , Elena and sicne he can’t afford to live in the city anymore, he comes back to the country estate. This arrival causes such a ruckus in the lives of Vanya and Sonya.

So the plot is about Vanya feeling that he has totally wasted his life and what he does. Why Chekhov called it a comedy is unclear. Though it has a few laughs in it, I don’t think it is comedy.

Professor Kate Mendeloff  explained how Chekhov and his plays helped in actually laying out the foundation of the rules for all theatre and acting today.  The techniques and methods developed by Stanislavski are taught in every drama school today.

Residential college is putting up a production of “Uncle Vanya” which Mendeloff is directing. They enacted a scene from it. It was the opening act where the “long night” where the professor keeps everyone up by his constant griping is shown. It was interesting and cleverly done.

On the whole, it was a very interesting session. It made me wonder as to how how much of the writer was in the character they created and how much of it was what the writer wanted to be.

Preview: Maly Drama Theatre’s Uncle Vanya- You have to see it!

This preview is different from the rest. I am going to tell you to go see the Maly Drama Theatre’s “Uncle Vanya”. But when I tell you that it is one of the most memorable and brilliant  theatre performances that you will see, then I am speaking from experience as I already saw their show yesterday!

I have never seen anything like this play before. I am just so enamored of the way the play was staged, the way the characters came to life by the superb acting, the beauty of the play in its original Russian language and everything about the show that I felt that just going to one show wasn’t enough to write a review on it. So I am going again tonight.

As for the acting, it seems as if the actors were born to play the characters. The actors are just absolutely stunning. The female leads of  Elena and Sonya are breath-takingly beautiful.  I am just so in love with this production.

Maly Drama Theaters Uncle Vanya and Elena
Maly Drama Theatre's Uncle Vanya and Elena

Anton Chekhov,a playwright who got recognition late, got everything right in this play. I will tell ya tons and tons about this play. Just promise me that you will see it.

Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya

Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg

Lev Dodin, artistic director

Saturday, March 27, 8 pm
Sunday, March 28, 2 pm

Power Center

Yous in love with Chekhov and the Maly Drama Theatre,

Krithika, for [art]seen

Preview: Who is Anton Chekhov?


The charismatic Anton Chekhov
The charismatic Anton Chekhov

Next Week, “Uncle Vanya” will be performed under the auspices of UMS  (more on this to come). It is a tricky and complex plot that baffles a lot of people. So getting to know its writer, Anton Chekhov, might help in our comprehension or at least make us accept the difficulty of the plot  for what it is and understand why it was intended thus.

Chekhov, hailed to be among the greatest short-story writers of all time by many,  was a highly cerebral artist who started writing in his spare time while training to be a physician, actually in order to make money. He continued to do so but didn’t pay much attention to writing as an art until Grigorovich, another eminent Russian writer told him that he had true talent. 

Chekhov started to pay more attention to his writing and always tried to experiment and depart from the road well trodden. His stories are tedious and it was Chekhov’s conviction that a true artist raises questions that didn’t exist and it was not his onus to solve those issues. His views in his plays and stories are definitely worth a read.

At the Ann Arbor District Library (Downtown branch) this monday evening, Michael Makin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Residential College Drama Lecturer Katherine Mendeloff will examine Chekhov’s role in Russian literature and society and as transformer and innovator of Russian drama. There will be a discussion specifically around the play “Uncle Vanya” and parts of it will be acted out by U of M students.

Prof Kate Mendeloff
Prof Kate Mendeloff

When I saw Prof Mendeloff’s name on the program, I knew I had seen it somewhere. I thought hard before I realised that she is the one of the key forces behind the Shakespeare in the Arb series! Every summer, a Shakespearen play is enacted at the Nichol’s arboretum and Kate Mendeloff  directs the plays.

Twelfth Night- Shakespeare at the Arb
Twelfth Night- Shakespeare at the Arb

I remember attending “Twelfth Night” last summer. It suddenly started pouring   and as the  brave actors still got on with the show, she was with them till the end, a bit drenched though. I thought that it was so nice of the director to be through it all. Also, her direction of the plays are awesome too. It will be a treat to listen to her. 

 So, to summarize,

What: Who is Anton Chekhov?

Where: Downtown Library (AADL), Multi-purpose room (visit for directions to the downtown library)

When: Monday, March 22, 2010, 7 pm to 8.30 pm

$$: Admission FREE!

Chekhov is said to have been among the first to use stream-of-consciousness techniques in his works. Interested to know what that is all about? See you at the AADL then !

Yours sincerely,

Krithika, for [art]seen