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The Cherry Orchard | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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Anton Chekhov | Biography


Anton Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860, in the coastal town of Taganrog on the Black Sea. He was the third of six children born to a gentle mother and cruel father. Like many of the characters he would later create, Chekhov had personal experience with money worries. Chekhov's family background is filled with financial struggles. His grandfather was a serf, a worker legally bound to a landowner and part of the lowest class in medieval Russia. Chekhov's father was a grocer with a lifetime of economic difficulties. Because of his father's financial failures, by 1876 the Chekhovs moved to Moscow—all but 16-year-old Anton, that is. Chekhov stayed behind in Taganrog to finish school.

In 1879 Chekhov joined his family in Moscow and enrolled in medical school. His father was no better at earning money in Moscow than he had been in their hometown, so Chekhov quickly became the family's breadwinner. He earned money by writing and selling comic sketches, short humorous stories that he published, often under an assumed name, in popular magazines. Chekov's comic sketches became a huge success.

The 1880s was a full decade for Chekhov as he embarked on dual careers. In 1884 he graduated from medical school and began work as a doctor. He continued writing and by 1886 he was publishing more serious literary works under his own name, including his first play, Ivanov (1887). The publication in 1888 of his story "The Steppe," about a young boy in the Russian countryside, was a turning point in establishing his literary career. He won a major literary prize and gained fame as an author. Unfortunately the 1880s also marked the beginning of Chekhov's physical decline. In 1884 he coughed up blood, a sign of tuberculosis, a disease that would eventually kill him two decades later.

Although Chekhov continued his medical practice, he was increasingly drawn into the literary world. Flare-ups of his disease forced him into a semiretired life, first on an estate south of Moscow. There his literary production flourished. During the 1890s Chekov wrote the works that would earn him the reputation of being a master of the modern short story. During this period Chekov also wrote plays, The Seagull (1896) and Uncle Vanya (1897).

When it was first staged, The Seagull met with a harsh reception by the audience. Seeing his play almost hissed off the stage traumatized Chekhov, who vowed never to write for the theater again. Chekhov's feelings changed, however, when a new theater company decided to present The Seagull. The now legendary Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) produced the play as part of its first season in 1898. It was a huge success. Chekhov and the theater company became linked forever. In fact the MAT adopted a seagull as its identifying logo, which is still in use today.

Although his health continued to worsen, Chekhov saved his best plays for last, and his two final major dramatic works were written near the end of his life. The Three Sisters was staged by the MAT in 1901. His most beloved play, The Cherry Orchard, was finished and performed six months before he died.

Chekhov's plays influenced generations of playwrights. Possibly due to the scientific perspective he adopted as a doctor, Chekhov strove to present characters and stories without judgment or sentimentality. In his plays natural dialogue and realistic emotions frame issues of personal tragedy and class transition. By the 1920s Chekhov had won fame outside Russia as a major force on the British stage.

While in Germany convalescing with his wife, actress Olga Knipper, who played leading female roles in his plays, Chekov died on July 15, 1904.

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