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Anton Chekhov | Biography

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Childhood and Youth

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. By 1876 the Chekhovs moved to Moscow because of the father's financial troubles. Sixteen-year-old Anton 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—to popular magazines, often under an assumed name. Chekhov's comic sketches became a huge success.

Literary Career

The 1880s was a busy 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 soon 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 youthful physical decline. In 1884 he first 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. In the mild south Russian climate of Yalta his literary production flourished. During the 1890s Chekhov wrote the works that would earn him the reputation of being a master of the modern short story. During this period Chekhov also wrote two famous plays: The Seagull (1896) and Uncle Vanya (1897).

When it was first staged, The Seagull was met with a harsh reception. Seeing an audience practically hiss his play off the stage traumatized Chekhov, and he vowed never to write for the theater again. Chekhov's feelings changed, however, when a new theater company decided to present The Seagull. The legendary Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), with its realistic approach to lifelike stagecraft, produced the play as part of its first season in 1898. It was a huge success, and Chekhov and the theater company became linked forever. In fact, the MAT adopted a seagull as its identifying logo, which it still uses 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, and his most beloved play, The Cherry Orchard, was finished and performed six months before he died.

While in Germany convalescing with his wife, actress Olga Knipper, who played leading female roles in his plays, Chekhov died on July 14 or 15, 1904.

Chekhov's plays influenced generations of playwrights. Possibly because of 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 Western stage.

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