Squeezing out the Slave Drop by Drop: Examining the Good Dr. Chekhov, part 3

What writers of the gentry had free from birth, we the underclass have to pay for with our youth.” (Anton Chekhov, Letter to A. Suvorin, Jan. 1889)

Most of the great Russian writers of the 19th Century—Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, to name the most prominent examples—came from the Russian aristocracy or the landowning class. Not so Anton Chekhov. Most of his ancestors were serfs—slaves, that is, lest we interpret the word euphemistically.

His paternal grandfather, Egor Chekhov, had earned money to buy freedom for himself and his dependents in 1841, while his maternal grandfather, Iakov Morozov, had been freed by his father’s labor in 1821. Only Anton’s maternal grandmother, Aleksandra Kokhmakova, had come from affluence—still non-gentry, but they were respected craftspeople. By 1860, when Anton was born in the port city of Taganrog, his family were considered meschchane, or petite-bourgeoisie—a class hovering above servitude.

The port city of Taganrog, the birthplace of Anton Chekhov .  

The port city of Taganrog, the birthplace of Anton Chekhov .  

While 19th Century Russia’s class system was highly regimented and codified from the Tsar on his throne to the peasant in the field, it was also increasingly porous. Social reforms of the 1860s brought new possibilities to millions—the most sweeping of these reforms was the general emancipation of serfs in 1861. Social mobility was possible, and education was key. And despite the numerous dreadful remnants of serfdom that remained in their blood, the Chekhov family kept sight of the value of education as a means of social uplift.

The life of the Chekhovs in Taganrog was marked by cramped quarters, chaotic finances and emotional hardship, constant moving from one house to another. There were always relatives and other stragglers living with them, swelling the number of dependents. The house was tyrannically run, and yet somehow they maintained their cohesion. Together with their extended family, they were considered clannish by townspeople.

The Chekhov family--parents and six children--with other relatives, 1874. Anton stands second from left. His father and mother are seated center.

The Chekhov family--parents and six children--with other relatives, 1874. Anton stands second from left. His father and mother are seated center.

Anton’s father, Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, was a shopkeeper selling various household goods. The store was never run right as Pavel was more interested in conducting church choir than serving customers. He was a complicated case: religious, drawn to the arts, dedicated to family, and yet abusive in the extreme during the childhood of Anton and his brothers. He beat them mercilessly, considering it his God-given duty.

The two older boys—Aleksander and Kolia—were traumatized by this abuse. Both wet their beds well into their teens. Despite remarkable talents and ample opportunities, both displayed self-sabotaging behavior that kept them from stability or success whether with career or family. As an adult, Anton wrote to Aleksander, “Tyranny and lies crippled our childhood so much that it makes me sick and afraid to remember.” This note of commiseration notwithstanding, Anton seems to have responded differently to the tribulation. He grew tougher.

Pavel himself was thrashed as a child by his father so badly that he had to wear a truss his entire life. In fact, in 1898 at the age of 73, he decided one day not to wear his truss and he died as a result of the complications arising. His son was not present to treat him.

Anton’s mother, Evgenia Morozova Chekhova, was kind-hearted and comely. She had no dowry, so she married a man below her inherent quality. She gave birth to seven living children. Six of her children—five boys and one girl—grew to adulthood: Aleksander (b. 1855), Kolia (b. 1858), Anton (b. 1860), Vania (b. 1861), Masha (b. 1863), and Misha (b. 1865). She was devastated by the loss of the last one, a baby girl named Evgenia, when Anton was 11.


Throughout his life, Anton cared deeply for his mother, while he showed only filial respect for his father. He faulted him for the abuse and humiliation his siblings and his mother experienced. At the same time, Chekhov would spend most of his life surrounded by and providing for both his parents. At the age of 17, during a lengthy period of separation from them, he wrote to a family member:

My father and mother are the only people in the whole wide world for whom I shall never ever grudge anything. If I ever stand high, it is their doing, they are glorious people, and their unbounded love of their children puts them above all praise, compensates for any faults of theirs.” 

Looking over their lives, one sees that Chekhov’s family members—immediate and extended—were dealt an extra portion of talent and yet a general inability to control it or benefit from it. They were something like the dramatis personae in his plays, a cast of well-meaning, passionate, caring, inept, hypocritical, delusional individuals who love each other but can’t stand to be either with or away from each other.

Anton (C) with siblings and his father, 1874

As a student, Anton was rather unremarkable at first. For one thing, he was forced to spend long hours even at a young age watching over the shop while his father pursued his interests elsewhere. He and his brothers were pushed to sing choir music until they grew hoarse. Still he made his way through the Taganrog school that thrived in the period he and his siblings attended. According to Donald Rayfield,

The quiet resistance to all authority, the core of Anton’s adult personality, was fomented in the classroom. The gimnazia was a great leveler—upwards, rather than downwards. It gave pupils from poor, clerical, Jewish or merchant households the rights and aspirations of the ruling class.” 

Everything changed when Anton was 16, when his family began their protracted move to Moscow—his brothers as students, his father as a fugitive from debtors. Anton was put in charge of the store, as well as the family’s property and financial affairs in Taganrog. It would be three years that he would be separated from them, three years of difficulty and growth, three years of turning towards and yearning for Moscow.  

At this point, something in his character shifted. He began to excel at his studies. Maybe it was the solitude, or the ability to concentrate in a more stable living environment with family friend Gavriil Selivanov—a prototype of the character Lopakhin. He began to seriously consider medicine as a career. More than this, he gained an independent drive and purpose and work ethic that would carry him the rest of his life.

The secret to Chekhov’s worldly success you can see lay not simply in talent or genius, but in that chip of hardness, the callousness to make his way in the world, to calculate and make cold, rational decisions. This quality clashed with his dominant bearing of tact and mannered wit, and it was a recurrent confoundment for all who let him into their hearts—from his brothers to his collaborators to his lovers to literary statesmen, all experienced one time or another the flint in his character.

Anton Chekhov, painted by his brother Kolia, 1884

Anton Chekhov, painted by his brother Kolia, 1884

In 1879, Chekhov closed up shop for good in Taganrog and headed to Moscow, to stay with his struggling family and to join Moscow University’s medical faculty—that is, to start five years of medical training. There, he would begin writing parodies for small periodicals to print at 5 kopecks a line as a way of supporting his large family. This would open the door to writing short stories, all the while studying and beginning his medical career, all the while helping to manage a bustling household.

Short stories would be his ticket to the elite circle of Russian literary figures. He would come to write some longer pieces—novella size, but never anything on the door-stopping scale of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, whose works are infamous for their length and depth, import and sermonizing. Chekhov never had the psychological space afforded him to develop story on such a scale. Most of his early stories, he claimed, he tossed off in 24 hours or less. Chekhov took to writing not to change the world but to provide for himself and his large family. As was quoted at the beginning, he paid with his youth “what writers of the gentry had free from birth.”

That quote, from a letter to his friend and publisher A. Suvorin, continues in a most instructive way showing how a 29-year old Chekhov saw his own upbringing and framed his process of refining his character. He wrote it, however, as if sketching out a character study for a short story:

Why don’t you write the story of a young man, the son of a serf, a former shop boy, chorister, schoolboy and student, brought up on deferring to rank, on kissing priests’ hands, submitting to others’ ideas, thankful for every crust, thrashed many times, who tormented animals, who loved having dinner with rich relatives, who was quite needlessly hypocritical before God and people, just because he knew he was a nonentity—write about this young man squeezing drop by drop the slave out of himself and waking one fine morning feeling that real human blood, not a slave’s, is flowing in his veins.” 


Most of the information included here comes from the Donald Rayfield biography, Anton Chekhov: A Life. See my review:

Examining the Good Dr. Chekhov

This season, Chapel Hill is experiencing a minor jubilee of the mature drama of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). We might say the centerpiece is Three Sisters at Playmakers Repertory Company, directed by brand new Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch. Three Sisters runs through February 7 (although its opening weekend was lost in the winter storm). We see PRC’s “Visit to the Prozorovs” is bookended by two productions of The Cherry Orchard—the first, a bittersweet swan song of Deep Dish Theater Company in October and November, and the second, a Chekhov debut for the Kenan Theatre Company coming this April.

Playmakers production of Three Sisters, directed by Vivienne Benesch.

Playmakers production of Three Sisters, directed by Vivienne Benesch.

Chekhov's dramatic work is renowned for its intricately-drawn characters, its indirect style of plotting, its naturalistic dialogue that obscures subtextual meaning, and its heavy, existential themes that the dramatist insisted were light and impressionistic. 

Three Sisters (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1903) were Chekhov's last plays—two deeply complex, yet vigorous pieces written by a sick and even dying man. Chekhov had faced a terrifying lung hemorrhage in March 1897 while dining at the Ermitage in Moscow. Medical consensus pushed him to repair to a warmer climate to convalesce due to his advanced stage of TB. And so he moved to the Crimea, to the coastal city of Yalta, to buy himself a little time, a little time at the expense of loneliness. A medical doctor himself, astute in diagnosis and prognosis, Chekhov knew what fate was before him. (He had accurately predicted his death three years earlier, in June 1894, telling a friend he had 5 or 10 years left to live. The latter parameter was to be hauntingly accurate.) It was in Yalta, in his temperate banishment, even as he faced increasingly painful and debilitating symptoms, that he brought these two plays to life. He was blossoming as a playwright even as he was putting into order the affairs of his life's main literary output—his short story writing, for which he had become famous. 

Before his death, a friend asked Chekhov how long people would go on reading his work. Ever self-deprecating, he said, "Seven years." When pressed, he said, "Well, seven and a half."  

Was this simply self-deprecation, or was there some wistful insight here? A generation later, Revolution would transform the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union, hardly a place for the plays of Anton Chekhov. Chekhov's lack of ideological commitment had infuriated both liberal and conservative factions even in his own day. Moreover, the Moscow Art Theatre, which had triumphantly ascended to new artistic heights with four successive Chekhov plays between 1898 and 1904, could no longer by the mid-1920s justify keeping him in their repertoire. Konstantin Stanislavsky, the MAT's star director and actor, commented "I would prefer not to be acting in his [Chekhov's] plays", whereas his partner, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko—Chekhov's friend and champion, wrote in 1925, "It is necessary to exclude from the MAT repertoire... works of literature that are unacceptable for the present day (for example, all of Chekhov's plays...)." No less an icon to the October Revolution than Vladimir Lenin had a pithy rejection to offer. After attending a Chekhov performance, he is said to have remarked, "Is it really necessary to stir up such feelings? One needs to appeal to cheerfulness, work and joy."   

This question of Lenin's is worthy of reflection. It calls to mind Plato's objection to the inclusion of drama in his ideal Republic and Augustine's banishment of it from his ideal Church. Despite my love for the theatre, I don't reject these philosophers' views out of hand. They were serious thinkers, as was Chekhov, and their perspectives are part of a whole picture.

To broaden our basis for reflection and to tie it to the mission of Drama Circle, let's reframe the inquiry: "What is the value of producing Chekhov's work today? Do his plays have anything to say to modern audiences? Or are they museum pieces, a.k.a."classics", that we are beholden to resurrecting from time to time to ensure the continuance of the Western (and White) Dramatic Canon? Does performing Chekhov help us understand our world in the 21st Century? Does it help us analyze our lives, diagnose our maladies, heal our wounds, awaken our empathy, kindle our joy, and offer hope or succor in our painful transitions? 

In his program notes to PRC's Three Sisters, Dramaturg Adam Versenyi finds connection between the times: "Our world, like Chekhov’s, is one of changing values and great social and spiritual stress." [Read more]

For my part, I intend to explore over the coming months Chekhov's life and work with an eye to addressing these questions of relevance. This is, in part, an attempt to process all of the material I've been reading in preparation to direct the upcoming Kenan Theatre Company's production of The Cherry Orchard. It is also an attempt to evaluate dispassionately a playwright I have grown to revere over the years. In reverence, there is an impulse to oversimplify. Chekhov himself was a complex character. Even his closest friends and collaborators, from time to time, found themselves forced to reexamine their relationship with the dear doctor.  

Mark Perry

Silhouettes of Service

This past Monday evening, some of us stepped out of the chilly weather into Swain Hall to see a moving piece of documentary theatre honoring the stories of veterans. "Silhouettes of Service" is a one-man show created and performed by Gregory DeCandia, who is currently a MFA acting student in UNC's Dept of Dramatic Art. The script consists of excerpts of interviews Greg did with veterans of various wars as they reflected on their service to their country. In crisp portraits of 18 soldiers, he beautifully depicts the diversity of the military and displays some of the breadth of experiences to be found therein. He includes veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a surviving solder of World War II, and then towards the end, his play narrows in on the Vietnam Vet experience. The title is apt as each soldier's excerpt is like a silhouette--quick, providing an outlined glimpse of character, and each piece reflects back on a main theme, the military mantra of "service to country."

It happened that four of the eighteen interviewees were in the audience on Monday evening, all of them veterans of Vietnam. After the show, they stood up and joined Greg onstage for a heartfelt discussion. These are men in their sixties and early seventies, several of them still haunted by their time over there and by their unwelcomed return. The war was bad, real bad, and worse because the coming-back held no promise of sanctuary or of healing. These men had risked everything in service to their country, but their service had become an aching source of shame.

Forty years later, their stories are central pieces in a work fashioned not simply of words but of understanding and care, of truth-seeking and truth-telling, of a long-overdue honoring. As you might expect, these men were moved by this airing of their collective story and by the empathetic feedback loop created among performer and audience and subject. We were all moved. The scars are still there, but when the heart is moved, the healing can flow.

This is the power of theatre. This is the goal of the theatre. To seek out the wounded, to tell of the injury, to air the wound, and to dress it with care. To heal. 

"Silhouettes of Service" was directed by Joseph Megel and presented as part of a "Veterans and their Families" Festival sponsored by Streetsigns and The Process Series, a new work development initiative housed in the UNC Communication Studies Department. Other plays in this Festival include "Downrange" by Mike Wiley and "An Loc" by Elisabeth Lewis Corley. In March, Cape Fear Regional Theatre will present the premiere full production of Mike Wiley's "Downrange" about the unsung lives of military spouses.  If last May's staged readings were any indication, that production will be electrifying, given CFRT's proximity to Fort Bragg and the jeopardized state of military families after fourteen years of continuous deployments. 

Hats off to these theatre artists and companies that are awake to the needs of our time and our place! This work is service to your community and country.

Mark Perry

Treasure in the Triangle: Paperhand Puppet Intervention and Hidden Voices

In the past couple of weeks, I had opportunity to see inspired work from two theatre companies both unique to the Triangle, both at the zenith of their creative capacity. On the face of it, a documentary theatre company focused on social justice and a troupe that puts on large puppet musical extravaganzas might shun comparison. And yet Hidden Voices and Paperhand Puppet Intervention both make an art of opening up the circle of society by bringing out the stories of the neglected and disempowered.

Every year, audiences of thousands are treated to a brand-new fable of social relevance told through stunning and imaginative puppeteering and set to a vibrant new musical score. Paperhand is based in Saxpahaw, and its big annual outing is at UNC’s Forest Theatre in August and early September with some encore shows in Raleigh. This year their offering was "A Drop in the Bucket: the Big Dreams of Tiny Things," brought to us by the magic of magnification created with oversized props and puppets. (Proppets, perhaps?) We are introduced to a world where overlooked objects, such as a thumb tack, a marble, a needle and thread, take center stage and their tiny stories spin out larger than life. We follow whimsically a drop of water along its life cycle. We land inevitably in the lives of children, that most precious tiny treasure in our midst.

Looking around, there are hundreds of us, all enjoying the music, the relaxed atmosphere on a late summer evening. Raised hands indicate nearly half the crowd is brand new to Paperhand. My neighbor comments on what a wonderful community event this is. His grandkids are there, attentive to each plot twist. We all cheer when something good happens, boo when a character behaves poorly, and we clap for the performers, so many of whom are delightful amateurs. The heart of the play seeks to release children from consumerist cultural blight and into a full embrace of their birthright of adventure, imagination, and exploration in worlds both external and internal. The animal spirits of the owl and fox serve as the final objects of our collective meditation. Day has turned to night, and the puppets are made of light and shadow. Giant, luminescent, the owl and the fox move into our midst and all the children rush to touch and to make contact. Magic. The children are now lit from within.

Hidden Voices is an effort led by a friend, Artistic Director Lynden Harris, and a friend and colleague, Associate Artistic Director Kathy Williams. For a dozen years, they have made it their mission to tell the stories, as their name implies, of the silent and the muted. Past subjects have included survivors of domestic violence, the homeless, spouses of veterans, students in the school-to-prison pipeline, and Chapel Hill’s historic Northside neighbors. Their work is broader than the theatre itself; other arts are often used as well, the goal being to get the marginalized and often victimized to share their stories.

Hidden Voices’ most recent presentation—monologues from men on Death Row—challenges our preset understanding of villains and victims. These monologues were shared this weekend at a fundraiser at The Historic Murphey School in Durham along with songs from John Flynn, a disarming and full-voiced folk musician. These heart-wrenching and eye-opening pieces are part of a larger effort of Hidden Voices called Serving Life “collaborating with staff and inmates to write, reflect and consider the necessary foundations for change in our communities and our criminal justice system.” This is no easy task earning the trust of prisoners and the (perhaps more impenetrable) penal system that holds them. There are no doubt ups and downs with this mission-driven work, and these pioneers deserve support. If there was a Paul Green award for Social Justice in the Arts, Lynden Harris and Hidden Voices would take it home.

Hidden Voices reading inmate monologues at UNC's Pit, on Sept 14

Two very different theatre organizations, but one can’t say enough about either of them given their dedication to and capacity for using theatre for community enrichment and social change. Both regard the process of creating the work as sacred in itself. This is a key part of their integrity. Long may they run, these theatrical treasures of ours here in the Triangle. 

UNC’s Paul Green: a like-mind in a different time

School has started again here in Chapel Hill. The students have returned, and a whole bunch of them are brand-new. They shine with eagerness and curiosity these first couple of weeks, until the workload and tests begin to cover that luster little-by-little. I talk to them in class about their "spark," telling them to protect it, to cherish that openness, that curiosity that wells up from inside like the primordial urging of Life.

99 years ago, a young man just like them came here, eager and ready to learn, his spark bright. He was a little older—22 at the time, but afire with longing to learn and to grow. He had worked two years to raise money back home in Harnett County, about 50 miles south of Chapel Hill. Young Paul Green had been warned of this place by a well-meaning teacher and minister…

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Striving after Perfection

I'm thinking about the time it takes to refine one's craft, to pursue perfection in the arts… Some pursue the refinement of their craft through productivity, regularly turning out work that grows in competence and effect as they go. They are up early, their drafts are submitted on time, and when the time comes, their piece is ready. Even if it is not perfect. The next project will be better... Then there are those who pursue their craft, whether deliberately or not, with no regard for audience…

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Integrating Islam onto our Stage and "The Will of Bernard Boynton"

If we are to use theatre to build community, are we better served by a theatre that focuses on making us doubt and question or by one seeking to open our understanding and empathy? These are not mutually exclusive, just as the head and the heart are not mutually exclusive. But which is the servant and which the master? ... Islam is a part of our community, but a part that our community is not yet comfortable with.

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A Troubled Marriage

Fifty years ago, African-American playwright Alice Childress wrote a play about the racial climate in her home town of Charleston, SC—the racial climate, that is, of fifty years before that in 1918. It's called Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, and it laments the perpetual cycle of racial separation that seems impossible to overcome. This lament is embodied in the star-crossed lovers of Julia and Herman, who are black and white and very much in love, but whose people cannot abide their mutually-expressed union—the one side out of fear and suspicion, the other out of bigotry and privilege, the both institutionalized. 

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