In looking at Anton Chekhov's development as a playwright, it is important to acknowledge his artistic predecessors. These include diverse influences from outside Russia - from Shakespeare to Zola to Maeterlinck. They also include the indigenous drama that had sprung up in Russia, starting in the 18th Century, with roots from even before that.
Throughout history, Drama has emerged from two perennial, yet contradictory sources. The one is the sublime stories and sacred rituals of religion and the other the studied mockery and profane embellishments of everyday human folly. When enacted, the grandeur of the former is magnified by our solemn, collective attention, while the satirical whip of the latter is urged on by laughter and, frequently, intoxication. In more medieval times, both of these impulses remained at the level of amateur performance, and they continued as such for centuries. In some cultures, however, the theatrical impulses eventually evolved into a professional endeavor, and the resulting literature – that of the written play – could gain a refinement that justified its being passed down the generations. Russia experienced this transition much later than many European countries, but in time it would come to transform forever the face of drama around the world.
[Much of the information that follows is taken from George R. Noyes’ Masterpieces of Russian Drama (1933).]
Literature in Russia before the 1917 Revolution, according to Noyes, can be divided into four periods. The first lasted from 1760 to 1820, roughly speaking, when significant progress was made towards a Russian literature, albeit one that was highly imitative of French Classical Models. The second category is Russian Romanticism, which went from about 1820 to 1840. The third and most fruitful period lasted from around 1840 to 1890 and witnessed the high watermark of Russian Realism. The fourth period lasts from about 1890 to the 1917 Revolution and built on the Realist tradition but with the intrusion, in Noyes' thinking, of Modernist trends such as Symbolism and Futurism.
The famed Tsar Peter the Great (R. 1682 – 1725) formed what became known as the Russian Empire and encouraged the spread of education and the Europeanization of Russia from its medieval, agrarian practices. A couple of generations later, Catherine the Great (R. 1762-1796) ruled as the Russian Empire was entering the beginnings of a golden age. Still with a strong French influence, Russia was gaining an educated and cultivated upper class.
1. French-Classical Influence: 1760-1820
If we look at drama in the 1700s, the French Tragedy (a la Jean Racine) was strong and Russian comedy would develop first along French guidelines. Noyes offers this insightful description:
“All over the world comedy in the 18th Century was in general of the type which had been brought to perfection in France by Moliere, and which went back through him to Terence and Menander… The plot must center about a love story… This plot was, however, usually subordinated to a picture of society drawn in a satiric vein. Satire opened the door to didacticism; the comic writers prided themselves on being teachers of social good sense, a sort of practical morality… Here was a dramatic formula that could be adapted to any country and to any period.” [Masterpieces, pp. 2-3]
The first significant Russian comic playwright was Denis Ivanov Fonvizin (1744-1792), who wrote The Young Hopeful (1782), a Russianized French comedy featuring great satiric portraits of “backward country squires.” The next significant Russian comic playwright was young enough to be Fonvizin’s grandson: Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov (1795-1829) wrote Wit Works Woe (1823), a comedy of manners that may be compared with Moliere's The Misanthrope, but the characters are Russian aristocracy in the city. The play was censored, however, and never staged in his lifetime. The first full staging was in 1869.