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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK
Chekhov's Russian writing revolution
By Ben Sutherland
BBC News Online

Anton Chekhov
Chekhov died at the age of 44
BBC News Online looks at the literary legacy of author Anton Chekhov, 100 years after the Russian playwright died on 14 July 1904.

Chekhov was only 44 when he died of two heart attacks at a health resort in Germany in 1904, the same year the last of his four theatrical masterpieces, The Cherry Orchard, was published.

Veronica Wigg, a Russian director currently adapting Chekhov's Little Boys for the stage, told BBC World Service's The Ticket programme that 100 years on, his work means "everything" and that she cannot imagine "what sort of place theatre would be without him".

"I can't say it was a revolution, but it was the start of a completely different era. People smell differently, talk differently, behave differently on the stage, and that's everything - Chekhov is our everything.

"And he doesn't belong only to Russia - he belongs to the whole world."

Human interest

In total, Chekhov wrote four theatrical masterpieces - The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.

Judi Dench and Ian Holm in the BBC production of The Cherry Orchard
The Cherry Orchard was published in the year of Chekhov's death
Screenplay writer William Goldman called him "the greatest playwright of the 20th Century". He added: "There is never a time when I'm not reading or re-reading a story or play by Chekhov."

Chekhov's plays were concerned with examining how the old world was coming to an end, by focusing on real people living everyday lives.

Ms Wigg says that before Chekhov, Russian theatre had been about grand productions, with "people talking with big voices", and that it was the way Chekhov pared down theatre to reveal small, human lives that made his writing so revolutionary.

"You can call his plays documentaries," she adds. "You see people who are not performing - they are actually living."

At the time, Russia was on the cusp of the Bolshevik Revoultion, but even today audiences can find modern-day parallels in his work.

When recording a series of Chekhov's short stories, actor Ewan McGregor said that they "could be contemporary stories as they are about very human things, love and survival."

"It always will be relevant," says Ms Wigg. "You can always find this little spark or hint which links some present situation with the past. But it's never aggressive, it's always gentle."

Political stance

At the time he was writing, Chekhov was criticised by liberals and modernists for not taking a political stance in his work, although when he wrote about peasants, the aristocrats attacked him too.

But Ms Wigg points out that his play Ivanov did take a strong stance against anti-Semitism, which was highly prevalent in Russia at the time.

"Checkov was one of the rare writers who was openly against it," she explains.

Ewan McGregor
These could be contemporary stories as they are about very human things, love and survival
Actor Ewan McGregor
"He just wrote a play about a man married to a Jewish woman, and what was happening there. That's one of the most moving plays, and it's a political piece as well."

Here too there are parallels with modern Russia, which is struggling to control racism within its society.

However Ms Wigg adds that unrest and dissatisfaction in modern-day Russia is leading to some "strange" productions of Chekhov.

'Strange productions'

"Take The Cherry Orchard - you see this willingness to leave things, and not fight for things," she said.

"With Russians, and what is happening in this country at the moment, it's difficult.

"Suddenly we have very strange productions of Chekhov, where were have very agitated, angry people, fighting for the cherry orchard, for their families, and it's not exactly what the play is about."

But Chekhov's themes are not peculiar to Russia alone, they also echo changes in the world at large.

Even in 1904, Chekhov was deeply concerned about the environment.

"Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he's been given," he said.

"But up to now he hasn't been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life's become extinct, and the climate's ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day."

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