Chekhov: The first truly modern master

Anton Chekhov's 150th anniversary is being marked by a host of theatre seasons, star-studded productions and special broadcasts. Paul Taylor joins in the celebration of the great writer – and wonders what the humble grandson of a serf would have made of all of the fuss

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born on 29 Jan 1860, so 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the man who was not just the greatest dramatist of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but a short-story writer of genius, the author of a wonderfully observant and aphoristic notebook, and a large-minded and rewarding communicator by letter.

Not every supreme scribe would thank you for a commemorative season – even one as rich, various and ad-hoc as that lined up for Chekhov in the coming year. It kicks off later this month with a radically reappraised version of Three Sisters at the Lyric Hammersmith, devised by the excellent collective Filter and artistic director, Sean Holmes, and with a week of one-off events at Hampstead Theatre. These are designed to raise money for the restoration of the dacha at Yalta that Chekhov custom-built, retiring there because of tubercular health problems in 1899.

Samuel Beckett, for example, who is the greatest dramatist since Chekhov, was not a man to rejoice at the thought of "many happy returns" or of revivals, regarding the biblical Lazarus less as a lucky guy who got a second chance than as the butt of a centrally gruesome prank by the Christian God. And Chekhov's work, too, does not evince a straightforward relationship to the concept of an anniversary. His stage characters – those frustrated denizens of country estates and their hapless but prehensile hangers-on, marooned miles from Moscow, and uneasily balanced on the cusp of revolutionary change – are anxiously preoccupied with what posterity will think of them. One of the moving features of attending a Chekhov play is that strange, slightly awkward sense that we are the posterity they envisaged, here sitting in steady scrutiny of them.

There has by now, of course, been a sufficiently long stretch of time since this author's death (on 15 July 1904) for his reputation to have passed through several phases. Initially seen as a gloom-monger whose plays had to be carried respectfully like a bier to their conclusion, he has also been taken too literally as the writer of "comedies" (his mischievous term designed to provoke Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre). He has been viewed as a secular saint (in 1890, he travelled, in his capacity as a medic, to conduct a census of the 10,000 convicts on the island settlement of Sakhalin – a trip which resulted in an eye-opening documentary study). Thanks to Donald Rayfield's 1997 warts-and-all biography, which took advantage of the release of letters that the prim Soviets had kept concealed, he was fingered as a brothel-frequenting philanderer who enjoyed serially suborning the minds of women with whom he did not want real intimacy.

Do these revelations have a bearing on how we view his art? Yes, and, in my opinion, they should increase our admiration for it, alerting us to how Chekhov's quizzical love of the world went hand in hand with a propensity for elusiveness and proneness to evasion. If Shakespeare's myriad-mindedness results in his being eagerly co-opted by rival interest-groups, a sensitive appreciation of Chekhov involves knowing just how much his work resists becoming the mascot for any particular cause. This is not to suggest that he had no strongly held beliefs. As we shall see, he had. But one of them was this – that art should clarify problems, not coercively peddle cures.

He was the grandson of a serf who had bought his freedom, and the son of a grocer father who was exemplary only in a dreadfully topsy-turvy fashion. The patriarch combined merciless flogging of his children with a Sunday-best piety in his role as choirmaster. Once finding a rat in a barrel of olive oil in his shop, he was hard to put to square the sanctimony and the sales-pitch. Ingenuity saved the day. "He was too honest to say nothing, too mean to pour the oil away, too lazy to boil and re-filter it. He chose consecration: Father Pokrovsky conducted a service in the shop".

With the emphasis laid more on the crankiness than on the moral humbug, this is an episode that you might find handled obliquely in a Chekhov short story. The child is father of the man, but let's not forget that the father is father of the child. It's not hard to perceive a pretty direct line running from the parlous circumstances of the author's childhood (he divided his life into pre- and post-flogging eras) and he drew up, in middle age, as an author who was also a doctor, this beautiful list of priorities. He wrote: "My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lying, whatever form they may take. That's the programme I would follow if I were a great artist." He knew violence and lying; and yet when his father went bankrupt and moved the family to Moscow, the dutiful Chekhov's life was shaped by the need to support them (he stayed behind to finish his schooling; he achieved a medical degree in the metropolis; he wrote skits and stories for the necessary extra cash).

One of the oddest encounters I have had with Chekhov's art was watching a production of Three Sisters at the National Theatre of Limoges in France where the distinguished Romanian director, Silviu Purcarete, was briefly the artistic chief. At the end of his version, Natasha, the pushy upstart sister-in-law whose stealthy takeover of the household betokens the social changes of the time, lay on her back on a table and started to give birth to what one can only describe as the Soviet Army. A series of children's prams, resembling the tanks at a May Day parade in Red Square, processed across the stage. Being Romanian, Purcarete can perhaps be forgiven for inflicting hindsight on the piece in this draconian fashion.

It's notable, though, that Chekhov finds time to show us how Natasha becomes a monster partly in retaliation to the three sisters' routine snobbery. Perhaps my favourite account of the play (so far) – Adrian Noble's Dublin Gate Theatre production with the real-life sibling trio of Sinéad, Sorcha and Niamh Cusack – brought this aspect alive in ways that were highly revealing about the distinctive indeterminacies you find in Chekhov's dramatic world. There is a dispute at one point in the Prozorov household because an entire basket of sweets has been consumed on the sly. Blame naturally falls on Solyony, the self-consciously weird junior captain in the garrisoned brigade. But Noble suggested in his version that it was actually the derided sister-in-law Natasha who had surreptitiously scoffed this confectionery. Unhappiness at the insensitivity of her treatment had evidently driven her to comfort-eating.

Chekhov has the great dramatist's gift of knowing when and how to delegate responsibility and, alert to this, Noble took a 360-degree stroll round the characters and alit upon an alternative scenario to the one theatrical orthodoxy had hitherto dictated. It's possible that Noble may have been unconsciously influenced here by Trevor Nunn for, when they were both at the RSC, Nunn directed a celebrated chamber production of Othello in which Imogen Stubbs's Desdemona, unnerved by the sudden relocation to Cyprus and the unfamiliarity of wedded bliss, was seen resorting to a secret supply of chocolates hidden in a drawer.

Tolstoy was fierily dismissive of the works of Shakespeare and, though he loved Chekhov the man, did not spare him from the remark that, "you know I cannot abide Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse". Saving Tolstoy's presence, you could argue that there are Chekhov plays finer than the Bard's. Not in range, depth, ability to get inside the skins of wildly divergent human beings, or in the stupendous assimilative power than can master the brief of whatever milieu and mentality a particular play requires; no, where Chekhov has the edge is in noticing how often people simply don't listen to one another; how often conversation is a medley of competing soliloquies. His people can feel frighteningly opaque to themselves and be impotent to do anything about it except talk, though they're often at their most eloquent when at their most inarticulate. The different strands of action pull in different directions give his scenes their rich, layered effect.

All of this is true, too, of the stories, but it's in the theatre where you feel it more forcibly, in terms of mood and almost audible subtext, to say nothing of the ballet of odd concurrent behaviour on a proscenium stage. Shakespeare is often said to be at his most Chekhovian in Twelfth Night, where the set-up is vaguely prophetic of the Russian's later stamping-ground – a household with a frustrated, self-despising, tyrannous drunk and his hapless side-kick; lots of bitter-sweet lovelorn yearning and domestic claustrophobia; and a new age breathing down the neck of the old in the shape of the Puritan Malvolio. But if a Chekhov character were to time-travel back to Illyria, I think he or she would be quite startled at how comparatively purposeful and gabby the people there were.

Michael Grandage – who directed Kenneth Branagh as the eponymous depressive, and Hamlet manqué, Ivanov, in one of the outstanding Chekhov productions of our time – says that he would like to see shows in this anniversary year that test the assumption that you can't mess about with the Russian master as you can with Shakespeare by relocation, say, or updating, or through the use of modern technology. Certainly, the critical reaction to some of the more experimental forays into the Chekhov canon would deter the faint-hearted practitioner from even contemplating an attempt.

Consider the dismayingly predictable abuse lobbed at Katie Mitchell and playwright-adapter Martin Crimp when, in their National Theatre revival, they set about defamiliarising Chekhov's transitional play The Seagull. They removed all the relics of 19th-century dramaturgy (such as the soliloquies) and emphasised how the piece was, in many regards, ahead of its time by kitting it out with anachronistic electric lighting and wind-up phonographs. The result was deliberately controversial, aesthetically and politically, and it duly received an almost pathologically negative response from the kind of reviewer who wants theatre to be (with apologies to Marvin Hamlisch) misty watercolour memories of the way we were. Here's the irony, however: the affronted, carping critics put themselves in much the same place as the most negative and boorish members of the on-stage audience who are programmed to jeer at the performance (partly ridiculous, it's true) of the young protagonist Konstantin, who is searching for new forms with his avant-garde inset drama.

It's not as though Mitchell had tinkered with The Seagull's DNA. Likewise, Three Sisters will still survive as a text long after being treated to the experimental approach of the Filter collective and Sean Holmes, who have planned staging which highlights the physical and psychological distances crucial to this drama and (a Filter speciality) that expressively plays with sound effects. This latter touch is apt and ironic, given Chekhov's well-known distaste for the realistic noises of dragonflies and croaking frogs that Stanislavsky added to the original productions. It was a directorial policy that was, according to the author, "as stupid as sticking a real nose on a painting of a face".

I am also looking forward to the installation-like Cherry Orchard that dreamthinkspeak company are promising for later in the year. One of the greatest Chekhov events I have experienced was at the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg where the world-class director Lev Dodin and a superlatively seasoned company turned the sprawling, early Platonov into a splashy, jazz-filled aquatic extravaganza – the fact that the schoolteacher hero is an electric eel in a barrel of dead fish was emphasised by amphibiously setting the play in and around the local river. The characters played musical instruments that were like a musical extension or giveaway of their more socially concealed selves. I found this show so rewarding for its bold insights into Chekhov that I saw it on two consecutive evenings in Russia and again when it travelled to the Barbican.

Beginning on 18 January, the week-long fundraising season at Hampstead Theatre includes such potential treats as an evening with David Hare and Penelope Wilton, who will demonstrate the perfection of Chekhov's great short story The Lady and the Little Dog, and a session with Richard Eyre (and friends) on the major plays. It has been organised by the actor Michael Pennington, the author of a superb book on Chekhov, Are You There, Crocodile? and of a one-man show about him which he will perform on the Saturday afternoon.

He tells me that he has been making a film about the dacha at Yalta, and how this custom-built house and its setting beautifully contains home truths about Chekhov. It is hidden in ravishing grounds; if you happen to see it, it will make you welcome, but it is not fussed either way. There are two balconies, à la Private Lives; these, though, were handy for private conferences about the household between Chekhov and the sister whose devotion to him he exploited, even to the extent of not telling her about his forthcoming marriage to the actress, Olga Knipper. The huge distance from Moscow affected not just the subject matter and tone of the work written there, but also necessitated having one of the first telephones in the locality. He would be rung up by the Art Theatre with progress reports during the first performances of his later plays. To judge from Chekhov's accounts, you'd swear that he had had to toil down miles of corridor to get to the instrument. Pennington was amused to note that the phone was kept within easy reach right by his bedside, so the author must have been diverting himself with mock-heroics.

The devil is in the detail, it is said: but Chekhov upends the proverb. With him, it's the antidote to the devil that is found in particulars and these tend often to be concrete, mildly bizarre, morally challenging in a diffident sort of way and alert to the random and the arbitrary. There's a principled refusal in him to read too much into things. "It's snowing outside – what is the meaning of that?" asks a character in Three Sisters. "A nice man would feel ashamed even before a dog," reads one of the entries in the Notebook while another entry notices a dog that "walked in the streets and was ashamed of it crooked legs". Chekhov asserts that "the so-called pure child-like joy of life is animal joy," and he does not mean it as a sneer.

On this topic, I want to invoke for comparison and contrast the figure of DH Lawrence, whose marvellous plays, such as A Collier's Friday Night, are warmly indebted to Chekhov's drama in the supple illusion they create of the diurnal drift of domestic existence. Like Chekhov, Lawrence was tubercular, and the works of both are a constant reminder that the world is, in the strict and the hyperbolic sense, a phenomenal place. But with Lawrence you feel that he envies the non-human-ness of the plants and animals he evokes so powerfully. For all his obsession with sex as a potentially redemptive force, he often gives the impression that he would prefer to be a disembodied entity. By contrast Chekhov, the doctor, the man who said that medicine was his lawful wife while literature was his mistress, keenly appreciates that it is largely through the vulnerable, mortal body ("my holy of holies") that the joys of creation may be experienced. In the story On Easter Eve, a monk decrees that in the Orthodox hymn of praise "there must be flowers and lightning and wind and sun and all the object of the visible world". In their wry, deprecating way, the stories and plays honour this injunction, but usually with a decided twist. "A lady looking like a fish standing on its head; her mouth like a slit; one longs to put a penny in it" runs another entry in the Notebook. What makes that remark nobler than satire is its acceptance and generous air of being poised between detachment and self-implication. It's telling that he does not say that "a fool would long to put a penny in it".

Did Chekhov believe in progress? In practical terms, by treating masses of peasants and by writing his report on the convict colony of Sakhalin, he did more to make the world a better place than many a tub-thumping idealist, but he was wise enough to differentiate the good that you can bring about and monitor yourself from the kind of project for the improvement of mankind that attracts those who are happier loving humanity in general. What would he be doing today? Writing for The Bill, which is what fools say that Shakespeare would now be up to? In a sense, it's idle speculation, but if he had a mind to do so, Chekhov could certainly be giving neurologist Oliver Sacks more than a major run for his money as the kind of humane clinician who turns the case-study into a penetrating literary art.

We know that after he had completed his final play, The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov conceived the idea for another drama that would have broken free with a vengeance from the confines of the country estate. This piece would have concerned Arctic explorers, involved a ship crushed by polar ice onstage, and been haunted by the ghost of the hero's girlfriend. Ironically, it sounds rather like the kind of Symbolist play that Konstantin, the protagonist of his first success, The Seagull, began by wanting to mount. It constitutes another reason why critics should not come to Chekhov over-confident that they know how he should be done.

There are plays maddeningly lost to time, like Shakespeare's collaborative Cardenio, and projected plays that were nipped in the bud by untimely death. To judge from the scraps of information we have about the personally groundbreaking polar play, it would appear that, even in this specialised category of tantalising might-have-beens, the incomparable Chekhov – now 150 years old – remains way ahead of the field.

I love the young Chekhov

David Hare, playwright

I love young Chekhov – the neglected romantic who wrote 'Platonov', 'Ivanov' and finally 'The Seagull'. Jonathan Kent's incomparable 1997 Almeida production of 'Ivanov', with Ralph Fiennes, revealed an unknown author who, for once, allowed his own agony to be on show – before he perfected his famous techniques of concealment.

The best playwright

Richard Eyre, director

In my opinion, Anton Chekhov is quite simply the best playwright of the 20th century (and 19th).

He changed the way we wrote

William Boyd, author

He saw the world and the human condition with absolute clarity and no sentimentality. He did not believe in any god (and was baffled by intelligent people who did). He refused to judge. He changed the way we wrote and thought. He was a very complex, flawed, kind man.

He described life with huge skill

Lynne Truss, writer

Chekhov is a hero to many writers. He was so immensely skilled at revealing character – and describing life – without sentiment, without judgmentalism, and ostensibly without the least show of self. It's his sense of the ridiculousness of human life that intrigues, because we aren't sure what to take from it. Maybe we are tragic because we are ridiculous. Or perhaps it's the other way round.

You raise your game for Chekhov

Miriam Margolyes, actress

Chekhov allows us to open from the inside out; he's not afraid of emotion but he controls and places it, so that characters are exposed but not ridiculed, embraced with sentiment but not sentimentality. He can turn on a sixpence from laughter to tears. You raise your game to play him.

Anton and on: the best of the Chekhov celebrations

Three Sisters

Director Sean Holmes and innovative theatre group Filter present an exuberant and stripped-back reworking of 'Three Sisters'. They won praise for their "mash-up" version of 'Twelfth Night'. Romola Garai stars.

Lyric Hammersmith, London (0871 221 1729; lyric.co.uk) 15 January to 20 February

Chekhov Jubilee

Hampstead Theatre is hosting a star-studded week of drama and story-telling with appearances from Simon Russell Beale and Rosamund Pike to raise money for the restoration of The White Dacha, the house where 'The Cherry Orchard' was written. Each night offers a different Chekhovian experience, from Michael Pennington's acclaimed one-man show, 'Anton Chekhov', to David Hare on Chekhov as the writer of the perfect short story and Richard Eyre on his plays.

Hampstead Theatre, London, (020-7722 9301; hampstead theatre.com) 18 to 23 January

The Cherry Orchard

John Byrne (who adapted 'Uncle Vanya' into 'Uncle Varick') has transposed 'The Cherry Orchard' to a grand Scottish estate in the 1970s, but otherwise remains faithful to Chekhov's characters – with a little artistic license on names (Madam Ranevskaya becomes Mrs Ramsay-Mackay).

Lyceum, Edinburgh (0131 248 4848; lyceum.org.uk) 16 April to 18 May

The Seagull

No set, no props, and no script. The Factory offers a theatrical experience with a difference, popping up in venues across London. Each time, a new and entirely unprepared cast perform the play in a show which has been described as both "buttock-clenching" and "unforgettable". Note: your personal possessions may be spirited away for use as props in the show.

Next performance: Pleasance Islington, London (020-7609 1800; thefactorytheatre.co.uk) 10 January at 5pm

The Cherry Orchard

Performance artists dreamthinkspeak are creating a huge, immersive, installation in a disused department store in the centre of Brighton, as part of the city's annual festival. The work, loosely based on 'The Cherry Orchard', will dwell on environmental issues, climate change and 21st-century Russia.

Town centre, Brighton (brighton festival.org) 1 to 23 May

100% Comedy 100% Chekhov

This lunchtime production dispels the myth of Russian drama as heavy and inaccessible. Just 45 minutes long, it presents some of Chekhov's funniest one-act plays, such as 'The Bear' and 'The Sneeze'.

Bridewell Theatre, London (020 7353 3331; stbridefoundation. org) 12 to 29 January

A BBC celebration

The BBC pays homage with an exciting range of documentaries and drama, starting this month with 'The House That Chekhov Built', an inside view of Chekhov's home, life and works (BBC Radio 4, 19 January). A new 'Woman's Hour' dramatisation, 'About Love', presents a selection of Chekhov's short stories. 'A Life Of Chekhov', Irene Nemirovsky's biography, adapted for radio by Michael Hastings, will be broadcast each day between 25 and 29 January on Radio 7; and on 24 January there's another chance to hear 'The Cherry Orchard', with Sarah Miles and Anne-Marie Duff, on Radio 3.

JESSIE WALDMAN

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