Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is regarded by Russian theatre historians, practitioners and the theatregoing public as the greatest Russian dramatist since Ostrovsky. His plays have been performed in Russia throughout the years of upheaval from 1887 on, although less frequently after the Revolution and during the Stalin years. In the English-speaking theatre, Chekhov is the most frequently performed foreign dramatist: since the first British production (The Seagull, Glasgow Repertory Theatre, 1908) and the first American productions (Civic Repertory Theater, New York, 1926-33), the plays have become a 'classical' challenge for directors and actors alike.

Chekhov's contemporary Russia provides the setting for both his stories and plays, and the backcloth is accelerated economic change. Money, or the lack of it, is a constant leitmotif and source of conflict and frustration among the characters inhabiting or visiting the decaying country estates of the increasingly impoverished landed gentry (The Seagull, 1896; Uncle Vanya, 1898; The Cherry Orchard, 1904), while in Three Sisters (1901) the house inhabited by the Prozorovs is sub-let and then mortgaged. Ecology, industrialisation, and the simultaneous need for and the cost of change are explored in Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, while in all of the plays the nature of Russian provincialism (the actual distance from Moscow of the small provincial town setting of Three Sisters, for example) is organic to both structure and setting.

Early (Mis)Interpretations

The first productions of his first full-length plays - the untitled work usually known as Platonov (1878), Ivanov (1887), The Wood Demon (1889) and the original production of The Seagull - all proved disastrous failures which demonstrated the shortcomings of contemporary theatre practice and the innovatory nature of Chekhov's dramatic work. The critical tide turned in Chekhov's favour only when The Seagull opened at the Moscow Art Theatre in Stanislavsky's production. It was only three years later that Chekhov finally saw this production (when he was well enough to travel from the Crimea), and conflicts between Chekhov and Stanislavsky, which were to become legendary, began to emerge.

The disagreements ranged over casting and the interpretation of individual characters, over Stanislavsky's insistence on detailed naturalism (as in his excessive use of sound effects) and his view of the plays as tragedies. As Chekhov wrote after the first production of Three Sisters, 'You tell me that people cry at my plays ... It is Stanislavsky who made my characters into cry-babies. All I wanted was to say honestly to people: "Have a look at yourself and see how bad and dreary your lives are!" '

The Sad Comicality of Life

Mainstream Russian realism may have taken the form of satire, parody or the grotesque, but never before had irony and understatement been used as Chekhov used them in both his short stories and the plays, and this allows for the detached, the subtle and the implicit. As Chekhov wrote in 1892: 'The more objective you are, the greater the impression you will make.' In many of his letters, Chekhov makes it clear that irony does not imply indifference, and that what is needed is the combination of objectivity and yet commitment and compassion in the depiction of what he called 'the sad comicality of everyday life'.

This phrase sums up not only the subject matter of the plays, but also the dramatic method in which one is juxtaposed with the other to avoid sentiment, provoke thought and ensure an objective understanding from the spectator. Chekhov's philosophical and political awareness of the coexistence of the 'tragic and the ridiculous' in life made him reject the existing classifications of drama and create a new form which cuts across their artificial barriers.

Where East & West Don't Meet

Both contemporaries and subsequent critics and directors (particularly Western) have confused Chekhov's poor physical health with his mental rigour, viewing him as 'soulful' rather than humorous, and as some how living separately from the harsh conditions of contemporary Russia. The different facets of his existence have been compartmentalised, but as the grandson a former serf, as a struggling medical student, and as a writer of short stories for comic newspapers, Chekhov's life and work reflect the engagement with contemporary reality which so many of the characters of his plays are unable to face.

Chekhov's implicit and understated style was largely the result of tsarist censorship, which prompted description of 'writing with a bone stuck in the throat'. There was censorship by the church too. The one-act play On the High Road (1885) was banned and neither published nor performed in Chekhov's lifetime, and extensive rewrites were required for the full-length plays, particularly Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.

From the original Stanislavsky productions by the Moscow Art Theatre, the Russian and Soviet emphasis has been on ensemble playing, and later productions have combined this with the emphasis on the ideas, issues and conflicts raised in the play. In Western Europe and America, the emphasis has focused primarily on individual characters and on the star system, ensuring good box office returns.

Optimist or Pessimist?

The differences between Russian- and English-language productions are also to be found in the assumptions behind the interpretation of the ideas. British productions until the 1970s tended to assume that Chekhov was essentially reactionary - 'the voice of twilight Russia', the 'poet and apologist of ineffectualness' - and that his plays deal with the tragedy of dispossession. The dominant tone and mood in the Western theatre have been those of pessimistic tragedy. Soviet Russian productions, on the other hand, have been equally political in stressing the positive and optimistic values. Issues and debates about the nature and cost of change, about the control individuals have in shaping their own destiny, or about human ability to face reality, have all been emphasised, and the plays are generally seen as optimistic.

British Chekhov for many years assumed both tragedy and naturalism, and, in a 'naturalisation' process, developed an alien, nostalgic approach. Perhaps the most 'culpable' of directors was the emigre Theodore Komissarzhevsky, whose famous productions in London between 1925 and 1936 harnessed the talents of John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans, and yet sentimentalised and romanticised the plays on the grounds that 'the English public always demand a love interest'. The most alive productions have been those in which the plays were 'naturalised' into an American context: Platonov in 1940 became Fireworks on the James (Princetown Playhouse), and The Cherry Orchard was transferred to a Southern plantation setting in The Wisteria Tree (1950, Martin Beck Theater).

Modern Malaise & Media

It was only from the 1970s, in productions by Anthony Page, Jonathan Miller, Lindsay Anderson, Mike Alfreds, Peter Gill and Richard Eyre, that British readings of Chekhov began treating the plays as acute social comedies in which the ridiculous and the unhappy exist side by side. This move towards a greater realisation of Chekhov's intentions coincided with the use of new versions or adaptations, often by playwrights already established in their own right, such as Christopher Hampton, Pam Gems, Trevor Griffiths or Michael Frayn. The plays were also given different settings, from Ireland to the Caribbean, to clarify the class context, while the movement away from naturalism crystallized in Peter Brook's production of The Cherry Orchard (1981), staged on a carpet with a few cushions, making it a timeless play about life and death and transition and change.

New versions of Chekhov's works have come from the cinema. He is one of the few writers of his period to have his work filmed as early as 1911. Between 1964 and 1966 there were major Russian, American, Hungarian and British films of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. In 1990 Trevor Griffiths developed a virtually new play, Piano, from the film script of Mikita Mikhalkov's brilliant 1976 Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, based on Chekhov's unfinished and untitled play, usually known as Platonov. In 1994 Louis Mali, filmed Vanya on 42nd Street from Andrei Gregory's stage production of Uncle Vanya, with a screenplay by David Mamet, blending rehearsal, debate and the script of the play into a seamless whole. In 1996 Anthony Hopkins also used Uncle Vanya, setting the play in Wales, under the title August.

The above has been extracted from The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, edited by Colin Chambers and published by Continuum Books. For further information or to order a copy, visit the Continuum website.

Chekhov is currently represented in London by: Katie Mitchell's production of Ivanov (until 12 October 2002 at the National's Cottesloe Theatre); Sam Mendes' production of Uncle Vanya, adapted by Brian Friel (at the Donmar Warehouse to 20 November); and Friel's own Afterplay, a two-hander starring John Hurt and Penelope Wilton as two aged Chekhov characters (at the Gielgud Theatre).