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'We must go on living': Anton Chekhov for the 21st century

It has been more than a century since the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov died, but his stories and plays read as if they had been written last week. His characters desperately search for happiness, but they don't know how to find it. They are full of longing and uncertainty, and they are confronted by the same moral dilemmas we face today.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860 - 1904), Russian dramatist and short-story writer, who is one of the most important figures in modern Russian literature. Original Publication: From the portrait by Braz. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This story originally aired in April 2017.

A couple of years ago, perhaps at the time of her Nobel Prize, I read that Alice Munro was the greatest short story writer since Anton Chekhov. Beyond thinking it a great compliment, I wasn't sure what it meant, exactly.

Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904), circa 1885. His most famous works include 'Uncle Vanya', 'The Three Sisters' and 'The Cherry Orchard'. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I fancied myself a connoisseur of the short story. Munro of course, Eudora Welty, John O'Hara, Flannery O'Connor ... but never Chekhov. Too Russian, I thought, deeply dark and heavy and smothering, like old furniture. 

But for years, it seemed that whenever I found a writer I loved ... Chekhov's name followed close behind. For many writers, he is something close to God.

I decided to take the plunge. My reading life hasn't been the same since. 

Our one-hour special about Chekhov and his work is called "We Must Go On Living": Anton Chekhov for the 21st Century.

- Michael Enright

Why Chekhov matters

Anton Chekhov was born in Russia in 1860, and died of tuberculosis 44 years later. In the course of his short life, he wrote more than 500 short stories and more than a dozen plays. He also worked as a medical doctor. 

Chekhov's most famous four plays — The Seagull, The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard — are performed constantly around the world. His many short story readers treat his work as a master class in empathy, clarity and complication.

There are no easy answers to be found in Chekhov's writing. He shows us people as they are, not as we would like them to be. And the world as it is, not as it should be.

Let everything on stage be just as complicated and just as simple as in life. People eat, just eat, and at the same time their happiness is being decided or their lives ruined.- Anton Chekhov

There is an absorbing dailyness to his characters' lives; they eat, smoke, argue, fret, have affairs. They wonder what will truly fulfil them. They desperately want to live worthwhile lives, but they can't stop longing for some person, some place or some version of themselves just beyond their reach. 

Chekhov's writing is driven by the questions that still consume us: What is a good life? Why do we always want more than we can have? What does it mean to be happy?

'We live as best we can, knowing that all of this is absurd'

This winter, Michael took a Chekhov course through the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. His teacher was Julia Zarankin, a native Russian speaker who emigrated to Canada from Ukraine as a child. 

Michael with his Chekhov teacher, Julia Zarankin. (Pauline Holdsworth)

Reading Chekhov is an exercise in empathy, says Zarankin. "Things are never clear-cut in Chekhov. He presents us a world where you sympathize or empathize with every single character, no matter their point of view, no matter what they've done ... he forces you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to confront your own pre-conceptions and your own biases."


I think he really recognizes the central paradox of life, which is that we live as best we can, knowing that all of this is absurd, knowing that life is going to end, knowing that all our decisions are problematic. And yet, in spite of that, we persevere. What Chekhov was really after was this understanding that life is absolutely beautiful and it's absolutely horrible at the same time.- Julia Zarankin

She says Chekhovian characters are often "running away from something or running towards something — running towards this amorphous notion of what it means to be happy." 

The Lady with the Dog

"The Lady with the Dog" (also known as "The Lady with the Little Dog" and "The Lady with the Lapdog") is one of Chekhov's most famous short stories. 

It is about an extramarital affair that turns into something much more. 

If you have never read Chekhov before, it's an excellent gateway drug. You can read the story here

He always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man created by their imagination, whom they had been eagerly seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they noticed their mistake, they loved him all the same. And not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love.And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love — for the first time in his life.- "The Lady with the Dog," by Anton Chekhov (translated by Constance Garnett)

"The Lady with the Dog" was published in 1899, a year after Chekhov met Olga Knipper, the young actress who would later become his wife. 

Some critics see the story — about a serial womanizer, who unexpectedly falls in love — as the story of his own life.

"I take your hand in mine..."

Chekhov and Olga Knipper had a passionate love affair. But his failing health, and her career in the Moscow Art Theatre, kept them apart for most of their marriage. 

While they were apart, they wrote each other letters — hundreds of them. When he died in 1904, they had been married for just three years. 

Their letters inspired Chekhov scholar Carol Rocamora to write a play called "I take your hand in mine...", after the line Chekhov often used to end his letters. The play was published in 2000 by Smith and Kraus. It will open at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre on April 6, 2017

Carol Rocamora serves on the faculty of the Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and lectures on Chekhov at the Juilliard School. (Provided by Carol Rocamora)

Carol Rocamora has also translated Chekhov's complete dramatic works and is the author of a biography called Anton Chekhov: A Life in Four Acts. She serves on the faculty of the Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and lectures on Chekhov at the Juilliard School.

She says that although Chekhov and Olga Knipper only knew each other for the last six years of Chekhov's life, they "crammed into the short time they knew each other ... a whole lifetime of love."

Chekhov's awareness of his mortality had a deep effect on his writing. 

Chekhov saw Russia through the eyes of a dying man. He came up with the first symptoms of consumption at the age of 24. He was officially diagnosed at 37, and he died seven years later. My theory is, had he not had that terminal disease, he might have been the Neil Simon of Russia and just written comedies. He was born a funny man in a sad and sick body ... and so his plays are really tragicomedies.- Carol Rocamora

Rocamora calls Chekhov the father of modern drama. He broke with the dramatic conventions of the time and wrote plays where ostensibly, "nothing happens" — though, of course, it's never that simple. 

Chekhov once famously said, "In life one does not shoot oneself in the head, hang oneself, and declare one's passion at every fencepost. And one does not pour out profound thoughts in a constant flow. No, mostly one eats, drinks, flirts, makes stupid remarks. That is what should be seen on the stage."

The Chekhov Collective 

A production of Carol Rocamora's play "I take your hand in mine..." is being mounted in Toronto by a group called The Chekhov Collective.

Rena Polley and Richard Sheridan Willis as Olga Knipper and Anton Chekhov in "I take your hand in mine..." (Miriana Mitrovich)

You can hear a short excerpt of the play here. This scene comes from early in Chekhov and Knipper's correspondence, right after the opening of Uncle Vanya. 

The Chekhov Collective was founded in 2014 by actors who wanted to perform Chekhov's plays using the techniques of his nephew Michael Chekhov, a renowned Russian actor. 

Their director is Dmitry Zhukovsky, a newcomer to Canada who is now part of a Russian community in Toronto that numbers more than 100,000. 

I don't remember my first encounter with Anton Chekhov, because I was born and grew up in Russia. And, you know, we read his stories from the very childhood and in every school we read Chekhov. I would say he has been with me all my life.- Dmitry Zhukovsky
Dmitry Zhukovsky is the director of The Chekhov Collective's production of "I take your hand in mine..." (Provided by Dmitry Zhukovsky)

Whenever The Chekhov Collective performs in Toronto, Russian-Canadians pack the seats.

Actress Rena Polley, who plays Olga Knipper, says that when they performed The Cherry Orchard in 2016, Russian members of the audience would come up to them afterwards and tell them it was the 35th time they had seen the play performed. 


"We must go on living"

We end the hour with Sonya's final monologue from Uncle Vanya — one of Michael's favourite passages from Chekhov's work.

Yanna McIntosh (The Company Theatre)

The monologue was translated by Constance Garnett and performed for The Sunday Edition by Canadian actress Yanna McIntosh. 

"We Must Go On Living": Anton Chekhov for the 21st Century was produced by Pauline Holdsworth. To hear the special, click 'listen' above.