When he was not at school, the days of Chekhov’s childhood were filled with dreary hours serving in his father’s grocery shop or singing in the choir at interminable church services. This was typical for the son of a small-time merchant in a provincial Russian town. In Chekhov’s case, though, it was worse, because his father was not only more disciplinarian than other merchants, but more devout as well, so frowned upon secular entertainment, particularly the theatre. This does not appear to have discouraged Chekhov. The fact that pupils of the Taganrog Classical Gymnasium also had to obtain special permission to go to the theatre, and were expressly forbidden from sitting up in the amphitheatre, inevitably meant that this is where they were most likely to be found, having donned false beads and moustaches to avoid detection. Chekhov was certainly far more interested in seeing ‘melodrama’ in action than learning about it a dry, academic way from his teachers: the theatre was the most exciting place in town.
Still a busy trading port in the 1870s, Taganrog was cosmopolitan for a Russian town, and while its theatre was small, its repertoire and the quality of its performances were superior to the usual provincial fare, owing to the patronage of the wealthy Greek and Italian members of the population. They were also responsible for creating the sometimes unruly atmosphere in the auditorium.
Chekhov went to the Taganrog theatre for the first time in 1873, when he was thirteen years old, to see Offenbach’s uproarious operetta La belle Hélène. It was a big hit all over Europe, and Chekhov was entranced. Offenbach’s irreverent take on Greek mythology, brimming with exuberant waltzes, witty jokes and parodies of ‘straight’ opera, seems a long way from Chekhov’s late plays, where most of the characters seem to take themselves dreadfully seriously, but it informed his whole approach to drama, and certainly the style of his less well-known early plays.
The theatrical education Chekhov received via the Taganrog stage soon inspired him to amateur dramatics at home, where he naturally assumed the roles of both producer and director. And when he moved to Moscow to enter medical school in 1879, he was able to add theatre criticism and reportage to his portfolio as a writer of sketches and comic stories – a career he initially entered in order to help make ends meet. All the while, of course, he was mentally squirrelling away ideas about the nature of drama which would later to come to fruition in the creation of his play The Seagull and the character of the brittle and egocentric actress Arkadina.
Chekhov’s passion for the theatre was bound to find an outlet in his writing, and his earliest drama had been written when he was 16 years old. Soon afterwards, he started work on his first full-blown play. Platonovwas completed in 1881 but never staged in Chekhov’s lifetime, not least because of its excessive length. It had all the ingredients of melodrama, namely: a couple of attempted suicides, a murder, and a hero with three romantic entanglements – all the sorts of things, in fact, that Chekhov would carefully remove from centre stage in his later plays. That was a process he began with Ivanov, the play with which he made his debut, which premiered in 1887. In Ivanov Chekhov paid lip service to contemporary dramatic convention, but the work also contains clear signs of the iconoclasm that was to bring him notoriety with The Seagull a decade later.
Rosamund Bartlett’s publications include Chekhov: Scenes from a Life and Chekhov: A Life in Letters. She has also translated a Chekhov anthology, About Love and Other Stories, for Oxford World’s Classics. She will be appearing at the Platform event ‘In Context: Chekhov - the early work’ on Monday 26 September.