Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, dramatist, short story writer and physician, had an immense and profound influence on the course of modern short stories and plays. Chekhov focused on internal drama and psychic projection rather than the traditional plotting of unfolding action, subtly blending naturalism and symbolism, and comedy and tragedy, in a unique way. His hundreds of stories concerned human folly, the tragedy of trivialities, and the oppressiveness of banality, and were written in a clear simple style with realistic detail. His plays emphasized character and mood over action, and told of the desparation of the lonely and self-absorbed and the miscommunications they are prey to. Considered among the greatest of Chekhov's stories are "A Dreary Story" (1889), "Ward No. Six" (1892), "My Life" (1896), "Ionych" and the trilogy "The Man in a Case", "Gooseberries", and "About Love" (1898), and "The Lady with the Little Dog" (1899); among his plays, the later works are the most renowned: "The Sea Gull" (1895), "Uncle Vanya" (1900), "The Three Sisters" (or "Three Sisters") (1901), and "The Cherry Orchard".
Chekhov was born in the Russian village of Taganrog in 1860; he was the son of a grocer and grandson of a serf who had bought his family's freedom. He was the third of six children, and his father Pavel was apparently a despot who terrorized the elder three sons, though perhaps less so the younger children. His mother Yevgeniya was a storyteller under whose influence young Chekhov is said to have acquired a gift for narrative. In 1875 his father's business failed; his father fled to Moscow, where the two older boys were studying in university; his mother was tricked into handing over her home to a bureaucrat who posed as a family friend, so she went off with his younger siblings to Moscow, leaving Chekhov to finish school on his own. He continued to help his family by selling off their household goods and tutoring; in 1877 Pavel finally found a position in a warehouse, and in 1879 Chekhov finished his schooling and joined the family in Moscow, having obtained a scholarship to study medicine at Moscow University. To help his struggling family he began to publish comic sketches under various pseudonyms. Though considered very minor works, these little sketches introduced themes which would run through all of Chekhov's work: the obsequiousness and petty tyranny of bureaucrats, the sufferings of the poor as well as their vulgarity, the unpredictability of human emotion, and the misunderstandings that plague communication. During this period Chekhov contracted the tuberculosis which would ravage him throughout his short life; though a doctor himself, Chekhov for a long time refused to admit that there was anything wrong with him.
After he graduated in 1884 he began to devote more time to writing and published under his own name, though in a letter to his brother he commented that he considered medicine his wife and writing his mistress, meaning that the former was the more important and serious endeavour for him. Still, the spendthrift habits of his two older brothers meant the family had mounting debts which Chekhov felt he had to cover, and so he continued to write even as he pursued his medical career. In 1890 he conducted a survey of the medical and living conditions of prisoners at the Siberian penal colony of Sakhalin; the study involved a long and hazardous journey across thousands of miles of Siberian wilderness which would have been taxing even for a well man. But Chekhov seems to have been a person who quickly wearied of his life and became bored with his surroundings and acquaintances; he was always travelling about and visiting different cities in an attempt to find an elusive satisfaction. On this occasion he returned to Russia on a voyage which went through Vladivostok, Hong Kong, Singapore (which he thought depressing), Ceylon (which he loved), and Port Said.
In 1891 Chekhov visited Italy and France with a friend; the following year he bought an estate at Melikhovo, near Moscow; where he lived with his family until 1899, one of the most settled periods for the restless group. Chekhov provided free medical care for his peasant neighbours and financed and oversaw the building of schools in the district as well as a dispensary which he ran. His later unromanticized depictions of peasant life were much influenced by these experiences. He also apparently began his first affair around this time, with Lydia Yavorsky, an actress at Moscow's Korsh Theater. It is thought that the relationship was not a passionate one, for Chekhov's views were that unrestrained sexual activity contributed to senility, and he was fastidious and stolid when it came to affairs of the heart. Other women, perhaps attracted by his growing reputation as a playwright, fell in love with him, but he shunned their advances, often using these experiences as grist for his creative mill, much to the women's chagrin.
In 1894 Chekhov met the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who he greatly admired, though their views often differed. Some feel that Chekhov's more romantic portrayals of the peasantry were written in an ill-guided attempt to emulate Tolstoy, and that Chekhov was more true to himself when he presented the poor "warts and all". Chekhov's play "The Seagull" opened in 1896 at the Alexandrine Theater in St. Petersburg; under-rehearsed and poorly cast, it was a disaster and the production closed after only five shows. Chekhov was devastated and swore never to do another play, though he was already at work on what would become "Uncle Vanya".
In 1897 Chekhov suffered two hemorrhages and was hospitalized; forced at last to recognize his illness, he cut buck on his activities and his health began to slowly improve. He wintered that year in Nice, France, where he was contacted by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who along with Constantin Stanislavsky had founded the Moscow Art Theatre; Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky were excited about "The Seagull" and wanted to stage the play, which they did in 1898 to thunderous applause. Though Chekhov the dramatist and the Moscow Art Theater's fates were intertwined from this point on, Chekhov often despaired of Stanislavsky's naturalist and tragic interpretation of his plays, and the director's tendency to overplay Chekhov's subtle and understated scenes.
For his health, Chekhov moved to Yalta in the Crimea, where he continued to write. In 1900 he became lovers with an actress at the Moscow Art Theater, Olga Knipper, and the two married in 1901, though the union was a distant one, with the couple spending long periods of time apart. Over the next few years Chekhov's health steadily worsened, though he continued to write. In 1904 he travelled to Badenweiler, Germany, on his doctor's orders, travelling with his wife. While there he suffered two heart attacks and woke one morning gasping and ill. He called for the doctor, announcing when the man arrived, "I'm dying"; then he took a sip of champagne - considered salutary for heart attack victims - remarked that he hadn't had the beverage in ages, and promptly died.
For an exhaustive and seemingly endless list of Chekhov's literary works, as well as a wonderfully detailed biography, which I have drawn from, visit