Courting Chekhov by Anton Chekhov with additional material by Olga Knipper, adapted by Anna Andes

Yes, we misspelled  “Chekhov” on the poster. Someone was watching too much Star Trek.     (Although, in our defense, translating spelling from the Cyrillic alphabet into the modern English alphabet.)

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They’re writing songs of love,

But not for me.

Our lucky star’s above,

But not for me

With love to lead the way

I’ve found more clouds of gray

Than any Russian play could guarantee.

 – lyric from George Gershwin’s “But Not For Me,” (composed for the musical Girl Crazy, 1930).

With CU’s production of Courting Chekhov, a riotous night of one acts by Anton Chekhov, all those doom-and-gloom clichés about Russian drama are put to the test when two pairs of would-be lovers, two heart attacks, a duel, a doting dad and a doddering servant conspire to dispel those “clouds of gray” with gales of laughter.

Chekhov wrote The Bear and The Proposal, a pair of farces dealing with the perils of courtship, in 1888. Ten years later, he found himself in love with the leading lady who brought some of his most famous roles to life. To frame this happy irony of drama and history, graduate director Anna Andes has crafted additional dramatic material from the letters Chekhov and Knipper exchanged during their own courtship and used them to frame the comedies. It is a match, as they say, made in . . . well, if not heaven, at least in that place where much of Chekhov’s work resides – a place where the ridiculous joins the sublime to remind us that life’s greatest gifts come to us only when we love, whatever the risk. 

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is one of the towering literary figures of the 19th

Anton Chekhov

and 20th centuries. In the 1880s, he became one of Russia’s great short story writers, but his boyhood love of the theatre drew him to write plays which, when first produced by the Moscow Art Theater, insured his world-wide reputation as one of the foremost playwrights of dramatic realism.

All this is even more remarkable when we consider Chekhov’s background, additional accomplishments and physical limitations. His grandfather had been a serf – slave and his father an upwardly mobile and improvident grocer who went bankrupt while Anton was still a schoolboy.

When he was older, Chekhov’s journalistic and literary endeavors contributed to supporting his parents and five siblings even as he pushed through a rigorous five year medical course to become a doctor. At age 24, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis–a sentence of long and lingering death in the late 19th century.

As the years passed and his writing career marched from triumph to triumph, the disease gradually took hold. By the time he was honored by the Moscow Art Theater on the occasion of the premiere of his masterwork, The Cherry Orchard, in 1904, he was “emaciated, hunched over, gravely ill [and] did not show up until the second act.”

While taking a “rest cure” in Badenweiler, Germany, Chekhov’s doctor recommended an ice pack over his heart. Chekhov replied, “You don’t put ice on an empty heart.” Chekhov finally succumbed to his affliction in July of 1904. He was forty-four years old.

Anton and Olga: A Love Story in Letters

Writing to his friend, Suvorin in 1895, Chekhov said:

           All right, I’ll get married if that is what you want. But my conditions are: everything must be as it was, i.e. she must live in Moscow and I in the country and I’ll go and visit her. I can’t bear happiness that continues either from day to day or from morning to morning. I promise to be a good husband, but find me the kind of wife who, like the moon, doesn’t appear in my sky every day.

The irony of this statement in light of what came to pass is part of the romance and the tragedy of Chekhov’s relationship with his “little German.”

Chekhov and Knipper

Chekhov was 38 when he met Olga Knipper, thirty-year-old soon-to-be-rising star of the newly formed Moscow Art Theater company. He first saw her in rehearsal for the role of Arkadina in the company’s revival of his The Seagull in 1898. She went on to play Elena in Chekhov’s next play, Uncle Vanya, and then to create the two great roles Chekhov wrote for her – Masha in Three Sisters and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. Along the way, their friendship blossomed into an affair complicated by her work and his illness. Chekhov’s doctor’s insisted that he spend the winter months far to the south in “sunny” Yalta, where the climate supposedly afforded him some protection from the cold and damp of Moscow’s winters.

Olga’s increasing popularity with the audience in a series of demanding leading roles (many of them in Chekhov’s own plays), kept her busy during those same months. “The months of separation they had to endure made them, at times, desperate,” Jean Benedetti, editor and translator of their letters reminds us.” Their misfortune, however, is our gain, since we are able to follow their story through the many hundreds of letters they exchanged.”

These were letters which were never, it is clear, intended for the public eye since they reveal so much that is spontaneous, expansive, loving, excessive and, at times, unflattering about the lovers. Ranging from the daily goings-on of rehearsals and weather through anger, jealousy, joy and recrimination to home remedies for baldness, the Chekhov-Knipper correspondence provides both the scholar and the casual reader with insights into the nature and substance of the art of relationship.

In 1901, the couple finally married. At Chekhov’s insistence, they arranged an elaborate wedding reception for friends and relations – which served as a cover for their elopement. The couple’s separation continued, however. His health had not improved and her career continued to blossom. Olga was with Chekhov when he died in Badenweiler – an event she revisited in her memoirs:

Dr. Schwörer came and gently, caringly started to say something, cradling Anton in his arms. Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe [I am dying]. The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” He drained it, lay quietly on his left side and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed, and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child…*

Olga continued to write letters to her beloved Anton for months after his passing. Though she survived him by some fifty-five years, she never remarried.

Discussion Questions . . . 

  1. Courting Chekhov consists of three “love stories”–the two one act plays and the letters between playwright Anton Chekhov and actress Olga Knipper which frame them. How do these three separate parts relate to each other? What are the themes and ideas about love and courtship that connect them?
  2. The comedy of The Bear proceeds from the characters’ lack of self-knowledge–the widow Popova thinks she is devoted to her dead husband, Smirnov thinks he hates women–and yet, they can’t stay away from each other. Why is this funny? Can you think of similar characters in contemporary comedy (theatre, film or television)? Trace the connections.Botched proposals are a Chekhov specialty. If you’re reading other Chekhov plays, compare The Proposal to the final interview between Tuzenbakh and Irina in Act IV of Three Sisters and Lopakhin’s failure to propose to Varya in Act IV of The Cherry Orchard. What is different in the way Chekhov handles these scenes?
  3. The director has cast two different sets of actors as the “loving couples” in each short play. The couple playing Nataliya and Lomov in The Proposal reads the Chekhov/Knipper letters which introduce The Bear. The couple playing Popova and Smirnov in The Bear read those letters introducing The Proposal. Besides a simple economy of casting, why might the director have made this choice?

More About . . . 

Interior of the original MAT

The Moscow Art Theatre is certainly one of the most influential artistic institutions in modern history. Founded by Konstantin Stanislavski and V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko in 1898, the theater pioneered new forms and techniques of drama into the early 20th century. The plays of Anton Chekhov were central to the MAT’s experiments in dramatic realism. Stanislavski himself directed and played in Chekhov’s The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry OrchardAvante garde experiments in symbolist dramas by playwrights like Maeterlinck and Andreyev gave way to an almost exclusive focus on realism in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent rise of Stalin. Chekhov continues to be an important part of the Theater’s repertory today.

Konstantin Stanislavski, as mentioned above, was the brilliant and influential

Konstantin Stanislavski

actor/director and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. He is perhaps best known as the developer of the Stanislavski System, an approach to acting which found its greatest expression and success in the emerging realistic dramas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The System was a technique demanding rigorous discipline (vocal and physical work which is the foundation of theatrical expression), script analysis and “focused on internally based – that is, psychological – methods” for bringing characters to life on stage. Through those disciples who emigrated to the United States, The Moscow Art Theatre’s European and American tours and English translations of his books (An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, Creating a Role and his memoir My Life in Art), Stanislavski’s System had an inestimable impact on modern theatre. Most actors in the United States today (not to mention Europe) are trained with some variation of the Stanislavskian “method.”

Serfs were the Russian equivalent of slaves. For many social, cultural and economic reasons, the institution of serfdom became entrenched in Russian society in the 16th century, much as the institution of slavery bound itself to American culture in the years before the American Revolution. Unlike America, where the slaves were initially imported from other lands, the Russian serfs were peasants who had farmed the land for generations. Under Ivan IV (a.k.a. Ivan the Terrible), their rights to move from the land on which they were born — land controlled by the Russian nobility – were progressively restricted. Flogging, dismemberment and other monstrous punishments were inflicted on the serfs at the whim of their masters, who were immune to reprisal. Finally, in the middle of the 19th century, historical circumstances conspired to bring about reforms. In 1861, just as the United States was exploding in civil war over its own “peculiar institution,” Tsar Alexander II emancipated the Russian serfs.

Dramatic realism is the theatrical version of an artistic form that emphasizes themes and circumstances drawn from an objective examination of real life and real people. Modern dramatic realism, in practice, is usually more concerned with psychological motives, the “inner reality,” and less committed to achieving a superficial reproduction of reality alone. The Moscow Art Theater’s productions of Chekhov were known for Stanislavski’s relentless attention to naturalistic detail–crickets chirped, train whistles sounded in the distance during the outdoor scenes–but it was his attention to the psychological reality of the characters which gave the plays the depth and texture of real life.

Sources used in the production of this preview . . . 

Benedetti, Jean. Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper. 1996.

Chekhov, Anton. Five Plays. 1977.

Clayton, J. Douglas (ed.) Chekhov Then and Now: The Reception of Chekhov in World Culture. 1997.

Hingley, Ronald. Russia: A concise history. 1991.

Senelick, Laurence. Anton Chekhov. Grove Press Modern Dramatists Series. 1985.

Wilson, Edwin and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theater: A History. 1994.