Chekhov’s early maturity

Almost three weeks ago now, the Argumentative Old Git (Himadri Chatterjee) wrote of his plan to re-read Ibsen’s mature works, which include Brand, Peer Gynt and the twelve plays from The Pillars of Society (1877) to When We Dead Awaken (1899). On the strength of these dozen plays, Ibsen is often grouped with Chekhov and Strindberg as a founder of modern drama. However, Ibsen was much older than the other two: he was born in the same year as Leo Tolstoy (1828) and died four years before LT (1906). When he published the first of his “realist” plays, in 1877, Ibsen was going on fifty and already famous for his poetic output. Likewise, when Leo Tolstoy published Anna Karenina in 1875-77, he was already the author of War and Peace, in his late 40s.

In contrast, Chekhov wrote The Seagull at 35, Uncle Vanya at 37, The Three Sisters at 40, and The Cherry Orchard at 43. He had won fame and critical recognition by thirty with his short stories and novellas, although without an Epic Masterpiece like War and Peace or Peer Gynt towering in the background. On the other hand, his journey to Sakhalin and back in 1890 was barely short of epic, if at all.

At twenty-nine, Chekhov wrote A Dreary Story, where the narrator is a 62-year-old, terminally ill professor of medicine. It was published in the fall of 1889, three years after Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Some Russian critics saw A Dreary Story as Chekhov’s response to The Death of Ivan Ilyich or a variation on Tolstoy’s theme. This superficial view invites a comparison between the two authors’s ages: Tolstoy was 53 when he started Ivan Ilyich and 57 or 58 when he completed it.

Years later, Tolstoy – already in his 70s – admired Chekhov’s intelligence when listening to Alexander Goldenweiser reading aloud A Dreary Story. But Tolstoy never appreciated Chekhov’s plays. “This is affected, coming from Ibsen, and Ibsen isn’t worth much himself.” Or, in Tolstoy’s trademark manner, “You know I can’t stand Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse. At least Shakespeare grabs the reader by the collar and takes him to a known destination, not letting him turn aside. And how far can you get with your characters? From the sofa where they are lying to a closet and back?”

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