The Sunday Interview: Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov is perhaps the world’s most revered playwright after Shakespeare. He died in 1904, but he’s agreed to make an exception to sit down and be interviewed by’s crack team.

If you’d like to see Chekhov in action, be sure to get tickets to see the Hideout Theatre’s production of Nothing & Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays. That’s right, improvised. It’s funny. It’s heart-breaking. And it’s the coziest night you’ll have at the theater this winter. (More info here.)

chekhov Anton Chekhov

Age: 44 – in spite of the strange insistence by some that I’m 154

Years writing plays and short stories: 25

Web presence: I strive to keep clear of spiders

Troupes or projects you’re involved in now: Moscow Art Theatre

Last year, interviewed Matt Besser. I thought that was a big deal. But you, Mr. Chekhov, are the biggest “get” this blog has gotten. Can you tell us why you agreed to be interviewed?
My theatrical career has plagued me with an endless succession of obligations and tiresome requests. Still, I find it less troublesome to grant them than to explain my motives for refusal to my loved ones.

When high school students are told that they have to read Chekhov, they tend to groan in displeasure. What would you say to those nervous and bored students?
I was once like you, and I completely understand how you feel. One day you may be like me, looking back at a younger generation and understanding at last why a silly older man like me found your displeasure so amusing and fascinating.

What is a major misapprehension Americans have about turn-of-the-century Russia?
It is in America’s best interests for Russia to win the war against Japan. Our aims in Manchuria are in no way a threat to the spirit of free trade expressed in the Open Door Policy.

You call your plays “comedies.” What the hell, Anton?
They absolutely are. The fact that so many people like you seem to disagree is a sign that I’ve failed as a dramatist. I don’t attempt to conceal my opinion that I’m ill-suited to write for the stage.

All the same, I find it curious that an audience should feel compelled to weep every time a character weeps, as if all sadness is justified and should warrant pity. Some people cry when they should laugh and thereby elicit our amusement, just as some people laugh when they should cry and thereby elicit our compassion. Characters in my plays suffer and weep, but they are no more significant than the ones who shrug or express joy.

The presence of sadness should not nullify the cheerful mood of my plays. They are often quite lighthearted and sometimes even farcical.

The Hideout is producing Nothing & Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays. What do you make of that? Is it possible? Do you find their gall offensive?
Offensive? No. They can attempt whatever nonsense they like. I’m quite sure nothing will come of it.

What’s the main difference between a good actor and a bad actor?
Stanislavski is much more qualified to answer that question than I am. I recommend that you ask him directly, though. If you try to learn his views by watching him perform, you’re likely to get the wrong impression. For now, suffice it to say that a good actor knows his lines, and a bad actor knows anything but his lines.


Tell us a joke, Anton. Even if it’s incomprehensibly Russian.
I once convinced a beautiful young girl who was terrified of heights to sled down a long, steep slope with me. On the way down, I whispered in her ear, “I love you.” Upon reaching the bottom, after her nerves had settled, she thought back on what she had heard. Had she actually heard it at all? If so, had I said it, or had her state of terror caused her to mistake the sound of the wind in her ears?

Even though that run down the slope had in no way diminished her fear, she asked me to sled down it with her again. I agreed. Once more I whispered the words, and once more her overwhelming agitation kept her in uncertainty about their source. The question began to torture her.

Throughout that winter, again and again she asked me to sled down the slope with her. Each time I whispered, “I love you.” She seemed to become addicted to hearing those words, although she never knew if it was I or her imagination that said them.

That spring, as I was preparing to leave for Petersburg, quite convinced I would never see her again, I spied her through a crack in the fence between the gardens of our houses. Her eyes were closed. She seemed to be in great distress, imploring the sky for an answer to the question on her mind. Once again I whispered, “I love you,” and watched a blissful expression steal over her face.

Two days later I left.

Many years afterward, I learned that she was married, and a mother of three. I suspect she never forgot our sled rides together and the words she had so desperately wanted to hear me say. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the memory has remained among the most cherished of her life.

As for me, I can no longer understand why I played such a trick on her all those years ago.

Why should people read your plays?
I’m not sure they should.

I try to show man to himself as he is, not as he is in our imaginations and myths, or as he is on our modern stage. Life is composed primarily of banal events like greetings, partings, menial labor, meals, and unremarkable conversation; so, too, are my plays. If man were sufficiently aware of how he lives, I would feel no need to write plays about it.

Anything you want to plug?
I’m currently preparing a play about Arctic exploration. If my health permits me to finish, I have reason to believe it will be much more successful than my previous attempts at playwrighting.

What’s something that most people don’t know?
I detest being asked to explain my work. If I had anything more to say about it than I included, I would have included it.

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