A Russian playwright and author of numerous short stories, Anton Chekhov was a physician and writer in the late 19th century. An early leader in the modernist style, Chekhov sought to present the human condition in his works as honestly as accurately as possible, travelling and observing conditions all over Russia. He also is generally credited with a principle of playwriting that is now known as “Chekhov’s gun” - the idea that every part of a story must be present for a reason, and everything not essential should be cut out. If you have a gun on a wall, he said, it must be fired. If it isn’t fired, there was no point in it being there.
Chekhov also once said “the role of an artist is to ask questions, not to answer them.” At Qwiz, our job is to do both, so let’s take a look at the most important information about his works.
By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at five of its most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Anton Chekhov.
Originally intended as a comedy, but today frequently performed as a tragedy, The Seagull focuses on four primary characters: Irina Arkadina, Konstantin Treplyov, Boris Trigorin, and Nina Zarechnaya. The plot focuses on numerous cases of unrequited love interspersed with discussions of art and artistry. Notable clues include the presence of a play within a play that features a pair of red lights representing Satan doing battle with a “universal soul”, the killing of the title bird by Treplyov as a failed gift for Nina, and Treplyov’s suicide at the end of the play.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD
The Cherry Orchard is one of the best known of Chekhov’s plays. It focuses on the Ranevskaya family, who have returned to Russia after a five year absence. Their estate is soon to be auctioned off due to the family’s debts, including the family’s famous cherry orchard. Lophakin, a merchant, tries to get the family to sell the orchard to pay some of the debt and save their home, but the family ignores him, likely because he is of the lower class. Other characters include the “eternal student” Trofimov, who loves Anya, the serving man Firs, and Gayev, Madame Renevskaya’s brother, who is constantly playing billiards. Unable to get the Ranevskayas to act, Lophakin ends up buying the estate himself and ordering the orchard chopped down to make way for summer homes. At the end of the play, the family moves out, but forgets to take Firs, who is left to die in the sealed house as he hears the axes chopping in the distance.
Uncle Vanya is about Professor Serebryakov and his new wife Yelena, who visit their country estate. Living on the estate are Vanya, Serebryakov’s deceased first wife’s brother, and Serebryakov’s daughter by his first wife, Sonya. Notable as a revision of The Wood Demon, one of Chekhov’s early plays, the plot involves Sonya’s unrequited love for Dr. Astrov, Vanya’s frustration with his life, and the decision of Serebryakov to sell the estate, despite it being Sonya and Vanya’s home. Vanya attempts (twice!) to shoot the professor, but fails both times; he then considers suicide by morphine stolen from Dr. Astrov. In the end, however, the professor relents and agrees to leave the estate alone. The play closes with Sonya assuring Vanya that in the near future, “We shall rest.”
The title sisters of this less-frequently tossed up play are Irina, Masha, and Olga, who desperately miss the sophistication of Moscow and long to return there. Irina, young and still easily entertained, agrees to marry Lieutenant Tuzenbach, who has pursued her for five years, when it becomes clear she will never get back to Moscow. However, Captain Solyony is also in love with Irina, and challenges Tuzenbach to a duel, killing the man and destroying even this hope for Irina. Masha carries on an affair with Captain Vershinin, but he is transferred, and she is stuck in her loveless marriage to a Latin teacher. Olga is a spinster schoolteacher, and is constantly fighting with her brother’s wife Natasha, who is herself obsessed with her baby Bobik. The play ends with the soldiers marching away to their new posts, and the sisters left together but with no hope.
Chekhov wrote many short stories, but three in particular are important to know. “The Bet” is a story about a lawyer and a banker who argue about the morality of the death penalty and whether life in prison would be worse. The banker bets two million rubles that the lawyer can’t spend fifteen years in total isolation. “Gooseberries” is about Ivan Ivanovich, who wishes to return to the country farm where he grew up and the happiness it represents. “The Lady with the Dog” tells the story of an affair between two married lovers, Dmitri Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna. Anna is obsessed with her Pomeranian, which draws Gurov’s attention at the start of the story.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
* Ernest Hemingway grudgingly admitted that Chekhov wrote “six good short stories”, but said he was only an amateur writer. Chekhov was also advised by another writer to slow down and focus instead of writing so much. It was a little late, though, because Chekhov wrote 201 of these stories. You can read them all on this website!
* Remember how we mentioned Chekhov was a practicing physician as well as a writer? Read about the author’s medical work and how it influenced him in this article from the Annals of Thoracic Surgery.
* Chekhov’s major plays were all directed by Konstantin Stanislavski, who developed the namesake Stanislavski Method for acting and was a leader in the naturalistic movement. Learn more about this method in the video below, where actors discuss how the method works.
* Funny or Die did a fairly funny parody of Antiques Roadshow and an appraisal of Chekov’s Gun which you can see below. It isn’t educational in the least, but sometimes you just need a laugh about people making a joke with a lofty concept.
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