The centennial of Chekhov’s death last year gave Laurence
Senelick, Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory, ample opportunity
to share his deep-seated respect for the Russian literary legend.
Senelick, considered America’s leading expert on Anton
Chekhov’s drama, spoke at commemorative events from St.
Petersburg, Russia, to Oxford University and Colby College
in Maine. Chekhov, he says, is undoubtedly the greatest Russian
storyteller and dramatist of modern times, but today “one
can now take out the Russian.” In addition, Senelick
recently edited and translated the second edition of Anton
Chekhov’s Selected Plays (Norton Critical Edition) and
is now working on a one-volume edition of the complete plays.
He spoke with Tufts Magazine from his office in Aidekman
Can you sum up how people regard Chekhov, his work, and his
It’s very interesting what’s happened over the
course of a century. When Chekhov died in 1904, he was considered
an important Russian author, but he wasn’t known well
outside of Russia. When his plays began to be better known,
they created the image of him as someone writing specifically
about a portion of Russian society—a cranky, rather moonstruck,
rather feckless group of people. Over the course of the century,
Chekhov has come to be considered universal. He’s as
important as Shakespeare in terms of repertory. When you consider
that Shakespeare presents us with a huge world, characters
from every period and clime and creatures that never really
existed, and Chekhov presents us with a very narrow group of
characters who all seem to come from the same background, you
wonder why. You have to ask: What is it about Chekhov that
brings him to that masterpiece level?
Did he somehow know how to tap into a human angst that resonates
I don’t know if I’d use the word “angst.” The
Russian symbolist poet Andrei Biely said that the thing about
Chekhov is that he looks at reality so closely, in such detail,
that he sees through reality to eternity. That’s a
rather pretentious way of putting it, but the interesting
thing about Chekhov as a playwright is that although he gives
the illusion that he’s writing a naturalistic play,
about things that can happen in everyday life, he’s
really writing about the human condition. It opens up into
realms that are far more applicable to everybody than simply
living on a country estate in Russia on the eve of the Revolution.
What would be some of those common areas that you think he
has touched on?
He deals very much with the disjunction between what people
think they want, what they think will make them happy, and
what actually makes them happy. His characters are always
offering prospects of what will happen in a hundred years,
or “if only”—that’s one of their
favorite phrases. If only this would happen, then I would
get married or so- and-so would fall in love with me, then
things would be better. In the meantime, they don’t
realize that much of what they’re actually doing would
be productive of happiness, if they simply paid attention
to it at the time.
One of the reasons I don’t like directing Chekhov in
university is because so many of his plays have to do with
midlife crisis, things that undergraduates don’t understand.
When you’ve devoted your life to something and then
at a certain point you realize it was a mistake, or your
whole life has been founded on misconceptions—that
can be very devastating.
Do you find anything particularly depressing about Chekhov?
No. I think that’s one of those terrible clichés,
and it still adheres. People keep saying that he’s
the merchant of doom and gloom, and this was very much started
in his own time, when the symbolists and the decadents felt
that he didn’t have enough religious or mystical uplift,
that he was too mired in materiality. But, in fact, Chekhov
is a comic author.
He began as a humorist when he was in medical school, writing
for comic journals. And he always maintained that many of
his plays are comedies, and the subtitles of several of them
are “comedy,” because he doesn’t take sides
with his characters. He stands aside as a doctor, he watches
them clinically. It’s as if they have symptoms, as
if they have a certain syndrome or a disease, and he’s
interested in it. He’s not offering any cures at this
point, but he’s diagnosing and seeing which ways these
things manifest themselves. It doesn’t depress him
that this is the way things are, because everything is changeable.
And yet, why is their life dreary? Because they haven’t
realized how stupid they are. He enjoys showing us where
they’re going wrong.
Often in the past, The Cherry Orchard has been read as a
kind of elegy for a lost way of life, “Oh, these poor
aristocrats, they’re losing their estate and it’s
going to be turned into building lots and they will be scattered
over the face of the Earth.” But in fact the loss of
the estate means nothing to them, except on a sentimental
level. They’re exactly the same at the end of the play
as they are at the beginning. They haven’t learned
a thing, which is comic. Even when a character commits suicide,
as happens in The Seagull, it happens offstage, and Chekhov
wants to make it clear that this is just part of life going
on. It’s not a big statement. This is somebody who
couldn’t cope. Chekhov finds suicide cowardly as a
way out. People should be able to cope with their lives.
What’s the root of Chekhov’s
own sharp awareness of life?
Oh, much of it is rooted in his own. His father was a petty
tyrant, a household despot who forced his sons to sing in
the church choir, was always giving their mother a hard time.
The household atmosphere was extremely oppressive. His father
went bankrupt, which also happened to Ibsen and Strindberg,
so there’s something in there about late-19th-century
playwrights being traumatized by the family’s coming
down in the world. The family moved to Moscow because the
father ran off to avoid debts, leaving Chekhov, who had to
finish high school. So he lived in Taganrog for two years
on his own. He was abandoned. Then he moved to Moscow and
had to support the family, while going to medical school,
because his older brothers were bohemians and alcoholics.
Then a few years later, he started spitting blood. He never
admitted that he had tuberculosis. He always claimed it was
something else, until around 1902, when his condition became
so bad that his doctors insisted he had to live in Yalta
where it’s warm. All his life he was facing difficulties,
which he overcame by willpower. I mean, he starts out writing
captions for cartoons and becomes one of Russia’s most
important writers, while he’s still conducting a medical
When he got enough money, he bought a farm, a little estate
for the family to settle on. He threw himself into building
schools for the peasants and serving for free in the cholera
epidemic and doing charitable work. All by himself, he went
off to the prison colony of Sakhalin, before the Trans-Siberian
railroad was built, so he was crossing the entire continent
to do ethnographic studies. Meanwhile, he was writing voluminously.
This is a man who didn’t let anything get him down.
So if Chekhov could do this, he didn’t see why other
people couldn’t do it. He had no patience with pretension,
with whining. When his characters whine and moan and groan,
he’s not endorsing it by any means. He’s smiling
at it, teasing.
Talk a bit more about what’s
Shakespearean about Chekhov.
As I say in the preface to the critical edition, Chekhov
is not writing about heroic-sized characters, but he’s
got what Keats talked about in one of his letters, negative
capability. That is, “when a man is capable of being
in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable
reaching after fact and reason.” Chekhov’s
contemporaries kept complaining that he didn’t join
factions, he didn’t have messages in his work, he
didn’t preach a better future. Chekhov was saying
it’s not the job of a writer to answer questions,
but to ask them. That’s where the negative capability
comes in, by that I mean, leaving things open-ended. Negative
means emptying yourself out of your own personality, your
own prejudices, so that you can present characters from
their point of view. As a result, Chekhov is very hard
to pin down, he’s very elusive both as a person and
as a writer. It’s dangerous to point at a character
and say that’s his spokesman, because he’s
slippery. I think Chekhov likes to slip the noose whenever
people think that they’ve got a grip on what exactly
it is he had in mind; he shows you another facet of the
He is a master observer. He can observe and record what might
be a routine detail and yet . . . his details are very selective,
but they add up, they’re there for a reason. You discover
when you examine the plays carefully, especially the best
ones, everything is there for a reason. When you look at
his drafts, you discover that whenever he revises, he revises
to leave things out. He keeps simplifying and he keeps removing
the lines that are too explicit.
So is he the master of the implicit?
Yes, very much so. In fact, he’s one of the masters
of the pause. This is one of the innovations of playwriting
at the end of the 19th century, the discovery of the pause
and what takes place in that pause.
What does take place in that pause?
Well, it depends. In the earlier plays, the pause often means
the characters are uncomfortable or embarrassed and they’ve
run out of things to say. But in the later plays, the pause
takes on symbolic meaning, so by the time you get to The
Cherry Orchard, the pause is like something that Beckett
once described as “those zones in life where the
everyday activity of living suddenly stops and you’re
confronted with all the horrors of existing.” It’s
not just reading the newspaper and lighting your pipe and
having sex and walking the dog and so on; suddenly you’re
faced with the void and it’s scary. That happens
in Chekhov’s plays. Those pauses are awesome, where
the characters run right up against life with a capital “L.”
What was a main focus for
you as you joined others at events marking the centennial
of Chekhov’s death?
One of the things I talked about a good deal was translating
Chekhov, because there are lots and lots of Chekhov translations,
and what’s the point with doing them again? You do
them again, partly because, certainly in terms of the plays,
there is no such thing as a definitive translation. But also
I don’t think people have seen the jokes. There are
lots of jokes in Chekhov that seem to have eluded many of
the translators, which make him a funnier author.
Jokes in the sense that . . . ?
Wry, little kinds of connections. I tried to show them in
the translation and also in the footnotes, to make readers
more aware of things like that.
What do you think that brings to the discussion of Chekhov?
I think it’s going to lighten him up for a lot of people.
It may be a little tedious to point out jokes, nevertheless,
once people know they’re lurking there, they may realize
that something else is going on. Despite the fact that there
have been endless comic productions of Chekhov in the last
few years, the average person thinks of Chekhov in the way
that Gershwin wrote in the song, “more clouds of gray
than any Russian play could guarantee.”
I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake at the Shaw Festival some years
ago to talk about their production of The
Seagull. It was
the first time that the Shaw Festival had ever done Chekhov.
It was a very funny production. They did the first three
acts as justifiable comedy. But at the hotel where I was
staying, you’d hear people in the breakfast room, “Oh,
are you going to see that Russian play?” “No,
I think it’s going to be too depressing.” I think
one has to come to the theater with an open mind. Maybe,
the less you think you know about Chekhov, the better.
It’s interesting. I had my students define the word “Chekhovian” at
the beginning of the semester, and then I had them do it
again at the end of the semester. And the adjectives all
changed. They began with the usual clichés. Gloomy,
dark, about aristocrats, frustrated, bittersweet, all that
stuff. But, by the end, they began to realize that he was
more ironic, objective, had comic distance, that it’s
not about the aristocrats so much as it is about the gentry;
it’s even-handed and not naturalistic. They all began
to recognize his odd combination of realism and symbolism.