Tolstoy thought Chekhov 'worse than Shakespeare'

Tolstoy's condemnation of Chekhov's plays as 'worse than Shakespeare' has been thrown back into the spotlight by a new book that draws on memories of the author from his contemporaries.

Editor Peter Sekirin has worked with previously untranslated letters, diaries and essays by Chekhov's family, colleagues and friends for his book Memories of Chekhov, which has just been published. Peter Gnedich, a novelist and playwright, recalls in the book how Chekhov once recounted a trip he made to visit Tolstoy in Gaspra.

'He was bedridden due to illness,' Chekhov told Gnedich, according to an extract from Sekirin's documentary biography published in the New York Review of Books. 'Among other things, he spoke about me and my works. Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and said, 'Kiss me goodbye.' While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man's voice, 'You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.''

Gnedich also reveals that, although Tolstoy 'sincerely loved Chekhov', he once told him that 'a playwright should take the theatre-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back – because your character has no other place to go.' According to Gnedich, they both laughed at this, but Chekhov told Gnedich later 'when I am writing a new play, and I want my character to exit the stage, I remember those words of Lev Nikolaevich, and I think 'Where will my character go?' I feel both funny and angry.'

Although Chekhov's play The Seagull was initially given a poor reception, his reputation as a playwright continued to grow and, with the plays Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters to his name, he is acclaimed today as one of the greatest playwrights as well as a master of the short story.


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