Anton Chekhov: Genius for Hire
The great Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) desperately needed money all his life. But maybe his constant need for work was what produced many of his greatest masterpieces.
Chekhov had an exclusive deal with the publisher Adolf Marx, who owned the rights to all the writer’s works – present and future.
The value of the contact was 75,000 rubles –a small fortune at the time, but Marx paid the sum in small installments, in return for new manuscripts. Nevertheless, Chekhov bought a small house in Yalta with money from this contract.
However, Chekhov found a way around the terms of the agreement – the contract didn’t cover plays. The book “The Cherry Orchard” was published by Marx, but royalties for the stage version went to the writer. It is no coincidence that more than half of Chekhov’s stage plays were written after he signed the contract with Marx – including “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters,” and no fewer than 10 short plays.
However, in becoming a playwright, Chekhov traded one set of problems for another – haggling with a publisher for money turned into haggling with directors over staging. For example, Chekhov arrived at one rehearsal of “The Seagull” at the Moscow Art Theater to hear frogs croaking, dogs barking, and dragonflies buzzing behind the stage. When he asked what the purpose of this menagerie was, the director said: “We are trying to make it all look more real.”
Although Chekhov spent his entire life looking for money, he was never short of ideas. He could produce a captivating story out of everyday situations. His works did not push a specific ideology, which was contrary to fashion of the time.
In reply, Chekhov delivered an impromptu lecture about art. “There is this great painting by Kramskoi," he told the troupe. “It captures human faces very well. What if we cut out the painted nose on one of the faces, and poke a real nose out of the hole? What do you think? The nose will look very real! The painting itself would be utterly ruined, of course… The theater stage depicts the quintessence of life. Please don’t put any extraneous elements there."
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