'Olga, my doggie' Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper

Anton Chekhov, short-story writer, doctor, humanist, dramatist, is known the world over for his four luminous plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard) about love, life, Russia, and the passage of time. And yet the most memorable of Chekhov's love stories is not one that he wrote, but rather one that he lived - with Olga Knipper, actress and leading lady of the Moscow Art Theatre.

They met in September 1898 at a reading of his controversial new play, The Seagull. He was 38, she had just turned 30. He was a celebrated writer, she was a charismatic young actress in a fledgling theatre company. The story spans six short years, in which they play evolving roles - first as playwright and actress, then as lovers, then as husband and wife, and finally as invalid and caretaker, until Chekhov's untimely death at the age of 44.

Most of that time they spent apart by necessity - she in residence at the Moscow Art Theatre, he in exile in Yalta, suffering from consumption. Even when they were together during the summers, his ever-declining health marred the quality of their reunions. And yet they shared more than a full lifetime of love and theatre.

Those brief years are chronicled in a unique correspondence, consisting of roughly 400 letters each. (The collected letters are published in Russian, and have recently been translated into English by Jean Benedetti.) Born of their enforced separation, the correspondence spans five of those six years (1899-1904) and a remarkable period in theatre history - the birth of the Moscow Art Theatre and its production of Chekhov's four major plays, all starring Olga.

Addressed "dear author/dear actress" and signed by him with a courtly "I take your hand in mine", the correspondence evolves into intimacy as their relationship - both artistic and personal - progresses. It begins in the spring of 1899, after the opening of The Seagull, in which Olga makes her first appearance as Chekhov's leading lady. It covers the rehearsals and opening of Uncle Vanya (October 1899) and the writing and premiere of The Three Sisters (January 1901) at the Moscow Art Theatre, during which time they met each other's families, travelled between Moscow and Yalta, and became lovers. It recounts their elopement in 1901, Olga's miscarriage the following year, her slow recovery, and Chekhov's decline while he struggled to write his final play, The Cherry Orchard, culminating with its premiere in January 1904. In April 1904, the correspondence ends without ceremony. Chekhov journeyed to Moscow, and then with Olga to Badenweiler, Germany, where he died on July 2 1904.

The circumstances under which they corresponded were extreme, owing to the exigencies of her career, the trials of his illness, and the logistics of their "commuter" marriage. She wrote from Moscow, either from her dressing room, covered in greasepaint, or from her flat, enervated after all-night partying, or from the train, rushed after a hasty visit to the south. He wrote from Yalta, bored in isolation, desperate for news of the theatre, or exhausted from pain. And yet, throughout the drama of this relationship, overshadowed by separation, illness and artistic frustration (Chekhov couldn't travel to Moscow to attend rehearsals and never saw the openings of three of his four plays), they doggedly kept the correspondence going, a lifeline for both - his only contact with the glamour of Moscow and the theatre he missed so keenly, her desperate attempt to assuage the guilt of abandoning a dying husband who also happened to be Russia's most famous playwright and the cause of her success.

The letters are filled, primarily, with details of daily married life: concerns over each other's health, money, weather, travel arrangements, petty family issues. These are interspersed with the personal: her jealousy of his sister Masha, his concern over her high life style, their mutual expressions of loneliness and longing. On some days "I brushed my teeth" or "I caught two mice" was the most he could muster; on others "I'll write later" was the best she could offer. And yet they kept corresponding, brave, determined.

As his consumption advanced, his letters grew briefer ("I had soup and eggs today; mutton I can't manage any more), hers more desperate ("I'm ashamed to call myself your wife"). And yet, despite the drama, they are bright, tender, and upbeat in tone. She writes as she acts, passionately, calling him "my darling, my dearest"; he writes as he lives, playfully, calling her anything but "Olga" ("my doggie", "my horsey", "my crocodile", "my little Knipperschitz") to deflect from their painful situation.

Embedded in the everyday are gems of theatre history and insights into Chekhov's creative process. People, places, details mentioned in passing in the correspondence find their way into a new play, often as a practical joke - like a cure for baldness in a letter from Olga that turns up in The Three Sisters. There are numerous references to his travails ("I'm dried out as a dramatist"). She relied upon his letters for guidance on her roles. He relied upon her letters for reporting on rehearsals and performances and for running interference with Stanislavsky, who pressured him with deadlines despite his illness and then made artistic choices that infuriated him. "Sound effects in act II? Stanislavsky must be stopped!" he wrote, alarmed over rehearsal reports of The Cherry Orchard. Irritated references to Stanislavsky's casting, directing and acting abound (he directed and appeared in all of Chekhov's plays).

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