Modernity’s Main Man: Is Anton Chekhov Still Relevant?

Anton Chekhov in 1901/Photo © Everett Historical/Shutterstock

As I write this, it is snowing though spring has officially begun, everyone and their sister has the flu, our country is beset with turmoil, and all I want to do is reread the plays of Anton Chekhov. Frankly, I find an immersion in his works – at once cozily dour and radiantly hopeful – to be an eminently logical response to dispiriting situations. And judging from how often his plays are enacted on stage and screen, I’m clearly not the only one; everyone from Ingmar Bergman to rat-a-tat-tat David Mamet to Louis Malle (not to mention Woody Allen) has tackled the nineteenth-century Russian’s oeuvre. But given his disdain for political upheaval – he once remarked that “the salt of life is to be found in dignified protest” – and given that even the word “Russian” raises hackles in our country right now, I find myself wondering: Is Chekhov still relevant?

“Chekhov has spoken to me in a profound way for the past twenty years,” says director and feminist lawyer Laura Strausfeld, who throws an annual Chekhov event in New York City. “But I admit to having a harder time after this past election, because he was openly critical of protests, which occurred regularly during his lifetime. But he did write about all sorts of people truthfully, making otherwise-invisible people accessible and known to readers.”

Indeed, Chekhov’s plays are concerned with the secret miseries of people of every caste – usually living together in a queasy stab at domestic harmony. From the titular Uncle Vanya to Masha of Three Sisters, all his characters are flawed – grandiose, self-pitying, callous, or simply selfish – but none are abjectly cruel. Rather, they are beautifully, plaintively complex, with flashes of warmth and, in most cases, great wells of longing: the longing to be loved, desired, useful. You get the sense that Chekhov created each one with the affection a parent feels for his child: “All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love,” he famously wrote, and it’s a sentiment that colors even his bleakest creations. Thus the middle-class merchant Lopakhin of The Cherry Orchard is forced to break up his more upper-class friends’ family estate, but is no simple bad guy preying upon the vulnerability of others. Rather, he reluctantly represents a new guard, one that cannot – and to some degree will not – save the aristocracy who refuses to accept the writing on the wall. In this vein, Chekhov’s work seems almost painfully prescient.

“I happen to think Chekhov – my favorite author – is always relevant,” says film critic David Edelstein. “But maybe there is something more relevant now. He died of TB in 1904 before the Russian revolution and did not, unlike Shakespeare, write about his country’s leaders. But he saw the impact of the freedom of the serfs on ideas of social and political mobility. He saw a world on the verge of potentially calamitous change. He even saw environmental disaster as the industrial age took hold. And being a great dramatist, he held many ideas at once. Change had to come – but at what cost?”

At what cost, indeed. Many believe that the dangers plaguing the United States’ already-precarious democracy stem from the dying gasps of a power elite whose time has passed. Certainly our country has never been more openly divided; both traditional and social media has devolved into warzones in which words are weapons rather than olive branches. In this way, Chekhov’s plays also resonate for, as in real life, his characters often prattle on without registering others’ words or even feelings.

“The central music of Chekhov’s plays is people talking-talking-talking but never listening,” says TV writer Lauren Veloski. “Not just neglectfully and lazily not listening, but not listening on an architectural level. Each piece of dialogue is built ingeniously to function as a piece of self-contained/self-propelled machinery that intrinsically cannot hear.”

This may sound awful, but often the effect is both melancholy and amusing. Lately, it’s also startlingly pertinent. There is this sense that history is happening in real time – that we will look back at this moment as the seat of seismic, irrevocable shifts. In this way, Chekhov’s characters, who are forever contemplating their legacies, also ring true. Consider Tusenbach of Three Sisters, who says, almost casually, “The time has come. A colossus is upon us, a mighty, health-giving storm. It’s on its way, moving closer, and soon it will sweep our society clean of sloth, indifference, of prejudice.” Ah, if only it were so. In the meantime, as the world rages outside our windows and even inside our hearths, let us find comfort and truth where we can. Chekhov remains a good place to start.