Chekhov on Theatre
Compiled by Jutta Hercher and Peter Urban, translated by Stephen Mulrine from the writings of Anton Chekhov
Nick Hern Books
Chekhov on Theatre is a German compilation that has been translated into English by Stephen Mulrine.
It travels far and wide across the doctor-playwright's considerable canon of writing to find extracts that bear on life in the theatre.
After a section entitled "Moscow Theatre, 1881-1885" in which the future theatrical genius proved himself to be a rather limp gossip columnist and theatre critic, the book improves considerably in the second part entitled "On Writing, 1883-1904".
This draws significantly on his letters to family, friends and colleagues and is arranged thematically, which works rather well, although it can be a little confusing as, between each of the eight sections, one inevitably travels back in time.
Chekhov is an acute observer who could easily have made his way as a director or dramaturg judging by his ability to spot strengths and weaknesses in not only his own writing but that of others. He is also well able to recognise good acting, though whether he would ever have been critical of his much-loved wife Olga Knipper may be open to question.
The final section is the highlight, as Chekhov analyses and explains his plays. In addition, one can begin to understand the pleasures and frustrations of a playwright who, at various stages in his career, attempts to get his much loved babes onto the stage without their being mangled by unsealing actors and directors. In particular, his analysis of Ivanov is exemplary and could usefully be read by viewers before their next visit to see the play.
This book builds a strong picture of theatrical life in Moscow and St Petersburg just before and at the turn of the last century, with vast amounts of bitching seemingly a commonplace.
Chekhov on Theatre can also serve as a tangential autobiography since, through its pages, it is possible to learn much about its subject's life and work.
For those that enjoy this work, there is a companion book entitled Shakespeare on Theatre that will also be reviewed in the near future.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher