New biography includes account of the author expressing frank contempt for Chekhov’s plays
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.
The author’s close friend Ivan Bunin, winner of the Nobel prize in literature in 1933, recalls in the new biography how Chekhov would tell him about Tolstoy: “I admire him greatly. What I admire the most in him is that he despises us all; all writers. Perhaps a more accurate description is that he treats us, other writers, as completely empty space. You could argue that from time to time, he praises Maupassant, or Kuprin, or Semenov, or myself. But why does he praise us? It is simple: it’s because he looks at us as if we were children. Our short stories, or even our novels, all are child’s play in comparison with his works. However, Shakespeare … For him, the reason is different. Shakespeare irritates him because he is a grown-up writer, and does not write in the way that Tolstoy does.”