How Chekhov Speaks to Us

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BBC Radio 7, 24 January 2010
This short programme, broadcast as a curtain-raiser to the BBC's season celebrating 150 years since the birth of Anton Chekhov, invited actors, critics, writers to explain why his plays have proved so enduringly popular. Some of the answers were predictable: as a country doctor, Chekhov spent much of his life dealing with suffering. This experience gave him a unique power of sympathy; he could look at people's lives without judging them. But this did not render him a saint: the novelist William Boyd suggested that Chekhov himself had a colourful love life, enjoying casual sex and pursuing a bohemian existence. Donald Rayfield, professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary College, University of London, likewise suggested that Chekhov was something of a sex symbol. On the other hand he liked to listen to people and write about them. Lynne Truss observed that this meant that most of his major plays were character- rather than plot-centred.
From an actor's point of view, Chekhov offers numerous opportunities for nuanced characterization. Penelope Wilton stressed that his plays are simultaneously tragic yet very funny; perhaps it is the director's fault (particularly in Britain) that this aspect of Chekhov's work is not better known. Miriam Margolyes - no mean comedienne herself - concurred; in her view Chekhov made no distinction between tragedy and comedy. He was more interested in human behaviour.
The programme ended with an interesting anecdote. Immediately before his death from tuberculosis in 1904, Chekhov was apparently quoted as saying that his plays would only be read and performed for a limited period, and that he would soon descend into obscurity. As William Boyd observed, it is a testament to his genius that this has never happened.

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