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Cracking the Case of Chekhov’s Ambiguity

As a birthday gift to Anton Chekhov, let's try and get the gist of his famous plays right in future adaptations by balancing his style with our sensibilities.

On Thursday (Jan. 29), Russians will celebrate the birthday of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), most famous on these shores for four plays written at the end of his life: The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya. Chekhov's work remains a prominent — and mandatory — study in Russian schools and on its culture.

Outside of Russia, Chekhov remains a popular yet mysterious puzzle many literary artists attempt to solve — and replicate.
A lack of clarity and defined meaning in his plays — which emphasize subtext, mood and tone — continues to stupefy even the best of writers, leaving researchers aiming to "crack the case" of his writing style. Lena Lencek and Pieroo Brunello, in their book How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration Straight from Anton Chekhov's Own Letters and Work, claim to offer teaching methods for playwrights adapting Chekhov's plays. I have serious doubt that Chekhov's mastery, where instead of emotion being played on the line, it's found between the lines, can be captured by anyone but himself.

While adaptations have an honorable role in generating interest among a wider audience who might otherwise avoid a work, Chekhov did not approve of "misinterpretation" or straying from the original idea in his plays. He often argued with a fellow playwright about the very genre of his plays; Konstantin Stanislavsky insisted they were tragedies, while Chekhov maintained they were comedies.

As might be expected, Chekhov even objected to his plays being translated because, in addition to his unique writing style, those outside of Russia were unlikely to be familiar with the lifestyle, idiom and culture underpinning each work. Today, however, much against Chekhov's wishes, his plays are not only translated but adapted into musicals, ballets, puppet shows or simply made into a new play with the adapter's "personal touch."

If Chekhov was annoyed simply by Stanislavsky's misconception of the genre, imagine how he would react to one of his plays in the form of a puppet show. Talk about misinterpretation!

To prove the importance of understanding the difference between existing adaptations, I compared Chekhov's classic play Three Sisters to contemporary adaptations: Three Sisters by David Mamet ( )(1991), Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosenweig ( )(1992) and 3 Sisters on Hope Street by Diane Samuels ( ) and Tracy-Ann Oberman (2008). The difference between these plays are staggering despite the premise that they are all based on the original from 1900.

Mamet's adaptation is so faithful to Chekhov's original intent that it fails to reach the goal of an adaptation in relating to a modern audience. The story, characters and setting are all the same. In fact, in Mamet's dedication to remaining faithful the text becomes more difficult to read, less relatable to a modern audience-defying the purpose of creating an adaptation. Wasserstein's adaptation, on the other hand, is completely relevant to today's audience but has nothing to do with Chekhov's original: There are three sisters, and that's where it ends.

The final adaptation by Samuels and Oberman is a perfect role model for all other adaptations. Here's why: It's written in the style of Chekhov but updated for a modern audience; the slightly altered language allows for better understanding, which improves the visibility of the subtext.

Creating accurate adaptations is important because they are intended to represent the original, authentic work. When an audience member sees an adaptation posing as Chekhov, like Wasserstein's, it is misleading. Unfortunately, creating an authentic adaptation that does not relate to a modern audience presents problems of its own.

From my research, (which included the tedious scrutiny of no less than 50 expert sources) I offer a formula that may solve this problem, balancing faithfulness to the author's intent while still creating a contemporary social situation.

The formula obviously is not rigidly developed, but more of a suggestion for future playwrights. Faithfulness to Chekhov would include his writing style, with emphasis on subtext and attention to detail. Chekhov is renowned for his ability to capture human lifestyle and wastefulness, so this would need to be applied to the adaptation to retain faithfulness. Let's look at the three adaptations already mentioned:

Mamet's adaptation is able to do all of this, especially in regard to dialogue, but he does not use contemporary situations. Contemporary situations are comprised mostly from language, possibly slang, and the way it is written.

Wasserstein's adaptation uses these contemporary situations by writing with shorter sentences to appeal to a modern audience. Moreover, her adaptation is contemporary because she includes modern lifestyles, such as incorporating a homosexual character. This adaptation is only contemporary, though, and has no faithfulness to Chekhov.

3 Sisters on Hope Street encompasses both parts of the adaptation formula through its faithfulness to Chekhov and use of contemporary situations. Samuels and Oberman wrote in the style of Chekhov, noting the absurdity of human wastefulness while also using shorter sentences and simpler dialogue than did Mamet. This play captures the essence of Chekhov's original and succeeds in relating a classic story to a modern audience.

The merit of this formula can go a long way to ensure for an adaptation's ability to relate a modern audience to a classic story or idea. Nonetheless, there are opposing views and theories with many followers who support the idea that the author's original intent is irrelevant. All opinions aside, it is essential that as audience members/viewers/readers we bear in mind that the work of an adaptation has been altered. It is not the original and may not be the intent of the original artist (one only has to recall Da Vinci's Last Supper painted on velvet to understand the point).