Chekhov’s Overcoat

A French Russophile coined the famous quote, “We all come out from Gogol’s overcoat,” and Nikolai Gogol likely had an influence on Chekhov, born 50 years after the realist pioneer.

But it is Chekhov’s overcoat – or, perhaps, his iconic pince-nez – from under which modern drama originally emerged, at least according to The New York Review of Books, reviewing the Classic Stage Company’s 2011 production of The Cherry Orchard. Writer Giles Harvey references a characteristic speech from the play in which Madame Ranyévskaya wordily rebukes her brother for his empty talk:

It is a typical moment that showcases Chekhov’s greatest artistic discovery, one without which much of twentieth century literature would be unimaginable: that plays and stories could be made out of life’s dross, the anti-drama and non-events that comprise so much of day-to-day life for most people.

Translator Paul Schmidt echoes the same idea in the introduction to his volume of Chekhov plays:

What Chekhov accomplished, in a kind of miraculous progression through those four last plays, was gradually to cut away the melodramatic moments of the ‘plot,’ or shift them offstage, leaving finally only his characters’ helpless, unheeding responses to those moments.

And suddenly the whole fabric of nineteenth-century theater collapses. The rule of causality, the idea that every act is subject to consequences, that morality is a matter of rectitude or retribution – all that vanishes . . . Chekhov’s own description of what he was up to is best: ‘What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.

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