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Playwrights revisited:
Chekhov the proto-environmentalist

Anton Chekhov died on 15 July 1904. He was 44. In the last six years of his life he had written The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. With those four plays, he established himself, alongside Ibsen, as one of the two most influential dramatists of the modern era.

Among the articles marking the centenary of his death, the novelist William Boyd contributed a lexicon of Chekhov’s life to the Guardian. It started (reasonably enough) with A for Anton and ended (more fancifully) with Z for zoo.

A further glance through the lexicon revealed that E was for ‘event-plot’, a critical term used to describe Chekhov’s short stories, and P was for his father, Pavel. These two entries seem to miss an opportunity. By 2004 it would have been good to have seen E for environmentalist, or perhaps, more precisely, P for proto-environmentalist.

reading chekhov
In one of the best new books about the playwright, Reading Chekhov (2003, Granta) by Janet Malcolm, the New Yorker author, considers Chekhov’s green credentials. Her discussion centres first around the character of Astrov in Uncle Vanya who worried that "beautiful landscapes are disappearing forever."

Astrov is an environmentalist, in Malcolm’s words, because of 'his concern about the destruction of the Russian forests and for his remarkable grasp of the principles of ecology, decades before the term came into use.'

Malcolm quotes the critic A. P. Chudakov in Chekhov’s Poetics who wrote that Chekhov was 'the first writer in literature to include the relationship of man to nature in his sphere of ethics.'

Malcolm goes on to refine Chekhov’s position by suggesting that Chekhov was a poet of the domesticated landscape rather than of the Sublime. He was drawn more to shady old gardens than the the great wildernesses. 'Chekhov hated theatricality', Malcolm writes, 'and was evidently as uncomfortable with nature’s histrionics as with man’s.'

In Una Chaudhuri’s penetrating 1994 essay, '"There Must Be a Lot of Fish in that Lake": Toward an Ecological Theater' (Theater, Vol.25:1) she argues that Astrov’s position is one of ‘resourcism’ or shallow ecology, where nature is seen as providing materials that can be transformed into commodities.

In The Seagull, by comparison, Chaudhuri sees the staging by the side of the lake of Treplev’s ill-conceived play as an example of the disjuncture between culture and nature. After seeing the play, the sympathetic Trigorin can only say, "...the scenery was very beautiful."

Perhaps this is how Chekhov is to be viewed today. He is not an Astrov, who sees how the forests can be turned into engines of progress. Nor is he a Trigorin, simply admiring the landscape. Rather, as a dramatist, he is highly alert to the collisions in our lives between nature and culture.

And that is one reason why his face appears on our home page.

Robert Butler


published in 2003
"There are fewer and fewer forests, the rivers are drying up, the wild creatures are almost exterminated, the climate is being ruined ...."

Dr Astrov
Act One
'Uncle Vanya'
(trans. Elisaveta Fen)

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