What kind of playwright writes a play in four acts before his nineteenth birthday? The same one who quit the theatre 18 years later on the production of a play many regard as one of the finest ever.
If another playwright suggested that some have greatness thrust upon them, Anton Chekhov’s path to theatrical immortality appears pretty haphazard.

Chekhov wrote Platonov, the four-act play, in 1878. Ivanov arrived nine years later when he was 27 and 1896’s masterpiece The Seagull before his later, more heralded, such as Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.

This 12-year (or 14-year, as will make sense later) chunk of his life and work has still been slotted into a season called Early Chekhov, currently at London’s National Theatre after a well-received spell at the Chichester Festival.

Sir David Hare, whose own early work was superseded by later plays such as Skylight and The Judas Kiss, has translated all three plays. Viewed together, which the National has facilitated on a few dates in a one day sitting, we see four stages of Chekhov. The teacher with a range of female admirers unaware what to do (Platonov), a debt-riddled, depressive government official (Ivanov) and two writers at different points of their careers (The Seagull). One of those, Trigorin, even muses on what the reaction will be on his death. ‘A good writer, but not as good as Turgenev.’ If Chekhov had himself in mind, history has been kinder.
While Hare delivers entertaining, witty versions of the Russian’s plays, a look behind the trajectory of each play reveals a man unsure of his own artistic path.

Hare has already written about the bursts of “youthful anger and romanticism” and while the latter is easy to spot, particularly in Platonov and The Seagull, the anger becomes more understandable when looking at his life through that period.

His father was declared bankrupt in 1876 leaving the young Anton, who had already been sent back to resit a year after failing his Greek exams, to pay for his own education by catching goldfinches and subsequently supporting his family with his writing, mainly through short stories and journalism, and his other career as a doctor.

That other career would not spare his family the severest health problems. In 1889 Chekhov’s brother died of tuberculosis, the same disease which would lead to the writer’s own death aged 44. Shortly after his brother’s death, Chekhov exercised his journalistic muscles with an assignment for New Times to spend three months in a prison colony in Siberia which would become the book Sakhalin Island.

Throughout most of this this period, he practised as a doctor describing writing as “his mistress.” His medical career from his estate in Melikhovo, forty miles outside of Moscow, brought him into contact with all classes of sick patients influencing the way he painted such contrasting characters. Seeing them added hours to his commute which would taking him away from what he loved to do, a problem with which many of us may empathise.

V.S. Pritchett’s biography, A Spirit Set Free, details a man of constant activity – doctor, estate manager, journalist, playwright and pre-occupied by the literary jealousies of his time. As a playwright, he was of course, in the perfect position to exact reverence on many of those who irritated him.

The miracle of all three plays, while exquisitely acted and staged, is that they retain their spark of humour.

They also cover a wide spectrum of subjects.

Property prices, a young person’s struggle to establish a career, an older person’s struggle to maintain theirs, health stresses, break-ups, vain actors and miserable writers are just some of the aspects which suggest Chekhov has lost none his currency.

The Seagull alone has been translated by the assorted talents of Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, Pam Gems, Michael Frayn, Peter Gill, Hare and more.

The opening night in 1896 is best described by whatever the Russian word for omnishambles is. Audience boos prompted Chekhov to renounce writing for the theatre until a Moscow Art Theatre production two years later from director and acting practitioner Constantin Stanislavski. With 80 hours of rehearsal behind it, the staging was designed to reflect everyday life, and the individual rhythms and mannerisms of each character.

The influence of Stanislavski (specifically on US acting schools) and Chekhov (based on these three plays and so many more productions) grows. The Moscow Art Theatre now has a seagull as part of its logo.

It would be easy to say Chekhov has cause to thank Stanislavski. Looking at what followed his first three plays, theatre goers everywhere have reason to be grateful.