My history hero: Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)

Chosen by Alan Davies, comedian, actor and writer

Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), pictured here c1895, is one of the most important figures in modern Russian literature. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Anton Chekhov was a brilliant Russian author of short stories and drama. He grew up in Taganrog, where he had a tough upbringing, contending with a domineering father. Chekhov wrote from a young age but also trained as a doctor and continued in this profession even as his literary fame grew. His short stories brought him attention in the late 1880s and his star rose further when he turned his hand to drama, with The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and The Seagull among his most acclaimed works. Towards the end of his life Chekhov suffered from poor health, dying of tuberculosis in 1904, aged 44.

When did you first hear about Anton Chekhov?

It was when I was a student, in 1982 I think. I was studying The Seagull for A-Level theatre studies. The opening line of the play is spoken by a schoolteacher called Medvedenko who is very much in love with a girl named Masha. He asks her why she always wears black and she replies: “I’m in mourning for my life”. I thought that was hysterical for some reason and I liked Chekhov immediately and from then on.

What kind of a person was he?

Chekhov was very diligent and hardworking. He was a celebrated comic writer and a playwright but worked as a doctor at the same time and couldn’t understand why anybody wouldn’t commit their life to work, work, work. He was quite an impressive character.

Why is Chekhov a hero for you?

Chekhov seemed to have an extraordinary understanding of the human condition. He is sympathetic to almost all of the people in his plays, even the most lazy and self-regarding of them. He understands how difficult life is and how difficult love is and is able to convey that delicately, with kindness, compassion and real humour. I can only imagine what kind of a soul it takes to understand people so well.

What was Chekhov’s finest hour?

There were times when Chekhov was writing plays and they were being performed very badly. Then Konstantin Stanislavsky, who was a great director and actor, got hold of The Seagull and understood how to do it properly. The play was restaged with Chekhov’s wife in the lead role and it was a huge triumph. I think that was perhaps his finest hour but he needed someone else to put it on stage for him. As a writer he was always at the mercy of the actors and the director.

Do you see any parallels between his life and yours?

No, although I did try to draw them. In my book, My Favourite People and Me, I talk about all the people I admired when I was growing up and how I tried to live my life a bit like them, even if only for one day. I tried to dress like James Dean or walk like Starsky (from Starsky and Hutch) but I found that when I tried to write plays and short stories, I had no capacity for doing that. I suppose I might have made Chekhov laugh with some of my stand-up comedy. I did get quite proficient at that. Maybe the one thing that we do have in common is that we share a comic bent.

If you could meet Chekhov, what would you ask him?

I would ask him how I could be in one of his plays! I’m entirely selfish like that. Actually I did try to act in one of his plays when I was a student at university. I played Astrov in Uncle Vanya for our first year drama class. I realised that I was doing it really badly as I couldn’t work out where to stand or what to do with my hands. There was an external examiner there and I looked across, expecting to see him frowning. In fact he was sound asleep! I don’t recall what mark we got.

Alan Davies was talking to Rob Attar

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Alan Davies is a writer, actor and comedian. He is best known for taking the lead role in the BBC drama Jonathan Creek and being a permanent panellist on QI. Alan’s book, My Favourite People and Me 1978–1988, recalls the idols of his youth. It is published by Michael Joseph.