“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other.” — Anton Chekhov


It’s his birthday today.

Anton Chekhov, letter to actress (and wife) Olga Knipper
January 2, 1901

“Describe at least one rehearsal of Three Sisters for me. Isn’t there anything which needs adding or subtracting? Are you acting well, my darling? But watch out now! Don’t pull a sad face in the first act. Serious, yes, but not sad. People who had long carried a grief within themselves and have become accustomed to it only whistle and frequently withdraw into themselves. So you can often be thoughtfully withdrawn on stage during conversations. Do you see?”

I quoted from that letter in my recent short piece on Hidetoshi Nishijima’s performance in Drive My Car (the best film of 2021). Drive My Car‘s central event is the rehearsal process for a production of Uncle Vanya in the city of Hiroshima. Chekhov haunts the film.

And now for a compilation of quotes!

Actors on Acting Chekhov

All quotes below taken from the wonderful book The Actor’s Chekhov : Interviews with Nikos Psacharopoulos and the Company of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, on the Plays of Anton Chekhov

Tom Brennan and Nikos Psacharopoulos, 1960; photo courtesy Williamstown Theatre Festival

Interview with Olympia Dukakis:

Something very interesting happened the first time I did Paulina in The Sea Gull. She comes to them in the third act, and says, “Here are the plums for the journey.” And when I was researching it I thought, why is she giving him plums for the journey? It always seemed like she was a batty person! And then I began reading what it was like to go on a journey then. There was a long time on the train, it was very difficult, the food was very bad, people would get diarrhea, constipation. And when I read that I knew what it was! Bowel movements! So, I mean, I could play that! That’s something that’s a private thing, you don’t announce it to everyone. I mean, if I came up to you and you were going on a trip and I said, “Here’s some Ex-Lax,” I wouldn’t make a big announcement! I would try to be confidential about it. So that helped me with how the moment should be acted. But even then, I thought the audience doesn’t know this, they don’t know that that’s what plums are about. The line should be prunes! An audience will know prunes.

Now the word in the text is plums, there’s no getting around it, the specific literal translation was “plums”. At least that’s what I was told again and again by Kevin McCarthy. Because Kevin had been in that production with Mira Rostova, he considered himself the big Chekhov expert among us. He didn’t think it should be changed. As usual I didn’t go up to Nikos and say, “Listen, I think we should change this, blah blah blah.” I just did it one day in rehearsal. Nikos fell over with laughter! Kevin was apoplectic. But I felt – it’s not the specific word, that’s true, but this is the spirit of it, this is what’s intended, this is what Chekhov wants the audience to know the woman is doing.

Nikos waited till Kevin had given me my scolding and left the room and then he came over and said, “Keep it in.”

Louis Zorich, Olympia Dukakis, “The Sea Gull”

Interview with Olympia Dukakis:

I remember my brother and I came to New York when I was in college and saw The Sea Gull with Maureen Stapleton as Masha. That was the one with Mira Rostova as Nina. And in this production, when Nina said to Trigorin, “Do you think I ought to be an actress,” people in the audience, more than one, yelled, “No!” Unbelievable!

But in that production, Stapleton was, like, on the edge. I still remember the very first cross she made across the proscenium, trailed by Medvedenko, just barely enduring him, and finally he says the line, “Why do you always wear black?” And she says, “I’m in mourning for my life.” She said this like: “Oh my God, I’ve got this creep following me, asking me questions!” You could see that it was funny, but underneath there was a motor running, the clock was running here. Time is running out on these people.

Amy Irving and Christopher Walken, “The Three Sisters”

Interview with Laila Robins:

[Christopher Walken] did something wonderful in that scene [in Ivanov]. Sasha has a line: “Exactly, that’s just what you need, to break something, smash something.” And Chris did this brilliant thing where he then took a pencil and broke it in half. When she says “break something” I feel that Sasha means for him to throw a vase or a chair or something like that! But Chris just did this little, impotent gesture which was so hilarious. And then his next line is, “You’re funny.” I felt every night when Chris said, “You’re funny,” it was really heartfelt. It was like he was looking at my terror as an actress and saying, “You’re funny!”

Dianne Wiest and Christopher Walken, “Ivanov.” I think Walken has played that role 5 times or something like that.

Interview with Christopher Walken

JEAN HACKETT: What was the process with Ivanov?

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: I loved doing that. I’d like to do that again, actually. It’s a much better evening than it’s given credit for.

HACKETT: What happens with that man? It seems like he starts from a place of complete despair and then just goes lower and lower.

WALKEN: Yeah, but, I mean, he’s so funny. There’s a scene in it where I think he stands on stage and doesn’t speak for about 15 minutes. The party scene in the second act. He says nothing, he just stands there and watches everybody. And I used to get a lot of laughs in that scene. He’s so ridiculous!

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Trigorin and Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina in “The Seagull”

Director Nikos Psacharopoulos on a scene in Act III of The Cherry Orchard between Mme. Raneskayeva and Trofimov:

There is a great sense of frivolity to this scene. Life catches up with you and you ridicule yourself. You have to allow yourself to go very high and very low. These are people who take their feelings and elevate them and manipulate them but finally the feelings catch up with them and take them to unexpected places. And then, allow the distractions to come in, the distractions of life, deal with what life brings you in the middle of all that’s going on inside. It’s as if Chekhov brings something almost Chaplinesque to this! It requires the emotional ability to drop one thing and pick up another and go any which way – but, underneath, your great need is still there. Break the parts of each scene up and rehearse them separately and you’ll find that.

Lee Grant, Blythe Danner, “The Seagull”

An oldie but a goodie:

In 2001, I waited in line for free tickets to Mike Nichols’ The Seagull (starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden … is that compelling enough for you?), being put on in Central Park. I waited in line for 24 hours, sleeping overnight in the park. It was the longest I have ever stood (or sat, or lay down) in line ever, and the experience got me thinking about what standing in line does to human beings. And all for Chekhov. Here’s a comic essay I wrote about that experience. The first time I decided “let me sit down and craft this narrative” in a conscious way: The Line.

Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, “The Seagull”

And finally: a poem.


by Lewis Simpson

Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, “Do you like chocolates?”

They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, “Yes.”

“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
“what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?”

The conversation became general
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,

but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.

As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.

In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
unusual conversation.

And finally, the man himself:


Anton Chekhov:

The demand is made that the hero and the heroine should be dramatically effective. But in life people do not shoot themselves, or hang themselves, or fall in love, or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, or running after woman or men, or talking nonsense. It is therefore necessary that this should be shown on the stage.


Eudora Welty:

I love and admire all [Jane Austen] does, and profoundly, but I don’t read her or anyone else for “kindredness… Chekhov I do dare to think is more kindred. I feel closer to him in spirit… Chekhov is one of us – so close to today’s world, to my mind, and very close to the South – which Stark Young pointed out a long time ago … He loved the singularity in people, the individuality. He took for granted the sense of family. He had the sense of fate overtaking a way of life, and his Russian humor seems to me kin to the humor of a Southerner. It’s the kind that lies mostly in character. You know, in Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, how people are always gathered together and talking and talking, no one’s really listening. Yet there’s a great love and understanding that prevails through it, and a knowledge and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies, a tolerance of them, and also an acute enjoyment of the dramatic. Like in The Three Sisters, when the fire is going on, how they talk right on through their exhaustion, and Vershinin says, “I feel a strange excitement in the air,” and laughs and sings and talks about the future. That kind of responsiveness to the world, to whatever happens, out of their own deeps of character seems very Southern to me. Anyway, I took a temperamental delight in Chekhov, and gradually the connection was borne in upon me.

Raymond Carver on his literary influences:

Chekhov. I suppose he’s the writer whose work I most admire. But who doesn’t like Chekhov? I’m talking about his stories now, not the plays. His plays move too slowly for me…Years ago I read something in a letter by Chekhov that impressed me. It was a piece of advice to one of his many correspondents, and it went something like this: Friend, you don’t have to write about extraordinary people who accomplish extraordinary and memorable deeds…. Reading what Chekhov had to say in that letter, and in other letters of his as well, and reading his stories, made me see things differently than I had before. Not long afterwards I read a play and a number of stories by Maxim Gorky, and he simply reinforced in his work what Chekhov had to say.

Tennessee Williams, letter to Andrew Lynden, March 1943:

Life is more serious than all these things. D.H. Lawrence was the only [one] who realized how serious it was and his writing which is honest about it seems grotesque. Chekhov knew but also knew it would be grotesque if you tried to say it, so there is always the beautiful incompletion, the allusion and delicacy which Lawrence lost, with a sense of a deeper knowledge under it all.

Ted Hughes:

Remember the unresolved opposition of Trigorin and Treplev in Chekhov’s The Seagull? Chekhov had a huge nostalgia for Treplev’s weird vision. Somewhere he described the sort of work he longed to write – full of passionate, howling women, Greek tragedy dimension – and he bemoans the gentle doctor’s attentiveness that imbues his actual writing. Now, if he’d been anonymous from the start, might he have explored the other things too? In poetry, living as a public persona in your writing is maybe even more crippling. Once you’ve contracted to write only the truth about yourself – as in some respected kinds of modern verse, or as in Shakespeare’s sonnets – then you can too easily limit yourself to what you imagine are the truths of the ego that claims your conscious biography. Your own equivalent of what Shakespeare got into his plays is simply foregone.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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9 Responses to “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other.” — Anton Chekhov

  1. Lyrie says:

    //And finally, the man himself://
    Hey, handsome.

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Made me think of actor Anders Samuelsen Lie who is also a family practitioner. Fascinating stuff.

    • sheila says:

      Interesting that you say that – yesterday I just got a gig that will involve writing about him. He’s so wonderful! And I love that he does both. It would be like Ryan Gosling having a second career as a podiatrist and continuing to do both.

      • Melissa Sutherland says:

        Ryan Gosling ….. so funny. Cannot get the image out of my head!
        Cannot wait to read your piece. Where will it be? Will I be able to find it? Such a seemingly interesting guy. Good actor the little I’ve seen. And sooooo good looking!

        • sheila says:

          He’s so good looking! Have you seen Bergman Island yet? (I love Mia Hansen-Love – one of my faves in this current crop of new directors.) I’ve only seen him in Joachim Trier’s movies so it was really fun to see him there – and it’s an interesting role because … well, you’ll have to see it. The movie takes a turn halfway through and that’s when he shows up. He’s sexy in it! I love his availability – his openness.

          The piece I’m writing won’t be out for a while – I’m just starting the research part of it now – but he’ll be a part of it!

          His journey just goes to show you that the “careerist” mode for actors is not necessarily the best mode, or at least the only way to go about it. I love that he has these two sides – there’s a lot to be said for it. Same with the poet William Carlos Williams! Doctor-poet!

  3. Frances says:

    One of the regrets of my life is that I missed Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline at the Public. I was supposed to go and review the ruddy play, so I wouldn’t have even had to stand in line. They would have whisked me right in. But it started to rain — I was living in Queens then — and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s raining, they’re probably going to cancel.’ So I didn’t go. And the play went ahead anyway. Bah!!

    Another thing I’ll always regret is missing an interview with Liv Ullmann at the Museum of the Moving Image. But that was for health reasons. Again, ‘Bah!’

    • sheila says:

      Frances – it was such a memorable production. and one of the best parts of it was waiting in line for 24 hours with all those randos – there was such a sense of solidarity between us when we all went that night – and we would see each other taking our seats – and be like “we made it!” these were people I ONLY knew from being in line with them all day!!

      I still remember the “buzz” about that production – it was wild, right? I relate to your dismay at missing it – the possibility of rain!! It was like THE ticket for that summer and I finally just had to commit and go get in line. and sleep outside in the park, lol

  4. Frances says:

    Arrggh! Oh my how I hate that I missed it!

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