January 29, 2010 / 6:27 PM / 11 years ago

World celebrates Russia's "immortal" Chekhov at 150

MOSCOW (Reuters Life!) - Literature lovers around the world on Friday held celebrations and paid tribute to Anton Chekhov on the 150th birthday of Russia’s most universally acclaimed playwright.

Chekhov fans said the author famed for combining a raw emotional writing style with detailed studies of the human condition at the turn of the last century maintains his relevance more than 100 years after his death.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev jetted to Chekhov’s hometown of Taganrog in southern Russia, where he described the physician-turned-writer’s short stories and plays as “immortal.”

Clutching a bouquet of cream roses, the Kremlin chief said we can still learn from the dozens of Chekhov works, which enjoy an enduring universal appeal and have inspired other renowned writers, including James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Though his myriad of short stories are enormously popular in his homeland, it is his theatrical contributions to world drama that have earned Chekhov international fame.

British playwright Top Stoppard and America’s David Mamet have both re-worked works by the humble, often bespectacled Chekhov and women revered him for giving them a strong voice by creating complex female characters.

German director Peter Stein, in Moscow for the anniversary, said Chekhov was as important to theater as Greek tragedy and William Shakespeare.

“These are the three basic columns of European theater. Shakespeare reinvented the Greeks for modern times and Chekhov for the 20th century,” he told Reuters.

At his snow-covered grave in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, where he lies beside his wife, actress Olga Knipper, theater enthusiasts huddled in -20 C (-4 F) temperatures to pay homage to the writer who was born on January 29. 1860.

“Humanism is a common virtue for all audiences. He (Chekhov) shows the reality of the human soul,” said Bernard Faivre d’Arcier, former director of France’s Festival d’Avignon.

Laying down a wreath, Faivre d’Arcier, who has directed Chekhov plays for years, compared the Russian writer to 17th century French playwright Jean-Baptiste Moliere.

Russia this week launched a nationwide, six-month festival in honor of Chekhov, who lived throughout the Russian empire working as a doctor, including a stint in the Far East island of Sakhalin on the Pacific.

His biographers say it was there, in 1890, as he interviewed prisoners in a penal colony for the census, that he became deeply preoccupied with human suffering.

“He sees us, shockingly, as who we are,” Declan Donnellan, co-founder of international theater company Cheek By Jowl, told Reuters. “He doesn’t see us through a prism of sentimentality. And that is shocking for us.”

The theater world is using the anniversary as an excuse for lavish and dedicated festivals for one of their most loved playwrights, who died after suffering for most of his adult life from tuberculosis, in Germany in 1904 at the age of 44.

He will also debut this year in Swahili in a production in Kenya.

Mexico City will stage, in Spanish, “The Cherry Orchard” and a dramatized version of his novel “The Shooting Party” during its three-day celebration starting Friday, which also has an exhibition and a documentary on the writer.

Several London theatres currently have Chekhov productions on, including “Three Sisters,” a heart-wrenching tale set in a drab provincial town depicting the sisters’ longing and desperation following the death of their father.

Beijing and New York are both staging The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s final play, which describes the lives of a group of aristocrats in the wake of the serfs’ liberation.

Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Yuri Pushkin, editing by Paul Casciato

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