48 / CHRONICLESnand very Southern, There’s also ancertain slickness to the overall productionnand some of the performancesnthat rings false—for Henley a few hitsnand for director Bruce Beresford a fewnmisses.nBut all in all the film is funny andnworth seeing. Nevertheless, the problemnwith Crimes is that like the majoritynof successful plays (which is what itnwas originally) it’s a piece of writingnutterly dependent on the production.nTo expect otherwise, granted, is tonhold this nice, funny, solid play up tonan improbable if not quite impossiblenstandard. But a play should, ideally,nbe readable as well as actable, literaturenas well as drama, something completenon its own as well as somethingnmore than a vehicle for its actors. Ohnwell. “Nothing is certain about masterpieces,”nsaid Stravinsky somewhere,n”least of all whether there will be any.”nIt would be foolish to complain: as anvehicle Crimes works very well.nKatherine Dalton writes from NewnYork.nSTAGEnThose EnigmaticnSteppesnby David KaufmannAs one sign of Chekhov’s greatness, hisnvery name is invoked (in adjectivenform) to assess the work of others. Butneven while Chekhovian has beenncalled into service on numerousnoccasions—in recent years, for example,nto epitomize such disparate playwrightsnas Lanford Wilson and BethnHenley, or a bit earlier to positionnLillian Hellman and Neil Simon—itnremains hard to define what “Chekhovian”nreally means.nApproaching the difficulty more directly,nwe see just how deeply ifsnrooted throughout the century. In ThenRussian Point of View, her discussionnof Chekhov’s stories, Virginia Woolfncircled the horizon like some breathlessnbut grateful eagle that had visitednthe top of the mountain, beforenpouncing on the problem by submit­nting that Chekhov “raise[s] the questionnof our own fitness as readers. . . .nWe need a very daring and alert sensenof literature to make us hear the tune,nand in particular those last notesnwhich complete the harmony.” In thensame vein, Howard Moss refers to “thenvagueness [that] is typical of our relationshipnto Chekhov in English.”nContemporary playwright CorinnenJacker claims, “We still can’t do Chekhovnsuccessfully most of the time. Wendon’t know how to listen to him, andnwe don’t know how to show what he’snsaying to the audience. Eighty yearsnand we still can’t hear this great artist.”nWhat are we to make of this towering,nenigmatic figure of world literaturenwho has left behind over 4,000nletters, 588 short stories, and a handfulnof plays? Though there are only sevennfull-length plays, and thus far onlynfour that seem to matter, there arenthose who feel Chekhov is second onlynto Shakespeare. (Tolstoy felt Chekhovnwas Shakespeare’s superior; but, as IannMcKellen summarizes it, Chekhov isn”every British actor’s second-favoritenplaywright!”) To complicate the alreadynconfused situation, it took 50nyears since his death for his writing tonbe published in a coherent fashion;nand that 20-volume edition, completednin 1950, was in Russian. It requirednan additional 30 years for his oeuvre tonbe collated in its entirety, comprising an30-volume edition. Such an undertakingnhas yet to be performed in English.nIn England Chekhov was slow toncatch on. In 1912 we find John Palmerntaking his peers to task by exclaiming,n”Chekhov’s career in London is disgracefulnfor all concerned. As one ofnthe most celebrated European dramatistsnhe could not be altogether ignorednby the various societies whose missionnit is to discover for their members thenacknowledged masterpieces of dramaticnliterature. Nevertheless, Chekhov’snfirst appearance was not in London,nbut in Clasgow . . . The Seagull.”nThough Desmond McCarthy was anchampion of Chekhov as early asn1914, by 1917 Leonard Woolf offerednan iconoclastic view in the NewnStatesman, suggesting that, “The precisionnof Chekhov’s realism masks thenmental stammer which afflicted himnwhen he contemplated life.” In 1920nShaw, who was notorious for consideringnhimself Shakespeare’s better, chal­nnnlenged his readers to “Compare mynplay Arms and the Man with Chekhov’snThe Cherry Orchard, and if youndo not at once perceive that the Russiannplay is a novel and delicate picturenwhilst the pseudo-Bulgarian one is ansimply theatrical projection effected byna bag of the oldest stage tricks, then Inshall form a very poor opinion of yourntaste.” But in all deference to Shaw’snmore characteristic hubris, he wouldnlater dismiss Chekhov’s four most importantnplays as “fascinating dramaticnstudies oiHeartbreak House.”nAccounting for Chekhov’s stature innthe intervening years remains a puzzlen—something only a Chekhov couldnbegin to sort out. He is generallynperceived as fiercely apolitical, but hisnguileful 1890 journey to expose thenconditions in the penal colony onnSakhalin Island and his public statementsnregarding the Dreyfus affair arenboth famous instances of his taking anstand. Still, the grandson of a serf, hennever battled for any of the politicalncauses that drew his peers from onentype of injustice to another. To allnevidence, he enjoyed his lifelong practicenas a doctor, and he also resentednit, for the time it denied him to writenmore. While he generally considerednhimself unworthy of the supreme literarynreputation he quickly achieved, henwas wounded by the frequently poorncritical receptions his plays initiallynreceived. According to some reports,nhe was unusually outgoing and cheerful,nwhile others portray him as solitudinousnand pensive.nPerhaps the most cogent statementnwas presented by Ronald Hingley innhis 1976 biography, A New Life ofnAnton Chekhov: “That human personalitynis ultimately an enigma this enigmaticngenius has demonstrated againnand again in his works. Is there anynreason why we should expect him tonhave contravened his own norm in hisnown life?”nNow we have a newer and morenfelicitous biography by Henri Troyat:nChekhov, translated from the Frenchnby Michael Henry Heim and recentiynissued by Dutton. As others are findingnit, Troyat’s accomplishment is a paragonnof casual biography. Shrewdly assimilatingnothers’ legwork and buildingnon their findings, Troyat avoids appearingnacademic — his version ofnChekhov’s life reads more like a noveln