Anton Chekhov was born today in 1860, and died at age 44. He was a Russian physician, a short story writer and a playwright, whose best-known plays, written in the last few years of his life — “The Three Sisters,” “Uncle Vanya” and “The Cherry Orchard” — are frequently performed all over the world.
At the age of 26, he wrote the following letter to his brother Nikolai:
Civilized people must, I believe, satisfy the following criteria:
1) They respect human beings as individuals and are therefore always tolerant, gentle, courteous and amenable … They do not create scenes over a hammer or a mislaid eraser; they do not make you feel they are conferring a great benefit on you when they live with you, and they don’t make a scandal when they leave. (…)
2) They have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats. Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye. (…)
3) They respect other people’s property, and therefore pay their debts.
4) They are not devious, and they fear lies as they fear fire. They don’t tell lies even in the most trivial matters. To lie to someone is to insult them, and the liar is diminished in the eyes of the person he lies to. Civilized people don’t put on airs; they behave in the street as they would at home, they don’t show off to impress their juniors. (…)
5) They don’t run themselves down in order to provoke the sympathy of others. They don’t play on other people’s heartstrings to be sighed over and cosseted … that sort of thing is just cheap striving for effects, it’s vulgar, old hat and false. (…)
6) They are not vain. They don’t waste time with the fake jewellery of hobnobbing with celebrities, being permitted to shake the hand of a drunken [judicial orator], the exaggerated bonhomie of the first person they meet at the Salon, being the life and soul of the bar … They regard phrases like ‘I am a representative of the Press!!’ — the sort of thing one only hears from [very minor journalists] — as absurd. If they have done a brass farthing’s work they don’t pass it off as if it were 100 roubles’ by swanking about with their portfolios, and they don’t boast of being able to gain admission to places other people aren’t allowed in (…) True talent always sits in the shade, mingles with the crowd, avoids the limelight … As Krylov said, the empty barrel makes more noise than the full one. (…)
7) If they do possess talent, they value it … They take pride in it … they know they have a responsibility to exert a civilizing influence on [others] rather than aimlessly hanging out with them. And they are fastidious in their habits. (…)
8) They work at developing their aesthetic sensibility … Civilized people don’t simply obey their baser instincts … they require mens sana in corpore sano.
And so on. That’s what civilized people are like … Reading Pickwick and learning a speech from Faust by heart is not enough if your aim is to become a truly civilized person and not to sink below the level of your surroundings.
[From a letter to Nikolai Chekhov, March 1886]
Update: It has just been announced that Christopher Durang’s spoof of/homage to Chekhov, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, is moving to Broadway, opening at the Golden Theater on March 14th.
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