Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in the provincial town of Taganrog, Ukraine, in 1860. In the mid-1880s, Chekhov became a physician, and shortly thereafter he began to write short stories. Chekhov started writing plays a few years later, mainly short comic sketches he called vaudvilles. The first collection of his humorous writings, Motley Stories, appeared in 1886, and his first play, Ivanov, was produced in Moscow the next year. In 1896, the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg performed his first full- length drama, The Seagull. Some of Chekhov's most successful plays include The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters. Chekhov brought believable but complex personalizations to his characters, while exploring the conflict between the landed gentry and the oppressed peasant classes. Chekhov voiced a need for serious, even revolutionary, action, and the social stresses he described prefigured the Communist Revolution in Russia by twenty years. He is considered one of Russia's greatest playwrights. Chekhov contracted tuberculosis in 1884, and was certain he would die an early death. In 1901, he married Olga Knipper, an actress who had played leading roles in several of his plays. Chekhov died in 1904, spending his final years in Yalta.
Van Itallie was born in Brussels and grew up in Great Neck, New York, which, he says, "left me with a horror of the American suburbs." After graduating from Harvard University, he got involved with the Open Theatre group under the direction of Joe Chaikin, producing as a result some of the most stunning and innovative experimental theater work of the 1960s, especially America Hurrah, a 1965 trilogy consisting of Interview, TV, and Motel, and The Serpent, a 1968 ritualistic and largely mimed theatrical piece that grew out of improvisations on Genesis and juxtaposes biblical events with current ones. Van Itallie's plays of the 1970s, which include A Fable and Bag Lady, have been more traditional in form and simpler in scope, and he has also adapted several of Chekhov's (see Vol. 2) plays. In 1983 he returned to the mode of The Serpent in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but with notably less success.