Knipper-Chekova, Olga (1870–1959)

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Knipper-Chekova, Olga (1870–1959)

Russian actress. Name variations: Olga Chekova; Olga Chekhova; Olga Knipper-Chekhova; Olga Knipper. Born Olga Leonardovna Knipper in Russia in 1870 (some sources cite 1868); died in 1959; aunt of composer Lev Knipper (b. 1898); studied drama with Alexander Fedotov and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko; married Anton Chekhov (1860–1904, the dramatist), on May 25, 1901; no children.

A member of the first company of the Moscow Art Theater (founded in 1898), Olga Knipper-Chekova became famous for her portrayals of the heroines of dramatist Anton Chekhov, whom she married in 1901. She was first seen as Madame Arkadina in the Moscow Art Theater's revival of Chekhov's The Seagull (1898), which had initially been unsuccessfully performed at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg by actors who had not been trained in the subtle ensemble acting the play requires. In the hands of the Moscow Art Theater's actors, the play came to life. The company subsequently made Chekhov a mainstay, and Knipper went on to create the roles of Elena Andreyevna in Uncle Vanya (1899), Masha in Three Sisters (1901), and Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (1904).

Knipper's relationship with Chekhov was, for the most part, long-distance, as the playwright was forced to retreat to the warmer regions of Yalta for his tuberculosis. Letters reveal that she was insecure about her performances in his plays as well as her relationship with his mother Yevgenia Chekhova and sister Maria Chekhova , and he was frequently called upon to soothe her doubts and provide encouragement. After Chekhov's untimely death at age 44 in 1904, Knipper-Chekova continued to address him in her journal as a form of therapy. Some of Knipper-Chekova's contemporaries criticized her for continuing her career instead of devoting her days to nursing her husband. "The censure is clearly based on the assumption that every marriage should be like every other one," writes Simon Karlinsky. "The marriage of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper was a partnership of equals, and they arranged it to provide themselves with the independence they both wanted to be a part of that marriage. In the short time they had together, with all the occasional misunderstandings, with his deteriorating physical condition, and her severe illnesses, with all the separations, they managed to give each other more real happiness than many other couples achieve in a long lifetime together."

Before Anton's death, he had given his last will and testament to Olga for safekeeping. Anton had bequeathed his money, his dramatic works, and his house in Yalta to his sister Maria. To Olga, he left his house in Gurzuf and 5,000 rubles, and to his three brothers designated amounts of money. But after his death, because the document had not been notarized, the Russian probate court ruled that his estate be divided between his three brothers and his widow. Under Russian law, a sister could not benefit. The four heirs agreed to the decision. One month later, Olga and the Chekhov brothers legally awarded everything to Maria and empowered her to carry out Anton's will. Maria turned the Yalta house into a museum for her brother, then saved it from looters during the Civil War, protected it from nationalization in the mid-1920s, rebuilt it after a 1927 earthquake, and lived in it during the 1941 German occupation of the Crimea.

Olga Knipper-Chekova remained with the Moscow Art Theater, becoming best known for her dramatic roles, including her acclaimed performance as the lead in the revival of Turgenev's A Month in the Country, directed by Constantin Stanislavski. She was also delightful in comedies, including the role of Shlestova in Woe from Wit (1925). In 1943, Knipper-Chekova recreated the role of Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard

on the occasion of the 300th performance of the play. The actress died in 1959.


Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Karlinsky, Simon. Letters of Anton Chekhov. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. NY: Harper & Row, 1973.

Publishers Weekly. September 22, 1997.

suggested reading:

Ecco, Jean Benedetti, ed. and trans. Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, 1997.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts