The Seagull was based on an event in Anton Chekhov’s life. One afternoon, while he was taking a walk with his friend, Ilya Levitan, the landscape painter, he saw Levitan shoot a seagull that was flying over the river. Later, the moody painter, feeling scorned by the woman he loved, threw the dead seagull at her feet and threatened to kill himself. The play Chekhov made from this incident is perhaps the most elaborate and realistic analysis of the life of the artist ever presented in dramatic form; but all that almost any other dramatist would have selected as the material for his play takes place in Moscow between the third and fourth acts. What the audience sees is the effect of what took place, and in this lies the essence of what Chekhov has contributed to the art of the theater.
The first production of The Seagull on October 17, 1896, was a total disaster. The critics dismissed it as inept and even absurd, and Chekhov, who fled the theater before the final curtain, accepted their verdict. One audience member, critic-playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, did not agree and determined to mount a second production of the play. Danchenko, at that time organizing the Moscow Art Theatre with Constantine Stanislavski, convinced his partner that the new Chekhov play had great potential and then he talked the playwright into allowing The Seagull a second chance. Their production of the play in 1898 was an enormous artistic, critical, and commercial success and led to that collaboration of playwright and theater that established the Moscow Art Theatre as one of the world’s greatest, and stimulated the writing of Chekhov’s last three dramatic masterpieces, Dyadya Vanya (1897; Uncle Vanya, 1914), Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters, 1920), and Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908).
For all of the controversy provoked by the play, it is the most conventional of Chekhov’s major plays. The Seagull is structured around romantic triangles (Arkadina-Trigorin-Nina, Konstantin-Nina-Trigorin, and, to a lesser extent, Masha-Konstantin-Medvedenko), activated by spite and jealousy, composed of incidents characteristic of popular melodrama (a failed suicide, a seduction and abandonment, a dead child, a successful suicide), and climaxed by an “obligatory scene” in which the main characters meet and resolve their conflicts in a face-to-face confrontation.
Chekhov’s handling of this orthodox plot, however, is revolutionary and previews the formula he perfected in his last three masterworks. Konstantin’s two suicide attempts and the melodramatic consequences of Nina’s affair with Trigorin happen offstage. Chekhov deformalizes the play by undercutting the most intense moments with trivial details and apparently arbitrary bits of stage business—small talk, irrelevant comments and interjections, unexpected comical gestures, characters standing with their backs to the audience, and a game of “Lotto” while Konstantin prepares his suicide.
These deviations from traditional techniques are not merely novel stage gimmicks, however, but reflect Chekhov’s basic dramatic and thematic purposes. He was not interested in theatrical action or excitement as such, but in the effects such incidents have on his people. Reality, he felt, does not consist of a series of dramatic climaxes but is, rather, a mundane process of day-to-day living in which the crucial events happen unobtrusively in the background. The important thing, therefore, is to explore and dramatize their continuing effects on the characters. Thus, even in the last plays, Chekhov does not abandon conventional dramatic structure but mutes it in order to concentrate on what he believed to be more important: real people living real lives.
The Seagull does, however, differ thematically from his later plays; it is the work in which Chekhov makes his definitive statement about the nature of creativity and the role of the artist in society. As both a practicing physician and a creative artist, Chekhov experienced great difficulty in reconciling the objective, practical world of medicine with the subjective, aesthetic environment of literature and theater. He already had analyzed the problem extensively in his fiction—notably in “A Boring Story” (1889), “The Grasshopper” (1892), and “The House with an Attic” (1896)—but The Seagull was his final, comprehensive exploration of the subject. Thus, it has a thematic clarity and...
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