The Seagull Essay - The Seagull, Anton Chekhov

The Seagull, Anton Chekhov

Introduction

The Seagull Anton Chekhov

The following entry presents criticism of Chekhov's play Chaika (1896; The Seagull). See also Anton Chekhov Criticism, The Three Sisters Criticism, Gooseberries Criticism and The Cherry Orchard Criticism.

The Seagull is the first of Chekhov's four major plays, a group that includes Dyadya Vanya (1896?; Uncle Vanya), Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters), and Vishnevy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard). These plays are heralded for their rejection of melodrama and the conventional dramatic subjects and techniques that dominated the theater of Chekhov's time. The Seagull introduced the technique of “indirect action,” a method whereby violent or intensely dramatic events are not shown on stage but occur during the intervals of the action as seen by the audience, and inaugurated fundamental changes not only in the way plays are written but in the way they are acted, a revolution that persists to the present day.

Plot and Major Characters

The Seagull takes place at the estate of retired judge Peter Sorin. His sister, Irina Arkadina, a glamorous, selfish actress, is visiting with her lover, the successful writer Boris Trigorin. Irina's twenty-five-year-old son, Konstantin Trepliov, also a writer, lives on the estate with his uncle. Present as well are Eugene Dorn, a middle-aged doctor, and Ilia Shamrayov, Sorin's estate manager, along with his wife, Paulina, and his melancholy daughter, Masha. Simon Medviedenko, a teacher, is in love with Masha, who in turn is in love with Konstantin, who loves Nina Zarietchnaya, an aspiring young actress. Konstantin, a zealous proponent of new dramatic forms that are abundantly expressive, socially relevant, and lacking in artifice, has written a play and stages it for his mother's benefit during her visit; Nina is featured in a major role. During the performance, Irina refuses to take her son's play seriously and keeps interrupting. Nina is impressed by Trigorin's reputation and becomes infatuated with him. Konstantin, depressed by his inability to inspire love in either his mother or Nina, shoots a seagull and brings it to Nina, claiming that he will soon take his own life as well. Overhearing this exchange, Trigorin sees in it material for a story; he tells Nina that the incident illustrates how human beings can be casually destructive, and that he sees her as a seagull endangered by callous men. Nina and Trigorin begin an affair, and she will eventually join him in Moscow. Konstantin shoots himself but is only superficially wounded, and he and his mother soon resume their bickering.

The play's final act takes place several years later. Sorin is now very ill, and Trigorin and Irina have come to visit him at the estate. Despairing of ever winning Konstantin's love, Masha has married Medviedenko and borne a child; she is still in love with Konstantin, however, and neglects her family. Konstantin has had some of his work published but is still unfulfilled. Nina had become pregnant but lost the baby after being abandoned by Trigorin; she is now pursuing her acting career in various provincial towns. During this time Konstantin has relentlessly followed Nina, hoping that she will eventually return to him. Through occasional letters to him she has revealed her emotional distress; she has suffered numerous disappointments in her career and in her one-sided relationship with Trigorin. Nina returns to the estate and speaks with Konstantin, who still loves her. She is the only character who has changed in any way; she has learned to endure life's hardships and to continue living with hope for the future. Despite her continuing feelings for Trigorin, she leaves the estate to accept a position with a mediocre theatrical company in a small town. Konstantin now feels utterly desolate and lonely, and, while the others are playing cards, kills himself.

Major Themes

Chekhov's major plays contain little of what is traditionally regarded as plot, and consist primarily of quotidian activities performed by the characters and conversations in which allusions to the unseen events are intermingled with discussions of daily affairs and seemingly random observations. Though not portrayed on stage, momentous events are thus shown by the characters' words and actions to be pervasive in their effects. By focusing more closely on the characters' reactions to events than on the events themselves, Chekhov's plays are able to study and convey more precisely the effects of crucial events on the characters' lives. The first play in which this technique of indirect action is employed is The Seagull. In this work, the highly charged, traditionally “dramatic” events—the affair between Trigorin and Nina, Konstantin's suicide attempts—occur off stage. No “crises” in the usual sense are shown. What are presented are the precipitating events and consequent effects on the characters—Konstantin's and Nina's idealism and the subsequent despair of the one and the resignation of the other. Even though Konstantin's suicide attempts and Trigorin's seduction of Nina are resolutely kept off stage, their presence points to the fact that Chekhov was thus far unable to completely eradicate melodramatic elements from his work.

The static quality of Chekhov's plays, in which nothing much seems to happen, is evoked by their content as well as their apparent plotlessness. A common theme throughout the four major plays is dissatisfaction with present conditions, accompanied by a perceived inability to change oneself or one's situation. Nearly all of the characters in The Seagull are dissatisfied with their lives, and see in love or artistic success the hope for improvement of their condition; all are ultimately disappointed. Trigorin, an apparently successful author, describes writing as a mere compulsion and notes that he is continually negatively compared to Turgenev and Tolstoy. Konstantin, failing in both his love for Nina and his desire to change the nature of drama, is doubly frustrated and commits suicide. Only Nina's guarded optimism rescues the play from complete pessimism.

The past, too, exerts significant influence on the characters in The Seagull. Sorin, aging and ill, fears his life has been wasted. Nina is burdened by her restrictive upbringing under a harsh and cold father. Konstantin tries to overthrow the artistic past represented by his mother and Trigorin. However, it is the present that concerns Chekhov most. Affected by the past, leading to some unseen future, the present with all its complexities and uncertainties provides the central focus of The Seagull.

Critical Reception

The Seagull was a failure when it premiered in a disastrous production at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. A discouraged Chekhov vowed never to write for the stage again. However, two years later, in their debut season, the Moscow Art Theater mounted an acclaimed revival of The Seagull that established both Chekhov as an accomplished playwright and the Moscow Art Theater company as an important new acting troupe. Chekhov himself was infuriated by the staging, charging that director Konstantin Stanislavsky had ruined the play. The sets, the lighting, the sound effects, and the acting all emphasized elements of tragedy in a play that Chekhov vehemently insisted was a comedy. Despite the author's contentions, The Seagull has routinely been interpreted as a tragedy by critics, performers, and directors, who perceive a mood of sadness and despair suffusing the play. Among such interpreters Chekhov has earned a reputation as a portrayer of the futility of existence and as a forerunner of the modernist tradition of the absurd.

A common response of early reviewers of The Seagull was to dismiss it as a meaningless assemblage of random events. Early critics censured its seeming plotlessness and lack of significant action. However, much critical attention has subsequently been paid to the organizational and structural elements of the drama. Scholars have shown that by the meticulous arrangements of sets, sound effects, and action Chekhov creates scenes and situations which appear static and uneventful on the surface but which are charged with significance and meaning. Numerous critics have explored the unifying effect of the symbolism of the play, most notably that of the seagull, but also that of the lake and horses (which are continually said to be unavailable). Scholars have examined the relationship of The Seagull to Shakespeare's Hamlet, a portion of which Irina and Konstantin recite, and Guy de Maupassant's Sur l'eau, which Irina starts to read aloud but soon dismisses. Throughout such assessments, commentators have emphasized the role of The Seagull in ushering in a revolution in the ways plays are composed, staged, and performed. As Raymond Williams has asserted, The Seagull represents “a significant moment in the history of modern drama, for it shows a writer of genius beginning to create a new dramatic form.”

Principal Works

Pestrye rasskazy [Motley Tales] (short stories) 1886

Ivanov (play) 1887

Nevinnye rechi [Innocent Tales] (short stories) 1887

V sumerkakh. Ocherki i rasskazy [In the Twilight] (short stories) 1887

Leshy [The Wood Demon] (play) 1889

Rasskazy [Tales] (short stories) 1889

Khmurye liudi [Gloomy People] (short stories) 1890

Duel' [The Duel] (short stories) 1892

Palata No. 6 [Ward No. 6] (short stories) 1893

Chaika [The Seagull] (play) 1896

*Dyadya Vanya [Uncle Vanya] (play) 1896?

Tri sestry [The Three Sisters] (play) 1901

Vishnevy sad [The Cherry Orchard] (play) 1904

Tales. 13 vols. [translated by Constance Garnett] (short stories) 1916-22

Letters of Anton Chekhov to His Family and Friends [translated by Garnett] (letters) 1920

Neizdannaia p'esa [Platonov] (play) 1923

The Oxford Chekhov. 9 vols. [translated by Ronald Hingley] (short stories and plays) 1964-1975

Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem. 30 vols. [edited by Nikolai Fedorovich Bel'chikov and others] (plays, short stories, notebooks, diaries, and letters) 1974-1983

Chekhov, the Early Stories, 1883-1888 [translated and edited by Patrick Miles and Harvey Pitcher] (short stories) 1994

The Undiscovered Chekhov: Fifty-One New Stories [translated by Peter Constantine] (short stories) 2001

*The date of Uncle Vanya is uncertain. A reworking of the earlier Wood Demon, it was probably composed in 1896.

†The composition date of this early, originally untitled play by Chekhov is uncertain, but was likely around 1881. It has been variously translated as Platonov, That Worthless Fellow Platonov, Don Juan (in the Russian Manner), and Wild Honey.

Criticism

Thomas G. Winner (essay date February 1956)

SOURCE: Winner, Thomas G. “Chekhov's Seagull and Shakespeare's Hamlet: A Study of a Dramatic Device.” American Slavic and East European Review 15 (February 1956): 103-11.

[In the following essay, Winner explores parallels between The Seagull and Shakespeare's Hamlet.]

Chekhov's use of literary allusions or echoes represents one of the most striking variations of the playwright's many evocative devices. Such devices, which stand outside the immediate action of his later plays, frequently are of symbolic significance and sometimes have a commentary function similar to that of the Greek chorus. Chekhov's use of literary or folklore allusions in...

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Robert Louis Jackson (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Jackson, Robert Louis. “Chekhov's Seagull: The Empty Well, the Dry Lake, and the Cold Cave.” In Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, pp. 3-17. New York: New York University Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1967, Jackson elucidates the theme of art versus reality in The Seagull.]

Art is at the center of The Seagull. Four characters in the play are actresses or writers. Everybody talks about art. Everybody embodies or lives out a concept of art. The problem of talent—what it takes and means to become an artist—is a fundamental theme of the play.1...

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Raymond Williams (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Williams, Raymond. “Anton Chekhov.” In Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, pp. 101-11. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, from a work first published in England in 1968, Williams delineates the impact of The Seagull on the theater.]

I regard the stage of today as mere routine and prejudice. When the curtain goes up and the gifted beings, the high priests of the sacred art, appear by electric light, in a room with three sides to it, representing how people eat, drink, love, walk, and wear their jackets; when they strive to squeeze out a moral from the flat vulgar pictures and the flat vulgar phrases, a little...

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Burton Kendle (essay date May 1970)

SOURCE: Kendle, Burton. “The Elusive Horses in The Sea Gull.Modern Drama 13 (May 1970): 63-6.

[In the following essay, Kendle analyzes Chekhov's use of references to horses in The Seagull.]

An elaborate refrain emerges from the apparently random requests for horses in The Sea Gull. As they try, usually unsuccessfully, to secure the horses that promise escape from the boredom and spiritual imprisonment of Sorin's estate, Chekhov's characters deepen the resonance of this refrain. The motif of unavailable horses is introduced humorously as merely another example of the steward Shamreyeff's blundering tyranny over his social superiors, a theme familiar...

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James M. Curtis (essay date spring 1972)

SOURCE: Curtis, James M. “Spatial Form in Drama: The Seagull.Canadian-American Slavic Studies 6, no. 1 (spring 1972): 13-37.

[In the following essay, Curtis highlights Chekhov's contribution to modernism as exemplified by The Seagull.]

INTRODUCTION

Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years. The Origins of the Avant Garde, 1885 to World War I says much to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of modernism. By treating in detail the interrelated careers of Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, and Guillaume Apollinaire, he conveys a vivid sense of the atmosphere of Paris during the rise of modernism (and certainly makes...

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Keith Sagar (essay date March 1973)

SOURCE: Sagar, Keith. “Chehov's Magic Lake: A Reading of The Seagull.Modern Drama 15, no. 4 (March 1973): 441-47.

[In the following essay, Sagar considers how seriously the seagull symbol should be taken in The Seagull.]

In Modern Drama, (September, 1965) Dorothy U. Seyler suggests, in a most unconvincing article, that Chehov's seagull is a parody of Ibsen's wild duck. She tries to pass off Chehov's remark to A. L. Vishnevsky that Ibsen was his favourite author as a “family joke” by setting against it a number of Chehov's criticisms of Ibsen plays, including The Wild Duck. All these criticisms are of Ibsen's ideas, not his technique,...

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Laurence Senelick (essay date May 1977)

SOURCE: Senelick, Laurence. “The Lake-Shore of Bohemia: The Seagull's Theatrical Context.” Educational Theatre Journal 29, no. 2 (May 1977): 199-213.

[In the following essay, Senelick examines the influence of Chekhov's own experiences and relationships on The Seagull.]

Of all Chekhov's plays, The Seagull is perhaps the most personal, for it treats the question of the artist's métier. Most modern critics agree that this is a play about art and not, as Stanislavsky thought, a romantic dramatization of Trigorin's “subject for a short story.” The theme of splendors and miseries of artists is plainly struck by Nina Zarechnaya in Act I, when...

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Ellen Chances (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Chances, Ellen. “Chekhov's Seagull: Ethereal Creature or Stuffed Bird?” In Chekhov's Art of Writing: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Paul Debreczeny and Thomas Eekman, pp. 27-34. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1977.

[In the following essay, Chances discusses Chekhov's use of the seagull as a symbol in The Seagull.]

When discussing Chekhov's play The Seagull, one can divide criticism into two schools. There are those interpretations, set forth in excellent articles and excellent productions, which belong to the “ethereal creature” school. Nina is seen as a poor, naive, young girl who, like a seagull, strives to spread...

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Virginia Scott (essay date October 1978)

SOURCE: Scott, Virginia. “Life in Art: A Reading of The Seagull.Educational Theatre Journal 30 (October 1978): 357-67.

[In the following essay, Scott highlights Chekhov's theme of the artist's life as expounded in The Seagull.]

In 1898 the Moscow Art Theatre, led by Constantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, opened its triumphal production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, a production which Chekhov himself disliked intensely. During his stay in Moscow in 1899, the MAT arranged a special performance for him of which he wrote: “I cannot judge the play dispassionately, because the Seagull [Roxanova] gave an abominable performance, kept...

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Jerome H. Katsell (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Katsell, Jerome H. “Chekhov's The Seagull and Maupassant's Sur l'eau.” In Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, pp. 18-33. New York: New York University Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Katsell identifies the influence Guy de Maupassant had on Chekhov and draws parallels between The Seagull and Maupassant's travel sketch Sur l'eau.]

I

Chacun de nous, sentant le vide autour de lui, le vide insondable où s'agite son coeur, où se débat sa pensée, va comme un fou, les bras ouverts, les lèvres tendues, cherchant un être à étreindre. Et il...

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Carol Strongin (essay date winter 1981-1982)

SOURCE: Strongin, Carol. “Irony and Theatricality in Chekhov's The Sea Gull.Comparative Drama 15, no. 4 (winter 1981-1982): 366-80.

[In the following essay, Strongin contends that Chekhov intended The Seagull to be ironic and included many parodies of contemporary theater within it.]

The play's ending suggests melodrama: Nina, the innocent country girl seduced and abandoned by the worldly writer Trigorin, delivers an emotional speech about faith and endurance and bearing her cross before she runs out into the stormy autumn night. Treplev, the sensitive young man who loves her and has lost her as he has also failed in his attempt to become a great...

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Zinovii S. Paperny (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Paperny, Zinovii S. “Microsubjects in The Seagull.” In Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, edited by Thomas A. Eekman, pp. 160-69. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1982, Paperny studies the lesser themes of The Seagull, which contribute to the play's complexity.]

The study of Chekhov's text can be compared to the history of the investigation of matter, where researchers have come to employ smaller and smaller units of magnitude. What formerly seemed indivisible has proved a complicated structure consisting of interconnected microparticles.

Something similar is taking place in...

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Eli Rozik (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Rozik, Eli. “The Interpretative Function of the ‘Seagull’ Motif in The Seagull.Assaph: Studies in the Theatre, no. 4 (1988): 55-81

[In the following essay, Rozik examines the use of the seagull as a symbol in Chekhov's play.]

INTRODUCTION

The ‘seagull’ metaphor is a focal point within a comprehensive and complex motif which fulfils a crucial role in the structure of the fictional world of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. Therefore, although additional constituent motifs are involved, I shall refer to the entire network in terms of the ‘seagull’ motif.

A thorough analysis of this motif...

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Hanna Scolnicov (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Scolnicov, Hanna. “Chekhov's Reading of Hamlet.” In Reading Plays: Interpretation and Reception, edited by Hanna Scolnicov and Peter Holland, pp. 192-205. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Scolnicov delineates the influences that Hamlet had on Chekhov and the relationship between Hamlet and The Seagull.]

That The Seagull is indebted to Hamlet in many ways has long been recognized and partially demonstrated.1 Yet the Shakespearean play cannot be seen as a ‘source’ play in the ordinary sense, since it presents other characters involved in another action set within a different...

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Richard Gilman (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Gilman, Richard. “The Seagull: Art and Love, Love and Art.” South Atlantic Quarterly 91, no. 2 (spring 1992): 257-87.

[In the following essay, Gilman explores the twin themes of love and art in The Seagull.]

Some preliminary notes, ideas, observations, questions, and reminders for an essay on the play.

Its title is the most nearly symbolic of those for any Chekhov play, but like its closest rival, The Cherry Orchard's trees, the bird isn't symbolic in any pseudo-poetic or anxious way.

The chief “subjects” are art and love, never far from each other thematically. Or perhaps a better way of putting this is...

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John Russell Brown (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Brown, John Russell. “Chekhov on the British Stage: Differences.” In Chekhov on the British Stage, edited and translated by Patrick Miles, pp. 6-19. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Brown examines how The Seagull and Chekhov's other plays have been interpreted on the British stage.]

Productions of Chekhov's plays in Britain provide yearly proof of this dramatist's wide and lasting influence. But a look behind the playbills will reveal more—that these plays have affected the British sense of what theatre can be. In performance they reinforce a persistent belief that the stage can hold a mirror up to life, and...

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John Reid (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Reid, John. “Matter and Spirit in The Seagull.Modern Drama 41, no. 4 (winter 1998): 607-22.

[In the following essay, Reid discusses the nature of the symbolism Chekhov used in The Seagull and the influence of the mystic Vladimir Solovyov on the author.]

Our time must be defined by two opposing features—it is a time of extreme materialism and, at the same time, of the most passionate idealistic outbursts of spirit. We are present at a great, significant struggle of two views of life, two diametrically opposed world views.

—Dmitri Sergeevich Merezhkovsky (1892)1

...

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Donald Rayfield (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Rayfield, Donald. “The Seagull.” In his Understanding Chekhov: A Critical Study of Chekhov's Prose and Drama, pp. 135-49. Madison: University Press of Wisconsin, 1999.

[In the following essay, Rayfield puts Chekhov into historical context to explain the importance of his plays, particularly The Seagull, to the evolution of the theater.]

To understand what made Chekhov's plays of such importance to European theatre, we must look at developments—apart from accidents of history—in a European context. Chekhov's reading was unexpectedly varied. In the 1890s he became familiar not only with Hauptmann and Ibsen, but also with Strindberg (Miss...

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