Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Sorin farm. Setting for the entire play. Chekhov carefully crafts the setting of his play so that the action of the work gradually moves from the outside into the confined spaces of an interior room. The play begins on the back lawn of the Sorin farm. A small stage has been set up in the middle of a path leading down to a lake. The curtain is drawn so that the lake cannot be seen.
During the first act, a young aspiring writer named Konstantin puts on an avant-garde play which confuses the audience (particularly his mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous actress). He uses the natural setting of the moon rising over the lake to add a dramatic touch to the arid, overly intellectual verbiage of the play itself. A young woman named Nina Zarechnaya (her surname means “beyond the river”) delivers Konstantin’s words. She has spent her whole life by the lake and now yearns to become an actress.
In the second act, Konstantin presents her with the body of a seagull he has just killed, and this bird becomes an emblem of Nina’s future destiny. She is drawn to Arkadina’s lover, the writer Trigorin. He too finds Nina attractive, and he makes a note to write a story about a girl who loves the lake like a seagull, when along comes a man with nothing better to do but to destroy her life, just as the seagull was destroyed. Trigorin subsequently seduces Nina, but abandons her to remain with Arkadina.
The final act...
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In the year in which Chekhov's The Seagull was first staged, 1896, Nicholas II, of the Romanov dynasty, became the last czar of Russia, a nation that at the time had a population of about 128 million people. Dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church, an inept bureaucracy, and an entrenched landed and hereditary aristocracy, the vast country had settled into a seemingly inert, twilight period, a sort of fitful hibernation resistant to political change and social amelioration. While many members of the educated class recognized a need for progress, they were largely ineffectual in achieving much of anything until violent revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 and Russia, for good or ill, finally entered the modern world. Until then, despite some unrest, including a crushed rebellion in 1906, Russia was simply a sleeping giant that had barely started to respond to the industrial revolution that a century before had begun transforming many of its European neighbors to the west into emerging industrial powers. However, at the same time, despite its backwardness and cultural isolation, Russia produced some of the greatest writers, composers, and artists of the age, among whom Chekhov stands in the front rank. Russian cities, notably Moscow and St. Petersburg, were cultural centers of tremendous importance, and places, too, where new ideas were fomented by a growing number of disaffected intellectuals. But these cities also lacked adequate housing, health...
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The Seagull makes use of allusion to literary works that in their suggestiveness enrich the texture of Chekhov's play. Chief among these is Shakespeare's Hamlet, from which Konstantine and his mother quote lines that help define their own relationship. Konstantine is angry with his mother for her attachment to Boris Trigorin, a man whom he intensely dislikes, as Hamlet dislikes Claudius. Like Hamlet, too, Konstantine erupts into fury with his mother, though as much for her selfishness as for her attachment to Trigorin. Like Hamlet, The Seagull is open to a Freudian, Oedipal interpretation of the relationship between Treplyov and his mother, a view buoyed up by a similar and common reading of the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude.
Another allusion in The Seagull, concerns a story by the French writer, Guy de Maupassant. De Maupassant one of the very successful exponents of realism in fiction—still a relatively ''new form'' in Chekhov's day, but one against which contemporary currents were already beginning to turn. There are also several allusions to the Russian theater of the day, some of which provide insights to the characters who make them, though these references are more topical and less memorable than those made to Shakespeare.
Comedy of Manners
The Seagull, though not in mood or theme, has...
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Compare and Contrast
1890s: Long travel is difficult, limited principally to rail and horseback or horse-drawn cart, carriage, or sleigh, often on roads that for half the year were impassable. Although the telephone has come into use in some cities in Europe and America, it has not yet reached the likes of Sorin's country estate. While such estates could be situated fairly close to towns providing railway connections to Moscow and other major cities, many people live their lives never venturing more than a few miles away from where they were born.
Today: Modern technology makes it possible for even the most physically isolated communities to stay in touch, not just with the world's urban centers, but with each other. Today, even those geographically isolated in what few wilderness outposts remain, or in transit over the world's remote regions, can talk to relatives or friends with whom a reunion may be just a few hours or, at most, a day or two away.
1890s: Medicine, though verging on important breakthroughs, is a dreadfully imperfect art. There is little understanding of the nature of most diseases, of the bacteria or viruses that caused them, thus treatment is largely limited to dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes. Medicine is also unregulated, and many doctors, some of them quacks, depend upon homeopathy and herbal-based, family elixirs, passed down from one generation to another. Alcohol and opium...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate Henrik Ibsen's use of symbolism in The Wild Duck and compare it to Chekhov's use of it in The Seagull.
Investigate life expectancy and infant mortality rates in Russia at the time of Chekhov's play and relate your findings to two significant revelations of The Seagull, the death of Nina's child and Sorin's disclosed age.
Research the state of medicine in Russia in the 1890s and relate your findings to Dorn, the physician in The Seagull, and to Chekhov's own medical career and struggle with tuberculosis.
Study some of the artistic manifestos of the late nineteenth century, such as George B. Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), and Leo Tolstoy's What Is Art (1898), that elucidate the principles of realism in literature, whether in drama or fiction, and relate them to Chekhov's practice in The Seagull.
Research the structural principles of the ‘‘well made’’ play, that is, one that follows the form described by Aristotle in his discussion of tragedy in The Poetics. Compare those principles with Chekhov's practice in The Seagull.
Research Count Leo Tolstoy's complaints about Chekhov's alleged failure to use his art to advance a moral cause. Explain whether or not you think that charge is validated by the playwright's thematic...
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In 1968, The Seagull was adapted to film by director Sidney Lumet. Its stellar casts includes James Mason as Trigorin, Alfred Lynch as Medvedenko, Ronald Radd as Shamraev, Vanessa Redgrave as Nina, Simone Signoret as Arkadina, David Warner as Konstantin, Harry Andrews as Sorin, Eileen Herlie as Polina (Pauline), Kathleen Widdoes as Masha, and Denholm Elliot as Dorn. It is available on video from Warner Brothers.
A Russian film version of The Seagull was produced in 1971, directed by Yuri Karasik and featuring Alla Demidova, Vladimir Chetverikov, Nikolai Plotnikov, Lyudmila Savelyeva, Valentina Telichkina, Yuri Yakovlev, Yefim Kopelyan, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, Sofiya Pavlova, Sergei Torkachevsky, S. Smirnov, and Genrikas Kurauskas. It is available from Facets Multimedia, Inc., with English subtitles.
The Seagull was produced for television, both in the United States and in Europe. In 1968, the year Lumet's film was made, a British version of the work was produced as a ''Play of the Month'' selection, featuring Robert Stephens. In 1975, the play was produced on American television, and featured, among others, Blythe Danner as Nina, Olympia Dukakis as Polina, Lee Grant as Irina Arkadina, and Frank Langella as Treplev (Treplyov). Three years later, another British version was aired, with a cast headed by Michael Gambon. There is also an Italian version, directed by Marco Bellocchio, dating from 1977. Also aired in the United...
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What Do I Read Next?
August Strindberg's Miss Julie (1888) and its "Foreword," in which the dramatist reveals the Darwinian influence on his art, is worth contrasting with Chekhov's themes and technique in The Seagull.
Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1890) is also worth comparing with The Seagull for its themes and technique. One early complaint with Chekhov's play was that it evidenced too strong an influence of Ibsen.
Maxim Gorky's play, The Lower Depths (1902), a more naturalistic play than any by Chekhov, focuses on lower-class Russians struggling for survival. Like Chekhov, Gorky came to prominence through productions at the Moscow Art Theatre.
Anna Karenina (1875-1877), by Leo Tolstoy is one of the greatest of all Russian novels. Tolstoy, though he wrote plays, is really only remembered for his fiction. He had a tremendous influence on Chekhov.
Heartbreak House (1916), by George Bernard Shaw has some interesting parallels to Chekhov's play. Its focal interest is the eroding of class distinctions, also of concern to Chekhov. Shaw's play also takes place in a country house, that of Hesione Hushabye....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Auden, W. H., ‘‘Musee des Beaux Arts,’’ in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, edited by M. H. Abrams, 5th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, p. 2298.
Caputi, Anthony, Eight Modern Plays, Norton, 1991, p. 133.
Chekhov, Anton, Anton Chekhov: A Life, by Donald Rayfield, Henry Holt, 1997, p. 353.
Karlinsky, Simon, ''The Seagull'' in Letters of Anton Chekhov, translated by Michael Henry Heim, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 280.
Kirk, Irina, Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981, p. 133.
Lantz, K. A., Anton Chekhov: A Reference Guide to Literature, G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, p. xix.
Magarshack, David, Chekhov the Dramatist, Hill and Wang, 1960, pp. 17, 159-160, 163-164.
Magarshack, David, The Seagull, Barnes & Noble, 1972, pp. 21-23.
Moravcevich, Nicholas, ‘‘Chekhov and Naturalism: From Affinity to Divergence,’’ in Anton Chekhov's Plays, edited by Eugene K. Bristow, Norton, 1977, pp. 294-295.
Styan, J. L., Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp. 10, 13.
Valency, Maurice, ''The Sea Gull,'' in The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Oxford, 1966, p. 154.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bristow, Eugene K., ed. Anton Chekhov’s Plays. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. An anthology of Chekhov’s major plays, accompanied by thirteen critical articles. Of special interest is Thomas G. Winner’s “Chekhov’s Sea Gull and Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Study of a Dramatic Device.”
Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1950. A thoughtful study of all aspects of Chekhov’s art, emphasizing his life. Chapters on Chekhov’s connections with the Moscow Art Theater and his approach to drama are of special significance for understanding of The Seagull.
Jackson, Robert Louis, ed. Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Of the sixteen essays, nine are devoted to the theater of Chekhov, including the editor’s “The Seagull: The Empty Well, the Dry Lake, and the Cold Cave.”
Magarshak, David. Chekhov the Dramatist. New York: Hill & Wang, 1960. A thorough discussion of all Chekhov’s plays on such topics as plays of direct action, transition, and plays of indirect action. References to The Seagull place the play in a proper perspective within the playwright’s general dramatic output.
Valency, Maurice. The Breaking...
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