Why is Chekov's "The Seagull" considered a comedy?
It is hard to see this play as a "comedy," given how full of jealousy and guilt all the characters seem to be. I think Chekov is challenging his audience to think a little harder about the events of the play, character motivations, and the nature of the "misery" everyone seems to suffer from. In fact, this misery stems mostly from pride and vanity--these characters may be experiencing tragic events, but the circumstances are almost all of their own making. Masha pines for Konstantin but is unable or unwilling to pursue him, so she condemns herself to a loveless marriage; Nina allows herself to be used by Trigorin and continues to love him even after he makes her pregnant and leaves her; Irina is consumed by ego and insecurity, which causes her to torment her son Konstantin. The "humor" in this comes, in part, from how the audience understands these events--that is, the degree to which they understand the pettiness of the emotions that motivate the characters, and the lack of self-knowledge the characters exhibit. The play has been called a "tragicomedy," or a "comedy of manners"; there is also a sense in which it can be understood as a satire of a certain class of intellectuals, or of Russian society. If you forget to laugh, it just goes to show that not all "comedy" is necessarily funny!
The Seagull is indeed a comedy; at least that is what Chekhov intended it to be. But the comedy does not lie in farce or comedic situations or belly laughs. It lies in the characters or, more precisely, in their ridiculousness and absurdity. The comedy of The Seagull comes largely by way of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is where we know something that the characters do not, and there is an awful lot we know that they do not on account of their chronic lack of self-awareness. Nina thinks she can act, but cannot; Konstantin is a truly hopeless playwright; Arkadina is vain, selfish, and not much of a mother. Everyone seems to have a rather over-inflated sense of his or her own worth. Therein lies the comedy.
For this reason, the comedy of The Seagull is universal. By exposing human foibles, Chekhov brings us more than a few smiles of recognition. In the play's characters we see people we have come across many times in our own lives. We may even see something of ourselves in them. Ironically, the source of comedy in the play is the same as the source of tragedy: we see imperfect people failing to make the most of their lives.
The comedy in "The Seagull" is not what we are accustomed to today. The modern terminology might be "tragicomedy"; that is, a serious play with comical moments. In the spring of 2008, The Classic Stage Company ran the play, and its director was interviewed in the New York Times. When asked about the comedy in "The Seagull," he answered:
Life is paradoxical, and Chekhov felt this paradox very acutely. Frequently what is funny turns out to be tragic, and what’s dramatic very quickly and easily becomes funny to everybody else around. I think you should look at the behavior of the characters, which I hope you will perceive as paradoxical, in order to see where the funny is in the tragic and the tragic is in the funny.
The eNotes study guide calls the play a "comedy of manners," which means that it pokes fun at the way people behave. The humor in this play, however, lies more in the sense of irony than in laughter.
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