The Seagull inaugurates the most significant portion of Chekhov’s career, when his major plays were written, and marks a departure from his earlier dramatic work, chiefly conventionally structured short plays with plots developing onstage climax and resolution. The Seagull and subsequent plays treat onstage the characters’ inner action and lives without typical plot progression, while keeping dramatic events offstage. The play’s production proved a disaster. Masterfully directed two years later at the new Moscow Art Theatre, it was a recognized success as a new dramatic form.
In the play’s first of four acts, a celebrated stage actress, Arkadina, returns to visit her estate with her younger lover and popular writer, Trigorin. There they, with her doddering brother Sorin and visitors, are given a performance of a murky symbolistic play by her son Konstantin. Its sole performer is a neighbor girl, Nina, whom Konstantin adores. When the play is rejected by both Arkadina and Trigorin as decadent, its author is devastated.
The second act reveals the characters’ unhappy lives fueled by unrequited love. Both the estate manager’s wife and her daughter, Masha, are rejected by those they love: respectively, physician Dr. Dorn and Konstantin. The latter jealously loves his dismissive mother, who strives to hold onto the self-absorbed Trigorin. Angry at Nina’s indifference to his play, Konstantin kills a seagull and gives it to her as a symbol of ruined hope before departing. Trigorin, meanwhile, is flattered by Nina’s affectionate admiration and is led to admit his success stems from his writing about mere trivialities. Observing the dead gull, he remembers a story idea about a girl who lives free as a seagull until she is a seen by a man who indifferently destroys her like the shot seagull.
In act 3, after a failed suicide attempt, Konstantin berates his departing mother for remaining with Trigorin, whom he calls a hack, and is rebuffed by her. Nina, now determined to leave her family and pursue an acting career, offers her love to Trigorin and arranges to meet him in Moscow.
The final act occurs two years later. Arkadina and the still celebrated Trigorin return to the estate to find that Konstantin has become a published writer. The aging Arkadina is trying to keep a grip on Trigorin and her fading glory as an actress. Masha, ever-devoted to Konstantin, has joylessly married a schoolmaster. Nina, a lowly provincial actress who still loves Trigorin, arrives in the vicinity. Konstantin has followed her unspectacular stage career and knows that Trigorin had left her with a child who died. Nina, still believing in her art, meets Konstantin, declines his urgent invitation to stay with him, and departs to continue her acting, Without her, Konstantin determines that his art and recognition are meaningless and shoots himself.
One underlying theme of the play is each character’s isolation and failure to achieve his or her dreams. Chekhov employs such dialogue devices as pauses, fragments of speech, and soliloquies to reveal a character’s inner self. Another thematic thread is the nature of art and artists. Four characters are artists reflecting individual attitudes. Konstantin’s working desire for new forms is undeveloped. His work is anathema both to his mother, whose fading career remains rooted in pseudorealistic theater, and to Trigorin, who aspires to treat vital issues but remains a popular hack. Despite Trigorin’s desertion and her plodding career, Nina rejects her family’s security and Konstantin to hold true to her art. The pervasive seagull metaphor represents not only Nina but the failed hopes and discontented lives of all the characters.
One day Konstantin Treplev kills a seagull and places it at the feet of Nina, the beautiful young actor with whom he is hopelessly in love. He tells her that unless she can love him, he, too, will be lying dead at her feet. Nina, however, is not in love with Konstantin; she is...
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