Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1861

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.

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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 rhetorical directness that differentiates it from its successors.

This is not to say that The Seagull is more simple or more obvious than the other works. The four major characters are exceedingly complicated; their relations to one another are subtle, ambiguous, and contradictory, and, although they are given ample opportunity to dramatize these complexities, it is for the audience to attempt the synthesis. Moreover, as completely individualized as the characters are, they embody basic attitudes toward life and art that are crucial to a final understanding and appreciation of the play.

Konstantin Treplev has three roles that he cannot reconcile—son, lover, and creative artist. His feelings about his mother are deep and ambivalent. He passionately craves her affection, yet he finds himself in an unequal competition with her; he desperately wants her to approve his creative efforts, yet he consciously advocates artistic notions that are antithetical to hers; he is fully aware of her egotism, pettiness, selfishness, and cruelty, yet he clings to a vision of her as a tender, considerate young mother.

Konstantin’s relationship to Nina is equally unrealistic. At best theirs is an adolescent boy-girl flirtation; there is no indication that she was ever serious about him. In the early scenes of the play, as Konstantin tries to court her, she puts him off. Konstantin cannot see this; he insists on projecting his romantic fancies onto her and feels betrayed when she fails to respond. His sentimental longing for her is not unlike Masha’s crush on him, and he has no more chance with Nina than Masha has with him.

As an artist Konstantin has two functions in the play: He is both a creative writer striving to find his own personal voice and a representative of the Symbolist movement. Thus, Chekhov can use him to comment on literary fashion while also developing his unique story. Although Arkadina speaks as much out of vindictiveness as conviction, her comments about Konstantin’s play—“decadent raving,” “pretensions to new forms”—echo opinions Chekhov expressed in his own correspondence. However, Konstantin is completely sincere in his advocacy of the new forms and thus represents a perennial artistic type, one who seeks to revolutionize the arts by finding new forms, not realizing, as Konstantin finally does, that form without content is pointless.

One of the many ironies in the play is the fact that the rival writers, Konstantin and Boris Trigorin, have the same problem: They have no real direction and nothing to say. If Konstantin is the abstract writer who, in an effort to capture essences in his writing, loses all humanity, Trigorin is the slick writer whose vision cannot go beyond the everyday lives of his trivial characters. He is in a permanent rut, and he knows it. Commercial success and the adulation of Arkadina and Nina are meaningless to him because he is honest enough to know that his work is frivolous when compared to that of truly serious writers.

Writing has, for Trigorin, almost become an unsatisfying but necessary compulsion. He carries his notebook with him and is constantly jotting notes until the audience gets the feeling that he only observes and never lives. When the dead seagull is presented to him, he makes notes for a story. Trigorin then acts out his story with Nina; life copies art and both are bereft of real intensity. Perhaps his affair with Nina is not merely a casual seduction but a vain attempt at direct experience. Trigorin would be a villain were he not so weak; he arouses contempt and pity, not anger. Like Konstantin, he needs others to support his deflated ego, but, unlike his rival, he lacks the strength even to kill himself.

Arkadina is a more complex figure than she seems at first glance. She, too, is an artist, but, as a performer, she has no interest in the opinion of posterity, nor, for that matter, does she have much interest in any aspect of the future. She sees herself as a beautiful young actor and clings tenaciously to that image in the face of reality. Her casual dismissal of time reveals an obsession with it. Arkadina is deeply insecure and very much afraid of age, sickness, poverty, and death. This fear shows in her suppression of all references to such things: her hostility toward her sick older brother, Sorin; her jealousy and fear of the truly young, especially Nina; her apparent flightiness; her domineering treatment of all underlings, including Trigorin; her stinginess; and, most of all, her attitude toward Konstantin. He is right in his belief that the major reason for her hostility toward him is that he reminds her that she is a middle-aged woman.

It is, however, through Nina, the seagull of Trigorin’s unwritten short story, that Chekhov makes his definitive statement about creativity, and it is in her climactic interview with Konstantin that the major issues of the play are resolved. Although their external situations differ, they have both reached the crucial points in their artistic careers: They know what they can and must do if they are to realize their potentials.

Even though some of his stories have been published, Konstantin receives neither the critical acclaim nor the personal satisfaction he desires, and he understands why: His search for new forms led him into an artistic cul-de-sac. “Good literature,” he muses, “is not a question of forms new or old, but of ideas that must pour freely from the author’s heart.” Konstantin’s basic problem is that he has nothing to say “from the heart,” and he knows it.

Konstantin is not stimulated by success, and Nina is hurt, but not defeated, by failure. She is almost ready to realize herself, but one final obstacle remains: She must get rid of her obsessive identification with the seagull of Trigorin’s story. Therefore, Nina returns to Sorin’s estate not to see Konstantin, as he desperately hopes, but to complete the purgation of this obsession by returning to its place of origin. To remain identified with the dead bird is to accept defeat; to free herself from it is to free herself from Trigorin’s personal influence and his destructive attitudes. As she talks to Konstantin, she visibly shakes off the last vestiges of these pernicious influences. She goes from the stagestruck girl of the first act, who views acting as a way to “fame, resounding fame,” to the mature woman who understands that the essential thing is the creative act itself: “One must know how to bear one’s cross, and one must have faith,” she proclaims: “When I think of my calling I do not fear life.”

Konstantin has no such calling, and he is plunged into the final despair by her visit. Frustrated by his attempts to reach his mother, convinced that he will never write anything of value, all hopes for his relationship with Nina dashed, Konstantin kills himself. Nina, on the other hand, begins her life as a complete woman and a committed actor—to become, perhaps, a great one.

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