Critical Overview

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Anton Chekhov wrote The Seagull in 1895, at the demarcation point between his first and second periods of development as a dramatist. In the first stage, starting in 1881, the writer was chiefly recognized for his adaptations of his own short fiction into "vaudevilles," one-act farces that were very popular curtain raisers in Russian theater. To a great extent, these are formulaic pieces, focusing on the absurdities of such eccentric character types as the hypochondriacal suitor and his man-desperate, bride-to-be counterpart in The Marriage Proposal (1888-1889) or the blustering male intruder and the reclusive, long-suffering widow in The Bear (1888).

Also belonging to the first period are four full-length plays, two of which are no longer extant. In only one of these, The Wood Demon (1889), did the playwright begin experimenting with an ‘‘indirect action'' technique in an attempt to more faithfully represent actual life, free of the many stage conventions that, because they in some way falsified it, had become anathema to realists. However, until entering his second period with The Seagull, Chekhov still continued to depend on traditional techniques and devices, including direct, on-stage action and plots contrived to heighten dramatic impact and force an artificial closure.

In the inner-action technique used in The Seagull, some of the most vital action occurs offstage, not just Konstantine's two attempts at suicide, but in events that transpire between acts, as, for example, the ill-fated liaison of Trigorin and Nina and the unfortunate marriage of Masha and Medvedenko. Most of these events occur between acts 3 and 4, when two years pass. Furthermore, on the surface, The Seagull totally lacks the causal arrangement of episodes that characterized the more traditional fare of the time. Since action is not locked together in a discernible pattern, the work seems almost shapeless, much like life itself.

These daring departures from the usual theatrical fare were simply too much for the St. Petersburg audience when the play premiered there on October 17, 1896. It was staged at the Alexandrinsky Theater, a house that was, as quoted in Lantz, ‘‘associated with popular, low-brow entertainment,’’ and was turned into ‘‘a complete fiasco,’’ in part because it was ‘‘an inadequate production that was unequal to the play's striking dramatic innovations.’’ In fact, as quoted in Styan, the Alexandrinsky's own literary committee forewarned that the play's structure was too loose and carped about its ‘‘symbolism, or more correctly its Ibsenism.’’ In any case, the play was hastily prepared for production under the direction of E. M. Karpov, a writer of popular melodramas who evidenced little sympathy for Chekhov's revolutionary technique, and when it went on the boards, it was openly mocked. The reaction devastated the playwright, who left the Alexandrinsky confused and deeply depressed. Although audiences for the remaining performances in the eight-day run were more receptive, the damage to the dramatist had already been done.

One of the harshest critics of the play was Leo Tolstoy who, in 1897, voiced his wholly unfavorable opinions to Chekhov's close friend, Alezxy Suvorin. As David Magarshack notes, while admitting that The Seagull was ''chock full of all sorts of things,’’ Tolstoy complained that nobody had an inkling of what they were there for, and he dismissed the work as ‘‘a very bad play.’’ That was a view shared by many, most of whom were blind-sided by Chekhov's innovative genius. As Magarshack notes, ‘‘apart from his purely moral objections to Chekhov's characters, Tolstoy's main criticisms of Chekhov's plays concern their structure and their apparent lack of purpose.''

Fortunately, both for Chekhov and the modern theater, a complete reversal in the...

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play's fortunes occurred in 1898, two years after the initial staging, when the newly formed Moscow Art Theatre revived it under the joint direction of that group's founders, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky. These two, brilliant advocates of ensemble theater, were dedicated to purging the Russian theater of its insidious star system, in which plays, often bad, were written as vehicles for popular actors. They were also dedicated to preserving the authority of the dramatist, to honoring a play's text and its creator's intentions.

Nemirovich-Danchenko, who knew Chekhov, convinced both the reluctant dramatist and Stanislavsky to attempt a revival of The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre. After a rigorous rehearsal schedule, it opened there on December 17, 1898, and was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm and deafening applause. Although the work was not the first play produced by the M.A.T., it was the one that brought it overnight fame, and it acknowledged its indebtedness to the play by adopting a seagull as its own symbol.

The play also brought critical acclaim for Chekhov, who thereafter was inspired to continue writing for the stage, producing three other masterpieces before his untimely death in 1904. Although some, like Irina Kirk, view the work as ‘‘the most innovative of his plays,’’ the other three that came in its wake—Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard—are generally more highly regarded, and in the history of theater have been more frequently revived. Some modern criticism views The Seagull, if not as a mediocre play, at least a flawed one. Echoes of the original complaints about the play's loose structure and blatant symbolism persist. Still, as the first of the four major plays, The Seagull enjoys a reputation both for being Chekhov's seminal work in his second and greatest period of writing for the stage and a fascinating play in its own right.


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