Chekhov and Realism

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Among the early modern playwrights associated with the advent of realism in drama, none seems more wholly committed to its principal mimetic tenant—of depicting life as it actually appears—than does Anton Chekhov. The Seagull (1896) clearly illustrates this dedication, as do the rest of the dramatist's later works: Uncle Vanya (1898), The Cherry Orchard (1900), and Three Sisters (1901). In all of them, Chekhov's signature forte is his ability to reveal character depth while maintaining an almost clinical detachment from his subjects, something he first achieved in his fiction and then successfully carried into his drama.

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Scene from the Moscow Art Theater Production

There is also a unique quality to these plays, a quality that recalls W. H. Auden's praise of ‘‘The Old Masters'' in his well-known poem, ''Musée des Beaux Arts.’’ According to the poet, those painters unerringly placed suffering in its appropriate ''human position’’ or perspective, one in which matters of great pith and moment unfolded before attendants or witnesses, who, absorbed by their more mundane pursuits, remain either unaware or uncaring. To exemplify his idea, Auden uses Pieter Brueghel's Icarus, a painting in which Icarus's mythic end is depicted in a background corner of the painting, as barely discernible legs plummeting into the sea, while the foreground focus is on a ploughman and his horse, seemingly oblivious or indifferent to Icarus' fate.

The painting could almost serve as a visual metaphor for Chekhov's perspective in The Seagull and the other three plays of his final period. In all of them, as a quintessential realist, Chekhov places individual suffering in a similar, sometimes disquieting position. In them he juxtaposes the comic inflexibility of mundane and myopic attitudes of one or more characters against the pain and suffering of another, producing his highly original work that seems neither comic fish nor tragic fowl, but an odd sort of creature with its own taxonomy. These are his plays of ''indirect action,’’ in which the most significant events in the characters' lives occur either offstage or in entre-act crevices, in a rough equivalent to the background corner of Brueghel's painting. At times, what happens on the stage, in the foreground, is comically inappropriate to or heedless of what is happening just beyond a door or, at a further remove, in the larger world beyond. In The Cherry Orchard, for example, while at an offstage auction their world is collapsing, Chekhov's onstage characters mark its passing in dance and idle, if anxious, chatter, unable to do anything to prevent the inevitable. For Chekhov, such was the way of the world, and, as a realist, it was the way he chose to depict it.

Beginning with The Seagull, to meet the fairly rigorous demands of realism, Chekhov completely scrapped traditional stage conventions as well as the time-honored dramatic structure delineated, notably in Aristotle's Poetics, and served up as a guide to writing plays in countless handbooks on the craft. Central to this structure is a sense of completeness, of unity and wholeness, achieved through a succession of dramatic moments that move towards an anticipated climax, an obligatory "recognition" scene in which the central conflict of the work is resolved and its tension released. Though it is clearly a formulaic scheme, it has worked well for some of the greatest dramatic masterpieces in the world, especially in tragedy. However, because it is a "tendency" structure built on the principle of necessity or inevitability, it is highly selective in what it depicts, and therein it goes against the theoretical grain of unalloyed realism. Life is simply not packaged that neatly.


(This entire section contains 1870 words.)

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with a play like Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, which has a tendency structure, Chekhov'sThe Seagull eschews any vivid sense of dramatic inevitability. There are no vital seeds sown in the first act, either in action or character recollections about the past, that set the major figures on an unalterable course to an anticipated fate. Nor, at the end, is there a sense of completeness, for the conflicts in the play are simply too diffuse and unresolved. Although the implication of Dorn's behavior is that Konstantine Treplyov's second attempt at suicide has been successful, even the young writer's fate remains in doubt, as do the affairs of most of the other characters. Thus, in its inconclusiveness, the play is open-plotted, and it leaves most of its characters in their own emotional and isolated limbos. That time will not improve their lot seems the only certainty.

In essence, much more so than Ibsen, Chekhov approaches a ''slice of life'' fidelity to real human existence. He provides no neat, ordered array of episodes, but rather a matrix of action that ultimately fails to take his characters very far down a path of self-realization or sense of personal fulfillment. That is not to say that Chekhov's last plays lack plots or significant action. According to David Magarshack, one of those who describes those masterpieces as ‘‘plays of indirect action,’’ it is not a plot's ‘‘absence but its complexity that distinguishes them.'' The late plays teem with life and are almost overloaded with ideas. In The Seagull, however, there is no central problem that is the focal concern of all its characters, except, perhaps, such an intangible thing as the nature and purpose of art, an issue of vital concern to Chekhov, and one that resonates throughout the play and pervades its dialogue. It provides a thematic counterpoint to the frustration and unhappiness felt by most of the characters, especially Konstantine, Nina, Masha, and Pauline, who are all disappointed in love. None of these characters finds happiness in some final comic triumph, for, simply put, no Jack gets his Jill, or at least not his proper Jill. In fact, there seems to be no end to the pain. Except perhaps for Treplyov, life will merely continue in its entropic vein, with a pervasive sense of ennui, of a melancholic world weariness that is erosive of the human spirit.

The Seagull has no principal character, no protagonist, nor even any plot driver whose need or desire is the engine of the action, as is, for example, Hedda's in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Even if one claims that Nina and Konstantine are the "leads," as J. L. Styan does, their dramatic potency is sapped because the critical events in their lives, her seduction and his suicide attempts, occur offstage. Chekhov's plot can in fact be seen as the sum of its minor plots, most of which have to do with love that is frustrated or abused. It simply lacks a cohesive, unifying symbol and an impending change that is of concern to all its characters, elements that Chekhov so brilliantly provides in The Cherry Orchard, generally acknowledged to be his finest work.

However, as Magarshack points out, the lack of a central protagonist was hardly a new phenomenon in drama. He notes the absence of such a figure in many direct action plays, especially those of Chekhov's contemporary, Alexander Ostrovsky. More important, says Magarshack, are the changes in dialogue and Chekhov's use of invisible, offstage characters in the dramatist's last four plays. Regarding the text, the critic argues that ''the dialogue of the early plays is remarkable for the directness of its appeal to the audience,’’ whereas in the mature works ‘‘its appeal is indirect and, mainly, evocative’’—in brief, more lyrical. As for the unseen characters in the background, they provide ''a motive force for the action, which is all the more powerful because the audience never sees them but is made to imagine them.’’ By their offstage actions, the ''invisible characters'' in The Seagull, the disapproving parents of Nina, in fact reveal much about Irina Arkadina and her friends, their presumed moral laxity, for example, or their threat to traditional mores. In their final disowning of Nina, they have an important symbolic significance. They represent the traditionalism that blocked what Chekhov believed were necessary changes in both art and society.

Although the play is crammed with action, it is wrought small. There are no big events, not in the foreground at least. As noted, the two suicide attempts by Konstantine, certainly traumatic moments, occur offstage; the first attempt is made in the interval between acts 2 and 3, the other at the end of act 4, when Treplyov tears up all his manuscripts and walks out of the room and, in despair, shoots himself. Even as he storms off, other characters enter the vacated room to resume a game that was earlier interrupted and begin chatting about matters that argue that they are simply oblivious to Konstantine's self-destructive mood. When the shot is heard, they do not even question Dorn's assertion that something in his medicine case must have exploded. They simply go on with their parenthetical lives as if nothing of significance has happened.

Elsewhere, the focus of The Seagull is, as Styan suggests, ‘‘on several intense and potentially melodramatic relationships, which tend to distort the objective view by calling for an audience's empathy with exhibitions of individual emotion.’’ Characters do at times vent a passion, especially Konstantine, but Chekhov never permits an emotion to explode into onstage, self-destructive violence. Reminders that life will go on in the face of individual suffering always seem to assert themselves, deflating passions and defusing the moment, even rudely so, as when, in act 1, with derisive scorn, Irina Arkadina abruptly intrudes on Konstantine's serious feelings—which hang out in his play within the play like so much emotional laundry—and compels him to abort Nina's performance and bring down the curtain.

That scene is part of a pattern of unsympathetic disengagement that characters evidence from the opening moments of The Seagull, when Medvedenko questions Masha about her unhappiness with his practical observations that she has little to be unhappy about. Throughout the play, in parallel fashion, characters seem unwilling or unable to cooperate when others make a plea for love or understanding. Some reactions are unintended, like Sorin's dozing off, but others seem singularly insensitive, especially in situations in act 2. When Konstantine lays the dead gull at Nina's feet, she is simply irritated with him and complains that she is ''too simple to understand'' him. In turn, she is given an emotional cold shoulder by Trigorin, with whom she is infatuated. He fumbles with her words most awkwardly, nervously laughing and consulting his watch while politely attempting to deflect her obvious hero worship.

Such are the Chekhovian moments on which The Seagull is built. They seem to come almost haphazardly, like a series of accidental encounters. They are, of course, very carefully placed beads on the playwright's structural string, asymmetrical perhaps, but dramatic nonetheless, and much closer to mirroring actual life than those more traditional plays in which episodes are placed in a progressive, logically-ordered arrangement. Chekhov's genius for making such a structure work explains why, despite the topicality of much of his matter, particularly in The Seagull, his final plays are still highly valued for their technique and are still imitated in method.

Source: John W. Fiero, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Fiero holds a Ph.D. degree. He formerly taught drama and playwriting at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and is now a freelance writer and consultant.

Analysis of The Seagull: Historical Context and Treplyov

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At the end of the nineteenth century, the classical conventions of drama introduced largely by Aristotle more than two millennia ago were being replaced by a new, modern theatre. Modern drama emphasized realism in place of melodrama, fantasy, and romance. Whereas earlier writers had focused on elevating theatre and its characters to an imaginary level, often depicting fictional situations outside of the average playgoer's experience, modern playwrights attempted to approximate the reality of life as it is really lived.

In the modern play, the audience was asked to imagine that the curtain was a fourth wall that existed between them and the actors. The characters were seen as regular people going about their business, oblivious to the audience. When the curtain rose, these audience members were allowed to peek through this imaginary wall and into a certain time period and situation in the characters' lives.

Other conventions that changed were in the use of dialogue. Realistic drama featured dialogue that was not embellished or exaggerated. Modern actors did not play to the audience with grand, poetic solitary speeches, known as soliloquies, as Shakespearean actors did. There were no stars in the modern system. Instead, playwrights used well-rounded ensembles of people who discussed their situation using the same types of realistic dialogue that an audience member might use in his or her own life.

In the case of Anton Chekhov realism also extended to include a focus on mood and emotion among the characters, as opposed to a unifying plot and a direct, easily recognizable dramatic action. Instead, Chekhov's major plays placed more importance on the characters than the plot, leading many critics to say that nothing happens in a Chekhov play. But, as Anthony Caputi stated in 1991 in his anthology, Eight Modern Plays, ‘‘... none, or at least few, would argue that they are about nothing: somehow he makes the 'nothing' of his actions a nothing that has to do with everything.’’

Chekhov was well aware of the conventions that he was breaking and the problems it might cause, particularly in the case of The Seagull.

The Seagull was the first of Chekhov's final four plays (referred to as his ''major'' plays) and is considered by many critics to be his most innovative dramatic work because it introduced new conventions that would serve as a transition to his and others' later modern plays. Simon Karlinsky and Michael Henry Heim noted this fact in 1973 in their anthology, Letters of Anton Chekhov.''It was in The Seagull that this liberation first occurred, the creative breakthrough that made Chekhov as much an innovator in the field of drama as he already was in the art of prose narrative.''

Even though The Seagull is widely regarded as a pivotal work for both Chekhov and modern drama, the wealth of criticism on the play is anything but unanimous in its treatment of the material. Even Chekhov was a little unsure at the time about what he had written. Donald Rayfield makes reference to a letter that Anton Chekhov wrote on October 21, 1895, to his longtime friend and editor, Alexis Suvorin, in which he remarked that his play was unstageable due to the radical departure from conventional stage rules.

With that fact in mind, one can nevertheless make the case that Chekhov intended The Seagull to be a statement on his literary ideas, specifically by using the character of Treplyov to show that a true symbolist could not survive in a modern society that was focused more and more on realism.

Symbolism was a movement that focused on mysticism as opposed to reality. It involved sacrificing realism for imagination and attempted to achieve a dramatic ideal.

David Magarshack explores Chekhov's views toward the symbolists in 1973 in The Real Chekhov. ‘‘Chekhov dismissed the 'decadents,' as the symbolists were called, as 'frauds.'’’ As Magarshack notes, Chekhov never engaged in public debates over his art but instead distributed his ideas about drama through his characters.

In The Seagull, these characters consist of a well-rounded group of people, all of whom are faced with the real despair of having wasted their lives or experienced unrequited love.

The most passionate of these characters is Konstantin Treplyov, the young writer who attempts to live his life and art completely through the idealistic views of symbolism.

Throughout the course of the play, Treplyov's attempt to achieve his ideal life is slowly beaten down by the reality of the situation surrounding him. In the beginning, he has pretensions of being a great writer of ''a new form," and it is with this aim that he produces a short play that he attempts to show to his friends and relatives on his Uncle Sorin's country estate. The play includes no living characters and features only one performer, Nina Zarechny, a young woman who Treplyov loves. Nina, however, does not return his love, although she also aspires to live the ideal creative life, in this case as an actress.

Treplyov's play details a mystical struggle 200,000 years in the future on a barren earth, between the devil and a ‘‘world soul,’’ which is composed of all of humanity's past souls. ‘‘The consciousness of all humanity, together with the instincts of animals, have united in me,’’ Nina intones. Magarshack notes that this abstract idea of a world soul and a mystical struggle was based largely on the ideas of the leader of the Russian Symbolist movement.

Treplyov' s play ends in failure when his mother, Irina Arkadina, an actress in the traditional theatre, criticizes the play during the performance, calling it "decadent." Treplyov angrily stops the show and stomps off, leaving his audience members to discuss the play. His mother dismisses the play as merely ‘‘decadent ravings.... what we have here are pretensions to new forms, to a brand-new era in art. There are no new forms available, as I see it, just a bad temper.’’

The failure of Treplyov's symbolist play is an attack by Chekhov on symbolism itself. The irony of Arkadina's statement is that Chekhov himself, with the writing of The Seagull, is helping to usher in a new era with his radical conventions and the new realism of modern drama.

Chekhov is not totally unsympathetic to the symbolist movement, however. In the play, the character of Dr. Dorn echoes Chekhov's ideas about abstract art such as symbolism. Says Dorn:

There must be a clear and definite thought in a work of art. You must know what it is you're writing for. Otherwise, if you go along that picturesque road without a definite aim, you will lose your way and your talent will destroy you.

This idea of unrestrained art being destructive is a clear foreshadowing of Treplyov's suicidal fate, and is, as Magarshack notes, the central theme of the play. For Dorn and for Chekhov, an abstract idea is not bad in and of itself. Instead, it is art without structure that can destroy an artist, in this case the symbolist, Treplyov.

Treplyov's next appearance in the play, in act 2, signals even more his dismal fate. After witnessing Nina fawn over the established writer Trigorin, and realizing that his love for Nina will be forever unrequited, Treplyov kills a seagull and presents it to Nina, telling her that he will soon kill himself.

The Seagull, which has been noted by critics as a heavy-handed use of symbolism to represent hopes betrayed, is also linked to the image of Nina herself, beginning with her statement back in the first act: ''My father and his wife won't let me come here. They say this place is Bohemian ... They're frightened I might become an actress ... But I ache to return to this lake, as if I were a sea gull.’’ Nina feels trapped in her house and her life, and she seeks the escape to Treplyov's stage, and eventually, to the acting life itself.

When Treplyov kills The Seagull, he is trying to make a symbolic statement, by killing something that Nina has identified herself with, and by warning her that her love is driving him to kill himself— but it doesn't work.

Nina wounds Treplyov when she tells him that he has grown irritable. To make matters worse, she demonstrates that Treplyov's symbolism was wasted on her. ''And I suppose this sea gull here is obviously a symbol, too, but—forgive me—I don't understand it...’’

Treplyov leaves, crushed. Nina soon brightens up when Treplyov leaves, and she sees Trigorin approach. For Nina, Trigorin, an established writer, represents her dream of being an actress, and she hopes that by following him, she will be given access to this ideal dramatic world.

Trigorin sees The Seagull that Treplyov has killed, and it gives him an idea for a story:

A young girl has lived her whole life on the shores of a lake. A girl like you. She loves the lake, like a sea gull, and she's as happy and free as a sea gull, too. A man happens to come by, sees her, and, having nothing else to do, destroys her like that sea gull there.

This speech foretells how Trigorin will treat Nina later in the play.

The Seagull, which gives the play its name, has a double meaning, standing for both hopes betrayed, an idea which many characters in the play can identify with, and also for Nina herself. This is not uncommon in Chekhov's later plays.

As Nicholas Moravcevich discussed in 1984 in his essay, ''Chekhov and Naturalism: From Affinity to Divergence,’’ Chekhov's major plays introduce a theme or governing idea early in the action, in this case, the theme of the self-destructive power of unrestrained art. Since Chekhov's later plays do not use direct plotting to move the action forward, they instead rely on a ‘‘symbolizing device’’ that keeps the theme alive throughout the play, in this case, The Seagull.

At the beginning of act 3, after a week has gone by, the audience learns that Treplyov has shot himself in a ‘‘moment of mad despair.’’ Although the wound was not fatal, it has signified his intent to kill himself. For Treplyov, an extreme idealist, it would be better to take his own life than to suffer knowing that Nina loves another, and that he is a failure as an artist.

After his failed suicide attempt, Treplyov toys with another idealistic notion, by planning on challenging Trigorin to a duel, a highly romantic, unrealistic way to both win Nina's love from Trigorin and destroy his writing nemesis.

What Treplyov fails to acknowledge is the fact that even if he were to kill Trigorin in a duel, it would not win Nina's love. Nina is attracted to Trigorin's success as an artist, and Treplyov cannot offer her that. He tries to cling to his idea of a duel nonetheless.

But Treplyov is a lover, not a fighter in the realistic sense, and he is easily turned away from his intent. After an impassioned exchange with Arkadina, in which she further chips away at Treplyov's idealism by calling him a ''nonentity'' and telling him he can't even write a ‘‘pitiful little skit,’’ Treplyov breaks down, crying. ‘‘If you only knew! I've lost everything. She doesn't love me, and now I can't write . . . All my hopes have gone down the drain . . .’’

Nevertheless, Treplyov perseveres. He knows that he's lost Nina for now, but he also suspects that it will never last with Trigorin, and so he waits, with the romantic hope that he and Nina will someday be reunited. He gets his first opportunity between acts three and four, when he tries to visit her in her hotel room, after she has been used and discarded by Trigorin.

‘‘I saw her, but she didn't want to see me,’’ Treplyov tells some guests in the first part of act 4. ‘‘The chambermaid refused me entrance into her hotel room. I understood the way she felt, so I didn't insist on a meeting.’’ Treplyov understands what it is like to have a lover leave, and he hopes that Nina will realize that they are meant to be together, as they had discussed in their childhood dreams.

Nina keeps this hope alive by sending him letters. She signs the letters, ''The Sea Gull,'' which he takes as a sign of her shattered mental state, ironically forgetting the very symbolism that he bestowed on her earlier, when he killed the gull.

During the between-acts time period, Treplyov has also experienced some success at his Symbolist writing, although not all of the attention has been good. As one character puts it, he has gotten a ‘‘first-rate roasting in the newspapers.’’ Even Trigorin patronizes him, when he tells everybody that Treplyov is a big mystery in Moscow and Petersburg, and that everybody wants to know what he's like.

There is no mention of Treplyov's writing skills, only his image in the major cities. Treplyov has become successful in the sense that his writing is getting noticed, but it is not happening in the idealistic way he had imagined it. The final insult comes when Trigorin gives Treplyov a journal that contains stories by both him and Treplyov, and Trigorin quite obviously has not even cut the pages to read Treplyov's story.

In the only lengthy monologue in the play, Treplyov calls into question his own writing ideals. ‘‘I've talked and talked a lot about new forms, yet I feel now that I am slipping little by little into a conventional rut.’’ After comparing his own work to Trigorin's, he comes to a final conclusion:

Yes, I'm invariably coming more and more to the conviction that the issue is a question neither of old nor of new forms, but that a person simply writes, never thinking about the kind of forms, he writes because it pours freely out of his soul.

With this admission, Treplyov realizes that he is lost as a writer. As Maurice Valency discussed in 1966 in The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, ‘‘... although he feels in himself a talent that dwarfs Trigorin, Trigorin writes better than he, and is able to succeed effortlessly where Treplyev fails.’’ This contrast, Valency notes, ‘‘is intolerable for Treplyev.’’

At that moment, Nina enters. Treplyov, clinging to the last shred of his idealism, tries to take this as a sign that she is ready to be reunited with him. ‘‘My warmhearted girl, my beloved, she's come here.’’

But Nina still has no love for him. She has resolved her own issues with art and life and is in a much better state than Treplyov. As Valency notes, Nina has ' 'lost her youth, her child, her innocence, and her peace of mind; but she has discovered her vocation, and the joy of work, and therefore she is saved.’’

She no longer thinks the theatre is the dream that she had anticipated:

I've come to realize that in our work—it doesn't matter whether we play roles on stage or whether we write—the important thing is neither fame nor glamor nor what I used to dream about, but it's knowing how to endure.

Nina has accepted her fate, and will leave the next morning for a winter acting engagement in Yelets, a job that will fall somewhere between acting and prostitution, as ''cultured businessmen will bedevil me with their little gallantries.’’

But Treplyov cannot accept his fate. Nina's rejection is more than he can take. She leaves, and he is distraught both by the fact that he cannot have her and that he can't accept his realizations about his art.

In a scene that Chekhov deliberately makes about two minutes long, Treplyov silently destroys all of his writings, then fulfills the prophecy that Dorn suggested in the beginning when talking about the self-destructive power of unrestrained art, by taking his own life.

Treplyov is the only character who reacts to his fate this way. His symbolist views in his work and love life have not served him well, and at the end, he can't cope with the realism of his situation, whereas the other characters, who all embody various aspects of realistic people, go on living and enduring.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Poquette has a B.A. in English, and specializes in writing drama and film.

The Artistic Temperament of The Seagull

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In Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, M. H. Abrams characterizes a recurrent figure in romantic and modern literature—the suffering artist. He notes that the central character in many literary works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is ''the alienated and anguished artist whose priestly vocation entails the renunciation of this life and of this contemptible world in favor of that other world which is the work of his art.’’ In the nineteenth century, this figure first emerged in the romantic poetry of authors like Samuel Coleridge William Wordsworth Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley. At the turn of the century, playwright Anton Chekhov employed this dominant image in The Seagull and so encouraged a new generation of writers to construct realistic portraits of this enigmatic character. Through the play's penetrating study of several people who gather together at a Russian country estate, Chekhov explores the complex relationship between art and personal identity.

The Seagull focuses on intimate moments shared by four artists with varying degrees of devotion to their calling. Arkadina and her lover Trigorin have both enjoyed successful careers—Arkadina as a celebrated actress and Trigorin as a best-selling novelist. Yet neither are true artists. In her analysis of the play, critic Emma Goldman argues that Arkadina ‘‘is the type of artist who lacks all conception of the relation between art and life.''

Arkadina's shallow and self-centered nature emerges in her response to her son's play. Her negative reaction has little to do with the play's artistic merit. Treplyov understands that she will dismiss his play before she views it because she has not been included in the cast. He notes, ‘‘She's angry about my play because Nina's acting in it, and she's not.... She's angry in advance because, even though it's just on this little stage, it will be Nina's success and not hers.’’ While he admits she has talent, he notes that her focus is on herself rather than her art:

You may praise only Mother, write only about productions that Mother's in, rave only about Mother's performance in Camille or The Fumes of Life. And since she finds no intoxicating adulation in the country—Mother's bored.

Her jealousy prompts her to disrupt the performance of her son's play with questions and jeers, which causes Treplyov to bring the curtain down during the first act. Later, while discussing the theatre with her, Treplyov concludes, ‘‘you won't recognize or tolerate anything but your own superficial notions. You sit on and suppress everything else.’’

Unlike Arkadina, Trigorin admits to his artistic limitations. He tells Nina during a discussion about his work, ''Yes, I enjoy writing, and reading proofs. But as soon as something's published, I hate it. I see it's not what I meant—and I feel angry, I feel bad.'' Trigorin acknowledges that his reading public appreciates the charm and cleverness of his works, but that they also consider them inferior to those of the truly great authors like Tolstoy and Turgenev. In an attempt to create classic works of art, he has focused on what he thinks are important themes, yet these ''hurried'' attempts received attacks ''from all sides,'' until he was forced to admit that he did not understand what he was writing about. As a result, he concludes, ''I think in the end all I can really write about are landscapes. About everything else, I'm false, false to the core,’’ and so has given up his dream of creating true art.

Trigorin continues to write best-sellers but would rather spend his days fishing than hone his craft. Goldman argues that ‘‘exhausted of ideas,’’ Trigorin finds that ‘‘all life and human relations serve him only as material for copy.’’ While talking about his stories with Nina, he admits, ''I've forgotten what it is to be eighteen or nineteen. I can't picture it. That's why young women in my stories and novels are unconvincing.’’ Chekhov suggests that Nina might be able to inspire him to write greater works when, after seeing the dead seagull Treplyov killed for Nina, he determines to write a story about the incident. However, Arkadina plays on his weakness, convincing him that only she truly appreciates him, and so pulls him away from the younger woman. As he leaves with Arkadina, Trigorin admits, ‘‘I've never had a will of my own. . .. I'm flabby and weak. I always submit.’’

When he was a young man, Trigorin insists that he had artistic sensibilities and suffered for his art, that his life then ‘‘was a torture.’’ He explains,

A beginning writer, especially an unlucky one, feels awkward and unwanted—the world doesn't need him. His nerves are frazzled, he's always on edge. But he can't resist being around people in the arts and literature. They, of course, are not interested in him. They ignore him, while he's too shy to even look at them.

After his works began to enjoy popular but not critical success, Trigorin drifted away from his early devotion to his craft.

As Trigorin gives up his pursuit of artistic excellence, he loses his connection with others. The shallow relationships he forms reflect his inability to actively engage with his world. He seems to stay with Arkadina not because he has strong feelings for her but because their relationship is convenient, especially since it affords him the opportunity to stay at a comfortable country estate. His detachment from experience becomes most noticeable in his callous treatment of Nina. After their brief love affair that resulted in a pregnancy, Trigorin ''tired of her'' and, according to Treplyov, ''went back to his old attachments ... in his spineless way.’’

Trigorin's portrait of a suffering artist reflects not only his experience, but also that of Nina and Treplyov. Unlike Trigorin, though, both of these young artists become consumed with their pursuit of the creative process and so devote their lives to it. In ‘‘The Seagull: The Stage Mother, the Missing Father, and the Origins of Art,’’ Carol Flath comments, ‘‘in aesthetic terms, Treplyov renounces knowledge of the world and consequently self-destructs as a writer and as a man; Nina, on the other hand, embraces knowledge and suffering and becomes a mature artist.’’

When Treplyov renounces the traditions of the theatre, he turns his back on his and his mother's world. Flath notes that Treplyov's ‘‘'decadent,' intangible, and inaccessible play represents a wholly spiritual or idealistic art.’’ He answers Nina's complaints over the difficulties in his play insisting, ''I don't want to show life as it is, or tell people how things should be. I want to show life in dreams.'' He condemns the playwright who ‘‘squeezes out a moral, a smug cozy little moral, fit for home consumption’’ and who only ‘‘repeats the same formula with tiny variations.’’ Afraid that following this same path would ‘‘cheapen his mind,’’ he breaks with tradition as he strives for ''new forms.’’ Yet his avant garde productions gain him little success and often alienate him from his audience and from other artists. While Dorn admits, ''I liked his play. There's something fresh and direct about it,’’ his mother and Nina find it troublesome and "decadent." As a result, Treplyov's sense of isolation increases.

His surroundings reinforce his isolation and despair. He notes to Sorin that life with his mother means a house full of famous actors and writers and complains, "Can you imagine how I feel? The only nobody there is me.'' He claims that because he has neither money nor talent, her friends continually measure his "insignificance."

His mother, whose petty, shallow nature prompts her to play on her son's insecurities, compounds Treplyov's feelings of insignificance. He admits, ‘‘My mother doesn't love me.... I'm twenty-five now. That reminds her she's no longer young.. . . She hates me for that.’’

Commenting on their damaging relationship, Flath argues,

Arkadina's view of herself as attractive and eternally youthful is directly threatened by the presence of her grown son. By willing Treplyev into nothingness (‘‘nonentity’’) she is attempting to stop the flow of time itself—time that ages her and allows this boy to outgrow her to find a younger, more beautiful woman of his own, one who will replace her as a woman and as an artist.

When Treplyov finally does earn a measure of success after his stories appear in magazines, Dorn tells him one afternoon, ‘‘[your work] made an impression on me. You have talent. You must write more.’’ Dorn commends his abstract subject matter that expresses ''great ideas'' for, he claims,' 'Nothing can be beautiful if it's not serious.’’ Trigorin also praises Treplyov's stories, but later notes to Dorn that the young playwright's work is often criticized, insisting ‘‘he'shad no luck. He can't find a style of his own. There's something vague and strange about his writing—almost like delirium. And never a single live character.’’

When Treplyov learns that neither Trigorin nor his mother has read his work, he again begins to despair until Nina arrives. During the past two years Nina has been struggling to establish herself as an actress. Treplyov notes, however, that during this period, ‘‘her acting was crude’’ and ‘‘lacked subtlety.’’ He claims, ‘‘at moments she showed some talent—she screamed well, and she died well. But that's all. They were only moments.’’ When Nina appears at the house, Treplyov hopes that the two of them can ease each other's suffering. Yet while Nina initially looks back on their time together fondly, she decides to reject Treplyov's declarations of love and to continue to strive for artistic integrity. She tells him that the previous night she went into the garden to see if the stage was still there. When she finds it, she admits, ''I cried for the first time in two years. It was like a weight started to lift from me—I started to feel lighter.'' Yet she also notes the difficult nature of the pursuit of art when she tells him, ‘‘We've been drawn into the maelstrom, both of us.’’

She then recalls her affair with Trigorin who, she claims, ''laughed at my dreams, until finally I stopped believing in them.’’ Nina, however, found the strength to endure Trigorin's waning affections and the loss of her child and becomes strong enough to pursue her artistic dreams. She tells Treplyov that now she is a true actress and that her work ''intoxicates'' her. She admits,

I know now, Kostya, what matters in our work ... is not fame, glory, or the things I dreamed about, but knowing how to endure—how to bear your cross and have faith. I have faith now, and it's not so painful anymore. When I think about my calling, I'm not afraid of life.

Treplyov, however, cannot find a similar source of strength in his art. He admits to Nina, ‘‘you've found your way. You know where you're going. But I'm still living in dreams and images. I can't make sense of them. I don't know what or who it's all for. I have no faith, no calling.’’ His inability to retain faith in his art, coupled with his unrequited love for Nina, fills him with an overwhelming sense of despair, and he kills himself.

Chekhov's compelling portrait of the suffering artist explores the problematic relationship between life and art. Flath suggests that in the play, Chekhov raises

serious questions as to the ethics of artistic creativity; for art to be truly compelling and powerful, it must drain energy from real life; it must murder its object, be that object others or oneself. An art that does no harm is impossible, for it would be the same as life itself.

Some—like Arkadina and Trigorin—who do not have the strength of character to pursue artistic excellence focus instead on gaining popular success. Others, like Treplyov, are destroyed by their inability to retain their faith in their art. Nina alone survives, damaged by her pursuit of her craft, but unwavering in her devotion to it. In his study of these four artists, Chekhov illustrates the difficulties inherent in the struggle to achieve true art.

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Perkins, an Associate Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland, has published several articles on twentieth-century authors.

The Seagull: An Overview

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Any comedy where the young hero destroys his life's work and then himself, where the heroine is abandoned pregnant and unhinged, while the survivors bask on in their own egotism, must be considered highly innovatory. Apart from its black comedy, however, Chekhov's The Seagull has many other modern features. It is full of ''intertextuality,'' incorporating or alluding to a great deal of Hamlet, to Faust, to Guy de Maupassant and to Chekhov's own prose. It was also ''interactive'' theatre: many characters, incidents, props, and lines were taken from Chekhov's own life and his social circle, and he took some care to see that they experienced the full impact of this fictionalization by being invited to the first performance. It is "deconstructive," since it is a play about the futility of the theatre, in which the old art (Trigorin) and the new art (Trepliov) fight out the battle of naturalism and symbolism, and the old theatre (Arkadina) and the new theatre (Nina Zarechnaya) fight out the conflict between histrionics and expressionist acting.

The Seagull is a total anomaly in Chekhov's work. Nowhere else does he have the writer as hero or blatantly exploit autobiographical material. Even the symbolic title—a parody of Ibsen's Wild Duck— is utterly out of keeping with his reluctance to advertise a play's intentions. Written in 1895, it was performed in 1896 in St. Petersburg with unscripted and catastrophic results that equalled the disasters of the drama itself. It must be seen as an attack on the conventional theatre, designed to embarrass and disable actors and audience. At the same time, so many lines of Chekhov's own fiction and letters, as well as his fishing rods, self-evaluation, and compulsions are attributed to Trigorin, that it appears to be a work of intense self-parody—a product of an inner crisis in which both old and new forms of writing and behaving seem trite.

The Seagull was written after six years of virtual abstention from writing plays. Apart from Ibsen, other Nordic reading seems to have suggested the new directions Chekhov's dramaturgy now took. As in Strindberg, a female oligarchy takes control of the action, the males—whether the writers, the old brother Sorin, or doctor Sorin, the objective bystander—being unable to resist their ruthless atavism. The eroticism of the play, however, is uniquely Chekhovian: the middle-aged Arkadina and Polina pursue their lovers, Trigorin and Dr. Dorn, with unrelenting passion; the male characters are locked into a ludicrous chain of unrequited love: Medvedenko loves Masha who loves Trepliov who loves Nina who loves Trigorin.

The experimental absurdity is deliberate, as Chekhov's letters show: ''I am writing it with some pleasure, although I do awful things to the laws of the stage ... not much action and two hundred weight of love.'' Many of the preoccupations of his short stories surface here in dramatic form: the idea of Hamlet as a naturalized Russian citizen is reinforced in the semi-incestuous quarrelling between Trepliov and his mother and in the playlet he stages in Act I to provoke her anger; Nina Zarechnaya and Arkadina, both examples of womanhood destroyed by acting, are the culmination of the unhappy Katya of A Dreary Story. An adoration of Maupassant as the workmanlike writer's writer saturates Chekhov's prose: The Seagull's opening lines, ‘‘Why are you wearing black?—Because I am in mourning for my life’’—are lifted straight from Maupassant's Bel-Ami. The futility of medicine and contemplation, which Chekhov expressed in his bitter Ward No. 6, reaches its climax in the cruel refusal of Dr. Dorn to treat ‘‘old age.’’

But Chekhov also incorporated farce and vaudeville techniques into The Seagull. When Arkadina successively rows with her brother, her son, and her lover, it is with all the speed of a music-hall sketch. Usually quoted by the ironic Dr. Dorn, popular song and snatches of operetta—though their import is lost on today's audience—only remind the other characters of how commonplace their predicament is.

The play functioned primarily as a purgative both for Chekhov's creativity and for the contemporary theatre—all the more surprising is its importance as the first of the truly Chekhovian later plays and as the emblem of Stanislavsky's Moscow Arts Theatre. As with The Cherry Orchard, the subtitle, "Comedy," provides an insistent tempo-marking to override any temptation to dwell on the tragic possibilities; the setting, remote from Moscow or St. Petersburg, imbues a spirit of exile in those characters who will never leave; powerful forces off stage hold the cast in thrall and prevent them from acting on their motivation; phrases pass from character to character putting them under a disabling spell: Chekhov appears to have invented a new dramatic genre simply by demolishing the old.

Although Stanislavsky's theatre, with its totalitarian control over the actors, redeemed the play from the oblivion that otherwise threatened it, The Seagull remains the most ambiguous of all Chekhov's plays. Is Trepliov's playlet about the end of the world a parody of symbolist drama still to be written, or is it—as its echoes of Chekhov's narrative landscapes suggest—a serious attempt to convey what a new poetic drama might sound like? Is Nina, drenched and raving in Act IV, an Ophelia-like victim of ruthless and self-obsessed males, or is she an example of female indestructibility, just an Arkadina at a more decorative phase? Perhaps the play's real intent is buried in the allusion it nearly makes: in Act II, Arkadina takes over from Dorn the reading of Maupassant's travelogue Sur l'eau and shuts the book in annoyance. The passage she cannot stomach reads: ''As soon as [a woman] sees [a writer] softened, moved, won over by constant flattery, she isolates him, cuts bit by bit all his links.'' Chekhov is one of the few male writers who can be seen both as misogynist and feminist: he knew well that The Seagull is as predatory as it is vulnerable, and the play, for all its ''throw-away'' symbolism, explores both the danger and the appeal of love for the artist.

Source: Donald Rayfield, ‘‘The Seagull,’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 720-21.

Anton Chekhov

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The Sea Gull is a play of infinite tenderness and compassionate understanding. That is why it is humorous as well as touching. Contrary to the common cliché, it is also full of action: no moment passes which is not dense with the subtlest interplay of human conflict.

It is often said that Chekhov is the dramatist of futility and frustration. This is misleading. What Chekhov tells us is not that life is a frustration but that a particular kind of life, a particular environment and time, was frustrating. This makes him a social playwright. But he is also ‘‘universal’’: the inner music of his work extends beyond the particular moment he depicts.

The essence of Chekhov lies in the warmth of his feeling for people, his boundless sympathy, his love. What endears his characters to us whether they be simpletons or sophisticates—and there is something charmingly and childishly foolish about all of them—is the fact that we recognize in them deeply human traits with which Chekhov identifies himself with his whole being. Because they are seen in the context of his wonderfully sound sense of life, the wretched fate of his characters comes to seem unaccountably worthwhile to us. Chekhov's plays, therefore, are never dreary, for where life is affirmed, particularly in the face of adversity, we are in the presence of the noble and the heartening.

We do not live in czarist Russia; still, Chekhov is of our time. Our younger generation is not a hopeful one. For all their aches, Chekhov's people remember, yearn for, desire and dream a good life. The key to their natures is in the cry, ''I want to live." This informs their sorrow with a pulsing substance of experience and meaning which enriches it beyond the muscular straining and jumpiness of our young people, unconscious of any pleasure in present difficulty because they have no vision or belief in a future to which they can look forward. Our young folk fail to have fun because their lives have been emptied of content for want of values that might give them an inspired view of their daily activity. The girls and boys of the Miller and Williams plays might well think of the sad people of The Sea Gull as the lucky ones!

What impression the Phoenix production makes on a person who has never before seen or read The Sea Gull I cannot tell. Perhaps its beauty is still apparent. For anyone who knows the play—I have seen four previous productions—the present one is signally miscast in several important parts. I refer not only to individual actors but to a lack of homogeneity and correlation in the ensemble. Midwest speech is echoed by Russian; mid-European accent alternates with Southern United States; New York genteel tones respond to New York Irish. It is also evident that even some of the actors who are suited to their roles have not been helped by the director in their interpretations.

Maureen Stapleton, for example, is thoroughly affecting here and there because of her fine emotional endowment, but she has no specific characterization. The part she plays—Masha—is that of a woman deprived of the normal attentions and affection due her; as a result she has become mannish, eccentric, a little grotesque. But Miss Stapleton is allowed to remain the most attractive person on the stage. This distorts the story by making Treplev, who never notices Masha but persists in his desperate love for Nina (impersonated by an actress who looks old enough to be his mother), seem peculiar.

Montgomery Clift—who is well cast—is handsome, talented and in every way sympathetic. But his Treplev is too depressed in feeling, too rundown in appearance. Treplev is a young and ardent spirit. His tragedy is that though he contains the seed of the future, as compared to the facile but essentially uncreative novelist Trigorin, he is ground under by the weight of temporal circumstances.

The real pathos of Clift's performance, I cannot refrain from saying, is not only that he makes Treplev more downcast than he need be—and thus more American than Russian—but that as an earnest actor he believes he can pay his debt to his ideals by attempting a challenging role for four weeks out of ten years. He needs ten years of work on the stage to act as well as he potentially can in the kind of parts he aspires to. It is not idealistic and it is certainly not healthy to reserve oneself for certain rare occasions to do what one wants to.

Source: Harold Clurman, ‘‘Anton Chekhov,’’ in Lies like Truth, Macmillan, 1958, pp. 131-33.


Critical Overview


The Seagull (Drama Criticism)