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The Seagull

Ellen Chances (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: "Chekhov's Seagull: Ethereal Creature or Stuffed Bird?" in Chekhov's Art of Writing: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Paul Debreczeny and Thomas Eekman, Slavica Publishers, 1977, pp. 27-34.

[In the following essay, Chances views the seagull as a symbol that Chekhov ridicules; in fact, the critic asserts, "the entire play might, perhaps, be considered a parody of symbolism."]

When discussing Chekhov's play The Seagull, one can divide criticism into two schools. There are those interpre tations, set forth in excellent articles and excellent productions, which belong to the "ethereal creature" school. Nina is seen as a poor, naive, young girl who, like a seagull, strives to spread her wings and be free. The play within the play, according to "ethereal creature" proponents, represents the efforts of a struggling young playwright in his search for new art forms. The seagull image itself has been plucked bare. Leonid Grossman has stated that the seagull is a symbol of Nina's unhappy fate and of human fate in general. Nina is said to be like the wounded bird who silently watches the cruelties of life unfold before its eyes.1 Or, the seagull is said to symbolize the fate of Treplev.2 Or, the seagull is made to represent the beauty of all living things.3 Or, it is interpreted as a representation of Nina's own personal struggle and of her ability to triumph, and as a symbol of the destruction of beauty.4

There are also those interpretations which belong to the "stuffed bird" school. The exponent of this school (the author of this article) certainly does not deny the perceptivity of other interpretations. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the play can be given a less serious reading as well. After all, Chekhov did entitle the play Chaika. Komediia v chetyrekh deistviiakh (Emphasis mine—E. C.) In addition, Chekhov's use of symbols in the play is, to a certain extent, ironic.

Let us examine the evidence. Take Nina, for example. What is she? She is far from the beautiful, fragile, poetic being which she and others consider her. Rather, she is a plain, talentless girl, mesmerized by the vacuous notion of fame. One has only to count the number of times she repeats the word "famous" (izvestnyi). She casts aside the unknown author Treplev in order to chase the double rainbows of fame and Trigorin, and she ends up as a mediocre provincial actress in a cold, empty hotel room in Elets.

Consider the play within the play as another telling piece of evidence. Treplev's creation, with its Eternal Matter, red devil eyes, and new forms, can hardly be treated in a serious manner. Although Arkadina the actress has no role in her son's play, Chekhov has given her a key role in the scene—that of discrediting the performance of the play. Her mocking comments, first that the play belongs to the Decadent School, and later, that the Devil with his blood-red eyes is merely sulphur, create in the real audience the sceptical attitude toward symbolism which cannot easily be dispelled when applied to other symbolic elements in The Seagull. In a way, one can even speak of elements of parody in the treatment of symbolism here.

Minor incidents of an episodic nature also contribute to the theory of The Seagull as a "stuffed bird" play. There is, for example, the exchange in which Treplev speaks to Nina of a Romeo-and-Juliet-like scene. He will follow her home, he says, and will stand in the garden all night, watching her window. Nina shatters...

(This entire section contains 2720 words.)

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this romantic illusion by answering: "You can't. The watchman will notice you. Tresor still isn't used to you; he'll bark" (XI. 148).

The very beginning of Act One serves as still another example. Chekhov blows up many a romantic balloon, only to stick pins in them. In fact, he uses this technique in the very first lines of the play. Medvedenko asks Masha why she always wears black. When she explains that she is in mourning for her life, Medvedenko injects the everyday world of rubles into her misty spheres of poetry: "I don't understand … You're healthy. Although your father isn't rich, he's well-off. My life is much more difficult than yours. I get only twenty-three rubles a month. In addition, they deduct my superannuation from that. All the same, I don't wear mourning" (XI. 144).

Masha tries again: "The money doesn't matter. Even a poor man can be happy" (XI. 144). Yet again Medvedenko responds to Masha's starry-eyed world with a lesson in economics. "That's in theory, but in practice, it works out like this: there's me, my mother, two sisters and my little brother, and my salary is only twenty-three rubles. After all, one has to eat and drink, right? And one needs tea and sugar, right? And tobacco, right? Try to get by on that" (XI. 144).

And what about the role of the seagull image, according to the "stuffed bird" school? The image does, of course, play a very important part in the play. We human beings observe birds as they drift gently, always beyond our grasp, in the blue expanses above. In "To a Skylark," Shelley, for instance, places the skylark on a romantic pedestal—"Hail to thee blithe spirit! … and singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest." Chekhov endows his own bird image with a great number of dimensions. Already in Act One, Chekhov sets up the association between the seagull and Nina, who says she's drawn to the lake as if she were a seagull. Later, when Treplev lays a dead seagull at her feet and identifies himself with it, she mocks the very symbol which she had chosen for herself and which she later uses again. At the end of Act Four, the seagull makes a last entrance—stuffed, its poignant symbolic value underlined. Trigorin has forgotten that he ordered the stuffing of the very bird of which he had once spoken: "A subject for a short story: a young girl like you [Nina] has lived by a lake since childhood. She loves the lake as does a seagull, and she is happy and free as a seagull. But a man happens to come by who sees her; and to while away the time, he destroys her, just like this seagull" (XI. 168).

The seagull image, as we have seen, is usually interpreted in a serious way. Although to do so is valid, it is, I believe, just as appropriate to consider it in another light. Just as thematically and stylistically Chekhov was puncturing illusions, so too he brings the poetic bird down from its soaring heights. In his hands, the seagull becomes, by the final act, nothing more than a stuffed bird, a delight for taxidermists. The seagull has become a symbol, not only of destroyed lives or of Nina's or Treplev's fate, but of the overriding theme of the play, the stripping away of the many layers of artificiality. And the way Chekhov has done this is to laugh at the very image. After the tremendous build-up during the play, it is laughable that Trigorin cannot even remember that he has ordered the bird to be stuffed. The fact that Chekhov chooses a scavenger bird (although the seagull is, of course, also evocative of romantic visions of freedom and the restless sea) contributes to the touches of comedy. In addition, Chekhov's pounding the reader on the head with references to the seagull adds to the comic effect. Chekhov, master of subtlety and suggestion, creator of the half-statement, painter of an entire mood with but a few strokes of the pen, knew full well what he was doing as he repeatedly dragged the seagull image before his audience in this play. Really, then, in many ways, the entire play might, perhaps, be considered as a parody of symbolism.

Chekhov's method can fruitfully be described as that which was first attributed to Gogol, smekh skvoz' slezy ("laughter through tears"). This feature runs throughout his short stories, even in his so-called "comic" pre-1886 period. In this respect one has only to think, for example, of "Death of a Government Clerk." The story is funny, but at the same time, there is a real sense of pathos, too.

The aftertaste—and not even the aftertaste, but an integral effect—of the play under consideration is not at all funny. What one is left with is the sad, melancholy, minor key. Chekhov's sad "message" is contained even in the small cues that he throws to his audience. At the beginning of Act Two, for instance, as Arkadina is reading aloud, Nina wanders by and asks what she is reading. The answer is Maupassant's Sur l'eau. It is indeed surprising that critical literature has hitherto failed to pick up the obvious connection between the two works.5

The passage which Arkadina reads from Sur l'eau concerns the practice in society for women, by means of flattery, to capture that much sought-after creature, the writer. The practice is compared to corn merchants' breeding of rats in their granaries. Arkadina emphatically denies the applicability of the statement to Russians. Citing herself and Trigorin, she insists that Russian relationships are based on love. The audience, however, readily sees that her relationship with Trigorin does fit the Maupassant description. She continues to read to herself, then abruptly closes the book after saying, "Oh, well, the next part isn't interesting and isn't true" (XI. 159).

Just what is this "next part"? Maupassant's narrator writes:

When, therefore, a woman has fixed her choice on the writer she intends to adopt, she lays siege to him by means of every variety of compliments, attractions, and indulgence. Like water which, drop by drop, slowly wears away the hardest rock, the fulsome praise falls at each word on the impressionable heart of the literary man. Then, when she sees that he is moved, touched, and won by the constant flattery, she isolates him, severing, little by little, the ties he may have elsewhere, and imperceptibly accustoms him to come to her house, make himself happy, and there enshrines his thoughts. In order the more thoroughly to acclimatize him in her house, she paves the way for his success, brings him forward, sets him in relief, and displays for him, before all the old habitués of the household, marked consid-eration and boundless admiration.

At last, realizing that he is now an idol, he remains in the temple. He finds, moreover, that the position offords him every advantage, for all other women lavish their most delicate favors upon him to entice him away from his conqueror.6

Although this is the only place where the Maupassant work is mentioned, knowledge of the novel reveals its immense significance for the Chekhov play as a whole. The narrator of Sur l'eau is on a small boat, the Bel-Ami, which sails from port to port along the French Mediterranean coast. Each chapter of the book is constructed around the narrator's observations as he wanders through a town. In the second chapter, "Cannes," the one which is quoted in The Seagull, Maupassant's narrator takes note of the preponderance of princes and prince worshippers. He describes those who eagerly encircle the prince and then tell you what the princess answered or the Grand Duke replied. "One feels, one sees, one guesses," continues the narrator, "that they frequent no other society but that of persons of Royal blood, and if they deign to speak to you, it is in order to inform you exactly of what takes place on these heights."7 The narrator then delineates the "… various races of heroworshippers."8

He continues his discourse on Cannes by writing that he is certain that he can predict the topic of conversation at parties, at villas and hotels: "… people were gathered together this evening, as they will be tomorrow and … they are talking. Talking! about what? The Princes! the weather! And then?—the weather!—the Princes!—and then—about nothing! … I have lived in hotels, I have endured the emptiness of the human soul as it is there laid bare."9

A similar undercurrent of the phoniness of life runs through the Chekhov play. Nina, as we have observed, serves as a prime example. Sorin, at one point, comments that his appearance is the tragedy of his life. Because he looked as if he drank, women were never attracted to him, he tells Treplev. Appearance was more important than substance. Maupassant's narrator informs us that there is a promenade which goes along the coast. Roses and orange blossoms line the walks. Yet the fragrant aromas are merely covering the odors of death, for this is also the location of a cemetery, filled with aristocratic victims of tuberculosis from all over Europe.

It would almost seem worthwhile to reproduce the entire Cannes chapter, so much of which is crucial to the understanding of The Seagull. After a few more emphatic statements about the stupidity and false pride of the human animal, our visitor to Cannes philosophizes on the nature of happiness. Some people are happy, he writes, because they envision life as a light play in which they themselves are the actors. Life, or the play, amuses them although it offers nothing of substance. Arkadina, who plays equally insipid roles on stage and in life, seems to fit well into this category. Even if she herself lives behind a wall of illusion, the audience cannot be kidded about the true nature of her life. She is shown as a flighty creature who acts in second-rate plays and is concerned mainly with facades. She rejects her son, for he reminds her of the fact that time does not stop. She clings to Trigorin, the Very Famous Person, even in the face of his infatuation with Nina.

Technical as well as thematic considerations bind the two works. In one chapter, Maupassant's narrator speaks about the mysterious influence which the moon exerts on human beings. The poet, he says, promotes romantic illusions about the moon. "When it rises behind the trees, when it pours forth its shimmering light on the flowering river … are we not haunted by all the charming ruses with which it has inspired great dreams?"10 However, the narrator quickly disperses any illusion. The quickly disperses moon, he says, like any other woman, needs a husband. Disdained by the sun, this heavenly body is nothing more than a cold virgin, an old maid.

In similar fashion, the narrator deflates any notion which considers war a noble pursuit. "Civilized" man should not look down haughtily at cannibals, he maintains. After all, who is the real savage, the person who fights to eat or the person who kills for no purpose other than to kill? From all these descriptions of the Maupassant work, one can readily see that the French author in Sur l'eau is doing exactly the same thing as Chekhov is doing in The Seagull: both constantly puncture illusions, constantly remove the veneered cover of falsity to expose the deflated reality.11

What Chekhov does throughout the play leads to a sad commentary on life. Yet, it seems to me that in coming to grips with the play, people have placed more emphasis on the tears than on the laughter, which is certainly there. Yes, Chekhov's seagull can mean one thing, an ethereal creature, but at the same time it is very much to be seen as a stuffed bird, too.


1 Leonid Grossman, "The Naturalism of Chekhov," in Chekhov. A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Louis Jackson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 34, 35.

2 V. V. Ermilov, "Chaika." Materialy i issledovaniia (Moscow: Vserossiiskoe teatral'noe obshchestvo, 1946), 46.

3 Maurice Valency, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1966), 154.

4 David Magarshack, Chekhov the Dramatist (London: John Leh-mann, 1952), 192.

5 In a footnote (p. 177) in Problemy dramaturgicheskogo analiza. Chekhov (Leningrad: Academia, 1927), S. D. Balukhatyi mentions the Maupassant passage which is quoted in Chekhov's play. Balukhatyi does write that the passage is a reflection of Arkadina's relationship with Trigorin. This is as far as he goes, though.

6 Guy de Maupassant, Sur l'eau or On the Face of the Water (New York: M. Dunne, 1903), 20-21.

7 Ibid., p. 16.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., p. 25.

10 Ibid., pp. 49-50.

11 In fact, a study of the Maupassant work would indicate that Maupassant was Chekhov's spiritual father in drama as well as in the short story.

Vladimir Nabokov (essay date 1977?)

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SOURCE: "Notes on The Seagull (1896)," in Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian Literature, edited by Fredson Bowers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, pp. 282-95.

[The excerpt below is taken from a posthumous publication of Nabokov's notes for lectures delivered to literature classes. The year of Nabokov's death has been used to date the essay. Here, he provides scene-by-scene comments on Chekhov's art and stagecraft as demonstrated in The Seagull.]

In 1896 The Seagull (Chaika) was a complete failure at the Alexandrine Theatre in St. Petersburg, but at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 it was a tremendous success.

The first exposition—talk between two minor characters, the girl Masha and the village teacher Medvedenko—is thoroughly permeated by the manner and mood of the two. We learn about them and about the two major characters, the budding actress Nina Zarechny and the poet Treplev, who are arranging some amateur theatricals in the alley of the park: "They are in love with each other and to-night their souls will unite in an effort to express one and the same artistic vision," says the teacher in the ornate style so typical of a Russian semi-intellectual. He has his reasons to allude to this, being in love too. Nevertheless, we must admit that this introduction is decidedly blunt. Chekhov, like Ibsen, was always eager to get done with the business of explaining as quickly as possible. Sorin, the flabby and good-natured landowner, drops by with Treplev, his nephew, who is nervous about the play he is staging. The workmen who have built the platform come and say, we are going for a dip. And meanwhile old Sorin has asked Masha to tell her father (who is his own employee on the estate) to have the dog kept quiet at night. Tell him yourself, she says, rebuffing him. The perfectly natural swing in the play, the association of odd little details which at the same time are perfectly true to life—this is where Chekhov's genius is disclosed.

In the second exposition Treplev talks to his uncle about his mother, the professional actress, who is jealous of the young lady who is going to act in his play. Nor can one even mention Duse in her presence. My goodness, just try, exclaims Treplev.

With another author the complete picture of the woman in this expository dialogue would be a dreadful piece of traditional technique, especially seeing that it is to her own brother that the young man is speaking; but by sheer force of talent Chekhov manages to pull it through. The details are all so amusing: she has seventy thousand in the bank, but if you ask her for a loan she starts crying.… Then he speaks of the routine theatre, of its smug household morals and of the new thing he wants to create; and he talks about himself, about his sense of inferiority because his mother is always surrounded by famous artists and writers. It is quite a long monologue. By a judiciously placed question he is further made to speak of Trigorin, his mother's friend, the author. Charm, talent, but—but somehow after Tolstoy and Zola one does not want to read Trigorin. Note the placing of Tolstoy and Zola on one level—typical for a young author like Treplev in those days, the late nineties.

Nina appears. She was afraid her father, a neighboring squire, would not let her come. Sorin goes to call the house-hold, for the moon is rising and it is time to start Treplev's play. Note two typical Chekhov moves: first, Sorin sings a few bars of a Schubert song, then checks himself and tells with a laugh the nasty thing somebody once said about his singing voice; second, then when Nina and Treplev are left alone they kiss and immediately after she asks, "What's that tree there?" The answer, an elm. "Why is the tree so dark?" she goes on. These trifles disclose better than anything invented before Chekhov the wistful helplessness of human beings—the old man who made a mess of his life, the delicate girl who will never be happy.

The workmen come back. It is time to begin. Nina refers to her stage-fright emotion—she will have to be acting in front of Trigorin, the author of those wonderful short stories. "Dunno, haven't read them," Treplev says curtly. It has been pointed out by critics, who like noting such things, that while the elderly actress Arkadina is jealous of the amateur Nina who as yet is only dreaming of a stage career, her son, the unsuccessful and not very gifted young writer, is jealous of a really fine writer, Trigorin (incidentally, a kind of double of Chekhov the professional himself). The audience arrives. First Dorn, the old doctor, and the wife of Shamraev, the manager of Sorin's estate, who is an old flame of Dorn. Then Arkadina, Sorin, Trigorin, Masha, and Medvedenko flock in. Shamraev asks Arkadina about an old comic he used to applaud. "You keep asking me about antediluvian nobodies," she replies, rather testily.

Presently the curtain rises. There is a real moon and a view of the lake instead of a backdrop. Nina sitting on a stone makes a lyrical speech in a Maeterlinck style, mystically commonplace, obscurely trite. ("It is something in the decadent manner," whispers Arkadina. "Mother!" says her son in pleading tones.) Nina goes on. The idea is that she is a spirit talking after all life has ceased on earth. The red eyes of the devil appear. Arkadina makes fun of it and Treplev loses his temper, shouts for the curtain, and goes away. The others rebuke her for having hurt her son. But she feels insulted herself—that bad-tempered, vain boy … wants to teach me what the theatre ought to be.… The subtle point is that though Treplev has a real desire to destroy the old forms of art, he has not the talent to invent new ones to take their place. Note what Chekhov does here. What other author would have dared to make his main character—a positive character, as they say, that is, one which is expected to win the audience's sympathy—who else would have dared to make him a minor poet, at the same time giving real talent to the least pleasant persons of the play, to the nasty self-sufficient actress and the egotistical, supercritical, emphatically professional writer?

Some singing is heard on the lake. Arkadina recalls the days when youth and gaiety filled the place. She regrets having hurt her son. Nina appears and Arkadina introduces her to Trigorin. "Oh, I always read you." Now comes a delightful little parody of Chekhov's own method of contrast between poetry and prose. "Yes, the setting was beautiful," says Trigorin, and adds after a pause, "That lake must be full of fish." And Nina is puzzled to learn that a man who, as she says, has experienced the delights of creative work, can be amused by angling.

Without any special connection (again a typical device with Chekhov and beautifully true to life), but evidently continuing the line of thought of his previous conversation, Shamraev recalls a certain funny incident in a theatre years ago. There is a pause after this when the joke falls flat and nobody laughs. Presently they disperse, with Sorin complaining without effect to Shamraev about the dog barking at night, Shamraev repeating an earlier anecdote about a church singer, and Medvedenko, the socialist-minded, needy village teacher, inquiring how much such a singer earns. The fact that the question is unanswered shocked many critics who required facts and figures from plays. I remember reading somewhere the solemn statement that a playwright must tell his audience quite clearly the income of his respective characters, for otherwise their moods and action cannot be understood in full. But Chekhov, the genius of the casual, attains in the harmonious interplay of these trivial remakrs much greater heights than the ordinary slaves of cause and effect.

Dorn tells Treplev, who now appears again, that he liked his play—or what he heard of the play. He goes on expounding his own views about life, ideas, and art. Treplev, who was at first touched by his praise, now interrupts him twice. Where is Nina? He rushes away almost in tears. "Oh, youth, youth!" sighs the doctor. Masha retorts, "When people can't find anything else to say, they say, Oh youth, youth." She takes a pinch of snuff to the vast disgust of Dorn. Then she becomes suddenly hysterical and tells him she is desperately and hopelessly in love with Treplev. "Everybody is so nervous," the doctor repeats. "So very nervous. And everybody is in love.… This magic lake. But how can I help you, my poor child, how?"

So ends the first act, and we may well understand that the average audience in Chekhov's time, as well as the critics—those priests of the average—were left rather irritated and puzzled. There has been no definite line of conflict. Or rather there have been several vague lines and a futility of conflict, for one cannot expect any special conflict from a quarrel between a quick-tempered but soft son and a quick-tempered but equally soft mother, each always regretting his or her hasty words. Nothing special further is suggested by Nina meeting Trigorin, and the romances of the other characters are blind alleys. Finishing the act with an obvious dead end seemed an insult to people eager for a good tussle. But notwithstanding the fact that Chekhov was still tied up by the very traditions he was flaunting (the rather flat expositions, for instance), what seemed nonsense and faults to the average critic are really the grain from which some day a really great drama will grow, for with all my fondness for Chekhov I cannot hide the fact that in spite of his authentic genius he did not create the perfect masterpiece. His achievement was that he showed the right way to escape the dungeon of deterministic causation, of cause and effect, and burst the bars holding the art of drama captive. What I hope of future playwrights is not that they will merely repeat the actual methods of Chekhov, for these belong to him, to his type of genius, and cannot be imitated, but that other methods tending with even more power to the same freedom of drama will be found and applied. This said, let us turn to the next act and see what surprises it reserved for an irritated and puzzled audience.

Act II. A croquet lawn and part of the house and lake. Arkadina is giving Masha a few hints as to how a woman keeps fit. From a chance remark we learn that she has been Trigorin's mistress for quite a while. Sorin comes, together with Nina who has the opportunity of being here because her father and stepmother have gone away for three days. A rambling conversation is set rolling about Treplev's low spirits, about Sorin's poor health.

Masha. When he reads something aloud, his eyes burn and his face becomes pale. He has a beautiful sad voice and his manners are those of a poet.

(Sorin reclining in a garden chair is heard snoring.) [The contrast!]

Dr. Dorn. Good night, baby.

Arkadina. Hello Peter!

Sorin. Eh? What's that? (Sits up.)

Arkadina. You are sleeping?

Sorin. Not at all.

(A pause.) [Great master of pauses, Chekhov.]

Arkadina. YOu do nothing for your health—that's bad, brother.

Sorin. But I'd like to—only the doctor here is not interested.

Dr. Dorn What's the use of seeing a doctor at sixty.

Sorin. A man of sixty wants to live, too.

Dr. Dorn (testify). Oh, all right. Try something for the nerves.

Arkadina. I keep thinking that he ought to go to some German watering place.

Dr. Dorn. Well.… Well, yes, he might go. And then he might not.

Arkadina. DO you see what he means? I don't.

Sorin. There is nothing to see. It is all perfectly clear.

That's the way it goes. The wrong audience may get the impression that the author is frittering away his precious twenty minutes, his second act, while conflict and climax are fretting in the wings. But it is quite all right. The author knows his business.

Masha (gets up). Time for lunch, I think. (Moves indolently.) My foot is asleep. (Exit.)

Presently Shamraev turns up and is annoyed that his wife and Arkadina want to go to town when the horses are needed for the harvest. They quarrel; Shamraev loses his temper and refuses to manage the estate any longer. Can this be called a conflict? Well, there has been something leading up to it—that little thing about refusing to stop the dog barking at night—but really, really, says the smug critic, what parody is this?1

Here quite simply and with great aplomb Chekhov, the novator, reverts to the old old trick of having Nina, the heroine (who now remains alone on the stage) speaking her thoughts aloud. Well, she is a budding actress—but not even that can be an excuse. It is rather a flat little speech. She is puzzling over the fact that a famous actress weeps because she cannot have her own way and a famous writer spends the whole day fishing. Treplev comes back from hunting and throws a dead sea gull at Nina's feet. "I was a cad to kill this bird." Then he adds, "Soon I shall kill myself in the same way." Nina is cross with him: "These last few days you talk in symbols. This bird is apparently a symbol, too. (She removes it onto a bench.) But excuse me, I am too simple; I don't understand symbols." (Note that this line of thought will have a very neat ending—Nina herself will turn out to be the live subject of this symbol, which she does not see and which Treplev applies wrongly.) Treplev raves at her for becoming cold and indifferent to him after the flop of his play. He refers to his own oafishness. There is a faint hint at a Hamlet complex, which Chekhov suddenly turns inside out by Treplev applying another Hamlet motive to the figure of Trigorin, who stalks in with a book in his hands. "Words, words, words," Treplev shouts and exits.

Trigorin jots down in his book an observation about Masha: "Takes snuff, drinks strong liquors.… Always in black. The schoolteacher is in love with her." Chekhov himself kept such a notebook for jotting down characters that might come in handy. Trigorin tells Nina that he and Arkadina are, apparently, leaving (because of the quarrel with Shamraev). In reply to Nina, who thinks "it must be so wonderful to be a writer," Trigorin delivers a delightful speech, almost three pages long. It is so good and so typical for an author who finds a chance to talk about himself that the general aversion to long monologues in the modern theatre is forgotten. All the details of his profession are remarkably well brought out: "… Here I am, talking to you and I am moved, but at the same time I keep remembering that an unfinished long short story awaits me on my desk. I see, for instance, a cloud; I see it looks like a piano, and immediately I tell myself, I must use that in a story. A passing cloud that had the form of a piano. Or, say, the garden smells of heliotrope. Straightway I collect it: a sickly sweet smell, widow blossom, must mention it when describing summer dusk.…" Or this bit: "When in the beginning of my career I used to have a new play staged, it always seemed to me that the dark spectators were opposed to me and that the blond spectators were coldly indifferent.…" Or this: "Oh, yes, it is pleasant to write, while you write … but afterwards.… The public reads and says: Yes, charming, talented.… Nice—but so inferior to Tosltoy; … yes, a beautiful story—but Turgenev is better." (This was Chekhov's own experience.)

Nina keeps telling him that she could readily undergo all such troubles and disappointments if she could have fame. Trigorin glancing at the lake and taking in the air and the landscape, remarks that it is such a pity he must leave. She points out to him the house on the opposite bank where her mother had lived.

Nina. I was born there. I spent all my life near that lake and know every little island on it.

Trigorin. Yes, it's beautiful here. (Noticing the sea gull on the bench.) And what's that?

Nina. A sea gull. Treplev killed it.

Trigorin. A fine bird. Really, I don't want one bit to go. Look here, try and persuade Madame Arkadin to stay. (He proceeds to note something down in his book.)

Nina. What are you writing?

Trigorin. Oh, nothing.… Just an idea. (He puts the book into his pocket.) An idea for a short story: lake, house, girl loves lake, happy and free like a sea gull. Man happens to pass, a glance, a whim, and the sea gull perishes. (Pause)

Arkadina (from window). Hullo, where are you?

Trigorin. Coming!

Arkadina. We remain.

(He goes into the house)

(Nina is left alone and broods awhile on the stage-front.)

Nina. A dream.…


Now three things must be said about the ending of this second act. First of all, we have already noticed Chekhov's weak point: the featuring of young poetical women. Nina is slightly false. That last sigh over the footlights dates, and it dates just because it is not on the same level of perfect simplicity and natural reality as the rest of the things in the play. We are aware, certainly, that she is actressy and all that, but still it does not quite click.

Trigorin says to Nina, among other things, that he rarely happens to meet young girls and that he is too far gone in life to imagine clearly the feelings of sweet eighteen, so that in his stories, he says, his young girls are generally not true to life. (We may add, something wrong about the mouth, as Sargent the painter used to say the family of his sitters invariably observed.) What Trigorin says may be curiously enough applied to Chekhov, the playwright; for in his short stories, as for instance "The House with the Mezzanine," or "The Lady with the Little Dog," the young women are wonderfully alive. But that's because he does not make them talk much. Here they talk, and the weak spot is felt: Chekhov was not a talkative writer. That's one thing.

Another thing to be remarked is this. To all appearances, and judging by his own subtle approach to the writer's trade, his power of observation, and so on, Trigorin is really a good writer. But somehow the notes he takes about the bird and the lake and the girl do not impress one as the making of a good story. At the same time, we already guess that the plot of the play will be exactly that story and no other. The technical interest is now centered on the point: will Chekhov manage to make a good story out of material which in Trigorin's notebook sounds a little trite. If he succeeds, then we were right in assuming that Trigorin is a fine writer who will succeed in making of a banal theme a fine story. And finally a third remark. Just as Nina herself did not realize the real import of the symbol when Treplev brought the dead bird, so Trigorin does not realize that by remaining in the house near the lake he will become the hunter who kills the bird.

In other words, the end of the act is again obscure to the average audience because nothing can be expected yet. All that has really happened is that there has been a quarrel, a departure settled, a departure put off. The real interest lies in the very vagueness of the lines, and in artistic half-promises.

Act III, a week later. A dining room in Sorin's country house. Trigorin is breakfasting and Masha is telling him about herself so that "you, a writer, can make use of my life." From her very first words it transpires that Treplev has attempted to commit suicide but his wound is not serious.2

Apparently Masha's love for Treplev goes, for now she decides to marry the school teacher in order to forget Treplev. We learn further that Trigorin and Arkadina are about to leave for good now. A scene between Nina and Trigorin follows. She makes him a present, a medallion with, engraved, the title of one of his books and the number of a page and line. As Arkadina and Sorin come in, Nina hurriedly leaves, asking Trigorin to grant her a few minutes before he goes. But note, not a word of love has been spoken, and Trigorin is a little obtuse. As the play proceeds, Trigorin keeps muttering under his breath, trying to remember what was that line on that page. Are there any books of mine in this house? There are, in Sorin's study. He wanders off to find the required volume, which is the perfect way of getting him off the stage. Sorin and Arkadina discuss the reasons for Treplev's attempted suicide: jealousy, idleness, pride.… When he suggests she give him some money she starts crying, as her son has predicted she does in such cases. Sorin gets excited and has a fit of dizziness.

After Sorin is led away, Treplev and Arkadina talk. This is a slightly hysterical and not very convincing scene. First move: he suggests to his mother that she lend some money to Sorin and she retorts that she is an actress and not a banker. A pause. Second move: he asks her to change the bandage on his head and as she does so very tenderly he reminds her of an act of great kindness which she once performed, but she does not remember. He tells how much he loves her but—and now the third move: why is she under the influence of that man? This makes her cross. He says that Trigorin's literature makes him sick; she retorts, you are an envious nonentity; they quarrel fiercely; Treplev starts crying; they make up again (forgive your sinful mother); he confesses he loves Nina but she does not love him; he cannot write any more, all hope is lost. The undulation of moods here is a little too obvious—it is rather a demonstration—the author putting the characters through their tricks. And there is a bad blunder directly afterwards. Trigorin comes in, turning the pages of the book, looking for the line, and then he reads, for the benefit of the audience: "Here it is: '… if any time you need my life, just come and take it.'"

Now it is quite clear that what really would have happened is that Trigorin, hunting for the book in Sorin's study on the lower shelf and finding it, would, normally, crouch and there and then read the lines. As often happens, one mistake leads to another. The next sentence is very weak again. Trigorin thinking aloud: "Why do I seem to hear such sadness in the call of this pure young soul? why does my own heart sink so painfully?" This is definitely poor stuff, and a good writer like Trigorin would hardly indulge in such pathos. Chekhov was faced with the difficult task of making his author suddenly human, and he bungled it completely by making him climb up on stilts so that the spectators might see him better.

Trigorin tells his mistress very bluntly that he wants to remain and have a go at Nina. Arkadina falls on her knees and in a very well imagined speech pleads with him: My king, my beautiful god.… You are the last page of my life, etc. You are the best contemporary writer, you are Russia's only hope, etc. Trigorin explains to the audience that he has no will-power—weak, slack, always obedient. Then she notices him writing something in his notebook. He says: "This morning I happened to hear a good expression—the pine grove of maidens. It may come in useful.… (He stretches himself.) Again railway carriages, stations, station-meals, cutlets, conversations.…"3

Shamraev who comes in to say that the carriage is ready speaks of an old actor he used to know. This is his being true to type, as in the first act, but a curious thing seems to have happened here. We have noted that Chekhov found a new device for making his characters live by giving them some silly joke or foolish observation or casual recollection instead of making the miser always talk of his gold and the doctors of their pills. But what happens now is that the thwarted goddess of determinism takes her revenge, and what seemed to be a delightful casual remark indirectly disclosing the nature of the speaker now becomes as unescapable and all-powerful a feature as the miser's stinginess. Trigorin's notebook, Arkadina's tears when money questions are raised, Shamraev's theatrical recollections—these become fixed labels as unpleasant as the re-curring oddities in traditional plays—you know what I mean—some special gag which a character repeats throughout the play at the most unexpected or rather expected moments. This goes to show that Chekhov, though he almost managed to create a new and better kind of drama, was cunningly caught in his own snares. I have the definite impression that he would not have been caught by these conventions—by the very conventions he thought he had broken—if he had known a little more of the numerous forms they take. I have the impression that he had not studied the art of drama completely enough, had not studied a sufficient number of plays, was not critical enough about certain technical aspects of his medium.

During the bustle of departure (with Arkadina giving a ruble, then worth about fifty cents, for the three servants, and repeating that they should share it) Trigorin manages to have a few words with Nina. We find him very eloquent about her meekness, her angel-like purity, etc. She tells him she has decided to become an actress and to go to Moscow. They fix a date there and embrace. Curtain. There can be no question that though this act has a few good things in it, mainly in the wording, it is far below the two first ones.4

Act IV. Two years pass. Chekhov quietly sacrifices the ancient law of unity of time to secure unity of place, for in this last respect there is something quite natural in going over to next summer when Trigorin and Arkadina are expected to come again to stay with her brother in his country house.

A drawing room converted by Treplev into his den—lots of books. Masha and Medvedenko enter. They are married and have a child. Masha is concerned about Sorin, who is afraid to be alone. They refer to the skeleton of the theatre standing in the dark garden. Mrs. Shamraev, Masha's mother, suggests to Treplev that he be nicer to her daughter. Masha still loves him but now hopes that when her husband gets transferred to another place she will forget. Incidentally we learn that Treplev writes for magazines. Old Sorin has his bed made here in Treplev's room. This is a very natural thing for a man suffering from asthma to want, a craving for some change—it must not be confused with the "keeping on the stage" device. A delightful conversation ensues between the doctor, Sorin, and Medvedenko. (Arkadina has gone to the station to meet Trigorin.) For instance, the doctor alludes to his having spent some time and a lot of money in foreign countries. Then they speak of other things. There is a pause. Then Medvedenko speaks.

Medvedenko. May I inquire, Doctor, what foreign town did you like best?

Dorn. Genoa.

Treplev. Why Genoa—of all towns?

The doctor explains: just an impression, lives there seemed to meander and fuse—rather in the ways, he adds, as the world-soul in your play—by the way where is she now, that young actress? (A very natural transition.) Treplev tells Dorn about Nina. She had a love affair with Trigorin, had a baby, the baby died; she is not a good actress though quite a professional one by now, plays big parts but acts them coarsely, no taste, gasps, gesticulates. There are moments when one feels talent in some outcry of hers, as in the way she dies, but these are but moments.

Dorn inquires whether she has talent and Treplev answers that it is difficult to say. (Note that Nina is much in the same position as Treplev in their artistic achievements.) He goes on to tell that he has followed her from town to town wherever she played, but she never let him come near. Sometimes she writes. After Trigorin left her she has seemed a little wrong in the head. She signs her letters sea gull. (Note that Treplev has forgotten the connection.) He adds that she is here now, roams about, does not dare come, not does she want anyone to speak to her.

Sorin. She was a charming girl.

Dorn. What's that?

Sorin. I said she was a charming girl.

Then Arkadina comes back from the station with Trigorin. (Intertwined with these scenes we are shown the pitiful plight of Medvedenko whom his father-in-law bullies.) Trigorin and Treplev manage to shake hands. Trigorin has brought a copy of a monthly review from Moscow with a story by Treplev, and with the flippant geniality of a famous writer to a lesser star tells him that people are interested, find him mysterious.

Presently all of them but Treplev sit down to play a game of lotto as they always do on rainy evenings. Treplev to himself, looking through the monthly: "Trigorin has read his own stuff but has not even cut the pages of my story." We follow the lotto game, and this is a very typical and beautiful Chekhov scene. It seems that in order to attain the heights of his genius he must put his people at ease, make them feel at home, make them comfortable, though this does not preclude slight boredom, gloomy little thoughts, stirring recollections, etc. And though here again the characters are shown in their oddities or habits—Sorin again dozes, Trigorin talks of angling, Arkadina recalls her stage successes—this is much more naturally done than in the false dramatic background of the preceding act, because it is quite natural that in the same place, with the same people collected, two years later, the old tricks would be gently and rather pathetically repeated. It is hinted that critics have handled Treplev, the young author, very roughly. The numbers of the lotto are called out. Arkadina has never read a line of her son's stuff. Then they interrupt the game to go and have supper, all except Treplev, who remains brooding over his manuscripts. A monologue—it is so good that we do not mind the convention: "I have talked so much about new forms—and now I feel that little by little I myself slip into routine." (This may be applied—like most of the professional observations in the play—to Chekhov himself, in a way certainly, but only when he has lapses as in the previous act.) Treplev reads: "'Her pale face framed by her dark hair.' That's rotten, that 'framed,'" he exclaims and strikes it out. "I shall begin with the hero being awakened by the sound of rain—and to hell with the rest. The description of the moonshine is much too long and elaborate. Trigorin has created his own tricks; for him it is easy. He will show the neck of a broken bottle glistening on a river-dam and the black shadow under the millwheel—that's all and the moonlight is ready; but with me it is all the 'tremulous light' and 'softly twinkling stars' and the distant sounds of a piano, which 'dissolved in the soft intoxicating night air.' It is horrible, awful.…" (Here we get, incidentally, a beautifully defined difference between Chekhov's art and that of his contemporaries.)

Next follows the meeting with Nina, which from the point of view of the traditional stage may be considered the main and what I called satisfying scene of the play. Actually it is very fine. Her way of talking is much more in Chekhov's line here, when he is no more concerned with depicting pure, eager, romantic maidens. She is tired, upset, unhappy, a jumble of recollections and details. She loves Trigorin still and ignores the tremendous emotion of Treplev, who tries for the last time to make her consent to stay with him. "I am a sea gull," she says without any special connection. "Now I'm mixing things up. You remember you once shot a sea gull? A man happened to pass, saw the bird, and killed it. Idea for a short story. No … I'm getting mixed up again." "Stay a bit, I shall give you something to eat," says Treplev, clinging at a last straw. It is all very finely done. She refuses, speaks again of her love for Trigorin who has so grossly dropped her, then switches to the monologue of Treplev's play, in the beginning of the first act, and hurriedly departs.

The end of the act is magnificent.

Treplev (after a pause). Pity if somebody meets her in the garden and then tells mamma. It may distress mamma. [Note these are his last words, because now after coolly destroying his writings he opens the door on the right and goes out into an inner room, where presently he will shoot himself.]

Dorn (struggling to push open the door on the left [against which a few moments ago Treplev had movedan armchair so as not to be disturbed while talking to Nina]). Queer.… The door seems locked. (At last he comes in and pushes away the armchair.) Hm.… Kind of a steeplechase.

[The others too come back from supper] (Arkadina,the Shamraevs, Masha, Trigorin, the servant with the wine and beer.)

Arkadina. Place it here. The beer is for Trigorin. We shall drink and go on with the game. Let us sit down.

[Candles are lighted.] (Shamraev leads Trigorin toward a chest of drawers.)

Shamraev. Look, here's the bird you asked me to stuff last summer.

Trigorin. What bird? I don't remember. (Thinks it over.) No, really, I don't remember.

(A shot is heard on the right. They all start.)

Arkadina (frightened). What was that?

Dorn. I know. Something has probably exploded in that medicine chest of mine. Don't worry. (He goes out and half a minute later [while the rest are settling down to their game] comes back.) Yes, I was right. A bottle of ether has burst. (He hums) "Oh, maiden, again I am bound by your charms.…"

Arkadina (as she sits down at the table). Ugh, it gave me a fright. It reminded me of that time when.… (She covers her face with her hands.) It has made me quite faint.

Dorn (perusing the review, to Trigorin). A month or two ago there was an article here … a letter from America … and I wanted to ask you … (He leads Trigorin [gently] toward the front of the stage.) … because, you see, I am very much interested in the question. (In a slightly lower voice)—Will you, please, take Mrs. Arkadin to some other room? The fact is that her son had shot himself.


This is, I repeat, a remarkable ending. Note that the tradition of the backstage suicide is broken by the chief character concerned not realizing what has happened but imitating, as it were, the real reaction by recalling a former occasion. Note, too, that it is the doctor speaking, and so there is no need to call one in order to have the audience quite satisfied. Note, finally, that whereas before his unsuccessful suicide Treplev spoke of doing it, there has not been a single hint in the scene—and still it is perfectly and completely motivated.5


1 Not even could a moralist note here the paradox, typical, one might say, of a decaying class: the employee bullying his master—for this was not typical of Russian country life: it is a mere incident based on such and such characters, who may crop up and who may not. (VN deleted marginal note. Ed.)

2 Note that according to the rules, which I dislike so intensely, you cannot make a man kill himself between the acts, but you can make him make the attempt if he does not die; and vice-versa, you cannot have a man bungle his shot in the last act when he retires behind the scenes to make an end of it. (VN in a deleted passage. Ed.)

3 Note again, that just as in the demonstration of changing moods in the scene between mother and son, we get here the demonstration of the man reverting to the professional author—a little too obvious. There follows another demonstration: Shamraev … (VN in a deleted passage. Ed.)

4 Note very carefully, please, the queer revenge which I have just described [of the goddess of determinism]. There is always such a devil awaiting the unwary author just as he thinks he has succeeded. And most important, it is just now when from the point of tradition the author has come back to the fold and when something like a climax looms and the audience expects if not the obligatory scene (which would be too much to ask of Chekhov), at least some obligatory scene; (which queerly enough is much the same thing—what I mean is, such a scene that, though not consciously defined in the expectancy, is felt to be satisfying the "just what we wanted" when it comes—we may call it the satisfying scene), it is just at this moment that Chekhov is at his worst. (VN deleted passage. Ed.)

5 This final paragraph was deleted by VN. Ed.

Zinovii S. Paperny (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: "Microsubjects in The Seagull" in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, edited by Thomas A. Eekman, G. K. Hall & Co., 1989, pp. 160-69.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in Russian in 1982, Paperny maintains that The Seagull comprises "a mosaic of disparate bits, " or microsubjects, in which "characters not only advance opinions, make confessions, argue, and act, they also offer each other various subjects for literary works, which express their understanding of life, their point of view, their basic 'idea. ' "]

The study of Chekhov's text can be compared to the history of the investigation of matter, where researchers have come to employ smaller and smaller units of magnitude. What formerly seemed indivisible has proved a complicated structure consisting of interconnected microparticles.

Something similar is taking place in Chekhov studies. From general formulations investigators delving more deeply into the text have become increasingly convinced that the tissue of poetic narration displays a structure. Along with the main actors, there are also "microparticles" of a sort, and all these "macros" and "micros" are interconnected and subordinated one to the other.

In The Seagull the movement of the main subject—the history of the characters' development and their mutual relations—is complicated by microsubjects. The characters not only advance opinions, make confessions, argue, and act, they also offer each other various subjects for literary works, which express their understanding of life, their point of view, their basic "idea."

This is an important feature of the play. Almost every character has not only his own personal drama or tragedy, but also a literary subject, a project that he intends to carry out himself or offers to someone else.

Let us recall the schoolteacher Medvedenko. He says to Trigorin, "Or how about writing and then staging a play that describes the life of teachers like me? Our life is hard, very hard!"

Fictive invention is totally foreign to this subject. Medvedenko proposes to "describe," that is, to tell everything as it really is, to reveal life in its reality. His subject betrays the single idea that runs through his every speech: material need, his difficulty in making ends meet.

Trigorin, the practiced literary master, has his subject:

Nina: What's that you're writing?

Trigorin: Just making a note. I had the glimmer of a subject. (Putting away his notebook) A subject for a little story: a young girl has lived on the shore of a lake since childhood, someone like you. She loves the lake the way gulls do, and she's happy and free like them. But a man happens by, sees her, and for lack of anything better to do, destroys her life—like this gull here.

This subject does not go to waste in Trigorin's literary economy. In the fourth act he will say to Treplev: "Tomorrow morning, if it's calm, I'm going fishing at the lake. By the way, I want to look over the garden and the place where your play was staged—remember? A motif has taken shape in my mind, and all I need now is to refresh my memory of the scene."

Everything that Trigorin sees and feels is skillfully and efficiently fashioned into subjects for novels, stories, and plays. His interest in life is above all professional. Even Nina interests him not only in herself but also as a kind of literary "raw material." "I don't often meet young girls—young and attractive," he tells her. "I've forgotten how it feels to be eighteen or nineteen and can't imagine it clearly, so young girls in my novels and stories generally don't ring true. I'd like to change places with you, even for an hour, to find out how your mind works and just what you're like." There is a certain cruelty in Trigorin's "subject-creation," his tireless reworking of life into literature. He leaves Nina calmly and easily; nothing is left of his affair with the beginning actress but a literary project that, we may be quite certain, he will successfully carry out.

At the end of the play, Nina confesses to Treplev that she still loves Trigorin. But she does not want to be merely the occasion for one of Trigorin's subjects and argues with him, as if trying to free herself from painful chains: "I'm a seagull. No, that's not it.… You once shot a gull, remember? A man happened by, saw it, and for lack of anything better to do, killed it. A subject for a little story.… That's not it.…"

Here it is particularly clear how active the microsubjects are in The Seagull and how tellingly they touch, move, and disturb the characters. What for Trigorin is merely a theme that has taken shape, a subject for a little story, is for Nina her fate, her vocation.

The microsubjects in The Seagull are like little periscopes that connect what is happening on the surface with the very depths. Only here the direction is reversed, running not from the surface to the depths, but the other way around.

Treplev has his subject, and not just one, but two. The first is the one that formed the basis of his unfortunate play, whose performance was such a disaster. The second is the subject, vaguely and incompletely sketched, of the story he is working on in the fourth act, before Nina's arrival.

At the end of the play Nina takes issue with Trigorin's "subject for a little story," which assigns her the role of a defenseless victim and, as it were, returns to Treplev's play.

We see that Trigorin's and Treplev's subjects are profoundly connected to the general development of the action and the fortunes of the characters. They appear and reappear like leitmotivs throughout the entire narration, and this intermittent but insistent repetition of motifs and details is one of the most characteristic features of the play.

Both these subjects are present in the ending. But while Nina rejects Trigorin's, Treplev's subject becomes accessible to her once more. And when she runs off at the end, it is as if she takes it with her.

Old Sorin has a literary idea to propose: "I want to give Kostya Treplev a subject for a story," he says. "It is to be called 'The Man Who Wished,' 'L'Homme qui a voulu.' When I was young at one point I wanted to become a writer, but never did; I wanted to be a good speaker, but I spoke terribly… I wanted to marry, but I didn't; I always wanted to live in the city, but here I am ending my days in a village, and everything."

His life is drawing to a close, and he still has not started to live. Fortune has passed him by; it has not provided him what he sought or what he hoped to achieve.

The subject that he offers Treplev is not merely autobiographical. Do we not sense Masha's fate in it as well? Or that of her mother, the manager Shamraev's wife? It can be said that Sorin's microsubject helps a great deal in understanding Chekhov's larger subject.

At the beginning of the third act Masha says to Trigorin: "I'm telling you all this so that you can use it in your writing." And then: "In all honesty, if he had wounded himself seriously, I wouldn't have lived another minute."

What Masha tells Trigorin he can use is the story of her love for Treplev, the love she tries so assiduously and so vainly to tear out of her heart during the course of the whole play, the hopeless and ineradicable love that swal-lows up all her feelings and desires.

Thus in The Seagull the main subject unfolds before our eyes, performed by Chekhov's characters; and simultaneously this represented reality appears twisted, foreshortened, and brokenly reflected, as it is seen by different characters. The microsubjects of Medvedenko, Trigorin, Treplev, Sorin, and Masha are, as it were, micromodels of life that contend among themselves and contradict each other. In this peculiarity of the play's construction is crystallized an important aspect of its content: that attention to secondary characters that so struck sensitive early readers.

At the same time the microsubjects of the five characters reflect various relationships between art and life, from Medvedenko's despondency in the face of prosaic everyday demands, to Treplev's aspirations beyond the bounds of reality.

It is most significant that not only the writers propose subjects, but also the schoolteacher Medvedenko, Masha, and Sorin. Chekhov seems to imply that the boundary between art and life is elusive. Not everyone in The Seagull writes, but they are all as it were surrounded by waves of art, and nearly every character tries to make sense of life in his own way. Even if a character does not write himself, he takes his literary "commission" to a professional.

One can speak of a large and a small subject in Chekhov. This aspect of his plays, which has escaped scholarly attention, appears not only in the form of literary subjects proposed by the characters.

The principle of large and small subjects makes itself felt in the overall construction of The Seagull as well. We have a rather rare example of theater within theater, a play within a play, and even (if we recall the fate of the original Aleksandrinski Theater production) a failure within a failure: Treplev's play is ridiculed as was Chekhov's own.

The reader is confronted with two theaters. One is firmly established, the one that the actress Arkadina and the playwright Trigorin serve, and in which Treplev feels stifled ("… the contemporary theater is convention, prejudice"). The second is Treplev's own, set up at the beginning of the first act. It does not look like a stone box, and nature itself and the real moon form the scenery. This theater will be misunderstood. At the conclusion it "stands naked, ugly as a skeleton, the curtain flapping in the wind." But after many wanderings, afflictions, and quests Nina will return here and weep as she remembers everything youthful, innocent, and pure connected with this stage.

In The Seagull the very word "theater" seems to split up. The play's microsubjects create a distinctive system of poetic mirrors that register various clashing "reflections."

Thus the constant, unitary symbolic image of the seagull seems to shatter and take the form of various "fragments," one of which reflects Treplev's fate, another Trigorin's, and a third Nina's.

During Chekhov's lifetime critics more than once resorted to such a simile: his works reflect reality not like a large, intact poetic mirror but rather like the broken pieces of a mirror that was once intact. Only taken as a whole do Chekhov's stories create a total impression. In reading The Seagull we see that the principle of "multimirrored" construction makes itself felt in the structure of the play as well, where microsubjects enter into complicated and tension-filled relations with each other.

A special type of microsubject consists of references to the classics, quotations that far from seeing mere anthological snippets, start to take on new life in their new context.

Three writers are mentioned in The Seagull—Shakespeare, Maupassant, and Turgenev—each of them not once but two or three times.

Just before the performance of Treplev's play begins, Arkadina suddenly and apparently without the slightest motivation, recites from Hamlet:

                       O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.

Treplev answers with a quotation from the same source:

                    Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty,—

Then a horn sounds and Treplev's play begins. The quotation from Shakespeare is like an overture.

From the very beginning of the first act one senses the tension in the relationship between Arkadina and her son, his dissatisfaction with her, his sense of injury, his jealous, unfriendly feelings toward her lover, Trigorin. The exchanges of speeches from Hamlet, in itself half-joking and playful, at the same time lends an unexpectedly tragic coloration to all that follows. Associations develop between Treplev and Hamlet, Arkadina and the Queen, and Trigorin and the King who has no right to his throne.

Of course in so putting it we coarsen Chekhov's meaning to some extent; in the play everything is put less definitely and is less "spelled out."

Shakespeare is mentioned next in Nina's monologue from Treplev's play ("I am the universal world soul, I! The soul of Alexander the Great is in me, and of Caesar, and of Shakespeare …"). And finally Shakespeare is mentioned for the third time (again it is Hamlet) in Treplev's conversation with Nina after the collapse of his play. Catching sight of Trigorin who is approaching, he says sarcastically, "Here comes real talent; he strides along like Hamlet and is even reading, too. (Mockingly) 'Words, words, words.…'"

It is not simply a matter of references and quotations, but of deeper correspondences between The Seagull and Hamlet.

A. I. Roskin accurately observed that "the lines from Hamlet in The Seagull sound not like quotation but like a leitmotive, one of the play's leitmotivs."1

Much in Chekhov's plays goes back to Shakespeare's Hamlet, in subject and in the development of the action where the main event is postponed.

The source of tension in Shakespeare's subject is not that the Prince of Denmark kills the false King, but rather the opposite, that for so long he does not.

The "Shakespearean" enters into the very nature and most essential character of Chekhov's subject.

Another link between The Seagull and Hamlet is the theater within a theater. The Prince arranges a performance that ends in an uproar and is broken off. The fate of Treplev's production seems in a way similar. Particularly interesting are the parallels between the conversations of the Prince with the Queen and Treplev with Arkadina in the third acts of both plays. It is lines from precisely this act that are quoted in The Seagull.

In Hamlet while the Prince is castigating his mother who has fallen into vice, the Ghost appears; and Hamlet's tone of voice alters and he begins to sound more sympathetic toward his mother, whom the Ghost of his father the King seems to defend.

A similarly abrupt transition takes place in The Seagull when after mutual insults mother and son cry, are reconciled, and embrace.2

Chekhov studies Shakespeare's art of abrupt reversals, discontinuities in the character's states of mind, and sharp transitions from anger to remorse or from apparently irreconcilable quarreling to unexpected tranquillity.

In The Seagull Shakespeare is not merely a quoted classic. Like the ghost of Hamlet's father he appears in the play and exercises an unseen influence on the course of the action and on its character. Associations with Hamlet enrich our perception of The Seagull and enter into the very structure of Chekhov's play.

Guy de Maupassant is mentioned twice. Treplev speaks of him at the beginning of the play ("… when I am served up the same stuff again and again and again, I run and run, as Maupassant ran from the Eiffel Tower which was crushing his brain with its vulgarity). At the beginning of the second act Arkadina, Dorn, and Masha are reading aloud from Maupassant's Sur l'eau. Arkadina opens the book at a passage about a society woman who is trying to attract a writer: "She lays siege to him by means of every variety of compliments, attractions, and indulgence."3 Aruging against Maupassant, Arkadina points to the example of herself and Trigorin.

Maupassant's Sur l'eau appeared in 1888. It consists of the description of a week's cruise on the yacht "Bel-Ami." It is a bitter book, full of skepticism and mockery of deceitful human society, particularly fashionable society.

Treplev in The Seagull attacks convention, banality, and vulgarity. For Maupassant, however, vulgarity is a synonym for life: "Happy are those whom life satisfies, who are amused and content."4

Upset by his mother's ironic remarks, Treplev, at the performance of his play, cries "Enough! Curtain!"

In Sur l'eau Maupassant directs this cry against life as a whole, for him a cheap and deceitful spectacle. "How is it that the worldly audience has not yet called out, 'Curtain,' has not yet demanded the next act, with other beings than mankind."5

A comparison of Sur l'eau with The Seagull helps us to feel more sharply the differences in world outlook of the two writers and lets us grasp the distinction between the total pessimism of the one and, as it were, the imperfect skepticism of the other.

Echoes of Maupassant's novel are to be heard in other parts of Chekhov's play as well. In one of the chapters of Sur l'eau Maupassant expresses disagreement with those who envy writers and says that writers are to be pitied, not envied. Reading these lines, it is hard not to be reminded of Trigorin's monologue:

For (the writer) no simple feeling any longer exists. All he sees, his joys, his pleasures, his suffering, his despair, all instantaneously become subjects of observation.… If he suffers, he notes down his suffering, and classes it in his memory.… He has seen all, noticed all, remembered all, in spite of himself, because he is above all a literary man, and his intellect is constructed in such a manner that the reverberation in him is much more vivid, more natural, so to speak, than the first shock—the echo more sonorous than the original sound.6

And a little further on he compares the writer to "a terribly vibrating and complicated piece of machinery, fatiguing even to himself."7

Thus Treplev, Arkadina, and Trigorin unexpectedly intersect with Manupassant. And each of them approaches him from his own angle. It is true that in Trigorin's monologue there is no mention of Maupassant, but traces of Sur l'eau are none the less discernible.

Turgenev's presence in the play is equally varied. Trigorin feels mocked by Turgenev's unattainable eminence as a writer, of which people constantly remind him: "'A marvelous piece, but Turgenev's Fathers and Sons is better.' … and when I die my friends will say as they go past my grave, 'Here lies Trigorin. He was a good writer, but not as good as Turgenev.'"

And at the end of the play it is as if Turgenev extends a hand to Nina: "Listen—do you hear the wind? Turgenev says somewhere, 'A man's all right if he has a roof over his head on nights like these, some place where it's warm.' I'm a seagull. No, that's not it. (She rubs her forehead) What was I saying? Yes, Turgenev. 'And God help all homeless wanderers.' It's nothing. (She sobs)"

Turgenev's words in the context of Nina's monologue lose their "quotedness" and become Chekhov's. The actor V. A. Podgorny, who performed with Kommissarzhevskaya and knew her well, tells this story about her last days, when she was rehearsing The Seagull with her company in Tashkent: "'And God help all homeless wanderers,' said Kommissarzhevskaya in the sad words of Nina Zarechnaya, and looked at the actors with a smile. We really are those homeless wanderers! Here in the middle of nowhere we are rehearsing and acting and living, and in a few days it will be time to go on and rehearse and act and live some more.…"8

Whom is she quoting? Formally, Turgenev; but actually it is Chekhov.

This example makes it particularly clear how a literary source changes on entering into Chekhov's text, and becomes no longer someone else's, but Chekhov's own.

Microsubjects in The Seagull are of various sorts. There are the literary subjects of the characters, both professional writers and people who have nothing to do with literature, and there are associations with classical works such as the quotations from Shakespeare, Maupassant, and Turgenev. There is still another variety: the anecdotes and funny stories that Shamraev and Sorin tell.

A few minutes after the end of Treplev's play, Nina steps down from the stage, Arkadina praises her and introduces her to Trigorin. They begin their first conversation.

On making the acquaintance of her idol Trigorin, Nina immediately starts talking about what pains her most: those who live for art, the chosen ones of fame who taste the higher pleasures. Arkadina, laughing, intervenes (she does not leave Trigorin alone for a minute). And at this dramatic moment, when conversation is starting up among the three characters who are to cause each other so much suffering-becoming close, separating, coming back together—at this point Shamraev begins telling his old story about a synodal cantor:

Shamraev: I remember one time at the Opera House in Moscow, the famous Silva hit a low C. As luck would have it one of our synodal cantors happened to be in the gallery and—you can imagine our astonishment—we heard booming out of the gallery, "Bravo, Silval," a whole octave lower. Like this: (in a low approximation of a bass voice) Bravo, Silva! The whole theater just died, (pause)

Dorn: A quiet angel flew by—we are sitting here in silence.

Nina: It's time for me to go. Good-by.

This anecdote, perhaps amusing in itself, is totally out of place here, at this moment. No one is listening to Shamraev, and when he finishes, they do not know what to say.

Shamraev's anecdote is funny less because of its intrinsic humor than because it is totally unexpected and unmotivated.

Shamraev's second anecdote is even more at odds with its context ("We're twapped!" instead of "We're trapped!"). Shamraev enters as the scene between Trigorin and Arkadina has just concluded, where she tries to take him away from Nina. At this moment he enters and "with regret" announces that the horses are ready and tells his story about "twapped."

At first glance all these little anecdotes are pointless and only interrupt the course of the narration. However the stories told by Shamraev and Sorin ("Your voice, your Excellency, is powerful … but unpleasant"), are at once inappropriate and essential. Their very lack of harmony with the context makes them deeply organic elements of a play where everything is built on conflicts, contrasts, and discontinuities. One may say that these half-humorous microsubjects let us perceive life's lack of harmony, refracted by the play as if by a magnifying glass, and not only in the twists and turns of the larger subject, but on a smaller scale as well.

Shamraev's and Sorin's anecdotes play an important role in intensifying the play's polyphonic sound quality, in which tragedy and comedy merge into one.

Some readers, viewers, and interpreters of The Seagull have unintentionally tried to reduce the amplitude of oscillation from large to small, from tragic to comic. A curious example is provided by N. M. Ezhov's letter to Chekhov of 29 January 1899: ".… there are things in The Seagull which I find most unattractive. The first is Sorin's singing and what he says about some gentleman's witticism, that the general's voice is powerful but repulsive [for "unpleasant"]. This is so jarring to the viewer that it is a shame! The second thing is the manager's story about 'trapped' and 'twapped.' I can't explain exactly why, but these two passages seem to me for some reason impossible in The Seagull."9

What seemed to Ezhov an unjustified and impermissible violation of the style and tonality of the play is actually the bold introduction of counterpoint, creating a sort of disharmonic structure with constant interruptions in the development of the subject, a lack of mutuality in the sympathies of the characters, and clashes between the tragic "Hamletic" impulse and the anecdotal.

As we have seen, Chekhov's microsubjects are least of all illustrations. They have various sources, ranging from the literary "claim checks" of the characters themselves, to quotations from the classics, to anecdotes. In their many-colored mosaic there is a whole range of transitional tints and shades.

"Thou turnst mine eyes into my very soul" and "We're twapped!" are equally microsubjects.

Chekhov did not immediately achieve so rich and complicated a palette of colors, of transitions from high to low, from tragic to laughable.

In his first play Platonov we do not find microsubjects at all.

In Ivanov the main character tells about the workman Semyon who heaved two sacks of rye up on his back and strained something: "I think I've strained something, too." Here the microsubject simply illustrates what is going on with the main character. The unexpectedness that characterizes the microsubject in The Seagull is lacking and there is no contradiction between the large and small subjects.

In Chekhov's third play The Wood Demon the situation is just about the same as in Ivanov. With The Seagull he first attains multimirrored reflections of reality. They form a complicated system that at first glance seems a mosaic of disparate bits, but which in reality is profoundly consistent in affirming through images on various levels the disharmony of life, its conflicts and contradictions, and the agonizing discrepancy between dream and reality.


1A. Roskin, A. P. Chekhov; stat'i i ocherki (Moscow: GIKhL, 1959), 131.

2Chekhov was particularly fond of the scene between the Queen and her son in Hamlet. There is much evidence of this. One example is the review "Hamlet on the Stage of the Pushkin Theater," where, in discussing the performance of M. IvanovKozlovsky, the twenty-two-year-old Chekhov notes that "the scene with the mother was done beautifully" (A. P. Chekhov, PSSP, 16:21).

3A Selection from the Writings of Guy de Maupassant, vol. 4: Sur l'eau and Other Tales (New York: Review of Reviews Co., 1903), 20.

4Maupassant, Writings, 26.

5Ibid., 28.

6Ibid., 56.

7Ibid., 58.

8V. A. Podgorny, Pamiati [Memories], in Sbornik pamiati V. F. Komissarzhevskoi (Moscow: GIKhL, 1931), 99.

9In the archive of the Lenin State Library, Moscow, 331.43.11.

James M. Curtis (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: "Ephebes and Precursors in Chekhov's The Seagull:" in Slavic Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 423-37.

[In the essay below, Curtis offers a psychoanalytic reading of The Seagull, in which he argues that the play "represents a successful working through of Chekhov's anxiety of influence" from Turgenev and Shakespeare.]

Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence takes the Freudian concept of an oedipal relationship between father and son as a model for the relationship that exists when one artist, the father figure (or precursor, as Bloom calls him), influences another artist (the ephebe, in Bloom's terminology). Bloom's work provides a desirable redefinition of standard treatments of influence and stylistic change in that it offers a dynamic, rather than a static, paradigm, and denies any simplistic dissociation of the artist as historical figure from the poet as poet. Furthermore, it denies that literary influences can occur as purely verbal processes, and it affirms that the creative process is emotionally charged, like so many other important human experiences.

In Anxiety of Influence Bloom states, in typically absolute terms, "Poetic Influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets,—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation."1 If poets necessarily misread other poets, then it follows that critics necessarily misread other critics as well. And indeed, for those of us who lack Bloom's unique sensibility and rhetorical mannerisms, his paradigm for literary influence requires some misreading, some revision, before we can use it to write practical literary history. That is to say, we must misread Bloom in a creative way—which is what he would expect us to do.

Among other things, I wish to revise Bloom's opposition of precursors and ephebes, which strikes me as too absolute. He rarely, if ever, treats the process by which an ephebe becomes a precursor, nor does he deal with the stylistic evolution that this process entails. Moreover, he seems to think of precursors as possessing a godlike serenity, but what we know about the lives of many poets makes this view untenable.

Another necessary revision of Bloom's theory involves the historical context of creativity. Steve Polansky has referred to "one of the central weaknesses of Bloom's theory of influence: the lack of sense of historical perspective."2 Bloom writes as though nothing existed except the oedipal struggle between writer A and writer B. Although he is not interested in the specifics of literary history—as major theorists usually are not—he at least allows for it when he comments that "no strong poet can choose his precursors, any more than any person can choose his own father."3 Critics who are interested in practical literary history and who refuse to think of precursors as doled out by the gods may revise this statement to read that the sociocultural circumstances into which artists are born determine their precursors. Loy D. Martin makes just such a connection between artists and their milieus when he speaks of the poet as "the well-instructed missionary of the language which constitutes both his own subjectivity and that of his culture."4 But since stylistic change and social change are always interrelated, Martin's comments can be generalized: social change can make a certain style obsolete and thus render it incapable of expressing an artist's meaning. The artist then has to create a new style that can express the new historical situation.

In this process of social and stylistic change the artist may juxtapose the old style with the new for the sake of contrast. To notice the importance of such quotations as clues to the anxiety of influence is not to indulge in the pedantry of what the Germans call Quellenforschung, for which Bloom has such disdain. Clearly, any theory of creativity that makes general claims cannot confine itself to the study of sources, because we do not have sources for everything we wish to study. Even Bloom would concede, however, that when an ephebe quotes his precursor in his own work, something is afoot. An ephebe takes a great risk by opening his work to the precursor—the risk that the precursor's words will overwhelm his own.

Such a misreading of Bloom provides a paradigm for a nonreductionist interpretation of Chekhov's The Seagull combining biography, history, and stylistics into a kind of psychohistory of creativity. In The Seagull, and only in The Seagull, his first dramatic masterpiece, Chekhov creates characters who are themselves artists: Trigorin and Treplev are writers, and Arkadina and Nina are actresses. Their professions are significant because these four characters suffer from, and in various ways come to terms with, the anxiety of influence. The Seagull may be called the first masterpiece of modern literature that has the anxiety of influence as its proper subject. The play thus offers us an opportunity to study the relationships between ephebes and precursors both in the text itself and in Chekhov's life cycle as an artist, as that life cycle incorporated the sociocultural circumstances into which he was born. (Of course, I acknowledge a debt to a precursor for everyone interested in psychohistory, Erik Erikson, the author of Young Man Luther.)

Applying the paradigm suggested here to Chekhov's life and work, we find that the crucial fact about his sociocultural situation is that he was the first great nonaristocratic writer who became influential outside Russia. As ephebes often do, he had an intense sense of coming after great figures. These great figures—Tolstoi, Goncharov, and most especially Turgenev—were aristocrats. They did not know what it was like to have to support themselves, as Chekhov did, or to have to work their way through school, as Chekhov did. The dermatologist Mikhail Chlenov, who knew Chekhov in his later years, wrote in his memoirs: "'It was very difficult for me to break out,' Chekhov told me several times, 'after all I am a peasant; my grandfather was a serf.'"5 More than any other European writer of comparable stature in his time, Chekhov was a self-made man. He defined himself against what had gone before, and in doing so he claimed Russian literature from the aristo crats—from Pushkin to Tolstoi and Turgenev—who had created it. In making himself, Chekhov also revolutionalized modern theater.

Chekhov was not, however, alone in creating a nonaristocratic Russian art, for he found in Stanislavskii, a scion of the Moscow merchant family the Alekseevs, a director who could bring his plays to life. And in the 1880s the railroad magnate Savva Mamontov, Fedor Shaliapin's patron, founded the Private Opera in Moscow. Indeed, the beginning of the Verbürgerlichung of Russian culture may be dated to 1870, the year when Momontov bought Abramtsevo, the Aksakovs' estate, and turned it into an artists' colony. As is often the case with major artists, Chekhov's personal concerns had more general meaning.

After the disastrous premiere of The Seagull on October 19, 1896, Chekhov wrote to his publisher Aleksei Suvorin, explaining his sudden departure from St. Petersburg: "The problem is not that my play failed; after all, the majority of my plays failed in the past, too, and it was like water off a duck's back. On the 19th of October, it wasn't my play that failed, it was my personality."6 Although there was more involved in the failure of the premiere than Chekhov's personality, this letter confirms that the play had personal meaning for him. I interpret Chekhov's extreme reaction as an expression of his anxiety that in his confrontation with Turgenev, Turgenev had won, and I see in The Seagull the culmination of Chekhov's struggle with Turgenev, which had begun in the early 1880s. In saying this, I am assuming that the anxiety of influence transcends genre, for in the 1870s and 1880s Turgenev was known as a prose writer, not as a playwright.7 It was his stature as a prose writer that engendered the anxiety of influence in the young Chekhov, the writer of short prose sketches. But if writers do not choose their precursors, why did Turgenev serve as Chekhov's principal precursor? Why not Tolstoi and Dostoevskii?

The fact that Tolstoi and Dostoevskii were best known for their long novels is part of the answer; the long form did not suit Chekhov's genius. But both Tolstoi and Dostoevskii wrote short stories as well. The crucial issue here is one of class. Although Dostoevskii was technically a nobleman, and Tolstoi was of course Count Tolstoi, both of them had ambiguous feelings about the nobility. Only a few nobles appear in Dostoevskii's writings, and most of those few are melodramatic villains; and Tolstoi's idiosyncratic populism dominated his life, as well as his public image, throughout Chekhov's adult years. Turgenev, however, expressed no such ambiguity. Reared on his family's estate (to which he was later exiled) and educated abroad, he was the archetypal aristocratic writer. His best-known works—Rudin, A Nest of Gentle Folk, and Fathers and Sons, for instance—deal with the crisis in the socioeconomic position of the nobility. In "breaking out," as he put it, Chekhov defined himself against Turgenev, and we may interpret a great deal of his career as a misreading of Turgenev as mannered and passé.

But if The Seagull represents a successful working through of Chekhov's anxiety of influence from Turgenev that had been building up over a fifteen-year period, as I believe it does, the play itself cannot serve as the starting point for a study of the anxiety of influence. The short sketches with which Chekhov began his career must be considered as well. Chekhov's contemporaries very early recognized those sketches as reactions against Turgenev and made some revealing comments to that effect. Chekhov himself provided an introduction to the subject of his anxiety of influence from Turgenev in his correspondence.

On August 15, 1894, by which time he had already started thinking about The Seagull, Chekhov again wrote to Suvorin. He had this to say about the then popular Polish writer Kazimierz Barancewicz:

This is a bourgeois writer writing for the well-dressed public that rides in the third class. For this public Tolstoi and Turgenev are too luxurious, aristocratic, and a little foreign and indigestible. The public that enjoys eating salted beef with horseradish doesn't recognize artichokes and asparagus. Take its point of view, imagine a gray, boring courtyard, intellectual ladies who look like cooks, the smell of kerosine, the paucity of interests and tastes—and you will understand Barancewicz and his readers. He is not colorful; this is partially because the life which he draws on is not colorful. He is false ("good little books") because bourgeois writers cannot help being false. These are highly developed bourgeois writers. Boulevard writers sin together with their public, and bourgeois writers sin together with it and flatter its narrow virtue.8

The gray courtyards, the middle-class intellectuals, and the lack of color remind us immediately of the qualities of Chekhov's own work. One hardly has to be a Freudian to misread this passage as a projection onto Barancewicz of Chekhov's own inner doubts about the validity of bourgeois literature, which is to say about what he himself was writing. We may interpret historically the statement which sounds so absolute: "Bourgeois writers cannot help being false." They cannot help being (read: "feeling") false because they come after the great writers of the nobility who grew up with an unselfconscious confidence about their place in the social order. Bourgeois writers like Chekhov, on the other hand, had to make a place for themselves and consequently suffered from the identity crises endemic to the middle classes all over Europe and America.

Thus the gray courtyards and provincial towns of Chekhov's short stories, as well as the deliberately prosaic, deliberately understated qualities of his plays which make him so demanding for actors, make historical sense as Chekhov's reaction against his "luxurious, aristocratic" precursor.

Thus, Chekhov's stylistic reaction to Turgenev corresponds to kenosis, the third of the six revisionary ratios which Bloom defines in The Anxiety of Influence.

Kenosis, which is a breaking-device similar to the defense mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition compulsions; kenosis then is a movement towards discontinuity with the precursor. I take the word from St. Paul, where it means the humbling or emptying-out of Jesus by himself, when he accepts reduction from divine to human status. The later poet, apparently emptying himself of his own afflatus, his imaginative godhood, seems to humble himself as though he were ceasing to be a poet, but this ebbing is so performed in relation to a precursor's poem-of-ebbing that the precursor is emptied out also, and so the later poem of deflation is not as absolute as it seems.9

Chekhov "humbles himself or "empties himself out" by means of his stylistic differences from Turgenev. In contrast to the lush imagery and complex, participle-filled syntax of A Sportsman's Sketches, Chekhov writes a restrained, non-poetic prose; he has "ceased to be a poet" stylistically. In contrast to Turgenev's late-blooming Romantics who die romantic deaths in the name of the revolution, like Rudin, Chekhov's more modest characters rarely die symbolic deaths. Indeed, except for Treplev and Tuzenbakh in The Three Sisters, none of the major char acters die at the end of the plays. His masterpieces thus have the effect of emptying Turgenev's grandiloquence of its elan. Trofimov, in The Cherry Orchard, offers the clearest specific instance of the way Chekhov empties out Turgenev when he writes against him. In the tradition of Rudin and Turgenev's other revolutionaries, Trofimov spouts revolutionary rhetoric about "the bright future" and a "new life," but his head is so lost in the clouds of his verbiage that he falls down the stairs in act 3 and loses his galoshes in act 4.

Significantly, Chekhov's contemporaries perceived this kenosis as early as 1888, although they did not articulate it in this way. In early March of that year, Vsevolod Garshin read Chekhov's "The Steppe" aloud to some guests, including the artist Il'ia Repin. Repin recorded the reactions of those present in his autobiography:

Chekhov was still a quite unknown, new phenomenon in our literature. The majority of the listeners—including me—attacked Chekhov and his new manner of writing "subjectless" and "contentless" pieces.… Our men of letters at that time still lived by Turgenev's canons.10

At a similar gathering later in the same month, the minor writer Vladimir Tikhonov informed his diary that Nikolai Albov "rejected An. Chekhov and considers him an image of the degeneration of our literature.… He says that it is a sign of our depraved times.11 The belief that art has degenerated usually bespeaks an unconscious awareness of a precursor's power, because it so obviously indicates a felt perception of the difference between the dead per-cursor and the living ephebes. In the 1880s Turgenev was a more threatening precursor for second- and third-rate writers than either Tolstoi, whose epic power was beyond them, or Dostoevskii, whose dramatic intensity could not be matched. Lidiia Nazarova quotes a most revealing comment by Dmitrii Mamin-Sibiriak, to the effect that at first he had tried to write like Gogol', and then he "carefully assimilated a manner of beautiful descriptions àla Turgenev."12

Chekhov himself was not without Turgenev's influence in the usual sense of the word in the 1880s, as Nazarova points out. She cites, for instance, his story "Agafia" (1886) as resembling stories from A Sportsman's Sketches, even to the use of the hunter-narrator.13 But by then Chekhov had also begun the process of kenosis, of emp-tying out Turgenev. Chekhov's kenosis begins in a primarily verbal, not stylistic, sense in such early sketches as "In the Landau," written just after Turgenev's death in 1883.

Chekhov published "In the Landau" in Fragments, a satirical journal. Its editor Nikolai Leikin excised the ending, which is now lost. A certain Baron Dronkel' is riding in a landau with two young girls, Katia and Zina, and their sixteen-year-old cousin from the provinces, Marfusha. The baron comments that he has missed a funeral mass for Turgenev that day, and asks the girls if they like him. When they say that they do, he comments:

No matter whom you ask, everyone likes him, but I … I don't understand! Either I don't have a brain, or I am such a desperate sceptic, but all the hoopla raised about Turgenev seems exaggerated, if not absurd, to me! I don't deny that he is a good writer.… He writes smoothly, the style is even lively in places, there's humor, but … nothing special.… He writes like all Russian writers.… Like Grigorovich, like Kraevskii.… I deliberately got a copy of A Sports-man's Sketches from the library, read it from cover to cover, found absolutely nothing special.… [It has neither] self-consciousness, nor [anything] about the freedom of the press … no idea! And there's nothing at all about hunting. It's not badly written, though!14

When Kitty sighs, "How he wrote about love!" Dronkel' replies, "He wrote well about love, but there are some who wrote better. Jean Richepin, for example." (He is presumably referring here to Les Caresses [1877], a collection of erotic stories by this late French Romantic.) Predictably, one of the girls then defends Turgenev's descriptions of nature, and Dronkel' has a reply to that as well:

I don't like to read descriptions of nature. It drags on and on.… "The sun set.… The birds began to sing.… The forest rustles.… " I always skip these charms. Turgenev is a good writer, I don't deny it, but I don't recognize in him the capacity to create miracles, as people shout about him. Supposedly he gave an impetus to self-consciousness, and touched to the quick some political conscience in the Russian people … I don't see all this … I don't understand.…

But Chekhov saves the unkindest cut of all for last: "'But have you read his Oblomov?' asked Zina. 'There he's against serfdom!'" These devoted admirers of Turgenev do not even remember that it was Goncharov who wrote Oblomov. Chekhov is not ready to make a class distinction between himself and Turgenev, so he uses a baron as a spokesman. But we can hardly mistake the Schadenfreude at the death of a precursor in the baron's remarks about Turgenev on the very day of a funeral mass for him.

The character who attracts the reader's attention in this tendentious piece, the first sign that Chekhov had begun to work through his anxiety of influence from Turgenev, is not Baron Dronkel' but Marfusha, who has come to St. Petersburg for the first time to see the sights. Marfiisha reacts intensely to Dronkel's denunication of Turgenev:

"Ask him to shut up! For God's sake!" Marfusha whispered to Zina. Zina looked with amazement at the naive, shy girl. The provincial girl's eyes were going frantically about the landau, from face to face, aglow with an evil feeling, and were apparently searching for someone to pour out her hatred and contempt on. Her lips trembled with rage.

When we recall that Nina quotes Turgenev in her magnificent last scene with Treplev, we realize that she and Marfusha are distant cousins. Chekhov's misreading of Turgenev as a Romantic imputes to Turgenev a capacity to attract weak readers, young provincial girls who live out their fantasies which they have acquired from books. (Obviously, Marfusha and Nina count Tatiana Larin and Emma Bovary among their predecessors.) Since Chekhov's ending has been lost, we will never know what, if any, resolution he supplied for Marfusha's outrage, but it strikingly anticipates Nina's confusion in act 2 of The Seagull when she finds out that Trigorin does not think of his life as glamorous and exciting, and that Arkadina can be petty and self-centered when Shamraev denies her horses. In 1883 Chekhov was not yet capable of creating so complex a character as Nina, but he understood the attitudes of the Nina we see in act 2 of The Seagull.

One final comment about "In the Landau." In the story without Chekhov's original ending, Baron Dronkel' has the next to last line. Speaking of Turgenev, he says, "He hasn't had the slightest influence on me, for example." Even as he began to work through his anxiety, Chekhov denied the influence. At the age of twenty-three he prob-ably had to deny it in order to summon the courage to work through it.

The following statement by Trigorin to Nina in act 2 may thus be understood as a culmination of Chekhov's anxiety of influence from Turgenev: "And when I die, and people who know me pass by my grave, they will say, 'Here lies Trigorin. He was a good writer, but he didn't write as well as Turgenev.'"15 This is not hostility, as in the early sketches, but simply anxiety. I believe that the capacity to express, to admit, one's anxiety of influence in a masterpiece that is coherent to the reader who has no knowledge of the artist's anxiety represents a working through of that anxiety. I disagree with Bloom's assertion that "a poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety."16 This formulation, meant as absolutely as it appears to be here, does not seem to allow for change and evolution.

In The Seagull Treplev does not wish to recognize Trigorin's accomplishment and says of his writing, "It's nice, it's talented … but … after Tolstoi or Zola you don't want to read Trigorin" (p. 9). In this remark Treplev is both revealing his own anxiety of influence by denying it, as Baron Dronkel' had done, and saying what Trigorin says that everybody else says about him. In act 2 Trigorin says that people read reviews about him which say, "Yes, it's nice, it's talented … Nice, but far from Tolstoi," or "It's a marvelous piece, but Turgenev's Fathers and Sons is better" (p. 30). This, too, is autobiographical. In a letter he wrote to an aspiring writer, one Aleksandr Zhirkevich, on April 2, 1895, Chekhov commented ironically about the short story that Zhirkevich had asked him to evaluate: "'It's talented, intelligent, and noble.'" In a footnote, he explained the quotation marks: "This is from one of my stories ['A Boring Story']; when I am being reviled, people usually cite this phrase with 'but.'"17

The biographical elements in Trigorin require no special research. Chekhov's contemporaries perceived them even while Chekhov was still alive. When Chekhov has Nina give Trigorin a medallion with the words, "If you ever need my life, come and take it," engraved on it (p. 40), he is citing himself. As Petr Bitsilli pointed out long ago, these Similarly, words story in Chekhov's short "Neighbors,"18 Similarly, when Treplev comes finally to his grudging, agonizing recognition of Trigorin's talent, he refers to the way Trigorin creates the effect of a moonlit night by mentioning the gleam of the neck of a broken bottle. This very image appears in Chekhov's short story "The Wolf" (1888).

Critics who draw on biographical evidence usually content themselves with matching textual and extra-textual passages in this way. But Chekhov's anxiety of influence also affected the form of the work, which is unique among his four major plays. The Seagull is the only one that contains a play within the play, and the only one in which artists appear as characters. And in act 2 Trigorin makes several speeches to Nina that are longer than any other speeches in any of the other plays. In fact, when Trigorin responds to Nina's breathless outburst, "Your life is beautiful!" (p. 28), he delivers the longest speech Chekhov ever wrote. (It runs to about a page and a half.) Toward the end of it, Trigorin vividly recalls what it was like to be an ephebe.

And in those years, in my young, best years, when I began, my writing activity was nothing but torture through and through. A minor writer, especially when he is not successful, seems awkward to himself, awkward, superfluous; his nerves are strained, and frazzled; he compulsively wanders about in the presence of people privy to literature and to art, unrecognized, unnoticed by anyone, afraid to look people directly in the eyes, like a passionate gambler who has no money (pp. 29-30).

This clearly autobiographical passage creates an anomaly in the form of the play. But Chekhov is not giving in to self-indulgence here, for he is using his own life experience to create a character. Once we know that Trigorin's pain is still with him, we may surmise that it is this pain which he senses in Treplev, and which causes him to be generous toward him.

In Act 3 of The Seagull, Trigorin writes something down in his notebook; when Arkadina asks him what he is doing, he replies, "This morning I heard a good expression: 'A virginal pine forest.…' It'll do" (p. 43). By having Trigorin keep a notebook, Chekhov is endowing him with one of his own writing practices. The editors of Chekhov's notebooks comment that "in the recollections of his contemporaries there is a lot of talk about how he himself would show his acquaintances among men of letters his notebook (usually not opening it), would give advice on how to use it, what kind of notes to enter, and would remind them that an artist must work constantly."19 Note only did Chekhov keep a notebook does, as Trigorin he wrote in it what Trigorin writes. In the notebook that Chekhov kept while working on The Seagull there occurs the entry, "A Virginal, or Mashka's Pine Forest."20 Clearly he found no way to work this phrase into a play or a story, so he gave it to Trigorin as a random notebook entry.

But just as it is inadequate to note that Trigorin is an autobiographical character without giving a more general interpretation of that fact, so it is inadequate to say that Trigorin represents Chekhov, because he also represents Turgenev. In the crucial scene with Nina in act 2, he tells her: "I don't often have a chance to meet young girls, young and interesting ones; I've already forgotten and can't clearly imagine how they feel at eighteen or nine-teen, and so in my novellas and stories the young girls are usually false" (p. 28). This attitude surely expresses Chekhov's judgment of Turgenev's ingenues. Indeed, two of Chekhov's short stories, "Late-Blooming Flowers" (1882) and "The Story of an Unknown Man" (1893) also take issue with Turgenev's treatment of his heroines.

Moreover, Trigorin's relationship with Arkadina does not resemble any of Chekhov's relationships with women, but it strongly resembles Turgenev's relationship with another self-centered performer, Pauline Viardot. At the end of act 2, when Arkadina, jealous of Nina, tells Trigorin that they must go, he says, "I don't have a will of my own … I have never had a will of my own" (p. 42). One cannot imagine a man of Chekhov's strength and determination saying this to a woman, but one can readily imagine Turgenev saying it to Viardot.

Finally, for all his anxieties, Trigorin is an accomplished writer (Arkadina refers to him as a "celebrity") and plays the role of a precursor to Treplev. Trigorin represents as much of a threat to Treplev as Turgenev himself represented to Chekhov. As a character Trigorin expresses neither Chekhov's self-pity because of his difficulties in life, nor Chekhov's self-aggrandizement in giving an autobiographical character some of Turgenev's traits. In writing this groundbreaking play, Chekhov drew on both the ephebe which he had been and the precursor which he was becoming. It is this tension which characterizes the play.

By failing to understand the ambiguity of Trigorin's role as both ephebe and precursor, as both Chekhov and Turgenev, critics have also failed to understand Trigorin's evolution. As I interpret the play, it is Trigorin's affair with Nina that allows him to work through his anxiety of influence. In their initial conversation he expresses his interest in her in artistic terms. Trigorin has had to make his way in the world and recognizes that he is incomplete as an artist because of it, and he gains confidence in himself during his affair with Nina. This does not mean that he is not sexually attracted to her but that the sexual and the artistic attractions are indistinguishable, just as the personal and professional rivalries in general are indistinguishable in the play.

Although Trigorin's affair with Nina takes place offstage, between act 3 and act 4, we find evidence for its effect in act 4, when Trigorin honestly cannot remember asking Shamraev to have the gull stuffed, for it represents Nina as a stage of his artistic evolution which he has completed. We also notice that in act 4 he is consistently cheerful and no longer complains about having to write all the time. He recognizes, and accepts, his life for what it is. When Treplev asks Trigorin about his plans, Trigorin mentions his current projects and adds, "In a word, it's the old story" (p. 52).

But it is inadequate to say, "Trigorin is an autobiographical character," because Treplev is equally autobiographical. If in Trigorin Chekhov presents himself as a precursor who remembers what it was like to be an ephebe, in Treplev he presents himself as an ephebe acutely aware of his social position as a middle-class outsider who dreams of becoming a precursor. With Treplev's suicide Chekhov is killing off the ephebe in himself; but this purgation presupposes that the work in which the suicide occurs has coherence without that autobiographical meaning. Such an understanding of autobiographical meaning resolves a major difficulty of most criticism that establishes a relationship between the author's life and the work, for this criticism allows no valid criterion for evaluation. The presence of autobiographical material in a work clearly does not ensure its quality—more often than not quite the reverse is true. Once one realizes that Chekhov the ephebe in the process of becoming a precursor split these two roles into two very different characters, one begins to have some sense of the complexity of a creative process that draws on the author's life experiences.

By the spring of 1895, when he wrote the letter to Zhirkevich, Chekhov was beginning to formulate some views that were later expressed in The Seagull. He said of Zhirkevich's style that "the devices in the descriptions of nature are routine,"21 and that there was a "routineness of the devices in general in descriptions."22 And it is just this quality of "routineness" (rutinnost') that Treplev finds characteristic of the theater of his day. But since he is a character in a play, his aesthetic judgments merge with his personal feelings. In act 2 he says of his mother that "she loves the theater; it seems to her that she is serving humanity, and holy art, but in my opinion the contemporary theater is routine and prejudice" (p. 8). Like Treplev's play, Chekhov's play offered radical innovations in the theater, and Chekhov knew it. In a letter of October 21, 1895 he wrote Suvorin that he was working on a play. "I am writing not without satisfaction, although I am frightfully going against the conventions of the stage."23 A month later he again wrote to Suvorin. "Well, sir, I've already finished the play. I began it forte and ended it pianissimo—despite all the rules of dramatic art."24

If in The Seagull Chekhov shows himself as Trigorin in the process of writing a short story, a form which he had mastered, he also shows himself as Treplev, who presents a new form, a radically innovative play, to an audience that fails to appreciate it. After the debacle of the premiere, he must have felt his affinity with Treplev very intensely; he uncannily anticipates, in the hostile reaction of Treplev's mother to her son's play, the reaction of the audience at the Aleksandrinskii Theater that fateful night. In effect, the audience said to him what Nina says to Treplev: "There's too little action in your play; it's just recitation" (p. 11). Thus both Treplev and Chekhov are carrying out kenosis, an emptying out of the precursor's work.

Treplev's play amounts to an extreme example of kenosis in that it empties drama of character, conflict, imagery, and theme, leaving only despair. But Treplev is not Samuel Beckett, and instead of emptying out his precursor, he empties out only himself. Treplev has cut himself off from potential sources of strength and creativity by cutting himself off from Trigorin, as when he lies to Nina by telling her that he has not read Trigorin's work.

Just as Chekhov distances himself from Trigorin by giving him some of Turgenev's traits, so he distances himself from Treplev by giving his writing some traits of what he considered inferior literature. In the letter to Zhirkevich he had commented scornfully that "nowadays only ladies write 'the poster announced,' 'a frame faced by hair.'"25 And it is, of course, just these phrases that he gave to Treplev in the moving scene in act 4 during which he realizes that his own writing has become as cliché-ridden as the works which he had denounced.

I've talked so much about new forms, but now I feel that I myself am slipping little by little toward a routine. (He reads.) "The poster on the fence announced.… The pale face framed by dark hair.…" Announced, framed.… This is untalented (p. 55).

Only after Treplev understands his own work for what it is can he understand Trigorin's work for what it is. It seems to him that Trigorin has taken both his beloved and his work, but in fact he has weakened his own work by denying it a relationship with Trigorin's, and denounced Nina while she still loved him. He has nothing left but suicide.

The assumption that the anxiety of influence gives thematic unity to the play has important implications for the dialogue as well as for the characters. Chekhov's characters notoriously do not talk to each other but past each other. They do so, it now seems, because they are addressing the theme of the play.

By letting these tensions between ephebes and precursors shape The Seagull, Chekhov was beginning a middle-class, as opposed to aristocratic, literary tradition in Rus-sian, and Bloom has this to say about the beginning of literary tradition:

Literary tradition begins when a fresh author is simultaneously cognizant not only of his own struggle against the forms and presence of a precursor, but is compelled also to a sense of the precursor's place in regard to what came before him.26

For Chekhov, what came before the aristocratic literature that Turgenev represented was Western literature, and the most important single work of foreign literature for Russians is and always has been Hamlet. In her book Hamlet: A Window on Russia, Eleanor Rowe quotes a Russian critic: "We can almost say that in Russia alone Hamlet is sincerely loved and understood."27 The play strikes home so much in Russia because it deals with the very Russian theme of conflict between civic duty and personal desire. But Hamlet also embodies the father-son tension which Bloom takes as the mode for the precursor-ephebe relationship. As the dead precursor is more alive than the living ephebe, so the ghost of Hamlet's father is more alive than Hamlet.

In The Seagull Chekhov achieves a kenosis with regard to Shakespeare that is of the same nature as his kenosis with regard to Turgenev. Chekhov's prosaic diction contrasts with Shakespeare's florid Elizabethan rhetoric even more than with Turgenev's nature descriptions, and Chekhov's open endings do not restore order in the kingdom, as the endings of Shakespeare's history plays and tragedies do. If Shakespeare (as well as Turgenev) engages his characters in historical events, Chekhov places his characters in isolated settings, which reflect their isolated psyches.

In a previous article I have shown that the four principal characters of Hamlet correspond to the four principal characters of The Seagull.28 Claudius corresponds to Trigorin, Gertrude to Arkadina, Ophelia to Nina, and Treplev to Hamlet. But Chekhov creates what Bloom calls a clinamen, or swerve, with Shakespeare by reversing the significance of the characters. It is as though Chekhov had asked, "What if Claudius were a legitimate king, and what if Hamlet made the other choice in the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy?" This reversal becomes most apparent when Treplev sees Trigorin walking along with his notebook in hand and jeers, "'Words, words, words'" (p. 449). He is using the words of Hamlet's reply to Polonius when Polonius sees him, book in hand, and asks him what he is reading. In using Hamlet's words, Treplev expresses his awarenesss of his affinities with Hamlet, of course, but he is also unconsciously expressing something else. Treplev thinks he is jeering at Trigorin, but in fact he is admitting that Trigorin has what he does not have: words.

In 1882 Chekhov reviewed a production of Hamlet at the Pushkin Theater in Moscow and noted that "the scene with the mother is beautifully carried through."29 It is probably not coincidental that the so-called closet scene (act 3, scene 4) from Hamlet to which he is referring here reappears in The Seagull. Before the beginning of the play within the play, The Seagull's most obvious reference to Hamlet, Treplev asks for his mother's patience, and thus for her respect. She refuses it by quoting Gertrude's reply from the closet scene when Hamlet reproaches her for her hasty marriage to Claudius:

Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.30

She cannot openly admit that she feels hostile toward her son because he reminds others of her true age (as Treplev accurately points out in act 1), nor can she deal with his oedipal hostility toward Trigorin, which has both personal and professional origins. In The Seagull Chekhov used Nikolai Polevoi's translation of Hamlet, which significantly abbreviates Hamlet's outburst:

         Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty,—

Stripped of their vivid imagery in Polevoi's version, these lines become a question which Treplev asks his mother, both as her son and as Hamlet: "Why have you given in to vice, Why have you sought love in the abyss of transgression?" (p. 12). But then a horn sounds to signal the beginning of his play, so Arkadina does not have to reply.

In act 3 Chekhov gives his own version of the closet scene when Treplev asks his mother to change the bandage that covers the wound which he inflicted on himself when he tried to commit suicide. In this, the most tense scene of the play, the hostility between mother and son comes out, but it is couched only in professional terms, as when Treplev denounces his mother and Trigorin in a line which Chekhov must have enjoyed writing: "You, the creatures of routine, have taken primacy in art, and you consider legal and real only what you yourselves do, and you repress and choke the rest" (p. 40).

Since Treplev and his mother cannot discuss or resolve their hostility, they mask it by the use of quotation—the literal quotation from the closet scene in act 1, and the compositional quotation in act 3. In doing so they are also allowing Chekhov to work through his own anxiety of influence, for he cannot express it openly, either. For Chekhov, however, the question whether he could articu-late it, even to himself, is not the point. As an artist he could not openly express his anxiety of influence from Shakespeare, if he ever wanted to work through it, for resolution of an ephebe's anxiety of influence comes about only when the ephebe embodies that anxiety in a coherent structure. And that is what Chekhov did in The Seagull.

Thus, Chekhov in his quietly courageous way takes on two threatening precursors in the same play, with the same set of characters. This remarkable fact suggests a relationship between Shakespeare and Turgenev, and indeed such a relationship exists, in "Hamlet and Don Quixote," the famous essay that Turgenev published in the January 1860 issue of The Contemporary and which he delivered as a lecture in St. Petersburg on January 22 of that year. Chekhov read "Hamlet and Don Quixote" in 1879, and in a letter from April 6-8 he recommended that his older brothers read it.31

In the nineteenth-century manner, Turgenev interpreted Hamlet and Don Quixote as types who recurred throughout world literature. In his conclusion Turgenev commented that "a certain English lord (a good judge in this matter) in our presence called Don Quixote the model of a real gentleman."32 In contrast, he says that Hamlet had "desairs de parvenu, " and continues: "But he is given the force of unique and precise expression, a force characteristic of any personality that thinks and develops itself—and therefore is inaccessible to Don Quixote."33 Don Quixote as "the model of a real gentleman," and Hamlet as a parvenu; Don Quixote as a "true hidalgo" and Hamlet as a forceful personality that "thinks and develops itself." Significantly, these contrasts correspond well enough to the difference between Turgenev and Chekhov. Turgenev was certainly a model of a genteel man of letters, and Chekhov was certainly a parvenu. Turgenev—so it must have seemed to Chekhov—had European culture given to him as a birthright. Nobody ever gave Chekhov anything; he worked for everything he got.

In the sense in which Turgenev treated Hamlet and Don Quixote as polar opposites, Chekhov played Hamlet the outsider struggling against the established order to Turgenev's Don Quixote, "the model of a real gentleman." And if Hamlet acts as he does because his father imposed on him an obligation which, he fears, may be beyond his powers, then Chekhov struggled with the prestige and the authority of Turgenev, and he must have felt, after the premiere of The Seagull, that he had been unable to overcome Turgenev. A holistic treatment of The Seagull in Chekhov's creative life cycle therefore yields the following chain of associations: Chekhov as ephebe; Treplev as ephebe; the ephebe as parvenu; the parvenu as Hamlet; Hamlet as opposed to Don Quixote; Don Quixote as Turgenev; Turgenev as Trigorin; and Trigorin as Chekhov. I choose to state the matter in this way, rather than as a set of declarative statements, for I believe that any such set of statements has a reductionist quality.

Chekhov's relationship with Shakespeare as well as with Turgenev poses more general issues than those of an isolated struggle between an ephebe and his precursors. If Chekhov's confrontation with Turgenev meant the opposition of the middle class to the aristocracy, then in his, confrontation with Shakespeare we have the age-old confrontation between Russia and the West. If Chekhov was a parvenu in the aristocratic milieu of Russian letters, then Russian literature as a whole was a parvenu in the aristocratic milieu of European letters, which had a far longer and far richer tradition. And since both confrontations, and their implications, thus have clear analogies, Chekhov deals with them in the same way.

Hence a revised version of Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence creates a paradigm for interpreting The Seagull in terms of its biographical and historical context. This interpretation avoids both formalistic and biographical reductionism; it depends, furthermore, on avoiding Bloom's own reductionism, a reduction of all literary history to an oedipal struggle between an isolated son and an isolated father. Assuming that strong writers incorporate in their psyches the social processes of their times in ways which they cannot possibly understand or articulate, I have argued that the relationship between Turgenev and Chekhov involves an encounter between a father and a son who represent two different social classes. By overcoming his anxiety of influence from Turgenev, Chekhov was also working out the characteristics of a middle-class art, something no one in Russia—not even Ostrovskii—had done in a satisfactory way. If the great novelists of the generation before him had used the novel, which was historically a middle-class form, to deal with the plight of the aristocracy to which they belonged, then Chekhov had the task of reversing what they had done. He created a middle-class style that dealt with the appearance of a significant middle class in Russia. In the process of doing so he transformed himself from an ephebe into a precursor. Specifically, he became a precursor in America and in England after World War II, where the democratic middle-class social structure of society made his work a model, a model to be revised by such dramatic talents as Lillian Hellman in America and Harold Pinter in England. But that, as the Russian saying goes, is from another opera.


1Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 30.

2Steve Polansky, "A Family Romance—Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom: Study of Critical Influences," Boundary 2, vol. 9, no. 2 (Winter 1981): 238.

3Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 12.

4Loy D. Martin, "Literary Invention: The Illusion of the Individual Talent," Critical Inquiry, 6, no. 4 (Summer 1980): 667.

5Quoted in Anatolii Kotov, ed., Chekhov v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1954), p. 55.

6Anton Chekhov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v tridtsati tomakh (hereafter PSS), 1:2, V. V. Ermilov et al., eds. (Moscow, 1964), p. 148.

7Turgenev's A Month in the Country (1850), the most important play written in any European language in the middle of the nineteenth century, had its premiere only on January 13, 1872 and was staged only occasionally during the 1870s and 1880s. Chekhov does not seem to have seen a performance; on March 23, 1903, just over a year before his death, he wrote to his wife Ol'ga Knipper, "I've read almost all of Turgenev's plays. I've already written you, I didn't like A Month in the Country" (Chekhov, PSS, I:12, p. 487). Chekhov did not like A Month in the Country because he recognized in it some of the elements of his own work which derive from Turgenev, such as the atmospheric quality and the delicate psychological tensions.

8Chekhov, PSS, 1:12, p. 52.

9Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, pp. 14-15.

10Quoted in Nikolai Gitovich, Letopis' zhizni i tvorchestva A. P. Chekhova (Moscow, 1955), p. 186.

11Quoted in ibid., p. 187.

12Liudmila Nazarova, Turgenev i russkaia literatura kontsa XIXnachala XX v. (Leningrad, 1979), p. 35.

13Ibid., p. 41.

14Chekhov, PSS, II:2, p. 243. All quotations from "In the Landau" come from this page except the last one, which is on p. 244.

15Page numbers after quotations from The Seagull refer to Chekhov, PSS, II:12-13 (Moscow, 1978).

16Bloom, A Map of Misreading, p. 94.

17Chekhov, PSS, I; 12, p. 79.

18Petr M. Bicilli, Anton echov. Das Werk und sein Stil (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1966), p. 28.

19Chekhov, PSS, II:17, p. 243.

20Ibid., p. 34.

21Chekhov, PSS, I:12, p. 78.

22Ibid., p. 79.

23Ibid., p. 86.

24Ibid., p. 90.

25Ibid., p. 79.

26Bloom, A Map of Misreading, p. 32.

27Quoted in Eleanor Rowe, Hamlet: A Window on Russia (New York: New York University Press, 1976), p. viii.

28See James M. Curtis, "Spatial Form in Drama: The Seagull," Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 6, no. 1 (Spring 1972): 13-57.

29 Chekhov, PSS, II:16, p. 21.

30I have used the Cambridge Edition text of Hamlet as it appears in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Garden City: n.p., n.d.)

31See Gitovich, Letopis' zhizni, pp. 36-37.

32Ivan Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v dvadtsati vos'mi tomakh, 1:8 (Moscow-Leningrad, 1964), p. 187.


Michael Frayn (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Introduction to The Seagull: A Comedy in Four Acts, translated by Michael Frayn, Methuen, 1986, pp. ix-xx.

[In the following essay, Frayn provides an overview of The Seagull, focusing on its initial spectacular failure inSt. Petersburg and its equally spectacular success in Moscow a month later.]

'A comedy—three f., six m., four acts, rural scenery (a view over a lake); much talk of literature, little action, five bushels of love.'

Chekhov's own synopsis of the play, in a letter to his friend Suvorin written a month before he finished it, is characteristically self-mocking and offhand. (His cast-list is even one f. short, unless he added the fourth woman only during that last month, or when he revised the play the following year). He says in the same letter that he is cheating against the conventions of the theatre, but no one could have begun to guess from his flippant resuméhow extraordinary an event was being prepared for the world. No doubt Chekhov took the play more seriously than the letter suggests, but even he can scarcely have realised quite what he had on his hands: a catastrophe so grotesque that it made him swear never to write for the theatre again; a triumph so spectacular that it established him as a kind of theatrical saint; and the first of the four masterpieces that would change forever the nature and possibilities of drama.

Chekhov wrote The Seagull in 1895. He was 35 years old, and already an established and celebrated writer who had known almost nothing but success. But the success was on the printed page, as a writer of short stories, and the leap he was trying to make now, from page to stage, was one which few major writers have managed. He had written for the theatre before, of course. He had done a number of short plays, all but one broadly comic, and related to his humorous journalism rather than to his more serious work. He had also written at least three full-length plays with more serious intentions—the untitled piece of his student days, Ivanov, and The Wood Demon—and with these he had encountered almost the only setbacks of his career so far. Now, as he finished The Seagull and read it through, he had a moment of fundamental doubt about the direction he was trying to take. 'I am once again convinced', he wrote to Suvorin, 'that I am absolutely not a dramatist.'

There were prolonged difficulties in getting the play past the theatrical censor, which almost made him despair of the whole enterprise, but once this hurdle was behind him Chekhov's apparently offhand mood returned. The play was to be performed at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, where Ivanov had been well received seven years earlier after a highly disputed opening in Moscow, and his letters in September 1896, as rehearsals approached, have the same cheerful flippancy as his original account of the play to Suvorin. They read with hindsight as ironically as the banter of some doomed statesman as he goes all unknowing towards his assassination. To his brother Georgi: 'My play will be done in the Alexandrinsky Theatre at a jubilee benefit [for the actress Levkeyeva]. It will be a resounding gala occasion. Do come!' To his friend Shcheglov: 'Around the 6th [of October] the thirst for glory will draw me to the Palmyra of the north for the rehearsals of my Seagull.' To his brother Alexander: 'You are to meet me at the station, in full parade uniform (as laid down for a customs officer retd.) … On the 17th Oct my new play is being done at the Alexandrinsky. I would tell you what it's called, only I'm afraid you'll go round boasting you wrote it.'

The seventeenth, when it came, was indeed a resounding gala occasion. 'I have been going to the theatre in St. Petersburg for more than twenty years,' wrote a correspondent in a theatrical journal afterwards, 'and I have witnessed a great many "flops" … but I can remember nothing resembling what happened in the auditorium at Levkeyeva's 25th jubilee.' The trouble started within the first few minutes of Act One. Levkeyeva was a popular light comedy actress, and even though she had no part in the play the audience were minded to laugh. The first thing that struck them as funny was the sight of Masha offering a pinch of snuff to Medvedenko, and thereafter they laughed at everything. Konstantin's play, Konstantin with his head bandaged—it was all irresistible. By Act Two, according to the papers next day, the dialogue was beginning to be drowned by the noise and movement in the audience; by Act Three the hissing had become general and deafening. The reviewers struggled for superlatives to describe 'the grandiose scale' of the play's failure, the 'scandalous' and 'unprecendented' nature of 'such a dizzying flop, such a stunning fiasco.' The author, they reported, had fled from the theatre.

According to his own accounts of the evening Chekhov escaped from the theatre only when the play ended, after sitting out two or three acts in Levkeyeva's dressing-room, had supper at Romanov's, 'in the proper way', then slept soundly and caught the train home to Melikhovo next day. Even Suvorin accused him of cowardice in running away. All he had run away from, he protested in a letter to Suvorin's wife, was the intolerable sympathy of his friends. He told Suvorin: 'I behaved as reasonably and coolly as a man who has proposed and been refused, and who has no choice but to go away … Back in my own home I took a dose of castor oil, had a wash in cold water—and now I could sit down and write a new play.'

But Suvorin, with whom he was staying, recorded in his diary that Chekhov's first reaction had been to give up the theatre. He had not come back until two in the morning, when he told Suvorin that he had been walking about the streets, and that 'if I live another seven hundred years I shan't have a single play put on. Enough is enough. In this area I am a failure.' When he went home next day he left a note telling Suvorin to halt the printing of his plays, and saying that he would never forget the previous evening. He claimed to have slept well, and to be leaving 'in an absolutely tolerable frame of mind'; but he managed nevertheless to leave his dressing-gown and other belongings on the train, and the accounts he subsequently gave of the evening in various letters to friends and relations make it clear how painful the experience had been. 'The moral of all this', he wrote to his sister Masha, 'is that one shouldn't write plays.'

And yet, not much more than a month later, in another letter to Suvorin, he was mentioning the existence of a play 'not known to anyone in the world'—Uncle Vanya. By this time, too—in fact from the very next performance—the tide had turned at the Alexandrinsky. 'A total and unanimous success', wrote Komissarzhevskaya, who was playing Nina, in a letter to Chekhov after the second performance of The Seagull, 'such as it ought to be and could not but be.' And two years later, in a stunning reversal of fortune of the kind that occurs in plays (though never in Chekhov's own), it triumphed in Moscow as noisily as it had failed in Petersburg.

In fact the event went rather beyond anything one might find in a play; it was more like something out of a backstage musical—particularly as recounted by Stanislavsky (who was both directing and playing Trigorin) in his memoir of Chekhov. For a start the fate of the newly-founded Moscow Arts Theatre depended upon it. The other opening productions had mostly either failed or been banned by the Metropolitan of Moscow, and all hopes were now riding aboard this one salvaged wreck. There was a suitable love interest depending upon the outcome of the evening—the leading lady (Olga Knipper, playing Arkadina) and the author had just met, and were to marry two plays later—provided there were two more plays to allow their acquaintance to develop. Moreover, the author had now been diagnosed as consumptive and exiled to Yalta. The dress rehearsal was of course a disaster. At the end of it Chekhov's sister Masha arrived to express her horror at the prospect of what another failure like Petersburg would do to her sick brother, and they considered abandoning the production and closing the theatre.

When the curtain finally went up on the first night the audience was sparse, and the cast all reeked of the valerian drops they had taken to tranquillise themselves. As they reach the end of Act One Stanislavsky's paragraphs become shorter and shorter:

'We had evidently flopped. The curtain came down in the silence of the tomb. The actors huddled fearfully together and listened to the audience.

'It was as quiet as the grave.

'Heads emerged from the wings as the stage staff listened as well.


'Someone started to cry. Knipper was holding back hysterical sobs . We went offstage in silence.

'At that moment the audience gave a kind of moan and burst into applause. We rushed to take a curtain.

'People say that we were standing on stage with our backs half-turned to the audience, that we had terror on our faces, that none of us thought to bow and that someone was even sitting down. We had evidently not taken in what had happened.

'In the house the success was colossal; on stage it was like a second Easter. Everyone kissed everyone else, not excluding strangers who came bursting back-stage. Someone went into hysterics. Many people, myself among them, danced a wild dance for joy and excitement.'

The only person who remained completely calm seems to have been Chekhov himself, since he was 800 miles away in the Crimea. But when after Act Three the audience began to shout 'Author! Author!', as audiences do in this kind of script, and Nemirovich-Danchenko explained to them that the author was not present, they shouted 'Send a telegram!' In the event he was informed of his triumph not only by telegram, but in shoals of letters from everyone present. But, judging by how rarely he referred to it either beforehand or afterwards in his own letters from Yalta, he had kept this production at a distance emotionally as well as geographically, and the Moscow success was considerably more remote from him than the Petersburg failure.

There were of course external reasons for the play's extraordinarily different reception in the two capitals. The choice of Levkeyeva's benefit night in St. Petersburg, on the one hand, and the fact that it had been produced there at nine days notice; the thorough preparation in Moscow on the other hand, with twelve weeks' rehearsal. The Moscow audience may also have been impressed by the sheer weight of Stanislavsky's production. At the beginning of Act One, for example, his prompt copy notes: 'Glimmer of lantern, distant singing of drunk, distant howling of dog, croaking of frogs, cry of corncrake, intermittent strokes of distant church bell … summer lightning, barely audible far-off thunder …'—All this before the first two characters have even got on stage. Chekhov, grateful as he was for the success, was ungratefully cool about the production when he finally saw it. He greatly disliked the slowness of Stanislavsky's tempo, and according to Nemirovich-Danchenko he threatened to put a stage-direction in his next play saying: 'The action takes place in a country where there are no mosquitoes or crickets or other insects that interfere with people's conversations.'

Even without Levkeyeva or the corncrakes, though, the play would almost certainly have elicited a passionate response of one kind or another. Its influence has been so widespread and pervasive since that it is difficult now to realise what a departure it was. The traditional function of literature in general, and of drama in particular, has always been to simplify and formalise the confused world of our experience; to isolate particular emotions and states of mind from the flux of feeling in which we live; to make our conflicts coherent; to illustrate values and to impose a moral (and therefore human) order upon a non-moral and inhuman universe; to make intention visible, and to suggest the process by which it takes effect. The Seagull is a critical survey of this function. For a start two of the characters are writers. One of them is using the traditional techniques without questioning them, one of them is searching for some even more formalised means of expression; and what interests Chekhov is how life eludes the efforts of both of them. Konstantin cannot even begin to capture it, for all the seriousness of his intentions; Trigorin feels that in the end all he has ever managed to do without falsity is landscapes, while his obsessive need to write drains his experience of all meaning apart from its literary possibilities. The extraordinary trick of the play is that all around the two writers we see the very life that they are failing to capture. What Chekhov is doing, in fact, is something formally impossible—to look behind the simplification and formalisation by which the world is represented in art and to show the raw, confused flux of the world itself, where nothing has its moral value written upon it, or for that matter its cause or its effect, or even its boundaries or its identity.

The most obvious characteristic of this approach is the play's ambiguity of tone. The author does not give us any of the customary indications as to whether we are to find these events comic or tragic. Indeed, what we are watching has not even been clearly organised into events; a lot of it bears a striking resemblance to the non-events out of which the greater part of our life consists. Then again, the play is to a quite astonishing extent morally neutral. It displays no moral conflict and takes up no moral attitude to its characters. Even now, after all these years, some people still find this difficult to accept. They talk as if Arkadina and Trigorin, at any rate, were monsters, and as if the point of the play were to expose her egotism and his spinelessness. It is indeed impossible not to be appalled by Arkadina's insensitivity towards her son, or by the ruthlessness with which she attempts to keep Trigorin attached to her; moral neutrality is not moral blindness. But Konstantin continues to find good in her, for all his jealousy and irritation, and she remains capable of inspiring the love of those around her. Konstantin's assessment is just as valid as ours; the devotion of Dorn and Shamrayev is just as real and just as important as our outrage. There is moral irony, too, in her manipulation of Trigorin; had she succeeded more completely in blackmailing him to remain with her she might have saved Nina from the misery that engulfs her. It is hard to respect Trigorin as we see him crumble in Arkadina's hands, harder still to like him when we know how he has treated Nina. But Masha likes and respects him, and for good reason—because he listens to her and takes her seriously; no grounds are offered for discounting her judgment. And when Trigorin wanders back in the last act, makes his peace with Konstantin, and settles down to lotto with the others, he is once again neither good nor bad in their eyes, in spite of what he has done; he is at that moment just a man who always seems to come out on top, whether in lotto or in love. We are perfectly entitled to find against him, of course—but that is our own verdict; there has been no direction to the jury in the judge's summing-up; indeed, no summing-up and no judge.

But then nothing is fixed. Everything is open to interpretation. Are we, for instance, to take Konstantin seriously as a writer? Impossible, after Nina's complaint that there are no living creatures in his work. But then it turns out that Dorn likes it, and he is a man of robust good sense (though not good enough to prevent his ruining Polina's life). And in Act Four we discover that Konstantin is at any rate good enough to be able to make a career as a professional writer. But even then Trigorin's judgment remains the same as Nina's, and Konstantin comes round to much the same view himself.

No one is valued for us; nothing is firmly located or fully explained. Why is Arkadina called Arkadina? She is Sorina by birth and Trepleva by marriage. It could be a stage-name, of course, or she could have married more than once. The people around her presumably know. They do not trouble to tell us. Has Dorn had an affair with Arkadina in the past? Is this why Polina is so relentlessly jealous of her? Is it what Arkadina is referring to when she talks about how irresistible he had been in the past? (In an earlier draft Polina begins to weep quietly at this point; but that may of course be for the lost early days of her own love.) In an astonishing moment at the end of Act One we do in fact stumble across one of the unexplained secrets of this world, when Dorn snatches Masha's snuffbox away from her, admonishes her for her 'filthy habit', and flings it into the bushes. From that one gesture of licensed impatience, without a word being said, we under-stand why Masha feels nothing for her father, why she sees herself as being 'of dubious descent', and why she feels so close to Dorn; because Dorn is her father, not Shamrayev. But who knows this, apart from us and Dorn? Not Masha herself, apparently. Does Shamrayev? Arkadina? Medvedenko? We are not told; the clouds that have parted for a moment close in again.

But then which of them knows about Dorn's relationship with Masha's mother in the first place? Perhaps everyone; or perhaps no one. We can only speculate. In any case it is characteristic of the relationships in the play; overt or covert, they are all one-sided, unsatisfactory, anomalous, and unlikely ever to be resolved. Medvedenko loves Masha who loves Konstantin who loves Nina who loves Trigorin who is supposed to love Arkadina, but who doesn't really love anyone, not even himself. No one's life can be contained in the forms that marriage and family offer. Konstantin's dissatisfaction with the existing dramatic forms is only a special case of this general condition. Plainly Chekhov is not advocating new social forms, in the way that Konstantin is calling for new literary ones. In the end even Konstantin comes to think that it is not a question of forms, old or new—the important thing is to write from the heart; nor are there any social forms suggested in the play which could ever contain the great flux of life itself.

We cannot help wondering, of course, if in this play we for once catch a glimpse of its elusive author. Chekhov is astonishingly absent from his works. Even the most inti mately understood of his characters is unlike him—from quite different backgrounds, most of them, with quite different feelings and outlooks. But here is a play about two professional writers; it is unlikely that it does not reflect his own experience in some way. Konstantin is scarcely a plausible candidate, overwhelmed as he is by an artistic family, obsessed by questions of literary theory, and unable to create a living character; Chekhov's parents, after all, ran a provincial grocery, he displayed no interest in theory, and life is the very quality in which his stories and plays abound. But Trigorin is another matter. He is a celebrated and successful author, in much the same way that Chekhov was. His passion is fishing; so was Chekhov's. His modest estimate of his place in Russian letters is very much the kind of thing that Chekhov might have said mockingly about himself. More importantly, it seems at any rate plausible that his painful memories of beginning his career, and the terrible compulsion to write which is eating his life, reflect something that Chekhov felt about himself—particularly since the only palliative for his obsession is fishing. But this is about as far as we can push the parallel. David Magarshack, in his book The Real Chekhov, goes on to suppose that Trigorin is Chekhov's spokeman, and that when he tells Nina about the need he feels to pronounce on social questions he is making some kind of declaration of social commitment on Chekhov's behalf. This is preposterous. Trigorin is not even issuing a manifesto on his own behalf—he is making a confession of helplessness and ineptitude. Chekhov was notorious for refusing to pronounce on social questions, and if there is any manifesto in The Seagull it is plainly its general orientation against the imposition of the author's own interpretations and views upon his material.

Any biographical parallel has in any case clearly broken down by this point. There would be something characteristically self-mocking in choosing a second-rate author to represent himself, but when Trigorin says finally that all he can write is landscapes we realise that the picture which has been built up deliberately excludes the very essence of Chekhov's literary identity. Nor do any of the other biographical details fit. Arkadina is indeed based in part upon an actress, Yavorkskaya, who seems from her letters to have been very briefly his mistress. But Chekhov, unlike Trigorin, had no difficulty in disentangling himself from her, and in keeping women at arm's length generally. One of the women who were in love with Chekhov, Lika Mizinova, he kept at bay so successfully that she provided a model for not one but two of the characters in The Seagull: first Masha, with her life ruined by the unquenchable but unreciprocated love she has for Konstantin, and then Nina. To forget the Masha-like feelings she had for Chekhov, Lika threw herself into a disastrous affair with a friend of his, the Ukrainian writer Potapenko, who left his wife and went off to Paris with Lika, where he made her pregnant and then abandoned her. Potapenko, ironically, having provided Chekhov with a model for the more dubious aspects of Trigorin, was then called upon by him, after the play was finished, to undertake all the endless negotiations with the censor for him.

Nina was also contributed to by another of Chekhov's admirers, the writer Lidia Avilova, whom he treated even more high-handedly. She gave him a charm for his watch-chain with a page reference inscribed upon it, exactly as Nina does Trigorin with the medallion, and referring to a passage in one of Chekhov's stories which is exactly the same as the passage in Trigorin's works referred to by Nina's present—'If ever you have need of my life, then come and take it'. Meeting her later at a masked ball, Chekhov promised to give her the answer to this from the stage in his new play. Ronald Hingley, in his biography of Chekhov, recounts how she went to the catastrophic first night in St. Petersburg and struggled to hear the promised answer through the uproar all around her. She noted the page-reference given by Nina to locate the passage in Trigorin's works, and when she got home looked up the same page and line in a volume of her own stories. It read: 'Young ladies should not attend masked balls.' By this time, anyway, says Hingley, Chekhov had passed Avilova's fervently inscribed charm on to Komissarzhevskaya, the actress playing Nina, and it was being used on stage as a prop. If Chekhov had modelled Trigorin's behaviour with women on his own the play would have been deprived of Acts Three and Four.

It has to be recognised, I think, that there are some elements in the play which Chekhov has not completely succeeded in accommodating to his new aesthetic. Arkadina's aside after she believes she has broken Trigorin's will to leave her, 'Now he's mine,' (at any rate if played 'to herself, as written) seems to stem more from nineteenth-century dramatic convention than from life. Still, she is an actress by profession; it may be she rather than Chekhov who has imported the line from the theatre. Then again, Konstantin's account in Act Four of what has happened to Nina over the past two years seems to me awkwardly and belatedly expository, dramatically inert, and curiously old-fashioned in tone. Again, though, a similar justification might be offered—that it is only natural for Konstantin, as a writer of the time, to talk like a nineteenth-century short story. The soliloquies, too, seem to me a breach of the convention that Chekhov has established. If we are elsewhere left, as we are in life, to work out for ourselves what people are thinking and feeling from what they actually choose or happen to say to each other, why should we suddenly be given direct access, by means of a traditional stage convention, to Dorn's actual thoughts about Konstantin's play, or to Konstantin's assessment of his own stories? I was tempted to reorganise the scenes a little to avoid the need for soliloquy (it could be done fairly easily). It is true that Chekhov was still relying on soliloquy in Uncle Vanya, but by the time he came to write the last two plays he had abandoned it. The only apparent exception is Firs, locked into the house alone at the end of The Cherry Orchard. But he is not really soliloquising; he is an old man talking to himself, as he has earlier even in other people's presence.

These are small points. The other complaints which are sometimes made against the play seem to me to stem from misunderstandings. The symbolism, for instance, is occasionally disparaged as a portentous device to be outgrown by Chekhov in the three later and even greater plays. There is in fact only one piece of symbolism—though it recurs throughout the play—and that is the motif of the seagull itself. Now for a start it is not true that symbolic images of this sort do not occur in the last three plays. Moscow plainly stands for much more than its geographical self in Three Sisters; so does Natasha's colonisation of the Prozorovs' house; while the cherry orchard and its destruction must be one of the most suggestive and powerful symbols ever used on the stage. In the second place the symbolism of the dead seagull is set up not by Chekhov but by Konstantin, as Nina immediately recognises when he lays the bird accusingly at her feet. It is part of the portentousness and inertness of Konstantin's art, not of Chekhov's—and it is then taken up by Trigorin and absorbed into the machinery of his, when he discovers the dead bird and outlines his story of the girl who is destroyed with the same wilfulness and casualness. Between them they burden Nina with an image for herself and her fate that comes to obsess her. One of the themes of the play, as I have argued, is the way in which art warps and destroys the life that it draws upon. The message of the seagull, as it stands there stuffed and forgotten at the end of the play, is precisely of the deadness of the symbolic process.

Many people, too, have had difficulty in the past with the scene in the last act between Nina and Konstantin. The difficulty has arisen because it has often been regarded, and played, as a version of the traditional mad scene, where the pathos of the heroine who has lost or been rejected by her love is demonstrated by her retreat from reality into a world of illusion. This is plainly not the case with Nina for the greater part of the scene; she gives an entirely clear, calm, and sane account of her experiences. The problem comes when she says, as she does in all the English translations of the play that I have come across, 'I am a seagull'. The poor girl thinks she is a bird; her mind in plainly going. Now, there is a much more reasonable construction to place upon her words here—and if there is a choice then a reasonable construction must surely always be preferred in interpreting a character's behaviour—but it is obscured by a difficulty in the translation of the Russian that may at first sight seem quibbingly small. In the Russian language there is no such thing as an article, either definite or indefinite. No distinction can be made, in speech or thought, between what English-speakers are forced to regard as two separable concepts—'a seagull' and 'the seagull'. So when Nina signs her letters 'Chaika ' (Seagull), it is perfectly open to Konstantin to regard this as a sign of distraction, of the sort suffered by the grief-stricken miller in Pushkin's Rusalka, who tells people he is a raven. But what Nina herself means, surely, when the distinction has to be made in English, is not that she is a seagull but that she is the seagull. In other words, she is not identifying with the bird but with the girl in Trigorin's story, who is the Seagull in the same way that Jenny Lind was the Swedish Nightin-gale, or Shakespeare was the Swan of Avon. This is the idea that has seized hold of her—not that she has white wings and a yellow beak—but that she has been reduced to the status of a manipulated character in Trigorin's fiction—a character whose fate can be summed up in a single image. This is an obsessive thought, and she makes re peated efforts to throw it off, but it is not in any sense a deluded one. She has been manipulated; she is another victim of the distorting and deadening process of art. One can't help wondering if Avilova and Lika Mizinova ever came to feel that they had this in common with Nina, as well as everything else.

If her picture of herself as being the seagull of Trigorin's projected story is sane and sober, so is her claim to have found her way at last as an actress. We have no way of judging whether her hopes are well-founded; but her feeling that she is on the right path at last is an entirely rational one. Konstantin takes it seriously, anyway—seriously enough to realise that he by comparison is still lost, and to shoot himself in despair as a result. Faced with that testimony to the seriousness of his judgment we are scarcely in a position to dissent.

And this in fact is the final irony of the play—that in the end the Seagull herself escapes, wounded but still flying. It is the shooter who is shot, the writer who is written to death. Konstantin, not Nina, turns out to be the real victim of Trigorin's story, the true Seagull; Konstantin, who first brought the creature down to earth and declared it to be a symbol, is the one who ends up symbolised, lying as inert and irrelevant in the next room as the poor stuffed bird is in this. Perhaps Mizinova and the others found some symbolic comfort in that.

Richard Gilman (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Seagull: Art and Love, Love and Art," in Chekhov's Plays: An Opening into Eternity, Yale University Press, 1995, pp. 70-100.

[In the essay below, which was first published in 1992, Gilman asserts: "The Seagull is about art and love not so much in the sense that they are its topics but in the sense that the entire play quite literally surrounds them, providing those abstractions with the dramatic context or field in which they can come to life, working themselves out as motifs."]

Some preliminary notes, ideas, observations, questions, and reminders for an essay on the play.

Its title is the most nearly symbolic of those for any Chekhov play but, like its closest rival, The Cherry Orchard's trees, the bird isn't symbolic in any pseudopoetic or culturally anxious way.

The Russian word for the title, chaika, is used for both "gull," the genus, and the particular species "seagull."

The play's chief subjects are art and love, never far from each other thematically. Or perhaps a better way of putting this is in the form of questions: What does it mean to be in love? What does it mean to be an artist? And to be both in love and an artist?

This is Chekhov's first play that doesn't have a dominant figure, a protagonist whose fate, and our interest in it, dwarfs all others, and so his first thoroughly to disperse action and sentience among a considerable number of people of whom, in this instance, four can be thought of as major characters, dramatically equal; four protagonists then.

Though it ends, with the suicide of one of the main characters, Chekhov made a point of calling the play a "comedy."

Its architectonics or musical structure is easily discernible, more surehandedly laid out than in Ivanov yet not so finely balanced as this quality of composition will become in the three plays that will follow. Another artistic advance over Ivanov … is that the earlier play's melodramatic disfigurations are mostly gone.

The Seagull stands in relation to its successors in an even more nourishing position than its predecessor does to it. How does this show itself? Obviously that will have to wait until we come to the later plays, but a few ropes into the future can be thrown out in this section.

Some commentators on the play, including Vladimir Nabokov, have chosen to dwell on the things they think faulty. Ronald Hingley, the Chekhov translator and biographer, perversely considers The Seagull inferior to Ivanov.

In his pioneering but now somewhat out-of-date study, David Magarshack accounted for Chekhov's arrival at artistic maturity in The Seagull by drawing a distinction between his earlier "scientific" approach to writing and a new spirit of humanistic concern, and saw an even more important differentiation between his old method of "direct" action and a new "indirect" mode of composition. How useful are these distinctions now? Do they go far enough, or too far?

My favorite critical observation about the play is from an originally unsigned review by H. de W. Fuller in the Nation in 1916: "If the boy [Konstantin] had had the advantage of some athletic sport, he would doubtless have worked off most of the vague feelings which he mistook for the stirrings of genius."1

I think the reigning spirit of The Seagull is that of antiromanticism.

To write about any Chekhov play, or story for that matter, is to risk going off on digressions, the homeopathic reason for this, or the imitative fallacy involved, being his own digressive procedures, his continual deviations from an expected narrative line. Is the temptation to wander off on side-trips especially strong when writing about The Seagull? One reason it may be is just that relationship to the previous and ensuing plays I've mentioned. This one is so full of ripening method, archetypal situation, that one wants to seize those things for light on the whole of Chekhov's theater. Not that The Seagull doesn't have its own substantiality, independence, and artistic specificity; but as a storehouse of things to come it continually presses you to think ahead.

Another reason for the mind's being led afield by Chekhov is the way his writing so often suggests so much more than it directly says. All good writing does this, of course, but in his case the unstated has an especially rich life. You want to hunt down his implications, gathering them as fuel and instigation, his very reticence setting in motion the loosening of your own tongue.

I'll save the question of the title until near the end of this chapter, since by then the text, explored and meditated upon, should have something to say about its own name, and I'll look now at the words Chekhov used to describe the play, "A Comedy in Four Acts." We can assume that he knew exactly what he was doing, for he most likely chose the subtitle with the same care he exercised on those for all his other plays. Ivanov is a "drama," Uncle Vanya is "Scenes from Country Life," Three Sisters is another "drama," and The Cherry Orchard is another "comedy."

All these terms or descriptive phrases are to one degree or another tactical alerts to audiences and readers. In effect they tell us not to bring to these works preconceptions about types of drama, they ask us to be supple in the way we wield artistic categories and to be open in our anticipations. The extreme flatness and neutrality of "Scenes from Country Life," for example, have an ironical quality in the light of the text, which is scarcely a pastoral idyll, but they also warn us not to expect or look for a "high" theatrical experience, one mat will induce in us what we think of as pity and terror in the classical sense. On another level the subtitles would seem to indicate the relationship of the plays to each other in Chekhov's mind: lighter, graver, more subject to misinterpretation, less so, and the like.

The most notorious instance of his gentle advice being ignored was Stanislavsky's staging of The Cherry Orchard for its première at the Moscow Art Theater in January 1904. We will take this up again, but for now it should be noted that Stanislavsky was a most serious man; his own writings and the accounts of others tell us that wit and humor weren't his strong points. And so it isn't surprising that he directed Chekhov's last play as something of a tragedy, with a wide strain of melancholy the text does not support. Like a number of directors after him, and performers and critics for that matter, Stanislavsky wasn't able to see that for all the losses some of its characters sustain, others are given accessions, so that The Cherry Orchard is far from being a heavy or in any way depressing play. For its mood of recognition and reconciliation, it can even be thought of as making up something like Chekhov's Tempest.

In much the same way The Seagull is also a comedy, not in spite of the suicide and other painful events but in part because of them, in a quietly original way that at the same time has classical precedents. To discuss that now would be to run far ahead of myself, but to talk more generally about "comedy" as a designation for a work it might not seem to fit wouldn't be inappropriate. And so a digression.

The two towering examples that come immediately to mind are of course La divina commedia and La comédie humaine. In both cases the word clearly isn't being used to denote a conventional genre or to describe the main substance of the works; both, after all, enclose more than enough suffering, evil, and death, everything grievous, somber, and cruel. Instead it points to or controls a final, governing response. The word "comedy" suggests the answers to the following questions: What is our state of mind or spirit supposed to be after we finish these works? How are we to understand them, to "take" them, as we like to say?

With Dante the matter is comparatively clear. Because the movement of his great poem is from suffering to rejoicing, hell to heaven, it ends happily, that much is obvious. Not so obvious, we might think, is why this outcome should earn for the entire work the description of comedy. After a little reflection we can see that it does so because such is the state of morale, the lasting attitude, wrung from the whole arduous yet ultimately successful journey "upwards," that Dante has toward his creation and that we are meant to share.

For beyond its ordinary function of making us laugh or smile, comedy has a wider and deeper action, as formal comedies like Shakespeare's have always made evident: to restore, to heal, to embolden. Just as there are "thoughts that lie too deep for tears," so there are those that lie beyond the relative simplicity of laughter. In Dante's universe, comedy is a lightness retroactively at work for those who qualify, the potentially saved (and, by analogy, for nonbelievers of goodwill, as T. S. Eliot pointed out); it's a relief from spiritual anxiety, a reminder of redemption, a restoration and a new existence of hope; it's God's difficult yet loving "joke."

Balzac uses the word in a different, much more problematic sense, deliberately and more than half-mockingly adapting his title from Dante yet in the end retaining some portion of the poet's meaning. The new title suggests a God-like perspective, with the novelist's eye replacing the divinity's omniscience. In this secular world life is comic in a negative sense because it lacks the dignity of tragedy as well as the metaphysical structure to sustain a tragic view, and in a positive one, which is to say one it does deserve, because it contains its own principle of redemption.

Forever defeating itself, like a haplessly suffering circus clown, it roughly resembles what we call a "comedy of errors," rather more grave and consequential than in customary in such a genre, no doubt, but still full of endless deviations from or betrayals of the ideal, perpetual failures of understanding, slip-ups, workings at cross-purposes, and gaffes—some of them, to be sure, with fatal outcomes. But though it may be a black farce at times, a comedy we sigh over, whose humor is often of the gallows variety, it isn't in the end conducive to despair.

This is because the imaginative act has intervened. Simply to see this roiling series of mistakes, miscalculations, and failings, this burlesque of the ideal, to observe its inex haustible variety—comedy is always much more multifar ious than tragedy—and to organize all that in the creating mind as a sort of failed Divine Comedy, is paradoxically enough to bring some of the relief Dante gives us. It's to offer hope through privileged perception, a "cure" through a well-wrought description of the disease. Even the darkest moments in Balzac, the particular novels or sequences within them that recoil most strongly from being called comic, take their places in the general easing of anxiety which occurs whenever experience is recovered from shapelessness and made less inexplicable.

Chekhov, it goes without saying, is much closer to Balzac than to Dante. Like the French writer, he hasn't any religious convictions that can make for comedy in a sublime sense, he isn't dealing in salvation. Like Balzac, he gives us nothing that resembles a conventional "happy ending" either. But Chekhov has an even more wry and rueful appreciation of human folly and frailty than Balzac, and he is far less disposed to draw moral conclusions—he isn't disposed that way at all—or to impose his own views. He doesn't try to substitute for God, as Balzac often seems to be doing, nor does he claim knowledge of everything or wish to extend his artistic dominion over it all. His comedies aren't part of any broad "canvas" but the products of alternations in his moods or in particular visions.

When Chekhov is engaged in writing a comedy the situations he invents receive their identifying energy and shape from his decision to keep them open, not yet determined; something can be done about what otherwise would be taken as inescapable fate. Clearly the comedic aspect of The Seagull (and of The Cherry Orchard too) lies in its attitude or point of view, not in its literal series of events or despite any of them. This is so obviously true that I hesitate to make anything of it. Yet misunderstandings abound of how these things work, especially in regard to Chekhov, whose subject matter is so often seen to dictate his manner, instead of the other way round.

Attitude shows itself, of course, not declaratively but in structure, design, and tone. One thing we will see in The Seagull is that Chekhov constantly deflects matters away from being taken too seriously, which in this context means either tragically or in too absolute a way. This is true even in the plays he didn't call comedies, as we saw with Ivanov and will see again. In the more "serious" works there is still an openness to the idea that destiny may not be fatal, though physical ways out of disaster or dilemma have been closed off.

The resulting "lightness" in the noncomedies is nothing like a diminution of seriousness, and in the comedies it's nothing like frivolity. In their different ways both kinds of play offer us something like breathing room, space in which we can maneuver, take emotional or intellectual steps of our own, set matters in order, compare, recognize. All this is an act of freedom from what deconstructionists would call a programed response. As a corollary of this, or as its executive means, Chekhov's tone in The Seagull is bantering, excited, matter-of-fact, or affectionate, but never somber and never cold. He'd enjoyed writing the play, he let it be known, something rather rare for him, and the pleasure permeates the text.

In a much quoted letter of October 21, 1895, Chekhov wrote to Alexei Suvorin that he was at work on a new long play, his his first since The Wood Demon of five or six years earlier.2 During that interval he had several times expressed his disgust with the condition of the theater in Russia; a representative, if rather elaborate, comment was this: "We must strive with all our power to see to it that the stage passes out of the hands of the grocers and into literary hands, otherwise the theater is doomed."3 Yet he had also given voice to those by now familiar doubts as to his own talent for writing plays; "as far as my dramaturgy is concerned, it seems to me that I was not destined to be a playwright"4 is a comparatively mild expression of those misgivings. But now he told his friend and publisher, "I can't say I'm not enjoying writing it, though [it would have been more accurate for him to have said 'because'] I'm flagrantly disregarding the basic tenets of the stage. The comedy has three female roles, six male roles, four acts, a landscape (a view of a lake), much conversation about literature, little action and five tons of love."5 (The Russian text actually reads five "poods" of love; a pood is a unit of approximately thirty-six pounds.)

Chekhov had some way to go before he finished writing it, but The Seagull would turn out to be almost exactly as he had described it, with the addition of a fourth, minor female character and rather more action than he had suggested. Later on I'll take up the supremely important nature of this action.

Chekhov wasn't exaggerating the weight of love in his play. It announces itself almost immediately and by the end of the first act a character will remark, "What a state they're in and what a lot of loving." As we'll see, what a cross-hatching too of amorous relationships and would-be liaisons! He wasn't over-stating, either, the prominence of what he had called "conversation about literature." Actually, the conversation—and not just that but also monologues, interjections, spoken thoughts, and private murmurings—is about fiction and writing it, plays and writing them, the state of the theater in Russia, the nature and profession of acting and, most widely and pertinently, the life of both art and the artist.

The Seagull, then, is a play, a comedy, largely "about" art and love, creativity and the erotic. I put "about" in quotation marks so as to make what I think is an important point, the one Beckett was making when he said of Joyce that "his writing is not about something; it is that something itself."6 This is to say that the subjects of imaginative literatuver—in which for my present purposes and while recognizing the difference I include plays both as texts and in performance—don't exist independently of the writing itself. They're not like prey waiting to be pounced upon by a verbally gifted hunter or seedy rooms needing to be refurbished by a painter in words. In turn writing isn't the expression or treatment of a preexisting reality but an act that discovers and gives life to a "subject" within itself.

Ibsen once said that "I have never written because I had, as they say, a 'good subject'" but out of what he called "lived-through" experience.7 And Picasso, to turn to another art to which Beckett's observation is every bit as pertinent, said once, "Je ne cherche pas, je trouve." By which he certainly didn't mean that he found promising things to paint—just imagine him coming upon a woman with three noses or legs like giant sausages and crying "Aha!"—but that he found aesthetic reality of a visual order in the making of the painting.

Following on this The Seagull is about art and love not so much in the sense that they are its topics but in the sense that the entire play quite literally surrounds them, providing those abstractions with the dramatic context or field in which they can come to life, working themselves out as motifs; or rather it might be more useful to think of them as something like "notional presences," ideas attached to bodies and impregnating them. Chekhov takes art and love into his writing, turning them from their disembodied state into dramatic energies. These are then deployed throughout the play, and in the process art and love necessarily assume new identities, since they are being written, not being written about. This is what happens whenever we encounter something in an imaginative work and say, I never saw it that way before; you couldn't have, because it wasn't that way before.

But this isn't all of it. What his characters say or think about love or art has to be revelatory of what they are, of their natures, not discrete attitudes or a series of opinions (although having more opinions than passions is itself a revelation of character). Which is only to say that themes have to be active, incarnate, endowed with physiognomies we might almost say, or else they plague us as inert, gaseous thought.

Who are these characters in so many of whom love and art have lodged or taken over like an infection? An anatomy of the dramatis personae seems in order at this point.

Irina Arkadina is a famous or at least a well-known actor. (In accordance with current tendencies and common sense, I intend from now on to use "actor" when I refer to a performer of either sex; "actress" has become silly and demeaning and ought to be buried along with "authoress" and "aviatrix." Of course Chekhov was committed to the usage of his own day, so that we'll find "actress" in the text and I'm not about to tamper with that.) Vain, voluble, a "foolish, mendacious, self-admiring egoist," Chekhov said about Arkadina, which on the play's balance might be just a bit strong; she's concerned about her son Konstantin Treplev, yet constantly forgetful of him or actively hostile, and she's in love with her companion, Boris Trigorin. Treplev is in his early twenties when the play begins, at the outset of a career as a playwright and writer of fiction; he's self-absorbed and self-pitying, with, one suspects, something of an oedipal fixation on his mother, and he's romantically in love with Nina Zarechnaya.

Trigorin is a famous writer, possibly modeled on someone Chekhov knew and containing elements of his own self (by which I mean something more specific than the usual generalities playwrights take from their own biographies for their characterizations). He's absorbed in his craft but indifferent to his celebrity. An essentially selfish man, he'll leave Arkadina for a while when he falls in love with Nina. She's an aspiring actor, sensitive, impulsive, someone we might in today's debased vocabulary call "vulnerable." She's in love with Treplev at first, then falls violently for Trigorin.

These are the four principals. It's more than interesting to note that all are actively in love and all are practicing artists in one way or another.

A few degrees below them in significant presence are Pyotr Sorin and Evgenii Dorn. Sorin is Arkadina's brother, a retired civil servant, self-deprecating, genial, yet also fussily melancholy over the imminent prospect of old age; he's rather reminiscent of Shabelsky in Ivanov and somewhat of a characterological ancestor of Gayev in The Cherry Orchard. Dorn is one of the five doctors in Chekhov's full-length plays (only The Cherry Orchard lacks one); an intelligent wryly sceptical man with an impulse toward lyricism and a mild philosophical bent, he might be thought of as the only "balanced" person in the play.

The other four characters occupy with varying bulk the remainder of the dramatic space. We can think of them as participants in subplots or as secondary agencies for the working out of perception, but they are never simply functional, never purely instrumental figures like the servants, guards, and messengers of classical drama.

Ilya Shamrayev, Sorin's estate manager, is a brusque, officious, somewhat despotic man and the only character apart from Sorin who isn't either in love or the object of someone else's carnal, or at least amorous, desire. His daughter Masha is an intelligent, self-dramatizing young woman hopelessly in love with Treplev (in an early draft she turns out to be Dorn's daughter), and her mother, Polina, is an efficient, loyal family retainer lifted from a merely functional status by being unrequitedly in love with Dorn. And Simon Medvedenko, a schoolmaster both long-suffering and pedantic, pathetically desires Masha, who treats him contemptuously for his pains, though she'll later with unchanged contempt agree to marry him; he's a direct forerunner of Kulygin in Three Sisters, though he lacks the latter's redeeming kindness.

The setting for the comedy they enact, Sorin's estate in the country, is similar to those for all of Chekhov's major plays with the apparent exception of Three Sisters, which has an urban milieu; still, that play is linked to the other mises en scène by the extreme provincial dullness and isolation of the town. These settings provide Chekhov with dramatic conditions, or conditions for a drama, that wholly suit his artistic intentions; and thinking about that irresistibly compels a digression at this point.

The places are isolated, at a considerable distance from the hurly-burly and multiple distractions of big cities, from "culture," careers, formal amusements, professional entanglements, politics, ideas, the sway and clutch of complicated, often abstract associations. In his long story "The Duel," written in 1891, Chekhov has a character "stuck" in the Caucasus and ardently (if a bit journalistically!) longing for the pleasures of Moscow and St. Petersburg. People in those places, he says to himself, "discuss trade, new singers, Franco-Prussian accord. Everywhere life is vigorous, cultured, intelligent, brimming with energy." And in a story written as early as 1886, "Difficult People," someone is "reminded … of … Moscow, where street-lamps were burning and carriages were rattling in the streets, where lectures were being given." And then of course we will hear the Prozorov sisters' repeated "Moscow! To Moscow!" in Three Sisters.

In the settings Chekhov chooses, the characters, deprived of the stimulation the metropolis affords, are pressed back on themselves and on each other. Some of them—Arkadina, Trigorin, and, at the end, Nina of The Seagull, Ranevskaya and some of her extended family of The Cherry Orchard, and the Prozorovs and army officers of Three Sisters—have known or will come to know what the larger world, the great world, is like. In his two comedies Chekhov offers that kind of relief from the narrowness of provincial or rural life—this is one reason they're comedies—but even so the alternative is given to us indirectly, talked about, offered as a possibility but not lived visibly on the stage.

On these isolated estates people gaze, speak, gesture, kiss, think, and weep in a severely limited atmosphere. They're enclosed in an enclave, tiny, burdensomely self-sufficient, stifling at times yet also, for the purposes of Chekhov's art, in a very special way "pure," reduced to essentials. They are far from the vast sprawling human country whose distant voices they hear, speaking of another, richer life. And they're there because Chekhov has put them there, as part of a design, so as to exist in one kind of play rather than another, not, as those who see him fundamentally as a concerned social observer think, because he looked around and there they were, leading "deprived" lives and so making up fitting objects for his famous brooding, pitying, humane, and mournful glance.

In the way he chooses to circumscribe the situations his characters inhabit, he is closer to Beckett than to any of his contemporaries, or to any other Russian writer for that matter; Gorky put many of his people into a romanticized poverty, Tolstoy put some of his in a romanticized asceticism. The restricted circumstances Beckett and Chekhov fashion for their plays are of another order; beneath their enormous physical differences they greatly resemble each other, for the artistic purpose of the confinement is very much the same for both.

In their plays—so much straitening, so much absence! In Endgame as in Uncle Vanya, in Waiting for Godot as in Three Sisters, the inescapable fact is that there's nothing much to do. Beckett's plays are of course far more radically denuded than Chekhov's, though they're certainly not better on that account, but the surprisingly dramatic result of the scarcity and want in the lives both playwrights invent, so unpropitious for drama, one would think, is nearly the same.

For what is done is closer to fundamental life than the seductions toward activity, toward choice and mobility as the very essence of meaningful existence, ever allow us to come in the conventional theater or to see in our own lives. Deprived of distractions or having to rely on their own primitive, sadly provincial, or solipsistic ones—all that keeping "the ball rolling" or fussing with the bag in Beckett, all those card or lotto games or musical evenings in Chekhov—bereft of the consolations of staying busy, on the road neither to "fulfillment," that fictive aim or shibboleth, nor to wisdom, nor even in most cases to understanding, all of Beckett's characters and nearly all of Chekhov's are reduced to the essential tasks of getting through the days and nights, making their way, with what is left to them, through time. Once again, we remember that in Chekhov's comedies more is left to them, but even so such a residue is on hold, so to speak, reserved for the future, which in both dramatists, for highly significant reasons (which in Chekhov's case we'll take up later), has no status, is simply a fiction.

And then, or rather along with this, they go off in that quintessential human way of holding back the darkness, they talk; they tell their lives, they ad lib their hopes, joys and sorrows, creating their fates in language as they go, more precisely our recognition of their fates. These outwardly minimal existences come to us with all the freshness, peculiar as the word may sound in this context, of the root, of the way it is at bottom, Beckett's comme c 'est ça. "Oh what a curse, mobility," Winnie cries out in Happy Days. The artistic undoing of the curse, the blessing, makes itself felt in the characters having to stay still; this is the condition in which we can see "how it is."

And so the characters of The Seagull talk. Naturally, there are physical events top, but nearly all of the decisive ones take place off stage. This is one of the things Chekhov meant when he spoke of consciously ignoring the fundamental tenets of the stage, and it is at the center of David Magarshack's argument about Chekhov's emergent mastery. The subject is so dense and important that I'm tempted to go off in full pursuit right now, but I'll content myself with simply saying here that among the theatrical principles, pieties we might better call them, he was challenging was the notion that off stage is only for actions which for reasons of propriety or mechanical impossibility can't be shown directly. In Greek and Roman drama, of course, important events took place off stage, as they did in Shakespeare and other classical writers, but for the most part these were events inconvenient or impossible to show, and in any case for a long time off stage had been chiefly where the stagehands waited.


As he does in every one of his full-length plays after Ivanov, Chekhov quickly brings on all the persons of the drama. From The Seagull on no play will fail to introduce well before the end of the first act everyone of any significance—which is to say nearly everyone, since almost no Chekhov character, however "minor," lacks dramatic weight. The strategic point of this is that it can work against the linear or accumulating movement of the usual play. Nobody will come on stage later, bringing important news or actively furthering developments and so extending a line of more or less strictly unfolding narrative. The quietly revolutionary effect of this is that characters take their places almost like players in a game such as basketball or soccer, occupying a field and ready for whatever will happen.

The very first stage direction informs us that art, in the form of the theater itself, is going to figure in The Seagull. Setting the scene, Chekhov writes of a stage "hastily put together for an amateur performance" and of "workmen … coughing and hammering … behind the lowered curtain." Then in the first lines of dialogue "love" also makes its first appearance, in intimate if a little ludicrous connection to art.

Medvedenko and Masha are on and, glancing at the crude stage, she says, "The Play will start soon." "Yes," Medvedenko says, "Konstantin Gavrilovich wrote it, and Nina Zarechnaya will act in it. They're in love, and tonight their souls will merge in the creation of a single artistic symbol." After this banality he goes on to complain that unlike Nina and Konstantin "my soul and yours don't share a common ground." Masha has a moment earlier indicated her own lovesickness in the play's wonderful second line, the dourly cryptic "I'm in mourning for my life," after Medvedenko's opening "How come you always wear black?"

After a few more exchanges they're soon joined by all the other characters, who lay out for us, offhandedly and in some respects unconsciously, most of their ruling qualities and idiosyncracies, as well as what binds them factually and emotionally to one another. Little signatures show themselves—Sorin's self-deprecating laugh and his habit of finishing his remarks with "and that sort of thing" or "and so on," Dorn's bemused singing of snatches of songs—the kind of thing that so unaccountably irritated Nabokov. And we hear the first mention of a seagull when Nina says that she feels drawn to the lake as though she were one of those birds.

They've gathered for the performance of Konstantin's play. They're mostly in an amiable mood, except for Masha, who's almost never amiable, Treplev, who's nervous, and Arkadina, who's clearly disgruntled by her son's having dared to step onto her territory. "When is this thing ever going to start?" she asks and then breaks out in a pointed, only partially accurate quote from Shakespeare—"My son! Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul … ," to which Konstantin replies with another (paraphrased) speech from Hamlet that in the most literary way reveals his oedipal rivalry with Trigorin (he's aheady revealed his envy of him as a writer): "Nay, but to yield to wickedness, to seek [out] love in the depths of sin."

The inner play begins with a prologue by Konstantin, who "loudly" orates: "Oh, you venerable old shadows that linger above this lake at night.…" The curtain parts to reveal Nina, in white, sitting on a large rock. "People, lions, eagles and partridges, horned deer, geese, spiders, silent fish dwelling in the water," she begins, launching into a long futuristic monologue that speaks of a time when everything in the world is dead except for some vague spirit that will do battle with the Devil and, victorious, will bring "matter and spirit … together in perfect harmony."

The "decadent gibberish," as Arkadina so cruelly yet not without reason will call it, suggests the worst of German expressionist drama of a generation later, in its whole tone and in specific lines like "I am that great World Spirit." Still, it does give some evidence of anarchic talent and urgent ambition and this, rather than any reasoned scornfulness, lies behind Arkadina's jibes, so jealous is she of what she considers her own fiefdom. After she's interrupted Nina several times, Konstantin abruptly stops the performance, saying bitterly, "I'm sorry. I forgot that writing plays and acting in them was only for the chosen few. I intruded on your domain!" Everyone is left buzzing.

In a generally most perceptive essay on The Seagull, Robert Louis Jackson makes an ingenious case for Konstantin's play as being highly significant in its own right.8 He offers a detailed reading of it in terms of creation myth, a metaphor for the artist's journey and a disguised oedipal confession, and then extends his findings beyond their source and into the main text. I owe a great deal to Jackson's other ideas and will make grateful use of them in this section, but I think he makes too much of this one.

Whatever the literary motifs of Konstantin's little play, they seem to me less important in themselves than what, among other things, they tell us about Konstantin himself, which, to be sure, Jackson partly acknowledges. Yet he pushes his interpretation a little too far, somewhat over-loading with abstract ideas a relatively uncomplicated if subtle comedy, and in the process losing sight of a very concrete function of the inner play, which, as I see it, is to set going talk about art and the artist. We can be sure that Chekhov didn't provide Konstantin with any old overblown piece of writing in an effort to discredit him, but he didn't give him such an arcane and ponderously philosophic one as Jackson thinks either. (I don't want to leave this point without stressing how enormously useful Jackson's insights are in general; his ideas about The Seagull as a play about what being an artist means are some of the main sources of my own thinking.)

The talk set in motion by the inner play, Chekhov's "conversation about literature," which as I said earlier is about other things as well, begins even before the aborted performance. "It's hard to act in your play," Nina tells Konstantin as they wait for the others to take their places, "it has no living characters." "Living characters!" Konstantin explodes. "We must represent life not as it is, and not as it should be, but as it appears in our dreams." Nina calmly ignores this, going on to say, "There's so little action, it's just one long monologue. And I think every play really ought to have some love interest."

The exchange tells us a good deal about where they are in relation to their art at this point and obliquely suggests their eventual destinations in the comedy. Treplev's ideas are vague, soft, inexperienced, making up a young man's aesthetic, and they're peculiarly belligerent. He'll drop the programmatic aspect later on, but for tactical reasons, not out of conviction, when he turns into a technician in the fiction he comes to write. But he won't overcome the absence of life from his work, and by continually trying to justify his writing on one basis or another, most often by attacking other people's, he reveals something dangerously defensive, polemical, and theoretical in his approach to art.

As for Nina, she's basically right in her criticism but she too betrays a weakness, provisional in her case, as it happens; her remark about a play needing "love interest" indicates that she's not yet a serious actor, or artist, but is in the preliminary phase of being stage-struck. We should notice that in a delicious piece of irony Chekhov has written her into a play with an abundance of what might be called love interest, only of a kind whose weight and dramatic implications are as far as they can be from what she means here.

Treplev's play provokes other responses besides Nina's and Arkadina's and each provides a little revelation of character. Trigorin is neutral, evasive in his "Every person writes what he wants to and can" and Medvedenko adds to his reputation for boring pedantry with "No one has the right to separate spirit from matter, since perhaps spirit itself is the sum total of material atoms." Dorn's surprising approval—"I liked the play. There's something to it"—can be ascribed to his usual kindness but is better explained by his confession to Konstantin after praising him that if "I could have experienced the lift of the spirit that artists feel when they create something, it seems to me … I'd have flown away from earth and into the sky." And the play also inspires Sorin to confess to having in his youth had aspirations to being a writer.

Understandably, the talk about art and the artist has as its chief participants Treplev, Trigorin, Arkadina, and, with especially great consequence at the end, Nina. They are the artists and each has something to elucidate, press for, or defend. In everything they say we can feel Chekhov's presence, in more than the obvious sense of his having written the dialogue; the points of view and attitudes he presents touch, often intimately, on his own concerns as a writer. He doesn't necessarily endorse any of them, he clearly disapproves of some, but he anchors the "debate" in animate personalities who have a stake in its outcome, and so keeps it from becoming abstract.

As we would expect, Treplev is most vociferous. Besides the conversation with Nina before his play begins he also talks to Sorin about his mother and the theater, the two "topics" merging into one argument. "She loves the theater," he says of Arkadina, "she thinks she's serving humanity, the sacred art, but in my opinion the contemporary theater is stuck in a rut.… These great talents, high priests of … art … they try to dig up a moral from banal pictures and phrases … a thousand variations [of] the same old thing."

To this point his views would certainly have been echoed by Chekhov (except for the note of envy they contain), as would his remark about needing a new kind of theater. But when he adds, "We need new forms … and if we can't have them, we're better off with nothing," an alarm ought to go off.

As we know, Chekhov never spoke of "new forms." He wanted changed morale, a theater of truthfulness and resiliency instead of dead mechanics, but he never consciously or avowedly aspired to technical change or pursued it as an end in itself, as Konstantin seems to do. When Trigorin says of him that "he grumbles, snorts and preaches about new forms," the verbs suggest that Konstantin's quest for originality has something inorganic and inauthentic about it, in large part because it's a mission too conscious by far.

At the end of the play, after he's achieved an empty success as a writer of fiction, Konstantin will partly recognize his own condition. "I've talked so much about new forms," he tells himself, "and now I feel that I'm gradually falling into a rut." He unhappily ponders Trigorin's "easy" methods for a while, quoting some images from one of Trigorin's stories (actually they're from a Chekhov story, "Wolf"), comparing them to his own stressful, slick, and brittle style (qualities we identify from his own and others' comments), and then says, "This is agony. (Pause.) Yes, I'm coming to believe more and more that what's important isn't old and new forms at all, but the fact that one writes without thinking of any forms. A person writes because it flows freely from his soul."

Chekhov isn't advocating, through Treplev, any naive or primitive aesthetic; he's not saying anything so simpleminded as "The hell with how you write, it's what you write that counts." But for him technique was always in the service of vision and experience, not the other way round, just as originality was a possible outcome and never a goal. Konstantin's "agony" is spiritual, not the result of wrong methods. Dorn, who admires him, says near the end, "It's a pity … that he doesn't have any particular mission." (This is an observation Chekhov had made in his preliminary notes on the Treplev character; for "mission" or, another possible translation, "aims" we can read "intentions beyond the ego.") "He conveys an impression and nothing more. And impressions alone won't get you … far." Trigorin sums it up: "There's something strange and vague about his work.… He doesn't have a single living character." A most subtle point Chekhov is making about Konstantin is that in the dominion of art, ideas, no matter how "correct," don't guarantee anything.

Trigorin talks even more about writing than does Konstantin, but never aggressively and never as a matter of theory. Quite the contrary: in the play's longest speeches he tells Nina about the writer's, or artist's, life, countering with prosaic, deflating comments her breathlessly romantic notions of what it must be like. When she speaks of "fascinating, brilliant lives full of meaning," he replies, "All these nice words—forgive me—remind me of … candy, which I never eat." When she insists that his "life must be wonderful," he says, "What's so good about it?" and goes on to tell her that writing for him is compulsive, not a matter of inspiration. "I write without a break, like a runaway train.… I can't help it. What's so wonderful and brilliant about that?"

In her infatuation with him or at least as much with the life he seems to inhabit, Nina continues to press him. When he keeps denying that his vocation is glamorous, she tells him, "You're simply spoiled by success." Trigorin's reply is crucial to an understanding of Chekhov's idea of the artist in The Seagull, as are also some balancing things Nina will say at the end. "What success?" he asks. "I've never pleased myself. I don't like myself as a writer. Worst of all, I'm in a kind of stupor and often don't understand what I write."

The words may not precisely represent Chekhov's feelings and attitude in every respect, but the self-critical position does. He once wrote in his notebook that "dissatisfaction with oneself is one of the fundamental qualities of every true talent," and this, among other things, is what distinguishes Trigorin from Treplev, whose later self-depreciation is a matter of injured ego, not creative modesty. Moreover, Trigorin's scoffing at Nina's immature idea of success—acclaim by the world—echoes Chekhov's often expressed and passionately held opinion that success defined in that way is more than contemptible. Though he wasn't without a reasonable interest in his own reputation, he hated the sort of celebrity which produced followers, a cult. In 1898 he wrote to Lydia Avilova, an erstwhile fiction writer who was in love with him, that "writing itself is not what repels me but this literary entourage, from which one has no escape."9

There are other connections between Trigorin and Chekhov, including, on a minor note, their both being avid fishermen. When, for example, Trigorin tells Nina that early in his career, when he was a playwright, he was afraid of the public, he says, "When I had to stage a new play, it always seemed to me that the dark-haired people in the audience were hostile and the light-haired people were cool and indifferent."10 This is an immediate reminder of a well-known letter of Chekhov's to Suvorin in which he says that before performances of Ivanov he was sure that "the dark-haired men" among the onlookers would be "hostile." None of this is to say that Trigorin is anything like Chekhov's alter ego; there are extremely important differences between them, which I'll take up later. But the connections are clear.

If Trigorin isn't an egotist about his work, he's not free from one occupational disease of the writer, which is to exploit others for the sake of one's art. "I try," he tells Nina, "to catch you and myself in every sentence—every word—and I rush off … to lock up all those sentences and words in my literary storehouse on the off-chance they might come in handy." And indeed we see him at this work of plucking what he calls the living "flowers" for imaginative use. Into his ever-present notebook go jottings about Masha—"Takes snuff and drinks vodka.… Always wears black. Loved by the school teacher"—and Nina too: "A plot for a short story," a story about her and a seagull, he says of one note she sees him making.

Dangerous as it is to interpolate from a writer's life to the work, it seems justified at times and this is one of those cases. On several occasions, most notably concerning a short story of 1891, "The Butterfly," Chekhov was accused of having exploited for literary purposes some embarrassing facts about friends of his. He denied any conscious intention of doing it and there is no reason not to believe him, but the matter must have remained vaguely oppressive to him. We're put in mind of how Ibsen tried to expiate in his last plays his guilt for having "sacrificed" to his art the people closest to him, his wife and son. While Chekhov is nowhere near such moral anguish, he does, I think, render Trigorin in part as a cautionary figure and a delegate from his own conscience.

Arkadina doesn't talk so much about art as about the artist—herself, as it happens. Chekhov called her an "egoist" and many touches contribute to a portrait of the actor as Narcissus. We've seen Arkadina attack her son for his own artistic ambitions; later she'll announce that she's never read his published stories, "I just don't have the time." In their famous quarrel as she bandages his self-inflicted head wound, she tells him that he has "no talent—just pretensions" and he in turn calls her a "hack." Though it's not quite fair, Konstantin's epithet is rather more accurate. Fame, éclat, position are what his mother wants. When she does speak about acting, it's to call attention to her successes: "They gave me the warmest reception in Kharkov, my dears. My head is still spinning! … I wore a gorgeous gown."

There's fine irony and splendidly deft characterization in her reaction to a Maupassant story they've been reading aloud at the beginning of Act Two. Arkadina reads from "On the Water": "When a woman has chosen a writer whom she wishes to captivate, she bombards him with compliments, kindnesses and favors." She breaks off reading to say, "Well, that may be true for the French, but we're not like that at all" and then reads some more lines to herself and tells Nina that "the rest isn't interesting or … accurate."

She speaks highly of Trigorin's stories, but we suspect that, as was true of her son's work, she hasn't read them, having instead captured him and his name. She's a miser who gives three servants a ruble to split among themselves; she's a prima donna in almost every respect. But though she clearly incarnates Chekhov's deep dislike for the artist or practitioner consumed by self, something a little more positive about her, a few bases for redemption, escapes his authorial vigilance. She does love her brother and in a beleaguered way her son, and is generous enough to encourage Nina to go on the stage.

Whether or not she is a really bad actor, a fake in other words, as some commentators think she is, seems to me not to be the point. We've only Treplev's assertion that she's a "hack" (or "drone," as the Russian word rutinyor can also be translated); in his screed against her, Chekhov never even hints that she's untalented. No, her presence in the play is as a specimen of existence and behavior in whom self-absorption is a deep coloration. She should never be played on a single strident note, for she isn't a villain but the occupant of one end of a spectrum covering the variations of selves as they engage with love and art, the way Nina stands at the other end.

Nina. I wrote earlier of how she begins as stage-struck and of her infatuation with some presumedly thrilling elements of artistic life; as an aspect of that phase we see her also as "star-struck." When Shamrayev rudely tells Arkadina that no horses are available to take her to the station, Nina says to Polina, "To refuse … a famous actress! Surely her slightest wish, her merest whim, is more important than your farm? Simply incredible!" The evolution, or education, that carries her far past these immature conditions of mind and spirit lies behind Chekhov's having written, "To me, Nina's part is everything in the play."11 But I have to defer my consideration of how this "everything" accumulates and decisively asserts itself, until we have the rest of The Seagulls substance in our grasp.


If we were to imagine a piece of music inspired by some aspect of The Seagull, a likely one might be called "The Love Variations" or maybe, borrowing from Bach, "Chaconne for Violin Solo on an Amorous Theme." "Five tons of love," Chekhov had jestingly said the play contained, but of course the real point isn't such undifferentiated heft but the diversity on display, and the intermeshings. In that last regard there are moments when we're reminded of Arthur Schnitzler's play Reigen or, as it's better known to us, La ronde, written five years later out of a very different, far narrower sensibility and idea but somewhat resembling Chekhov's play in the way its characters link up in a chain of carnality or carnal aspiration, as well as in a skein of romantic longing.

I'll begin with the lesser characters' desires, all of them, as it happens, unsatisfied. I say "as it happens," but Chekhov never lets things simply happen, for he's always and wholly the deliberate artist. Not to have your cravings fulfilled is as instructive and dramatic as to attain satisfaction, especially in light of the fact that for the major characters satisfaction is always partial, temporary, or fugitive. What love doesn 't do or bring is a central "action" of The Seagull, and how it affects other aspects of life, most pointedly the morale of artistic practice, is another and even more important one.

Medvedenko loves Masha, Masha loves Konstantin, Polina loves Dorn. None of these lovers is, in the old-fashioned term, requited, and much of the play's lower level or integumentary buzz and hum of conversation and musings is made up of their sense of injury or deprivation. Medvedenko is the first to declare his emotion, to which Masha's response is, "I'm touched by your love but I can't love you back and that's that." Then, in a fine example of how Chekhov, beginning with The Seagull, will often have his characters change the subject whenever it threatens to become too ponderous—or, at times, too disturbing—she adds, "Have some [snuff]." Later, in despair over Konstan tin's indifference to her, she consents to marry Medvedenko, rationalizing her decision to Trigorin: "To love without hope, to wait whole years for something.… But when I get married I won't have time for love."

She's lying or deceiving herself. When she does marry Medvedenko she continues to treat him with brutal scorn and keeps the torch burning for Treplev, to the point where her mother Polina embarrassingly pleads with him on her behalf: "All a woman needs, Kostya, is to be looked on kindly. I know for myself." For her part Polina "imploringly" says to Dorn, "Evgenii, my dear, my beloved, let me come and live with you." Dorn, who earlier had made the remark about the "lot of loving" going on, tells her, "I'm fifty-five … it's too late for me to change my life." The most sceptical of all the characters, as well as the most detached, Dorn moves to deflect and disarm the passions swirling around him with bits of balladry, half-mocking commentary on the love-charged atmosphere: "Tell me not your young life's ruined" and "Oh, speak to her, you flowers."

These three minor characters in love aspire to an "other" as an agency of deliverance: Medvedenko from his material and emotional impoverishment and the lack of self-esteem his sententiousness masks; Polina from her unhappy marriage to the cold-spirited Shamrayev; Masha from the emptiness of a life without any man she thinks equal to the high estimate she's made of her own worth—Medvedenko clearly doesn't fill the bill. And motivations or dispositions like these are present in the major characters too, only with greater complication and weightier consequences.

Arkadina needs Trigorin for her own amour propre and as a shield against the loneliness or, more deeply, the solipsism her selfish, brittle life creates. In turn Trigorin stays placidly with her, out of what he calls his "flabby, spineless" nature (one way he doesn't resemble Chekhov!), until his writer's quest for new material and his need for emotional replenishment, or rejuvenation, encounter Nina. She begins by being in love with Konstantin, mildly, as a kind of early habit, we suspect, then falls for Trigorin, who seems to beckon with the promise of a glamorous new life. And Konstantin needs Nina for reasons of ego as well as for a muse, a reliable source of inspiration.

And so for all the characters-in-love the common condition is need. This sometimes displays itself directly, but more often it makes its way to everyone's consciousness through speech whose excessiveness and rhetorical zeal betray a disjunction between feeling and fact, emotion and its object. I said at the beginning that I think the prevailing spirit of The Seagull is one of "antiromanticism." This negative quality is grounded precisely on repeated expressions of romantic desire itself, flowery outbursts about the wonders of the other and dirges on love's absence. The characters lay bare their hearts and in so doing reveal their dreamy or febrile overvaluation of love.

Listen to the twittering eloquence of the love birds, along with some harsher notes:

Konstantin on Nina: "I can't live without her.… Even the sound of her footsteps is wonderful.… My enchantress, my dream.… "

Masha (talking to Dorn) on Konstantin: "I'm suffering. No one, no one knows how I suffer! (Puts her head on his breast, quietly.) I love Konstantin."

Trigorin on Nina: "Young love … delightful and poetic—that carries you off to a world of daydreams—only such love can give one happiness on this earth." And to her: "You're so wonderful … your marvelous eyes … your indescribably … tender smile … that expression of angelic purity.…"

Nina to Trigorin: "If you should ever need my life, then come and take it," a line from a short story, ostensibly by him but actually from Chekhov's "The Neighbors," which Nina has had engraved on a medallion. And to herself: "It's a dream."

Arkadina to Trigorin: "My wonderful, marvelous man.… My happiness, my pride, my joy.… If you leave me, even for one hour, I won't survive. I'll go out of my mind."

A few notes on these urgencies and avowals. One of Chekhov's purposes throughout his writing is to expose or, if that's too harsh, to bring out the ways we fashion our feelings out of culture, articulating them along literary—that is to say borrowed—lines. Konstantin's "I can't live without her" is just such an appropriation; the point is we do live without "her" or "him," or ought to be able to if it becomes necessary and, in the way The Seagull unfolds, Konstantin's incapacity to do this, his making an almost literal condition out of a stock phrase will become part of a cautionary tale.

The line on the medallion Nina gives to Trigorin, from Chekhov's story "The Neighbors," was actually engraved on a medallion by Lydia Avilova; on the back were the words "Short Stories by Anton Chekhov." Avilova evidently hoped to stir his passion, but Chekhov wasn't to be moved by such a literary solicitation, not even of his own authorship.


Those two themes or motifs or subjects—better to go back to a term I coined earlier, "notional presences"—begin to converge as the play moves toward its close. In a brilliant stroke of the dramatic imagination, which I'll discuss more fully a little later on, Chekhov prepares the way for the final fusion of these presences—the confrontation at the end between Konstantin and Nina—by having some of the narrative's central pieces of action occur off stage.

At the end of Act Three, which closes on a "prolonged" kiss between Nina and Trigorin, a stage direction reads, "Two years pass between the third and fourth acts." The events of this period include Masha's marriage to Medvedenko, Treplev's unexpected literary success and, most important, Nina's affair with Trigorin and the subsequent start of her career on the stage. All this news reaches us almost entirely through apparently casual conversations; one in particular, concerning Nina, is between Dorn and Konstantin, who has kept up with her life, even "follow[ing] her" secretly for a time.

The facts, as he knows them, are these: Nina had a baby, who died, Trigorin "fell out of love with her" and went back to Arkadina, and the "disaster" of Nina's life, as Konstantin sees it, extended to her acting stints in provincial theaters. He saw some of her performances and tells Dorn that her acting was "crude … with a good deal of ranting and raving," though with a few high histrionic notes too—"she screamed … and died brilliantly." Later he'd had some letters from her, "intelligent… warm and interesting" ones, but he had "felt that she was deeply unhappy." She'd seemed to him "slightly unhinged" and had strangely signed the letters "Seagull."

Chekhov drew most of his material for Nina's life away from our gaze from a longish piece of fiction of his own called "A Boring Story," written in 1889. In the story a stage-struck young woman runs away with an actor, has a child who dies in infancy, is jilted by her lover, and then goes on the stage, although she has severe doubts about her talent. To this point her story is almost exactly Nina's, but the moral and intellectual consequences of these material details are wholly different for Katya of the fiction and Nina, as we'll see in a moment.

The Seagull's climactic actions, some of the most passionately unfolding and swiftly revelatory in all of Chekhov, begin with Konstantin in his room, meditating on writing, technique, his own feeling of sterility. The others are playing lotto in an adjoining room. Nina knocks on the French window and when Konstantin brings her in she "puts her head on his breast and sobs quietly," reminding us of Masha's having done the same thing earlier with Dorn.

But once again, as so often in Chekhov, material actions that resemble each other have entirely different aftermaths. From this point on, in Konstantin's and Nina's agitated, discordant, and ultimately "failed" conversation, everything having to do with art and love, talent and the ego, is brought together and we witness what can best be described as the exposure and testing of the two characters' deepest—or rather, since Chekhov isn't interested in depth psychology, their most dramatically representative—selves.

For Konstantin, Nina's reappearance seems to be a miracle; she's come back to save him, he thinks. Earlier he had told his mother, "She doesn't love me and I can't write any more," but now his hope springs up. Nina is at first bewildered, almost incoherent at times, struggling to express the hard wisdom her recent life has taught her and about which Konstantin knows nothing, despite his possession of the "facts."

"I'm a seagull," she says several times, identifying herself with the bird as victim and with her youth at the lake, and then, "No, that's not right," quickly taking on a real description, not a fictive one—"I'm an actress." And she says to him, still partly under the sway of their easy youthful romance and shared ambitions, "So, you've become a writer. You're a writer, and I'm an actress." Then, in a prologue to the rapid, violent change in attitude she will soon have to him, a movement away from the waywardness of memory and the pull of early desire, she tells him, "I loved you and dreamed of being famous. But now—." The "now" indicates that neither of these things is any longer true and the break leads her to recite a few details of her physical life as an actor. She thus unwittingly baits a trap into which Konstantin will immediately fall.

Ignoring her words and so revealing that his interest in her is selfish and instrumental, a function of his need, Konstantin pours out his misery and persisting desire, telling her that since she left him "life's been unbearable" for him. Then, in the most fateful line in the play, he says to her, "I call out to you, kiss the ground you walked on." To which Nina, "taken aback," responds, "Why does he talk this way?" emphasizing the crisis by saying it again, "Why does he talk this way?"

Nina's use of the impersonal "he" instead of "you" beautifully indicates her sudden understanding of Konstantin's character, so that her "why"s aren't really questions but a recognition and an expression of regret. He has in effect hanged himself by the romanticism that coats her in such sentimental language and by his having pinned his sense of himself as a writer, his vocational ego, to her erstwhile and potential love for him. Early in the play he had engaged in the "she loves me, she loves me not" game with the petals of a flower (in relation to his mother), and this seemingly innocuous activity can be seen in retrospect as a foreshadowing of his fatal lack of emotional maturity.

What Nina regrets or fleetingly mourns is, I think, her loss of innocence in regard to Konstantin, the death of their shared values and beliefs. She has already lost her larger, more comprehensive innocence. In several long, beautifully modulated speeches she traces the course of her spiritual growth. Because of "the worries of love, jealousy" and his "always laugh[ing] at my dreams," her life with Trigorin had made her "petty and small-minded" and her acting had "lost all meaning" and suffered "terribly." But now, she says, "I'm not like I was." Through a process of maturation that Chekhov doesn't describe, and doesn't have to, she has learned to esteem herself and "delight in" her work. Most significant for The Seagull's pervasive themes, she has learned what it means to be an artist.

"I know now, I understand," she tells Konstantin, "that in our work—it doesn't matter whether we act for the stage or write—the most important thing isn't fame or glory, or anything I had dreamed about, but the ability to endure. To know how to bear your cross and have faith … when I think about my vocation, I'm not afraid of life."

For all their differences, Nina has come to share with Trigorin an attitude towards what it means to be an artist, or rather towards what it ought not mean. It isn't "fame or glory" that one should be after, it's not narrow egoistic satisfaction but something strangely "impersonal," worked at with a kind of detached love or at least a freedom from self-importance. Nina is more "advanced" than Trigorin, we might say, more "positive"; but both are better equipped to go on, to survive, than Konstantin, whose sick ego is lost in conflicting realms of types of satisfaction.

We'll remember that Nina's education began with Trigorin's deflation of her romantic view of the artist's life, in those speeches of his about how unglamorous it really is. And now her speech to Konstantin completes the process of maturation, or is its sign. In various ways Nina's idea of "enduring," spiritual stamina, will be active in every Chekhov play to come; the great difference between Katya of "A Boring Story" and Nina is that the girl of the story gives up in the face of adversity.

In profound contrast to Treplev's having allowed his romantic hunger for Nina to ruin his self-possession, she neither denounces Trigorin nor pines for him, as a lesser dramatist would certainly have made her do; instead she confesses to still loving him, "passionately, desperately," yet without allowing this to at all weaken her resolve to forge her own life as an artist or in any way diminish her determination to endure. She has been able to separate the realms of love and work, the Lieben und Arbeit of Freud's prescription for a happy life, those two central components, of which most often it's only given us to possess one.

When she leaves she allows herself a moment of fond remembrance, quoting from Konstantin's little play, something from their mutual past. Along the way she has exorcised the image of the seagull with which both Trigorin, for whom she and the bird had been material for a story, and Konstantin, stuck in barren literary imaginings, continue to identify her.

Left to himself, Konstantin offers one last revelation of his weakness and immaturity. If his mother were to learn of Nina's visit, he thinks, "It might upset her." A few minutes later, from behind his closed door, we hear the shot.


"I'm flagrantly disregarding the basic tenets of the stage."Chekhov, for one of the few times we know about, spoke of, or at least alluded to, matters of technique in his work, the methods he was choosing to make his plays take the shapes he wanted them to have. Uncharacteristically, he had claimed originality for Ivanov, but that was in regard to its plot, which, we'll remember, he had called "unprecedented" because it had broken with the long tradition of plays as moral struggles, pitched between heroes and villains. And though Ivanov had exhibited a number of innovative dramaturgical steps, they were uncertain or incomplete and were surrounded by elements of a not yet fully superseded practice; nor, in any case, did Chekhov make mention of any of them.

The most basic theatrical "tenet" he was ignoring in the composition of The Seagull was that of the nature of action, as this was conceived by the largely melodramatic or farcical imagination out of which at the time proceeded nearly all the plays of the reigning French style and its Russian imitations. But this principle he was spurning or sidling around had energized most classical drama too, though much more subtly.

A play has to be materially active, it was thought, full of incidents or built around one or two really big ones, and what physically happens on the stage is of a different order from, and almost always more decisive than, what is said. Chekhov's implicit reply to this was that speech can be a good part, perhaps even most, of what "happens" in a play, as much an action as any sword thrust or discovery of a lover in a closet or arrival of a letter with fateful news.

Eugène Scribe, the high priest of les drames des boulevardes, those well-made plays of French popular theater, once wrote that "when my story is right, when I have the events of my play firmly in hand, I could have my janitor write it." How can you not be impressed by the magnificent shamelessness of this assertion, which stands as the polar opposite of Chekhov's method, indeed of his entire sense of drama as an art?

For him events don't dictate the writing but very nearly the other way round. Speech is action, something taking place. Dialogue can therefore be much more than comment on physical activity, or an environment for it, an instigation toward it, or its verbal counterpart. Beginning with The Seagull things said in Chekhov's theater constitute most of the drama. Material occurrences have their own necessity and integrity, but in a shift with enormous consequences for the future of the stage, they mainly serve now to spring speech—the executive instrument of thought—into life, behaving as language's outcomes more than its causes. Or events accompany language as a sort of ballast, preventing words from flying off like balloons, the way they do in the sort of sterile dramas we disconsolately call "talky," of which Konstantin's little play at the beginning of The Seagull is an example.

That the play's chief physical eventfulness—Nina's flight with Trigorin, her baby's birth and death and her early career as an actor; Masha's marriage to Medvedenko; the shooting of the gull; and Konstantin's suicide—that all this takes place off stage, out of view, with most of the events not even made known until time has passed, has several powerful effects. It deeply undercuts if it doesn't entirely eliminate the possibility of melodramatic excess; it "cools" the play down and so allows reflectiveness to control sensation; and it therefore enables us to experience the play more as a pattern of animate consciousness, a set of moral and psychic rhythms and discoveries, than as a narrow, emotionally overwrought tale.

This shift from the explicit to the implied or reported on, from activity before our eyes to that which reaches us through language, is the movement David Magarshack so usefully if incompletely and programatically described as being from "direct" action to "indirect." For all its basic accuracy the formulation is too neat; it tends to blur the relationship between physicality and speech and gives insufficient weight to language's own directness, the way it can exist as action in its own right. In his effort to account for the radical change in Chekhov's dramaturgy, Magarshack saw the process in too formulaic a way, but his fundamental argument—that at some point Chekhov stopped building his plays around large physical scenes in favor of a dispersal of action and the replacement of statement by suggestion—was a greatly original perception at the time and remains essentially sound.

Whatever its nature, the "indirect" has the great and mysterious virtue of freeing us from the tyranny of a priori assumptions, the ones on which sentimental drama, or any heavily plotted kind, is based. Melodrama, I once wrote, "may be defined as physical or emotional action for its own sake, action without moral or spiritual consequences or whose consequences of those kinds have atrophied and turned into cliché precisely by having been the staples of previous 'high' drama." Theater—this is as good a time as any to say it—is the most cannibalistic of the arts, forever chewing on its own history.

The a priori assumptions—amorous passion can be fatal, murder is detestable, a cuckold is ridiculous, and the like—move us in the direction of the already known; they create a stasis of imagination, its defeat, really, by sensation, habit, cliché. On the most trivial level physicality tends to carry its own fixed meanings; to scratch one's head is to indicate bewilderment, to shake one's fist, anger. In regard to the theater, where the connections between inner and outer reality are of course paramount, these correspondences have always been present and were more than once codified, perhaps most notably by Goethe, who composed a manual for actors in which a great range of emotions and states of being were given their "correct" physical equivalents or objective correlatives.

We may be more sophisticated than that, yet so strong is our compulsion to read things this way, so thorough has been our indoctrination in it, that one secret of good acting, pace Goethe, is to make gestures that are unexpected, unpredictable, yet that feel exactly right in the aesthetic context—to scratch one's head in anger, it might be, for the purposes of this argument, or to shake one's fist in bewilderment.

The larger point about this in relation to The Seagull is that had we witnessed any crucial parts of Nina's life between the acts (to take one large part of what Chekhov moved "off), had it been given to us unmediated, we would have been swayed toward emotions too inelastic and circumscribed for the play's amplitude, too small, paradoxical as that might sound in light of the broad material scope, because fixed and conventional. Pity for the infant's death, sympathy for the abandoned lover, perhaps contempt for Trigorin: such "natural" feelings would have flattened out the subtleties of Chekhov's scheme and converted the truest action—Nina's movement into spiritual and psychological maturity against a frieze of other characters more or less arrested within their situations and personalities—into the story of an ill-treated, doggedly ambitious young woman who somehow manages to survive.

As the play is constructed, Nina's inner change takes place away from our awareness; what we do see are the crystallization and articulation of her new self. We get the "facts" about her interim life first from Konstantin, who wholly misinterprets them because he sees them conventionally, and men the truth from her own lips. The contrast, which is at the same time the difference in their natures, is superbly dramatic, unfolding as a coup de théâtre in the realm of consciousness such as an ordinary drama of highlighted physical events could not have given us.

Except for Anna's death Ivanov had offered its chief physical particularities to our direct gaze. And surely the most instructive demonstration of Chekhov's growth from that play to The Seagull is in the suicides with which both dramas end. Nikolai shoots himself before our eyes, Konstantin away from them. The obvious difference is that the latter suicide is at a distance, reaching us obliquely—the sound of the shot, Dorn's whispered words to Sorin—and that this greatly diminishes the emotional impact of the event. But this is an accession to the imagination, not a loss, for the assault on the senses of the suicide on stage, no matter how discreetly done, leaves no space for reflection, specifically about the significance of the act, in itself and, more important, in relation to other things. No space for reflection and not much material for it.

Ivanov's shooting himself is essentially solipsistic, isolated from the rest of the drama, or, more pertinently, from any large pattern of consciousness, the way such melodramatic actions tend to be. We've interpreted the suicide, relying on the character's own words, as in part an attempt to recapture his "old self," through a last catastrophic but at least decisive act. It's also of course simply a way out of his untenable situation and a device by which Chekhov can end the play. Missing from it is any significant connection to other lives.

Suicide is always carried out in the moral and psychic neighborhood of other people, directed toward them ("See what you've made me do!") or implying something about them, so that taking one's own life invariably poses questions about those who don't take theirs, those who continue to live. Camus called suicide "the one serious philosophical problem,"13 and this dimension of thoughtfulness, of ontological query, is just what's lacking in Ivanov's shooting himself. By contrast, it's abundantly present in the circumstances and aftermath of Konstantin's self-destruction.

His suicide exists at the imaginative center of The Seagull's concerns, which are chiefly the different ways people confront themselves in situations of love and vocation or, if they lack a calling, like Sorin and Masha, in whatever niches they do occupy. Especially being tested is the relationship between love and talent, with Nina and Konstantin as the exemplary figures, while most of the other characters circle at various distances from this thematic center.

When Konstantin kills himself, it's squarely in the light of Nina's stamina, her going on. Her strength has revealed to him his own weakness in two connected ways. She has taught him in an instant how pallidly romantic and compensatory is his desire for her, and he has learned (we sense rather than are told this) that he lacks the courage—a clear-headed capacity to continue on through vicissitudes and setbacks, on the most profound level through complexity— that she incarnates. Her visit and its words hover in the air of the final scene, as the lotto game so casually goes on and behind the closed door Konstantin, brooding about what she has shown him, "defeated" by her example, prepares his pathetic counterstatement. A remarkably shrewd analysis of the play and especially of the ending was made by a famous contemporary jurist and friend of the arts, Anatoly Koni. "How good the ending is," he wrote to Chekhov. "It is not … she, the seagull, [who] commits suicide (which a run-of-the-mill playwright, out for his audience's tears, would be sure to have done) but the young man who lives in an abstract future and has no idea of… what goes on around him."14

This is why the play is a comedy, in one of the ways I defined the genre earlier, why the suicide is neither tragic nor bathetic. For Konstantin's death is the result neither of some fatal crack in existence nor of an attempt to pass beyond limits; its "reality" is brilliantly seen against a contrasting one, a choice of life that will be lived bravely and with honor. Something essential has been saved out of the entire human substance of the play, the principle of relief from fatality that governs all comedy is now in place, so that the imaginative balance is toward what remains, not what has been lost. Konstantin is the cautionary figure in this dramatic positioning of selves and self-questioning, as Nina is its force of redemptive acceptance.

The mainsprings of its plot having been moved off stage, The Seagull presents a surface without any visible peaks, the landscape of a remarkably flat terrain. But this flatness is of a physical order, not an aesthetic or intellectual one. On those levels ceaseless activity goes on, usually small, often casual seeming, an intricate meshing of gesture, speech, and idea. And something else becomes apparent when we have adjusted our sights to the newness of the dramaturgy.

For the first time in Chekhov we see the drama proceeding as though its language and actions are gradually filling in a field, not moving in any sort of conventional straight line, the usual unfolding of exposition, development, and dénouement. The energy thus released, the force of locomotion turned into presence, is exactly the principle of "newness" in Chekhov's theater, Magarshack's idea of the "indirect" but more accurately formulated this way, I think.

Ivanov had begun this transformation, but stumblingly and, as I wrote earlier, with an incompleteness that came from Chekhov's inability at that point fully to shake off the past, the seductions toward melodrama, the mechanical deference given to physical sensation. Resisting these, Chekhov could greatly extend, by freeing them from their surrounding narrative pressures, all those kinds of scene without preamble or immediate aftermath, without plotted logic, that had constituted the rough technical originality of the earlier play.

In The Seagull characters move in and out of our sight and of each other's, in a constant traffic of direct encounters, glancing meetings, conferences, interruptions, breakings up, and reassemblings, all of it governed sometimes by mutual understanding and sometimes by its lack. A seemingly structureless drama, it's really all structure, if by that we mean, as we should, something inseparable from texture and pattern. The play isn't an edifice laid horizontally yet rearing its "meanings" skyward, but a meshing of revelations, withholdings, recognitions, everything serving as clues to the whole.

The entire substance is somewhat thinner than it will become in Chekhov's next plays; its characters' destinies, Nina's most saliently, are a little too predicted beyond the play instead of being fates wholly within it; but the ground for the full flourishing of Chekhov's imagination has been prepared. His vision will darken in Uncle Vanya and even more in Three Sisters, to lighten again in The Cherry Orchard, but here in The Seagull for the first time vision and method have largely fused.


1Victor Emeljanow, ed., Chekhov: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), 139.

2Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, translated by Michael Henry Heim in collaboration with Simon Karlinsky; selection, commentary and introduction by Simon Karlinsky (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 277.

3Ernest J. Simmons, Chekhov: A Biography (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1962), 172.

4Ibid., 353.

5ACLT, 277.

6"Dante … Bruno. Vico … Joyce," Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress by Samuel Beckett et al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 14.

7Ibsen: Letters and Speeches, ed. Evert Sprinchorn (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 100.

8Robert Louis Jackson, "Chekhov's Seagull: The Empty Well, the Dry Lake, and the Cold Cave," in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Louis Jackson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 99-111.

9Avram Yarmolinsky, ed., Letters of Anton Chekhov (New York: Viking, 1968), 310.

10David Magarshack, Chekhov the Dramatist (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), 177.

11Ibid., 190.

12ACLT, 277.

13Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1955), 3.

14ACLT, 285.


Essays and Criticism


The Seagull, Anton Chekhov