The Seagull (Drama Criticism) - Essay

Anton Chekhov


(Drama Criticism)

The Seagull

Ellen Chances (essay date 1977)

(Drama Criticism)

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 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...

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Vladimir Nabokov (essay date 1977?)

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Zinovii S. Paperny (essay date 1982)

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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James M. Curtis (essay date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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Michael Frayn (essay date 1986)

(Drama Criticism)

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 in St. 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,...

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Richard Gilman (essay date 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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