The Seagull Anton Chekhov
The following entry presents criticism of Chekhov's play Chaika (1896; The Seagull). See also Anton Chekhov Criticism, The Three Sisters Criticism, Gooseberries Criticism and The Cherry Orchard Criticism.
The Seagull is the first of Chekhov's four major plays, a group that includes Dyadya Vanya (1896?; Uncle Vanya), Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters), and Vishnevy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard). These plays are heralded for their rejection of melodrama and the conventional dramatic subjects and techniques that dominated the theater of Chekhov's time. The Seagull introduced the technique of “indirect action,” a method whereby violent or intensely dramatic events are not shown on stage but occur during the intervals of the action as seen by the audience, and inaugurated fundamental changes not only in the way plays are written but in the way they are acted, a revolution that persists to the present day.
Plot and Major Characters
The Seagull takes place at the estate of retired judge Peter Sorin. His sister, Irina Arkadina, a glamorous, selfish actress, is visiting with her lover, the successful writer Boris Trigorin. Irina's twenty-five-year-old son, Konstantin Trepliov, also a writer, lives on the estate with his uncle. Present as well are Eugene Dorn, a middle-aged doctor, and Ilia Shamrayov, Sorin's estate manager, along with his wife, Paulina, and his melancholy daughter, Masha. Simon Medviedenko, a teacher, is in love with Masha, who in turn is in love with Konstantin, who loves Nina Zarietchnaya, an aspiring young actress. Konstantin, a zealous proponent of new dramatic forms that are abundantly expressive, socially relevant, and lacking in artifice, has written a play and stages it for his mother's benefit during her visit; Nina is featured in a major role. During the performance, Irina refuses to take her son's play seriously and keeps interrupting. Nina is impressed by Trigorin's reputation and becomes infatuated with him. Konstantin, depressed by his inability to inspire love in either his mother or Nina, shoots a seagull and brings it to Nina, claiming that he will soon take his own life as well. Overhearing this exchange, Trigorin sees in it material for a story; he tells Nina that the incident illustrates how human beings can be casually destructive, and that he sees her as a seagull endangered by callous men. Nina and Trigorin begin an affair, and she will eventually join him in Moscow. Konstantin shoots himself but is only superficially wounded, and he and his mother soon resume their bickering.
The play's final act takes place several years later. Sorin is now very ill, and Trigorin and Irina have come to visit him at the estate. Despairing of ever winning Konstantin's love, Masha has married Medviedenko and borne a child; she is still in love with Konstantin, however, and neglects her family. Konstantin has had some of his work published but is still unfulfilled. Nina had become pregnant but lost the baby after being abandoned by Trigorin; she is now pursuing her acting career in various provincial towns. During this time Konstantin has relentlessly followed Nina, hoping that she will eventually return to him. Through occasional letters to him she has revealed her emotional distress; she has suffered numerous disappointments in her career and in her one-sided relationship with Trigorin. Nina returns to the estate and speaks with Konstantin, who still loves her. She is the only character who has changed in any way; she has learned to endure life's hardships and to continue living with hope for the future. Despite her continuing feelings for Trigorin, she leaves the estate to accept a position with a mediocre theatrical company in a small town. Konstantin now feels utterly desolate and lonely, and, while the others are playing cards, kills himself.
Chekhov's major plays contain little of what is traditionally regarded as plot, and consist primarily of quotidian activities performed by the characters and conversations in which allusions to the unseen events are intermingled with discussions of daily affairs and seemingly random observations. Though not portrayed on stage, momentous events are thus shown by the characters' words and actions to be pervasive in their effects. By focusing more closely on the characters' reactions to events than on the events themselves, Chekhov's plays are able to study and convey more precisely the effects of crucial events on the characters' lives. The first play in which this technique of indirect action is employed is The Seagull. In this work, the highly charged, traditionally “dramatic” events—the affair between Trigorin and Nina, Konstantin's suicide attempts—occur off stage. No “crises” in the usual sense are shown. What are presented are the precipitating events and consequent effects on the characters—Konstantin's and Nina's idealism and the subsequent despair of the one and the resignation of the other. Even though Konstantin's suicide attempts and Trigorin's seduction of Nina are resolutely kept off stage, their presence points to the fact that Chekhov was thus far unable to completely eradicate melodramatic elements from his work.
The static quality of Chekhov's plays, in which nothing much seems to happen, is evoked by their content as well as their apparent plotlessness. A common theme throughout the four major plays is dissatisfaction with present conditions, accompanied by a perceived inability to change oneself or one's situation. Nearly all of the characters in The Seagull are dissatisfied with their lives, and see in love or artistic success the hope for improvement of their condition; all are ultimately disappointed. Trigorin, an apparently successful author, describes writing as a mere compulsion and notes that he is continually negatively compared to Turgenev and Tolstoy. Konstantin, failing in both his love for Nina and his desire to change the nature of drama, is doubly frustrated and commits suicide. Only Nina's guarded optimism rescues the play from complete pessimism.
The past, too, exerts significant influence on the characters in The Seagull. Sorin, aging and ill, fears his life has been wasted. Nina is burdened by her restrictive upbringing under a harsh and cold father. Konstantin tries to overthrow the artistic past represented by his mother and Trigorin. However, it is the present that concerns Chekhov most. Affected by the past, leading to some unseen future, the present with all its complexities and uncertainties provides the central focus of The Seagull.
The Seagull was a failure when it premiered in a disastrous production at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. A discouraged Chekhov vowed never to write for the stage again. However, two years later, in their debut season, the Moscow Art Theater mounted an acclaimed revival of The Seagull that established both Chekhov as an accomplished playwright and the Moscow Art Theater company as an important new acting troupe. Chekhov himself was infuriated by the staging, charging that director Konstantin Stanislavsky had ruined the play. The sets, the lighting, the sound effects, and the acting all emphasized elements of tragedy in a play that Chekhov vehemently insisted was a comedy. Despite the author's contentions, The Seagull has routinely been interpreted as a tragedy by critics, performers, and directors, who perceive a mood of sadness and despair suffusing the play. Among such interpreters Chekhov has earned a reputation as a portrayer of the futility of existence and as a forerunner of the modernist tradition of the absurd.
A common response of early reviewers of The Seagull was to dismiss it as a meaningless assemblage of random events. Early critics censured its seeming plotlessness and lack of significant action. However, much critical attention has subsequently been paid to the organizational and structural elements of the drama. Scholars have shown that by the meticulous arrangements of sets, sound effects, and action Chekhov creates scenes and situations which appear static and uneventful on the surface but which are charged with significance and meaning. Numerous critics have explored the unifying effect of the symbolism of the play, most notably that of the seagull, but also that of the lake and horses (which are continually said to be unavailable). Scholars have examined the relationship of The Seagull to Shakespeare's Hamlet, a portion of which Irina and Konstantin recite, and Guy de Maupassant's Sur l'eau, which Irina starts to read aloud but soon dismisses. Throughout such assessments, commentators have emphasized the role of The Seagull in ushering in a revolution in the ways plays are composed, staged, and performed. As Raymond Williams has asserted, The Seagull represents “a significant moment in the history of modern drama, for it shows a writer of genius beginning to create a new dramatic form.”