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Sorin farm. Setting for the entire play. Chekhov carefully crafts the setting of his play so that the action of the work gradually moves from the outside into the confined spaces of an interior room. The play begins on the back lawn of the Sorin farm. A small stage has been set up in the middle of a path leading down to a lake. The curtain is drawn so that the lake cannot be seen.
During the first act, a young aspiring writer named Konstantin puts on an avant-garde play which confuses the audience (particularly his mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous actress). He uses the natural setting of the moon rising over the lake to add a dramatic touch to the arid, overly intellectual verbiage of the play itself. A young woman named Nina Zarechnaya (her surname means “beyond the river”) delivers Konstantin’s words. She has spent her whole life by the lake and now yearns to become an actress.
In the second act, Konstantin presents her with the body of a seagull he has just killed, and this bird becomes an emblem of Nina’s future destiny. She is drawn to Arkadina’s lover, the writer Trigorin. He too finds Nina attractive, and he makes a note to write a story about a girl who loves the lake like a seagull, when along comes a man with nothing better to do but to destroy her life, just as the seagull was destroyed. Trigorin subsequently seduces Nina, but abandons her to remain with Arkadina.
The final act takes place in a parlor which Konstantin has converted into a study. Two years have passed, and the main characters have reassembled. Konstantin, however, has never left the farm. Nina arrives unannounced, drenched by a cold autumn rain. After she describes to Konstantin her difficulties, her nostalgia for her simple life by the lake, and her renewed determination to continue her acting career, she leaves him, and the young man kills himself out of despair. It is characteristic of Chekhov that the suicide occurs offstage while the other characters are engaged in mundane pursuits such as playing lotto.
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In the year in which Chekhov's The Seagull was first staged, 1896, Nicholas II, of the Romanov dynasty, became the last czar of Russia, a nation that at the time had a population of about 128 million people. Dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church, an inept bureaucracy, and an entrenched landed and hereditary aristocracy, the vast country had settled into a seemingly inert, twilight period, a sort of fitful hibernation resistant to political change and social amelioration. While many members of the educated class recognized a need for progress, they were largely ineffectual in achieving much of anything until violent revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 and Russia, for good or ill, finally entered the modern world. Until then, despite some unrest, including a crushed rebellion in 1906, Russia was simply a sleeping giant that had barely started to respond to the industrial revolution that a century before had begun transforming many of its European neighbors to the west into emerging industrial powers. However, at the same time, despite its backwardness and cultural isolation, Russia produced some of the greatest writers, composers, and artists of the age, among whom Chekhov stands in the front rank. Russian cities, notably Moscow and St. Petersburg, were cultural centers of tremendous importance, and places, too, where new ideas were fomented by a growing number of disaffected intellectuals. But these cities also lacked adequate housing, health care, and transportation and communication facilities, and were plagued by poverty and disease—including tuberculosis, the consumptive sickness which, even as he wrote The Seagull, was slowly wasting Chekhov's own life.
Although the modern age in the United States— and such European countries as England France and Germany—was dawning more rapidly than in the future Soviet Union, a much accelerated rate of change awaited inventions and discoveries that in 1896 were, at best, still in their infancy. In that year, Henry Ford drove his first car through the streets of Detroit and the German scientist, Wilhelm Roentgen, discovered x-rays. Also, the dial telephone and electric lamp were patented in America, and the first movie was screened in the Netherlands. In that year, too, the first modern Olympic Games opened in Athens, a seminal event that presaged the breakdown in the isolation of nations and the advent of internationalism in the postindustrial age.
Besides changes wrought through science and technology, social and political changes were in the winds. The impact of two major thinkers—Karl Marx and Charles Darwin—continued to affect everything from politics and religion to art and letters. It was in the 1890s that a third major thinker Sigmund Freud had begun evolving his psychoanalytical method, providing new and sometimes distressing insights into human behavior. Freud would greatly impact both literature and art, which, in the same era, were already in search of new directions and the ''new forms'' of which Konstantine speaks in The Seagull. The fin de siècle artists of the 1890s, although a hydra-headed group, were united in their efforts to replace the traditional with the new and different, to experiment with form and technique. Although never given to the personal excesses of many of his contemporaries, Chekhov, particularly in his last few plays, reflects that need to make things new.
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The Seagull makes use of allusion to literary works that in their suggestiveness enrich the texture of Chekhov's play. Chief among these is Shakespeare's Hamlet, from which Konstantine and his mother quote lines that help define their own relationship. Konstantine is angry with his mother for her attachment to Boris Trigorin, a man whom he intensely dislikes, as Hamlet dislikes Claudius. Like Hamlet, too, Konstantine erupts into fury with his mother, though as much for her selfishness as for her attachment to Trigorin. Like Hamlet, The Seagull is open to a Freudian, Oedipal interpretation of the relationship between Treplyov and his mother, a view buoyed up by a similar and common reading of the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude.
Another allusion in The Seagull, concerns a story by the French writer, Guy de Maupassant. De Maupassant one of the very successful exponents of realism in fiction—still a relatively ''new form'' in Chekhov's day, but one against which contemporary currents were already beginning to turn. There are also several allusions to the Russian theater of the day, some of which provide insights to the characters who make them, though these references are more topical and less memorable than those made to Shakespeare.
Comedy of Manners
The Seagull, though not in mood or theme, has some similarities to a comedy of manners, those amoral drawing-room pieces of the English stage in the eighteenth century. In them, love intrigues are the principal focus of both the dramatists and his characters, and adultery is at least condoned if not actually practiced. Some characters, often libertines, are caught in triangular relationships that impose dilemmas that must be resolved through wit and clever stratagems, even reformation of character. In them, clever young rakes manage to satisfy the heart while also replenishing an empty purse.
Chekhov's comedy is much heavier, of course, and its outcome very different. In The Seagull, love's quests are frustrated and triumph over financial adversity remains an unrealized dream. The potential for self-fulfillment of any kind simply erodes as time passes. However, in its way, and certainly compared to much nineteenth-century melodrama, The Seagull shares with the earlier comedy of manners a complex intrigue plot, a degree of amorality, a focal concern with social mores, and a setting—a country estate—offering an ideal locale for the various character encounters necessary to the intrigue. As with some of those earlier plays, there is also an apparent shapelessness to The Seagull.
There is no central conflict in The Seagull, no struggle between a protagonist and some opposing character or force, but there are minor conflicts arising from a character's desire out of harmony with the needs or aspirations of another character. Mostly these have to do with love, invariably misplaced in the play. The play chronicles the frustrations of most of the major characters, their fruitless efforts to achieve what they want, and in a few cases—like that of Konstantine—depicts their disillusionment when they manage to gain a measure of success, if not in love, then at least in fortune.
Some of the conflict is familial, pitting offspring against parent, as in the case of Konstantine and his mother, but more often it arises from unrequited love. It leads to unhappiness, to the misery that seems to afflict all but the more dispassionate characters, Dorn, for example, or the waspish Shamreyeff, both of whom are aloof from love. In any case, the conflicts remain unresolved, at best only dimmed or diluted by the passage of time.
There is a very limited use of the low comic in The Seagull, elements of which abound in some of Chekhov's earlier one-act curtain raisers. Still, there are some farcical moments that help remind the audience that the play is, after all, a comedy, and that some of the characters' behavior is a kind of posturing. For example, there is something insincere about Masha's unhappiness expressed in the play's opening dialogue. ‘‘I am in mourning for my life,’’ she says, and she wears Hamlet's ‘‘inky cloak’’ as an outward manifestation of her professed inner sorrow, which, at least to Medvedenko, she cannot explain.
How seriously and sympathetically is the audience to take Masha or, for that matter, other unhappy figures, even Konstantine and Nina? The Seagull can be interpreted for staging as rather gloomy melodrama, or, as Chekhov himself seems to have wanted, it can be interpreted more as comedy. At times it seems to jar back and forth between the two moods, as, for example, in Konstantine's blundered suicide attempt. Its serious import is comically punctured when, after failing to blow his brains out, he appears with a turban-sized bandage on his head. In reminding the audience that life is not shaped as either comedy or tragedy, Chekhov juxtaposes a mundane observation or event against a soulful outpouring or serious action, and at times uses a kind of comic bathos, pitting the ridiculous against the sublime.
Fin de siècle
In art, fin de siècle suggests both art for its own sake and, warranted or not, decadence. The term was used to refer to artists in various genres who were breaking with tradition, producing works that defied conventional morality and eschewed a didactic function. Many of the artists involved led scandalous lives, flaunting that morality in their public behavior, the free-spirited Oscar Wilde for example. Konstantine, in his quest for ‘‘new forms,’’ is cast in that bohemian mold, full of scorn for tradition and ready to tear down Russia's old theatrical edifice with his revolutionary art.
A common method of illuminating character in drama is through the use of character foils. It is a technique particularly well suited to plays, which are brief and ephemeral experiences when staged. By using sharply contrasting characters, the playwright is able to present each in high relief, making them both more distinct and memorable. In The Seagull, Sorin's character, his ineffectualness, is not just a correlative of his age and increasing feebleness, it is highlighted by the insubordination and surliness of his steward, Ilya Shamreyeff. Similarly, Konstantine Treplyov's imaginative but volatile nature is brought into sharper focus because it is seen against the character of Semyon Medvedenko, who, far more stolid and reasonable, never flies into rages. So, too, Irina Arkadina—a woman who protests too much—has a foil in Nina, a younger reflection of herself, one who in her youthful beauty reminds the older actress that her own beauty is fading. Chekhov effectively reveals other characters through such contrasts.
Much has been made of the relationship of Konstantine and his mother, Irina Arkadina. With loose parallels and even allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet, Chekhov develops an angry young man whose dislike of his mother's companion and lover, Boris Trigorin, transcends an artistic jealousy enlivened by his rebellious contempt for the older man's talent. Konstantine simply hates the man, even wants to kill him, a response that suggests more than a mere disgust with Trigorin's success as a writer. Although controversial, the Freudian explanation— a subconscious sexual jealousy—certainly has merit. The Oedipus Complex involves a male's latent love for his mother and corresponding hatred for his father, his rival for his mother's love. That hatred can be displaced, directed at a surrogate figure, especially if, like both Boris Trigorin in Chekhov's play and King Claudius in Hamlet, that person takes the father's place in the mother's bed.
Curiously enough, Chekhov uses the soliloquy, a device that on the face of it seems inimical to realism. The soliloquy had a traditional use in theater. A vocalized monologue, it was used to reveal the inner thoughts and feelings of a character who delivers the speech while alone on stage. Although the speech may be overheard by hidden auditors, as happens in Hamlet for example, generally it reveals the character's inner self only to the audience. The realist's objection to the device is based on the idea that people do not normally talk to themselves aloud, unless, perhaps, they are mentally unbalanced. Chekhov makes spare use of the soliloquy, and perhaps, given what happens in the play, deliberately suggests the character's mental and emotional instability in employing it. In act 4, it is Konstantine who, briefly alone, discontentedly mulls over the fact that he is ‘‘slipping into routine.’’ This happens just before Nina appears and again rejects his love, leading to the play's perplexing finale, when Konstantine once again shoots himself.
The Seagull has, as is suggested by the play's title, a central symbol, The Seagull that Konstantine shoots and lays at the feet of Nina in act 2. Although Nina adopts The Seagull as a signatory emblem, with a special meaning for her, its import for the play remains both elusive and debatable. There is no simple equation explaining its purpose. In fact, Chekhov seems to include it offhandedly, almost whimsically, as if defying the reader or viewer to find any meaning to it at all. Even Nina at first says that the symbolic meaning of the gull is beyond her understanding. However, symbols are often elusive beasts, talking points with no definitive answers, in part because they can mean different things to different people. What is clear is that Konstantine is a crack shot, bringing down a bird on the wing, suggesting that his attempt at suicide is deliberately bungled, making the attempt seem a mere ploy for sympathy. In any case, Konstantine relates the killing of the bird, a thing of beauty, to his depressed emotional state. He speaks of earlier events, including the failure of his play—which, like The Seagull's life—was aborted by an act of cruelty, that is, by his mother's dismissive scorn. He also tells Nina that he has burned the manuscript of his play, deliberately destroying what, in his view, was a thing of beauty.
Other symbols in the play include the estate's lake, which, like the gull, means different things to different characters. Dorn sees it as magical, able to evoke dreams, while Trigorin views it more practically, as a refuge, a place to fish, and Nina as a catalytic influence in her desire to become an actress. Flowers figure in the play, too. In their ephemeral beauty, they suggest the fragile dreams of various characters, which, like the flowers in the play, are deliberately destroyed or succumb to the ravages of time.
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1890s: Long travel is difficult, limited principally to rail and horseback or horse-drawn cart, carriage, or sleigh, often on roads that for half the year were impassable. Although the telephone has come into use in some cities in Europe and America, it has not yet reached the likes of Sorin's country estate. While such estates could be situated fairly close to towns providing railway connections to Moscow and other major cities, many people live their lives never venturing more than a few miles away from where they were born.
Today: Modern technology makes it possible for even the most physically isolated communities to stay in touch, not just with the world's urban centers, but with each other. Today, even those geographically isolated in what few wilderness outposts remain, or in transit over the world's remote regions, can talk to relatives or friends with whom a reunion may be just a few hours or, at most, a day or two away.
1890s: Medicine, though verging on important breakthroughs, is a dreadfully imperfect art. There is little understanding of the nature of most diseases, of the bacteria or viruses that caused them, thus treatment is largely limited to dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes. Medicine is also unregulated, and many doctors, some of them quacks, depend upon homeopathy and herbal-based, family elixirs, passed down from one generation to another. Alcohol and opium derivatives are standard painkillers, dispensed without much knowledge of their addictive nature. All too often, patients are sent to hospitals, not to be cured, but to die. By the end of the nineteenth century, average life-expectancy in the United States is in the mid-forties. In Russia it is even lower.
Today: Medicine may still be an imperfect art, but scientific advances in the twentieth century have made it a much more exact and effective one. More medicinal practises are preventative in nature. Through immunization, doctors control diseases that used to be dreaded killers. Physicians and medical scientists now attempt to discover the cause of a sickness, for if the cause can be isolated, a cure is deemed possible. That life expectancy will soon double that of a century ago is evidence of the great strides medicine has made in the last one hundred years.
1890s: Aside from the entertainment provided by books and card and board games, most home entertainment has to be provided ' 'in-house'' by those dwelling or visiting there. The houses of the upper and middle classes usually have pianos and other musical instruments; some even have music rooms, where family members can gather to form small chamber-music ensembles. Plays and recitations were common, too. There is, in fact, a fairly active engagement of family members and guests in the production of entertainment.
Today: Thanks to great technological advances, family members and guests can enjoy a tremendous array of entertainment experiences simply by ''channel surfing'' on television or the Internet, or by inserting different compact discs or tapes in home-entertainment components. In fact, the greatest audience for various arts is now found in the home, not at the live event. The home audience is more passive now, however, and often has no participatory role in providing entertainment.
1890s: Class distinctions are still strongly etched in the consciousness of its citizens, even though the serfs have been liberated for several years and a middle class is rapidly emerging.
Today: Although in many democratic societies there remains a vestigial sense of class distinctions, power associated with class and hereditary right has greatly diminished. Class distinctions today are usually based on wealth, education level, or professional standing, and they are reflected more in such things as country-club memberships and cultural tastes than in the size of one's estate and the number of servants in the household.
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In 1968, The Seagull was adapted to film by director Sidney Lumet. Its stellar casts includes James Mason as Trigorin, Alfred Lynch as Medvedenko, Ronald Radd as Shamraev, Vanessa Redgrave as Nina, Simone Signoret as Arkadina, David Warner as Konstantin, Harry Andrews as Sorin, Eileen Herlie as Polina (Pauline), Kathleen Widdoes as Masha, and Denholm Elliot as Dorn. It is available on video from Warner Brothers.
A Russian film version of The Seagull was produced in 1971, directed by Yuri Karasik and featuring Alla Demidova, Vladimir Chetverikov, Nikolai Plotnikov, Lyudmila Savelyeva, Valentina Telichkina, Yuri Yakovlev, Yefim Kopelyan, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, Sofiya Pavlova, Sergei Torkachevsky, S. Smirnov, and Genrikas Kurauskas. It is available from Facets Multimedia, Inc., with English subtitles.
The Seagull was produced for television, both in the United States and in Europe. In 1968, the year Lumet's film was made, a British version of the work was produced as a ''Play of the Month'' selection, featuring Robert Stephens. In 1975, the play was produced on American television, and featured, among others, Blythe Danner as Nina, Olympia Dukakis as Polina, Lee Grant as Irina Arkadina, and Frank Langella as Treplev (Treplyov). Three years later, another British version was aired, with a cast headed by Michael Gambon. There is also an Italian version, directed by Marco Bellocchio, dating from 1977. Also aired in the United States, this version featured Laura Betti, Giulio Brogi, Remo Girone, and Pamela Villoresi. While these performances attest to the great resurgence of interest in the plays of Chekhov, tapes of them have never been released for commercial use.
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Auden, W. H., ‘‘Musee des Beaux Arts,’’ in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, edited by M. H. Abrams, 5th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, p. 2298.
Caputi, Anthony, Eight Modern Plays, Norton, 1991, p. 133.
Chekhov, Anton, Anton Chekhov: A Life, by Donald Rayfield, Henry Holt, 1997, p. 353.
Karlinsky, Simon, ''The Seagull'' in Letters of Anton Chekhov, translated by Michael Henry Heim, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 280.
Kirk, Irina, Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981, p. 133.
Lantz, K. A., Anton Chekhov: A Reference Guide to Literature, G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, p. xix.
Magarshack, David, Chekhov the Dramatist, Hill and Wang, 1960, pp. 17, 159-160, 163-164.
Magarshack, David, The Seagull, Barnes & Noble, 1972, pp. 21-23.
Moravcevich, Nicholas, ‘‘Chekhov and Naturalism: From Affinity to Divergence,’’ in Anton Chekhov's Plays, edited by Eugene K. Bristow, Norton, 1977, pp. 294-295.
Styan, J. L., Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp. 10, 13.
Valency, Maurice, ''The Sea Gull,'' in The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Oxford, 1966, p. 154.
Hahn, Beverly, Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Although in drama Hahn's principal focus is on The Cherry Orchard, her refutation of the dramatist's alleged deficiencies—for example his formlessness, insipidity, and negativism—is very helpful for understanding Chekhov's achievement in his late plays.
Kirk, Irina, Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981.
This overview of Chekhov and his work offers a good starting point for further study. It offers brief but insightful interpretations of Chekhov's plays and the artistic principles underlying them.
Lantz, K. A., Anton Chekhov: A Reference Guide to Literature, G. K. Hall, 1985.
For those needing to conduct further research on Chekhov, this is an indispensable aid. It includes a biography and checklist of the author's works with both English and Russian titles, with a helpful annotated bibliography of critical studies published before 1984.
Magarshack, David, Chekhov the Dramatist, Hill and Wang, 1960.
In this introduction to Chekhov's plays, Magarshack divides the dramatist's canon into ‘‘plays of direct action’’ and ‘‘plays of indirect action,’’ with The Wood Demon serving as a transitional work between the two types. He relates The Seagull to Chekhov's life and his estate in Melikhovo.
Magarshack, David, The Real Chekhov: An Introduction to Chekhov's
Last Plays, Allen & Unwin, 1972.
This study offers a scene by scene analysis of each of Chekhov's four major plays and the dramatist's attitude towards matters addressed in them—which, in the case of The Seagull, Magarshack argues, is the nature of art.
Styan, J. L., Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1971.
Styan also provides a close analysis of Chekhov's four major plays. A principal focus is the ''submerged life’’ of the playwright's text and Chekhov's stage technique. Styan also discusses the preparation and initial staging of each play.
Valency, Maurice, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Oxford University Press, 1966.
This work relates Chekhov's major plays both to his own fiction and to the Russian theater of his day. Valency argues that Chekhov is essentially an ironist and comedist, although each play involves the breaking of a ‘‘golden string’’ that binds man both to his heavenly father and his own past.
Williams, Lee J., Anton Chekhov, the Iconoclast, University of Scranton Press, 1989.
This study takes the view that Chekhov was a self-conscious agent of change in Russia, that he employed a scientific method to dispel old, class-biased myths about Russian peasants, and that in both method and philosophy he was, as the title indicates, a dedicated iconoclast.
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Bristow, Eugene K., ed. Anton Chekhov’s Plays. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. An anthology of Chekhov’s major plays, accompanied by thirteen critical articles. Of special interest is Thomas G. Winner’s “Chekhov’s Sea Gull and Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Study of a Dramatic Device.”
Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1950. A thoughtful study of all aspects of Chekhov’s art, emphasizing his life. Chapters on Chekhov’s connections with the Moscow Art Theater and his approach to drama are of special significance for understanding of The Seagull.
Jackson, Robert Louis, ed. Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Of the sixteen essays, nine are devoted to the theater of Chekhov, including the editor’s “The Seagull: The Empty Well, the Dry Lake, and the Cold Cave.”
Magarshak, David. Chekhov the Dramatist. New York: Hill & Wang, 1960. A thorough discussion of all Chekhov’s plays on such topics as plays of direct action, transition, and plays of indirect action. References to The Seagull place the play in a proper perspective within the playwright’s general dramatic output.
Valency, Maurice. The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. One of the best treatments of Chekhov’s plays. Analyzes the general aspects of Chekhov’s approach to theater and provides detailed discussion of all plays, including The Seagull.