Why does Chekhov end The Seagull before Irina discovers her son's death, and what effect does this off-stage action have?

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Chekhov's style hinges on the idea of all of the big action taking place off stage.  It's called indirect action, when employed as a playwrighting device.  Chekhov was less interested in the action itself, but more in the response to the action.

From the e-notes entry on Chekhov:  "Although the drama of his contemporaries focused on action, often melodramatic action, Chekhov’s last plays are primarily works of inaction, works in which the needed action takes place offstage. Chekhov prevents the audience from being distracted by activity, focusing attention on the inner lives of his characters."

By having the action occur off stage, the audience is allowed to really see into the characters on stage and their reaction to the off stage action.  In a poorly acted production, this can become deadly, with just a bunch of talking heads on stage.  But, in a well-done production, it can be more exciting than you might imagine.  Actors have the task of uncovering the subtext and finding outward expression for it; in a good actor's hands (and with a good director leading), this is marvelous to watch.   Chekhov wrote plays that very much fit the approach of Stanislavski (founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, acting teacher, director), whose techniques allowed the inner lives of Chekhov's characters to be revealed.

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