Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
The Seagull by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
Yes, this is the Chekhov. The one with the gun.
Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short story writer who, despite a relatively short life and literary career, still has a reputation as one of the all-time great dramatists and a pioneer of modernism in theater. His extensive bibliography (which stretches from 1881 to 1904) includes hundreds of short stories, a novel, several novellas and seventeen plays. Out of all that work, his most lasting achievements are four of his full-length plays: The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and today’s subject, The Seagull.
Seagull was actually the first of those four to be written, premiering in 1896. The first performance was received horribly, to the point that Chekhov nearly swore off writing altogether as a result. But in 1898, the play was revived by Konstanin Stanislavski, a character actor and director whose system for training actors and rehearsing formed the basis of modern method acting. That specific production was an astounding success which was considered a turning point in the history of Russian theater and catapulted everyone involved to lasting fame. The play itself has been celebrated and studied ever since.
Now, what is The Seagull actually about? Chekhov described it as a comedy. And this might be true, in the same way that sped-up footage of train crashes played over ragtime music is comedy to some people. What I mean is, if it is a comedy, it’s blacker than plain coffee.
Our protagonist — “hero” is not the right term here — is Konstantin Treplev, an aspiring playwright and the son of a haughty former actress named Irina Arkadina. All Konstantin wants is to write a masterpiece that will propel him out from his mother’s shadow and prove his worth as a revolutionary playwright. But nearly everyone in his life thinks that his work is incomprehensible nonsense, especially Irina and her lover, a writer named Boris Trigorin. Despondent over the failure of his play and lack of prospects, Konstantin shoots a seagull dead and gives it to his crush Nina as a symbol of how he’s going to kill himself soon. This is where he starts getting out of control.
But this story isn’t just about one person screwing up his life: it’s about lots of people screwing up their lives! Chekhov’s play gives life to a variety of fascinating, flawed characters who weave in and out of each other’s stories, causing mayhem along the way. There’s unrequited love, there are affairs, there’s a dead baby, there are attempted suicides, there’s an actual suicide…the list goes on. Despite all that, Chekhov goes out of his way not to make this a melodrama like other 19th-century playwrights might have. For example, all the most shocking plot developments happen offstage. We are told that Konstantin tried to shoot himself, and then he just shows up with a bandage around his head. A young woman runs away from home, begins an affair with an older man, gets abandoned by that same man and has a baby which then dies? All offstage. Instead, Chekhov is more focused on the quiet moments that happen between such big developments. Characters wax poetic about their upbringing, the regrets they have in life, the conflict between urban life and rural life, between mainstream culture and the avant-garde.
KONSTANTIN: She loves me, loves me not; loves—loves me not; loves—loves me not! You see, she doesn’t love me, and why should she? She likes life and love and gay clothes, and I am already twenty-five years old; a sufficient reminder to her that she is no longer young. When I am away she is only thirty-two, in my presence she is forty-three, and she hates me for it. She knows, too, that I despise the modern stage. She adores it, and imagines that she is working on it for the benefit of humanity and her sacred art, but to me the theatre is merely the vehicle of convention and prejudice. When the curtain rises on that little three-walled room, when those mighty geniuses, those high-priests of art, show us people in the act of eating, drinking, loving, walking, and wearing their coats, and attempt to extract a moral from their insipid talk; when playwrights give us under a thousand different guises the same, same, same old stuff, then I must needs run from it, as Maupassant ran from the Eiffel Tower that was about to crush him by its vulgarity.
SORIN: But we can’t do without a theatre.
KONSTANTIN: No, but we must have it under a new form. If we can’t do that, let us rather not have it at all…Act One
I’ve probably read a little Chekhov at some point during college, if only because most people have to read Chekhov in school at some point. But I’ve never actually read The Seagull. Doing this write-up does actually make me want to read it, though, or at least watch a production. If you’ve never read Chekhov before and want to learn what the heck he’s all about, this might be a good place to start.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!