Seagull Essay

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...

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

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