Friday, 18 May 2001

Anton Chekhov: The Seagull (1896)

Translation: Stephen Mulrine, 1997
Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1997
Review number: 826

It may seem strange today, but the initial response to The Seagull was so negative that it made Chekhov resolve to retire from drama. (It was the way that Stanislavsky and the Moscow Arts Theatre took up the play a few years later that persuaded him to change his mind.) The reasons for the failure lay in the expectations of the audience and actors rather than in the play itself; the audience wanted star vehicles, and The Seagull isn't one; the star billed did not appear, annoying her vociferous fans.

The plot is all about unrequited love; just about all the characters love someone who doesn't care for them. The only equal relationship is the affair between successful author Trigorin and actress Arkadina, which is not exactly one with much love in it. The central characters in the play are Arkadina's son, Kostya, who is an aspiring author, and local girl Nina, whom he loves but who prefers Trigorin because he might be able to arrange for her to get a part in a play in Moscow. The play contains a lot of discussion of drama, and includes excerpts from the play Kostya has written for Nina, in which she takes the part of the World Spirit. It is an experimental, Symbolist play; Kostya wants to move drama on, but his work is fairly typical of second rate avant garde literature.

As the title indicates, there is an important (and far more subtle) symbol in Chekhov's play, as well; the seagull accidentally shot by Kostya. The only other important literary seabird prior to this that I can think of is the albatross killed by the ancient mariner in Coleridge's poem, and this too brings bad luck. Even ignoring traditional ideas (I have no idea what significance a seagull might have in Russian folklore), it is easy to see that such a bird symbolises freedom and is connected to the power of the sea, and the dead bird represents the end of Kostya's hope that Nina might love him, among other things, and the recall of the motif in the final act brings on Kostya's famous suicide.

The plot of The Seagull is more melodramatic than those of Chekhov's last three plays, but marks an important step in terms of naturalism by comparison with what was going on around him. It is easy to see why, with its combination of this realism with the central symbol, this play is compared to Ibsen (with perhaps The Master Builder being particularly similar), though I don't think that Chekhov particularly liked being classified with the Norwegian author.

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