The Seagull (1896)
by Anton Chekhov
An astounding achievement. Such life, such glimmering intelligence... and stupidity. His characters are alive, responsive, and both consistent and capable of surprising spontaneity and pathetic longings. Everyone's in love, but always with one they can't have or can’t keep. Thematically, it’s a study of the arts and the artist, the lack of real satisfaction to be found there, the pretense and mediocrity that pervade the practice, and yet the power and mystery that are possible. The Seagull stands historically, legendarily, as a realization of that possibility.
I love this play. It is a masterpiece and one I just enjoy reading so much. Still when asked to direct it for undergraduate students, I could not in good conscience do it. It ends with the suicide of one young artist and the reveal of the psychological evisceration of another. This all happens while the older artists play lotto (bingo) and eat a pleasant supper. The lingering message therefore is one of despair for the young artists who would produce it.
It reminds me of the contrasting myths of Oedipus and of Cronus that I believe Joseph Campbell wrote about... (Or was it Freud?) In Greece, and Europe generally, the dominant societal model was represented by the Oedipus myth, where the father is replaced by the son who kills him. Progress is achieved by the younger generation replacing the older, albeit through conflict, violence and betrayal. In Persia and Asia, however, the dominant model was mirrored in the story of Cronus, who eats his children before they can kill him. This is a society that stagnates and does not evolve and still is violent and repressive. That does sound like late 19th-Century Russia. Is it early 21st-Century America?
It feels like Chekhov is suspended between the two worlds – he is partly young Treplyev searching for new forms and partly middle-aged Trigorin who has found his niche. By the time of the writing of this play, he was more the latter on the outside, and yet still remembering the internal fire and despair of the former. He can also be seen in the retiring doctor, Dorn, who watches amiably from the side and diagnoses by habit.
This is the first of Chekhov’s four great plays. The historic thing he did here was to combine the sparkling, variegated surface of naturalist dialogue and activity with the moving currents of complex character and motivation and then a depth of theme and meaning underlying it all. Early audiences marveled, like the play’s characters do at the mysterious lake. At first, many considered his play non-scenic because character was erupting within a minimalist plot. He kept this going until he got to the final act, which is still influenced by melodrama. The end is understandably rooted in the rest of the play, and it is arguably earned. It does seem to fall shy of the Promised Land of Chekhovian ambition. And yet, and yet, and yet… what a marvelous work.