Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was a Russian playwriter and short story specialist. With his reputation as a genius of short fiction prose, The Seagull backs that assertion up mightily.
The play is set over four acts. It’s a dramatisation of artistic and romantic interests between a set of characters in turn of the century Russia.
The History of Chekhov’s The Seagull
The Seagull (or T’ Seagull, if you want Northern England speak) was written in 1895 and had its first production a year later.
Unlike many other plays from his era, Chekhov relied heavily on subtext to add extra weight to his characters’ actions.
They often don’t explicitly state what they’re feeling, instead skirting around subjects and matters in a way that’s open to interpretation.
Compare this to Shakespeare, where characters often go to great lengths in explaining exactly what they’re thinking.
But, anyway, the plot! Chekhov described The Seagull as:
“A comedy – 3F, 6M, four acts, rural scenery (a view over a lake); much talk of literature, little action, five bushels of love.”
It’s very much a character study. There’s not a huge deal of equilibrium shattering plot developments, it’s more about discussions on culture and a love triangle.
Some literary critics call it a “slice-of-life” drama.
Set in the Russian countryside, it concerns a wealthy family of prominent actors and playwrights. However, despite this privileged position they’re dissatisfied with their lives in one form or another.
By which we mean almost all of the characters are in love with someone they should be in love with.
Chekhov’s plays often avoided any traditional plot developments, instead focussing on creating a mood for the audience.
This means interpretations of The Seagull vary. Some people think it’s a tragedy, others a comedy.
You can make out the play as a set of perpetually dissatisfied people, or a satire on overprivileged sorts whining about their lot.
Now, we make the argument it’s a mixture of both. And that it’s also probably best to watch this play in action, rather than take it in from written form.
But with the latter approach you do at least get to enjoy Chekhov’s fine writing style. Very clear, intelligent, and engaging.
As you get with this quote from Nina Zarechnaya:
“I’m the seagull. No, that’s not it. I’m an actress. That’s it.”
The seagull represents a lot in the play. A fall from grace, the oppressive nature of some people over others etc.
So, there’s lots of symbolism. Lots of hidden meanings and subtext. But you can ignore all of that to focus on the melodrama if you so wish.
A classic? Yes. Although we’d like to see a full stage version to see the thing as Chekov in some way intended.
The Seagull’s Stage Adaptations
Chekhov’s play premiered on 17th October, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Apparently, the first night was a total disaster. Audience goers booed the performers throughout and a petrified Chekov proclaimed he was done with writing plays.
There were five of these shows and then the whole thing was called off.
However, and famously, the show was tweaked and revived two years later for a run at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. It was then a big success.
Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) had convinced Chekov to let him direct this version. In it, Stanislavski removed much of the comedy and injected a heaping dose of pathos and tragedy.
This production is considered one of the greatest achievements in world theatre history, as well as an iconic moment for Russian culture.
Since then, it’s remained a common production in theatre circles and has regular runs all across the world.
In 2018, there was also a film adaptation by director Michael Mayer.
The film version received middling reviews, although there was a lot of praise for the talented cast.
That included Saoirse Ronan, the incredible Irish actress who’s starred in the likes of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
So, worth a watch if a period drama/romance type deal is your thing.