Suicides and seagulls: Understanding Chekhov’s The Seagull

Two years ago, I saw Benedict Andrews’ production of The Seagull at Belvoir Street Theatre, and fell in love with the play, with the aching emptiness and fragility that seemed to run underneath its neurotic chaotic surface. While I ultimately didn’t like the production on quite a profound level, I think Andrews was getting at something he couldn’t quite articulate effectively enough. And it got me thinking about it, about Chekhov’s play, about the production; about why these sorts of plays last, why they are called ‘classics.’ Before I go any further, I want to make a distinction clear: in theatre, there is a difference between the play and the production. While the two are often used interchangeably, the play more pedantically refers to the script, while the production connotes the specific envisioning of the script by the director, designers, actors and technicians.
In a letter to a friend in 1895, Chekhov described the play he was working on as “a comedy – three f., six m., four acts, a landscape (a view of a lake), much conversation about literature, little action, and five tons of love.” While it is a rather simplistic reduction of the play, it is nonetheless quite a succinct summary. If you were to examine the play, peel back its layers and try to get inside each of Chekhov’s characters, you’d find that ultimately it’s a play about love in all its different guises; yet, at the same time, in true Chekhovian fashion, it’s not particularly ‘about’ anything, except perhaps Life.

In Chekhov’s plays, as he himself says, there is “little action.” Stella Adler, the actor and teacher, furthers this by discussing how the action that happens on-stage in Chekhov’s plays “is what is not happening. It happened before the characters came in. What matters is not the circumstances but the character’s reaction[s] to the circumstances.” A relatively simple observation like this explains why Chekhov’s plays are largely meditative, rhapsodies on a theme if you will; even though time passes and people leave and come and go and return, there is still a feeling of stasis, a sense of entrapment and immovability against the advance of radical socio-political change. Chekhov’s plays too, are marked by a distinct sense of futility and disillusionment; the characters exist in a seemingly perpetual state of despair, as can be seen throughout The Seagull.
Chekhov’s plays are inhabited not with characters but with people. “Chekhov creates them and the play in such a way that it makes it possible for you not to follow so much the plot as the people themselves,” Adler says. “Their actions are human. People live life, not a play.” In these time-frozen snapshots of worlds that Chekhov presents, the characters exist in isolated cul-de-sacs of reality, on the outskirts of towns and cities, on estates that seem to be touched and yet untouched by time’s passage. His people – characters – are “disregards,” those left behind by the changes happening around them; the upper-class and or military-class “left floating…because they are not used to working,” as the nineteenth century closes and the twentieth century begins. “Nobody has a cent. That is because of the moment in history… you are not in Tolstoyland with the upper aristocrats. You are with a kind of society that has had the best of everything but is now going through something different. The transition is very hard.” The underlying current throughout Chekhov’s oeuvre, alongside the despair and fragility, is a sense of pain: “Transition is pain. In The Cherry Orchard they laugh on top of the pain. But always in transition there is a bottom line of agony and pain.” And you can see it in The Seagull, through Shamraev and Polina, through Masha and Arkadina, the way the estate is crumbling, worthless; there is no money, yet they carry on as normal. “It’s about the constant heartbreak of daily life. [Chekhov] understood something about daily life – the constant disappointment of wasted talent and stifled ambition, of not achieving what you want to. That to [him] was the heartbreak.”
As often happens in ‘real’ life, “people [in Chekhov] are heartbroken all day long and [yet] live quite normally. They live without hope… the everyday tragic fate of life is with them. They walk around within this situation, accepting it. [They talk] to one another, revealing themselves, communicating with one another, directly or indirectly.” In his Director’s Notes for Belvoir’s production of The Seagull, Benedict Andrews builds upon Adler’s comments: “Chekhov’s characters encounter life as a frozen storm, living in the eye of the storm, debris swirling around them. They walk, talk, eat, drink, write, love, and are shipwrecked again and again against the shore of life. They cling to illusions and hopes which rip them apart… [And Chekhov] opens them up to their cores and finds them wounded, incandescent. Bursting.” Through suffering and loss, Chekhov’s characters find the capacity to endure; as Nina says, ‘to go on even when it feels like you can’t.’ And it’s out of this heartbreak and disappointment that the beauty of The Seagull comes from.
There’s something else about Chekhov’s work that is significant, perhaps more so in performance than on the page, and that is the symbolism. At the beginning of The Seagull, Masha talks about a storm – “there’s a storm coming,” she says – but it’s not necessarily a natural storm, a thunderstorm, but an emotional inter-personal storm that’s rolling ever-closer as they speak. Once you know this, you start to see the embodiment of the storm, the effect the storm has on the characters throughout the play, can chart its progress throughout each scene and act. It’s the tension created by the weather, by the characters, that is fascinating in Chekhov, the way each reflects the other. And so we come back to the way that in Chekhov, nothing seems to be happening and yet everything is happening. “Something is always happening off-stage that feeds the inner action,” Adler says. Even if nothing seems to be happening, as at the beginning of The Seagull when Masha says “I am in mourning for my life.” “Inner actions always make a modern play come alive in a sense of quiet poetry, even when nothing is happening[;] the characters involve you in their inner actions.”
The story goes that the actor playing Trigorin in the 1905 revival of The Seagull in Moscow asked Chekhov about the significance of the lake. Chekhov replied, ‘Well... it’s wet.’ However glib an answer that might be, it also cuts to the heart of what Chekhov is on about, and perhaps we might read the lake as a metaphor for life or our existence: no matter what happens to us, or in our lives, we’re still going to carry on, like the lake, being. The lake, though, is but one of two or three significant symbols in the play, the other two being the aforementioned storm (which comes to a head in Act One, and then again, crucially – critically – in Act Four), and the titular seagull. The seagull, however, is more than just a symbol: it’s a resonating device – an ideograph like those deployed by Julie Taymor in her work – which pervades the lives of Chekov’s characters, the world of the play, and has potentially damaging effects on those present beside the lake on that weekend. Take Nina, for example – over the course of the weekend, she performs in the play Konstantin has written (he is in love with her), and falls for the writer Trigorin (who is Konstantin’s mother’s boyfriend). By the lake one afternoon, Konstantin approacheds Nina with a gull he has shot. Trigorin says he has half a mind that doesn’t give him the idea for a story he’s working on: “Young girl lives on the shore of lake since childhood – like you. Loves the lake – like the seagull. Is happy and free – like the seagull. Then one day a man turns up, sees her, and mindlessly destroys her.” The symbolic link between Nina and the seagull is established, and will continue to pervade the fabric of Chekhov’s play, especially in Act Four when Nina returns, pushing events to their inevitable (albeit, perhaps, preventable) conclusion.
It’s interesting to examine how Chekhov builds his play. At its heart is a quartet – ‘The Seagull Quartet,’ I call it – of Konstantin and Trigorin, Nina and Irina Arkadina. The first two are writers, the latter actors; two of them are experienced, almost professionals (Trigorin and Irina), the others are just starting out, fledglings (Konstantin and Nina). From focusing upon this quartet, the resonances with Shakespeare’s Hamlet become more apparent. Both feature a young man who is in love with a girl who may or may not love him back. The boy’s mother has ‘married’ again and this displeases him. Both ‘boys’ stage a play to achieve something, and both plays are interrupted, unfinished. Both of the larger plays derive a large part of their tension and, paradoxically, action from the inherent inaction of their characters. Konstantin’s relationship with his mother, the successful actress Irina Arkadina, mirrors that of Hamlet and Gertrude: like Hamlet, Konstantin “loves his mother [but] doesn’t want her touched by another man. That is a big psychological thing.” Shakespeare and Chekhov both knew it, and the repercussions, for Konstantin, for Arkadina, for Trigorin, for Nina, ripple throughout the play until ultimately leading to the play’s tragic (and, again, preventable) end. Like Hamlet, Konstantin chose one way out; the other way, of course, was Life. The similarities and analogies, on Chekhov’s part, are deliberate; they give The Seagull an echo, an added dimension, a place in a larger conversation, which makes it more potent.
In Benedict Andrews’ production at Belvoir in June 2011, Chekhov’s play was located in a south-coast Australian “holiday shack, somewhere, with a view to a lake or coastal estuary.” He goes on to talk about it being “an Australian dreaming place where life takes on alternate rhythms. There’s a special lightness. A bleaching light. Everything dissolves.” In theory, it worked; on paper, it seems fine. But when you add his effects – his seemingly stock mechanics of stage-craft, like things falling from the sky, glass boxes, loud discordant music and soundscapes, neon lights, confronting (and sometimes unnecessary) contemporary embellishments and indulgences – something gets lost in translation from page to stage. On paper, it sounds positively Wintonian, like a story Tim Winton would write, though I’m not so sure that Andrews is right when he says that “[something] chimes between the fragile community gathered around the spellbinding lake in Chekhov’s play and the question of being an artist now in Australia. There’s a similar friction and challenge.” But that’s not to discount or disparage the play, rather only the production. The cast, too, were seemingly unbeatable on paper, but again something was lost in translation to the stage. For a play about the theatre, about art, about writing, and the intersection where they all meet Life, it was lifeless, an embodiment of Konstantin and Trigorin’s inability to (accurately) capture the “flux of life that surrounds them.” Just as in Chekhov, how two characters “never understand each other on the same plane,” so too did Andrews perhaps not really get the play. Instead, the production is perhaps best encapsulated by appropriating the play’s own central metaphor: “one day, a man comes along and sees an old play lying around on a shelf, and having nothing better to do, destroys it for a new generation.” Benedict Andrews had, ultimately, and unintentionally, seagulled The Seagull.
“We need new forms,” Konstantin is often saying. He might as well be speaking as Chekhov, might as well be talking about The Seagull itself. Not only was it Chekhov’s first serious full-length play, but it was also his first serious (successful) experiment with the ‘Chekhovian’ style we now associate with him; it contains the seeds of elements that can be found in his three other major plays – Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. The Seagull then, is ultimately about love, about people, about the theatre; it is about “the catastrophes you have to survive,” about “personal life, home life, the intimate joys and sorrows, the good and bad fortunes. They are a touching, moving group of people. You feel close to them because it is intimate… His people want to live, really want to go on. They are in a trap, but in a way they are heroes; if you can live within the trap, something heroic comes out.” We watch, mesmerised, as the unspoken stories of their lives overlap, as their lives intertwine and get messy, as characters suffer and celebrate, as they cry and laugh and dance and weep and fight and tear each other to pieces; as the minutiae of their lives is peeled back with “scalpel precision.” And perhaps, once all is said and done, once the play is long over and Nina has made a name for herself as an actress, perhaps she “might herself write the story of those lives around the lake,” might write the story of a young girl who lives by a lake, who loves the lake, and a man who turns up one day, sees her, and mindlessly destroys her… 

Fn. March, 2014: For an in-depth review of a spellbinding production of Chekhov's masterpiece, see my piece on State Theatre Company of South Australia's The Seagull, as part of the 2014 Adelaide Festival.

Stella Adler. Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. Edited by Barry Paris. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1999.
Benedict Andrews. Adaptor and Director’s Notes, in The Seagull. By Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Benedict Andrews. Currency Press: Sydney, 2011.

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