I had never seen or read Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896), for no good reason, but now I have read it. Now as of a few minutes ago. It is hard for me to understand how radical the play was. A writer, an actress, a doctor, etc., mill around a country estate. They talk about art and talent quite a bit, talent more than art. They fall in love with each other in combinations unlikely to bring much happiness.
MEDVEDENKO. How come you always wear black?
MASHA. I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.
I understand that part of the revolutionary effect of the play came from Konstantin Stanislavky’s direction, which made the play slow, atmospheric, and symbol-heavy. Played differently, though, the way I have become used to seeing Chekhov, those lines, the first lines of the play, are hilarious. The first laugh of the play.
NINA. Chilly, chilly, chilly. Empty, empty, empty. Ghastly, ghastly, ghastly.
Those are from the horrible, “decadent,” abstract play within the play from Act I, a play so bad that the playwright becomes offended when his mother laughs at it.
ARKADINA. He told us beforehand that it was a joke, so I treated his play as a joke.
SORIN. Even so…
ARKADINA. Now it turns out that he wrote a masterpiece! Pardon me for living!
I felt like Chekhov was constantly anticipating me.
One of these miserable people, a young woman who wants to get out of the boonies, as an actress, or anything, takes the shooting of a gull – the sad corpse of the thing is hauled around onstage – imagine the ragged old gull in the prop closet of theater companies around the world – as symbolic of something in her life. What does the gull symbolize? By God, she is going to make it symbolize something if she has to martyr herself to the symbol.
NINA. I’m a gull. No, that’s wrong… Remember, you shot down a gull? By chance a man comes along, sees, and with nothing better to do he destroys… Subject for a short story. That’s wrong… (Rubs her forehead) (Act IV, ellipses in original)
Never mind exactly what the gull means. If it were not the gull, something else would serve as the symbol. The important thing is to live symbolically, which may be miserable but is not so dull. In the same act, most of the other characters play Bingo, onstage. “The game’s a bore, but one you get used to it, you don’t mind,” says one character. Another spends most of the scene shouting out random numbers. “Seven! Ninety!” All right, this really is getting close to a recognizably avant garde theater. Do what you can to get out, you poor characters.
Wonderful stuff. In the middle of writing the world’s greatest short stories, Chekhov was also able to do this.
Laurence Senelick is the translator and more importantly editor of the Norton Critical Edition, pointing out the context of every stray fragment of a song and also identifying his own shocking mistranslations and substitutions, replacing “Lovelace” with “Casanova” and so on.