Sunday, October 23, 2016

I’m a gull. No, that’s wrong - Chekhov's Seagull - Empty, empty, empty. Ghastly, ghastly, ghastly.

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.


  1. imagine the ragged old gull in the prop closet of theater companies around the world

    This reminds me of the Seagull production that I saw in Moscow in the 1990s: they had a rubber seagull and it made a rubbery plop when it landed on the stage after being shot. (I wasn't the only one in the theater who laughed, almost uncontrollably.)

    I should seek out a Norton Critical Edition of the plays just to read about the mistranslations and substitutions--strange and completely unintentional things can happen whilst translating!

  2. That is perfect. There is a kitsch element to the seagull that Chekhov plays with enjoyably.

    The funny thing about the Norton footnotes is that they are about the editor's own translation errors - I mean, decisions. He is conscientious. For example, the line translated as "Old Casanova" (Act IV): "Literally, 'Old Lovelace' [explanation of who Lovelace is & reference to Eugene Onegin]."

  3. Yes! I remember reading that Chekhov was upset with KS's direction of _The Cherry Orchard_. The production plodded along like a tragedy. Chekhov insisted it should be played more quickly as a comedy. Chekhov's view of life is comic! He was right. KS was wrong.

  4. It is surprising to me how Russian, and other audiences, loved Stanislavsky's productions, loved the tragic, lugubrious Chekhov. It is so far from how I understand Chekhov, and from how I have seen the plays presented, that I have trouble imagining it.

    I need to poke around for old footage, maybe, and do more reading. Always more reading.

  5. "The Seagull" is full of wonderful funny stuff, especially about writing:

    Yes, it's a pleasant feeling writing; . . . and looking over proofs is pleasant too. But as soon as the thing is published my heart sinks, and I see that it is a failure, a mistake, that I ought not to have written it at all; then I am angry with myself, and feel horrible. . . . [Laughing] And the public reads it and says: "How charming! How clever! . . . How charming, but not a patch on Tolstoy!" or "It's a delightful story, but not so good as Turgenev's 'Fathers and Sons.'" And so on, to my dying day, my writings will always be clever and charming, clever and charming, nothing more. And when I die, my friends, passing by my grave, will say: "Here lies Trigorin. He was a charming writer, but not so good as Turgenev."

    And then, of course, everything and everyone are broken in the last act.

    Chekhov has that reputation for being low-key, almost colorless, despite the fact that his characters run around yelling and drinking. His stories have that reputation as much as his plays do. Even Chekhov refers (in a letter to Suvorin) to his "dishwater gray people" or however it goes, when discussing the reception of one of his plays.

    Stanislavsky was working towards ideas about realism in theater, while Chekhov was pushing on the purely theatrical in reality. I don't think they understood at all what each other was doing, and they both had enormous egos so naturally there were some sparks.

    A couple of years ago we saw "Three Sisters" here in Seattle, put on by the Seagull Project. It was a pretty lively production. A bunch of folks from Petersburg were in the audience, and they ate it all right up.

  6. Despite reading and loving masses of Chekhov's prose, I've never approached his plays - but you do make them seem quite approachable! :)


  7. Oh yes, masterpieces comparable to his best stories. Why I had not read this one, or why I have not read Three Sisters, I don't know. No, I do. I was reading something else.

    Trigorin's big "plight of the writer" monologue is magnificent.