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July 13, 2007

What is Chekhov's The Seagull about? David Womersley offers some suggestions

Posted by David Womersley

Anton Chekhov's The Seagull
directed by Trevor Nunn
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 17th April - 23rd June 2007

What is The Seagull about? We should be able to find our way about the play easily enough. After all, most of the characteristic and familiar Chekhovian décor is here. The play is set, naturally, on a Russian estate, where we encounter a clutch of individuals whose lives are variously becalmed in dissatisfaction. There is a veritable daisy-chain of unrequited desire - Medvedenko is in love with Masha, who is in love with Konstantin, who is in love with Nina, who falls in love with Trigorin, who eventually reverts to his affair with Arkadina.

Meanwhile, on the side and just for variety's sake, Polina nurses an infatuation with Dr Dorn, an erstwhile Lothario of the district (as Arkadina informs us), but whose pleasures now seem to run only to extravagant foreign travel -

I've chosen my pleasures with discrimination. I'm satisfied.
There is the characteristic Chekhovian yearning to be elsewhere, and a painful sense of squandered opportunities and denied hopes. In the words of the satisfied, but limited and materialistic, Dorn at the end of Act One,
How distraught they all are!
As Sorin, the owner of the estate, grumbles, all he wanted to do was to live in town and get married, and he ends up as a bachelor in the countryside (an expression of frustrated wishes which stimulated appreciative laughter when delivered by Ian McKellen).

The title of the play should help us, but instead leads us into a quandary. Konstantin, furiously in love with Nina, and sensing that her feelings for him are cooling after the arrival of the charismatic author Trigorin and in the wake of the fiasco of the performance of his vacuously symbolist play, in which Nina had taken the leading role, shoots a seagull and presents it to her, saying that he will shortly kill himself in the same way (as he indeed tries to do, and succeeds in doing two years later). Nina's response is one of reasonable bafflement:

You've grown so irritable lately, and most of the time you've been talking unintelligibly, in a sort of symbolic way. And now this seagull here is apparently another symbol, but - you must forgive me - I don't understand it . . .
[Puts the seagull on the seat.]
I'm too simple-minded to understand you.
Trigorin, who enters shortly afterwards, puts his own spin on the dead bird, turning it into the idea for a short story:
a young girl, like you, has lived beside a lake from childhood. She loves the lake as a seagull does, and she's happy and free as a seagull. But a man chances to come along, sees her, and having nothing better to do, destroys her, just like this seagull here.
This of course is what the seductive Trigorin himself will do to Nina after she has run away to Moscow to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. In the final act, the distraught Nina, now cast off by Trigorin, intermittently mutters
I'm a seagull,
before immediately denying the idea. Our sympathy for the distress of the character is held in check by our curiosity about the deeper question underlying Nina's dilemma. Is The Seagull a symbolist drama or not?

Woven through Chekhov's comedy of manners we find a thread of reflection about art. Two different kinds of artist are placed before us: Konstantin (obscure, progressive, abstract, pretentious, costive) and Trigorin (famous, commercial, prolific, superficial). Chekhov holds the balance between the two and adjusts it repeatedly during the course of the play. Konstantin's play is in one respect accurately criticised by Nina:

It's difficult to act in your play. There are no real living characters in it. . . . there's hardly any action in your play, there are only speeches. And then I do think there ought to be love in a play.
But the shrewd Dr Dorn thinks better of it.
I did like that play,
he says to himself while Konstantin is off-stage sulking,
There is something in it. . . . It was fresh, unaffected . . .
And in consoling Konstantin, he utters a general principle of art:
Only things conceived in high seriousness can be beautiful.
Where does this leave Trigorin, purveyor of literary goods to the masses? We are never directly exposed to his art as we are to that of Konstantin. But Chekhov gives him by far the longest speeches in the play as he explains to Nina that his life is one of tormented obsession; he has to write, and his need to do so is so strong that all his experience is converted into mere raw material for his fiction (as he had immediately converted the seagull shot by Konstantin into the germ of a short story). His only respite from the Sisyphean toil of literary production comes from fishing. One can sense the audience adjusting its sympathies as the inner agitation of a man they have been encouraged to see as a vain philanderer is suddenly placed before them. Which of the two men does Chekhov endorse, and to which of them does his own practice most closely approach?

In the end, neither, for the discussion of art in The Seagull is really another thematising of the arch-Chekhovian theme of futility. Nina yearns to be an artist, in the mistaken belief that they lead lives that are

radiant and full of significance.
To do him justice, Trigorin does try to disabuse her of this fallacy, and proclaims unequivocally of the life of artistic aspiration that
Oh, it's a fatuous life!
Neither Konstantin nor Trigorin achieves happiness: Konstantin compromises his artistic ideals, eventually writing formulaic magazine fiction, and Trigorin, despite his belief that
Young love [is] . . . the only thing that can bring happiness on earth!
, is unable to remain true to Nina, and relapses into his affair with the predatory, ageing, Arkadina (a wonderful, if cruelly-cast, performance from Frances Barber). In some respects, Chekhov in this play is perhaps like Dorn - a closeness pointed up by the casting in this production, where the excellent Jonathan Hyde is made to look uncannily like the Braz portrait of Chekhov reproduced in the programme. Both playwright and character are personally dispassionate but compassionate towards others, disengaged but interested, undogmatic but thoughtful.

On one subject, however, The Seagull is unambiguous. In the character of Arkadina - vain, avid, cruel, mean, shallow, shameless - Chekhov has distilled all his dislike for the acting profession. Ivanov, the predecessor but one of The Seagull, had been (according to Chekhov) utterly disfigured by the egocentricity of the leading players. Arkadina is an actress in this mould, and her character is a pitiless satire on the luvvie-dom of late nineteenth-century Russia.

This aspect of The Seagull resonated uneasily in Stratford on the evening I saw the play. The audience was generally appreciative of the play (even the woman in front of me who intermittently engaged in loud conversation with her deaf husband was, I could not help but overhear, being complimentary about the quality of the production). But despite the general strength of the company, the audience reserved its enthusiasm exclusively for Ian McKellen. In some ways this was just. McKellen was wonderfully at ease on stage, perpetually in character even when doing nothing, a great actor towards the end of his career whose late style is an essay in minimalism. But the audience response to McKellen was in excess of any evaluation of his art. It seemed at times that he could have forgotten his lines and still have been applauded. For the star-system, against which The Seagull was in part written, thrives nowhere more than at Stratford. This makes Chekhov a problematic playwright for the RSC, even in a production as good as this one, since their artistic premises are so sharply at variance with his.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

To read Lincoln Allison's take on The Seagull, see: Anton and Agoraphobia: Anton Chekhov's The Seagull.


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