“A comedy – three f., six m., four acts, rural scenery (a view over a lake); much talk of literature, little action, five bushels of love.”
One month before Chekhov finished writing The Seagull, this is the synopsis he offered to Suvorin, a rich publisher and journalist. It is an interesting account of its lack of action and emphasis on love, even if it does miss out one of the female characters. Called Чайка (or “Chayka”) in Russian, Chekhov’s play has become one of the most famous and celebrated plays ever written.
Chekhov was 35 at the time he wrote The Seagull and was yet to have a major success as a playwright: “I am once again convinced", he wrote to Suvorin, after having completed the play “that I am absolutely not a dramatist”. There were difficulties getting the play past the theatrical censor, and then the first ever production of the play, at the Alexandrinsky Theatre at a jubilee benefit, was an unmitigated disaster, during which Chekhov fled from the theatre. It was not until Stanislavsky’s famous production for the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1898 that the play was established as a success.
Stanislavsky’s production (co-directed with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko) was the play’s Moscow premiere – the first production had been in St. Petersburg. Stanislavsky himself played Trigorin, and Chekhov’s future wife, Olga Knipper, played Arkadina. Though the production had opened in trepidation, with many of the actors drugged on valerian drops, it received unanimous praise from the critics. The production, moreover, so firmly established the Moscow Arts Theatre Company as a major force in world drama that the company to this day bears a seagull as its logo. When Chekhov eventually saw the production, he admired it, but not Stanislavski's own performance as Trigorin. He thought Stanislavski’s interpretation had a "soft, weak-willed tone" and begged Nemirovich to "put some spunk into him or something".
The most famous productions of recent decades have included Mike Nichols’ production at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in 2001, which starred Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Goodman, Kevin Kline and Natalie Portman (as Arkadina, Konstantin, Shamrayev, Trigorin and Nina respectively). Ian Rickson also directed a famous production in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2007 as his swansong as the theatre’s artistic director, starring Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Trigorin. This latter production was a sellout critical success, played out on a simple, bare, white-blanched wooden set, garnering rave reviews, and eventually transferring to Broadway.
Chekhov’s play is rich in complex, contradictory characters and requires a large ensemble cast. It is often considered one of the first plays in modern drama to establish the pre-eminence of character over action. In other words, as Chekhov’s own summary emphasizes, there is “little action”, but instead, an emphasis on character development, emotion, relationships and feelings.
One of the most popular critical questions about the play has considered its ambiguity of tone, and its generic classification. Chekhov famously called the play a comedy, though – as many commentators since have argued – it contains many ingredients more akin to tragedy, particularly Konstantin’s apparent suicide at the end of the play.
However, perhaps Chekhov’s idea of comedy might be more usefully considered alongside Shakespeare’s: if you consider The Seagull alongside Twelfth Night, there are many similarities. There is certainly a juxtaposition of comedy with sadness, and with a streak of unpleasantness and cruelty – and undoubtedly a shared obsession with love unrequited. One might also usefully argue that Twelfth Night’s denouement, though not as final as The Seagull’s, with Malvolio swearing revenge and furiously exiting, foreshadows, in some ways, the uneasiness of Chekhov’s “comedy”. Though perhaps the last word on The Seagull should be given to Tom Stoppard. Asked why Chekhov’s “comedy” contains so much suffering and sadness, he replied that the question “Is the play a comedy?” could be answered with another question. “Is life?”