The scene is set in a park, just after sunset, somewhere on Sorin's provincial Russian estate. An improvised, makeshift theater stands center stage, with its curtain down. Behind the stage, a broad path leads away toward a lake. The makeshift stage, erected for the performance of Konstantin's play that is to take place that night, blocks the view to the lake. Behind the makeshift curtain, Yakov and other workmen can be heard working. Medvedenko and Masha enter, mid-conversation.
“Why do you always wear black?” Medvedenko, the local schoolteacher, asks Masha. Masha, who is indeed wearing black, replies that she is in mourning for her life. Medvedenko tells her that he simply doesn’t understand why she is unhappy: her father, Shamrayev (Sorin’s steward) isn’t rich, but isn’t poor either, and Masha herself is healthy. In fact, Medvedenko concludes, he himself has it much worse than she does. Medvedenko lives with his mother, two sisters and brother, and has only 23 rubles a month - and his situation is, therefore, extremely difficult.
Masha certainly isn’t interested in Medvedenko’s romantic advances, and comments that Konstantin’s play will soon begin. Masha, in love with Konstantin, is desperate to see the play, which Konstantin has written and in which Nina will be starring. Medvedenko sulkily compares Konstantin and Nina's relationship (they have made a work of art together) to his own relationship with Masha. “I love you”, he tells her, only to be rejected by an indifferent Masha.
Sorin, who is Konstantin's uncle, enters with Konstantin. Sorin, leaning on a stick, comments that he doesn’t like being in the country and wishes that he could live in town. Konstantin ushers Masha and Medvedenko out, though not before Sorin complains to Masha about the howling of her father's dog. Yakov, a workman, gets permission from Konstantin to go for a swim before the play starts.
Konstantin takes in his makeshift theater, delighted with the absence of scenery, and with the fact that the moon will rise just as the curtain goes up. Konstantin's delight, however, is soon replaced by the worry that Nina will not arrive on time from the house where her father and stepmother “keep guard” over her. Sorin asks about Arkadina, Konstantin's actress mother, and why she’s rather volatile at present. Konstantin replies that it’s because she’s jealous of his play and the fact that Nina’s acting in it. Konstantin also claims that she has seventy thousand rubles sitting in the bank, which she denies if she is ever asked to lend money.
Sorin interrupts Konstantin's monologue attacking Arkadina to tell Konstantin that his mother worships him. Konstantin denies this, arguing that he makes Arkadina feel older than she would like to feel. He also suggests that his mother and he stand for different theatrical traditions: Arkadina's theater involves a proscenium arch, a set of three walls artificially lit, artificial acting, and, at the end, an artificial moral. Konstantin longs openly for “new artistic forms”. He loves his mother, he continues, but he sometimes wishes she wasn’t a famous actress. Konstantin continues that he wishes he knew who he was: his mother’s friends, actors and writers, make him feel like a nonentity.
Sorin changes the subject again, asking about “this novelist”, Trigorin, Arkadina’s new partner, who has come with her to stay on Sorin's estate. Konstantin replies indifferently, saying that Trigorin is nice enough, and his writing clever and charming, but “if you’ve read Tolstoy or Zola then you won’t want to read Trigorin”. Sorin comments that he achieved neither of the two things he wanted to achieve in life: to marry, and to become a “literary man”.
Nina enters and Konstantin lovingly embraces her – she is terrified that she is late. Konstantin sends Sorin to call everyone and the two are left alone. They kiss, and have a short conversation. Konstantin professes his love for her and says he will come to her house and look up at the window all night. Nina tells him not to. Nina then asks about Trigorin, saying that she loves his stories, which she compares unfavorably with Konstantin's play. The play, she says, is more like a recitation than a play as it doesn’t have living characters or action.
The time has come to start, and Konstantin and Nina go behind the stage. Polina (Shamrayev's, the steward's, wife) and Dorn, the local doctor, enter. Polina is nagging Dorn to put his galoshes on and to protect himself from the damp air. When she criticizes him for being besotted with Arkadina, Dorn rather nonchalantly suggests that artists are higher people, and that everyone yearns for higher things. It seems immediately clear that Polina and Dorn are having - or once had - some sort of romantic relationship. Arkadina enters, on Sorin’s arm, with Trigorin, Shamrayev, Medvedenko and Masha. Shamrayev is telling dull theatrical anecdotes, and a short argument ensues about the merits of the Russian theater and its actors.
Konstantin comes out from behind the stage to announce his play, and Arkadina upstages him, showing off by quoting Gertrude’s lines from Hamlet (the closet scene). Konstantin responds with some of Hamlet’s lines to Gertrude – “to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed…” These lines of sexual disgust begin to tell us something about how Konstantin feels about his mother's relationship with Trigorin.
Konstantin announces his play as a dream of what will be two hundred thousand years from now. The curtain rises revealing the view across the lake, the moon, and its reflection. Nina sits on a stone, all in white. She recites a speech describing an apocalypse in which no creature walks the earth, and all souls are merged into one – the one, she reveals, that she portrays. As the marsh-lights appear and a smell of sulfur pervades the air, Arkadina starts to interrupt proceedings, until Konstantin silences her. Until, that is, Arkadina makes a joke at the expense of Nina’s speech, and Konstantin loses his temper, calling the curtain down and announcing that the play is over. “I was forgetting that playwriting and acting are reserved for the chosen few” he fumes, before exiting.
Sorin gently chides Arkadina for her insensitivity. Arkadina first claims that she thought the play was meant to be a “skit”, before angrily asserting that Konstantin was attacking her and trying to give her “an object-lesson in the art of writing and acting”. Suddenly singing is heard on the other side of the lake, and everyone pauses to listen to it.
Arkadina motions Trigorin to sit next to her, and tells him how, a decade ago, constant singing and music were heard on the lakeside – back when Dr. Dorn was the irresistible “leading man” in the romantic shenanigans. Arkadina then claims that she feels guilty for having offended Konstantin, and sends a willing Masha off to find him. Nina comes out from behind the stage, a little embarrassed. Sorin and Arkadina (though the latter somewhat through gritted teeth, it seems) congratulate her on her performance – and Arkadina introduces Nina to Trigorin. Arkadina is amused at Nina's amazement at meeting such a celebrity. Dorn calls to Yakov to take up the curtain again.
Trigorin tells Nina that he didn’t understand a word of the play, and that he loves fishing. Shamrayev then tells everyone an anecdote about someone bringing a thearre audience to a “freeze”. There is a silence, which Nina interrupts by saying that she must go home – which she does, despite Sorin and Arkadina’s protestations. Everyone except Dorn exits.
Dorn, alone, reveals that he liked the play, and that there was “something in it”. Konstantin comes out, having escaped from Masha, who he calls an “intolerable creature”. Dorn tells Konstantin that he has talent and must continue writing. Konstantin is deeply moved, tears in his eyes, and he takes Dorn’s hand. Dorn argues that a work of art always has to consider a substantial question of some sort, and muses about what he would have done had he had creative talent. Writing, Dorn says, has to express a clear and definite thought – “the picturesque path”, Dorn argues, only leads to a writer losing his way.
Masha enters, telling Konstantin that his mother is looking for him, and he exits, telling her to leave him alone. Masha starts to take snuff, but Dorn, suddenly and impulsively, grabs her snuffbox and throws it into the bushes. Masha then confides in Dorn. She tells him that she likes him, though she doesn't like her own father, Shamrayev, and admits that she’s scared her love for Konstantin will make a mockery of her. “So much love around”, Dorn muses, and, with tender irony, asks her what she expects him to do – and the curtain falls.
The first thing the audience see when the curtain rises on The Seagull is another theater: Konstantin’s makeshift theater, set against the background of nature, against trees and a lake. It is, as Hamlet might say, a mirror held up to nature: theater reflects theater, and set in the natural world. It is as if the play begins by showing us a microcosm of itself.
Why does The Seagull from its first moment prioritize theater? It is undoubtedly one of the play’s key themes and a recurring motif: the idea of theater, Thomas Kilroy writes, gives "The Seagull" its "spinal column.... its main structural cohesion". Yet another critical theme is introduced as the dialogue starts: Medvedenko’s love for Masha, which can be seen even in the detail of his wanting to know why she dresses like she does, places unrequited love and problematic romances on the agenda of Chekhov’s play. From the first moments, we are asked to consider Masha’s costume – a word with a precise double meaning: simply what a person wears, or something an actor might wear to create an impression. As it happens, Masha’s costume is not simply what she wears, but something she wears to create a specific impression: she is, she says in a rather self-dramatizing fashion, in mourning for her life. Characters in this play often “theatricalize” themselves -- or demonstrate their emotions, or strive for a certain effect in the way they appear.
The play’s relationships are constantly intertwined with theatricality. Medvedenko’s love of Masha is professed openly and honestly here – and rejected with smooth indifference. Masha already loves Konstantin. Later in the same act, we see a similar triangle played out with Konstantin himself -- he is in love (openly professed) with Nina, who treats him (again) with studied indifference for she too is wondering about the play she is to perform to Trigorin (and in turn about Trigorin himself).
One of the key questions about Chekhov’s play is precisely what sort of play it might be: to which genre does it belong? At this stage, it looks like a pattern constructed of unrequited romances, a series of love affairs. Chekhov himself described it as containing "five bushels of love". Yet at precisely the moment we consider what type of play it is, it becomes obvious that The Seagull is a play obsessed with the process of writing, with the intentions of a writer, and with the effect a certain type of writing has. One of the other key things about that famous first line, "Why do you always wear black?" is that it is a quotation, as Michael Frayn points out, from Maupassant’s Bel Ami. Shortly before Konstantin’s play, Arkadina slips into the role of Gertrude from Hamlet, and, again and again, quotations from, and allusions to, Russian literature find their way into Chekhov’s text. It is a play obsessed with the idea of being written, with its relationship to other theatrical texts. The play takes on the obsession that both Konstantin and Trigorin will later show with its place in the dramatic canon – and, just as Trigorin will line himself unfavorably alongside Turgenev and Tolstoy, the play considers itself alongside Hamlet, and alongside other works of literature, by enclosing quotations from them within its dialogue.
The first writer Chekhov presents us with is Konstantin, and there is a real critical dilemma about precisely what sort of a writer we are supposed to think he is. The little we see of Konstantin’s own play demonstrates that it owes much, as Arkadina openly comments, to the decadent school: it is unnaturalistic and opts for murky symbolism rather than an easy-to-understand story. Arkadina, from the little we hear from her and from Shamrayev about the sort of theatre in which she usually performs, is used to melodrama, to creaking, over-blown dramas. Konstantin’s play is performed outside in his makeshift theater by the lake, and Arkadina’s (as Konstantin himself says) in old-fashioned, candle-lit proscenium-arch theaters. Arkadina’s old-fashioned Russian theater, and Konstantin’s longing for “new forms” mark a dichotomy between two entirely different schools of theatrical thought. The motif of theater is made to reflect itself again: we watch a performance-within-a-performance. Whether a positive image of what what The Seagull is, or an ironic reflection of what it isn't, Konstantin's play comprises, synecdochally, The Seagull.
But is Konstantin’s new play any good? It doesn’t read well, and it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to an audience. Arkadina also seems to find it rather ridiculous – and its effects (red eyes and sulfurous smells) are melodramatic archaisms borrowed from the tired old-fashioned theater which she herself represents. That said, Arkadina might well be jealous of Konstantin’s encroaching on her area of expertise, as Konstantin suggests, so her reaction might be an unreliable indicator. On the other hand, Dorn thinks that Konstantin must have something, and is moved by the play. Yet at the same time, Dorn puts his finger on the perceived weakness – that Konstantin’s play doesn’t have yet any clear aims, and steers dangerously close (or indeed, straight down) the “picturesque path” of writing. What is the picturesque path? A reliance on symbols, on metaphors and on similes with a disregard for sense. Chekhov himself once wrote, in a letter to A. S. Suvorin (of 25th November 1892), that
"Writers who are considered immortal or just plain good and who intoxicate us have one very important trait in common: they are going somewhere and call you with them..."
Clearly Chekhov shared Dorn’s concern with where a piece of writing is going -- namely with structure and plot. Clear aims are everything, it seems. Konstantin's “new forms”, though, actually don't have any clear aims, as Dorn says to him. Konstantin knows what he wants to destroy: his mother's archaic repertory theater, but he doesn't know what he wants to replace it with. It just isn't clear, and, it seems, from Konstantin’s moodiness and volatility (he cries, of course, when Dorn compliments him) that he is aware of his own failings. The real aim of Konstantin's play, perhaps, might be simply to impress Nina and win her love. In the play's final act, he will suggest to her that she stopped loving him when his play was such a failure. Is Konstantin's play a symbol of a failed play - an allegory of what The Seagull might have been? Is Konstantin's play a metaphor for The Seagull itself? Both interpretations have been argued.
Moreover, the expansiveness and naturalness of the mood of this first act, set beautifully by a lake, gives the sense that, with "all this love around" (Dorn's words) the audience are embarking upon a midsummer comedy. In fact, The Seagull turns, with each act, closer to tragedy, each act's setting drawing us closer to - and eventually (Act 3 + 4) inside - the house.
Yet one of the most important things to realize about The Seagull is that, in the words of Michael Frayns, “Nothing is fixed”. The play itself is hugely ambiguous itself, leaving key questions like Konstantin’s writerly talents or the quality of his play, entirely open – indeed, open to the interpretation of the play’s director or even its audience. And, if there is one moment that sums this up mostly clearly, it comes at the end of this first act. As Dorn throws Masha’s snuff-box away into the bushes in what Frayn calls a “gesture of licensed impatience”, we strongly suspect that Dorn himself is in fact Masha’s father and not Shamrayev. Yet does Chekhov turn this hint into a fact? Does he tell us who else knows other than Dorn himself and Masha’s mother? No, and no. In the universe of The Seagull symbols, characters, and relationships can all be fluidly and variously interpreted.