The curtain rises for the first time on an interior scene: the dining room of Sorin’s house, a dining-table center stage, and suitcases and boxes all over the floor. These suitcases are evidence that Arkadina and her party are preparing to depart for the town. Alone together onstage, Trigorin and Masha are having a conversation. Masha is telling Trigorin that to rip her love for Konstantin out of her heart, she has decided to marry Medvedenko. She is not marrying for love, she admits, but simply because she is tired of loving without any hope of any reciprocation. Masha is now drinking very heavily. Trigorin reveals that he would quite like to stay in the country, but he knows that there’s no chance Arkadina will want to stay in the house. This is because Konstantin is behaving very awkwardly. Konstantin has tried to shoot himself, and he now wants to challenge Trigorin to a duel. Trigorin doesn't understand why Konstantin is making all this trouble.
Masha says a dramatic farewell to Trigorin and exits. Nina comes in, presenting Trigorin with a medallion on which, she says, she has had his initials, and the title of one of his books, "Days and Nights", engraved. Arkadina enters with Sorin and Yakov just as Nina exits (not wanting to be overheard). As Yakov starts taking the suitcases out, ready for departure, and Arkadina flusters around, Trigorin reads the inscription engraved on his medallion: “Days and Nights, page 121, lines 11 and 12”. He quickly exits to find a copy of his book to see which line Nina has referenced.
Arkadina and Sorin have a discussion. Sorin wants to go out to a ceremony, and Arkadina says he should stay at home. The conversation eventually moves on to Konstantin: Arkadina has no idea, she says, why he tried to kill himself, but she puts it down to jealousy. Sorin thinks Konstantin is ashamed of his idleness and of his lack of future prospects. Sorin then suggests that Arkadina should maybe give him a little money to buy new clothes and go abroad. Arkadina momentarily considers this before she decides that she has no money. Sorin gently continues to press her, and Arkadina then reveals that she does in fact have money but she needs to spend it on her outfits. This is because, she says, she is in the theatrical profession. Sorin then, unexpectedly, has a funny turn, and goes limp, holding onto the table. Arkadina panics and shouts for help.
Konstantin, his head bandaged, enters with Medvedenko, bringing some water for Sorin. Konstantin tells his mother that Sorin has these turns all the time, and that it's nothing to worry about. Medvedenko takes Sorin off for a lie down, and Konstantin, ironically, asks Arkadina to lend Sorin enough money to allow him to live in town. Arkadina, again, refuses. Konstantin then asks his mother to change the dressing on his head-wound, which he got when he tried to shoot himself. As she changes his dressing, the two of them remember two events from Konstantin’s childhood -- Arkadina once bandaging an unconscious washerwoman, and two ballet dancers that used to come and have coffee with Arkadina. The conversation turns to Trigorin, who Konstantin argues has come between him and his mother. Arkadina claims that Trigorin is a man of the highest integrity, and that Konstantin must respect her freedom. Konstantin says he does respect her freedom, but he doesn't respect Trigorin. He adds that he finds Trigorin’s writing nauseating. Arkadina loses her temper, and tells her son that people without talent always want to run down talented people. An argument sparks up, which culminates in Arkadina calling Konstantin a “nonentity”, which reduces him to tears.
Arkadina embraces Konstantin, and tries to comfort him. Konstantin is upset, he says, because Nina doesn’t love him and so he doesn’t feel he can write. Konstantin agrees to try and be nicer to Trigorin, just as Trigorin enters. Trigorin is reading the line referred to by the medallion: “If ever you have need of my life, then come and take it”. Trigorin begs Arkadina to stay another day and she refuses. Arkadina tells Trigorin that she knows he only wants to stay to see Nina. Trigorin rhapsodises about Nina, saying she might be just what he needs, and Arkadina tries shouting, arguing, and weeping to change his mind. Eventually, Arkadina ends up kneeling to him and delivering a long, romantic, flattering monologue about Trigorin’s beauty and talent. Trigorin submits, and Arkadina is satisfied, resolving never to let him out of her sight. She has won him over with flattery.
Shamrayev enters to tell Arkadina the horses are ready, and Arkadina’s travelling clothes are brought in as Yakov takes the final suitcases out. Polina offers Arkadina a basket of plums for the journey, and breaks down in tears, worried that Arkadina has not had a good time on the estate. Sorin enters and immediately exits to the horses, and Medvedenko exits to walk to the station. Arkadina gives the cook, the maid and Yakov a ruble between them, and exits with Trigorin. The stage is left empty for a moment, before Trigorin promptly re-enters, having forgotten his stick. Finding it, Trigorin makes to exit, but meets Nina, who tells him she too is leaving for Moscow. Trigorin tells her to stay at a certain hotel, and to let her know as soon as she arrives, openly admiring her beauty. The curtain falls on Nina and Trigorin sharing a stolen, "prolonged kiss”.
Act 3 begins with Masha telling Trigorin her own story. Again, a character within the play implies that their own life should take on textual status. Masha seems to want her own unrequited love for Konstantin to take on the grand significance of romantic fiction. What we might realize, though, is that Masha herself is a far more complex and interesting character than the sort of stereotype we might find in romantic fiction. Masha's own depth, in fact, sets up a parallel between Chekhov's play and the contemporary literature which surrounds it: a parallel which reflects positively on Chekhov.
Masha's story is structured carefully. Masha is mainly confined to the beginnings of each act, and as each act opens, we see Masha's story progress. Act 1 shows her, dressed in black, in love with Konstantin and rejecting Medvedenko with sharp indifference. Act 2 reveals - somewhat shockingly, after an exposition which makes her seem far older - that she is only twenty-two, and yet less attractive and less spry than (her significant elder) Arkadina. Masha then exits for an early drink. Now, in Act 3 has her, with some finality, determining to "tear" her love out of her heart "by the roots". Masha is now drinking heavily, and has resolved to marry Medvedenko, whom she earlier rejected. Aspirations and dreams are gradually replaced by cold, hard, pragmatic reality.
And, at the beginning of Act 4, Masha is now married to Medvedenko. She, at the start of Act 4, again resolves to "tear" her love for Konstantin "out of my heart by the roots" by moving to another district. The repetitious ache of unrequited love is caught perfectly in the final picture we get of Masha - not a suicide or a dramatic gesture, but the repetition of her vain hope that moving away will solve her problems. The repetition even allows her to employ the same, dull turn of phrase for a second time. Chekhov's Masha is far more human than the Masha that Trigorin might have written. We see him noting down in Act 2 his observation of someone who wears black and drinks vodka - hardly the most important details, and ones pertinent to a writer obsessed with writing landscapes. He is, to employ the play's earlier metaphor, on the picturesque path.
Act 3 also gives us a much more fulfilling look at Arkadina. Chekhov has so far only allowed glimpses of what she is like: her jealous outburst after Konstantin's play, and her furious argument with Shamrayev in Act 2. We have also seen evidence of her vanity and longing to be younger in her - rather painful - comparison with Masha as the curtain rose on the second act. Here, Arkadina is revealed as another complex, contradictory character. For this act initially shows an Arkadina unwilling to give her money (which, it seems, she does in fact have!) either to Sorin or Konstantin -- she needs it, she says, for clothes as a vital part of her professional life. It tells us a lot about Arkadina that she is an actress who depends on a good costume to give a good performance; she later describes her performance in Kharkov by saying that she "had a wonderful dress on". This glimpse we get of Arkadina as an artist suggest that she, clearly, would be an actress vainly obsessed with her appearance and with surface effects. She too might be metaphorically down the picturesque path.
Yet Chekhov writes a contradiction. Arkadina is not simply a superficial, vain woman concerned with her outward appearance. We see her remember, along with Konstantin, the tender moments of Konstantin's childhood as she bandages his head. Chekhov also makes it quite clear that she is genuinely upset about her son's suicide attempt. Arkadina may be selfish, but she is not a monster. Once Konstantin and Arkadina reach an uneasy truce about Trigorin's presence in the house, we next see Arkadina persuade Trigorin to stay with her.
Trigorin, in typically self-obsessed fashion, is quite open about his new obsession with Nina. It is, precisely as Maupassant predicted in Act 2, a battery of flattery, and it renders Arkadina's culminatory insult to her son, "nonentity", somewhat suspicious. The echo of Maupassant also draws our attention to a writer persuaded by simplistic flattery; Trigorin, Chekhov makes clear, is a writer without a refined taste in words. Arkadina's opinions, it seems, vary to suit her purposes and her moods. Trigorin is the only character in the play concerned with a wider, historical sense of achievement rather than just chasing celebrity or fame. Notably, Trigorin alone knows that he falls well short of having it.
Nina too might be usefully juxtaposed with Arkadina. Nina's device of writing a secret, flattering message (using Trigorin's own work) might be considered a dramatic gesture which, as we have already said of Arkadina, focuses entirely on costume. Act 3 shows Trigorin twice flattered by actresses, and twice won. He is, it seems, entirely drawn in by performance, a point doubled by Laurence Senelick's penetrating observation that Arkadina and Trigorin's confrontation is in the language and rhythms of the provincial Russian repertory of Chekhov's day.
And this rich vein of theatrical imagery constantly refocuses a key question: What is real, and what is pretend? How far does Arkadina - or Nina - genuinely "love" Trigorin? How far does Trigorin reciprocate either woman's advances? How far is Konstantin's behavior "real", and how far "put on"? How far are the characters symbols, and how far realistic portrayals? Chekhov's characters, just as real people might, remain locked boxes when it comes to ascertaining precisely what they feel and think.