The curtain rises on a croquet lawn, with Sorin's house to the right and the lake to the left. Arkadina, Dorn and Masha sit underneath a tree on one side of the lawn. Arkadina begins the scene by standing Masha up next to her and asking Dorn which of them looks younger. Dorn answers, “of course”, that Arkadina looks younger. Arkadina says that she feels young, and Masha that she feels old. Arkadina carries on, boasting about how spry she is for her age, and how she never leaves the house without being made up.
The three have been reading aloud from a book, and Dorn now carries on reading, until, characteristically, Arkadina takes over. The extract she reads is about a woman who wants to bed a writer and flatters him to get his attention. Arkadina sees the parallel with her relationship with Trigorin, but smoothly announces that their relationship is nothing like that in the book. Sorin enters with Nina, whose father and stepmother have gone into town, leaving her free for three days. Medvedenko is pushing Sorin’s wheelchair.
Arkadina asks whether anyone knows what’s wrong with her son, Konstantin. Masha replies that he’s sick at heart, and then asks Nina to recite some of Konstantin’s play. Sorin moans that no-one will give him any medical attention – and Dorn tells him sixty (Sorin's age) is too old for medical attention. Masha exits, and Dorn and Sorin comment that Masha hasn’t ever found happiness in life.
Arkadina announces that she is bored. Shamrayev enters, having heard from his wife Polina that Arkadina plans to go into town. An argument ensues about horses, which Shamrayev is currently using to work on Sorin's farm, and which Arkadina wants to use to take her into town. The argument becomes heated, with the result that Shamrayev loses his temper and resigns, and Arkadina loses hers and announces her imminent departure. Both Shamrayev and Arkadina storm out in different directions. Sorin and Nina are both horrified at Shamrayev’s temper, and go off to persuade Arkadina not to leave. Polina is hugely embarrassed by Shamrayev, her husband.
Dorn and Polina remain. Polina makes direct romantic advances on Dorn, who doesn't respond either way, but neatly avoids the conversation. Nina, left alone on stage as the two exit, muses about the strangeness of seeing famous people like Trigorin and Arkadina behave in such a way. Celebrities, she is amazed to discover, are just like normal people.
Konstantin enters and lays at Nina's feet a dead seagull, which he has shot, telling her he will later kill himself in the same way. Konstantin accuses Nina of having changed the way she behaves to him. Nina simply replies that he puts everything in symbols which she can’t understand. The dead seagull, she tells him, is obviously a symbol of something, but she doesn’t know what. Konstantin accuses Nina of no longer caring for him. It all started, Konstantin claims, when his play was such a failure: he hates the fact that Nina thinks he is just ordinary, and not talented. Trigorin enters, and after bitterly accusing Nina of thinking that Trigorin is the real talent, Konstantin exits.
Trigorin is noting down in his book some details about Masha, perhaps for a story: “Takes snuff and drinks vodka… Always in black. Loved by teacher”. Nina greets him, and the two talk about writing. Nina wants to know what fame feels like – and what it feels like to create. Trigorin tells her that writing is an obsession, and that he has to write all the time. Even when he is talking to her, he never forgets that he has an unfinished story waiting for him. He constantly notes things down, he says, from the world in order to put them into stories. Nina comments that inspiration and creation must give him some happiness. They do, he replies, but only when writing or reading his proofs – as soon as a work comes off the press, he is immediately disappointed with it. Trigorin knows he will never be as good as Tolstoy or Turgenev.
Nina flatters him, telling him that, even though he may be dissatisfied with himself, he is a great and wonderful man in other people’s eyes. If she could only be a writer or an actress, she says, she’d put up with hunger, disappointment, losing her family, poor diet, self-doubt and dissatisfaction. Arkadina calls to Trigorin from offstage, which prompts Trigorin to tell Nina he doesn’t want to leave Sorin's estate. It seems clear that there is a chemistry between the two, and that Trigorin is drawn to Nina.
Trigorin then sees the dead seagull, and when Nina tells him Konstantin shot it, he notes it down in his book. When Nina asks him what he’s writing, he tells her he has had an idea for a short story about a girl who lives by a lake, and loves the lake as a seagull might. But one day, a man comes along and sees her, and destroys her – just as Konstantin has destroyed this seagull. After Trigorin has told Nina this, there is a pause. And then Arkadina appears at the window, to announce to Trigorin that they are staying. He exits to the house, and Nina is left alone onstage. “A dream!” she reflects, and the curtain falls.
The old-fashioned cliche about Chekhov is that his plays largely consist of middle-class Russians, waiting for revolution, sitting around bored. Obviously, there is much more to the matter than this, but it is undoubtedly true that the opening of this second act of The Seagull focuses on the boredom of Arkadina and Sorin, who long to return to the town. The mood is stifled and slow, though still largely comic. The tone of the play is particular: it points us toward middle-class comedy, and, though it allows for the pain of unrequited love, it gives no clues of the tragic elements which Act 4 will introduce. In this act, there is little sense of suffering and pain, but rather a mood of curiosity and idleness. People are sitting around with very little to do, reading - in this case - Maupassant's On the Water, another strand in the play's writing motif. Only Trigorin enjoys the peaceful countryside, spending his days fishing alone.
This act, perhaps more than any other, draws us into the interplay between The Seagull and the textual universe, both within and without of the diagesis. Arkadina, for example, takes up reading again at a point of Maupassant's book which seems significantly similar to her own situation: "... when a woman has designs upon a writer whom she wishes to take up, she lays siege to him with compliments and attentions and little marks of favor".
It is an unusual moment - a text located within the world of the play which directly parallels events in the play. It is an unusual allusion which foreshadows events to come. And Arkadina does in fact seem to recognize herself, but, of course, quickly twists her and Trigorin into a counter-example, proving Maupassant's theory entirely incorrect. Yet Maupassant's foreshadowing proves true: though not, in this act, with Arkadina and Trigorin, but with Nina and Trigorin. Nina certainly does flatter him, fascinated by the idea of what it means to be famous. Trigorin - entirely self-absorbed in his own thoughts and his notebook - hardly seems to register her (at first).
Nina, indeed, though she supposedly longs to be an actress, seems far more fascinated by the glories of celebrity and fame. She is amazed, in her soliloquy that "a famous writer, the darling of the public" spends the whole day fishing, and that she has seen a famous actress crying. Nina herself is fated to become a failed actress: perhaps, one thinks, because of her obsession with fame rather than with artistic quality. Like Konstantin, she lacks clear aims, and it is hugely ironic that most of the list of misfortunes she promises she would endure to become an actress have come true when she returns in Act 4. Not for the only time in the play, Nina's optimism - and the naivete of her mood in this scene - sets up a false impression, later to be dashed by the play's denouement.
And yet, shortly after Nina has pinned her ambitions to "fame", Konstantin enters with the seagull he has shot, which he lays at her feet. Nina doesn't understand the symbol, and, though we recognize it as the title of the play, its meaning is unclear. What, precisely does Konstantin hope to achieve? In some ways, one might suggest, the way he is going about his romantic life and his pursual of Nina lacks clear aims in precisely the way his play did. The potential of interpretation for the symbol (or allegory) of the seagull, particularly as it synecdochally reflects the whole play - titled The Seagull.
Yet Act 2 fundamentally presents three various responses to the question of creativity. In the conversation between Nina and Trigorin which makes up most of the act's second half, Nina imagines the creative process as absorbing and sunlit. She thinks creation must be an intoxication of inspiration which provides "moments of elevation, moments of happiness". Trigorin puts his own point of view at considerable length: his writing is obsessive, and it is a long, hard grind towards an eventual creative result. When a piece of writing is complete, that only marks the start of the next creative process. He is never, he says, not thinking about writing: and the only real pleasure he gets from his work is in reading the proofs. Once the public have received it, Trigorin says, as inferior to Turgenev or Tolstoy, the pleasure evaporates. Unlike Nina's, there is nothing romantic, or idealistic, about Trigorin's view. These are two entirely contradictory views of what it means to be a writer, and, one can only assume, Chekhov must have found some truth in both.
Nina dramatizes and glamorizes the writing process, obsessed with fame. Trigorin speaks of his own longing for fame and status, which seems to crucify any sense of self-worth or pleasure he might have gained from his writing. And Konstantin, laying his dead seagull at Nina's feet, longs to be thought of as different from other people, and blames Nina's indifference to him on the failure of his play. Konstantin wants fame so that Nina will love him; Nina admires fame, and therefore Trigorin; and Trigorin, though reasonably famous, wants the fame and status accorded to a Tolstoy or a Turgenev. Chekhov sets out another one of The Seagull's complex triangles by showing that each person longs for the glory of achievement without the achievement. Particularly when you consider that The Seagull's premiere was a failure, it is interesting to consider this mediocre writer an allegory of Chekhov himself.
And this impression is doubled when the act closes on another meta-textual moment, when Trigorin's idea for a short story pops into his head. The girl, expressly compared to Nina, who is destroyed by a man "quite idly", is a short story which we never hear of written by Trigorin - yet it clearly, in some ways, might be the play which we are watching. Stanislavsky, reading synecdochally, indeed thought that the whole play was a dramatization of Trigorin's subject for a short story. Yet Trigorin's motives for "destruction" are never quite clear - nor, indeed, is the part he plays in Nina's eventual downfall. It is difficult to read allegory or symbolism when Chekhov gives no explicit pointers as to where they lie: is Trigorin's short story a symbol of the play, or not? Is it another strand to the multifaceted symbol of the "Seagull"? Again, as the curtain comes down, we are confronted with Chekhov's own play, as we watch it, comparing itself to other literature - setting itself against a mediocre writer's idea for a short story. It is an unsettlingly elliptical sensation when the play locates itself both within and without of our "real" world, and one which emphasizes the play's own obsession with its status as something written.