Chekhov is unusual for a writer in being so closely associated with a single theater: the Moscow Art Theater. The long story of Chekhov's association with the theater is in fact a story that extends far beyond The Seagull, encompassing several of Chekhov's other most famous plays. It has already been the subject of whole books and academic works all to itself. I will only focus - briefly - on its relationship with The Seagull.
Chekhov knew he had written The Seagull "against all the rules of dramatic art". Yet when the play premiered at the Alexandrinksy Theatre, it was an absolute disaster. Chekhov wrote in one of his letters "I didn't do the casting. No new sets were made. There had been only two rehearsals and the actors kept forgetting their lines. The result was general panic and total depression".
When Stanislavsky famously came to direct the play for the Moscow Art Theatre's first season, he spent a month and a half preparing the set and the setting for the production. Stanislavsky made hundreds of notes about his production long before rehearsal, preparing actors' gestures, planning pauses and scene changes in the most miniscule detail.
Stanislavsky actually co-directed the production with Nemirovich, who told Chekhov that he would look upon "the 'rehabilitation' of [his] play as one of my greatest services to the cause of drama". Nemirovich thought the play was about "workaday realities", "drab existence", and the "coarseness" and "inertia" of everyday life. If, as Chekhov famously argued, the play had comic elements, Nemirovich did not see them.
The production Stanislavsky and Nemirovich put on was daring - a revolution in theater. They, in the words of Anatoly Smeliansky, "revitalised the art of acting, made a cult of the pause, the subtext and constant interaction of the characters".
A few small examples illuminate what this means. The audience of Konstantin's play sat with their backs to the audience, facing upstage. When the curtain of the makeshift theater lifted, the moonlight's brightness through the onstage audience into silhouette, a striking dramatic image.
Stanislavsky set up, in the words of David Richard Jones, "a beautiful stage to watch, wonderful light and shadow, will-o'-the-wisps and devil's eyes, an evocative church bell striking in the distance during Nina's second long speech". This was the power of the "fourth wall": Stanislavsky was using all of the resources at his disposal to create a real world on the other side of the footlights.
Significantly, Stanislavsky packed his stage with detail, "realism" long before realism was known as a theatrical concept. Bells chimed, babies cried, and swarms of servants carried Arkadina's bags in and out. Pauses, sometimes as long as ten or twenty seconds, abounded. The acting, in line with the "method" which Stanislavsky was later to found in his books, was, for its day, shockingly truthful.
On December 17, 1898, the opening night of The Seagull, there was a painful silence after the final line of the first act, as the curtain fell. The actors looked at each other, behind the curtain, and Stanislavksy was terrified, his leg shaking compulsively. Then, a wave of applause crashed down: Stanislavsky himself recalled "a roar in the auditorium, and a shriek of joy or fright on the stage". After Act 3, Chekhov was called onto the stage by the audience: due to his absence, they had to settle for a telegram being sent to congratulate him.
Chekhov had a chance to see the production during its tour in 1900. Chekhov thought, it is reported, that Stanislavksy's realism was excessive: disliking particularly the departure scene in Act 3 with several servants carrying luggage, and Stanislavsky's over use of naturalistic sound effects.
Stanislavsky famously thought the play was a melancholy tragedy, which drew the angry response from Chekhov that it was a comedy. Chekhov, again, was way ahead of his time, and creating something more complex even than our modern genres. In the words of David Richard Jones, Chekhov was "one of the first great modern ironists, which is why his plays continue to seem so thoroughly contemporary as decades pass". Chekhov's comedy is tragic: Arkadina's petulant refusal to give her son money, Sorin's passing out (and pratfall) in Act 3, Konstantin's embarrassment at his botched attempt at a suicidal gesture. These are funny moments with their roots in tears, and in tragedy.
There is a postscript to the story of The Seagull and the Moscow Art Theater. In 1980, the director Oleg Yefremov brought the Moscow Art Theatre back to look at the play again. With the stage designer Valery Levental, Yefremov moved Konstantin's theater downstage, and it literally moved, sometimes advancing right downstage before retreating off into the park. By the end of the play, the makeshift theater was absolutely ruined: wind whistling through the cracks in its walls, and blowing the tattered remains of the white curtains. Nina, played by Anastasia Vertinskaya repeated the monologue from Konstantin's play at the end: this time with real meaning, the writing focused into resonance by Konstantin's death. Moreover, Nina's second reading of the monologue was not as an innocent girl, but as a real actress, who had suffered and come to a true understanding. We might think that The Seagull itself had brought about a similar change for the theatre: a path to a deeper understanding both of writing and acting.
As Stanislavsky had said, The Seagull, "like the Star of Bethlehem, lighted the new road we were to travel in pursuit of art".