Commentary by Anton Chekhov

By: Emily Field-Olson


Anton Chekhov was a harsh critic of his own work. More than once during his career he vowed to give up playwriting forever. Perhaps the most historically prominent declarations of defeat came after the first performance of The Seagull. The first of his four major dramatic works to be performed on the stage, the opening of The Seagull was done at the Empress Alexandrea Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia on October 17th 1896. Opening night has, unfortunately, gone done in history as a famous flop. However, there were many extenuating circumstances surrounding the performance that are rarely looked at or taken into consideration. As Simon Karlinsky stated in his book Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought, “The opening night of The Seagull on October 17th, 1896, has gone down in history as one of those celebrated occasions when the first-night audience failed to realize that they had witnessed a masterpiece destined to be admired by posterity” (Karlinsky 282).

The biggest mistake that Chekhov made concerning this performance was the allowance of a famous actress of the time, Yelzaveta Lekeyeva, to use opening night as her benefit performance. Lekeyeva was a comedic actress popular with a certain class of people, and it was these people that occupied the seats that unfortunate October night. As expressed by Karlinsky, “For these people Chekhov was primarily the comic author of “A Horsy Name” and “The Malefactor”, and they came, attracted by the combination of Chekhov’s and Levkeyeva’s names, expecting an evening of hilarious laughter” (Karlinsky 282). This, of course, was not what they witnessed. The Seagull, although often billed as a comedy, was not the kind of play an audience of this type was used to. The anti-action play, where anything of significance happens off stage or is merely discussed in somber and almost apathetic tones by the characters, did not sit well with the audience, who became unruly and eventually stopped paying attention to the play all together.

Chekhov, a man who could be defined as insecure, could not handle what he considered to be such a failure. As he wrote in a letter to a friend, Anatoly Knoi:

“I saw only the first two acts of my play from out front. After that I went backstage, feeling all the while that The Seagull was failing. After the performance, that night and the following day, people kept assuring me that my characters were all idiots and that my play was dramatically unsound, ill-considered, incomprehensible, even nonsensical, and so on and so forth. You can see the situation I was in. It was a failure I couldn’t have imagined in my worst dreams. I was embarrassed and chagrined, and left St. Petersburg filled with all sorts of doubts. I thought that if I had written and staged a play so obviously abounding in monstrous shortcomings, then I had lost all sensitivity and that consequently my mechanism had run down once and for all. When I got home, I had word from Petersburg that the second and third performances had been successful. I received several letters, both signed and anonymous, that praised the play and berated the critics. Reading the letters gave me pleasure, but I was still embarrassed and chagrined, and it unwittingly came to me that if kind people found it necessary to console me, then I was certainly in a bad way” (Karlinsky 284).

As is evident from his letter, Chekhov left the theater before the performance had even finished and refused to come back. It is true that the play received only positive criticism after the initial performance, although this is rarely brought up anymore. Due to Levkeyea’s benefit on opening night, the seats were sold out to her low-brow fans, and according to Karlinsky, “many members of the St. Petersburg intellectual community were not able to see the play until its second and third performance” (283). However, once such people had seen it, the play received rave reviews. The actress who played Nina, Vera Kommissarzhevskaya even wrote to Chekhov, begging him to return and share in the plays belated triumph. However, Chekhov did not return to St. Petersburg, and the management of the theater did not look past the opening night criticism. The show closed after only five performances.

What happened in between this failure of an opening (although an argument could be made that the initial performance did not fail artistically, there is no denying its commercial failure) and the successful production of The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theater in 1898, is somewhat of a mystery. In any case, scholars can’t seem to agree on exactly what happened. Some argued that Chekhov shut himself up, refusing to let The Seagull be performed ever again. Thus, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the man who directed The Seagull for the Moscow Art Theater, and Konstantin Stanislavski had to use extreme powers of persuasion to convince him to consent. However, others argue that other performances of The Seagull had opened to at least mild success and so Chekhov turned over his play to the Moscow Art Theater willingly (Karlinskly 324). I argue that none of that really matters, as the fact remains that the Moscow Art Theater produced The Seagull in 1898 under the direction of Nemirovich-Danchenko and with the great influence of Konstain Stanislavsky.

In huge contrast to what transpired at the Empress Alexandrea Theater a little over two years previously, the Moscow Art Theater’s production of The Seagull was a success. However, although Chekhov was “gratified by the new success of The Seagull in Moscow…he was not particularly happy about the scenario of stage effects which Stanislavsky devised for it and he strongly disliked some of the performances” ( 325).* Chekov was, in general, unhappy with many of Stanislavski’s choices. He was unhappy with Stanislavski’s elaborate sound effects, the tempo of the piece and the way in which many of the characters were portrayed. The performances of Trigorin and Nina were particularly troubling to him. He especially expressed distaste to the actress’s choice to cry during her performance as Nina. As he stated in another letter, “I can’t judge the play with equanimity, because the seagull herself gave such an abominable performance – she blubbered loudly throughout” (Karlinsky 357). He eventually demanded the actress, Roxanova, be replaced.

Perhaps Chekhov found Stanislavski’s conception of The Seagull to be so abominable because of Stanislavski’s decision to interpret the play as a drama. The show enjoyed great success when constructed this way, but vastly went against Chekhov’s artistic vision. Chekov always referred to his play as a comedy and even went so far as to say “I don’t write dramas” (Magarshack 189). In any case, Stanislavski and Chekhov had very different ideas of what was significant in the theater, and more importantly, what was significant in Chekhov’s own works. Chekhov argued that everything an actor had to know about his characters was “all in the text” and he berated Stanislavski for not being able to understand subtleties (Karlinsky 393). For example, Chekhov did not think that Nina’s character should ever been seen crying, while Stanislavski (and Nemirovich-Danchenko) found it essential.

In reality, all though the performance at Empress Alexandrea Theater failed miserably, and Chekhov fled the theater, and even the city (St. Petersburg) the moment this failure became evident, it seems that he preferred the performance over the Moscow Art Theater’s, at least as far as artistic value is concerned. As found in Karlinsky’s book, “While Chekhov was to object to many things in Stanislavski’s subsequent production of The Seagull, he found little to criticize in Karpov’s direction and was actually moved to tears at one of the rehearsals” (Karlinsky 283). However, after the success of The Seagull, Chekhov felt a certain obligation to the Moscow Art Theater, Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko (Pitcher 113), and collaborated on his last two plays The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard with the theater.

*For example, Chekhov hated that Stanislavski used the sounds of crickets in the background at times.

Works Cited

Chekhov, Anton Pavolvich, Michael Henry. Heim, and Simon Karlinsky. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California, 1975. Print.

Magarshack, David. Chekhov, the Dramatist. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960. Print.

Pitcher, Harvey J. The Chekhov Play: A New Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973. Print.