Commentary by Artists or Critics: The Seagull

By: Emily Field-Olson

 

There were two major productions of The Seagull during Anton Chekhov’s lifetime. The first was performed at Empress Alexandrea Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia in October of 1896 and the second was done at the Moscow Art Theater in December of 1898. Both productions were received in radically different ways by critics. And both were criticized in radically different ways by Chekhov himself. Interestingly enough, the voice of the critics and the voice of the playwright was not mutual. (For a more in depth discourse on what Chekhov had to say about the major performances and receptions of his own play, see Commentary by Anton Chekhov.) Critics and other artists (including directors, other playwrights and actors who knew either knew Chekhov on a personal level or worked with him in a particular artistic endeavor), have much to say about what it was like to work with him on a production –a favorite Chekhov quote of mine came in response to an actor asking advice on how to portray Trigorin: “Hmm, I don’t know, really. You should perform it as it’s supposed to be done” (Sekirin 127). However, many of them also had much to say about The Seagull in general. It seems most agree that Chekhov was trying to create, or had created a new form of drama (much like his own character, Treplev), with the first of his four major stage dramas. However, it’s almost impossible to find a mutual consensus on what exactly this was.

The very first performance of The Seagull has gone down in history of one of theater’s greatest flops, and while Chekhov had much to say on the subject, so did others involved with the project. Maria Chitau, who played Masha in the fated first production at the Empress Alexandrea Theater had this to say about opening night, and the subsequent, but very limited, performances at the Empress.

I should also say a few words about the performance itself. Afterwards, many people spoke and wrote about the public’s reaction to this play. We had never heard so much booing. For as long as I remember, no other performance in the history of theater had ever failed so completely. By the middle of the performance, the actors realized that it would be a complete disaster…A few days later, during the second performance of the play, there was a magical change.  There were numerous cheers of, “Bravo! Author, author!” And yet, we performed it no better the second time around” (Sekirin 120).

This magical change was, of course, nothing other than the disappearance of an audience that had failed to recognize the genius to which they had been subjected. The first performance of The Seagull was also a benefit for a popular comedic actress at the time, and the seats were filled with fans expecting a performance in the same kind of style. They did not understand what they were watching, and thus had a bad reaction. This garnered a bad response from critics. According to a footnote found in Simon Karlinsky’s book Anton Chekhov’s Life & Thought, “Nikolai Lyekin [a Russian playwright] recorded in his private journal a vivid account of how various journalists and drama critics jumped out of their seats in the middle of the first act and rushed off…Leyking wrote in his journal: Except for the New Times, all the papers are solemnly announcing the failure of Chekov’s Seagull” (Karlinsky 288). And although the remaining performances of The Seagull were greeted with applause and warmth, the show was shut down after only five performances. This was regarded as something quite tragic to many. Literary critic, and Chekhov’s friend, Anatoly Koni, expressed his approval of the play:

“I went to the theater to see the play, and greatly enjoyed the performance. I did not even expect the effect it produced on me. Yet, I noticed that the image of the seagull did not attract the attention of the public. People looked at the scene with dull and bored expressions. However, for me, it was an amazing play. Later, the play became more and more popular” (Sekirin 75).

By later Koni was most likely making a reference to the success that The Seagull enjoyed a little over two years later at the Moscow Art Theater. Although Chekhov himself had many qualms with the way in which Stanislavski interpreted his work, the show opened to massive critical success. Konstantin Stanislavski wrote down a rather touching memory from opening night at the Moscow Art Theater in December of 1898:

“The night of the performance came. I do not remember what happened during the first act. The only thing I remember was that many actors were drinking valerian to calm their nerves, and the air reeked of it. I remember sitting in the chair on the stage with my back to the audience, feeling slight, cold shivers along my spine. I inconspicuously clasped my knee with both hands since it trembled with nervous excitement. The curtain fell in complete in silence. The actors approached each other, and formed a close-knit on the set, awaiting what would happen. Complete silence. A few stagehands stuck their heads out from behind the curtain and listened. Complete silence. Someone began to cry. Mrs. Knipper attempted to suppress her hysterical sobbing. We all moved to exit from the stage. Suddenly, there was a huge burst of applause. The public began yelling and cheering with great enthusiasm. The curtain was raised…It was a huge success” (Sekirin 123-4).

The Seagull then enjoyed great success at the Moscow Art Theater, and Chekhov began a partnership with the theater, despite the frequent disagreements between himself and Stanislavski.

After the success at the Moscow Art Theater, The Seagull was given the credit it deserved as a play of prominence. However, critics and artists alike have a hard time agreeing on exactly what type of play it is. For example, Chekhov described his play as a comedy, and only as a comedy. However, Stanislavski interpreted the work as a tragedy. Chekhov was angered by this and detested any and all of the blatant displays of emotions by the actors. He despised that Trigorin was made to seem a villain and Nina was portrayed as a blubbering victim. But it was perhaps this interpretation that led to its critical success. Audiences and critics seemed to resonate with the tragic. At any rate, many would describe The Seagull as a psychological drama. The characters are all deeply complex, and yet all of the action takes place off stage or is merely discussed in docile tones (Pitcher 37-38).

As time as gone on, The Seagull has been performed again and again. It seems that we still do not have a concrete answer on whether the play should be defined as a comedy or tragedy, or whether we should interpret the play as the playwright, our dear Chekhov, would have wanted, or how Stanislavski, the man who brought the play into prominence would have done. Yet, it remains clear that most agree the play is a psychological drama. The inaction of the play must be treated with a certain kind of delicacy. As Stella Adler proclaimed, “I want you to know how Chekhov works. It is not how other playwrights work. Others have direct action – what is happening on stage is really what is happening. With Chekhov…what is happening on stage is what is not happening. It happened before the characters came in. What matters is not the circumstances but the character’s reactions to the circumstances” (Adler 207).  Whether Chekhov really created something new with The Seagull, or whether he perfected the art of the psychological drama is up for debate, but critics and artists alike agree that The Seagull is something unique, and must be treated as such.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Adler, Stella, and Barry Paris. On Ibsen Strindberg and Chekhov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Print.

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

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

Sekirin, Peter. Memories of Chekhov: Accounts of the Writer from His Family, Friends and Contemporaries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.