The most famous production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull was done at the Moscow Art Theater in 1898 under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski. The show was a huge success and rescued the play from a less than desirable reputation after its world premiere at the Empress Alexandeara Theater in St. Petersburg two years earlier. Because of this huge success, it is a rather unknown fact that Chekhov himself was less than thrilled about the way his play was produced by the Moscow Art Theater. Although “gratified by the new success of The Seagull in Moscow, (Chekhov) was not particularly happy about the scenario of stage effects which Stanislavski devised for it and he strongly disliked some of the performances” (Karlinsky 325). However, to this day, most directors follow Stanislavski’s basic model for producing the play, possibly because of its well-known success. We, as a dramaturgical team, after extensive and exhaustive research on our playwright Anton Chekhov, would like to challenge the director to produce the show more in line with what Chekhov had in mind for his own play. To do this, particular attention will need to be paid to the play’s indirection action, heavy subtext, psychology of the characters, and perhaps even the genre.
That Chekhov wrote plays with very little direct action is nothing new to theater makers. As Stella Adler tells us in her book On Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, “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 206). She is exactly right. In The Seagull, nothing of importance ever occurs on stage. Major plot points either occur off stage or are merely discussed by the characters, generally in docile and apathetic tones. Even, as some would argue, the play’s main event, the suicide of Treplev, happens off-stage. Because of this, the subtext of the play and the psychology of the characters are vastly important.
Stanislavski understood this, and his techniques for actors worked wonderfully with Chekhov’s script. He encouraged the actors to dig deep into the pasts of the characters, to put meaning behind every word spoken (Adler 217-42). When working with a Chekhov script, this kind of digging into the text is completely necessary. Although Stanislavski and Chekhov disagreed on much, this was surely something they could agree upon. However, Stanislavski perhaps went a bit too far. Chekhov wrote with a very specific intention, with heavy subtext. To fully understand each and every character, each and every line must be analyzed. However, to produce a production steadfast with Chekhov’s vision, liberty with text should be approached with caution. An actor who was to play Trigorin in a production of The Seagull once asked Chekhov for advice on his character. To this Chekhov simply replied, “ Hmm, I don’t know really. You should perform it as it’s supposed to be done” (Sekirin 127).
Chekhov’s characters are complex and fully of psychological subtlety. They are not stock characters in any way, and we believe that Chekhov would have found offense to anyone describing them as melodramatic, even if Arkadina does behave really ridiculously at times and Treplev commits suicide. All of the characters are vastly human. They have some positive attributes and heavy flaws, but Chekhov held firm to the idea that everything that was needed to portray the character was written down in the text and did not like it when anything strayed from this idea. For example, he very much disliked Stanislavski’s portrayal of Trigorin as an absolute villain and he was deeply disturbed with the portrayal of Nina as a sad victim. As he expressed, “(Nina) herself gave such an abominable performance—she blubbered loudly throughout (Karlinsky 358)”.
Moreover, Chekhov did not see this play as a tragedy, but a comedy. He did not agree with the play being dramatic, simply because he believed that nothing was actually lost, except of course Treplev himself. Having said that, Chekhov only saw The Seagull as a comedy because, even if Treplev did die at the end of the play, the rest of the characters’ lives do go on. For example, it could be argued that Nina continues her life as an actress perhaps, just as Arkadina and Trigorin and all the rest of the characters go on with their lives. Furthermore, for Chekhov a comedy did not necessarily mean something the audience would laugh with/at but simply the idea that life does continue, and the death of one character therefore does not mean tragedy.
By focusing on what Chekhov considered to be the most important elements of his own play, we believe the inner motivations behind The Seagull will be able to emerge to their full potential. The rich complexity of the characters can be found after a deep and thorough study of the subtext, which will allow for the naturalistic and poetic beauty of The Seagull to manifest itself on stage in the way that Chekhov originally intended.
Emily Field-Olson, Stacie Argyrou, and Emma Downey
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.