The Seagull (Russian: Чайка, romanized: Chayka) is a play by Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, written in 1895 and first produced in 1896. The Seagull is generally considered to be the first of his four major plays. It dramatises the romantic and artistic conflicts between four characters: the famous middlebrow story writer Boris Trigorin, the ingenue Nina, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, and her son the symbolist playwright Konstantin Tréplev.
Maly Theatre production in 2008
|Written by||Anton Chekhov|
|Date premiered||17 October 1896|
|Place premiered||Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia|
|Setting||Sorin's country estate|
Though the character of Trigorin is considered Chekhov's greatest male role, like Chekhov's other full-length plays, The Seagull relies upon an ensemble cast of diverse, fully developed characters. In contrast to the melodrama of mainstream 19th-century theatre, lurid actions (such as Konstantin's suicide attempts) are not shown onstage. Characters tend to speak in ways that skirt around issues rather than addressing them directly; in other words, their lines are full of what is known in dramatic practice as subtext.
The opening night of the first production was a famous failure. Vera Komissarzhevskaya, playing Nina, was so intimidated by the hostility of the audience that she lost her voice. Chekhov left the audience and spent the last two acts behind the scenes. When supporters wrote to him that the production later became a success, he assumed that they were merely trying to be kind. When Konstantin Stanislavski, the seminal Russian theatre practitioner of the time, directed it in 1898 for his Moscow Art Theatre, the play was a triumph. Stanislavski's production of The Seagull became "one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama".
Stanislavski is also the director that caused The Seagull to be perceived as a tragedy by becoming overzealous with the concept of subtext, whereas Chekhov intended for it to be a comedy.
After purchasing the Melikhovo farm in 1892, Chekhov had built in the middle of a cherry orchard a lodge consisting of three rooms, one containing a bed and another a writing table. In spring, when the cherries were in blossom, it was pleasant to live in this lodge, but in winter it was so buried in the snow that pathways had to be cut to it through drifts as high as a man. Chekhov eventually moved in and in a letter written in October 1895 wrote:
I am writing a play which I shall probably not finish before the end of November. I am writing it not without pleasure, though I swear fearfully at the conventions of the stage. It's a comedy, there are three women's parts, six men's, four acts, landscapes (view over a lake); a great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love.
Thus he acknowledged a departure from traditional dramatic action. This departure would become a critical hallmark of the Chekhovian theater. Chekhov's statement also reflects his view of the play as comedy, a viewpoint he would maintain towards all his plays. After the play's disastrous opening night his friend Aleksey Suvorin chided him as being "womanish" and accused him of being in "a funk." Chekhov vigorously denied this, stating:
Why this libel? After the performance I had supper at Romanov's. On my word of honour. Then I went to bed, slept soundly, and next day went home without uttering a sound of complaint. If I had been in a funk I should have run from editor to editor and actor to actor, should have nervously entreated them to be considerate, should nervously have inserted useless corrections and should have spent two or three weeks in Petersburg fussing over my Seagull, in excitement, in a cold perspiration, in lamentation.... I acted as coldly and reasonably as a man who has made an offer, received a refusal, and has nothing left but to go. Yes, my vanity was stung, but you know it was not a bolt from the blue; I was expecting a failure, and was prepared for it, as I warned you with perfect sincerity beforehand.
And a month later:
I thought that if I had written and put on the stage a play so obviously brimming over with monstrous defects, I had lost all instinct and that, therefore, my machinery must have gone wrong for good.
The eventual success of the play, both in the remainder of its first run and in the subsequent staging by the Moscow Art Theatre under Stanislavski, would encourage Chekhov to remain a playwright and lead to the overwhelming success of his next endeavor Uncle Vanya, and indeed to the rest of his dramatic work.
- Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina – an actress
- Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov – Irina's son, a playwright
- Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin – a well-known writer
- Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya – the daughter of a rich landowner
- Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin – Irina's brother
- Ilya Afanasyevich Shamrayev – a retired lieutenant and the manager of Sorin's estate
- Polina Andryevna – Ilya's wife
- Masha – Ilya and Polina's daughter
- Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn – a doctor
- Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko – a teacher
- Yakov – a hired workman
- Cook – a worker on Sorin's estate
- Maid – a worker on Sorin's estate
- Watchman – a worker on Sorin's estate; he carries a warning stick at night
The play takes place on a country estate owned by Pjotr Sorin, a retired senior civil servant in failing health. He is the brother of the famous actress Irina Arkadina, who has just arrived at the estate for a brief vacation with her lover, the writer Boris Trigorin. Pjotr Sorin and his guests gather at an outdoor stage to see an unconventional play that Irina's son, Konstantin Treplyov, has written and directed. The play-within-a-play features Nina Zarechnaya, a young woman who lives on a neighboring estate, as the "soul of the world" in a time far in the future. The play is Konstantin's latest attempt at creating a new theatrical form, and is a dense symbolist work. Irina laughs at the play, finding it ridiculous and incomprehensible; the performance ends prematurely after audience interruption and Konstantin storms off in humiliation. Irina does not seem concerned about her son, who has not found his way in the world. Although others ridicule Konstantin's drama, the physician Yevgeny Dorn praises him.
Act I also sets up the play's various romantic triangles. The schoolteacher Semyon Medvedenko loves Masha, the daughter of the estate's steward, Ilya Shamrayev and his wife Polina Andryevna. Masha, in turn, is in love with Konstantin, who is in love with Nina, but Nina falls for the writer, Boris. Polina, married to Ilya, is in an affair with the doctor, Yevgeny. When Masha tells Yevgeny about her longing for Konstantin, Yevgeny helplessly blames the lake for making everybody feel romantic.
Act II takes place in the afternoon outside of the estate, a few days later. After reminiscing about happier times, Arkadina becomes engaged in a heated argument with the house steward Shamrayev and decides to leave immediately. Nina lingers behind after the group leaves, and Konstantin shows up to give her a seagull that he has shot. Nina is confused and horrified at the gift. Konstantin sees Trigorin approaching, and leaves in a jealous fit. Nina asks Trigorin to tell her about the writer's life; he replies that it is not an easy one. Nina says that she knows the life of an actress is not easy either, but she wants more than anything to be one. Trigorin sees the seagull that Konstantin has shot and muses on how he could use it as a subject for a short story: "A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she's happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull." Arkadina calls for Trigorin, and he leaves as she tells him that she has changed her mind – they will not be leaving immediately. Nina lingers behind, enthralled with Trigorin's celebrity and modesty, and gushes, "My dream!"
Act III takes place inside the estate, on the day when Arkadina and Trigorin have decided to depart. Between acts Konstantin attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, but the bullet only grazed his skull. He spends the majority of Act III with his scalp heavily bandaged. Nina finds Trigorin eating breakfast and presents him with a medallion that proclaims her devotion to him using a line from one of Trigorin's own books: "If you ever need my life, come and take it." She retreats after begging for one last chance to see Trigorin before he leaves. Arkadina appears, followed by Sorin, whose health has continued to deteriorate. Trigorin leaves to continue packing. There is a brief argument between Arkadina and Sorin, after which Sorin collapses in grief. He is helped off by Medvedenko. Konstantin enters and asks his mother to change his bandage. As she is doing this, Konstantin disparages Trigorin and there is another argument. When Trigorin reenters, Konstantin leaves in tears. Trigorin asks Arkadina if they can stay at the estate. She flatters and cajoles him until he agrees to return with her to Moscow. After she has left the room, Nina comes to say her final goodbye to Trigorin and to inform him that she is running away to become an actress, against her parents' wishes. They kiss passionately and make plans to meet again in Moscow.
Act IV takes place during the winter two years later, in the drawing room that has been converted to Konstantin's study. Masha has finally accepted Medvedenko's marriage proposal, and they have a child together, though Masha still nurses an unrequited love for Konstantin. Various characters discuss what has happened in the two years that have passed: Nina and Trigorin lived together in Moscow for a time until he abandoned her and went back to Arkadina. Nina never achieved any real success as an actress, and is currently on a tour of the provinces with a small theatre group. Konstantin has had some short stories published, but is increasingly depressed. Sorin's health is still failing, and the people at the estate have telegraphed for Arkadina to come for his final days. Most of the play's characters go to the drawing room to play a game of bingo. Konstantin does not join them, and spends this time working on a manuscript at his desk. After the group leaves to eat dinner, Konstantin hears someone at the back door. He is surprised to find Nina, whom he invites inside. Nina tells Konstantin about her life over the last two years. She starts to compare herself to the seagull that Konstantin killed in Act II, then rejects that and says "I am an actress." She tells him that she was forced to tour with a second-rate theatre company after the death of the child she had with Trigorin, but she seems to have a newfound confidence. Konstantin pleads with her to stay, but she is in such disarray that his pleading means nothing. She embraces Konstantin, and leaves. Despondent, Konstantin spends two minutes silently tearing up his manuscripts before leaving the study. The group reenters and returns to the bingo game. There is a sudden gunshot from off-stage, and Dorn goes to investigate. He returns and takes Trigorin aside. Dorn tells Trigorin to somehow get Arkadina away, for Konstantin has just shot himself.
Premiere in St. Petersburg
The first night of The Seagull on 17 October 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg was a disaster, booed by the audience. The hostile audience intimidated Vera Komissarzhevskaya so severely that she lost her voice. Some considered her the best actor in Russia and who, according to Chekhov, had moved people to tears as Nina in rehearsal. The next day, Chekhov, who had taken refuge backstage for the last two acts, announced to Suvorin that he was finished with writing plays. When supporters assured him that later performances were more successful, Chekhov assumed they were just being kind. The Seagull impressed the playwright and friend of Chekhov Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, however, who said Chekhov should have won the Griboyedov prize that year for The Seagull instead of himself.
Moscow Art Theatre production
Nemirovich overcame Chekhov's refusal to allow the play to appear in Moscow and convinced Stanislavski to direct the play for their innovative and newly founded Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. Stanislavski prepared a detailed directorial score, which indicated when the actors should "wipe away dribble, blow their noses, smack their lips, wipe away sweat, or clean their teeth and nails with matchsticks", as well as organising a tight control of the overall mise en scène. This approach was intended to facilitate the unified expression of the inner action that Stanislavski perceived to be hidden beneath the surface of the play in its subtext. Stanislavski's directorial score was published in 1938.
Stanislavski played Trigorin, while Vsevolod Meyerhold, the future director and practitioner (whom Stanislavski on his death-bed declared to be "my sole heir in the theatre"), played Konstantin, and Olga Knipper (Chekhov's future wife) played Arkadina. The production opened on 17 December 1898 with a sense of crisis in the air in the theatre; most of the actors were mildly self-tranquilised with Valerian drops. In a letter to Chekhov, one audience member described how:
In the first act something special started, if you can so describe a mood of excitement in the audience that seemed to grow and grow. Most people walked through the auditorium and corridors with strange faces, looking as if it were their birthday and, indeed, (dear God I'm not joking) it was perfectly possible to go up to some completely strange woman and say: "What a play? Eh?"
Nemirovich described the applause, which came after a prolonged silence, as bursting from the audience like a dam breaking. The production received unanimous praise from the press.
It was not until 1 May 1899 that Chekhov saw the production, in a performance without sets but in make-up and costumes at the Paradiz Theatre. He praised the production but was less keen on Stanislavski's own performance; he objected to the "soft, weak-willed tone" in his interpretation (shared by Nemirovich) of Trigorin and entreated Nemirovich to "put some spunk into him or something". He proposed that the play be published with Stanislavski's score of the production's mise en scène. Chekhov's collaboration with Stanislavski proved crucial to the creative development of both men. Stanislavski's attention to psychological realism and ensemble playing coaxed the buried subtleties from the play and revived Chekhov's interest in writing for the stage. Chekhov's unwillingness to explain or expand on the script forced Stanislavski to dig beneath the surface of the text in ways that were new in theatre. The Moscow Art Theatre to this day bears the seagull as its emblem to commemorate the historic production that gave it its identity.
In November 1992, a Broadway staging directed by Marshall W. Mason opened at Lyceum Theatre, New York. The production starred Tyne Daly as Arkadina, Ethan Hawke as Treplyov, Jon Voight as Trigorin, and Laura Linney as Nina. In 1998, a production by Daniela Thomas, assisted by Luiz Päetow, toured Brazil under the title Da Gaivota, with Fernanda Montenegro as Arkadina, Matheus Nachtergaele as Treplyov, and Fernanda Torres as Nina.
The Joseph Papp Public Theater presented Chekhov's play as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival summer season in Central Park from July 25, 2001 to August 26, 2001. The production, directed by Mike Nichols, starred Meryl Streep as Arkadina, Christopher Walken as Sorin, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Treplyov, John Goodman as Shamrayev, Marcia Gay Harden as Masha, Kevin Kline as Trigorin, Debra Monk as Polina, Stephen Spinella as Medvedenko, and Natalie Portman as Nina.
In early 2007, the Royal Court Theatre staged a production of The Seagull starring Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina, Mackenzie Crook as Treplyov and Carey Mulligan as Nina. It also featured Chiwetel Ejiofor and Art Malik. The production was directed by Ian Rickson, and received great reviews, including The Metro Newspaper calling it "practically perfect". It ran from January 18 to March 17, and Scott Thomas won an Olivier Award for her performance.
In 2007/2008, a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company toured internationally before coming into residence at the West End's New London Theatre until 12 January 2008. It starred William Gaunt and Ian McKellen as Sorin (who alternated with William Gaunt in the role, as McKellen also played the title role in King Lear), Richard Goulding as Treplyov, Frances Barber as Arkadina, Jonathan Hyde as Dorn, Monica Dolan as Masha, and Romola Garai as Nina. Garai in particular received rave reviews, The Independent calling her a "woman on the edge of stardom", and the London Evening Standard calling her "superlative", and stating that the play was "distinguished by the illuminating, psychological insights of Miss Garai's performance."
The Classic Stage Company in New York City revived the work on 13 March 2008 in a production of Paul Schmidt's translation directed by Viacheslav Dolgachev. This production was notable for the casting of Dianne Wiest in the role of Arkadina, and Alan Cumming as Trigorin.
On 16 September 2008, the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway began previews of Ian Rickson's production of The Seagull with Kristin Scott Thomas reprising her role as Arkadina. The cast also included Peter Sarsgaard as Trigorin, Mackenzie Crook as Treplyov, Art Malik as Dorn, Carey Mulligan as Nina, Zoe Kazan as Masha, and Ann Dowd as Polina.
In October 2014, it was announced that the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre would present a new version of The Seagull by Torben Betts in 2015. The play opened on 19 June 2015 and received critical acclaim for its design by Jon Bausor and the new adaptation by Betts.
In March 2015, Hurrah Hurrah and the Hot Blooded Theatre Company presented The Seagull in an unused shop-front with the help of The Rocks Pop-up.
Analysis and criticism
The play has an intertextual relationship with Shakespeare's Hamlet. Arkadina and Treplyov quote lines from it before the play-within-a-play in the first act (and this device is itself used in Hamlet). There are many allusions to Shakespearean plot details as well. For instance, Treplyov seeks to win his mother back from the usurping older man Trigorin much as Hamlet tries to win Queen Gertrude back from his uncle Claudius.
The Seagull was first translated into English for a performance at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow, in November 1909. Since that time, there have been numerous translations of the text—from 1998 to 2004 alone there were 25 published versions. In the introduction of his own version, Tom Stoppard wrote: "You can't have too many English Seagulls: at the intersection of all of them, the Russian one will be forever elusive." In fact, the problems start with the title of the play: there's no sea anywhere near the play's settings, – so the bird in question was in all likelihood a lake-dwelling gull such as the common gull (larus canus), rather than a nautical variant. In ordinary Russian language, both kinds of birds are named chayka, simply meaning “gull”, as in English.
Some early translations of The Seagull have come under criticism from modern Russian scholars. The Marian Fell translation, in particular, has been criticized for its elementary mistakes and total ignorance of Russian life and culture. Renowned translator and author of the book The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation Peter France wrote of Chekhov's multiple adaptations:
Proliferation and confusion of translation reign in the plays. Throughout the history of Chekhov on the British and American stages we see a version translated, adapted, cobbled together for each new major production, very often by a theatre director with no knowledge of the original, working from a crib prepared by a Russian with no knowledge of the stage.
Notable English translations
|George Calderon||1909||Glasgow Repertory Theatre||This is the first known English translation of The Seagull. This translation premiered at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow, on 2 November 1909, also directed by Calderon.|
|Marian Fell||1912||Charles Scribner's Sons||First published English language translation of The Seagull in the United States, performed at the Bandbox Theatre on Broadway by the Washington Square Players in 1916. Complete text from Project Gutenberg here.|
|Constance Garnett||1923||Bantam Books||Performed on Broadway at the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1929, directed by Eva Le Gallienne.|
|Stark Young||1939||Charles Scribner's Sons||Used in the 1938 Broadway production starring Uta Hagen as Nina, as well as the 1975 film directed by John Desmond.|
|Elisaveta Fen||1954||Penguin Classics||Along with Constance Garnett's translation, this is one of the most widely read translations of The Seagull.|
|David Magarshack||1956||Hill & Wang||Commissioned for the 1956 West End production at the Saville Theatre, directed by Michael Macowan, and starring Diana Wynyard, Lyndon Brook, and Hugh Williams.|
|Moura Budberg||1968||Sidney Lumet Productions||Commissioned and used for the 1968 film directed by Sidney Lumet.|
|Tennessee Williams||1981||New Directions Publishing||Williams' "free adaptation" is titled The Notebook of Trigorin. First produced by the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company in 1981, the United States premier occurred at the Cincinnati Playhouse in 1996, starring Lynn Redgrave as Madame Arkadina. Williams was still revising the script when he died in 1983.|
|Tania Alexander & Charles Sturridge||1985||Applause Books||Commissioned and used for the 1985 Oxford Playhouse production directed by Charles Sturridge and Vanessa Redgrave.|
|Michael Frayn||1988||Methuen Publishing||Translated Nina's famous line "I am a seagull," to "I am the seagull," as in the seagull in Trigorin's story. This was justified by Frayn, in part, because of the non-existence of indefinite or definite articles in the Russian language.|
|Pam Gems||1991||Nick Hern Books|
|David French||1992||Talonbooks||Used in the 1992 Broadway production by the National Actors Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre, directed by Marshall W. Mason and featuring Tyne Daly, Ethan Hawke, Laura Linney, and Jon Voight.|
|Paul Schmidt||1997||Harper Perennial||Used in the 2008 off-Broadway production at the Classic Stage Company, starring Dianne Wiest, Alan Cumming, and Kelli Garner.|
|Tom Stoppard||1997||Faber and Faber||Premiered at the Old Vic theatre in London on 28 April 1997. Its United States premiere in July 2001 in New York City drew crowds who sometimes waited 15 hours for tickets.|
|Peter Gill||2000||Oberon Books|
|Peter Carson||2002||Penguin Classics|
|Christopher Hampton||2007||Faber and Faber||Used in the Royal Court Theatre's 2008 production of The Seagull at the Walter Kerr Theatre, directed by Ian Rickson and featuring Peter Sarsgaard, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mackenzie Crook and Carey Mulligan.|
|Benedict Andrews||2011||Currency Press||Used in the 2011 production at Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre, starring Judy Davis, David Wenham, Emily Barclay, Anita Hegh, Gareth Davies, Dylan Young and Maeve Dermody, adapted for an Australian setting, with minor dialogue changes.|
|Anya Reiss||2014||Premiered at the Southwark Playhouse.|
|David Hare||2015||Faber and Faber||Presented at the Chichester Festival Theatre in tandem with Hare's translations of Platonov and Ivanov.|
The American playwright Tennessee Williams adapted the play as The Notebook of Trigorin, which premiered in 1981. That year, Thomas Kilroy's adaptation, The Seagull also premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor wrote an adaptation called His Greatness.
In 2004, American playwright Regina Taylor's African-American adaptation, Drowning Crow, was performed on Broadway.
Libby Appel did a new version that premiered in 2011 at the Marin Theatre in Mill Valley using newly discovered material from Chekhov's original manuscripts. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, plays underwent censorship from two sources, the government censor and directors. The removed passages were saved in the archives of Russia, and unavailable till the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In 2011, Benedict Andrews re-imagined the work as being set in a modern Australian beach in his production of the play at Sydney's Belvoir Theatre, which starred Judy Davis, David Wenham and Maeve Darmody. He did this to explore the ideas of liminal space and time.
In October 2011, it was announced that a contemporary Hamptons-set film adaptation, Relative Insanity, will be directed by the acting coach Larry Moss, starring David Duchovny, Helen Hunt, Maggie Grace and Joan Chen.
In 2013, a deconstruction of the play by Aaron Posner, set in the modern day under the title Stupid Fucking Bird, was premiered at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.; it won the 2014 Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical and has been staged widely across American theatres.
Christian Camargo directed a 2014 film adaptation of the play, titled Days and Nights, set in rural New England during the 1980s. The film starred Camargo, William Hurt, Allison Janney, Katie Holmes, Mark Rylance, and Juliet Rylance.
An American film titled The Seagull went into production in 2015. It was released on May 11, 2018, by Sony Pictures Classics; directed by Michael Mayer with a screenplay by Stephen Karam, starring Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan.
A contemporary Afrikaans-language film adaptation directed by Christiaan Olwagen, titled Die Seemeeu, debuted at the Kyknet Silwerskermfees on 23 August 2018. Cintaine Schutte won the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Masha.
The 1987 musical Birds of Paradise by Winnie Holzman and David Evans is a metatheatrical adaptation, both loosely following the original play and containing a musical version of the play as the Konstantin equivalent's play.
It was made into a ballet by John Neumeier with his Hamburg Ballet company in June 2002. This version re-imagined the main characters as coming from the world of dance. Arkadina became a famous prima ballerina, Nina was a young dancer on the brink of her career. Konstantin appeared as a revolutionary young choreographer and Trigorin as an older, more conventional choreographer.
An earlier ballet in two acts, by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow in 1980.
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