Chekhov’s The Seagull and Questions of Enduranceposted on October 8th, 2010 by Sandra Toll
In a world where we can be entertained at home at the click of a button, why make an effort to go to the theater at all? What are the requisites for a performance to be worthy of attention? What does it take for a play to be good; to be worth the time, money, and effort we put into attending? Many would agree that performers must be committed to their work and that the piece should reveal some universal truth. Some may feel a play should have a moral; that it should teach, inform, inspire, or enlighten. Should the stage reflect life as it is—or as we would like it to be?
Viewed in this context, what value does The Seagull have for a modern audience? Why Chekhov? Why now? Why at Montclair? Is our purpose purely educational—to hone the actors’ skills, to give students exposure to classic theater? Is there something about the piece that speaks to our time and place politically, socially, morally, psychologically?
Chekhov’s realism is often a topic of discussion. In The Seagull, each character gets the opportunity to shine as the hero. Rather than one character with an exaggerated flaw, there is a collection of heroes revealing their flaws through their interactions in a shared time and space. Chekhov illustrates the way each person is the protagonist in their own life.
A clear definition of tragedy or comedy also comes into question. In reality, a tragic experience can be comical when viewed from a distance. A new perspective can change a situation from funny to sad. Chekhov brought this ironic duality to the stage. This contradiction in our humanity is constant. Laughter, anger, love, frustration, fear, and joy can all move us to tears. We often have conflicted feelings about our lives. Many of life’s issues are without a clear resolution.
Although humans move toward pleasure and away from pain, the definitions of these two conditions vary. Pleasure can be derived from focusing on pain, or pain derived from an excess of pleasure. The two elements are so intermingled and have such a varied, complex relationship that they coexist in every episode of life. Chekhov captures this juxtaposition. Each character is faced with a set of circumstances that make the fulfillment of desire impossible. Yet, their desires cannot be extinguished. Desire drives them as if there were some hope of success.
Chekhov, the frustrated doctor whose father was a serf, was much like a frustrated parent. Children who live in a heaven only imagined by their grandparents have no reason to be frustrated, disappointed, or angered by their life experience. But each generation starts with more, and therefore requires more, to be happy. Children are, of course, angry, disappointed, or frustrated on a daily basis. No matter how much circumstances are “improved,” the human condition cannot be altered; no amount of love or science can prevent human suffering. Sheltering children increases their suffering by preventing them from developing the strength of character required for survival—the endurance.
The Seagull poses the challenge of endurance. This is the distinction we see between Nina and Treplev. Nina is not necessarily happier or saner, but she is better able to endure. This message also comes through Polina when she asks, “What can I do?” Dorn asks a similar question of Masha. Arkadina also applies the question to herself. More of Chekhov’s realism is evident here: the reality that the human condition is perpetual, that life has no denouement or resolution for the participants.
Chekhov understood that happiness depends on perspective. While the noble choice is to “count one’s blessings,” lives are often spent in Chekhovian futility: “I have no money” (like Arkadina), “existing art forms are a disappointment” (Treplev), “My spouse should give me more attention” (Polina), “My work is misunderstood, unsupported, and taken for granted” (Shamraev), “Life is wasted on the youth” (Sorin), “I settled for less” (Masha), “My work is an obsession that feels like a curse” (Trigorin). Chekhov’s characters reflect our unenlightened dissatisfaction with life.
Chekhov highlights the ease with which we criticize and envy others. Medvedenko feels Masha should be happy because she is not poor. Nina believes the fortune of being a famous writer means Trigorin’s life is a passionate adventure. She is surprised to find that Arkadina, the famous actress, suffers like everyone else. Polina is envious of Dorn’s involvement with other women. Sorin wishes he had lived more fully—had loved or had become a writer. We see what happens to Nina as a result of falling in love and to Treplev as a result of trying to write. These experiences might have destroyed Sorin, had he made different choices.
“What can I do?” There are so many instances in our world that inspire this phrase. Chekhov did not use it lightly. He was a doctor who knew he was terminally ill and could do nothing to save himself. The futility of Chekhov’s characters conflicts with the American ideal of progress and activism, but it reveals a truth. Altruism has become very popular. Our society celebrates the activist who sacrifices their own comfort to benefit others. We write plays, songs, and screenplays about these people. We film documentaries, present awards, and organize tributes to the humanitarians in our society.
Let us now be as honest as Chekhov is: we celebrate altruism because it is extraordinary—because often our response is not “Yes we can!” but “What can I do?“ Chekhov repeats this phrase—”What can I do?”—using more than one character, revealing a common human trait. We cannot expect to know Chekhov’s ultimate opinion on the matter, but much of what he wrote was a reflection of his personal experience. We can be sure that he observed this behavior, and he is lightly highlighting it in The Seagull.
What is our seagull? How do our dreams sustain us, helping us endure hardships? Do our actions reflect the changes we would like to see in ourselves and the world around us?
Sandra Toll is a graduate student in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Montclair State University. She teaches theater arts at Jefferson Arts Academy in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Bartlett, Rosamund, ed. Anton Chekhov, A Life in Letters. Translated by Rosamund Barlett and Anthony Phillips. London: Penguin Group, 2004.
Calderon, George. Two Plays by Tchekhov. London: Grant Richards, 1912.
Columbus, Curt, trans. Chekhov, The 4 Major Plays, In New American Translations by Curt Columbus. New York: Samuel French, Inc., 2005.
Hristic, Jovan. “Time in Chekhov: The Inexorable and the Ironic.” New Theatre Quarterly August 1985: 271-282.
Schmidt, Paul, trans. The Plays of Anton Chekhov. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.
Senelick, Laurence. Anton Chekhov’s Selected Plays. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.
Senelick, Laurence. The Chekhov Theatre, A Century of Plays in Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.