Literary Shelf

Chekhov and the ‘Seagull’

A Tribute to the great playwright and author 

The great Russian writer, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, is generally considered the greatest short story writer of the world. Like that of millions of other fans, he is also my most favorite writer. So when my wife one day suggested that we may go to watch the ‘Seagull’, a play of Chekhov that was being staged in the Alley Theatre in our home-city, Houston, I jumped on the idea. Besides the joy of entertainment from a famous play being staged in a world renowned stage, my interest was also literary. So far I was mostly familiar with Chekhov’s narrative fictions, the short stories, some of which I also have translated into Assamese. However, I was not quite familiar with any of his dramatic form of literature. So to make the best of things, I hurriedly picked up, on our way to the show, a copy of Chekhov’s ‘Five Major Plays’ so that I could equip myself fully well to peek into his literary world while watching the play. 

A Scene from the ‘Seagull’ in the Alley Theatre, Houston

Chekhovian moral: Do not moralize. In his dramas, characters move among shadows; the ground is nowhere firm beneath their feet; virtue goes wholly unrewarded.

My first joy came from the Alley Theatre itself. The Alley was founded to provide Houstonians with the highest quality theatre, offering a wide variety of works including new plays, classics and musicals. To my delight I found that the stage that played the ‘Seagull’ was an open theatre where performance are done out in the middle without any screen whatsoever. It was exactly like the Assamese rural ‘Bhaona’ performances that was developed by the great Assamese reformer Sri Xongkordev in the sixteenth century. Being in the front row, this has also given us the opportunity to watch the actors and actresses in their perormances from very close as if the play was performed in our very own drawing room. I cannot explain the in words the joy and thrill that I derived from the whole experience of watching the ‘Seagull’. 

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However, before we talk about the play, we must talk about Chekhov and his life. Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, a small and declining port on the Sea of Azoz, six hundred miles south of Moscow. In his childhood, he had to work hard to make living for himself and for his brothers and sisters. Working on odd jobs, he studied on his own, and graduated from grammar school in 1879. Then he managed a scholarship and studied medical at the Moscow University from which he graduated in 1884. He was a man of many talents and interests. During his short life, Chekhov (1860-1904) played many roles – medical doctor, landowner, environmentalist, social activist and others. In 1890 he made a journey to the Sakhalin island, across Siberia and returned by sea; and in 1891, he completed a tour of Europe where he ‘drank excellent wine and ate oysters’. Literature was in his blood, an interest he inherieted from his parents. Initially, he started writing short stories to make a living.

About his own writing he wrote “I began to write in 1879. My collected works include short stories and a novel, the Duel. I have also sinned in the realm of drama, although in moderation. Among writers my preference is Tolstoy.” As a matter of fact his prose output was extraordinary, and he wrote about 600 short stories, thousands of letters, and some dramas. 

Literature was however never Chekhov’e main profession. According to his own confession, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tried of one I go to the other”. It is interesting to note his remarks about his dramas, “I have also sinned in the realm of drama, although in moderation.” He always considered short story as his main stay and whereas drama was merely his ‘flamboyant, rowdy, impudent, exhausting mistress.” This remark is interesting in view of the fact that today he considered the best playwright next only to Shakespeare. 

So far as his short stories are concerned, Chekhov has an uncanny and incomparable ability to write pages where virtually nothing happens. In fact, in many stories, Chekhov’s heroes, like Hamlet of Shakeaspeare, fails to take decisive actions. Yet as you finish the story you are aware that something deep and wonderful about human character has been revealed. Chekhov's sense of mood and characters practically overrides his need to provide a predictable plot. This elusiveness – a feature of both the life and the work – is a large part of what gives him his enduring fascination, as well as his striking modernity. In Chekhov, literature seems to renounce the magic of artifice, ceremony and idealization, and we are faced with a reflection of ourselves in our own ordinariness as well as our strangeness. This ordinariness seems to some extent Chekhov’e birthright. Needless to say that in this he is inevitably the forerunner of many of the later modern writers including Ernest Hemingway and many other modern American writers. 

If we analyze his plays, we find that although the form is different, the affect may be similar. Although he was not initially successful in drama, today the modern critics think of him otherwise. Of his seven full-length plays, four (Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and the Cherry Orchard), are most frequently translated and widely produced all over the world, second only to Shakespeare. The influence they have on modern theatre is incalculable. Today, many critics consider Chekhov arguably “the greatest playwright of the modern period”, and they try to find precisely what are secrets of his literary success, and what constitutes his originality as a dramatist. 

One of the riddle of this dramas may lie in Chekhov’s failure to adopt a conventional moralizing attitude. Yet some plays have its own unconventional, paradoxical, characteristically Chekhovian moral: Do not moralize. In his dramas, characters move among shadows; the ground is nowhere firm beneath their feet; virtue goes wholly unrewarded. It may be said that like most great writers for theater, Chekhov seems more interested in illuminating the human condition in general than presenting the specific problems of his own society. And Chekhov did indeed have his own special view of mankind. To him human affairs were flatter, duller, less eventful, and less heroic, than they were to earlier playwrights. As a dramatist and short story writer, it may seem that he implies an acceptance of Henry Thoreau’s thesis that “the mass of men leads lives of quiet desperation.” Chekhov continuously suggests the opposite that human existence is more pointless, more frustrating, less heroic, less satisfying than members of his audience may privately conceive. 

Some of these, we may try analyze in the Seagull from a close encounter. The plot of the Seagull is indeed very simple. Arkadina, a famous and successful actress, is spending the summer on her brother Sorin’s country estate, accompanied by her lover, a well-known novelist, Triggorin. Her son, Konstantain, himself an aspiring writer, has written a play which is to be performed that evening by Nina, daughter of a neighboring landowner, with whom he is rapturously in love. Masha, the daughter of the state manager, is secretely in love with Konstantain, but Medvedenko, a schoolteacher in the small town, in turn loves her. She confesses this to Dorn, a doctor, who himself has been secretly the lover of her mother Paulina. The Seagull begins with the preparations for the performance of Konstantain’s play… 

Thus in one way, we may say that Seagull is a romantic play where almost everybody is in love with somebody else. In another way we may say that it is a play where all the characters are dissatisfied with their lives. Some desire love, some desire success and some desire artistic genius; and no one, however, ever seems to attain happiness. Thus the Seagull may be said to be a tragic play about eternally unhappy people. Then again, others see it as a humorous albeit bitter satire, poking fun at human folly. In fact the play is something more than all these. Behind all these, it deals with human love, human life, art, artists and writers. Typical of many of his plays, the Seagull does not have a single hero or heroine. Instead it has multiple heroes and heroines; the play has two actresses, two heroines, two writers and many lovers. Thus as we go through the drama, we find enough material that deals with basic human love, human life and human folly. Following highlights may make the case more clear. 

Love too is inevitably frustrating whether in his stories or in his plays. Chekhov tries to depict the real life instead of what we normally find in books. Thus in Seagull, we find Masha talking to Trigorin about her frustrated love with Konstantain, “I am quite brave so I decided to wrench this love out of my heart and uproot it. Do you know how? By getting married to Medvedenko. Because, when I am married I shan't bother about love, new worries will drive out the old, and anyway it will make a change.” 

As said, the cast consists of two writers; one a successful writer and the other a upcoming writer who ultimately committees suicide. Chekhov himself being a sucesfull writer, we find some rare insight into the life of a writer, and allow us to see what stuff writers are really made of. 

Nina asks Trigorin the writer to speak how it feels to be a successful writer. Well, the response was again allusive. Trigorin speaks, “Well I am a bit moonstruck too. Haunted day and night by this writing obsession. I must write, I must – Hardly have I ended one story when somehow have to tackle another then a third and fourth on top of that. I am always writing, never stop, can’t help it. What is wonderful and brilliant about that? It is such a barbarous life. Here I am talking to you and getting quite excited, yet I can’t forget for a second that I have an unfinished novel waiting for me. …I can never relax and forget, I feel I am wasting my time. … I feel I am taking pollen from my best flowers, treating them tearing them up and stamping on roots – all to make honey that goes to some vague, distant destination. I am mad, I must die. …Yes writing is pleasant enough…

At other parts, the play also talks about the upliftment that an artist feels when he is creating. At one point, Dorn talks about what a writer must need to have, “And then work must express a clear, precise idea. You must know why you write or else if you take this picturesque path without knowing where you are going you will lose your way and your gifts will destroy you.” From the above, one would feel as if one is getting the no nonsense real nuts and bolts of a writers life which is a hard life. 

And then the Seagull is about common human life and shows that while love may be frustrating, there is enough common love and affection for everybody.
After seeing the Seagull I suddenly got not only an illuminating light about love and life, Chekhovian style, but also got a very clear sense of the difference in style between his short stories and the dramas. The short story generally deals with a hero, an event or so to say a vertical slice of lie. The Seagull, on the other hand gave us a series of horizontal slices of several many lives. Is that then the basic difference between the two literary forms: the short story and the drama? I would like to explore. If it is, Chekhov’s plays may have more for us because it is no wonder that some critics call his plays ‘centrifugal’ by contrast with other ‘centripetal’ dramas. Anyway, after watching Seagull, I now eagerly wait how and when I see his other major plays such as the ‘The Cherry Orchid,’ and anticipate the joy and thrill it will bring to me. 

In conclusion, we may try to see what Chekhov really thought of art itself. He said, “One fine feature of art is that it doesn’t let you lie. You can lie in love, in politics, in medicine; you can fool people and God – such cases do exist – but you can’t lie in art”. The great Russian master, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) whom Chekhov considers as the ideal master, also said the same thing about literature according to whom art tells the truth because it "expresses the highest feelings of man." Tolstoy who was much older than Chekhov had great love for Chekhov, but he did not like Chekhov’s plays. Tolstoy told Chekhov once, “A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.” 

They both—Tolstoy and Chekhov—laughed at these words. Needless to say, Chekhov was hurt. It is said that Chekhov’s only consolataion was that Tolstoy also did not like the plays of Shakeaspeare.  


More by :  Dr. Rajen Barua

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Views: 3391      Comments: 2

Comment Informative and well written, thanks.

BS Murthy
27-Sep-2012 02:14 AM

Comment awesome.

26-Sep-2012 23:51 PM

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