I lied about not reading more Chekhov. Gogol’s The Government Inspector reminded me that I have been neglecting Chekhov’s plays. I read The Seagull thinking, perhaps, it might be interesting to compare it with Gogol’s comedy, but there’s not much point to such a comparison: The Seagull and The Government Inspector are different plays. That’s all.
Chekhov’s play identifies itself as a comedy. I know comedy doesn’t exclude death; nor need it provoke laughter or be inherently funny. Chekhov’s play, however, is a comedy in a very different tone than one often finds in the Anglo-American dramatic tradition. The eponymous “seagull”, amateur actress Nina, ends up in a life much less satisfying than the one she anticipates. The hero, Treplev, kills himself in the final act. The remaining characters get on with their lives, even if their lives aren’t the stuff of romance. The elderly Sorin (Treplev’s uncle) is dying: his doctor, Dorn, refuses to treat him on the grounds that no doctor can cure old age. He also chides Sorin for regretting not having accomplished his dreams of being a writer and getting married: “To be expressing dissatisfaction with life at sixty-two is really ungracious, you know” (4 p46). Dorn, and the play as a whole argue for the futility of regret: Sorin’s life (and Nina’s, and Masha’s, and everyone’s) has been lived anyway, which is all anyone can expect. None of the characters end up living the lives they anticipated (so Nina observes in act 4), but they all live nevertheless. Masha, once in love with the writer Trigorin (the companion of Treplev’s mother), ends up married to another man and resigned to a sort of mundane domestic happiness (though when we see her in act 4, she’s not terribly interested in the prospect of returning home to her children).
Madame Arkadin, Treplev’s mother and Trigorin’s lover, is a fairly terrible woman. She begrudges her son’s minor talents as a playwright and author, refuses to watch his play or read his mediocre books, and is entirely narcissistic. Yet she must be shielded from the knowledge of Treplev’s suicide all the same. Their relationship is characterised by loneliness, alienation, and regret that they are so estranged. (She’s another excellent example of Chekhov’s objectivity: deeply and obviously flawed, and yet one can’t reduce her to a monster).
The Seagull is a deeply sad but also beautiful play, and deserves much more thought then I’ve given it here. Shall have to think more on this one.
8 March 2013 ~ Hamilton
Chekhov, Anton. The Seagull. The Plays of Anton Chekhov. Ed. Arthur Zeiger. New York: Caxton House, 1945.