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Tuesdays with Chekhov: The Seagull

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Play: The Seagull
Year Published: 1895
Point in Chekhov’s Career: First of his four major plays

Synopsis:
Set in yet another countryside, The Seagull presents a critique of the theater world.  It revolves around a self-absorbed actress, Irina Arkadina; her son, earnest aspiring writer Konstantin; her lover, famous writer Boris Trigorin, her ailing brother Pyotr Sorin, her young and beautiful neighbor Nina and several others.

Historical Context:
As he did with Uncle Vanya, Chekhov brings attention to some of the characters’ unhealthy drinking habits.  Masha, who is in love with Konstantin, drinks heavily with Trigorin at the start of act three.  As she pours her heart out to the writer, she tells him, “You don’t have to look at me like that.  Women drink a lot more than you think.  Some of them are open about it, like me; most of them do it in secret.”

These reckless drinking habits – it’s lunchtime when Masha and Trigorin pound back the alcohol – are reflected in Kate Transchel’s Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance and Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1895-1932.  Russian alcoholism became a concern in the mid-1800s, around the time of the Great Reforms.  The year The Seagull was published, a group called the Guardianships was founded.  It was funded by the state treasury and made up of state, church and local government representatives.  Their goal was to steer the lower classes away from drink and thus improve their morals.  Though most of the characters in The Seagull are middle class or higher, Masha is merely a farmer’s daughter, making her a perfect example of growing Russian concern over lower class drinking.

Chekhovian Context
:
The Seagull is about as personal as plays come.  It isn’t just that several of the characters are thinly veiled caricatures of Chekhov’s acquaintances – very specific moments from Chekhov’s life are referenced.  For instance, Nina gives Trigorin a medallion with “Days and Nights, page one twenty-one, lines eleven and twelve” etched into it in the third act.  Trigorin discovers that the lines, from his book Days and Nights, read, “If you ever need my life, come take it.”  Lidia Avilova gave Chekhov an identical medal, referring to the exact same line, which Chekhov wrote in his story, “Wolf.”  Chekhov even gave the actress playing Nina the original medallion to use as a prop.

Chekhov supposedly wrote all these personal details in order to sever ties with the real-life counterparts to his characters.  Yet he almost lost his audience, too.  Initial reception to The Seagull was so hostile that the legendary playwright vowed never to attempt theater again.  Luckily, things soon turned around thanks to some slight alterations and more receptive theater-goers.

Casting Call:
Though it seems unfair to propose new actors after the impeccably cast 2008 production, I’d nominate Julianne Moore for Arkadina.  Last year’s A Single Man proved she can play washed-up, yet she still has the composure necessary to pull off Arkadina.

Photo: FanPop

Kristin Hunt is an undergraduate journalism major at Syracuse University. She dreams of the day she owns a personal library the size of Belle’s from Beauty and the Beast. Her column, “Drama Club,” appears every Tuesday.

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Written by whitney teal

April 6, 2010 at 8:24 am

Posted in Drama Club

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. I’ve never read any of Chekhov’s plays, but I’m constantly struck by the quiet genius in his short fiction. Every writer now, whether they know it or not, owe a lot to Chekhov.

    Sasha

    April 7, 2010 at 6:14 am


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