June 9, 2010. I’m having difficulty finding a place to start talking about The Seagull. There is no easy point of entry for this play, because it is about absolutely everything. Life, art, love, money, purpose, function, station, fame, ambition, talent, marriage, responsibility, history, family, magic, location, national pride, tradition, the avant-garde, philosophy, um … computer science … okay, I may be stretching it on the last point, but really only there. I came away from reading the script (translated by Jean-Claude van Itallie) exhilarated and destroyed. On the advice of the excellent playwright (and my grad school mentor) Kira Obolensky I have been paying close attention to emotional landscapes of Chekhov in order to apply whatever principles I discover to my own work, which more and more tends toward heady emotional territory. And yet I almost hesitate to analyze this play just because it’s so … so perfect. But I’m gonna look under the hood anyway, just to see how the hell he did it.
A quick note about this: generally when I read a play critically, I keep a running tab of identifiable actions, which helps me organize my thinking about the way a play’s plot evolves and what the central action (super-objective, throughline, whatever parlance you would like) ultimately turns out to be. With The Seagull, I found myself simply jotting down some of the brilliant aphorisms that litter this play, until I ultimately ended up arguing with the characters’ actions instead of notating them. Upon learning what has transpired between Trigorin and Nina during the two years between Act 3 and Act 4, my note was simple and capitalized. See if you can make it out:
The play is filled with people who want, and in true playwriting form, they want clearly and they want desperately. Yes, Treplyev wants Nina, but it is just important to realize that he wants to be the man Nina loves – whatever that entails. And though he tries to transform himself, his failure (which masquerades as success) is catastrophic. In the same way, Nina wants Trigorin but also wants to be the woman Trigorin loves. So their movements intersect in the most unfortunate way – Treplyev fails to become Trigorin, Nina fails to become Arkadina – and neither of the two idolized parties really, at the end of the day/play, turn out to be worth a damn. And then there is Masha, the prototypical Goth girl (“Why do you wear black?” “I’m in mourning for my life”), who pines after Treplyev and is pined after by the ineffectual school teacher Medvedyenko. Chekhov brilliantly gives us a glimpse at the tragic nature of the play, its comic tone, and a hint of its self-awareness right on the first page:
MASHA: The play will begin soon.
MEDVEDYENKO: Yes. Nina Zarechnaya is to perform in a play by Konstantine Gavrilovich. They’re in love. Tonight their souls will mingle in art true to both of them. But my soul and your soul have no such common ground. I love you so much I can’t stay home alone. Each day I walk six miles here, and six miles back – to meet nothing but indifference on your part. I suppose it’s to be expected. I have no private means, and a big family. Who’d want to marry a man who can’t provide?
MASHA: Nonsense. I’m touched by your love. But I can’t return it. That’s all. Here – have some snuff.
Though Masha is largely auxiliary to the action of the play, she is absolutely one of the main lenses into the story’s heart. She is pursued by Medvedyenko but keeps him at a distance because she loves Treplyev. Treplyev and Nina begin the play seemingly in love, but by Act 2 Nina has fallen under the successful writer Trigorin’s spell, and whatever window Treplyev had to be with Nina has now closed:
MASHA: Would you recite from his (Treplyev’s) play?
NINA: If you’d like, but it’s so uninteresting.
MASHA: When he reads aloud, his eyes shine, and he turns pale. He has a wonderful sad voice. He looks like a poet.
It may be worth considering that, in Chekhov, love has very little to do with the content of one’s personality, and much more to do with ephemeral qualities such as charisma. Or perhaps even more depressingly, that love has little to do with a connection between two people and is instead an unfortunate malady that distorts one person’s ability to perceive another with any accuracy. This is best shown in the conversation between Masha and Trigorin that opens Act 3. Treplyev, aware that he has lost Nina’s heart to Trigorin, has attempted suicide. Now Masha and Trigorin are drinking vodka together.
MASHA: I’ll tell you this because you’re a writer. You can use it if you want – it’s the truth. If he’d died when he shot himself, I wouldn’t have lived another moment. But I’m becoming braver. I’ve made up my mind. I shall uproot love from my heart.
TRIGORIN: How will you do it?
MASHA: I shall marry Medvedyenko.
TRIGORIN: The schoolmaster?
TRIGORIN: I don’t understand. Is that necessary?
MASHA: Loving and hoping, loving and hoping year after year – what’s the point? When I’m married, there’ll be no time for love. New worries will make me forget. Anyway, it’ll be a change, won’t it? Shall we have another?
Masha’s goal throughout the play is relief from the pain of unrequited love – which she states she does not believe in. Her tactics are first to dull the pain with vodka and snuff and second to “uproot love from her heart.” Good luck to her with that. Strangely, she does not ever seem to actively pursue Treplyev. Along with her snuff and vodka habits, it is possible this dark young woman is addicted to love’s pangs. By Act 4 she is miserably married to Medvedyenko, who remains an alien in his own home, and Masha still pines after Treplyev who is under her very nose. After her conditional comment that opens Act 3, we worry for Masha after the final moments of the play.
But Treplyev is at the core of this play. He demonstrates for us this idea of hunger and suffering and want as the primary source of creative success – and not the worldly, easy success that Trigorin enjoys, but the ability to create meaningful works. The one character in the play who seems most receptive to the content of others’ works is Dorn, who remains Treplyev’s constant champion, but with the caveat that the young writer needs to align his suffering with a sense of purpose. There is a cosmic spirituality at play here: if the heart suffers, relief may only be found by transforming suffering into beauty through the vehicle of art. Masha revels in her suffering. Nina comes close to achieving this goal, but perhaps at the expense of the integrity of her sanity. Treplyev, unable to focus his energies, is crushed under the weight of his own suffering.