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Anton Chekhov: "The Seagull" & Literary Revolution

Updated on May 3, 2011

Russia in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century was a land of change. Many areas could even be considered as revolutionary. Politics, social conceptions, and belief systems were among the many areas which saw change during the period. Even drama and the theater saw drastic changes take place and many historians and critics point to Anton Chekhov as a major catalyst of the change. He explored new forms in drama and was not afraid to take risks in order to make a difference and show the way he felt life really was. His experiments in drama are accepted as great works of genius and are lauded as having contributed greatly to the development of the theater. Considered by many to be his first successful attempt at creating the “new forms” which he sought, The Seagull is illustrative of his innovative techniques, both in context and in content.

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov

Dissatisfied with the Status Quo

There is substantial evidence that Chekhov was dissatisfied with many aspects of the theater in his day, and he therefore sought to create new forms of drama. In 1895, while he was in the process of writing The Seagull , Chekhov wrote in a letter to his publisher, Alexei Suvorin, that he felt “We must strive with all our power to see to it that the stage passes out of the hands of the grocers and into literary hands, otherwise the theater is doomed.” In Chekhov’s mind, a drastic change was needed in the theater in order to save it from the conventional and dull practitioners under whom it was currently being run. He perceived the theater of his day as being shallow and “stuck in a rut,” so to speak. Treplev, a character in the play is a young, aspiring writer and Chekhov uses him to elaborate on the current state of the theater. Treplev says of his mother, who is a famous and successful actress, that “she knows I don’t accept the theater. She loves the theater, she thinks she is serving humanity and the sacred cause of art, while in my opinion, the theater of today is hidebound and conventional.” Treplev continues by saying that from the conventional theater “in a thousand variations, I am served the same thing over and over again—then I flee.” Ultimately, Treplev concludes, along with Chekhov, that “we need new forms.” Chekhov shared the same view as Treplev in this respect. Chekhov stated in another letter to Suvorin that “I can’t say I’m not enjoying writing it, [The Seag ull ] though I’m flagrantly disregarding the basic tenets of the stage.”

Transition to Success

The Seagull is seen by most critics as the “transitional” play which helped Chekhov move from some of his earlier plays and discover his new techniques. It is normally viewed as the experiment which laid the foundation for his last three dramas, dramas which are traditionally seen as his best. The Seagull was completed in 1895 and was first performed in 1896. Chekhov’s new, unfamiliar and (as it was later to prove) still transitional dramatic technique contributed to the spectacular failure of The Seagull at its first performance at the Alexandrine Theatre in St. Petersburg. The best evidence of the plays genius, however, does not lie in its first-night failure but rather in its subsequent acceptance and success. The failure of the opening night of The Seagull was as much due to the audience’s expectations as was its spectacular success when it was later produced by the Moscow Arts Theater. The Seagull remains one of Chekhov’s most performed dramas to this day and the context of its creation serves as a demonstration of the birth and subsequent success of Chekhov’s “new forms.”

Setting the Focus

Chekhov uses the setting of The Seagull as a means of turning away from the traditional focus on physical action and pointing the focus towards the realistic lives and personalities of his characters. In a letter to a friend, Chekhov made the statement that “literature is called artistic when it depicts life as it actually is. Its purpose is truth, honest and indisputable.” In a different letter, Chekhov is quoted as saying, “After all, in real life, people don’t spend every moment in shooting one another, hanging themselves, or making declarations of love. They do not spend all their time saying clever things. They are more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and saying stupidities, and these are the things which ought to be shown on stage. . . . People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is taking form, or their lives are being destroyed.” He sought to tell the truth of how life is in fact and to present reality, whether it made for a pleasant scene or not.

In order to present “life as it actually is,” Chekhov made great use of country settings in his later plays. The Seagull is set on Pyotr Sorin’s country estate and the fact that the estate is isolated from urban society is an essential element of Chekhov’s new dramatic form. Just as Chekhov’s personal views were mirrored in the comments made by Treplev, his intentions for a country setting are also reflected in comments made by Nina. She is speaking in reference to the emotions of the other characters when she says “I thought that famous people were proud, unapproachable, that they despised the crowd and with the luster of their names, and all their glory, they somehow revenged themselves on the world for placing rank and wealth above everything. But here [Sorin’s estate] they are crying, fishing, playing cards, laughing, and losing their tempers just like everybody else.” The setting of the play, in effect, removes the characters from the distracting cares of their lives in the city and forces them to examine the inward qualities of their lives and the lives of others. Richard Gilman sums it up succinctly when he says of the characters that “they’re enclosed in an enclave, tiny, burdensomely self-sufficient, stifling at times yet also, for the purposes of Chekhov’s art , in a very special way ‘pure,’ reduced to essentials.” Once Chekhov had reduced his characters to essentials through his choice of setting, he took one step further in pointing the focus of attention upon their personalities.

Dialogue is King

This second step by which Chekhov focused upon the realistic personalities of his characters was by elevating dialogue above physical and dramatic action. Richard Gilman points out the way in which Chekhov focused upon dialogue instead of action when he describes what the accepted method of the day was: “A play has to be materially active, it was thought, full of incidents or built around one or two really big ones, and what physically happens on the stage is of a different order from, and almost always more decisive than, what is said.” By virtue of the play’s setting, The Seagull does not contain many physical actions to which the audience is witness. This deflects the focus and attention of the audience onto the words, thoughts and musings of the characters which inhabit Chekhov’s drama. This focus on thoughts and words, verbal interactions between characters is really a product of the setting, but it was also another method by which Chekhov furthered his presentation of how life really is.

Words Speak Louder than Actions

Another way in which Chekhov heightened the focus on dialogue and ideas was by removing the traditional physical action from the play almost completely. His approach to this aspect of the new form is very apparent from a cursory examination of the play itself. . Although there are elements within the play that could be pointed to as being the driving dramatic elements, every one of these elements occurs off stage or in between acts. For instance, Treplev’s first attempt at suicide and his ultimate suicide both occur offstage and the audience is only made aware of them through the factual comments of other characters. What some critics call the main element of the play, Trigorin’s tragic mistreatment of Nina, occurs between acts three and four, an interval which, incidentally, covers a span of two full years. Chekhov altogether abandoned the traditional practice of using carefully prepared dramatic crises. The only highly dramatic element that occurs on stage is the presentation of the dead sea gull by Treplev to Nina. Even in this instance, however, the action itself occurs offstage, for the sea gull is shot offstage and the audience simply hears the sound of a gunshot. It is interesting to note that many times the highly dramatic occurrences of life do not always occur in a person’s view and many times they are only learned about through second-hand revelation and discussion. Chekhov’s removal of physical action as the focus also helped to point the focus back on to the words of the characters, and this changed focus was one of Chekhov’s main deviations from the conventional theater. Gilman notes that “material occurrences have their own necessity and integrity, but in a shift with enormous consequences for the future of the stage, they serve now to spring speech—the executive instrument of thought—into life, behaving as language’s outcomes more than its causes.” In the conventional theater, physical actions were used as the instigators, the causes of speech and thought, but Chekhov successfully integrated physical action into being the result of words and thought. As with Chekhov’s other techniques, the removal of physical action from the direct view of the audience is an attempt to portray life as it really is.

The Character's Characteristics

Although Chekhov’s techniques of using an isolated setting and focusing upon dialogue are interrelated and interdependent, Chekhov’s focus on the types of characters involved in the play is a deliberate and independent choice. The Seagull is a play in which there are no definitive heroic or villainous characters. Instead, each character possesses some traits which are admirable and other traits which are not.  In the conventional theater, a play often contained a heroic character that portrayed good and respectable qualities and a villain that portrayed evil and disreputable qualities. These heroes and villains are what have come to be called the protagonist and the antagonist of a drama. A noticeable trait of The Seagull is the relative equality of the various characters within the play. What The Seagull offers for the first time is a cast of many characters of somewhat equal weight, each with personal ambitions and disappointments, each neither hero nor villain. Although the characters can be roughly divided into major and minor characters, based upon a certain characters’ prevalence in the plot, most critics label this play as having four protagonists and no antagonists. Ronald Hingley notes that The Seagull is where Chekhov “abandons the concentration on a single star part.” This is abnormal for a dramatic piece, but it is another evidence of Chekhov’s approach to portraying life realistically.

All things said, the historical context and the literary content of The Sea Gull both demonstrate Chekhov’s desire to create innovative new forms in drama. The play also exemplifies Chekhov’s effective incorporation of his desire to present life realistically into drama. The Sea Gull stands as a transitional work between Chekhov’s earlier works and his later dramas and there are numerous techniques employed in the play which point to Chekhov’s intentions. Chekhov’s brilliant combination of innovative technique and thought provoking subject matter served to make The Sea Gull a highly successful drama, from the time it was written even until the present day.


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      oshali 5 years ago

      I have to do THE SEAGULL by A.Chekhov my exams. I have been to many sites but did not find most of the time something reliable and good as this. :D

    • bewhuebner profile image

      bewhuebner 6 years ago from Virginia, USA

      Thank you for reading, Lisa! I'm sure there's much more to Chekhov than I have learned, but I'm glad to have been able to share what I do know. :)

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      Lisa Mae DeMasi 6 years ago

      I am impressed. Chekhov was a very complicated man. Thank you for making it so easy to learn about him in this well organized hub!