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The Seagull | Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

Act 1 of The Seagull opens at the park of Sorin's estate, overlooking the lake at sunset. The lake can't be seen because a temporary stage has blocked the view. Yakov is just putting the finishing touches on the set. Semyon Semyonovitch Medvedenko and Masha, who are returning from a stroll are discussing money and happiness. Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin and Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov have been walking together as well. Their discussion is about Sorin's advancing age and his thoughts of moving to the city. As the author of the play about to be performed, Treplyov is anxious that everyone be in their places on time. He tells Sorin that Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina is testy because Nina Mikhaylovna Zarechnaya, the young lady Treplyov is in love with, is acting, instead of his mother, in the play he has written. Treplyov goes on to characterize his capricious and well-established but aging actress mother. She has made her fame following a traditional method of acting that doesn't fit with what Treplyov sees as the new form the theater needs.

When Sorin asks Treplyov about the writer Arkadina keeps company with, Treplyov describes Trigorin as "famous and well-fed" but not of top caliber. Nina enters, and Treplyov greets her with lavish expressions of adoration. However, Nina's thoughts are all on what she had to do to get out of the house without her parents catching on. They are determined to keep her from throwing herself away on a life as an actress, a life she is determined to have. It is also clear that Nina is a good deal more starry-eyed at the prospect of meeting Trigorin, a famous writer with contacts, than she is in serving as the unknown Treplyov's muse.

Polina Andreyevna and Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn enter and complain about their individual lots in life. Slowly the audience gathers to see the play. Even when the play starts, a barrage of petty complaints and comments from the audience continue. Determined to hang on to the center of attention at any cost, Arkadina quotes from Hamlet, to which her son can't seem to keep himself from answering in kind. Once the play has started, Arkadina's snide comments destroy the mood Nina's monologue was intended to create. Completely frustrated, Treplyov shuts down the performance and goes off. Discussions continue as if no one has noticed, with Arkadina presiding while reminiscing over her past triumphs on the stage. Nina comes out to be effusively congratulated and patronized by Arkadina for her performance. Nina is really after Trigorin's praise, but he seems more interested in fishing than in the exalted life of the theater. Dorn presents his analysis of Treplyov's play, but Treplyov isn't interested in hearing it. In a fit of passionate expression instead, Treplyov despairs that Nina has left. But Masha tells Dorn she's hopelessly in love with Treplyov.

Analysis

Throughout The Seagull, each of the characters expresses strong aspirations and complaints. In Act 1 it is made apparent that these aspirations and complaints are more or less long-standing conditions. The characters continue to live with them without doing anything about them. It is not at first clear why Masha wears black in mourning her life, but Medvedenko cites his own limitations of poverty in an attempt to demonstrate to her how much he loves her. "It's not a question of money," Masha responds. It is clear, however, that although Masha says "even a pauper can be happy," she has quite another goal in mind than marrying an adoring but obscure schoolteacher.

Both Sorin and Masha are comparatively well-off, but neither is happy. Just about anyone else's life seems better to them than their own. Chekhov leaves it up to the audience to speculate on whether or not Sorin is behaving like a hypochondriac with his cane and (in Acts 3 and 4) wheelchair. In any case, Treplyov seems to have heard his uncle's complaints many times before and isn't sympathetic. Meanwhile, Dorn refuses to prescribe medicines for him. Sorin asks Masha to get her father to let their dog off the chain so he won't bark at night. "My sister again didn't sleep all night," he explains. The audience knows, however, that it isn't really Sorin's famous actress sister Arkadina who can't sleep but Sorin. Masha's father runs the estate for Sorin. It is in fact soon clear that he controls all aspects of its management (including barking dogs to guard stores of millet and horses sent to the harvest of rye) with strict military discipline because Sorin can't be bothered with the details.

The neighbor's dog isn't the only creature on a chain. Even before she appears on stage, Treplyov's mother, Arkadina, is characterized as a capricious woman whose fame as an actress allows her to keep a tight hold on both her son and the moderately successful writer Trigorin. Nina herself is tightly controlled by her parents. They are terrified their daughter will throw herself away on a lowly and degrading life as an actress in the theater. Her comment that she is drawn to the company of Sorin's guests the way a seagull is drawn to the lake foreshadows the misdirection of her life. Although seagulls are seacoast dwellers, a seagull sometimes hangs around an inland freshwater lake, as if temporarily distracted by a life for which it was never meant.

Russian high society couldn't get enough of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet in particular. Chekhov gives the audience a clue to the mother/son bind between Arkadina and Treplyov when they quote lines spoken by Hamlet and Gertrude. Other quotes from Shakespeare crop up later in Act 2.

As will be seen in Act 4, Polina's ridicule of Dorn's praise for Arkadina is reversed, as she lavishes the same adulation on Treplyov. And just as Trigorin states that he understands nothing about Treplyov's play, so too does Nina tell Treplyov that she understands neither his play nor why he should say the dead seagull is symbolic in Act 2. The comment about de Maupassant and the Eiffel Tower refers to a statement the writer made about how he hated seeing it so much that he always ate lunch at the café at its base just so that he wouldn't have to look at it.

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