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The Seagull | Context

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Cultural Background in 1800s Russia

Peter I (1672–1725) of Russia was proclaimed emperor in 1721. It was his goal to modernize his country and bring it up to par with Western Europe so that lucrative trade could be established. But Russia at that time was a country controlled by a powerful group of wealthy and conservative land owners who kept serfs. Serfs were laborers who could not leave the land where they had been born. This social arrangement did not help Russia negotiate from a position of power on the world stage, so Peter I instigated social reforms, some of which, such as establishing public schools, were more successful than others, such as forcing his nobles to cut their beards. During the 1700s and 1800s, all strata of Russian society except serfs adopted elements of European culture, including the French language, arts, and fashions. Slowly a Russian middle-class developed, but a lack of direct contact with Western Europeans meant that their modern appearance was often hollow and superficial.

It is this slice of Russian middle-class society, to which Chekhov as a doctor belonged, that Chekhov frames in The Seagull. While the character of Sorin is arguably the wealthiest person in the play, he is unable to either control or leave his estate. Moreover, Sorin must endure the demands of his tyrannical estate manager. On the other hand, servants such as Yakov, the cook, and the maid endure weeks of Arkadina's commands only to be tipped the equivalent of a few cents.

All other characters in The Seagull are staunchly miserable members of the Russian middle class. Sorin's sister Arkadina is the play's shining example of a Russian parroting European culture. She easily quotes passages from Shakespeare's Hamlet (1599–1601), as well as phrases in French. And while she cares nothing for the writing of the French author Guy de Maupassant, she tries, in Act 2, to impress others by reading from one of his stories.

Even so, there is a strong note of self-hatred in Arkadina's tenuous grasp of culture, which she holds in common with all the other characters, but especially her son, Treplyov. As they are neither wealthy nor poor, the thin layer of the Russian middle class is tucked between the still-powerful nobles and the serfs who are owned by the nobles. This self-hatred based on a lack of social power appears with striking violence during her fight with her son, Treplyov. She calls him the worst thing she can think of—"a Kiev bourgeois! Parasite!" in Act 3. But Arkadina is herself a member of this section of society, and in a sense, also a parasite-like prostitute depending on the generosity of patrons attracted to her theatrical skills.

Treplyov's own self-hatred drives the most violent episodes of the play, which take place off-stage. Not only does he kill the seagull, but he wounds himself in Act 3 and finally commits suicide in Act 4. Treplyov's actions are a result of his realization that, in his writing, he will never be as good as the best literary talents. This fate means he is as stuck in the middle much like Trigorin. Unlike Trigorin, however, who finds escape from his lot in life by fishing, Treplyov cannot accept the living death of a stagnant social position and takes his own life.

1800s Russian Theater

The state of Russian theater in Chekhov's time was dismal, and it is this degradation Chekhov comments on in The Seagull. The audience for Treplyov's play in Act 1 shows how Russian theater was not about the representation of real people. Instead, it was primarily an excuse for theater goers to affect social status and show off. They entered the building to socialize, gossip, and play at a shallow grasp of the latest European literary works. When the play began, they went right on chattering away. Women especially attended the theater to display their latest French fashions, which may be why Arkadina cannot spare money for anything except her expensive clothes. Russian audiences attended the theater expecting to be entertained—whether by each other or by the play itself.

Respect for actors did not exist. They were considered close to the bottom of the urban social strata. Chekhov even signed his plays with a pen name to protect his reputation as a doctor. Russian performers were, as a whole, poorly trained and didn't care as much for the skill of their trade as for attracting the attention and wealth of patrons. This was particularly true for actresses, who used play-acting mainly to show off their personal charms, to flirt, or to acknowledge adulations from the audience in mid-performance. Many actresses were also prostitutes of various grades, which may explain why Nina's parents object so strongly to her desire to become an actress in Act 1 of The Seagull.

Realism and Symbolism

The mid- to late-1800s saw a shift in European theater away from emotionally driven plays, sentimentally drawn characters, and clear divisions between right and wrong. Spurred by a new interest in science and technology, European playwrights began writing plays that reflected real humans and their experiences. At the same time, this realistic representation was countered by the symbolic significance real people attach to things in order to make sense of their own lives. Examples of realism and symbolism are represented in such plays as Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts (1881) and Swedish playwright August Strindberg's The Father (1887).

Characters in these plays are neither completely good nor bad, but display a psychologically complex mixture of conflicting motivations and perceptions. Given these conflicting perceptions, characters are often faced with very difficult choices. Both Nina, in her desire to become an actress, and Treplyov, in his desire to become a writer, act to achieve their goals regardless of impending failure and ruin.

While realism and symbolism quickly captivated Western Europe, Russian theaters took longer to catch up. The Seagull, as the first of Chekhov's masterpieces, finds its main theme in the struggle between the old style of theater and the new. This conflict is represented on two levels: one in the writing of the play and the other in how actors portray the characters on stage.

The battle between old and new styles of plays takes place between the two writers: Treplyov and Trigorin. The reception of Treplyov's play in Act 1 parallels how Russian audiences reacted to the realism and symbolism of The Seagull. Treplyov represents but fails at the new form, and his counterpart Trigorin has a fairly comfortable, if banal, life as a moderately successful writer in the old form.

The problem regarding the acceptance of realism and symbolism on the Russian stage was also complicated by the fact that successful Russian actors were skilled in the practices of entertaining as opposed to revealing the truth about the internal and external lives of characters. While Treplyov and Trigorin present the battle between playwrights of the old and new forms, another rivalry in The Seagull rises between its actors: Nina and Arkadina. While the aging Arkadina has been moderately successful in the old style of acting, the youthful Nina is determined to perfect the new style. The tragedy for her is that not only is she poorly trained to give such a performance to support Treplyov's play, but she is not terribly good at even the old style, unable to attract a wealthy patron to support her.

Production of The Seagull

The Seagull is the first of four major plays written by Chekhov. It was followed by Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). This first, four-act play featured a group of characters on par with one another instead of presenting a clearly identifiable hero. Both actors and audiences missed the point that the play was not about heroic actions, but about how a group of people interact in real life. The premier of The Seagull in 1896 in St. Petersburg ended in disaster, and Chekhov left the theater in despair during Act 2.

Things changed, however, when the play was later performed at a Moscow theater. This theater opened in 1898 and eventually became the Moscow Art Theater, taking on the icon of the seagull as its emblem. This time The Seagull was given the appropriate directorial insight and acting it needed from Russian director and actor Konstantin Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky not only directed this production of The Seagull but also took the role of Trigorin. The play's performance was also enhanced by actors Stanislavsky had personally trained in a new and systematic acting method designed to reveal core truths of the human condition. The connection between Chekhov and Stanislavsky was especially strong. Both were focused on an accurate representation of the truth, rather than an artificial rendering that merely entertained audiences. Between Chekhov and Stanislavsky, Russian theater quickly shifted from a stale and stagnant social event into a new form of realism, which showed how real people react to complex situations and either face them directly or avoid dealing with them.

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