play twenty three: the seagull

Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.
Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1896

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: Kostia and his sweetheart Nina put on a show for the local families by the lake at his Uncle Sorin’s estate. Kostia is determined to find a new art form and to impress both his histrionic mother, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, and her follower Trigorin, a famous writer. The failure of his work pulls a thread that leads to the gradual unravelling of his life.

What moved me: I’m not sure whether it was because Ivanov was written in a fortnight, or whether it was because Checkhov was 27 and it wasn’t until he was 36 when The Seagull was first produced (I don’t even know if this really does make any difference at all) but the development between these two works is like Polyxena’s shooting star wiped across the sky. Between these two plays irritation has been replaced by devastation. Everything has a purpose. Kostia’s botched suicide attempt is emblematic of every character’s aborted desire and false hope. The way in which the seagull reconnects moments in time across years of turmoil that are lived offstage is painful in its simplicity. And that ending. Fuck.

Also, it is interesting to note what has carried across into this work: the presence of a doctor as a key character, and the presence of Hamlet (Ivanov was sickened by his likeness to him; the players in The Seagull cannot help but quote him) and the work of Gogol as key weaves in the play-fabric.

play twenty two: ivanov

Chekhov. What a babe.
Chekhov. What a babe.

Writer: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1887

Suggested by: with this new week comes our first suggestion for the play-a-day club. Colin Ho, Amy Satchell, and Chris Hay suggested a chronological reading of Chekhov’s major works (Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) in order to track the development of Chekhov as an artist (as well as of naturalism as a form).

Synopsis: Estate-holder Nikolai Ivanov, a once vital man now wasted by depression, slowly infects the network of relationships in which he is enmeshed with his ennui.

What moved me:  Both Chekhov’s protagonist and the repetitive content of most of the work’s dialogue – everyone is bored, always bored and waiting for diversion – is deeply frustrating and so perhaps perfectly provokes the same dissipation in the spectator that is being felt onstage.

His inexplicable falling out of love with his consumptive Jewish wife Sarah (leaving aside the mildly disturbing seam of antisemitism that runs throughout the work) is a prime example.

IVANOV: […] Aniuta is a remarkable, an extraordinary woman. She changed her religion for my sake, left her father and mother, gave up her money, and if I’d asked for a hundred more sacrifices, she would have made them without blinking an eyelid. As for me – well, there’s nothing remarkable about me, and I’ve sacrificed nothing. However, it’s a long story…The gist of the matter, my dear Doctor, is that…[hesitates] that, to put it briefly, I was passionately in love with her when I got married and I swore I’d love her for ever, but…Well, five years have passed, and she still loves me, but I…[Makes a helpless gesture with his hands.] Here you are, telling me that she’s soon going to die, and I don’t feel any love or pity but just a sort of indifference and lassitude….To anyone looking at me it must seem dreadful; I don’t understand myself what’s happening to me….

The seed of brilliance in this work is how deftly Chekhov handles crowded rooms – keeping each thread separate and yet entangled. I’m sure this will develop over the next few plays.