Monday, September 17, 2007

Anton Chekhov and The Seagull

"Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress," Anton Chekhov.

Friday night, I saw an almost perfect production of Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull, performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company. All the performances were almost spot on, apart from the Nina but that had more to do with her inexperience as a stage actress. Romola Garai (Vanity Fair, Havana Nights) who played the role is tall, blonde and lovely, but she had this unfortunate tendency to hunch over whenever she talked to any of the actors who were slightly shorter than her. I just wanted to tell her to stay tall and own your height. She also did this thing with her hands that made them look like claws which was totally weird.

I have to say straight up, that I absolutely adore Chekhov. I think I love him even more than I love Shakespeare, and that's saying something since I've written 3 YA novels based on his plays. But there is something about Chekov that moves me in ways that Shakespeare's plays don't. Perhaps its the fact that in many ways Chekhov's plays are even closer to our own lives, than the lives of Shakespeare's plays filled with Princes, Nuns, Fairies, witches, and whores.

Even though the plays themselves are translated from the Russian, most modern translators now are able to capture the conversational attributes and are less formal, than the earlier English translations. Chekhov, like Jane Austen, writes about what he knows. Doctors, actresses, servants, teachers, the ordinariness of every day life.

Chekhov's plays are a microcosm of life seen at a precise moment. His characters live, and breathe, cry, love, get angry, sometimes within the same speech. You watch a Chekhov play and you can see yourself in anyone of the characters on stage, feel the emotions that they are feeling. His plays take you on a roller-coaster ride.

No where is that more apparent than in The Seagull. It centers on the romantic and artistic conflicts between four theatrical characters: the ingenue Nina, the fading leading lady Irina Arkadina, her son the experimental playwright Konstantin Treplyov, and the famous middlebrow story writer Trigorin.

But the play is also about the painfullness of unrequited love. Masha is love with Konstantin, Konstantin is in love with Nina, Arkadina loves Trigorin as much as she can love anyone, Masha's mother is in love with Dr. Dorn, Nina is love with Trigorin, and Trigorin pretty much loves only himself. Konstantin loves his mother and is constantly seeking her approval. Freud would say that he suffers from an Oedipus complex. Only in this instance, he wants to kill Trigorin, who has taken his mother away from him. Konstantin's mother, Arkadina loves him, but she loves her career and her life in Moscow more. It's clear that his birth was probably an inconvenience, and that she farmed him out as soon as possible into the country, where she probably only ever saw him in the summers when she returned from the city for her summer holidays.

Having him with her would have aged her in the eyes of theatrical managers, probably restricted the parts that she would have played. From several her lines, it's clear that in many ways she still sees herself as some kind of ingenue, even though she's in her early forties.

The play is also about art, and the artistic temperment and what it means to be an artist. Konstantin considers himself to be blowing away the stuffy old traditions with his play. He hates Trigorin because he's famous and because he considers him to be old-fashioned. And because Nina and his mother adore him. He's consumed with schadenfreude. He wants his fame, at the same time despising him for it.

Trigorin is Chekhov's portrait of the writer as a human parasite in a way. He's constantly walking around with a notebook, taking down bits of dialogue that people say and descriptions. He has a long speech to Nina where he talks about how even when he's trying to relax, he's constantly creating and writing in his head. What's even more telling is that he even tells adoring Nina what he's going to do with her, if she persists in her infatuation, which is basically use her as cannon fodder for his work, and then toss her aside. And she still gives her life over to him! And ends up paying the price when he dumps her after she's given birth to his child, who has died. Yet she still loves him.

What really got me about the play was Nina's speech about fame. Remember this play was written in 1894, but the way she talks about wanting to be famous, it could be any actress or reality TV whore talking today. She tells Trigorin that she would live in a garrett and starve, eating stale crusts of bread, as long as she knew that in the end she would be famous. This is after Trigorin has told her that being famous is not all it's cracked up to be.

Arkadina of course sees Trigorin for who he is, and is willing to let him have an affair with Nina when he tells her that he needs Nina to get over his rut in his writing. She knows that in the end, he'll come back to her because they are alike, and she's the only one who understands him. They're soulmates in a way.

As are Nina and Konstantin in their romantic idealism. At the end of the play, Konstantin is finally being published, but various characters in the play discuss the fact that his writing is flat, that he hasn't found his voice yet. How many of us have heard that phrase?

I won't give away the ending, just to say that it's exceedingly painful. The only real survivors in the play are Arkadina and Trigorin because they are pragmatists.

It's hard to believe that when the play was first produced, it was an abject failure. The actress playing Nina got nervous, and lost her voice, the audience booed, and Chekhov resolved to have nothing to do with the theater ever again. Even when told that the later performances were more successful, Chekhov refused to believe it, he thought his supporters were being kind. Fortunately, the artistic director of a new theater company, The Moscow Arts Theater thought the play might be suitable for his troupe. He convinced Stanislavski to direct the play in 1898 and the rest is history.

Perhaps Chekhov's greatness comes from his work as a doctor. Despite his success as a writer, Chekhov never stopped practising medicine. His work brought him into contact with people from all walks of life, and Chekhov was a dedicated observer. His tuberculosis kept him from any vigorous exercise, so most of his time was spent writing at his villa in the countryside.

Chekhov's fame doesn't rest solely with the four plays of his that are most produced, including The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya. He was also a prolific short story writer. Writing for him was initially a way for him to make money to support his family after his father went bankrupt, later it helped supplement his work as a doctor, for which he never made much money, treating the poor for free. He spent a great deal of money taking care of the local peasants near his estate 40 miles outside of Moscow, buidling three schools, a fire station and a clinic.

His short stories influenced many writers including Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, James Joyce, and Tennessee Williams. He used an early stream-of-consciousness technique, combined with a disavowal of the moral finality of traditional story structure. He made no apologies for this, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.

Thanks for reading!


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