The Women of The Seagull
Chekhov met his wife, Olga Knipper, when she played the role of Irina in the legendary Moscow Art Theatre production of The Seagull. Why he finally married her, three years before he died, has proved a mystery to biographers. The playwright evinced a lifelong fear of commitment. Handsome, clever, and famous, he enjoyed amorous encounters with at least 33 women. According to one female admirer, he was “elusive as a comet.” It is perhaps no surprise that The Seagull, full of love lost or disappointed, draws heavily on this complex romantic history. Three women — all named Lydia — particularly influenced the play.
Lydia Yavorskaya was a young actress who met Chekhov in 1893. Their letters make for steamy reading — one references “that room in the Moscow Grand Hotel where you and I tasted unearthly bliss.” Their affair ended after a few months, but Yavorskaya’s acting roles, including the plays Camille and The Fumes of Life, influenced Arkadina’s resume. Yavorskaya also appeared in an Indian-themed drama in which she addressed a fellow god: “My amazing lover, my magnificent lover, my conqueror.” Whenever Chekhov visited her, she would say these words; and in The Seagull Arkadina repeats them to Trigorin.
Chekhov’s exact connection with Lydia Avilova has been a subject of dispute. She, and a few others, contend that she was the writer’s soulmate; others have dismissed her as a delusional dilettante. The truth is probably somewhat less extreme. Avilova was a married mother and writer who met Chekhov through literary acquaintances. He critiqued her work; she regarded him with increasing infatuation. The key incident for The Seagull involves a locket that Avilova sent him, bearing a passage from his story “The Neighbors”: “If you ever want my life, come and take it.” Chekhov never acknowledged the gift. Instead, he incorporated both the event and the actual locket into The Seagull, letting the actress playing Nina use it as a prop. However, at a masked ball, he intimated to Avilova that his play would contain a secret message for her. She attended the premiere, and though she didn’t think much of the piece, she eagerly noted down the page and line number where the words, “If you ever want my life, come and take it,” were cited in Trigorin’s works. The joke concluded when Avilova found that the reference pointed to a sentence in one of her own stories: “It is not proper for young ladies to go to masked balls.”
Lydia Mizinova (Lika to her friends) was a bodacious blonde, amateur opera singer, and frequent guest at the writer’s estate at Melikhovo. She and Chekhov exchanged hundreds of letters, alternately passionate and derisory. “You so turned my head that I can believe twice two is five,” he wrote to her. “What am I to say, poor thing,” she replied, “if it’s you who has so turned my head that I can actually believe you, and can even believe that you want to see me?” Lika attempted to coax Chekhov into a more committed relationship — “I’m burning the candle of my life at both ends. Come and help me burn it quickly” — but she was ultimately frustrated. Instead she took up with his friend Potapenko, a married novelist, though he abandoned her when she became pregnant. As an aspiring performer amongst the famous artists at Melikhovo, she has been taken as a prototype of Nina in The Seagull, and Nina’s tragic dalliance with Trigorin seems lifted directly from Lika’s affair with Potapenko — until one realizes that the true-life situation occurred years after its fictional prototype. Chekhov, it seems, understood his friends only too well.