The Revolutionary Case of The Seagull

When the first production of The Seagull premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1896, it was an unqualified disaster. So much so that Chekhov wrote to his publisher telling him: "Stop the printing of the plays. I shall never forget yesterday evening. I am not going to produce the play in Moscow. I shall never either write plays or have them acted."

The performance was part of a benefit for Elizaveta Levkeeva who, Chekhov translator Laurence Senelick writes, "was a comedienne who specialized in outspoken old maids and dowagers." The audience, Senelick continues, composed mainly of "rowdy workers, about ten literary figures, and a dozen Chekhov fans," was expecting a farce. When they did not get one, they booed and laughed through every moment of the night.

The Seagull closed after just five performances, but its absence was short-lived. Just two years later, it enjoyed a second premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre, where, under the leadership of founders Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich- Dachenko, the play became an enormous success and cemented Chekhov as one of the eminent Russian playwrights of his time. How did a play that, according to Senelick, "garnered no applause at the end" become one of the most important literary works of the 20th century?

Russian theatre was undergoing a reform at the time. In 1882, the monopoly on theatre held by the Russian government had ended, and citizens were now allowed to create private theatres, but change was slow. Chekhov resented that the audience had come to expect a conventional repertory which, according to Stanislavsky’s biographer Jean Benedetti, was, "nothing except melodramas, musical comedies, and farces, adapted or imitated from the French stage." Chekhov wanted to steer the theatrical style away from shallow and over-emphatic acting but couldn’t at the traditional government-operated Alexandrinsky Theatre. Due to the complexity of its characters and the fact that it was a new play, The Seagull required thorough exploration from its performers, but Benedetti states that the first production only had "eight rehearsals held on stage, the first two took place without most of the leads," and "no one was cast as Nina until the 3rd rehearsal."

Two years later, at the privately-owned Moscow Art Theatre, the "rehearsal period would be spread across 24 sessions and last for 80 hours in total," a figure never before seen in the Russian theatre according to Benedetti. Like Chekhov, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko strived to make theatre that "rebelled against the old way of acting, against affectation and false pathos, against declamation and bohemian exaggeration, against bad conventionality of production and sets, against the star system which ruined the ensemble, and against the whole spirit of performance and the insignificance of the repertory."

Both directors worked hard in giving new dignity to the art. They created sober and elegant surroundings, refused to admit patrons after the curtain was raised, and created a feeling of ensemble among the actors by instructing them to bow only after the last act. This unique atmosphere benefited Chekhov’s play. While The Seagull’s first audience — familiar with Chekhov’s farces — expected an over- the-top presentation, the second was attending, not to eat and cheer loudly, but instead to appreciate art.

The Seagull went on to become a box office success and part of the national repertoire even through Soviet Russia, but the play remains as perplexing and elusive to artists and audiences as it did to Stanislavsky and Nemirovich- Danchenko in 1898. Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Does the play lean towards a symbolic, naturalistic, or widely experimental style? Or is it, like its characters, contradictory in nature? These are the questions that persist today because The Seagull calls to be not only performed but interpreted. Russian literary historian Marc Slonim expresses that The Seagull continue to attract actors, directors, and audiences because, "Chekhov spoke of those who do not succeed in the battle for survival and do not belong to the minority of victors and conquerors — and he knew how to make the hearts of his audience vibrate with the pain of self-identification and the comfort of kindliness and pity."

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