The Seagull: A Portrait of Artists

Of Chekhov’s four masterworks — The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard — only the first depicts the lives of artists. The actress Irina, the novelist Trigorin, the playwright Konstantin, and the aspiring ingénue Nina — all embody different facets of the creative life, and their tangled romantic histories pit these aspects in constant conflict. Perhaps this mirror-like quality is what draws generations of theatrical artists to undertake this play of great challenges and great rewards.

Yet the characters of The Seagull reflect not a general conception of creative types but a specific milieu that frequented Melikhovo, the country estate where Chekhov wrote the play in 1895. For much of the year, Melikhovo hosted a rotating salon of the Russian intelligentsia. Though Chekhov sometimes complained that every hack traveling to or from Moscow felt obliged to pay him a visit, he was constantly issuing invitations and seems on balance to have enjoyed being at the center of his own artistic circle.

One visitor, the landscape painter Isaak I. Levitan, was out hunting with Chekhov when they accidentally shot a woodcock. Both men were distraught after killing the beautiful creature, and their act evidently haunted Chekhov enough to find its way into The Seagull. Others claim that reality matched fiction even more closely — that Levitan tried to commit suicide after “a very complicated love affair” but only managed to wound himself. When Chekhov arrived to care for him, the painter stormed outside, shot a seagull, and threw it at the feet of the lady who had spurned him. Whichever is true, the dead bird that appears in The Seagull is no blunt and extraneous symbol — it is a real creature, experienced by a keen observer and transmuted by him into a moment of key dramatic power.

The creative output that was a constant feature of Melikhovo also found its way into Chekhov’s work. In addition to hosting learned conversation, the estate was frequently abuzz with music. The main house had a grand piano at which Lika Mizinova, a frequent visitor and later Chekhov’s mistress, would play and sing opera. From the guest cottage where he did most of his writing, Chekhov could hear the music distantly but distinctly. This sensation found its way into The Seagull and each subsequent play, creating a diegetic soundtrack decades before the technique was recognized or named.

It took more than three years before Chekhov began to shape the artistic atmosphere of Melikhovo into a dramatic work. “I am writing a play,” he announced in a letter to his friend Suvorin on October 21, 1895. “I am not writing it without pleasure, although I am violating all the conventions of playwriting. It is a comedy, three female roles, six male roles, four acts, a landscape (a view over a lake), a lot of talking about literature, little action, and five poods [c. 181 pounds] of love.” As a description of The Seagull, this first mention is both succinct and illuminating. When its characters talk about literature, they are really talking about love; when they try to express their love, they fall back upon the quotations and clichés of literature. The struggle between creative expression and genuine feeling lies at the core of the play. All too familiar to Chekhov and his circle, this dilemma continues to ring true among artists, drawing them back, time and again, to The Seagull.

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