The Seagull is the first of what are generally considered to be the four major plays by the Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov. It was written in 1895 and first produced in 1896. It dramatises the romantic and artistic conflicts between four characters: the famous middlebrow story writer Boris Trigorin, the ingenue Nina, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, and her son the symbolist playwright Konstantin Trepljov.
The character of Trigorin is considered Chekhov’s greatest male role, though as with the rest of Chekhov’s full-length plays, The Seagull relies upon an ensemble cast of diverse, fully developed characters. In contrast to the melodrama of the mainstream theatre of the 19th century, lurid actions are not shown onstage. Characters tend to speak in ways that skirt around issues rather than addressing them directly. Chekhov often expressed his thought not in speeches, but in pauses or between the lines or in replies consisting of a single word. The characters often feel and think things not expressed in the lines they speak.
The Seagull was first performed in St. Petersburg on Oct. 17, 1896. The opening night of the first production was a famous failure. It was very badly received, almost hissed off the stage. Vera Komissarzhevskaya, playing Nina, was so intimidated by the hostility of the audience that she lost her voice. Chekhov left the audience and spent the last two acts behind the scenes. When supporters wrote to him that the production later became a success, he assumed that they were merely trying to be kind. He suffered one of the most traumatic experiences of his life and vowed never to write for the stage again. Two years later, however, the play was revived by the newly created Moscow Art Theatre directed by Constantin Stanislavski, the seminal Russian theatre practitioner of the time. This time the play was a triumph. Stanislavski’s production of The Seagull became “one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama.
Chekhov’s originality consists in an early use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, later adopted by James Joyce and other modernists, combined with a disavowal of the moral finality of traditional story structure.
He often said the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.
Anton Chekhov, photographed by his brother Alexander in 1891.