Anton Chekhov is one of the world’s great playwrights, and his four major plays, of which “The Seagull” is one, are, in good productions, among the great joys of theatre – although a 2016 production of the play I saw in Dublin left me unmoved. Chekhov was born in Southern Russia in 1860, became a Doctor. By 1890 he had written some masterly short stories which brought him fame, but until 1895 his only theatrical successes were monologues and farces. When “The Seagull” premiered in 1896 in St. Petersberg it was greeted with hissing and catcalls but it was revived two years later at The Moscow Arts Theatre and it has remained among the popular of European plays ever since. G B Shaw, among many others, was an ardent admirer of Chekhov’s plays and some of the wonderful plays of Brian Friel are in the Chekhovian tradition. The latter’s last play, “The Cherry Orchard”, premiered in January 1904 and the author died in July of the same year.
Not much happens in a Chekhov play – and yet everything happens. Lives are changed irrevocably in the course of seemingly humdrum days. He “holds the mirror up to (human) nature”, as Shakespeare prescribed. It has been said that in Chekhov “characters fulfil their destinies while appearing to do little more than complain about the weather and fish; they reflect on their failures, play cards, suffer and rejoice in the unpredictable rhythms of life”. It has also been noted that in “The Seagull” there is a chain of unrequited passion in which most of the characters are in love with somebody who is in love with somebody else”. How tragic and yet Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies!
In “The Seagull”, a young playwright’s mother is having an affair with a novelist. He stages one of his plays, with a neighbour’s daughter, whom he loves, in a leading role. Next day he presents her with a seagull that he has shot. The novelist comes and flirts with her and says he will write a story about a girl who is destroyed, like the seagull. The distraught playwright tries to shoot himself … but fails. And thus the events of the play are set in motion … . It comes from the excellent Stage Russia. It should be superb.