In April, 1892, the painter Isaac Levitan was a houseguest at Anton Chekhov’s country estate. They went out shooting one evening and Levitan winged a snipe, which fell into a puddle. Chekhov picked up the wounded bird, noticing its long beak, big black eyes, and beautiful plumage. “It looked astonished,” he said in a letter. “What were we to do with it?” The sensitive Levitan went into panic mode, closing his eyes, twitching nervously, and begging Chekhov to please, please whack the bird’s head against the gunstock. The bird went on looking at them in astonishment. Chekhov had to obey his friend’s appeal; he killed the bird. And so, he writes, “one more beautiful enchanted creature was gone, while two fools went home and sat down to supper.”
There you have it, a perfect little Chekhov moment; A short scene out of ordinary life combining the tragic and the comic in equal, inseparable measure. People are behaving casually, rather mindlessly, just as they do, and then something vivid and small happens, something heartbreaking and ridiculous. Some unimportant and very special creature is killed awkwardly for no very good reason. Everyone feels badly; some react hysterically. And then they go home and sit down to supper.
We don’t actually see a bird wounded or flapping in The Seagull— this bird is dead on arrival. The young playwright Konstantin is a very good shot except when he’s aiming at his own head. He shoots a seagull and then lays it at the feet of the girl he loves; a girl who’s given him the cold shoulder lately. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks, “I imagine this seagull is meant as some sort of symbol, but, I’m sorry, not one I understand.” We understand, though. Konstantin is the slain seagull. He’s showing his girlfriend what she’s done to him. And he’s showing her what’s going to happen next. He tells her, “I’m going to kill myself soon, same method.”
Different bird, different death, and different result, but the same Chekhov. Can you imagine a more ridiculous way to show your girlfriend that she has hurt you than by potting a seagull and laying it at her feet? It’s so over the top, so melodramatic, so stupid, so entirely counterproductive and so true to the character of this desperate insignificant young man, hurting all over. And then this sad, young, symbol- riddled fool, good as his word, puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. This being Chekhov, he misses. The first time, anyway.
As you may have guessed, The Seagull isn’t really about birds. But it is about wounded people flapping around trying to take off. It’s a play about broken dreams and failed love. It’s a play about artists, about theater people behaving very theatrically and often very badly. Contrary to what you might have heard, quite a lot happens in this Chekhov play. A radical new work of theater is performed. An older woman stages a successful scene to hold on to her younger lover. A young man attempts suicide twice, succeeding once. A young girl flees her home to join her lover. She has a baby; the baby dies, and she is abandoned. You’ve heard about the seagull shooting. All this is more than enough for a week’s worth of day time soap, and it’s all in this play by the playwright famous for writing plays where nothing happens (he once said an act he wrote was “as boring as a cobweb”).
The problem is that nearly all the exciting things happen offstage in The Seagull, and what we are left with is mostly a dozen people talking, eating, reading, sleeping, and playing parlor games just the way we do in regular life. And regular life isn’t what we go to the theater to see; regular life is what we want to leave behind because regular life is tedious and often messy. It’s that way in Chekhov, too, and by design. He would have agreed with his young playwright character that too much of the time theater is full of “crass scenes and dreary lines,” all adding up to “some one-size-fits-all-moral for handy domestic use.” A Chekhov play follows no sure fire formula, and it remains morally neutral. Stuff happens, or it doesn’t. That’s about it. But the life we find there, though almost entirely ordinary, somehow becomes miraculous, strangely beautiful, vivid, precious, and utterly remarkable.
Modern literature is still haunted by the ghost of Anton Chekhov, the man who wrote hundreds of short stories and only four great plays, who died young 150 years ago. His plays are full of great feeling—- so much that his characters overflow with unrequited love, with self loathing, with self doubt, with tragic isolation. And yet they are nearly all absurd too, in their own ways, fools who sit down to supper. In Chekhov everything is alive, alive and flapping, and changing all the time, one small moment, one flicker after another. This makes The Seagull catnip for good actors, whose fine antennae are tuned to life that pulsates on stage. Other than Shakespeare, I can’t think of another playwright who commands such interest and excitement. And yet the same cannot always be said of audiences. The Seagull’s opening night, October 17, 1896, in St. Petersburg, was an utter fiasco. The audience was expecting a light comedy, and they were determined to laugh at everything. In the second act their laughter was mixed with hissing; by the third act the hissing was general and deafening. Chekhov fled the theater, telling a friend if he lived for 700 years he would never write another play.
And yet, two years later The Seagull flew in Moscow, a triumph as legendary as its first failure. It was the last play produced in the first season of the new Moscow Art Theatre, and the fortunes of the company depended on its success. On opening night the cast all took valerian drops to calm themselves. The audience was sparse. When the curtain came down at the end of the first act, it was quiet as the grave. Then the audience gave a kind of moan and burst into wild applause. Constantin Stanislavski, the theater’s director, later wrote, “The success was colossal; on stage it was like a second Easter. Everyone kissed everyone else, not excluding strangers who came bursting backstage. Someone went into hysterics. Many people, myself among them, danced a wild dance for joy and excitement.” The Moscow Art Theatre’s production was the big bang that launched a new theatrical era; we feel the aftershocks even now. When the company moved into its permanent home a year later, they painted a seagull on their stage curtain.
The Seagull’s triumph was perpetuated in the century that followed. In Europe, Chekhov’s plays are performed almost as much as Shakespeare’s. That’s not quite the case in America, especially around here. John Moore, the intrepid critic of The Denver Post, can recall only five Colorado productions of Chekhov in the 21st century—a remarkably low total compared to other parts of the civilized world. It could be a sign we still live in the Wild West. Of course, some of us already knew that.
I don’t mind a bit. It leaves the field clear. It means we can do The Seagull without having to refresh the play by setting it in an aviary, an aquarium, or a chicken factory. We can stage the play almost as Chekhov described it, with “three women, six men, a view of the lake, and five tons of love.” Actually, we can’t deliver the full lake view, but we think you’ll feel its magic all the same. We do promise the five tons of love. With any luck we promise you something more, a glimpse of life itself, life which exists before the sorting, moralizing, and ordering agents of art have re-presented it. Nothing could be more rare, more artful, or more astonishing.