The Seagull by Anton Chekhov is a slice-of-life drama set in the Russian countryside at the end of the 19th century. The cast of characters is dissatisfied with their lives. Some desire love. Some desire success. Some desire artistic genius. No one, however, ever seems to attain happiness.
Scholars have often said that Chekhov’s plays are not plot driven. Instead, the plays are character studies designed to create a specific mood. Some critics view The Seagull as a tragic play about eternally unhappy people. Others see it as a humorous albeit bitter satire, poking fun at human folly.
Synopsis of The Seagull
The Setting: A rural estate surrounded by the tranquil countryside. Act One takes place outdoors, next to a beautiful lake.
The estate is owned by Peter Nikolaevich Sorin, a retired civil servant of the Russian Army. The estate is managed by a stubborn, ornery man named Shamrayev.
The play begins with Masha, the estate manager’s daughter, strolling along with an impoverished school teacher named Seymon Medvedenko.
The opening lines set the tone for the entire play:
Medvedenko: Why is it you always wear black?
Masha: I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.
Medvedenko loves her. However, Masha cannot return his affection. She loves Sorin’s nephew, the brooding playwright Konstantin Treplyov.
Konstantin is oblivious to Masha because he is madly in love with his beautiful neighbor Nina. The young and lively Nina arrives, ready to perform in Konstantin’s strange, new play. She talks about the beautiful surroundings. She says she feels like a seagull. They kiss, but when he professes his love for her, she does not return his adoration. (Have you picked up on the theme of unrequited love?)
Konstantin’s mother, Irina Arkadina, is a famous actress. She is the primary source of Konstantin’s misery. He does not like living in the shadow of his popular and superficial mother. To add to his disdain, he is jealous of Irina’s successful boyfriend, a famed novelist named Boris Trigorin.
Irina represents a typical diva, made popular in traditional 1800s theater. Konstantin wants to create dramatic works that break away from tradition. He wants to create new forms. He despises the old-fashioned forms of Trigorin and Irina.
Irina, Trigorin and their friends arrive to watch the play. Nina begins performing a very surrealistic monologue:
Nina: The bodies of all living creatures have disappeared into dust, and eternal matter has changed them into stones, into water, into clouds, while the souls have all united into one. That one soul of the world is I.
Irina rudely interrupts several times until her son stops the performance altogether. He leaves in an indignant fury. Afterwards Nina mingles with Irina and Trigorin. She is enamored by their fame, and her flattery quickly infatuates Trigorin. Nina leaves for home; her parents do not approve of her associating with artists and bohemians. The rest go inside, with the exception of Irina’s friend, Dr. Dorn. He reflects upon the positive qualities of her son’s play.
Konstantin returns and the doctor praises the drama, encouraging the young man to continue writing. Konstatin appreciates the compliments, but desperately wants to see Nina again. He runs off into the darkness.
Masha confides in Dr. Dorn, confessing her love for Konstantin. Dr. Dorn consoles her.
Dorn: How troubled everyone is, how worried and anxious! And so much love… Oh you bewitching lake. (Gently.) But what can I do, my dear child? What? What?
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