Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Seagull: Not Exactly a Happy Ending (or a “Comedy”)

I wrote the following for my "Great Works" portfolio. Enjoy.

Historical Context

Anton Chekov is a renowned Russian writer who is also the contemporary of literary greats such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. While the latter are both well known for their substantial contributions to narrative literature, Chekov is predominantly identified with his short stories and theatrical productions. Set in the rural, Russian countryside, The Seagull is almost entirely devoid of urban “hustle and bustle.” Although now considered a veritable classic, the play first received unbridled derision and Chekov, presumably humiliated, abruptly resigned. Thankfully for modern theater buffs, the play was rejuvenated and now enjoys wide acclaim. (Chekov soon revived his career.)

Critical Analysis

While unremorsefully depressing, The Seagull is the type of production that leaves the astute observer indelibly marked and quintessentially changed. This is not to say that the play is any kind of Nirvana-inducing gospel, but its impact is certainly profound. Most of this stirring effect results from one of the play’s major themes: the hubristic downfall of the self-centered and the futility of human existence.

Chekov presents many of the main characters as fundamentally self-interested and unconsciously disinterested in those who love them. As is often the case, Chekov presents us with various love triangles. Kostya, his mother Arkadina, and the playwright Trigorin (Kostya really just wants his mother to love him). Kostya, Trigorin, and Nina. Kostya, Nina, and Masha. Kostya, Masha, and Medvedenko. That’s a lot of love, and yet, ironically or moreover, sadly, none of the characters truly end up loving each other. In the interest of time and Thuja occidentalis (Northern Whitecedars . . . trees), we’ll focus our discussion primarily on Kostya, Nina, Trigorin, and Arkadina.

The foursome is especially interesting because of the duality in the relationships or the lifestyle reflections, if you will. Arkadina is an actress, Nina is an aspiring actress; Trigorin is a playwright, Kostya is an aspiring playwright. Again, one of the saddest ironies developed during the play is how much Kostya longs for his mother’s approval and yet how much she scorns him and basically dotes after Trigorin. Next, Kostya romantically yearns for Nina, but, like Kostya’s mother, she longs for Trigorin, primarily due to his status as an established playwright which may help her budding career.

As the genre demands, Trigorin appears to “love” both Arkadina and Nina. However, as Chekov foreshadows (dualistically, which we’ll discuss momentarily) early on, Trigorin will dubiously take advantage of Nina when, in essence, she meant to take advantage of him (at least his status). "A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake,” says Trigorin. “She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she's happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull." As is readily manifest at the end of the play, Trigorin veritably destroys Nina. Yet, it is not in this obvious destruction where Chekov places the greatest emphasis.

Even after Nina runs off to fraternize with Trigorin, Kostya still aches for her. Even after discovering, surreptitiously, that Nina gave birth to and subsequently lost (to death) Trigorin’s child, Kostya still loves her. Unfortunately for Kostya, Nina is so distraught that she will not listen to him. When Nina exits the scene we consequently witness Kostya exit and then hear a loud gunshot. Thus, not only is Nina destroyed by the boredom of Trigorin, but Kostya is as well (he shot himself). Hence the dualistic nature of Trigorin’s shooting the original seagull. He destroyed both individuals.

However, the implications and scale of these obliterations are much more complex than being brought on simply by the boredom of Trigorin. In a sense, all of the characters are made miserable because they refuse to recognize that the characters whom they love do not love them. Therefore, Nina and Kostya are not the only victims of this cataclysmic, domino-disaster; the entire cast is also made to suffer and it’s almost like a vicious ecosystem of depression, a circle of death (or at least sorrow) instead of life.

As some marketing gurus might inquire, “What is the take home message here?” Perhaps, as Chekov oddly subtitles the piece, life is a comedy. Although certainly a paradoxical concept, it’s as though life is so absurd, so feebly ridiculous, that even our dearest and most sincere desires are so incongruently matched so as to fizzle into nothing more than pure and unadulterated vanity. What a pleasant thought, huh?

Personal Response

This is one of the most depressing plays that I have ever seen. Period. Thankfully, as one of my favorite professors, Charles Swift, pointed out, most Latter-day Saints who see The Seagull will have a somewhat similar experience to the following. “Wow, that was really depressing . . . Wanna go get some ice cream?” Having an eternal perspective really helps to wash that futile flavor out of my mouth.

Other than the sullen and devastating tone of the piece, I loved every minute of it, especially the humor. If not merely a result of the English translation, Chekov’s dry wit is absolutely uproarious, even a century later. The acting was superb and the setting, The Margetts, divine. I only wish to see it again, in the same setting, and unfeasibly, with the same cast.


Fletch said...

DUDE. I got depressed just reading that. But yes, life is comedy and tragedy all wrapped in one. Good stuff.

Just stop it with the neked Equiss play alright?

Cougar Abogado said...

Yes, it was somewhat of a downer.

As far as the nE is concerned, I'm sorry. I can't help it. It's just so hot right now!