Seth Cassel
October 2008


"All the World's a Stage"
-William Shakespeare - (As You Like It, 2/7)

Anton Chekhov's The Seagull is a parody of a nineteenth century Russian melodrama, the conventional form of theater at the time in Russia. The play is primarily an examination of the lives of four people - Arkádina, Trigórin, Nína, and Konstantín - who are similar to classic characters seen in Russian melodrama. In the play, their lives are reflected in the changing symbol of the seagull, first presented as a living bird, but then killed and reduced to a stuffed piece of art. Chekhov's characters, along with the symbol of the seagull, also establish a dichotomy between old art, like Russian melodrama, and progressive, new art like symbolist theater. Additionally, Chekhov's characters are similar to those ordinary characters found in a Russian melodrama. However, Chekhov's characters become a parody of Russian melodrama characters when they are revealed to be rather farcical, through their aspirations and ideal images of themselves. Not only are the individual characters farcical, but when taken as a whole, unlike plot-oriented Russian melodrama, The Seagull becomes a play without a plot, as the lives of the characters become the performance on the stage. Thus, Chekhov portrays life as art, as art is seen as life.

In The Seagull, Arkádina is a character reminiscent of a prima donna found in Russian melodrama; she is self-absorbed and flamboyant to the point of acting in life as she does on stage. "Always perfectly dressed, my hair is always done," never "in a housecoat or with [her] hair a mess," she is constantly ready to perform (125 - 126). When her initial plan does not succeed to convince Trigórin to end his desire for Nína, Arkádina falls to her knees and begs Trigórin, in language fit for the stage, to love her again. She exclaims with great histrionics, "You're the final page of my life story! My joy, my pride, my happiness" (143). Finally, after she convinces him to leave with her, she says to herself, "He's mine again." (Easily, as if nothing had happened) (143). Her smooth switch from over-the-top theatrics back to her usual demeanor exemplifies her ability to act in life as she does on stage. Through the flamboyancy surrounding her inflated self-image and conceit, Arkádina also attempts to convince others that she is a talented, extraordinary actress. As she tells the lotto group at the end of the play, "I was such a success in Hárkov, really! My head's still spinning!" (154). However, she is not the extraordinary person that she tries to portray. Arkádina is a farce - for all her pompous vanity, when her mask is removed, she admits, "I'm just an ordinary woman" (142). Confined to working as an actress in Russian melodrama, a static art form, and shunning Konstantín's "pretentious searching for new forms" (120), Chekhov portrays her as an ordinary character in life. Thus, like the Russian melodrama she acts in, she too represents old art in the play.

Trigórin, like Arkádina, is another character one might find in Russian melodrama, yet here he is a parody of the successful writer. In The Seagull, he also represents old art forms in the play. For all Trigórin's fame, he too is a farcical character. He "hate[s] being a writer" (134), is never satisfied by his work, and realizes he is "no Tolstóy" (134) (his ideal image of a writer). Trigórin also lacks creativity in his ability to write. As a successful writer, he is an assembly line for stories, putting together phrases and images that he hears or sees in life into stories which he mass produces. He explains his work to Nína, saying, "I have to write, I have to. I finish one story, and then I have to write another one, and then a third, and after that a fourth" (133). His methodology for writing is formulaic and mechanical. His life is consumed by his writing since he "can't forget for a minute that I've got a story to finish" (133). Trigórin takes notes on life, looking for inspiration. He explains to Nína that "every word you and I are saying right now, every sentence, I capture and lock up in the back of my brain. Because someday I can use them!" (133). Lacking creativity of his own, Trigórin is a parasite, relying on others' experiences to inform his fiction. He becomes the ultimate parasite when he uses Nína's ruination as an "idea for a short story" (135). Trigórin is a farcical character in The Seagull since, despite being presented as a famous extraordinary writer, he is really just an ordinary person who begrudgingly performs his work, has little creative ability, and in fact, seems to prefer fishing to everything else in life. Furthermore, he is satisfied by mass-producing stories, void of progressive innovation of his own. Like Arkádina, Trigórin is an old art character. Therefore, the two become symbolized by the immutable piece of art - the dead stuffed seagull.

Nína, the aspiring actress, is the one character in The Seagull who models the progression of the seagull from a living bird to a stuffed piece of art. As the actress in Konstantín's new art play, she tells him that her parents are "afraid I'll want to be an actress. But it's the lake that attracts me, as if I were a seagull" (115). Nína sees herself as the seagull, a symbol of independence and freedom, not like a conventional actress of Russian melodrama. Furthermore, the lake, the natural setting for Konstantín's new art play, becomes the home for Nína's seagull. Konstantín uses the lake and nature as his stage and scenery, as opposed to the artificial scenes of Russian melodrama. This progressive thought suggests that theater should depict life, an idea integral to the new art form of the play. Thus, at the beginning of The Seagull, Nína's aspirations of achieving stardom are figuratively positioned within the bounds of new art. However, following the failure of Konstantín's play, Nína, like the seagull, begins a transformation that progresses to the end of The Seagull.

Nína views Arkádina and Trigórin as the ideal images of successful artists and aspires to be like them. By the end of the play, Nína's pursuit of these ideal images leads her to ruin in their world of old art. Nína's character becomes a parody of the aspiring actress and her life a farce as she ultimately must "put up with the attentions of dirty-minded businessmen who claim to love art," (157) and comes to refer to acting as her "vocation" (159). At the end of the play, Nína accepts that being a "real actress," (159) on stage and in life, "isn't being famous, it's not the sound of applause, it's not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens" (159). This reality has led her to the belief that "I'm the seagull…. No, that's not it. I'm an actress. That's it" (158). There is a complete reversal in these lines from the beginning of the play. Nína no longer sees herself as the live seagull, but rather becomes the actress, the role in life she originally wanted to avoid. Nína, like Arkádina and Trigórin, comes to be represented by the stuffed seagull. She admits that the ambition that made her a seagull - a young, idealistic actress - is no longer present. She instead views her profession as just that - a job. She is an actress, and nothing more. Herein lies a similar farcical element seen in Arkádina and Trigórin: ordinary people aspiring to be extraordinary, who instead end up like mundane art on display.

In Act I of The Seagull, Konstantín, like Nína, is a young artist symbolized by the living seagull. Furthermore, Konstantín is driven by his vision of new art. He adamantly believes that "what we need are new forms! We need new forms, and if we can't have them, then we're better off with no theater at all" (114). Konstantín is devoted to the pursuit of new art, to the point where he sees the purpose of theater as the creation of new art forms. He, like the free, independent seagull, is looking for his art, specifically his new art play, to alter theater from the conventional Russian melodrama. Konstantín wants to "show life not the way it is, or not the way it should be, but the way it is in a dream," (116) pursuing his ideal image of what theater should portray. He takes new art forms and ultimately creates a fantastical, postmodern play which eliminates plot, and instead puts all of humanity on stage - in the form of the universal soul set two hundred thousand years in the future. He admits that his play might very well "show us… nothing" (118). However, Konstantín's goal through his new art is to portray humanity, and if all of humanity amounts to nothing, then he has achieved his goal by creating something which represents humanity in its truest form - nothingness.

After The Seagull resumes in the fourth act, set two years later, Konstantín's pursuit of new forms has been significantly altered and his past exuberance for new art seems farcical in light of this change. He says to Nína that "The more I write, the more I think it's not a matter of old forms and new forms: what's important is to write without thinking about forms at all. Just write and pour out whatever's in your heart" (156). Konstantín is frustrated and has lost his romantic dreaming of new art forms. His writing still maintains similar characteristics as before, in that he "never writes about ordinary people" (154). However, Konstantín states that "everything I write is dead" (158), suggesting that his art has taken on characteristics of the unchanging old art forms that he abhors. He is lost between two realms: new and old art forms and says "I just go on drifting through a chaos of images and dreams, I don't know what my work is good for, or who needs it" (159). Konstantín also suggests that he is just an "ordinary mortal," (114) as he slips towards becoming the stuffed seagull, but is not there yet. Nína acknowledges that "You're a writer, and I'm an actress. We've both been sucked into the whirlpool" (157). The word writer, like actress, highlights to Konstantín his drift to old art, which he has spent his whole life trying to avoid. Therefore, to avoid the reality that he is not the extraordinary new art writer he had dreamed of and to end his progression to old art, Konstantín commits suicide. Through death, Konstantín escapes becoming like the stuffed seagull and instead becomes the dead seagull, completing his promise to Nína that he would "shoot myself one of these days" (131). He sees death as more authentic and preferable to being stuffed, artificial, and on display.

When all the principle characters are taken into account, The Seagull is a parody of a Russian melodrama's scripted, staged plot and theatrical characters leading extraordinary lives. In The Seagull, Chekhov does not have a plot or extraordinary characters. Instead, he presents characters, as Dorn says, who are "always looking for an ideal image." Konstantín is trying to create new art forms, Nína is aspiring to become a successful actress, Arkádina attempts to convince others that she is an exceptional actress, and Trigórin would like to be the next Tolstoy. Chekhov has taken Russian melodrama type characters, shown them to be ordinary people, wound them up, and placed their lives on stage to see the results. The audience sees the lives of the four main characters on stage in various situations with no plot, while the important, dramatic moments of the story occur off stage - Konstantín's killing of a seagull in honor of Nína, his challenging of Trigórin to a duel, Nína's ruination, and Konstantín's suicide. Instead, the audience sees the characters' reactions to these events such as the confrontation between Arkádina and Konstantín after Konstantín challenges Trigórin to a dual and the reuniting of Konstantín and Nína after Nína has been ruined and forgotten by Trigórin. These characters and their reactions become the play. Therefore, when Konstantín commits suicide, Dorn says to Trigórin, "Get Irína out of here somehow. Konstantín just shot himself" (160). However, although the audience is surprised by Konstantín's decision, in keeping with the inaction on stage, they are equally interested in how Arkádina will react after Konstantín's off-stage death. Will she play the bereaved mother or the lofty actress accepting the failure of an aspiring middle-class actor to reach her level of fame? The audience is only left to ponder the possibilities; more importantly, life has become the art of the play.

The lives of the four principle characters are the art of Chekhov's The Seagull and are reflected in the life of the seagull. When the seagull is alive, it is symbolic in its idealistic representation of free-spirited beings, such as Nína and Konstantín. Through its life, romantically flying through the clouds, the seagull is putting on an unscripted performance of a sort. However, when Konstantín kills the seagull and it becomes a stuffed piece of art, the bird's significance in the play is transformed. Its artistic performance has been shifted to one that suggests immutability; it is a stagnant, unchanging piece of art, comparable to the lives of Arkádina and Trigórin. The seagull has become art. Chekhov uses the overarching idea of the progression of the seagull to establish the relationship between life and art, seen in the four principle characters and creates a play which draws upon elements of both Russian melodrama and Konstantín's postmodernism. Consequently, The Seagull portrays characters reminiscent of Russian melodrama with the postmodernistic lack of a plot. Chekhov places his characters' lives on stage, as people striving for an ideal image, desiring to be extraordinary. He suggests that just like the living seagull which is changed into art, there can also be a merging of life and art on stage. Life can be expressed through art, of course, but life also is a type of art in itself - it is a performance. Humans' lives, like those Chekhov puts on stage, are but performances themselves; day-to-day actions create the scenes and the inevitable death provides the curtain.