The Seagull Anton Chekhov
The following entry presents criticism of Chekhov's play Chaika (1896; The Seagull). See also Anton Chekhov Criticism, The Three Sisters Criticism, Gooseberries Criticism and The Cherry Orchard Criticism.
The Seagull is the first of Chekhov's four major plays, a group that includes Dyadya Vanya (1896?; Uncle Vanya), Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters), and Vishnevy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard). These plays are heralded for their rejection of melodrama and the conventional dramatic subjects and techniques that dominated the theater of Chekhov's time. The Seagull introduced the technique of “indirect action,” a method whereby violent or intensely dramatic events are not shown on stage but occur during the intervals of the action as seen by the audience, and inaugurated fundamental changes not only in the way plays are written but in the way they are acted, a revolution that persists to the present day.
Plot and Major Characters
The Seagull takes place at the estate of retired judge Peter Sorin. His sister, Irina Arkadina, a glamorous, selfish actress, is visiting with her lover, the successful writer Boris Trigorin. Irina's twenty-five-year-old son, Konstantin Trepliov, also a writer, lives on the estate with his uncle. Present as well are Eugene Dorn, a middle-aged doctor, and Ilia Shamrayov, Sorin's estate manager, along with his wife, Paulina, and his melancholy daughter, Masha. Simon Medviedenko, a teacher, is in love with Masha, who in turn is in love with Konstantin, who loves Nina Zarietchnaya, an aspiring young actress. Konstantin, a zealous proponent of new dramatic forms that are abundantly expressive, socially relevant, and lacking in artifice, has written a play and stages it for his mother's benefit during her visit; Nina is featured in a major role. During the performance, Irina refuses to take her son's play seriously and keeps interrupting. Nina is impressed by Trigorin's reputation and becomes infatuated with him. Konstantin, depressed by his inability to inspire love in either his mother or Nina, shoots a seagull and brings it to Nina, claiming that he will soon take his own life as well. Overhearing this exchange, Trigorin sees in it material for a story; he tells Nina that the incident illustrates how human beings can be casually destructive, and that he sees her as a seagull endangered by callous men. Nina and Trigorin begin an affair, and she will eventually join him in Moscow. Konstantin shoots himself but is only superficially wounded, and he and his mother soon resume their bickering.
The play's final act takes place several years later. Sorin is now very ill, and Trigorin and Irina have come to visit him at the estate. Despairing of ever winning Konstantin's love, Masha has married Medviedenko and borne a child; she is still in love with Konstantin, however, and neglects her family. Konstantin has had some of his work published but is still unfulfilled. Nina had become pregnant but lost the baby after being abandoned by Trigorin; she is now pursuing her acting career in various provincial towns. During this time Konstantin has relentlessly followed Nina, hoping that she will eventually return to him. Through occasional letters to him she has revealed her emotional distress; she has suffered numerous disappointments in her career and in her one-sided relationship with Trigorin. Nina returns to the estate and speaks with Konstantin, who still loves her. She is the only character who has changed in any way; she has learned to endure life's hardships and to continue living with hope for the future. Despite her continuing feelings for Trigorin, she leaves the estate to accept a position with a mediocre theatrical company in a small town. Konstantin now feels utterly desolate and lonely, and, while the others are playing cards, kills himself.
Chekhov's major plays contain little of what is traditionally regarded as plot, and consist primarily of quotidian activities performed by the characters and conversations in which allusions to the unseen events are intermingled with discussions of daily affairs and seemingly random observations. Though not portrayed on stage, momentous events are thus shown by the characters' words and actions to be pervasive in their effects. By focusing more closely on the characters' reactions to events than on the events themselves, Chekhov's plays are able to study and convey more precisely the effects of crucial events on the characters' lives. The first play in which this technique of indirect action is employed is The Seagull. In this work, the highly charged, traditionally “dramatic” events—the affair between Trigorin and Nina, Konstantin's suicide attempts—occur off stage. No “crises” in the usual sense are shown. What are presented are the precipitating events and consequent effects on the characters—Konstantin's and Nina's idealism and the subsequent despair of the one and the resignation of the other. Even though Konstantin's suicide attempts and Trigorin's seduction of Nina are resolutely kept off stage, their presence points to the fact that Chekhov was thus far unable to completely eradicate melodramatic elements from his work.
The static quality of Chekhov's plays, in which nothing much seems to happen, is evoked by their content as well as their apparent plotlessness. A common theme throughout the four major plays is dissatisfaction with present conditions, accompanied by a perceived inability to change oneself or one's situation. Nearly all of the characters in The Seagull are dissatisfied with their lives, and see in love or artistic success the hope for improvement of their condition; all are ultimately disappointed. Trigorin, an apparently successful author, describes writing as a mere compulsion and notes that he is continually negatively compared to Turgenev and Tolstoy. Konstantin, failing in both his love for Nina and his desire to change the nature of drama, is doubly frustrated and commits suicide. Only Nina's guarded optimism rescues the play from complete pessimism.
The past, too, exerts significant influence on the characters in The Seagull. Sorin, aging and ill, fears his life has been wasted. Nina is burdened by her restrictive upbringing under a harsh and cold father. Konstantin tries to overthrow the artistic past represented by his mother and Trigorin. However, it is the present that concerns Chekhov most. Affected by the past, leading to some unseen future, the present with all its complexities and uncertainties provides the central focus of The Seagull.
The Seagull was a failure when it premiered in a disastrous production at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. A discouraged Chekhov vowed never to write for the stage again. However, two years later, in their debut season, the Moscow Art Theater mounted an acclaimed revival of The Seagull that established both Chekhov as an accomplished playwright and the Moscow Art Theater company as an important new acting troupe. Chekhov himself was infuriated by the staging, charging that director Konstantin Stanislavsky had ruined the play. The sets, the lighting, the sound effects, and the acting all emphasized elements of tragedy in a play that Chekhov vehemently insisted was a comedy. Despite the author's contentions, The Seagull has routinely been interpreted as a tragedy by critics, performers, and directors, who perceive a mood of sadness and despair suffusing the play. Among such interpreters Chekhov has earned a reputation as a portrayer of the futility of existence and as a forerunner of the modernist tradition of the absurd.
A common response of early reviewers of The Seagull was to dismiss it as a meaningless assemblage of random events. Early critics censured its seeming plotlessness and lack of significant action. However, much critical attention has subsequently been paid to the organizational and structural elements of the drama. Scholars have shown that by the meticulous arrangements of sets, sound effects, and action Chekhov creates scenes and situations which appear static and uneventful on the surface but which are charged with significance and meaning. Numerous critics have explored the unifying effect of the symbolism of the play, most notably that of the seagull, but also that of the lake and horses (which are continually said to be unavailable). Scholars have examined the relationship of The Seagull to Shakespeare's Hamlet, a portion of which Irina and Konstantin recite, and Guy de Maupassant's Sur l'eau, which Irina starts to read aloud but soon dismisses. Throughout such assessments, commentators have emphasized the role of The Seagull in ushering in a revolution in the ways plays are composed, staged, and performed. As Raymond Williams has asserted, The Seagull represents “a significant moment in the history of modern drama, for it shows a writer of genius beginning to create a new dramatic form.”
Anton Chekhov was talking about other writers when he said, “The best of them are realists and depict life as it is, but because every line they write is permeated, as with a juice, by a consciousness of an aim, you feel in addition to life as it is, also life as it should be, and it is that that delights you.” These very qualities that Chekhov praises in other great writers are the qualities in his greatest plays, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, plays that continue to delight audiences throughout the world, though that delight is sometimes expressed in tears.
Chekhov has been called a depressing writer, one who bring tears to an audience’s eyes, but he rejected that view adamantly, saying that he had never wanted tears: “I wanted something else. I wanted to tell people honestly: ‘Look at yourselves. See how badly you live and how tiresome you are.’ The main thing is that people should understand this. When they do, they will surely create a new and better life for themselves.” Audiences will continue to be moved to tears by Chekhov’s plays, but his words give his audience a way of understanding the main ingredients of his greatness. His powers of observation and his honesty permitted him to create characters readily recognizable as human, characters sharply individualized yet representative. He was convinced of the need for unceasing striving, a belief that pervaded his life and work; and he had a faith that the future would bring a better life for humankind.
Chekhov’s exceptional powers of observation, no doubt sharpened by his scientific training, enabled him to bring to the stage living characters. This was the single guiding purpose of Chekhov’s early writing, to show “life as it is.” This purpose, however, could not sustain him for long, and especially after his crises in 1889 and his trip to Sakhalin in 1890, he came to believe that “A work of art should express a great idea.” If Chekhov’s plays can be said to have a great idea, it must be that human beings must work ceaselessly and that their labor must be accompanied by a faith in the usefulness of that work, a faith in the future. In all his best plays, the themes of work, faith, and purpose are present, and in all there is a stab of pain and pity at the recognition of how often humans are idle, how many there are who do no work, how many who work to no end, how few who possess faith, how difficult it is to persevere in one’s faith, how often dreams are not fulfilled, and how transient is all human happiness. Chekhov’s purpose, however, went beyond the pain of recognition. He hoped that when people recognized themselves in his characters, they would go on to “create a new and better life.”
Chekhov did not begin his dramatic career with the happy mixture of observation, purpose, and knowledge of the stage that was to characterize his later work. His earliest play, untitled by Chekhov but commonly referred to as Platonov, is a long and rambling work, full of dramatic stereotypes and heightened, exaggerated scenes, with little of the flavor of his later works. His next full-length play, Ivanov, was staged and was a popular success, but Chekhov was not satisfied with it, for good reason. It, too, was stilted and did not in Chekhov’s view reflect the truth about human life. By the end of the 1880’s, Chekhov had already formed the opinion that “A play ought to be written in which people come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards . . . because that is what happens in real life. Life on the stage should be as it really is and the people, too, should be as they are and not stilted.” Chekhov would need a new kind of drama to embody such perceptions, and he was not successful at creating it until 1896. His first attempt at a new drama, The Wood Demon, first performed in 1889, failed so badly that Chekhov turned away from drama for six years. During this time, he achieved fame for his fiction. As fame brought more money and therefore allowed him more time to work on each piece, he wrote longer and longer pieces, and so was gradually led back to full-length drama.
Ultimately, Chekhov found a way to fulfill his dream of capturing real life on the stage by rejecting the dramatic conventions of his time. Although the drama of his contemporaries focused on action, often melodramatic action, Chekhov’s last plays are primarily works of inaction, works in which the needed action takes place offstage. Chekhov prevents the audience from being distracted by activity, focusing attention on the inner lives of his characters.
These inner lives are often both painful and ridiculous. It has long been a difficulty for critics that Chekhov called The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard comedies and insisted that they were not tragic. In truth, many of the characters in his plays are absurd: Their concerns are ridiculous, and the detached observer must confess that they are silly. It is a rare viewer, however, who can be detached about Chekhov’s characters. The audience simultaneously recognizes the foolishness and the humanity of the characters, touched by the recognition of how real the characters’ problems are to them, how impossible the characters find it to extricate themselves from their problems. Some of their dreams are absurd, but they do not know how to help themselves, and so their lives pass them by without teaching them how to live. Chekhov shows convincingly “what fools these mortals be,” but the audience, being mortal, is moved to pity, not laughter.
The Seagull was partially inspired by events in Chekhov’s life. Chekhov had for years known a woman named Lydia, or “Lika,” Mizinova, who was apparently in love with him; he was seemingly less in love with her. They were very close, but Chekhov was not interested in marriage, and Lika turned her attention to another man, I. N. Potapenko, a married friend of Chekhov. The two had an affair that resulted in Lika’s pregnancy and her abandonment by Potapenko. She went to Europe to deliver the baby, but the baby died soon after Lika’s return to Russia. The episode no doubt disturbed Chekhov, and there is some indication that he felt a degree of guilt in the matter. Nina, a central character in the play and the only one who finds an answer for her life, is based on Lika, whose true experience provides the central theme of The Seagull.
The play opens at the country estate of Sorin, a retired justice. His sister, Arkadina, an actress, is making a visit to her brother’s home with her lover, the writer Trigorin. Living with Sorin is Arkadina’s twenty-five-year-old son, Konstantin Trepliov, who, as the play begins, is about to stage a play that he has written for the benefit of his mother and the other guests on the estate. The play features Nina, whom Trepliov loves. Also attending the performance are Dorn, a doctor; Medvedenko, a schoolmaster; Shamrayev, Sorin’s bailiff; his wife, Polena, and their daughter Masha. Masha sets the tone of Chekhov’s play with her first lines. When Medvedenko asks her why she always wears black, she replies that she is “in mourning for my life.” Medvedenko loves Masha and wants to marry her, but Masha feels nothing for him and loves Trepliov instead. In turn, Trepliov cares nothing for Masha and focuses all his dreams on Nina. As Trepliov’s play gets under way, strain is plainly seen in the relationship between Arkadina and her son. Trepliov wants very much to impress his mother with the play, but she interrupts it several times with her comments. Arkadina claims that her son has no talent, but Dorn sees some power in the play, though he thinks it lacks a “definite idea.” Nina complains that the play has no living characters, but the novice playwright defends himself by claiming that plays ought not to show things as they are, or as they ought to be, but rather as they appear to us in our dreams, an attitude that would get little sympathy from Chekhov.
Chekhov would certainly sympathize, however, with the most prevalent problem in the play: unrequited love. Trepliov yearns for the love of his mother but does not receive it, Nina becomes enamored of Trigorin and ends up running off to meet him in Moscow, and Arkadina also wants the love of Trigorin but must settle for dominance over him: He loves no one. Dorn comments on the situation at the end of act 1 with the lines, “How distraught they all are! And what a quantity of love about! . . . But what can I do, my child?” One can almost hear Chekhov directing these words to Lika Mizinova.
Acts 2 and 3 develop Nina’s infatuation with Trigorin and the relationship between Arkadina and Trepliov. Nina is impressed by Trigorin’s fame and occupation and thinks only of him. Trepliov sees that he has lost his mother to Trigorin and that he is losing Nina as well. He is wrought up enough to kill a seagull and present it to Nina, telling her that he will soon kill himself as well. Trigorin comes on the scene shortly after Trepliov leaves, and the scene gives him an idea for a story, as he tells Nina in a speech that foreshadows their future affair: “A young girl, like you, has lived beside a lake since childhood. She loves the lake as a seagull does . . . but a man comes along, sees her, and having nothing better to do, destroys her, just like this seagull here.” This “idea” is of great symbolic importance because it is the first example of a perspective that will come up again and again in Chekhov: The greatest destruction is casual, ignorant, rooted in idleness. Nina understands nothing of the implications of the speech and, by the end of act 3, the affair is arranged.
Trepliov, true to his word, shoots himself but suffers only a grazed head. Nina is “casual” about the injury, and Arkadina, though maternal for a few moments, soon begins to argue with her son again.
In act 4, which opens two years later, Trigorin and Arkadina return to visit Sorin, who is ill. In the two-year interval, Masha has married Medvedenko in an attempt to put Trepliov out of her mind, and they now have a child but essentially nothing has changed: Medvedenko still spends all his time worrying, either about his daughter or about money, and Masha, still yearning for Trepliov, is cruel to her husband and has virtually abandoned her child. Trepliov has succeeded in publishing but has found no contentment. Nina, after running away with Trigorin, became pregnant. He abandoned her, she lost her child, and her acting career is floundering.
While the rest of the company go to a late supper, Nina comes on the scene, drawn by the news that Arkadina and Trigorin have returned. She converses with Trepliov, and clearly he still loves her. Of all the characters in the play, only Nina has changed. She has suffered greatly, but she has learned from her trials; as she tells Trepliov, “what really matters is not fame, or glamour . . . but knowing how to endure things.” Nina then leaves to pursue her acting career in an obscure village; she still loves Trigorin, but that does not stop her from living. Trepliov, however, does not have Nina’s faith. With the final realization that she is gone from his life and that his mother has no need of him, he has no use for himself, and he goes offstage and shoots himself. The rest of the characters, playing cards as they hear the shot, send Dorn out to investigate. They accept his explanation that the noise was just a bottle of ether exploding; as the curtain falls, Dorn takes Trigorin aside to give him the news of the shooting and to tell him to take Arkadina back to the city lest she find out. Thus the audience hears of the shooting as the card game continues, and really nothing is changed.
The play ends on the same note on which it began. If Masha started the play mourning her life, she has not stopped mourning during the two years of the play’s action, and though she has a husband and a child, she cannot be said to live. Trepliov, too, has spent his time mourning rather than living, and if his death brings about no change, that is not surprising, for his death is no different from his life. Arkadina starts the play wrapped in her idleness, incapable of feeling or understanding her son’s misery, and it is not at all surprising that she plays cards as he shoots himself. Change can be seen only in Nina, who has learned not to fear life, and who works toward a future goal with faith and dedication.
The exact date of composition of Uncle Vanya is unknown, but it is known that it had been performed for some time in rural theaters before it was performed by the Moscow Art Theater. In fact, though Chekhov claimed that it was a totally new play, acts 2 and 3 are taken almost completely from his earlier failure, The Wood Demon. Although Uncle Vanya had its beginnings in The Wood Demon, it is in fact a very different play. While the earlier play was a failure, Uncle Vanya is a convincing, deeply moving work, perhaps Chekhov’s most touching play.
Uncle Vanya is subtitled “Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts,” and all the action of the play takes place on the estate of Serebryakov, who has recently come there to live with his young, beautiful second wife, Yelena, after retiring from his university position. Their arrival proves a disturbance to those who have been living on or about the estate, especially Sonya, Serebryakov’s daughter; Vanya, Sonya’s uncle, the brother of Serebryakov’s first wife; and Astrov, a doctor who is Vanya’s friend. Both Serebryakov and Yelena have a hand in the crisis.
Vanya and Sonya have devoted their lives to managing the estate, saving and scrimping to send every spare ruble to Serebryakov, thinking him talented, even brilliant. When he arrives on the estate, however, he is seen to be another sort of man. He suffers from gout, is perpetually in a bad mood, thinks of no one but himself, and disturbs the routine of the estate, staying up late at night writing and then not rising until late in the day. For Vanya, Serebryakov’s arrival is even more disturbing; his routine and his illusions are shattered. He realizes that all of Serebryakov’s work has been shallow, commonplace, and that his writing will not outlive him. Vanya believes he has lost his life and has worked for the last twenty-five years for nothing.
More disturbing yet is the presence of Yelena, for she is young, beautiful, and idle. She draws the attention of all who see her. Vanya falls in love with her, and his love is made more painful by his jealousy of Serebryakov. Astrov, hardworking and idealistic, has been a friend of the family for years and has paid monthly visits to the estate; his work as a doctor and his efforts to preserve the ecology of the region have exhausted him, and while his intelligence is still sharp, he complains that his feelings have become deadened, leaving him incapable of love. Even he, however, is susceptible to Yelena’s charms, and before long he is ignoring his work and making daily visits to the estate. Sonya, a good-hearted, hardworking, but plain woman, has been cherishing a love for Astrov for some time, and it is agony for her to see him attracted to Yelena instead.
The crisis comes to a head when Serebryakov calls a family meeting, expresses his discontent with life on the estate, and presents his plan to sell the estate so that he can live more comfortably. Vanya goes into a rage because Serebryakov’s plan would leave Vanya and Sonya homeless, and Serebryakov backs down from his plan, after which Vanya twice tries to shoot him, missing both times. He gives up in disgust, and the third act ends. In act 4, Serebryakov and Yelena return to the city, where they will be mailed money by Vanya and Sonya. In short, things return to their original state, except that illusions have been stripped away. Vanya knows that his efforts have been wasted, and Sonya knows that her love for Astrov has been in vain. Astrov leaves also, and while he will return, his visits will be less frequent than before. In the final scene, Sonya and Vanya sit down to their work again, and while Vanya might not be able to endure on his own, Sonya’s strength and faith in the future enable them to continue. In the long closing monologue, she voices her resolve to endure: “Well, what can we do? We must go on living. We shall go on living. . . . We shall live through a long, long succession of days and tedious evenings.”
It is not difficult to see the resemblance between Sonya and Nina in The Seagull. Both possess what Chekhov called “iron in the blood,” a strength that keeps them living and working, a strength born of faith in the future. There are also resemblances among other characters in the two plays. The idleness of Yelena and selfishness of Serebryakov have their parallels in Arkadina, Masha, and Trigorin. Indeed, the general atmosphere of the two plays is similar: Life is hard, and work and faith are needed to endure it well. Few have such faith, and thus, few are able to endure and still live vitally. As Vanya says, “When people have no real life, they live on their illusions.”
In Astrov, the audience sees Chekhov’s complex human vision. In many ways, Astrov is like Chekhov: He is a dedicated doctor and takes delight in the planting of trees. He suffers, however, for his efforts; they exhaust and deaden him, and his exhaustion threatens him with loss of faith and leaves him incapable of love. Yet he is a man of ideals, respected by all in the play except the self-centered Serebryakov. Yelena sees his excellence clearly and speaks movingly when she says, “He plants a tree and wonders what will come of it in a thousand years’ time, and speculates on the future happiness of mankind. Such people are rare, and we must love them.” The symbol of tree planting is particularly apt in communicating Chekhov’s vision, for it is an act which yields no instant gratification. Astrov sees that the casual destruction of forests will create a dismal future, but deliberate efforts to restore them will bring hope for a better life.
In contrast, Yelena is an object of present beauty. She represents a human physical ideal, less than ideal in other ways. She does no work, has no thoughts of the future, and lives her life in idleness and boredom. Her threat is that she infects others with her ennui and self-indulgence. If there is no work for the future, Chekhov asks in this play, how is human life to improve?
The Three Sisters
Chekhov had always prided himself on the speed and ease with which he wrote, but The Three Sisters was different. Numerous letters testify to the difficulty with which the play progressed; it was pulled out of him slowly, no doubt a result in part of his declining health, but probably also because it is his most searching, introspective play. It looks long and deeply at its characters, and it is no accident that it is the only one of his major works that he referred to as a “drama.” Chekhov might have claimed that The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were comic in their vision, but in The Three Sisters, his sympathy for the plight of his characters outweighs all other considerations: The play is a choral lament over the loss of life.
At the center of the chorus are the three Prozorov sisters: Olga, an unmarried teacher; Masha, married to Kuligin; and Irina, the youngest sister, who is twenty as the play begins. These characters are supplemented by a considerable supporting cast. Of greatest importance are Andrey, the brother of the three sisters; Vershinin, the battery commander of the military garrison in the provincial town where the sisters live; and Tuzenbakh, a lieutenant who is in love with Irina. Others are Chebutykin, an army doctor; Natalya, Andrey’s fiancée and then his wife; Kuligin, a teacher; and Solyony, a suitor for Irina. Each of the characters takes on a life of his or her own, all come together in the complex harmony that makes the work so compelling.
The three sisters, though the details of their dreams are different, sing the same refrain: “To Moscow.” Eleven years before the action of the play, the family lived in Moscow, and each of the sisters yearns for Moscow as the fulfillment of her dream. Olga thinks that she would be happy if she were married, and Masha thinks that she would be happy if she were not. Irina thinks that happiness lies in working, but when she goes out to work she resents it. Andrey thinks that he would be happy if he were a professor in Moscow, but he does nothing to realize that dream; he spends his time making picture frames and playing the violin.
The play’s action spans four years, beginning on the celebration of Irina’s name day, at which Vershinin, the new battery commander, presents himself. He is from Moscow and was a friend of the sisters’ late father; the sisters immediately are interested in him. They envy his recent life in Moscow, though he claims to prefer the provincial town. Masha takes a special interest in him, and, though both are married, an affair develops as the play proceeds. Also in the first act, Andrey proposes to Natalya; they are married by the time act 2 begins, and by the play’s end, they have two children, though by then, Natalya (not, like the other characters, part of the aristocracy, but rather a member of the rising middle class of Chekhov’s time) is having an affair with the head of the local council and has virtually driven the Prozorovs from their home. Another love theme concerns Irina. Tuzenbakh is in love with her and remains devoted to her throughout the four-year span of the play. Irina gives him little encouragement, for he is not handsome, and she has always dreamed of meeting her husband in Moscow. Tuzenbakh has a dangerous rival in Solyony, an eccentric, morbid character who insults everyone but Irina and is determined that he will have “no happy rivals.”
The dream of going to Moscow remains unfulfilled. As the play ends, Vershinin and his men are transferred to another city, ending his affair with Masha, who returns in misery to her spineless but kind husband. Irina, finally convinced that her dream of going to Moscow will never be realized, consents to marry Tuzenbakh, though she does not love him. Before they marry, however, Solyony kills Tuzenbakh in a duel, and Irina is left alone. Olga has gone through the play hoping for some change in her burdensome life, a husband perhaps, or a rest from the constant demands of her teaching, but no husband is forthcoming, and by the end of the play her teaching chores are multiplied, because she has been made headmistress. Andrey has spent four years regretting his marriage and dreaming of great academic triumphs in Moscow, yet by the play’s end, he is reduced to baby-sitting while his wife entertains her lover. All the dreams of the sisters have been crushed, four years of life have been lost, and the play ends with the courageous but tragic spectacle of the sisters trying to cope, trying to live, though they suffer and do not know why. While Sonya in Uncle Vanya believes that the future will bring her rest, the three sisters try to believe that the future will bring them life.
Though the sisters arrive at no answers, the questions of happiness and the future are raised often in the play. These questions are debated by Vershinin and Tuzenbakh several times; the most important of the debates takes place in act 2, when Masha joins in. Vershinin poses the question, “What will life be like in two or three hundred years?” and leaves the floor open for speculation. Tuzenbakh responds that the superficial details of people’s life will change, but their essential situation will not: “. . . man will be sighing much the same as before, ‘Ah, how difficult life is.’ And yet he will be afraid of death and as unwilling to die as he is nowadays.” Vershinin’s views are different; he believes that somewhere in the future “a new, happy life will appear.” He believes that the present generation sacrifices happiness now so that future generations can be happy—indeed, that such altruism is the meaning of life—but Tuzenbakh denies that people know anything about meaning. At this point, Masha breaks in, claiming that “man must have faith, or he must look for faith. Otherwise, his life is empty, empty. . . . Either you know the reason why you are living, or else everything is nonsense.” In this debate lies all the suffering of humankind. Masha seeks to know why she exists, but who is to tell her? While she waits for an answer, life passes her by. Tuzenbakh denies that there is an answer or rather denies that there is any way to find the answer and so does not trouble himself overmuch with the question. Vershinin defines his own answer, his own explanation for his sufferings, one very similar to Chekhov’s own beliefs, and it helps him to carry on. What makes the difference, Chekhov suggests, is faith in the future. Faith is belief without proof, and only such faith can enable a person to work with confidence for the future happiness of the race while recognizing its present misery. This was Chekhov’s situation. He could see that most people were miserable and dissatisfied, that they frittered their lives away on trivial concerns, and so he postulated a movement toward perfection and tried with his plays to contribute to it. Though many around him did nothing, he viewed them more with pity than with disdain, as Tuzenbakh views Solyony: “I’m both sorry for him and annoyed, but I’m more sorry.”
The Cherry Orchard
The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s last play, caused considerable disagreement between Chekhov and Stanislavsky over questions of staging, for Chekhov contended that it was a comedy while Stanislavsky claimed it was a tragedy. One must feel sympathy for Stanislavsky, for, despite many farcical elements in the play, it moves the audience to a complex sadness rather than to laughter. Most of the characters, though silly, even hilariously so, fail to understand their lives, fail to live meaningfully, and therefore lose their lives. Still, Chekhov was at least partially right, for, in the character of Anya, who at seventeen is the youngest character in the play, the audience can see some hope for the future, for a new life beginning, as in the character of Nina in The Seagull.
The action of the play takes place on the estate of Madame Lyubov Ranevsky. She has been absent from her estate for some time, having run off to Paris with her lover to escape the grief she felt over the loss of her young son. She returns virtually penniless, confronted with the problem of what to do to save the estate and its beautiful cherry orchard. With her on the estate are her brother Gaev; Varya, her adopted daughter; Anya, her natural daughter; and their servants Sharlotta, Yepihodov, Dunyasha, Firs, and Yasha. This group is supplemented by Trofimov, a young student who keeps getting expelled from the university for his revolutionary views, and Lopakhin, a wealthy merchant and former peasant. As the action opens, the problem to be solved is how to pay all the money owed on the estate; this question remains unresolved throughout the play. Indeed, Lyubov and her clan seem incapable of any kind of action. She and her kind, like the Prozorovs, are a dying breed. Although they recognize the fact, they seem helpless to do anything about it. They are fast being replaced by the rising merchant class, Lopakhin and his kind, as the Prozorovs were gradually replaced by Natalya and her lover in The Three Sisters.
The play is full of comic touches: Yepihodov’s shoes squeak, Trofimov falls down a flight of stairs (without hurting himself), Varya gives Lopakhin a swat on the head meant for Yepihodov, Lopakhin teases Varya, Gaev speaks nonsense and talks to bookcases, and Sharlotta gives demonstrations of parlor magic. The play is kept from farce, however, by Chekhov’s delineation of character. The audience comes to know the characters too well to laugh at them, instead feeling a sense of profound pity for their pain and helplessness.
Only Lopakhin has a plan to “save” the estate, but his plan is to destroy the orchard, build little villas on the property, and rent them out, thus providing a steady income. He suggests this solution to Lyubov, but she has lived on the estate since she was a child; she loves the orchard and does not seriously consider Lopakhin’s plan. Instead, the family debates grand schemes and hopes for aid from distant relations but proves incapable of taking any action. Lyubov has grown so used to squandering her money that she cannot stop, and during the play, she gives gold to a beggar, though Varya is forced to feed the servants nothing but soup. The audience waits for the inevitable to happen, as it does when the estate is sold at auction, bought by Lopakhin, who proceeds with his original plan. The final act shows the Ranevsky family leaving their beloved home with the sound of axes in the background as their cherry orchard becomes a thing of the past.
The play’s plot is simple; there are no surprises. Chekhov brings forth the inner lives of his characters so that the audience can understand them, see their foolishness, and yet pity them. Gaev is an excellent example. He has deep feelings and the urge to express them, but no one wants to listen to him. No one protests when he speaks in meaningless billiard terms, but when he speaks what is really in his heart, everyone protests. Perhaps it would be better for Gaev to remain silent, as Anya suggests he should, for no one listens to him; he does not even listen to himself, for though he hears the “call” to work, he has never heeded it.
Therein lies the problem of the play: No one combines the qualities necessary for a meaningful life. Some, such as Varya and Lopakhin, are workers, and some—such as Trofimov, Lyubov, and Gaev—have beautiful ideas, but no one works in behalf of worthy ideas. Lopakhin labors only for money, without any vision of the future, so he is able to destroy the orchard without even recognizing what he is doing, what is being lost. Trofimov makes compelling speeches about the need for work, the need to build for the future, but he only listens to the sound of his voice; he does not work. Varya spends every moment working, caring for the estate, but she labors only so that she will not have time to lament her fate. She hates her work but cannot bear idle time, for when idle, she weeps. Lyubov herself has compelling ideas, centering on her love for the man in Paris and for the orchard, but she does not know what to do for the things she loves. She loves the cherry orchard and idly watches it pass from her hands.
Each of the characters speaks of his or her innermost anxieties, and yet each remains alone, for while they speak their anguish the others go about their lives, never listening, caught up only in their own struggles. This failure to listen, this obliviousness, is the most distinctive element of the play, for it isolates the characters from one another and makes any individual effort fruitless.
The final image of the play is that of Firs, the oldest character, who is left behind, forgotten by the family he has served all his life. Left alone after his years of service, he comments to himself that “Life has slipped by as though I hadn’t lived.” The last sounds of the play are the mournful sound of a breaking string and the sound of an ax chopping down a tree in the orchard. Much that is beautiful goes to waste and is destroyed in this play, and the orchard stands as a symbol for all. It was beautiful, but it had no purpose, and so it must be reduced to nothing. The same can be said of Lyubov, Gaev, and others. The one bright spot is Anya, still young enough to put her life to some purpose, as she plans to do as the play ends. She does not mourn the loss of the orchard, for she plans to make all Russia her orchard, a plan of which Chekhov would approve.
In this last play, Chekhov included a bit of dialogue that goes a long way toward explaining his purpose in writing for the theater. Lopakhin tells Lyubov that he went to see a play (a conventional comedy) the day before that was very funny. Lyubov answers with a speech that could not have defended Chekhov’s drama more eloquently: “And most likely there was nothing funny in it. You shouldn’t look at plays, you should look at yourselves a little oftener. How gray your lives are. How much nonsense you talk.” That is why Chekhov has, and will continue to have, so secure a place in the world of drama: He shows his audiences the triviality, the grayness of their lives, so that they will change themselves, working with faith toward a greater future for humankind.