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Notes on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896)


By Vladimir Nabokov

In 1896 The Seagull (Chaika) was a complete failure at the Alexandrine Theatre in St. Petersburg, but at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 it was a tremendous success.

The first exposition—talk between two minor characters, the girl Masha and the village teacher Medvedenko—is thoroughly permeated by the manner and mood of the two. We learn about them and about the two major characters, the budding actress Nina Zarechny and the poet Treplev, who are arranging some amateur theatricals in the alley of the park: “They are in love with each other and to-night their souls will unite in an effort to express one and the same artistic vision,” says the teacher in the ornate style so typical of a Russian semi-intellectual. He has his reasons to allude to this, being in love too. Nevertheless, we must admit that this introduction is decidedly blunt. Chekhov, like Ibsen, was always eager to get done with the business of explaining as quickly as possible. Sorin, the flabby and good-natured landowner, drops by with Treplev, his nephew, who is nervous about the play he is staging. The workmen who have built the platform come and say, we are going for a dip. And meanwhile old Sorin has asked Masha to tell her father (who is his own employee on the estate) to have the dog kept quiet at night. Tell him yourself, she says, rebuffing him. The perfectly natural swing in the play, the association of odd little details which at the same time are perfectly true to life—this is where Chekhov’s genius is disclosed.

In the second exposition Treplev talks to his uncle about his mother, the professional actress, who is jealous of the young lady who is going to act in his play. Nor can one even mention Duse in her presence. My goodness, just try, exclaims Treplev.

With another author the complete picture of the woman in this expository dialogue would be a dreadful piece of traditional technique, especially seeing that it is to her own brother that the young man is speaking; but by sheer force of talent Chekhov manages to pull it through. The details are all so amusing: she has seventy thousand in the bank, but if you ask her for a loan she starts crying. . . . Then he speaks of the routine theatre, of its smug household morals and of the new thing he wants to create; and he talks about himself, about his sense of inferiority because his mother is always surrounded by famous artists and writers. It is quite a long monologue. By a judiciously placed question he is further made to speak of Trigorin, his mother’s friend, the author. Charm, talent, but—but somehow after Tolstoy and Zola one does not want to read Trigorin. Note the placing of Tolstoy and Zola on one level—typical for a young author like Treplev in those days, the late nineties.

Nina appears. She was afraid her father, a neighboring squire, would not let her come. Sorin goes to call the household, for the moon is rising and it is time to start Treplev’s play. Note two typical Chekhov moves: first, Sorin sings a few bars of a Schubert song, then checks himself and tells with a laugh the nasty thing somebody once said about his singing voice; second, then when Nina and Treplev are left alone they kiss and immediately after she asks, “What’s that tree there?” The answer, an elm. “Why is the tree so dark?” she goes on. These trifles disclose better than anything invented before Chekhov the wistful helplessness of human beings—the old man who made a mess of his life, the delicate girl who will never be happy.

The workmen come back. It is time to begin. Nina refers to her stage-fright emotion—she will have to be acting in front of Trigorin, the author of those wonderful short stories. “Dunno, haven’t read them,” Treplev says curtly. It has been pointed out by critics, who like noting such things, that while the elderly actress Arkadina is jealous of the amateur Nina who as yet is only dreaming of a stage career, her son, the unsuccessful and not very gifted young writer, is jealous of a really fine writer, Trigorin (incidentally, a kind of double of Chekhov the professional himself). The audience arrives. First Dorn, the old doctor, and the wife of Shamraev, the manager of Sorin’s estate, who is an old flame of Dorn. Then Arkadina, Sorin, Trigorin, Masha, and Medvedenko flock in. Shamraev asks Arkadina about an old comic he used to applaud. “You keep asking me about antediluvian nobodies,” she replies, rather testily.

Presently the curtain rises. There is a real moon and a view of the lake instead of a backdrop. Nina sitting on a stone makes a lyrical speech in a Maeterlinck style, mystically commonplace, obscurely trite. (“It is something in the decadent manner,” whispers Arkadina. “Mother!” says her son in pleading tones.) Nina goes on. The idea is that she is a spirit talking after all life has ceased on earth. The red eyes of the devil appear. Arkadina makes fun of it and Treplev loses his temper, shouts for the curtain, and goes away. The others rebuke her for having hurt her son. But she feels insulted herself—that badtempered, vain boy . . . wants to teach me what the theatre ought to be. . . . The subtle point is that though Treplev has a real desire to destroy the old forms of art, he has not the talent to invent new ones to take their place. Note what Chekhov does here. What other author would have dared to make his main character—a positive character, as they say, that is, one which is expected to win the audience’s sympathy—who else would have dared to make him a minor poet, at the same time giving real talent to the least pleasant persons of the play, to the nasty self-sufficient actress and the egotistical, supercritical, emphatically professional writer?

Some singing is heard on the lake. Arkadina recalls the days when youth and gaiety filled the place. She regrets having hurt her son. Nina appears and Arkadina introduces her to Trigorin. “Oh, I always read you.” Now comes a delightful little parody of Chekhov’s own method of contrast between poetry and prose. “Yes, the setting was beautiful,” says Trigorin, and adds after a pause, “That lake must be full of fish.” And Nina is puzzled to learn that a man who, as she says, has experienced the delights of creative work, can be amused by angling.

Without any special connection (again a typical device with Chekhov and beautifully true to life), but evidently continuing the line of thought of his previous conversation, Shamraev recalls a certain funny incident in a theatre years ago. There is a pause after this when the joke falls flat and nobody laughs. Presently they disperse, with Sorin complaining without effect to Shamraev about the dog barking at night, Shamraev repeating an earlier anecdote about a church singer, and Medvedenko, the socialist-minded, needy village teacher, inquiring how much such a singer earns. The fact that the question is unanswered shocked many critics who required facts and figures from plays. I remember reading somewhere the solemn statement that a playwright must tell his audience quite clearly the income of his respective characters, for otherwise their moods and action cannot be understood in full. But Chekhov, the genius of the casual, attains in the harmonious interplay of these trivial remarks much greater heights than the ordinary slaves of cause and effect.

Dorn tells Treplev, who now appears again, that he liked his play —or what he heard of the play. He goes on expounding his own views about life, ideas, and art. Treplev, who was at first touched by his praise, now interrupts him twice. Where is Nina? He rushes away almost in tears. “Oh, youth, youth!” sighs the doctor. Masha retorts, “When people can’t find anything else to say, they say, Oh youth, youth.” She takes a pinch of snuff to the vast disgust of Dorn. Then she becomes suddenly hysterical and tells him she is desperately and hopelessly in love with Treplev. “Everybody is so nervous,” the doctor repeats. “So very nervous. And everybody is in love. . . . This magic lake. But how can I help you, my poor child, how?”

So ends the first act, and we may well understand that the average audience in Chekhov’s time, as well as the critics— those priests of the average—were left rather irritated and puzzled. There has been no definite line of conflict. Or rather there have been several vague lines and a futility of conflict, for one cannot expect any special conflict from a quarrel between a quick-tempered but soft son and a quick-tempered but equally soft mother, each always regretting his or her hasty words. Nothing special further is suggested by Nina meeting Trigorin, and the romances of the other characters are blind alleys. Finishing the act with an obvious dead end seemed an insult to people eager for a good tussle. But notwithstanding the fact that Chekhov was still tied up by the very traditions he was flaunting (the rather flat expositions, for instance), what seemed nonsense and faults to the average critic are really the grain from which some day a really great drama will grow, for with all my fondness for Chekhov I cannot hide the fact that in spite of his authentic genius he did not create the perfect masterpiece. His achievement was that he showed the right way to escape the dungeon of deterministic causation, of cause and effect, and burst the bars holding the art of drama captive. What I hope of future playwrights is not that they will merely repeat the actual methods of Chekhov, for these belong to him, to his type of genius, and cannot be imitated, but that other methods tending with even more power to the same freedom of drama will be found and applied. This said, let us turn to the next act and see what surprises it reserved for an irritated and puzzled audience.

Act II. A croquet lawn and part of the house and lake. Arkadina is giving Masha a few hints as to how a woman keeps fit.

From a chance remark we learn that she has been Trigorin’s mistress for quite a while. Sorin comes, together with Nina who has the opportunity of being here because her father and stepmother have gone away for three days. A rambling conversation is set rolling about Treplev’s low spirits, about Sorin’s poor health.

masha. When he reads something aloud, his eyes burn and his face becomes pale. He has a beautiful sad voice and his manners are those of a poet.

(sorin reclining in a garden chair is heard snoring. ) [The contrast!] dr. dorn. Good night, baby. arkadina. Hello Peter! sorin. Eh? What’s that? (Sits up.) arkadina. You are sleeping? sorin. Not at all.

(A pause.) [Great master of pauses, Chekhov.] arkadina. You do nothing for your health—that’s bad, brother. sorin. But I’d like to—only the doctor here is not interested. dr. dorn. What’s the use of seeing a doctor at sixty. sorin. A man of sixty wants to live, too. dr. dorn (testily). Oh, all right. Try something for the nerves. arkadina. I keep thinking that he ought to go to some German watering place. dr. dorn. Well. . . . Well, yes, he might go. And then he might not. arkadina. Do you see what he means? I don’t. sorin. There is nothing to see. It is all perfectly clear.

That’s the way it goes. The wrong audience may get the impression that the author is frittering away his precious twenty minutes, his second act, while conflict and climax are fretting in the wings. But it is quite all right. The author knows his business.

masha (gets up). Time for lunch, I think. (Moves indolently. ) My foot is asleep.

(Exit. )

Presently Shamraev turns up and is annoyed that his wife and Arkadina want to go to town when the horses are needed for the harvest. They quarrel; Shamraev loses his temper and refuses to manage the estate any longer. Can this be called a conflict? Well, there has been something leading up to it—that little thing about refusing to stop the dog barking at night—but really, really, says the smug critic, what parody is this?*


* Not even could a moralist note here the paradox, typical, one might say, of a decaying class : the employee bullying his master—for this was not typical of Russian country life: it is a mere incident based on such and such characters, who may crop up and who may not. (VN deleted marginal note. Ed.)


Here quite simply and with great aplomb Chekhov, the novator, reverts to the old old trick of having Nina, the heroine (who now remains alone on the stage) speaking her thoughts aloud. Well, she is a budding actress—but not even that can be an excuse. It is rather a flat little speech. She is puzzling over the fact that a famous actress weeps because she cannot have her own way and a famous writer spends the whole day fishing. Treplev comes back from hunting and throws a dead sea gull at Nina’s feet. “I was a cad to kill this bird.” Then he adds, “Soon I shall kill myself in the same way.” Nina is cross with him: “These last few days you talk in symbols. This bird is apparently a symbol, too. (She removes it onto a bench.) But excuse me, I am too simple; I don’t understand symbols.” (Note that this line of thought will have a very neat ending—Nina herself will turn out to be the live subject of this symbol, which she does not see and which Treplev applies wrongly.) Treplev raves at her for becoming cold and indifferent to him after the flop of his play. He refers to his own oafishness. There is a faint hint at a Hamlet complex, which Chekhov suddenly turns inside out by Treplev applying another Hamlet motive to the figure of Trigorin, who stalks in with a book in his hands. “Words, words, words,” Treplev shouts and exits.

Trigorin jots down in his book an observation about Masha: “Takes snuff, drinks strong liquors. . . . Always in black. The schoolteacher is in love with her.” Chekhov himself kept such a notebook for jotting down characters that might come in handy. Trigorin tells Nina that he and Arkadina are, apparently, leaving (because of the quarrel with Shamraev). In reply to Nina, who thinks “it must be so wonderful to be a writer,” Trigorin delivers a delightful speech, almost three pages long. It is so good and so typical for an author who finds a chance to talk about himself that the general aversion to long monologues in the modern theatre is forgotten. All the details of his profession are remarkably well brought out: “. . . . Here I am, talking to you and I am moved, but at the same time I keep remembering that an unfinished long short story awaits me on my desk. I see, for instance, a cloud; I see it looks like a piano, and immediately I tell myself, I must use that in a story.

A passing cloud that had the form of a piano. Or, say, the garden smells of heliotrope. Straightway I collect it: a sickly sweet smell, widow blossom, must mention it when describing summer dusk. . . .” Or this bit: “When in the beginning of my career I used to have a new play staged, it always seemed to me that the dark spectators were opposed to me and that the blond spectators were coldly indifferent. …” Or this: “Oh, yes, it is pleasant to write, while you write . . . but afterwards. . . .

The public reads and says: Yes, charming, talented. . . . Nice—but so inferior to Tosltoy; . . . yes, a beautiful story— but Turgenev is better.” (This was Chekhov’s own experience.)

Nina keeps telling him that she could readily undergo all such troubles and disappointments if she could have fame. Trigorin glancing at the lake and taking in the air and the landscape, remarks that it is such a pity he must leave. She points out to him the house on the opposite bank where her mother had lived.

nina. I was born there. I spent all my life near that lake and know every little island on it. trigorin. Yes, it’s beautiful here. {Noticing the sea gull on the bench.) And what’s that? nina. A sea gull. Treplev killed it. trigorin. A fine bird. Really, I don’t want one bit to go. Look here, try and persuade Madame Arkadin to stay. (He proceeds to note something down in his book.) nina. What are you writing? trigorin. Oh, nothing. . . . Just an idea. (He puts the book into his pocket. ) An idea for a short story: lake, house, girl loves lake, happy and free like a sea gull. Man happens to pass, a glance, a whim, and the sea gull perishes.

(Pause) arkadina (from window). Hullo, where are you? trigorin. Coming! arkadina. We remain.

(He goes into the house)

(nina is left alone and broods awhile on the stage-front. ) nina. A dream. . . .


Now three things must be said about the ending of this second act. First of all, we have already noticed Chekhov’s weak point: the featuring of young poetical women. Nina is slightly false. That last sigh over the footlights dates, and it dates just because it is not on the same level of perfect simplicity and natural reality as the rest of the things in the play. We are aware, certainly, that she is actressy and all that, but still it does not quite click. Trigorin says to Nina, among other things, that he rarely happens to meet young girls and that he is too far gone in life to imagine clearly the feelings of sweet eighteen, so that in his stories, he says, his young girls are generally not true to life. (We may add, something wrong about the mouth, as Sargent the painter used to say the family of his sitters invariably observed.) What Trigorin says may be curiously enough applied to Chekhov, the playwright; for in his short stories, as for instance “The House with the Mezzanine,” or “The Lady with the Little Dog,” the young women are wonderfully alive. But that’s because he does not make them talk much. Here they talk, and the weak spot is felt: Chekhov was not a talkative writer. That’s one thing.

Another thing to be remarked is this. To all appearances, and judging by his own subtle approach to the writer’s trade, his power of observation, and so on, Trigorin is really a good writer. But somehow the notes he takes about the bird and the lake and the girl do not impress one as the making of a good story. At the same time, we already guess that the plot of the play will be exactly that story and no other. The technical interest is now centered on the point: will Chekhov manage to make a good story out of material which in Trigorin’s notebook sounds a little trite. If he succeeds, then we were right in assuming that Trigorin is a fine writer who will succeed in making of a banal theme a fine story. And finally a third remark.

Just as Nina herself did not realize the real import of the symbol when Treplev brought the dead bird, so Trigorin does not realize that by remaining in the house near the lake he will become the hunter who kills the bird.

In other words, the end of the act is again obscure to the average audience because nothing can be expected yet. All that has really happened is that there has been a quarrel, a departure settled, a departure put off. The real interest lies in the very vagueness of the lines, and in artistic half-promises.

Act III, a week later. A dining room in Sorin’s country house. Trigorin is breakfasting and Masha is telling him about herself so that “you, a writer, can make use of my life.” From her very first words it transpires that Treplev has attempted to commit suicide but his wound is not serious.*

Apparently Masha’s love for Treplev goes, for now she decides to marry the school teacher in order to forget Treplev. We learn further that Trigorin and Arkadina are about to leave for good now. A scene between Nina and Trigorin follows. She makes him a present, a medallion with, engraved, the title of one of his books and the number of a page and line. As Arkadina and Sorin come in, Nina hurriedly leaves, asking Trigorin to grant her a few minutes before he goes. But note, not a word of love has been spoken, and Trigorin is a little obtuse. As the play proceeds, Trigorin keeps muttering under his breath, trying to remember what was that line on that page. Are there any books of mine in this house? There are, in Sorin’s study. He wanders off to find the required volume, which is the perfect way of getting him off the stage. Sorin and Arkadina discuss the reasons for Treplev’s attempted suicide: jealousy, idleness, pride. . . . When he suggests she give him some money she starts crying, as her son has predicted she does in such cases. Sorin gets excited and has a fit of dizziness.

After Sorin is led away, Treplev and Arkadina talk. This is a slightly hysterical and not very convincing scene. First move : he suggests to his mother that she lend some money to Sorin and she retorts that she is an actress and not a banker. A pause. Second move: he asks her to change the bandage on his head and as she does so very tenderly he reminds her of an act of great kindness which she once performed, but she does not remember. He tells how much he loves her but—and now the third move: why is she under the influence of that man? This makes her cross. He says that Trigorin’s literature makes him sick; she retorts, you are an envious nonentity; they quarrel fiercely; Treplev starts crying; they make up again (forgive your sinful mother); he confesses he loves Nina but she does not love him; he cannot write any more, all hope is lost. The undulation of moods here is a little too obvious — it is rather a demonstration—the author putting the characters through their tricks. And there is a bad blunder directly afterwards. Trigorin comes in, turning the pages of the book, looking for the line, and then he reads, for the benefit of the audience: “Here it is: ‘ . . . if any time you need my life, just come and take it.’ ”

Now it is quite clear that what really would have happened is that Trigorin, hunting for the book in Sorin’s study on the lower shelf and finding it, would, normally, crouch and there and then read the lines. As often happens, one mistake leads to another. The next sentence is very weak again. Trigorin thinking aloud: “Why do I seem to hear such sadness in the call of this pure young soul? why does my own heart sink so painfully?” This is definitely poor stuff, and a good writer like Trigorin would hardly indulge in such pathos. Chekhov was faced with the difficult task of making his author suddenly human, and he bungled it completely by making him climb up on stilts so that the spectators might see him better.

Trigorin tells his mistress very bluntly that he wants to remain and have a go at Nina. Arkadina falls on her knees and in a very well imagined speech pleads with him: My king, my beautiful god. . . . You are the last page of my life, etc. You are the best contemporary writer, you are Russia’s only hope, etc. Trigorin explains to the audience that he has no will-power— weak, slack, always obedient. Then she notices him writing something in his notebook. He says: “This morning I happened to hear a good expression—the pine grove of maidens. It may come in useful. . . . (He stretches himself.) Again railway carriages, stations, station-meals, cutlets, conversations. . . .”*


* Note that according to the rules, which I dislike so intensely, you cannot make a man kill himself between the acts, but you can make him make the attempt if he does not die; and vice-versa, you cannot have a man bungle his shot in the last act when he retires behind the scenes to make an end of it. (VN in a deleted passage. Ed.)


Shamraev who comes in to say that the carriage is ready speaks of an old actor he used to know. This is his being true to type, as in the first act, but a curious thing seems to have happened here. We have noted that Chekhov found a new device for making his characters live by giving them some silly joke or foolish observation or casual recollection instead of making the miser always talk of his gold and the doctors of their pills. But what happens now is that the thwarted goddess of determinism takes her revenge, and what seemed to be a delightful casual remark indirectly disclosing the nature of the speaker now becomes as unescapable and all-powerful a feature as the miser’s stinginess. Trigorin’s notebook, Arkadina’s tears when money questions are raised, Shamraev’s theatrical recollections—these become fixed labels as unpleasant as the recurring oddities in traditional plays—you know what I mean—some special gag which a character repeats throughout the play at the most unexpected or rather expected moments. This goes to show that Chekhov, though he almost managed to create a new and better kind of drama, was cunningly caught in his own snares. I have the definite impression that he would not have been caught by these conventions—by the very conventions he thought he had broken—if he had known a little more of the numerous forms they take. I have the impression that he had not studied the art of drama completely enough, had not studied a sufficient number of plays, was not critical enough about certain technical aspects of his medium.

During the bustle of departure (with Arkadina giving a ruble, then worth about fifty cents, for the three servants, and repeating that they should share it) Trigorin manages to have a few words with Nina. We find him very eloquent about her meekness, her angel-like purity, etc. She tells him she has decided to become an actress and to go to Moscow. They fix a date there and embrace. Curtain. There can be no question that though this act has a few good things in it, mainly in the wording, it is far below the two first ones.†

Act IV. Two years pass. Chekhov quietly sacrifices the ancient law of unity of time to secure unity of place, for in this last respect there is something quite natural in going over to next summer when Trigorin and Arkadina are expected to come again to stay with her brother in his country house.

A drawing room converted by Treplev into his den—lots of books. Masha and Medvedenko enter. They are married and have a child. Masha is concerned about Sorin, who is afraid to be alone. They refer to the skeleton of the theatre standing in the dark garden. Mrs. Shamraev, Masha’s mother, suggests to Treplev that he be nicer to her daughter. Masha still loves him but now hopes that when her husband gets transferred to another place she will forget.

Incidentally we learn that Treplev writes for magazines. Old Sorin has his bed made here in Treplev’s room. This is a very natural thing for a man suffering from asthma to want, a craving for some change—it must not be confused with the “keeping on the stage” device. A delightful conversation ensues between the doctor, Sorin, and Medvedenko. (Arkadina has gone to the station to meet Trigorin.) For instance, the doctor alludes to his having spent some time and a lot of money in foreign countries. Then they speak of other things. There is a pause. Then Medvedenko speaks.

medvedenko. May I inquire, Doctor, what foreign town did you like best?


* Note again, that just as in the demonstration of changing moods in the scene between mother and son, we get here the demonstration of the man reverting to the professional author—a little too obvious. There follows another demonstration: Shamraev . . . (VN in a deleted passage. Ed.)

† Note very carefully, please, the queer revenge which I have just described [of the goddess of determinism]. There is always such a devil awaiting the unwary author just as he thinks he has succeeded. And most important, it is just now when from the point of tradition the author has come back to the fold and when something like a climax looms and the audience expects if not the obligatory scene (which would be too much to ask of Chekhov), at least some obligatory scene, (which queerly enough is much the same thing—what I mean is, such a scene that, though not consciously defined in the expectancy, is felt to be satisfying the “just what we wanted” when it comes—we may call it the satisfying scene), it is just at this moment that Chekhov is at his worst. (VN deleted passage. Ed.)


dorn. Genoa.

treplev. Why Genoa—of all towns?

The doctor explains: just an impression, lives there seemed to meander and fuse—rather in the ways, he adds, as the world-soul in your play—by the way where is she now, that young actress? (A very natural transition.) Treplev tells Dorn about Nina. She had a love affair with Trigorin, had a baby, the baby died; she is not a good actress though quite a professional one by now, plays big parts but acts them coarsely, no taste, gasps, gesticulates. There are moments when one feels talent in some outcry of hers, as in the way she dies, but these are but moments.

Dorn inquires whether she has talent and Treplev answers that it is difficult to say. (Note that Nina is much in the same position as Treplev in their artistic achievements.) He goes on to tell that he has followed her from town to town wherever she played, but she never let him come near. Sometimes she writes. After Trigorin left her she has seemed a little wrong in the head. She signs her letters sea gull. (Note that Treplev has forgotten the connection.) He adds that she is here now, roams about, does not dare come, nor does she want anyone to speak to her.

sorin. She was a charming girl.

dorn. What’s that?

sorin. I said she was a charming girl.

Then Arkadina comes back from the station with Trigorin. (Intertwined with these scenes we are shown the pitiful plight of Medvedenko whom his father-in-law bullies.) Trigorin and Treplev manage to shake hands. Trigorin has brought a copy of a monthly review from Moscow with a story by Treplev, and with the flippant geniality of a famous writer to a lesser star tells him that people are interested, find him mysterious.

Presently all of them but Treplev sit down to play a game of lotto as they always do on rainy evenings. Treplev to himself, looking through the monthly : “Trigorin has read his own stuff but has not even cut the pages of my story.” We follow the lotto game, and this is a very typical and beautiful Chekhov scene. It seems that in order to attain the heights of his genius he must put his people at ease, make them feel at home, make them comfortable, though this does not preclude slight boredom, gloomy little thoughts, stirring recollections, etc. And though here again the characters are shown in their oddities or habits—Sorin again dozes, Trigorin talks of angling, Arkadina recalls her stage successes—this is much more naturally done than in the false dramatic background of the preceding act, because it is quite natural that in the same place, with the same people collected, two years later, the old tricks would be gently and rather pathetically repeated. It is hinted that critics have handled Treplev, the young author, very roughly. The numbers of the lotto are called out. Arkadina has never read a line of her son’s stuff. Then they interrupt the game to go and have supper, all except Treplev, who remains brooding over his manuscripts. A monologue—it is so good that we do not mind the convention: “I have talked so much about new forms—and now I feel that little by little I myself slip into routine.” (This may be applied—like most of the professional observations in the play—to Chekhov himself, in a way certainly, but only when he has lapses as in the previous act.) Treplev reads: ” ‘Her pale face framed by her dark hair.’ That’s rotten, that ‘framed,’ ” he exclaims and strikes it out. “I shall begin with the hero being awakened by the sound of rain—and to hell with the rest. The description of the moonshine is much too long and elaborate. Trigorin has created his own tricks; for him it is easy. He will show the neck of a broken bottle glistening on a river-dam and the black shadow under the mill-wheel—that’s all and the moonlight is ready; but with me it is all the ‘tremulous light’ and ‘softly twinkling stars’ and the distant sounds of a piano, which ‘dissolved in the soft intoxicating night air.’ It is horrible, awful. . . .” (Here we get, incidentally, a beautifully defined difference between Chekhov’s art and that of his contemporaries.)

Next follows the meeting with Nina, which from the point of view of the traditional stage may be considered the main and what I called satisfying scene of the play. Actually it is very fine. Her way of talking is much more in Chekhov’s line here, when he is no more concerned with depicting pure, eager, romantic maidens. She is tired, upset, unhappy, a jumble of recollections and details. She loves Trigorin still and ignores the tremendous emotion of Treplev, who tries for the last time to make her consent to stay with him. “I am a sea gull,” she says without any special connection. “Now I’m mixing things up. You remember you once shot a sea gull? A man happened to pass, saw the bird, and killed it. Idea for a short story. No . . . I’m getting mixed up again.” “Stay a bit, I shall give you something to eat,” says Treplev, clinging at a last straw. It is all very finely done. She refuses, speaks again of her love for Trigorin who has so grossly dropped her, then switches to the monologue of Treplev’s play, in the beginning of the first act, and hurriedly departs. The end of the act is magnificent.

treplev (after a pause). Pity if somebody meets her in the garden and then tells mamma. It may distress mamma. [Note these are his last words, because now after coolly destroying his writings he opens the door on the right and goes out into an inner room, where presently he will shoot himself.]

dorn (struggling to push open the door on the left [against which a few moments ago treplev had moved an armchair so as not to he disturbed while talking to nina]). Queer. . . . The door seems locked. (At last he comes in and pushes away the armchair.) Hm. . . . Kind of a steeplechase. [The others too come back from supper] (arkadina, the shamraevs, masha,

trigorin, the servant with the wine and beer. )

arkadina. Place it here. The beer is for Trigorin. We shall drink and go on with the game. Let us sit down. [Candles are lighted.] (shamraev leads trigorin toward a chest of drawers.)

shamraev. Look, here’s the bird you asked me to stuff last summer.

trigorin. What bird? I don’t remember. (Thinks it over.) No, really, I don’t remember. (A shot is heard on the right. They all start.)

arkadina (frightened). What was that?

dorn. I know. Something has probably exploded in that medicine chest of mine. Don’t worry. (He goes out and half a minute later [while the rest are settling down to their game] comes back.) Yes, I was right. A bottle of ether has burst. (He hums) “Oh, maiden, again I am bound by your charms. . . .”

arkadina (as she sits down at the table). Ugh, it gave me a fright. It reminded me of that time when. . . . (She covers her face with her hands. ) It has made me quite faint.

dorn (perusing the review, to trigorin). A month or two ago there was an article here … a letter from America . . . and I wanted to ask you . . . (He leads trigorin [gently] toward the front of the stage.) . . . because, you see, I am very much interested in the question. (In a slightly lower voice)—Will you, please, take Mrs. Arkadin to some other room? The fact is that her son had shot himself.


This is, I repeat, a remarkable ending. Note that the tradition of the backstage suicide is broken by the chief character concerned not realizing what has happened but imitating, as it were, the real reaction by recalling a former occasion. Note, too, that it is the doctor speaking, and so there is no need to call one in order to have the audience quite satisfied. Note, finally, that whereas before his unsuccessful suicide Treplev spoke of doing it, there has not been a single hint in the scene—and still it is perfectly and completely motivated.*


* This final paragraph was deleted by VN. Ed.