On Stage

Seagull on 16th Street: Dramaturgy


Get to know Anton Chekhov


Chekhov’s Early Years


Born on January 29, 1860, in Taganrog, Russia, on the Sea of Azov, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov would eventually become one of Russia's most cherished storytellers.  Chekhov’s father, Pavel, came from a long line of serfs, was apprenticed to a bookkeeper and eventually set up his own financially precarious business as a grocer in the small southern town of Taganrog, where Chekhov was born.  As an adult, Chekhov would describe Taganrog as “dirty, drab, empty, lazy and illiterate”. (Callow, 6).  Pavel had significant artistic talents for painting and for music; it is from his father that Chekhov and his two artistic brothers got their love of art.  But it was also from his father that Chekhov got his discomfort with religious faith.  Described by one Chekhov scholar as a religious fanatic, Pavel was church choirmaster.  In this capacity, he forced the children into hours of church music rehearsal late at night and made them attend countless services.  He was also an alcoholic who forced the children into menial labor around the store from a young age and regularly beat them.  Chekhov characterized his childhood as being distorted by despotism and lying, summarizing the whole of his youth as a “frightful and nauseating memory” (11).  When his father fled Taganrog in 1876 to escape his creditors, 16-year-old Chekhov was left to care for his home and family, which included his mother and three younger siblings. Just as he was later to depict in The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov's own family home and shop were auctioned off.


Chekhov’s Early Career

In 1879 Chekhov enrolled as a medical student at the University of Moscow. During his years in school he wrote humorous stories and sketches under a pen name to help support his family. After graduating in 1884 with a degree in medicine, he began to freelance as a journalist and writer of comic sketches. Early in his career, he mastered the form of the one-act and produced several masterpieces of this genre including The Bear (1888) in which a creditor hounds a young widow, but becomes so impressed when she agrees to fight a duel with him that he proposes marriage, and The Wedding (1889) in which a bridegroom's plans to have a general attend his wedding ceremony backfire when the general turns out to be a retired naval captain "of the second rank."

By 1887 Chekhov was a literary success in St. Petersburg. His first play, Ivanov, a fairly immature work compared to his later plays, examines the suicide of a young man very similar to Chekhov himself in many ways. His next play, The Wood Demon (1888) was also fairly unsuccessful. In fact, it was not until the Moscow Art Theater production of The Seagull (1897) that Chekhov enjoyed his first overwhelming success. The same play had been performed two years earlier at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and had been so badly received that Chekhov had actually left the auditorium during the second act and vowed never to write for the theatre again. But in the hands of the Moscow Art Theatre, the play was transformed into a critical success.

The Mature Chekhov

Though Chekhov suffered illness throughout most of his life (he suffered his first lung hemorrhage at the age of 24) he continued to enjoy critical success and make his living as a writer of short stories and plays. By 1892 he was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of buying an estate at Melikhovo, near Moscow. There he entertained himself with gardening, planting entire forests and a cherry orchard of his own. It is during his stay in Melikhovo, that Chekhov wrote The Seagull, which brought him to the attention of the Moscow Art Theatre. In 1898 Chekhov saw the actress Olga Knipper in a production there and soon after wrote to a friend, "Were I to stay in Moscow, I would fall in love with her."  Although Chekhov resisted marriage for most of his life, he finally consented to marry Olga in 1901.

In 1899, Chekhov gave the Moscow Art Theatre a revised version of The Wood Demon, now titled Uncle Vanya (1899). Along with The Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904), this play would go on to become one of the masterpieces of the modern theatre. However, although the Moscow Art Theatre productions brought Chekhov great fame, he was never quite happy with the style that director Constantin Stanislavsky imposed on the plays. While Chekhov insisted that most of his plays were comedies, Stanislavsky's productions tended to emphasize their tragic elements. Still, in spite of their stylistic disagreements, it was not an unhappy marriage, and these productions brought widespread acclaim to both Chekhov's work and the Moscow Art Theatre itself.

Chekhov considered his mature plays to be a kind of comic satire, pointing out the unhappy nature of existence in turn-of-the-century Russia. Perhaps Chekhov's style was described best by the poet himself when he wrote:

"All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life."
During Chekhov's final years, he was forced to live in exile from the intellectuals of Moscow. In March of 1897, he had suffered a lung hemorrhage, and although he still made occasional trips to Moscow to participate in the productions of his plays, he was forced to spend most of his time in the Crimea, where he had gone for his health. He died of tuberculosis on July 14, 1904, at the age of forty-four, in a German health resort and was buried in Moscow. Since his death, Chekhov's plays have become famous worldwide and he has come to be considered the greatest Russian storyteller and dramatist of modern times.


Chekhov's The Seagull

The Premiere Fiasco
Like Treplev, Chekhov believed in the artist’s work as a spiritual practice.  Like Treplev, however, his faith was shaken by his theatrical debut.  The Seagull opened in 1896 in St. Petersburg.  It was staged as a benefit for the 25th anniversary of the debut of a leading Russian comedienne, and spectators were determined to have a comedy.  In the opening act, they stamped their feet in protest, squirmed in their seats, and gossiped with each other so loudly that the action of the play soon became inaudible.  Chekhov first took refuge in the dressing room and then fled the theater, vowing that if he lived another seven hundred years, he’d never give a theater another play.  But the play enjoyed subsequent successes in Kharkov and Odessa, then at Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater.  Though legend has it that Stanislavsky rescued the play from oblivion, the truth seems to be that The Seagull helped greatly in securing MAT’s reputation as a major cultural institution.

(Image to right: Members of the Moscow Art Theater read The Seagull in the spring of 1898)

Production History
• The premiere of The Seagull in English translation took place at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow, in November 1909.
• First published English language translation of The Seagull in the United States, performed at the Bandbox Theatre on Broadway by the Washington Square Players in 1916.
• Performed on Broadway at the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1929
• The 1938 Broadway production starred Uta Hagen as Nina, also starring Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.
• The Notebook of Trigorin was Tennessee Williams' free adaptation of The Seagull. The play was first produced in 1981 by the Vancouver Playhouse in Vancouver, British Columbia. A 1996 production of Williams’ adaptation by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park featuring Lynn Redgrave as Madame Arkadina was the American premiere.
• A 1975 TV movie adaptation starred Frank Langella as Treplev and Blythe Danner as Nina.
• The Joseph Papp Public Theater presented Chekhov's play as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival summer season in Central Park in 2001. The production starred Meryl Streep as Arkadina, Christopher Walken as Sorin, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Treplyov, John Goodman as Shamrayev, Marcia Gay Harden as Masha, Kevin Kline as Trigorin, Debra Monk as Polina, Stephen Spinella as Medvedenko, and Natalie Portman as Nina.
• On September 16, 2008 the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway began previews of Ian Rickson's production The Seagull with Kristin Scott Thomas reprising her role as Arkadina.

Chekhov and the Jews

If the Russian peasant was subject to terrible living conditions, the Jewish peasant suffered many of the same deprivations and worse.  The Jews in Russia were, in the title of a book on European Jewry of the 19th century, a people apart.  Russian laws severely limited the number of Jews who were permitted to live in the big cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, so most lived in the south.  They were considered, and so considered themselves, Jewish rather than Russian.  The overwhelming majority of Jews were peasants; a few made a living as teachers and lawyers; and in very rare cases, a Jew entered the nobility, either by being of noble birth or by converting to Russian Orthodoxy—or both. 

Russian government officials viewed Orthodox Jewish practice (the only kind of Jewish practice that existed at the time) with suspicion at best, as something that prevented the Jews from becoming integrated into the state.  There was a “negative, almost demonic” image of the Talmud and other rabbinic literature, which was thought to spread hatred, xenophobia, and economic disaster (Bartal, 64).

In the years leading up to The Seagull, things would get particularly bad for the Jews.  In the years 1881 to 1884, Jewish communities in southern Russia and the Ukraine suffered pogroms or violent attacks.  The attacks were brutal and often lasted three or four days.  The mobs who conducted the attacks were primarily comprised of peasants and unskilled urban workers.  Typically, there was immense damage to property and some injury sustained.  Occasionally, there were a dozen or more casualties.  Response by police and other authorities was uniformly weak—one source describes it as “pitiful.”  The soldiers sent in to help often joined the mob.  The Russian intelligentsia, including Tolstoy and Turgenev, were silent in response.

In 1886, Chekhov was briefly engaged to Dunya Efros, a young Jewish woman. Her identity remains mysterious, and their ‘engagement’ lasted less than six months before she broke with him, rather than being subject to his already well-established fear of commitment in romantic affairs.  This liaison seems to have provided some inspiration for Chekhov’s play, Ivanov.

A decade later, in 1894, the Dreyfuss Affair in France brought anti-semitism fully into Chekhov’s consciousness.  Army captain Alfred Dreyfus had been wrongly convicted of passing military secrets to Germany.  Emile Zola wrote a famous letter in which he accused the French government of anti-semitism.  The Affair permanently damaged Chekhov’s closest friendship with Suvorin, editor of the New Times, who wrote against both Dreyfuss and Emile Zola and whose line on the entire affair Chekhov called “repulsive.”  Chekhov resigned from the Russian Academy of Arts and Sciences over the Dreyfuss Affair.  In the same year, he wrote his most important short story featuring a Jewish character, “Rothschild’s Fiddle.”

The plight of the Jews would again pierce Chekhov’s consciousness with the pogrom in Kishinev, 1903.  In this most violent of pogroms—and the last against which there would be no organized uprising—fifty-one Jews were killed, five hundred injured, and untold numbers raped.  Crowbars and axes were used as weapons and, when it was all over, fully one-fifth of the Jewish population of the city was homeless.  Chekhov heard of this event with revulsion, and, when approached by the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem for a contribution to an anthology for the relief of victims, he placed all of his published stories at the writer’s disposal.  (Chekhov, at this point, was too ill to write anything new.

Judaism in Chekhov’s Russia


There seem to have been principally two kinds of Jews in Chekhov’s Russia.  First, religious Jews who were orthodox in their practice and who lived, as mentioned above, as a people apart, considering themselves Jewish nationals of Russia rather than Russians.  Second, and in the extreme minority, a very few prominent Jews of noble lineage.  Jewish nobles were largely invisible because of their assimilationist philosophies and eagerness to be on the side of the Russian government.  As such, although they occasionally tried to be helpful to their persecuted brethren they did so, for example, by holding meetings for which they first sought permission from the Russian establishment.  The Russian aristocracy, for its part, thought Jews fanatical in their practices.

What were these practices?  Foremost among them was the practice of observing Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.  Shabbat is the central ritual of Jewish life and is to be sanctified through oneg or pleasurable activities, including physical pleasures such as good food, wine and sex; and spiritual pleasures such as prayer, study, and song. 

To prepare for Shabbat, traditional Jews might set the table, prepare the Shabbat candlesticks by removing the old wax and putting in new candles, and emptying one’s pockets as one doesn’t carry things outside on Shabbat.  Traditional Jews might bathe, washing away the sweat of work; Jewish mystics immerse themselves in the mikvah or ritual bath each week before Shabbat.  Traditionally, one wore one’s best clothes on Shabbat. 

Formal Shabbat observance began with the lighting of the candles on Friday nights, one of the few duties traditionally performed by women.  This is traditionally followed by a series of psalms ending with “L’cha Dodi,” the welcoming of the Sabbath Queen or Bride.  At the end of this song, Jews turn toward the door and bow twice in a sign of welcome to the arriving Shabbat. 

“All of our preparation leads up to this moment when Shabbat is welcomed into our lives.  We stand cleansed and wearing fresh clothes, our hearts opened by the act of giving to tzedakah, our bodies having basked in the light of the Shabbat candles, eagerly taking Shabbat into our souls.”  (Strassfeld, 114)

The welcoming of Shabbat is traditionally followed by the blessing of children and the sanctification of the day or Kiddush, prayed over a cup of wine to symbolize rejoicing.  Next, there is a ritual washing of hands before the blessing and eating of the hallah or braided bread.  Following the Shabbat meal is the birkat ha-mazon, the Grace after Meals. 

On Saturday nights, Shabbat concludes with the recital of havdalah (literally, to separate or differentiate).  This ritual is marked by prayers of praise and blessings over wine, spices, and fire.  According to tradition, on Shabbat we receive an “extra soul” that leaves us at the moment of havdalah.  The spices help the spirit of Shabbat to linger on into the week.  The lighting of the multi-wicked havdalah candle signifies the return to the work of creation.

Modern Reflections on the Meaning of Shabbat

If we ask how this sense of the sacred can withstand the suction of life’s monotony, Jews answer:  by grounding life in tradition.  Without attention, the human sense of wonder and the holy will stir occasionally; but to become a steady flame it must be tended.  One of the best ways to do this is to steep oneself in a history that cries aloud of God’s providential acts and mercy in every generation.  The most historically minded of all the religions, Judaism finds holiness and history inseparable.  In sinking the roots of their lives deep into the past, Jews draw nourishment from events in which God’s acts were clearly visible.  The Sabbath eve with its candles and cup of sanctification, the Passover feast with its many symbols, the austere solemnity of the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn sounding the New Year the scroll of the Torah adorned with breastplate and crown—the Jew finds nothing less than the meaning of life in these things, a meaning that spans the centuries in affirming God’s great goodness to his people.
Huston Smith, The Illustrated World Religions, 196

Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.  Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time.  There are no two hours alike.  Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.
Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.  The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals…

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.  Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 8-10

If we take seriously the core fundamental claims of our tradition that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore have dignity, it’s utterly impossible to live in the world we live in and to see the kind of devastation that we see on the streets on a daily basis, the degradation of humanity around us.  So when your core religious teaching teaches you something that the reality of the world completely belies, it becomes [a question of] how you function. 

Jewish tradition doesn’t say the ideal would be [Shabbat] all the time.  We say, “Go out and do the work of the world and kind of get your hands dirty; get out there and see what the world looks like, but don’t allow yourself to believe that that’s any more the reality than the dream is the reality.”  The dream is the world of human dignity, of infinite worth, of equality, and of uniqueness.  That dream is what has sustained our people over the course of thousands of years of degradation.

So engage in the world for six days and then engage in the dream for one day a week, and just allow yourself to be in a place where you can sing and you can dance and you can hold someone you love and you can eat delicious food and you can dream of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is around you.  And then allow the inspiration from that experience to push you back into the world with a renewed commitment to go out and lift the line of history so that it matches the dream.
Sharon Brous in Jones, Progressive and Religious, 52-53.