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The Seagull

Anton Chekhov

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Plot Overview

The son of a grocer and the grandson of a serf, Anton Chekhov was born on January seventeen, 1860 in Taganrog, a provincial town on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia. Serfdom was the Russian equivalent of American slavery. Chekhov was the third son of Pavel Egorovich Chekhov and Evgeniya Yakovlevna. When Chekhov was sixteen, his father fled to Moscow to escape debtors he owed for his failed grocery business. His mother followed her husband to Moscow in July of that year with her younger children, leaving Chekhov behind in Taganrog to finish school and to tutor the nephew of the man who bought their estate for an unfairly cheap price. Chekhov had already contributed humorous stories to a magazine he created with his brother that he called Zaika (Stammerer). In 1879, Chekhov moved to Moscow to attend medical school and published his first short story, The Letter from the Don Landowner Stephen Vladimirovich N. to his Learned Neighbor Dr. Friederick. He continued to publish stories and graduated medical school in 1884.

In 1887, Chekhov's play, Ivanov was performed for the first time to mixed, and later successful, reception. Chekhov won the Pushkin Prize for "the best literary production distinguished by high artistic worth" in 1888. In 1890, Chekhov left for a trip to Sakhalin Island where the government established a penal colony. He stayed there for three months, documenting the lives of the inmates. In 1892, Chekhov purchased the estate, Melikhovo and became the first landowner in his family. Two years later, he discovered that he had an advanced case of tuberculosis, then known frequently as consumption.

Chekhov wrote four major plays, Ivanov, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. He wrote The Seagull in 1895. It was first performed in 1896 in Petersburg. The first performance was viewed as a failure since it generated the disappointment of the audience who had come to see the play as it was falsely advertised, as a benefit performance for a well-known actress who was only in a sketch after the play. After that performance, The Seagull was well-received and immediately toured the Russian provinces. On May 25th, 1901, Chekhov married an actress, Olga Knipper who starred in his plays at the Moscow Art Theatre. He became known for his collaborations and differences with Konstantin Stanislavski, the famous Russian director and acting teacher. His plays marked a new movement in the theatre with their use of subtext, intimacy, colloquialisms and realism. His comedy-tragedies were unlike any plays that audiences had seen before because they made drama out of everyday circumstances, such as love and longing, instead of portraying the grand gestures of heroes and heroines of earlier plays.

Three years later, Chekhov's health faded rapidly, but he managed to complete his last play, The Cherry Orchard, before he died. It was performed for the first time on his birthday in 1904. On July two that year, Chekhov died in a German spa that was unequipped to care for his illness. He and Olga had traveled there because it was recommended for his health. According to his wife, Chekhov, (a doctor himself), diagnosed his own condition and told the doctor he was dying. The doctor sent for champagne, and then Chekov said, "I haven't drunk champagne in a long time," drank some sips of champagne, turned over on his side and died. His body was returned back to Russia in a train car labeled, "Fresh Oysters," a comic detail Chekhov probably would've enjoyed in the somber context of his death.

Like the amateur playwright, Treplev in The Seagull, Chekhov, too, explores new forms with his play. Chekhov revolutionized the idea of what a play could be by creating drama among people in the words they spoke, and not in the acts they committed on stage.

Unlike the melodramas in which Chekhov's Arkadina acts and Treplev despises, The Seagull's main events happen off-stage. Nina and Trigorin's affair, the shooting of the seagull, Masha and Medvedenko's wedding, etc. all occur between Acts. What captivates us about The Seagull is the characters' adaptation to and survival of the main events. His characters all handle the disappointments and adversities in their lives in distinct and particular ways. His plays elegantly display the poetry of everyday life; The silences, cliches, stammerings and attempts at high expression by his characters are a mirror to our own improvised lives.

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