This analysis of The Seagull was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 62-5.
Keep well in mind that the dialogue in Chekhov's plays is of the utmost importance. It has been well said that in this author's plays what is said is more important than what is done. Since this is so, we shall see that the dramatist does not bother to construct a plot which will interest or divert his audience.
The play opens with a conversation between Masha and Medvedenko; it is evident that a dramatic production is at hand. We also learn a good deal of the character of the two speakers. Soon after, another pair arrives, Sorin and Treplef. There is more talk, which is broken off by the entrance of further characters. The entire opening of the play is as casual as life itself. Nothing happens until Nina appears in Treplef's play; but be it remembered, this plaz is merely an incident about which Chekhov's own characters may converse.
Toward the end of the act Masha says to Dorn, "...Help me, or I shall commit some folly, I shall make havoc with my life.... I can't hold out any longer.... I am in pain. No one knows my sufferings.... I am in love with Constantine." Here is the thread of interest which is necessary -- even in the plays of the radical Russian -- to bridge the gap between the first and second acts.
In the middle of the second act, the plot is resumed -- if the slender series of more or less connected incidents may be so termed -- in the scene between Treplef and Nina, and further carried on in that between Trigorin and Nina. Interest is sustained and future events foreshadowed in Trigorin's words to Nina, regarding a subject for a possible story: "A girl -- like yourself, say -- lives from her childhood on the shores of a lake. She loves the lake like a seagull, and is happy and free like a seagull. But a man comes along by chance, and sees her and ruins her, like this seagull, just to amuse himself." This is a good example of foreshadowing. If the reader is at all familiar with the ways of the dramatist, or of the authors of novels or short stories, he will at least suspect a definite application of such a speech and await the foreshadowed result.
The third act contains a good deal of action, which is rather disjointed and "jerky"; the important part is the end, where Nina evidently becomes Trigorin's mistress. Notice that the scene was not prepared for, that it merely happened; that it occurred at the end of the penultimate act may be set down to the author's intent. He recognizes the value of climax, but in this case does not unduly emphasize it.
The last act contains the denouement; this is, however, not all. There is further characterization. In this respect it differs from the usual last act, which is concerned mainly with the unraveling of the plot, and hardly at all with further characterization. The catastrophe is of course the death of Constantine.
Separate the plot proper from what is pure psychology. Has Chekhov combined these two elements skilfully? Could he have created as interesting a play merely by using the plot and lightly sketching in the characters for the purpose of holding the plot together?
In considering this play, -- and Russian plays in general -- there arises the question of plot and character. How far can a dramatist interest his audience merely by presenting a number of people on the stage and analyzing them by making them tell their thoughts; or how far can he interest his hearers by placing puppets before us in more or less interesting situations? And how well can he combine the two processes? Much depends on the audience, much on the effect intended; the dramatist who aims only at the delineation of character for its own sake is bound to fail, as people do not and will not go to the theater for instruction alone. Nor can the dramatist who aims only at what is commonly termed amusement be worthy our consideration: a good dramatist is he who, while trying primarily to amuse, insinuates some philosophical truth, some interesting bit of psychology, some trait of human character into his play. Chekhov ... has nearly succeeded in finding a medium for the expression of his thoughts and feelings, but his plays fall short of perfection through their too great insistence upon character in the abstract.
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