Seagull Flops

October 18: On this day in 1896 Anton Chekhov's The Seagull opened in St. Petersburg. This is the first-written of Chekhov's masterpieces, and though now regarded as one of the most influential plays in modern drama, its opening night was a flop of career-ending proportions. During the writing, Chekhov admitted that he was "flagrantly disregarding the basic tenets of the stage," not only for having so much talk and so little action, but for having "started it forte and ended it pianissimo." During rehearsal he had implored the actors and the director to give up the usual bombastic style and give his understatements a chance: "The point is, my friends, there's no use being theatrical. None whatever. The whole thing is very simple. The characters are simple, ordinary people." Convinced of disaster, he nearly withdrew his permission for the production, and then nearly did not attend the opening himself; by Act Two he was hiding backstage from the booing and jeering; at two a.m. he was still walking the streets alone. When he finally returned home, he declared to a friend, "Not if I live to be seven hundred will I write another play."

 

One explanation for the hostile reception is that the premiere of The Seagull was also a benefit night for an actress popular for her work in broad comedy, and many in attendance had come expecting laughs rather than Chekhovian subtlety. When The Seagull got its second performance several days later it was enthusiastically received, and was soon playing throughout Russia. When the play was directed by Stanislavsky two years later at the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre, it was a huge success. Today, the emblem on the main stage curtain of the MAT (since 1996, the Chekhov Moscow Art Academic Theatre), is a seagull.

 

Chekhov did not see any of the MAT opening, as he was in Yalta trying to overcome his recently diagnosed tuberculosis. But he had seen some rehearsals, and at them the actress Olga Knipper, who became his wife in 1901, three years before his death. "Give me a wife, who, like the moon, would not appear in my sky every day," Chekhov had written his publisher A. S. Suvorin in 1895; by 1899 he was writing Olga, "Greetings last page of my life, great actress of the Russian land…."

 

 

See our interview with Tom Stoppard on translating Chekov's drama.

 

 

 


 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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