The Seagull

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Theatre

Chekhov in an 1898 portrait by Osip Braz.
Chekhov in an 1898 portrait by Osip Braz.

The Seagull (Russian: "Чайка"), written in 1896, is the first of what are generally considered to be Anton Chekhov's four major plays. It centres on the romantic and artistic conflicts between four theatrical characters: the ingenue Nina, the fading leading lady Irina Arkadina, her son the experimental playwright Konstantin Treplyov, and the famous middlebrow story writer Trigorin.

Like the rest of Chekhov's full-length plays, The Seagull relies upon an ensemble cast of diverse, fully developed characters. In opposition to much of the melodramatic theatre of the 19th century, lurid actions (such as Treplyov's suicide attempts) are kept offstage. Characters tend to speak in ways that skirt around issues rather than addressing them directly, a concept known as subtext.

The play has a strong intertextual relationship with Shakespeare's Hamlet. Arkadina and Treplyov quote lines from it before the play-within-a-play in the first act (and the play-within-a-play device is itself used in Hamlet). There are many allusions to Shakespearean plot details as well. For instance, Treplyov seeks to win his mother back from the usurping older man Trigorin much as Hamlet tries to win Queen Gertrude back from his uncle Claudius.

The opening night of the first production was a famous failure. Vera Komissarzhevskaya, playing Nina, was so intimidated by the hostility of the audience that she lost her voice. Chekhov left the audience and spent the last two acts behind the scenes. When supporters wrote to him that the production later became a success, he assumed they were just trying to be kind. When Konstantin Stanislavski directed it in a later production for the Moscow Art Theatre, the play was a triumph.


  • Madame Arkadina - an actress
  • Konstantin Treplyov - her son, a playwright
  • Sorin - Arkadina's brother
  • Nina - daughter of a rich landowner
  • Shamrayef - retired lieutenant, manager of Sorin's estate
  • Pauline - his wife
  • Masha - their daughter
  • Trigorin - a well-known writer
  • Dorn - a doctor
  • Medviedenko - a schoolmaster
  • Yakov - a laborer
  • Cook


Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Act I

The play takes place on a country estate owned by Sorin, a former government employee with failing health. He is the brother of the famous actress Arkadina, who has just arrived at the estate with her lover, Trigorin, for a brief vacation. In Act I, the people staying at Sorin's estate gather to see a play that Arkadina's son Konstantin Treplyov has written and directed. The play-within-a-play stars Nina, a young girl who lives on a neighboring estate, as the "soul of the world." The play is his latest attempt at creating a new theatrical form, and resembles a dense symbolist work. Arkadina laughs at the play, finding it ridiculous and incomprehensible, and Konstantin storms off in disgrace. Act I also sets up the play's many romantic triangles. The schoolteacher Medviedenko loves Masha, the daughter of the estate's steward. Masha, in turn, has an unrequited crush on Konstantin, who is courting Nina. When Masha tells the kindly old Doctor Dorn about her longing, he helplessly blames the moon and the lake for making everybody feel romantic.

Act II

Act II takes place in the afternoon outside of the estate, a few days later. After reminiscing about happier times, Arkadina engages the house steward Shamrayef in a heated argument, and decides to leave immediately. Nina lingers behind after the group leaves, and Konstantin shows up to give her a seagull that he has shot. Nina is confused and horrified at the gift. Konstantin sees Trigorin approaching, and he leaves in a jealous fit. Trigorin, a famous writer, enters. Nina asks him to tell her about the writer's life. He replies that it is not an easy one. Nina says that she knows the life of an actress is not easy either, but she wants more than anything to be one. Trigorin sees the seagull that Konstantin has shot and muses on how he could use it as a subject for a short story: "A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she's happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull." Arkadina calls for Trigorin, and he leaves as she tells him that she has changed her mind, and they will not be leaving immediately. Nina lingers behind, enthralled with Trigorin's celebrity and modesty, and she gushes, "My dream!"..


Act III takes place inside the estate, on the day when Arkadina and Trigorin have decided to depart for Moscow. Between acts Konstantin attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, but the bullet only grazed his skull. He spends all of Act III with his scalp heavily bandaged. Nina finds Trigorin eating breakfast and presents him with a medallion that proclaims her devotion to him using a line from one of Trigorin's own books: "If you ever need my life, come and take it." She retreats after begging for one last chance to see Trigorin before he leaves. Arkadina appears, followed by Sorin, whose health has continued to deteriorate. Trigorin leaves to continue packing. There is a brief argument between Arkadina and Sorin, after which Sorin collapses in grief. He is helped off by Medviedenko. Treplyov enters and asks his mother to change his bandage. As she is doing this, Treplyov disparages Trigorin and there is another argument, after which Treplyov leaves in tears. Trigorin reenters, and asks Arkadina if they can stay at the estate. She flatters and cajoles him until he agrees to return to Moscow. After she has left, Nina comes to say her final goodbye to Trigorin and to inform him that she is running away to become an actress, against her parents' wishes. They kiss passionately and make plans to meet again in Moscow.

Act IV

Act IV takes place during the winter two years later, in the drawing room that has been converted to Treplyov's study. Masha has finally accepted Medviedenko's marriage proposal, and they have a child together, though Masha still nurses an unrequited love for Konstantin. Various characters discuss what has happened in the two years that have passed: Nina and Trigorin lived together in Moscow for a time until he abandoned her and went back to Arkadina. Nina never achieved any real success as an actress, and is currently on a tour of the provinces with a small theatre group. Konstantin has had some short stories published, but is increasingly depressed. Sorin's health is failing, and the people at the estate have telegraphed for Arkadina to come for his final days. Most of the play's characters go to the drawing room to play lotto. Konstantin does not join them, and spends this time working on a manuscript at his desk. After the group leaves to eat dinner, Nina enters through a back door and tells Konstantin about her life over the last two years. She starts to compare herself to the seagull—the bird Konstantin killed—then rejects that and says "I am an actress." She tells him that she was forced to tour with a second-rate theatre company after the death of the child she had with Trigorin, but she seems to have a newfound confidence. Konstantin pleads with her to stay, but she is in such disarray that his pleading means nothing. She slips out as quietly as she arrived. Despondent, Treplyov spends several minutes tearing up his manuscript before silently leaving the room. The group reenters and returns to the lotto game. There is a sudden gunshot from off-stage, and Dorn goes to investigate. He returns and orders Trigorin to take Arkadina away, and tells him that Treplyov just shot himself.


The first Nina: Vera Komissarzhevskaya
The first Nina: Vera Komissarzhevskaya

The first night of The Seagull on 17 October 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg was a disaster, booed by the audience. Vera Komissarzhevskaya, who some considered the best actor in Russia, and who, according to Chekhov, had moved people to tears as Nina in rehearsal, was intimidated by the hostile audience and lost her voice. The next day, Chekhov, who had taken refuge backstage for the last two acts, announced to Suvorin that he was finished with writing plays. When supporters assured him that later performances were more successful, Chekhov assumed they were just being kind.

The Seagull impressed the playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, however, who said Chekhov should have won the Griboyedev prize that year instead of himself. And it was Nemirovich-Danchenko who convinced Konstantin Stanislavski to direct the play for the innovative Moscow Art Theatre in 1898.Chekhov's collaboration with Stanislavski proved crucial to the creative development of both men: Stanislavski's attention to psychological realism and ensemble playing coaxed the buried subtleties from the play and revived Chekhov's interest in writing for the stage; while Chekhov's unwillingness to explain or expand on the script forced Stanislavski to dig beneath the surface of the text in ways that were new in theatre.

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