The Seagull by Anton Chekhov
Translated and adapted by Anton Korenev

It’s been a little while since we had any Russians here on the Ramblings, so what better way to greet a grey January than with some time spent with that country’s greatest playwright – Anton Chekhov! (I don’t think anyone would argue with that sweeping statement, although Russia has some amazing authors who’ve written plays). Here I must make a confession – despite having read and loved many, many of Chekhov’s short stories, I can’t be sure if I’ve ever read any of his plays… (*gasps of horror from the audience*) So when I was offered the chance to read a new translation of “The Seagull” I did of course jump at it… ;D

The new version is translated/adapted by Anton Korenev, a Russian director and actor who is also an attorney in New York. His original intention was to present the play in theatres; the pandemic, of course, has rather got in the way of that plan… However, his version is published this year and he was kind enough to offer an ARC of the book – which I was very keen to read!

Chekhov described his play as a comedy with “…Many conversations about literature, little action, and five poods [181 pounds] of love.” As the publicity material goes on to reveal, “Medvedenko loves Masha, Masha loves Treplev, Treplev loves Nina, and Nina loves Trigorin, all while Shamrayev loves Polina Andreyevna, Polina Andreyevna loves Dorn, Dorn loves Arkadina, and Arkadina loves Trigorin.” Phew! That is indeed a lot of unrequited love!

Life should be portrayed not as it is, and not as it should be, but as it is being imagined in dreams.

The play takes place on the country estate of Pyotr Sorin. His sister, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, is in residence along with her young lover, the writer Boris Trigorin. Irina’s son, Treplev, has written a new modern play which is being staged in the grounds, Nina, a young woman from a neighbouring estate, is taking the leading role. The performance does not go well, leading to all sorts of fallings out, and the love triangles continue to become more complicated, getting even more tangled when two characters actually find themselves in love with each other! But jealousy, fickle feelings and reality will get in the way of any real happiness and the death of a titular seagull will foreshadow later tragedy.

Once there’s love in the heart, it should be thrown out.

I have to say first of all that I was surprised to find “The Seagull” described as a comedy, because although there *is* humour in it, there’s a lot of darker stuff. Obviously there’s a staggering amount of high emotion in the play, with everyone yearning after someone who has no interest in them. This can be, and often is, humorous, but it leads to some real heartbreak and unhappy relationships. Then there’s the issue of whether it’s better to have commercial or artistic success; Irina is a famous actress, ageing but still convinced of her talent; whereas Nina is younger and determined to make her name in new, modern works. Which kind of success is best? And of course this leads onto another topic, the huge difference between the characters’ perceptions of their lives and work, and the reality of this. Nina is young and idealistic; Irina older and theoretically more experienced; both, however, fool themselves over the truth of their life. The writers are no better off, experiencing disillusionment throughout the play, and it’s not a spoiler to say that there is tragedy of many kinds at the end. Trigorin, in particular, struggles with his need to write; everything he encounters instantly enters into his world of fiction and the compulsion to convert each new experience this way stops him actually living.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery

“The Seagull” in written form is a relatively quick read, yet leaves so much to think about (as I would expect from Chekhov). There’s an overarching sense of melancholy, despite the humour, and I felt a huge empathy for all the characters and their dilemmas. This being a Russian drama, there was never going to be a happy ending but the sacrifices made by many of the characters were immense. As for the seagull? Let’s just say it’s very symbolic…

I’m not sure, really, why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading a Chekhov play, because I love his fiction! And as this is the first play for me, it’s perhaps difficult for me to comment directly on the translation as I don’t speak Russian. However, the play read beautifully, there was nothing which felt anachronistic and the whole thing had a very ‘Chekhovian’ feel to me – so I take that to mean that it’s a good rendition! 😀 I have to thank Anton for kindly offering me an ARC of “The Seagull”, because it’s finally pushed me to read one of the great Russian author’s plays – and a wonderful experience it was! Highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher; you can read more about it here)