Oregon Shakespeare Festival “Seagull” is a thought-provoking, moving play: in all aspects a superb production.
Unlike quite a few of my guests, I almost never pre-read a script or research the play before viewing it. However, in this case, for this play, my interest and enjoyment of this play would have been improved with a little preparation.
For me, more contextual knowledge would have increased my engagement while viewing this play.
If I knew that Chekhov in writing The Seagull was breaking from the mainstream theatrical forms of the day, then all the references from Konstantin Tréplev about current theater and need for new forms would have been even more ironic. It was not just the rant of a jealous and frustrated son about his mother’s career and life-style choice, but Chekhov’s opinion of mainstream and Imperial-supported theaters. I wish I could ask Chekhov if he was defending The Seagull within The Seagull before the critics could write about it?
All reports say that The Seagull‘s 1896 premier opening night was not well received, after however, with better direction and especially when produced by the Moscow Art Theater it was critically acclaimed. Why? Once again, context I think plays a role. In the 1890s when attending a play produced by the Moscow Art Theater, audiences expected different, they expected and wanted counter-culture messages. With such expectations, in the Moscow Art Theater, The Seagull soared.
The morning after seeing Seagull, I mulled it over. What to say about a play that has been in existence for over 100 years? Surely I’m not the only one who noticed some parallels between Hamlet and The Seagull? The unsettling, unhealthy mother-son dynamic between Irina Arkadina and Konstantin Tréplev, to me screamed Gertude and Hamlet; Konstantin becoming increasingly mentally imbalanced and angry; and even to a lesser degree the ‘play within the play’ device. In the first act, even Irina and Konstantin quote from Hamlet. A quick Google search confirmed it, those more knowledgeable of Chekhov than I discuss the Hamlet connection.
Another tidbit surfaced in that Google search, the “new forms” Chekhov was espousing can be seen in The Seagull. Unlike most melodramatic plays of the day, Chekhov’s characters were fully-developed and from multiple levels of society. Furthermore, the ‘juicy’ drama of the story happens between the scenes (the suicide attempt, for example). Like many real people, the characters in Seagull don’t speak directly to the bothersome relationship issues, but talk around the proverbial “dead elephant in the room”.
That said, am I enthralled with the play, as I am with most of the plays Oregon Shakespeare Festival mounts? No. Why? It’s Chekhov for heavens sake! Some plays are not enthralling, but instructive in their own way.
If one is looking for comedic distraction, or for an “everything-ends-well” entertainment, it’s not in Seagull. If one is looking for a play that influenced history of drama, whose messages are still relevant today as they were in the 1890s, and a play very well performed, then Seagull will do very nicely.