Find out more about the times in which Chekhov lived and worked.
Anton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to thecompany of the Moscow Art Theatre
When Anton Chekhov’s classic The Seagull premiered on 17 October 1896 in St. Petersburg at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, it was a complete failure both in the audience’s, the critics’ and Chekhov’s own opinion. The audience’s angry response to the play was both immediate and intense. They were hissing the performance by the end of the first act. They loudly criticised the play for its lack of action and recognisable characters. The actress playing Nina, Vera Kommissarzhevsky, whose work Chekhov had praised highly in rehearsals, was so terrified by the audience’s response that she lost her voice. How then did a play initially booed by its audience become, as Konstantin Rudnitsky argues, ‘one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama’?
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia in 1860.He was the third child of six to Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, a grocer. His grandfather had been a serf, who had managed to buy his family’s freedom in 1841. During his childhood, the young Chekhov and his siblings worked in the family store and studied at their local school.
The rehearsed reading gives the clearest sense yet of bodies on a stage – people – trying to do things to and get things from one another, rather than a series of talking heads showing off verbally. I do the voices a lot when I'm writing which gets you so far but hearing good actors, really good actors – as we had for the rehearsed reading of The Seagull – allows the play to emerge much more clearly. And this is terrifically exciting.
Sam Curran (Tom) and Rachael Stirling (Medea) in Medea. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Can a woman take on the role of a tragic hero? Medea may have a tragedy named after her and play the starring role in it, but can she be considered a tragic hero in the strictest sense of the term? Greek drama abounds with feisty proto-feminist figures. While Orestes quakes in his sandals at the thought of murdering his mother, his sister Electra makes sure the deed gets done. Antigone buries her brother Polyneices’ body in open defiance of both her uncle Creon and the laws of the Thebes. When Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon sacrifices their daughter in order to get a fair wind to Troy, does she sit quietly by? No, of course she doesn’t. She takes over his throne, finds herself a new lover and when Agamemnon finally returns home after ten years of hard fighting, she murders him in his bathtub with an axe. Like Medea, these women are clever, determined and tough as nails, but are they tragic?
Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC. National Museum of Rome. Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto
What do we mean when we say that something is tragic or a tragedy? Take a moment and think about the last time you used the word. Was it to describe something that had happened to someone that was sad, shocking or unfair? The disappearance of Madeline McCann or the death of Princess Diana might both be thought of as tragedies. Was it to describe a film or television programme, in which things end unhappily for the characters? Ronnie Mitchell on Eastenders might be thought of as a tragic character because everything always seemed to go so terribly wrong for her. Or perhaps, it was just to say that something was really bad? The footballer Stewart Downing’s performance last season might be thought of as tragic because he failed to score a single goal.
Billie Piper (Connie), Jonjo O'Neill (Tristan) and Anastasia Hille in The Effect. Photo: Ellie Kurtz.
After 45 minutes of being lost in a bleak industrial estate, I eventually discover Hammersmith Medicines Research at the end of an intersection, just off the Park Royal roundabout, adjacent to a factory building pumping flumes of smoke. The building is exactly what I expect: large, non-specific, stark and cold. I’m feeling a little trepidatious, to say the least.
Watch Simon Critchley’s lecture Barack Obama and the American Void in full here
There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama’s universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls “the common good”. This is hardly news. We’ve known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention that “there’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.”
A picture of the theatre of Dionysus in Athens taken in 1870 by Sebah Pascal (1823 - 1886).
Euripides’ Medea was first performed in at the City Dionysia Festival in Athens in 431BC, nearly 2,500 years ago. What would it have been like to have attended the original production? It’s difficult to know for sure. There is not enough historical evidence to present a definitive picture and scholars argue over the exact details. There is, however, one thing we can know for sure. The experience of watching a play in the theatre in ancient Greece was very different from watching a play in a theatre today.
Maria Callas as Medea in Pasolini's Medea (1969).
Who is Medea? This is not an easy question to answer. She is at once a sorceress, a lustful concubine, a foreigner, a serial killer, an intellectual, and an unrequited lover. She is a mother, a madwoman, and an oppressed wife too. Is she a victim or the perpetrator? Who is to blame – Medea, the murderer of her children, or Jason the serial womaniser? Euripides subtly but surely sides with the heroine, casting Jason as a coward. Medea is of course all of these women and more, which is what makes her so captivating: her multiplicity has seduced and disoriented theatre-makers, writers and audiences for centuries. Nevertheless, in Euripides’ tragedy she remains a ‘barbarian’, an exotic object of desire whose instinctive violence escapes comprehension. Her final escape to Athens by divine chariot seals the riddle of her identity with a coup de théâtre