Anton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to the company 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’?
Some straightforward explanations have been put forward for the first production’s failure. The play was under-rehearsed and the actors did not know their lines. The audience, it has been argued, were used to seeing light vaudeville shows at the theatre, so their dislike of Chekhov’s naturalistic and thoughtful play can be attributed to it the fact that it did not meet their expectations.
Chekhov wrote to his brother the following day and shared his disappointment: ‘The play has fallen flat, and come down with a crash. There was an oppressive strained feeling of disgrace and bewilderment in the theatre. The actors played abominably stupidly. The moral of it is, one ought not to write plays.’ The same day he wrote to his publisher, Suvorin, ordering him to stop the publication his plays. He firmly insists that ‘I shall never either write plays or have them acted.’ He immediately left St. Petersburg and headed to his estate in the countryside outside Moscow. The experience had deeply knocked his confidence in his work:
‘I saw from the front only the two first acts of my play. Afterwards I sat behind the scenes and felt the whole time that The Seagull was a failure. After the performance that night and next day, I was assured that I had hatched out nothing but idiots, that my play was clumsy from the stage point of view, that it was not clever, that it was unintelligible, even senseless, and so on and so on. You can imagine my position—it was a collapse such as I had never dreamed of! I felt ashamed and vexed, and I went away from Petersburg full of doubts of all sorts. I thought that if I had written and put on the stage a play so obviously brimming over with monstrous defects, I had lost all instinct and that, therefore, my machinery must have gone wrong for good.’
The response of the audience on the first night was not, however, conclusive. The Seagull continued to play at the theatre for two more performances, both of which were successes. After St. Petersburg, The Seagull was produced successfully at several provincial theatres. Productions of the play in Kharkov and Odessa were highly praised by the critics.
Members of the St. Petersburg audience sent Chekhov letters praising the play. At first, Chekhov found it difficult to believe them. He accused one fan of pouring ‘healing balsam on the author's wounds, supposing that, under the circumstances, that is more necessary and better than sincerity’. Chekhov’s own poor opinion of the play was only overturned when he received a letter from the respected jurist Anatoly Koni whose thoughts Chekhov valued ‘more than all the critics put together’. In Koni’s opinion:
‘The Seagull is a work whose conception, freshness of ideas and thoughtful observations of life situations raise it out of the ordinary. It is life itself on stage with all its tragic alliances, eloquent thoughtlessness and silent sufferings – the sort of everyday life that is accessible to everyone and understood in its cruel internal irony by almost no one, the sort of life that is so accessible and close to us that at times you forget you’re in a theatre and you feel capable of participating in the conversation taking place in front of you.’
Koni was not The Seagull’s only admirer. The play also impressed Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a well-known playwright. He had recently founded the Moscow Art Theatre together with the director and actor Konstantin Stanislavski. In May 1898, Nemirovich-Danchenko persuaded Chekhov to allow him to produce The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre. The play was given its official second chance.
Vsevolod Meyerhold preparing for his role as Konstantin
Nemirovich-Danchenko asked Konstantin Stanislavski to direct. Stanislavski also played the role of Boris Trigorin. The role of Irina Arkadina was played by Olga Knipper, who Chekhov would fall in love with and eventually marry in 1901. Stanislavski’s radical new naturalistic to approach staging plays was applied to Chekhov’s play. As a director, Stanislavski aimed to produce delicate representations of daily life with all its intimacies and intricacies. Stanislavski aimed to capture the play’s mood of uncertainty and sacrifice through the minutely detailed work of his actors. These details, however, were not organically evolved by the actors during the rehearsal process. In August 1898, long before rehearsals began, Stanislavski produced a ‘directorial score’ for the play. In his score, Stanislavski planned out individual rhythms and mannerisms for each character. He states that: Petr's laugh is ‘startling and unexpected’; Irina ‘habitually folds her arms behind her back when she is angry or excited’; Konstantin is, in general, ‘tense’; Masha takes snuff; and Semyon smokes a lot. The role of Konstantin was played by the famous actor and director Vseyolod Meyerhold. He argued that the production’s success was rooted in Stanislavski’s direction: ‘the hidden poetry of Chekhov’s prose […] was there because of Stanislavski’s genius as a director’. Unlike any director before him, Stanislavski understood that in Chekhov ‘the sound of the rain outside the windows, the noise of a falling tub, early morning light through the shutters, mist on the lake were indissolubly linked (as previously only in prose) with people’s actions.’ It can be argued that the success of the Moscow production was down to a perfect match between Chekhov’s writing style and Stanislavski’s directorial style.
There were other more pragmatic reasons for the Moscow production’s success. The production was rehearsed for a much longer period of time. The rehearsal period lasted for eighty hours in total, spread across twenty-four sessions: nine with Stanislavski and fifteen with Nemirovich-Danchenko. This was a long rehearsal process within the context of its day, however, Stanislavski, ever the perfectionist, still felt that production was under rehearsed. When Nemirovich-Danchenko refused to postpone the opening by a week, Stanislavski threatened to withdraw his name from any advertisements.
The production opened on 17 December 1898 to critical and popular acclaim. The first night audience seemed to sit in silence, awaiting something, before erupting in unanimous applause. One audience member wrote to Chekhov describing their exhilarating experience of watching the play:
‘in the first act something special started, if you can so describe a mood of excitement in the audience that seemed to grow and grow. Most people walked through the auditorium and corridors with strange faces, looking as if it were their birthday and, indeed, (dear God I'm not joking) it was perfectly possible to go up to some completely strange woman and say: What a play? Eh?’
Chekhov finally saw the production on 1 May 1899. A few days later, he wrote to the young playwright Maxim Gorky about his impressions of it. He was not entirely impressed by the production and least of all by Stanislavski’s performance as Trigorin.
‘I saw Seagull without any sets. I can’t judge the play with equanimity, because the seagull herself gave such an abominable performance – she blubbered loudly throughout – and the Trigorin (the writer) walked around the stage and spoke like a paralytic. He is not supposed to have a “will of his own” but the way the actor conveyed it was nauseating to behold. It wasn’t bad on the whole, though, quite gripping in fact. There were moments when I found it hard to believe I had written it.'
Despite the success of the Moscow production, Chekhov did not entirely approve of Stanislavski’s approach to his work. Chekhov initially wanted his next play Uncle Vanya to premiere in Moscow at the Maly Theatre, with a different director. It was only when the Maly rejected the play on the grounds that it was dramatically unsound and socially irrelevant that Chekhov gave the Moscow Art Theatre permission to stage it instead. Following the success of Stanislavski’s production of Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s relationship with the Moscow Art Theatre was firmly cemented. Stanislavsky went on to direct all four of Chekhov’s major plays. Whatever Chekhov’s reservations about Stanislavski’s directing style, the collaboration between these two men was highly successful and one that proved crucial in the development of both of their careers and of naturalism as a theatrical form.