On October 21, 1895, Anton Chekhov wrote to his friend Alexei Suvorin that he was working on a new play. “A comedy three f., six m., four acts, a landscape (a view of a lake,) much conversation about literature, little action, and five tonnes of love.” Apart from being short one f., it’s an otherwise accurate précis of The Seagull, and like the play it says everything and nothing in the one breath. Yes, they discuss literature, and yes, they are busting with (largely unrequited) love. Art and love are free-floating ideas which swirl through the four acts. They are the play’s pressure systems – its animating breezes and sudden cyclones – but it’s hard to say that the play is about these things.
Chekhov’s great plays stage time: how time passes, what happens to people while time passes, how they pass time, how time passes through them. He assembles minutiae, collections of instants – in which everything and nothing hangs in the balance. These minutiae – the assembled scraps of everyday life – are what the symbolist poet Andrey Bely called “loops from the lace of life.” He said “instants are pieces of stained glass. Through them we gaze at eternity.”
Every instant is the first and last: a precarious present shot through with the scar tissue of memory, with the mirage of future happiness. Trigorin tells Nina that he feels like a passenger stranded on a platform watching a train recede into the distance. He’s attempting to articulate the “real life” that his writing is getting further and further away from, but the image might also describe the Chekhovian experience of the instant, of being in time’s slipstream. Chekhov’s characters encounter life as a frozen storm. They live in the eye of that storm, debris swirling around them. They walk, talk, eat, drink, write, love and are shipwrecked again and again against the shore of life. They cling to illusions and hopes which rip them apart.
All the settings for Chekhov’s plays are containers of time. Silos through which grains of time pass. Super-colliders where instants are atomized. He chose especially isolated places for his dramas – places away from the cut and thrust of city-life, politics, career etc. Left over places. Outskirts. Cul de sacs of reality. People consider themselves trapped in these places. They’re convinced that life is elsewhere. Sorin longs to be in the city where there “are bookshops and restaurants and patisseries.” Arkadina wishes she was in a “hotel room somewhere learning lines.” Anywhere but here where there’s nothing to do but kill time, talk, love, and dream.
Chekhov knew that the theatre itself is one of these exceptional, provisional, stranded places. A group of people in an audience gather and watch a group of people play onstage. A landscape. Little action. His plays offer a special chance to spend time together – his “openings in eternity” allow us to feel the passing of time not just as the clock’s tick but as an emotional, durational, cultural activity. The opportunity to experience shared time is a fragile, precious activity and one which we’ve increasingly lost sense of in capitalist society. Perhaps this activity – taking place in the atomized moment of theatre – in a cul de sac of the spectacle – can allow us to re-consider what we call real.
In the face of time’s irredeemability, Chekhov’s characters’ attempt to give meaning to the “reality” of their lives. His plays are inquiries into what it means to be real: what is a real life – where does real life reside – in happiness, freedom, talent, love? The people in his plays, the ones asking these questions, possess a terrible and funny incapacity to answer them. They are wrapped up in the intricacies of their own problems and obsessions, forever missing each other, misunderstanding each other, slipping up, working at cross purposes, overlapping. His people are built on fault lines. They are messes of contradictions, attempting to make sense of their lives. Chekhov works on them with scalpel precision. He opens them up to their cores and finds them wounded, incandescent. Bursting.
In our production, his characters are gathered in and around a very familiar Australian dwelling – a holiday shack, somewhere, with a view to a lake or coastal estuary. It’s an Australian dreaming place where life takes on alternate rhythms. There’s a special lightness. A bleaching light. Everything dissolves. It’s also a place where The Seagull’s questions about art and culture take on a special resonance: Why be an artist now? Why act or put life into words? What does it mean to be an artist in Australia? I am interested in an intersection between Chekhov’s pre-revolutionary Russia and early 21st century Australia. Something chimes between the fragile community gathered around the spellbinding lake in Chekhov and the question of being an artist now in Australia. There’s a similar friction and challenge. The sense of an open moment.
I’m reminded of Patrick White’s declaration of war on Australian conformity – “In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.”
We are the inheritors of this culture. The people gathered at the shack in this production are too, but love and art have lodged in them like infections. They are painfully aware of it. Kostya, regarding his unfinished manuscript in the fourth act says, “it’s one thing to try and put life into words, another thing to actually get through it.”
The Seagull is a meditation on the interstices between theatre-making, writing, and everyday life. All of the characters are engaged in reflecting on writing – it’s practice, worth, the act of coining symbols. The play’s two writers, Konstantin and Trigorin, each fail to capture the flux of life that surrounds them – and that we watch onstage. The unspoken, overlapping stories. The suffering and joy. The minutiae. Perhaps one day, Nina their damaged escaped muse might herself write the story of those lives around the lake. Its environs are a palimpsest where multiple authors leave their traces, where life and fiction entwine. There is a meta-fictional, meta-theatrical quality to Chekhov’s play: how art produces life and how life produces art, and how the tissue between art and life can become frayed and torn. It vivifies the question of what it means to make theatre.
In considering Belvoir’s 2011 season, Ralph and I had been looking for a play in which the theatre reflects on theatre. This is a moment of generational change in Australian theatre – the shift from Neil to Ralph at Belvoir is part of that. In Ralph’s first year as Artistic Director, I wanted us to reflect on the task and craft and impetus of theatre-making. What is at stake in the experience? What transpires? For whom? What is valuable about theatre? What does it mean to gather together? What do we call “real life”?
Returning to the shores of the lake in Act Four, Nina admits to Konstantin that everything she once thought was real turned out to be a mirage. Her dreams of fame and celebrity were phantoms and illusions. Through suffering and loss, she learned the capacity to endure – “to go on even when it feels like you can’t” – and in doing so she became an actress and an artist. In Nina’s flash of comprehension, Chekhov offers a glimpse of life truly lived, and he invites us to consider our lives instant by instant. Or as an actor might put it – “to be in the moment.”
Asked by the actor playing Trigorin in the 1905 revival of The Seagull about the significance of the lake, Chekhov reportedly replied, “Well… it’s wet.”
The Seagull, brilliantly, resists being about anything – like the lake, it is.