Chekhov's The Seagull delves into the destructive power of love

The playwright Anton Chekhov wrote to a friend that he was writing a play with "a great deal of conversation about literature, little actions, tons of love." The Seagull is not unlike our own lives, where there isn't a ready-made plot with a neat ending.

A beautiful play for these times, says director Daniel Brooks

The Seagull is the first of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's four major plays. It is featured in Soulpepper Theatre Company's audio drama series, Around the World in 80 Plays. Director Daniel Brooks says he loves Chekhov for his cheekiness, wit and tenderness. (Getty/Soulpepper Theatre Company)

*Originally published on May 12, 2021.

A famous actress brings her lover, a well-known writer, to the family estate. Her son, who also wants to be a writer, has written a play, and family and friends gather to watch a performance. 

That's how Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull begins. Written in 1895, it's now recognized as a theatrical masterpiece, despite the disastrous opening night performance at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg: the audience booed, Chekhov took refuge backstage, and one of the leading actors lost her voice in fear. 

The newest performance is an audio drama version directed by Daniel Brooks for the Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company series, Around the World in 80 Plays. As a companion piece, IDEAS is providing context and interviews to help listeners understand the context and power of these canonical plays.

"Chekhov is as tender and compassionate a writer who ever has put pen to paper, I think," said Brooks. "But detached, in a way, in his observation of what we do to make ourselves miserable." 

After The Seagull received a poor reception in 1895, Anton Chekhov renounced the theatre. But director Konstantin Stanislavski revived the play to much acclaim in 1898. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A misunderstood play

The Seagull is considered to be the first of Chekhov's major plays, and in many ways, it marks the beginning of new ways of thinking about what a play can be.

When it was first performed in 19th-century Russia, no one had ever seen anything quite like it: a play stripped down to the bare bones of people talking about their lives, their loves, the meaning of it all, and a play filled with misdirection and misunderstanding. 

In some ways, Chekhov's plays are very much of their time. It was an age of realism and naturalism in the theatre, with an emphasis on believable characters and situations. 

"It was a hugely transitional time in Russia. Nobody knew where the society was going," said Brooks. "And [Chekhov] wrote often of a class that was under a lot of pressure, was changing radically."

What Chekhov did offer that was new was his approach to plot. Plot as a device to drive events and character seemed less important. What was important was how people communicate — or fail to. 

"Chekhov once said that … in his plays, if people are eating dinner, they're just eating dinner," said Brooks. "And in the meantime, their lives are falling apart or being reassembled." 

This 1898 photo shows Anton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to members of the Moscow Arts Theatre, including theatre director and actor Konstantin Stanislavsky (seated beside Chekhov, and next to him is the actress Olga Knipper, who would become Chekhov's wife). Seated far left is Vsevolod Meyerhold, and standing behind him, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, both important theatre directors. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In all of Chekhov's plays, Brooks notes, there's also a sense of storm clouds gathering, that the big world, as well as the little worlds of human affairs, are about to be turned upside down.

"There's like an invasion in every one of his plays," said Brooks. "The stasis world that people are living in, somehow managing in their misery, is invaded by people coming from the outside, usually with city energy or a different, sophisticated view of the world, that undermines their beliefs."

Actor Paolo Santalucia, who plays Konstantin, the son who has just written and directed his own play, says The Seagull unpacks the "failure to connect," from familial relationships to romantic relationships to friendships.

"It's such a beautiful dissection of a group of people who are either in love with the wrong person, or trying to get love from a person who is seeking love from somebody who doesn't love them," he said.

Guests in this episode:

Daniel Brooks is the director of The Seagull.

Hailey Gillis plays Nina in The Seagull.

Gregory Prest plays Boris Trigorin in The Seagull.

Paolo Santalucia plays Konstantin in The Seagull.

Click HERE for a full list of credits for the audio play The Seagull.

*This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.


Around The World in 80 Plays is an audio drama series mounted by Soulpepper Theatre Company that takes listeners on a trip around the world. IDEAS will be your guide on that journey with radio documentaries exploring the cultural and historical context from these countries. Find more episodes from this series here.

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