There’s a marvelous new production of Chekhov’s play The Seagull in town right now, a London transfer starring Kristin Scott Thomas as the actress Arkadina. Thomas won the Olivier for her performance in the London production, and the reviews of the production have been uniformly glowing (Ben Brantley’s review in the Times was almost embarrassing in its effusiveness). All of the reviews single her out for the highest praise. If you want to go see the production, get your tickets now.
I was fortunate enough to be there on opening night last Thursday, which happened to be the same night as the vice-presidential debate (a conjunction that I wrote about over at patell.org). Once again, I found myself thinking, as I invariably do when I see one of Checkhov’s plays, that he is the great poet of suburban ennui. He didn’t call it “the suburbs” of course — for him it was “the country” — but as a born-and-bred, dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, I have always found myself to be in great sympathy with those of Chekhov’s characters who long either to go to or to return to the city.
“Oh,” says Arkadina in Act 2 of The Seagull, “what could be more boring than this cloying country boredom! So hot, so still, nobody doing anything, everybody talking like a philosopher . . . ” Earlier, in the first act, Arkadina’s lover, Trigorin, a famous writer, says, “I’m very fond of fishing. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no greater pleasure than to sit on the bank of a river in the late afternoon and watch the float.” The young, starstruck and already infatuated Nina replies, “I would have thought that for anyone who’d experienced the joy of creative work no other pleasure could exist.”
I’ve always thought Trigorin’s remark about fishing should be seen as the key to his character — or, rather, as an indication of what’s wrong with his character. It strikes me as somehwat disingenuous (and I felt that the weakness of Peter Sarsgaard’s performance as Trigorin was
that he played the line about fishing — and Trigorin’s character more
generally — without irony). Trigorin is constantly writing down observations about the people around him and the things they say, because they “might come in useful.” You can’t observe too much of human nature while you’re fishing. Perhaps that’s why fishing comes as a relief to Trigorin, and yet fishing — and by implication, the country life — become a luxury position, which somone like Trigorin can afford to adopt. Nice to be able to drop in and out. But for those who are stuck in the country — like Arakdina’s son, Konstantin — the country life is stultifying, even deadly.
But the city isn’t always a panacea: the presumably cosmopolitan audience for the premiere of The Seagull in St. Petersberg on October 17, 1896 hated the play, and Chekhov vowed to give up the theater as a result. Luckily, the director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko found the play so intriguing that he convinced his colleague Constantin Stanislvsky to direct it two years later at the Moscow Art Theater, where it was a success. Chekhov took up playwriting once again, and as a result we have Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1900), and The Cherry Orchard (1903).
The audience last Thursday night was far more appreciative than that St. Petersberg audience a century ago, and Chekhov’s play, in a new translation by Christopher Hampton, felt fresh, its ideas about the country and the city, and about the lives of actors and writers, as relevant today as they were then. Perhaps more so, given the valorization (in certain quarters) of the suburban life supposedly embodied by “Wal-Mart moms.” What, I found myself wondering, would Anton Chekhov have made of Sarah Palin?