The Books: “The Seagull” (Anton Chekhov)

Next in my Daily Book Excerpt:

9780060928759.jpgMore from my collected plays of Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt. This excerpt is from The Seagull.

The Seagull – one of the classic plays about acting and theatre that is out there. Actually, about “art”, in general. There’s so much in there. I first read The Seagull in college, I think … and fell in love with it immediately. Of course: young idealistic actors always fall in love with this play. It fits their idea of life. Especially Nina’s tragic end: she gives up happiness for her art. It is her “vocation”. Ahhh …. how glorious! To suffer for your art!!! But as I’ve grown older, the play has changed. (Ha. I love it how that happens.) I can see more clearly Arkadina’s frustration with that kind of blind idealism (especially if the blind idealism is not connected to any, uhm, TALENT!!). Nina’s blind idealism is the kind of thing that ruins people’s lives, it’s a steamroller, it runs over everything in its way.

But her monologue … her “I am a seagull” monologue … has to be one of the most heartbreaking heartwrenching (and challenging) monologues ever written. It’s a marvelous piece of writing. “And when I think of my vocation, I am not afraid of life.” Words to live by if you want to call yourself an artist.

So what the hell … I’ll post that last scene.

Konstantin, the young playwright, son of the famous actress Irina Arkadina, sits in the study working on his play, struggling with it. Suddenly Nina – his childhood friend, and teenage sweetheart – appears at the door, bedraggled, shivering. She had run away from home with Trigorin (who had been Arkadina’s lover). Trigorin, a middle-aged man, fell in love with Nina’s youth and freshness, and the two ran away together, causing a huge scandal, and heartbreak behind them. After that, Nina dropped off the face of the earth. No one heard anything about her for years, except rumors. The romance between she and Trigorin did not last. Then – randomly – she reappears back in the town, but stays with her parents. She does not go to see Konstantin (this hurts him deeply – he’s a sensitive neurotic dude).

But on this particular night, she re-appears at her old sweetheart’s door. This is the end of the play. There are spoilers involved here, if you do not already know the end.

EXCERPT FROM collected plays of Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt. This excerpt is from The Seagull.

(Someone knocks on the window near the desk.)

KONSTANTIN. What’s that? (Goes and looks through the window) It’s so dark I can’t see a thing. (Opens the French doors, looks out at the garden, calls) Who’s there? (Goes out; we hear his footsteps on the veranda) Nina! Nina! (In a moment he returns with Nina) Nina!

(NIna leans her head on his chest and sobs softly.)

(Deeply moved) Nina! Nina! You! It’s you! I knew you’d come, I knew it! All day long I’ve had this terrible sense of something wrong … (Takes off her hat and coat) Oh my darling, my wonderful darling, you’ve come back! Come on now, we’re not going to cry!

NINA. There’s someone here.

KONSTANTIN. No, there’s not.

NINA. Lock the door; they may come in.

KONSTANTIN. No one will come in.

NINA. I know your mother’s here. Please, lock the door …

(Konstantin goes to the door right and locks it, then crosses to the door left)

KONSTANTIN. There’s no lock on this one. I’ll prop a chair against it. (Pushes an armchair in front of the door) Don’t be afraid; nobody’s going to come in.

NINA. (stares at him intently) Let me look at you. (Beat. She looks around.) It’s lovely here, nice and warm … This used to be a parlor, didn’t it? Have I changed a lot?

KONSTANTIN. Yes … You’ve gotten thinner; it makes your eyes look larger. Nina, do you know how strange this is, seeing you like this? Why didn’t you want to see me? Why didn’t you come see me before this? I know you’ve been here almost a week now. I’ve been going to stand under your window, like a beggar.

NINA. I was afraid you’d hate me. Every night I dreamed you were looking at me and you didn’t recognize me. I wish you knew … Ever since I got here I’ve been coming out, just to walk around the lake. I walked by this house several times; I just couldn’t bring myself to go in. Let’s sit down. (They sit) Let’s sit and talk and talk. It’s so nice here, so comfortable and warm … Can you hear that wind? There’s a passage in Turgenev … “Happy the man on such a night who has a roof of his own and a place by the fire …” I’m the seagull … No, that’s not right. (Wipes her forehead) What was i saying? Oh, yes, Turgenev. “…and may the Lord help all homeless wanderers.” It doesn’t matter. (Sobs)

KONSTANTIN. Nina, don’t cry, you’re … Nina!

NINA. It doesn’t matter; I feel better now. I haven’t cried in two years. I came out here last night, late, to see if our theatre was still standing. And there it was. And I cried for the first time in two years. It made me feel better, lighter somehow. See? I’m not crying anymore. So now you’re a writer. You’re a writer, and I’m an actress. We’ve both been sucked into the whirlpool. And that was such a happy life, back then. We were still children. I’d wake up in the morning and start singing. I was in love with you, I was in love with fame … And now? I have to get up early tomorrow morning to catch the train to Yelets, third class, with all the peasants, and in Yelets I have to put up with the attentions of dirty-minded businessmen who claim to love art. What a horrible life!

KONSTANTIN. What are you going to Yelets for?

NINA. The theatre there hired me for the winter season. It’s time for me to go.

KONSTANTIN. Nina, I cursed you, I hated you, I tore up your letters and photographs, but I realized every minute that my soul was tied to yours forever. I can’t not love you, Nina, I just can’t. Ever since you left, since I saw my first story in print, my life has been unbearable. My youth got snatched away, and I feel as if I’ve lived ninety years already. I call your name, I kiss the ground you walked on, everywhere I turn I see your face …

NINA. (with dismay) Why are you telling me all this? Why?

KONSTANTIN. I’m all alone, no one loves me, I’m cold as an empty cave, and everything I write is dead. Stay here with me, Nina, please! Or let me come with you! (Nina quickly takes up her coat and hat.) Nina, where are you going? For God’s sake, don’t leave me! (Watches her put on the coat and hat.)


NINA. I’ve got a carriage waiting at the gate. Don’t come with me. I want to go by myself. (almost in tears) Can I have a drink of water.

KONSTANTIN. (pours her a glass of water) Where are you going now?

NINA. Back to town. (Pause) Is your mother here?

KONSTANTIN. Yes. My uncle took a turn for the worse on Thursday, so we sent a telegram asking her to come.

NINA. Why did you say you kissed the ground I walked on? You should have killed me instead. I’m so tired! I want to rest, I just want to rest. I’m the seagull … No, that’s not it. I’m an actress. That’s it. (From the other room we hear Arkadina and Trigorin laughing. Nina listens for a minute, goes to the left door, and looks through the keyhole.) He’s here too. He is, isn’t he? Well, never mind. He never believed in the theatre, he laughed at all my dreams, and little by little I stopped believing in it too. And then all the emotional stress, the jealousy; I was always afraid for the baby … I started getting petty, depressed, my acting was emptier and emptier … I didn’t know what to do with my hands, I didn’t know how to hold myself onstage, I couldn’t control my voice. You don’t know what that’s like, to realize you’re a terrible actor. I’m the seagull … No, that’s not it … Remember that seagull you shot? A man comes along, sees her, and destroys her life because he has nothing better to do … subject for a short story. No, that’s not it … What was I saying? Oh yes, the theatre … I’m not like that anymore. I’m a real actress now. I enjoy acting, I’m proud of it, the stage intoxicates me. When I’m up there I feel beautiful. And these days, being back here, walking for hours on end, thinking and thinking, I could feel my soul growing stronger day after day. And now I know, Kostya, I understand, finally, that in our business — acting, writing, it makes no difference — the main thing isn’t being famous, it’s not the sound of applause, it’s not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens. You have to keep on believing. I believe, and it helps. And now when I think about my vocation, I’m not afraid of life.

KONSTANTIN. I don’t believe, and I don’t know what my vocation is. You’ve found your way in life, you know where you’re heading, but I just go on drifting through a chaos of images and dreams, I don’t know what my work is good for, or who needs it.

NINA. (Listens) Shhhh…I’d better go. Goodbye. When I become a great actress, come watch me act, won’t you? Promise. It’s late. I can barely stand. I’m so tired, I’m so hungry …

KONSTANTIN. Then stay. I’ll get you something to eat.

NINA. No, no, I can’t. No, don’t come with me, I can go by myself; it’s not far to where the carriage is … So she brought him with her, didn’t she? Oh well, what difference does it make? When you see Trigorin, don’t say anyting about this … I love him. I love him even more than before. Subject for a short story. I love him, I love him, I love him to despair. Things were so lovely back then, Kostya, weren’t they? Remember? We thought life was bright, shining, joyful, and our feelings were like delicate flowers. Remember? (Recites) “Human beings, lions, eagles, quail … you horned deer, you wild geese, you spiders and you wordless fish who swim beneath the wave … starfish, stars in heaven so distant the human eye cannot perceive them, all living things, all, all, all … all living things have ended their allotted rounds and are no more … For more than a thousand centuries the earth has been lifeless, no single living creature yet remains … And the weary moon in heaven lights her lamp in vain. The cranes in the meadows awake no more, their cries are silent; the flight of beetles in the linden woods is stilled …” (Embraces Konstantin suddenly, then runs out through the French doors.)

KONSTANTIN. I hope nobody sees her in the garden and tells Mama. Mama would be upset. (For the next two minutes he tears up all his manuscripts and throws them under the desk. Then he goe sout through the door right.)

DORN. (From outside the door left) Strange. The door must be locked. (Pushes his way in, puts the chair back where it belongs) What is this, an obstacle course?

(Enter Arkadina, Paulina, Masha, Yakov carrying a tray with bottles, then Shamrayev and Trigorin)

ARKADINA. Put the wine and beer for Boris Alexeyich over here on the table. We’ll play lotto and have a few drinks. Come on, everybody, sit down!

PAULINA. (to Yakov) And bring the tea. (lights the candles, then sits down at the card table)

SHAMRAYEV. (Takes Trigorn over to a cupboard) Here’s what I was talking about before. (Takes a stuffed seagull fromt he cupboard) I did what you told me.

TRIGORIN. (looking at the seagull) Funny, I don’t remember. (Thinks) No, don’t remember at all.

(From offstage comes a gunshot; everyone jumps)

ARKADINA. What was that?

DORN. Nothing. Probably a bottle in my medicine bag popped its cork. Don’t let it worry you. (Goes out right, and comes back after half a minute) Just like I thought. It was a bottle of ether. (Starts singing) “Once more, love, before you, enchanted I stand …”

ARKADINA. (sits down at card table) Oof! That scared me! It reminded me of when … (covers her face with her hands) I thought for a minute I was going to faint.

DORN. (to Trigorin, flipping through the pages of a magazine) There was an article in here two months ago, a report from America. I wanted to ask you about it … (Puts his arm around Trigorin and leads him downstage) It’s a very interesting piece … (Lowers his voice) Get Irina out of here somehow. Konstantin just shot himself.


This entry was posted in Books, Theatre and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Books: “The Seagull” (Anton Chekhov)

  1. Kate says:


    Do you have Chekhov: A Life by Donald Rayfield? It was written in the ’90’s after a bunch more of AC’s letters–including the “unsavory” ones that the Russians tried to suppress–were made available. I think you’d love it.

  2. red says:

    No! I seem to remember when you were reading that, and also his letters – which believe it or not, I have not read in their entirety. Just excerpts from them in other sources, you know? I should definitely rectify that, since I love reading letters and journals of artists …

    What is the name of his collected letters? Just … er … Letters of Anton Chekhov, or …?

  3. Kate says:

    I’ll try to find out the best edition of his letters. Whichever one includes the most stuff.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.