A few summers ago I was finally able to cross off seeing a Chekhov play from my bucket list. He’s a writer I want to know more about and I’d missed some earlier chances to see his work on stage. I was thrilled to get the chance to see The Seagull at the American Players Theatre (APT). The company at APT is as good as any you’ll see anywhere (Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal calls it “the finest classical repertory company in the U.S.”). I’m woefully under-read as far as Russian literature is concerned so I had no idea what the play was about*. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a play at APT without knowing anything about it and it won’t be the last. But it was the first time a play spoke so directly to me about the plight of being a writer and of the creative process.
At its core, The Seagull is the story of a young man—Konstantin—trying to live up to his famous actress mother—Arkadina. His extremely critical mother wants him to be an actor but he wants to be a writer. Throughout the play people ignore him and his work because they’d rather talk about/be around his mother instead. They also don’t understand the risks he takes as a writer trying to invent a new type of play. This takes the natural inclination of the writer to lambaste their own work and exacerbates it to the point of being suicidal. When you think it can’t get worse, his mother shows up with her new lover—the famous writer Trigorin.
Every character in the play struggles with unrequited love. You really get to see the full force of Chekhov’s talents as a writer in this play. He often has the characters speak around the issue at hand. It’s maddening but in an compelling way that pulls you through each act waiting for things to resolve. My favorite part of the play, the part that made me sit straight in my seat, was in Act II. It’s when Konstantin’s love interest Nina—who is infatuated with Trigorin—tries to have a conversation with the talented writer only to have him rebuke her with how arduous his life truly is:
Your life is beautiful.
I see nothing especially lovely about it. [He looks at his watch] Excuse me, I must go at once, and begin writing again. I am in a hurry. [He laughs] You have stepped on my pet corn, as they say, and I am getting excited, and a little cross. Let us discuss this bright and beautiful life of mine, though. [After a few moments’ thought] Violent obsessions sometimes lay hold of a man: he may, for instance, think day and night of nothing but the moon. I have such a moon. Day and night I am held in the grip of one besetting thought, to write, write, write! Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth—I write ceaselessly. I am, as it were, on a treadmill. I hurry for ever from one story to another, and can’t help myself. Do you see anything bright and beautiful in that? Oh, it is a wild life! Even now, thrilled as I am by talking to you, I do not forget for an instant that an unfinished story is awaiting me. My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano. I smell heliotrope; I mutter to myself: a sickly smell, the colour worn by widows; I must remember that in writing my next description of a summer evening. I catch an idea in every sentence of yours or of my own, and hasten to lock all these treasures in my literary store-room, thinking that some day they may be useful to me. As soon as I stop working I rush off to the theatre or go fishing, in the hope that I may find oblivion there, but no! Some new subject for a story is sure to come rolling through my brain like an iron cannonball. I hear my desk calling, and have to go back to it and begin to write, write, write, once more. And so it goes for everlasting. I cannot escape myself, though I feel that I am consuming my life. To prepare the honey I feed to unknown crowds, I am doomed to brush the bloom from my dearest flowers, to tear them from their stems, and trample the roots that bore them under foot. Am I not a madman? Should I not be treated by those who know me as one mentally diseased? Yet it is always the same, same old story, till I begin to think that all this praise and admiration must be a deception, that I am being hoodwinked because they know I am crazy, and I sometimes tremble lest I should be grabbed from behind and whisked off to a lunatic asylum. The best years of my youth were made one continual agony for me by my writing. A young author, especially if at first he does not make a success, feels clumsy, ill-at-ease, and superfluous in the world. His nerves are all on edge and stretched to the point of breaking; he is irresistibly attracted to literary and artistic people, and hovers about them unknown and unnoticed, fearing to look them bravely in the eye, like a man with a passion for gambling, whose money is all gone. I did not know my readers, but for some reason I imagined they were distrustful and unfriendly; I was mortally afraid of the public, and when my first play appeared, it seemed to me as if all the dark eyes in the audience were looking at it with enmity, and all the blue ones with cold indifference. Oh, how terrible it was! What agony!
I think this monologue captures that sense of how the writer is constantly trying to capture the world around him, trying to remember all the allusions he sees so that they can be used later. It makes you distracted in conversation and sometimes useless for activity. I never have such good thoughts about story as I do when I’m doing anything but writing. The trick is getting from your thoughts to the page with enough time to remember what you thought. For all his success it almost seems a burden to Trigorin. But he wouldn’t choose any other life:
But don’t your inspiration and the act of creation give you moments of lofty happiness?
Yes. Writing is a pleasure to me, and so is reading the proofs, but no sooner does a book leave the press than it becomes odious to me; it is not what I meant it to be; I made a mistake to write it at all; I am provoked and discouraged. Then the public reads it and says: “Yes, it is clever and pretty, but not nearly as good as Tolstoi,” or “It is a lovely thing, but not as good as Turgenieff’s ‘Fathers and Sons,’ ” and so it will always be. To my dying day I shall hear people say: “Clever and pretty; clever and pretty,” and nothing more; and when I am gone, those that knew me will say as they pass my grave: “Here lies Trigorin, a clever writer, but he was not as good as Turgenieff.”
And there it is. The self doubt. No matter how famous or successful or talented you are there is always that piece of your mind that thinks (knows?) you could be better. That what you’ve done isn’t good enough. That someone else is better. But there’s a compulsion to write and create—as Chekhov writes, “Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth”—so you keep on no matter what your brain thinks because at the same time you can’t stop yourself.
If you haven’t read The Seagull, you should. The whole play is about creativity and struggle and love and family. So much wonderful stuff. If you get the chance to see it, even better.
* I know, it’s odd to have something on my bucket list that I don’t know anything about, but that’s the way I roll. That’s why it’s bucket-y, right? There’s no point putting things I’ve already done/experienced on my bucket list, is there? For what it’s worth, this summer I was able to check off seeing a Tennessee Williams play from my bucket list and I didn’t know much about his oeuvre going in either.