Chekhov in Covid-19 Spring: Rereading “The Sea Gull”

Medvedenko:  Why do you always wear black?

Masha:  I am in mourning for my life.  I’m unhappy.

–Chekhov, The Sea Gull

I recently found an old Modern Library book, Best Plays by Chekhov. I was thrilled to find it, because there is a Chekhov revival at the moment, or at least there should be.  A new translation of Chekhov’s short stories by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky has been published, and though The New York Times critic disliked it, I have  enjoyed what I’ve read. But I also love Ronald Hingley, who translated nine volumes of Chekhov’s plays and six volumes of his stories for Oxford University Press.  The four-volume Folio Society set of Chekhov’s Collected Stories is translated by Hingley.

The Folio Society set of Chekhov’s The Collected Stories, translated by Ronald HIngham

While thumbing through Chekhov’s stories,I realized  I prefer the plays, so I decided to return to them.   And as soon as I read the opening lines of The Sea Gull , I was in love with his work, just as I was the first time.

I was an intense young woman, and though I was fairly contented when I read The Sea Gull, I identified with the misery of Masha. (We were all brooding young women then.)  I loved the cynical Masha’s witty point of view (see quote at top of post), though she is a second-string character in the play, very much in the shadow of Nina.   She  feels unrequited love for Konstantine Treploff, a suicidal aspiring writer who feels unrequited love for Nina, a charming young aspiring actress, who is in love with a famous writer…and so it goes. As the play opens,  Nina is acting in an amateur production of a play Treploff has written (performed in the barn), but Treloff’s brash flamboyant mother, a famous actress, is so loudly mocking that he  decides not to finish the performance.  Poor Masha knows she will never get anywhere with Treploff.  She may be brighter, but how can she compete with Nina?  

Chekhov’s characters speak intensely about the need for a new form in drama and in literature. It seemed very  modern when I read it, and probably still is, though I knew a little more about the theater then. The ring composition in The Sea Gull is perfect (too perfect?):  it comes full-circle, with the last act mirroring the first–and a tragic ending.

Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt

Translator Stark Young’s introduction to this 1956 Modern Library edition is fascinating.  He says he translated The Sea Gull for the actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt.  Critics expected lofty language, and were so puzzled by the simplicity that they  believed it was “an adaptation.”  But Young explains that Chekhov’s vocabulary is very simple.  He writes, “Of all the dramatists Chekhov least deserves the muddle of the various styles that have been foisted on him in English–the involved, for instance, or the elevated, or the psychological-gloomy, or the turgid-soulful, or the flat, or the lacking in lyricism or in wit.”

I am not at all sure where we got this Modern Library book. I know I read the plays in paperback, possibly the Signet, translated by the great Ann Dunnigan.  I prefer the blue cover (the older edition), but it is still in print by Signet, with the white cover (on the right).