Chekhov’s tormented defense of realism, The Seagull, comes to an American theatre that doesn’t much like the style. Despite our own realistic masterpieces by O’Neill and Williams, today, new plays in the vein are easily dismissed as TV writing. Even Chekhov himself would have some explaining to do at an after-show talk back: his plays are dark, long, lack a central character, and don’t have much plot. The snoring gentleman behind me, on the night I attended the Royal Court's new version by Peter Hampton of Chekhov's classic, certainly wasn’t interested: the tragic fate of all realists without sharp elbows.
Whether real, expressionist, or Pinteresque, the conventional wisdom of any literary age is difficult to run against. Such is the aesthetic dilemma Konstantin (MacKenzie Crook), a young playwright and short story writer, finds himself in: “What we need is a new kind of theatre. We need new forms. ” Quickly decamping to stalk a “charming and clever” realist named Trigorin (Peter Sarsgaard), Konstantin’s only artistic ally—and leading lady—Nina (Carey Mulligan) knows a negative review when she hears it. The critic in question, Arkadina (Kristin Scott Thomas), only sees the performance of Konstantin’s visionary monologue as an indictment of herself—which in equal parts it is and isn’t (she's Konstantin's actress mother). What someone probably should have said to Konstantin is that visionary art never works very well at any time in any art form, except in album cover art from the 1970s.
MacKenzie Crook plays Konstantin very directly (Peter Sarsgaard does the same for Trigorin). They seem to expose lurking existential truths rising up about art and relationships. Richard Thomas and Judd Hirsch played the same two characters for Circle Rep in 1983–two actors we knew from TV. They gave us an introduction to Chekhov Americans could relate to–one that wasn't all unpronounceable names in advanced drama courses. Sarsgaard's Trigorin, however, is riveting in its exoticism–and he has the toughest role to allow contemporary identification. His Trigorin is pampered, urbane; art has put him on a pedestal, yet today a tightening publishing market and an army of Mommybloggers might suggest he needs a bigger platform–and his betrayal of two women (who forgive him) could have trouble flying as well.
Crook's Konstantin remains deeply haunting–with head in the nineteenth century and one foot in the twenty-first. The archetype still applies: for all his need for art, it has never given him any degree of elegance or sophistication; for all his desperation to become a writer, his yellowing face belies the "petit bourgeois from Kiev" he distains.
Of course, Chekhov always thought he was writing comedy. In 1983, Robin Bartlett found a good laugh when asked why she always wore black: "I'm in mourning for my life." Zoe Kazan's interpretation finds unique phrasing to reinvigorate the same line. Giggle at her lying motionless at the beginning of Act III, drunk, finalizing her decision to throw her life away. She's a proto-goth, exposing the same concerns of today's movement: the languish, the romanticism, and masochism. In the Circle Rep production, Barbara Cason, as Konstantin's mother, made you believe she was broke: "I don't have any money!" Kristin Scott Thomas knows she doesn't have to give her son a dime. She's a nuanced Betty White (to continue on with the TV motif), a big fish in a small provincial pond, which holds her childhood memories.
TV writing isn't realism: the pessimism of Ibsen and Chekhov doesn't flood beneath it. Beginning playwrights are cautioned not to model either, especially Chekhov, which is odd because actors are still trained using Stanislavsky technique (which informed and was informed by Chekhov’s work). Maybe we should allow American writers to embrace real realism again even if some of Chekhov’s plays have turned out to be masterpieces. It is an unholy ground where young artists try to kill themselves before succeeding, young women throw their lives away and never recover them, mothers aren't very interested in their children, and fathers are missing altogether. Konstantin is a young failure revolting against the entrenched art of his successful elders. Knowing the pain this caused him—the search for style, the rejection of his own–I can't believe Chekhov found his way to realism easily; I wonder if we can find our own way back.
–Bob Shuman (c) 2008. All rights reserved.