Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What is Art?

The problem with Chekhov is that once you get started it is hard to stop.  I turned to The Seagull the other night in this wonderful collection, translated by Laurence Senelick.  It is perhaps his most engaging play with characters that leap off the page, such as the eternally young stage actress, Irina Arkadina, who constantly terrorizes her son, Konstantin Treplev.  He is vainly trying to break standard conventions when it comes to play writing, but finds himself unable to elicit the emotions most persons, especially his mother, look for in theater.

Senelick noted that Tolstoy didn't think much of the play, content only with a single passage in which Treplev castigated the state of the theater at the time.  But, Chekhov struck a wonderful balance between comedy and drama, not letting his speeches dominate the play.  Treplev finds he is no match for his mother, who diminishes him at every turn.  The play opens with Konstantin staging one of his plays at a summer house, only for his mother to crush his spirits with her sharp sarcasm.  Not only that, but Nina (Konstantain's love interest) is intrigued by Arkadina's "boy toy," Trigorin, a successful novelist, further devastating the would-be playwright.

The final act takes place two years later, with all the characters coming back together again pretty much in the same state of mind although much has happened in the time in between.  Seems Chekhov wanted to show that time doesn't change the situation except to show Masha's strong interest in Treplev, despite having married Medvedev and having a child.  Treplev still maintains his unrequited love for Nina.  Arkadina remains indifferent to everyone but herself and Trigorin is content to play his part in this melodrama, oblivious to anyone's feelings.

Chekhov intended it as a comedy, but Stanislavsky treated the play they way he did historic dramas, casting the characters as polar opposites.  This was before he would modernize the theater.  Chekhov was very dissatisfied with Stanislavsky's production, but it was a success and for years remained the definitive version.

Savelyeva (Nina)
The classic film version is this 1970 Russian production, Chayka, directed by Yuri Karasik, with some of Russia's finest stage actors of the era, including a young Lyudmila Savelyeva as Nina.  Pictured above is Alla Demidova as Arkadina.  There was also a ballet version with Maya Plisetskaya and music by Rodion Shchedrin, from 1980. But, probably the best known version is Sidney Lumet's 1968 adaptation, thanks to its all-star cast that included Simone Signoret (Arkadina), James Mason (Trigorin), Vanessa Redgrave (Nina), and David Warner (Treplev).   Here's a clip of the opening scene.

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