The Sea-Gull by Anton Chekhov is play filled with the emotions and relationships between its characters. Being one of the foundational works of the realism style, very little of this is dealt with directly, but in the subtext of the play’s dialogue. The play is very much an ensemble work, but insofar as it has a main character that protagonist is Constantine Treplieff. Treplieff is a struggling experimental writer living with and sometimes caring for his uncle Peter Sorin on Sorin’s country estate. Treplieff’s mother, Irina Abkadina, is an aging actress, whose current beau is the mainstream writer Boris Trigorin. Ilia Shamraeff is the manager of Sorin’s farm, married to Paulina, and the father of Masha. Nina Zarietchnaya is the daughter of a rich landowner from nearby Sorin’s estate (and the play’s young ingénue). Eugene Dorn and Simon Medviedenko are the country doctor and schoolmaster, respectively. The final named character is Jacob, a simple farm worker.

The play’s opening act is set on the eve of a performance of one of Treplieff’s plays to be performed for the benefit of his family and friends (basically, all of the characters). It is revealed that Medviedenko dotes upon Masha and Masha has a crush upon Treplieff. Nina, upon whom Treplieff has a crush, escapes her overbearing father to perform in this play. Treplieff’s writing is highly symbolic (his plays contain no living characters, for instance Nina’s character is the “soul of the world”), which has left him with a lot of rejection. When his mother won’t take the performance seriously and angers him with her comments, he stops the performance and walks away. He puts some of the blame upon Trigorin, who he is jealous of and who he feels is stealing his mother.

The second act, set an afternoon a few days later and amidst plenty of chatter of things useful and useless, has Treplieff showing a sea-gull he had just killed (as a symbol for his own demise) to Nina. Treplieff leaves and Nina seeks the company of Trigorin, having had a crush with him via his writing. Trigorin, amidst discussions of the writer’s life with Nina, notices the sea-gull and pronounces what an interesting metaphor it might make as an idea for a short story about a girl killed out of the idleness of man. The short story idea has a huge impact on Nina.

The third act is on the day of Trigorin and Arkadina (Treplieff’s mom) are departing to return for Moscow. Treplieff shoots himself, but the shot just grazes his skin. Nina begins an affair with Trigorin and decides to escape her father by traveling to Moscow.

The fourth act, set two years later, has the character’s all assembled at Sorin’s estate again. Masha and Medviedenko have married. Treplieff’s writing has been selling, but under the surface his depression remains. It is learned that Nina’s affair with Trigorin was short lived and included a deceased child. Nina’s career as an actress was only slightly better. Treplieff tried to reconnect with Nina, but only received emotional letters from her signed “The Sea-Gull”. Nina shows up to speak with Treplieff (the others are at dinner), and the encounter ends with her leaving emotional, but newly resolved, while he loses what little thin veneer was left and suicides (off stage).

Keep in mind the preceding, while containing the actions of the play, ignores so much of the nuance. Each of the characters (including Dorn, who has almost no part in the actual actions of the play) is fairly deep and well developed.

I found the play particularly meaningful, and was heavily intrigued at a lot of what I felt were the meta-play elements (the elements revolving around the art of theatre). Treplieff’s jealous protection of his mom directly references Hamlet (through one of the character’s reciting lines from Hamlet). Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s plays that uses the play within a play conceit, just as The Sea-Gull does in its first act. Trigorin’s lines about the hardships of the writer’s life sounded like some of the words of Chekhov himself. In fact, I felt that Chekhov had written both Trigorin and Treplieff to be reflections of aspects of himself. Trigorin was the mainstream, semi-successful but not that great writer, that Chekhov had been and Treplieff reflected Chekhov’s wish to branch into a new style and something perhaps greater (which The Sea-Gull is seen as his transition into just that). However, where Treplieff moved into the direction of heavy symbolism, Chekhov moved in precisely the opposite direction towards heavier realism. Legend has it that Chekhov, like Treplieff in the play, walked away from the first performance of his play, in which the director had just not “got” the play. (The play then went on to be the first performed by Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, and became a huge success.)

The sea-gull itself is the most poignant of the play’s symbols. The fun thing about symbols in realism is that they mean different things to different people. Nina uses Trigorin’s short story of the girl, who was like the sea-gull, living near the lake, and shot by a man in idleness, as something of the story of her. I felt that she believed that Treplieff had shot the young girl content to follow her father’s rule and live near the lake, leaving the girl who wanted desperately to make it as an actress. Trigorin saw the sea-gull as an interesting metaphor for a story, but then forget about it. Treplieff himself showed the sea-gull to Nina to signify that he was presenting his own death to her. Her dismissal of it left him in the state where he accepted and had the courage to actually kill himself. He misses, but when both the sea-gull and Nina reappear two years later, it reestablishes his resolve (this time to be carried out to his end).

In reading through the play my mind went into considering the sets of the play. In High School, due to not having access to an actual stage (it was a small High School) and having an interesting in a form of drama known as “live action role playing”, I had partial scripts for performances set in non-traditional sets in real environs (nothing from this era of mine was ever performed, though). Chekhov’s realism seemed just as well suited (if perhaps a bit tighter scripted) for such a set usage. I feel that this would further heighten the realism of the play, giving it the audience the feel of being voyeurs of something real going on. The result may be closer to an adaptation (the play is in the public domain, so there is no legal problem with this), but I think it almost is closer to the “soul” of the work.

How this would work is that you would use a real lake estate. (Kentucky has many beautiful lakes, so it might be interesting to find an appropriate setting in this state and actually do this.) The play within a play structure is a beautiful way to set this. You sell people tickets (it would work well only for small audiences, probably) for Treplieff’s play at Sorin’s estate with a dinner following. You might even want to anglicize the names to make them more contemporary and suitable for the setting you find (deep Kentucky). The setup for Act 1 is then very easy. The play’s description:

The scene is laid in the park on SORIN'S estate. A broad avenue of trees leads away from the audience toward a lake which lies lost in the depths of the park. The avenue is obstructed by a rough stage, temporarily erected for the performance of amateur theatricals, and which screens the lake from view. There is a dense growth of bushes to the left and right of the stage. A few chairs and a little table are placed in front of the stage. The sun has just set. JACOB and some other workmen are heard hammering and coughing on the stage behind the lowered curtain.

I would find a beautiful spot for the stage and build it nicely, with a good view of the lake. I’m not entirely concerned with the placement of trees and bushes near the stage so long as the overall effect is a pleasing one. The real audience would be sat as if to watch the play being performed on this stage. The performers are then to be the last “audience members” to show up, being explicitly late. Being so late will draw attention to them. With a small enough audience, whether they know the play ahead of time or not, their attention should be naturally drawn to the latecomers. Those who know the play should continue to follow their dialogue easy enough. Those unfamiliar with the play may take some convincing to keep their attention… mostly the actor’s need to be good, and the dialogue about the play they think they are seeing should keep their attention. Similarly with the dialogue after the play within the play ends. (How the audience reacts to the dialogue during the play within the play could be quite interesting. You probably want good actors able to keep character and improvise as necessary.) During the play you would want to set up for the two following stage directions (and the appearance of a sulphur smell):

[The will-o-the-wisps flicker out along the lake shore.]
... [A pause. Two glowing red points are seen shining across the lake]

I would try to take these special effects seriously and get permission from the landowner on the opposite side of the lake. I’m not sure about the will-o-the-wisps, it would depend on the lake setup and is probably something that needs to be thought about at the actual location. It might entail doing something interesting with existing foliage or creating fake foliage for the purpose.

Segueing into the second act is when it becomes more necessary to adapt the material for the use of a real setting. I would expand Jacob’s character into more an amateur stage manager. I would have him direct the audience to a particular area nearby the stage to wait while he gets things sorted out (and dinner was scheduled with the completion of the program, so is some time off, not to mention that he didn’t on him have the key/ability to open the house to the audience just yet). The description of the part of the lawn used in act 2:

The lawn in front of SORIN'S house. The house stands in the background, on a broad terrace. The lake, brightly reflecting the rays of the sun, lies to the left. There are flower-beds here and there. It is noon; the day is hot. ARKADINA, DORN, and MASHA are sitting on a bench on the lawn, in the shade of an old linden. An open book is lying on DORN'S knees.

If the actor’s are the first dispersed they will have the best opportunity to take the positions (the bench) that will draw the most attention. If the audience is interested enough in their conversation they should follow it. (Improvisation might be required otherwise.) The biggest difficulty is that there is no easy way to control time, so instead of setting act 2 at noon, I would have it directly follow act 1, as the scene should work fine at that time. Following the second act Jacob should return to let people into the home and take a short bathroom break as necessary. This makes a good natural intermission, and following usage of the facilities it should be natural for people to congregate in a sitting room. Act 3 is set in the dining room, so I think it would have to be the most adapted of the scenes. Its description:

The dining-room of SORIN'S house. Doors open out of it to the right and left. A table stands in the centre of the room. Trunks and boxes encumber the floor, and preparations for departure are evident. TRIGORIN is sitting at a table eating his breakfast, and MASHA is standing beside him.

If adapted to be more modern, the trunks, boxes and breakfast aren’t necessary. If the audience drove from the nearby city, their preparation to leave early prior to dinner might need no props for explanation, the trick would be in keeping the audience for dinner if these main characters appear to leave. On the other hand, if you play all of the main actors as if they are in some earlier time (in which, as the non-adapted dialogue is, they have stayed the night and are waiting on the horse carriage to take them to the train), you have already have a layer of “suspension of disbelief” over the performance, and so having bags packed and Trigorin munching on what appears to be breakfast (indoors you can better play with the time sense, perhaps using subtle lighting outside the sitting room windows to provoke something of a “dawn” appearance) as the audience returns from “intermission” shouldn’t be too surprising.

The toughest time sense bending is the two year jump to Act 4. I would do this in two steps. First, having a good way to direct people back outside (and I’ll admit one is not coming to me just now), giving a second “intermission”. This would leave the audience members outside to discover the stage outside has become a skeleton of itself, weather worn and falling apart (you want this believable, so not to appear simply dismantled, but damaged from weather and time). At this point, if contemporary adapted, this should help to build the suspense of disbelief you otherwise should have by now. I would leave them just outside long enough to rearrange the sitting room they were in during the previous scene for use in the fourth act:

A sitting-room in SORIN'S house, which has been converted into a writing-room for TREPLIEFF. To the right and left are doors leading into inner rooms, and in the centre is a glass door opening onto a terrace. Besides the usual furniture of a sitting-room there is a writing-desk in the right-hand corner of the room. There is a Turkish divan near the door on the left, and shelves full of books stand against t he walls. Books are lying scattered about on the windowsills and chairs. It is evening. The room is dimly lighted by a shaded lamp on a table. The wind moans in the tree tops and whistles down the chimney. The watchman in the garden is heard sounding his rattle. MEDVIEDENKO and MASHA come in.

The arrival of the cluttered writing desk and scattered books should help finish the sense of time having passed that the weather worn stage did. You would also probably want to use some subtle age makeup on the actors. If you used some sort of morning simulating lights, you would extinguish them. The only real change needed during this scene to have it fit is that instead of going off to dinner, the actors (with the exception of Treplieff) are merely called in to help finish with dinner. Treplieff locking the doors on Nina’s arrival would be interesting with the real audience in the room, but shouldn’t be a problem.

At the conclusion of the scene (and probably completely shocking the audience with the gunshot), you could then commence a real dinner and let it sink into the audience what the real play was that they watched (you might want to have the actors, especially the one playing Treplieff, change clothes and arrive late to dinner) and that they went through nearly two years in one night.