“Stop all printing of my play. I shall never write another one again.” So wrote the frustrated young Dr. Chekhov to his publisher the morning after his new play, The Seagull, was booed off the stage by an audience in St. Petersburg, outraged by its incomprehensibility and Symbolist decadence.
This disastrous opening night, on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky Theater, is a legend in theater history. So is the fate of The Seagull itself. The play, which Chekhov doubted would ever be performed again, went on to crown the inaugural season of the Moscow Art Theater two years later in a stunning turnaround, introducing a confident young director/actor named Stanislavsky and a passionate young actress named Olga Knipper (who later became the playwright’s wife). It was followed by three other masterpieces from the same author for that theater company (Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard), creating a quartet of “new forms” and paving the way for the twentieth-century revolution called modern drama.
And now, 106 years after this controversial masterpiece was written, The Seagull is again taking center stage, as the theatrical event of the new decade in an arresting production at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in Central Park during August, proving theater can indeed still be the center of culture.
This Seagull reunites acclaimed director Mike Nichols with illustrious screen star Meryl Streep (they did Silkwood, Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge together), who is appearing on the stage after an absence of twenty years. (Her last performance was in Alice in Concert, also at the Public, in 1981, and it was she who approached him with the idea to do The Seagull together.) Nichols, who has lured stars to the stage with Chekhov before (his Uncle Vanya in 1973 at Circle in the Square featured George C. Scott, Julie Christie and Nicol Williamson), has assembled a luminous cast that is attracting queues outside the Delacorte Theater that rival those at Madison Square Garden. John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Larry Pine, Natalie Portman, Stephen Spinella and Christopher Walken (yes, all of them, live!) join Streep in the park’s final production of the summer season, and it is the synergy of this array of artists, this magical play (in Tom Stoppard’s clear, respectful version of the text) and the stunning mise en scène of Central Park (as well as the scarcity of tickets) that has produced a Seagull to be remembered, perhaps for decades.
The Seagull tells the story of a group of writers and actors gathered on the lakeside estate of the famous actress Irina Arkadina (played by Streep), who is summering there with her lover, the author Trigorin (Kline), and a coterie of stock Chekhovian types (a doctor, a schoolteacher, assorted country neighbors and so on). Arkadina’s son, Konstantin (Hoffman), an aspiring young playwright, has written a new play with which he hopes to win the approval of his mother and her famous lover. It is performed by Nina (Portman), a stage-struck young actress and the object of Konstantin’s desperate affections. The story follows the deepening involvement of these characters over that star-crossed summer wherein everyone falls in (unrequited) love; then it jumps two years ahead, where things end badly. It’s a play about love and art and creativity and nature and death–and the alchemy of all these elements. “I started it forte and ended it pianissimo, contrary to all the rules of dramatic art,” Chekhov wrote, as he attempted to describe his experiment in writing a comedy that ends as a tragedy.