It’s an easily made mistake to write off The Seagull as just another classic. But give it another chance and you’ll find a timeless story and one of the most versatile plays ever written, as Anya Reiss’s version is testament to. We look at the influence of The Seagull from 19th century Russia right up to the present day…
Constantin Stanislavski’s production of The Seagull is one of the most famous in the world of theatre. And its influence, along with author Anton Chekhov, over the development of theatre in the 20th century cannot be understated. To tell the whole story we need to go back to Russia and the 19th century. Constantin Stanislavski was a Russian actor and theatre director who, among many other achievements, co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. The group performed other plays in its inaugural season but it would be their production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull that they would guarantee them a place in history.
The first performance of The Seagull in 1896 was a disaster, the lead actress lost her voice and Chekhov was so distraught that he left the auditorium at half time and hid backstage. Chekhov’s subtleties and dramatic subtext need to be nurtured rather than forced and it was almost as if the 19th century wasn’t ready for him. The experience almost convinced him to give up writing plays altogether but his friend Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko persuaded him that he had more to give and approached Stanislavski about producing another version of the play.
Stanislavski was the ideal man for the job. He went about preparing this restaging of The Seagull with a detailed production plan which gave meticulously timed notes on when and how the play should be acted down to the last detail. Stanislavski understood the need to coax Chekhov’s dramatic subtleties from the text which just wouldn’t have been possible by more accepted 19th century acting styles. The resulting production of The Seagull in 1898 was a milestone in theatre that brought about a revolution of naturalism and changed how people thought about producing theatre. Decades later in the forties and fifties, New York acting teachers such as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, who counted stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean among their students, based their classes on the ideas of Stanislavski. Although Strasberg’s “method” took the examination of internal life to extremes, the influence of Stanislavski was a constant force.
Chekhov’s plays are great source material for a natural style of acting, his characters are almost as famous for what they don’t say as for what they do, leaving lots of room for internalised thought and for an actor to really delve into the background of their character. Anya Reiss has maintained these ideas with her version of The Seagull, moving even closer to naturalism with her script that presents dialogue with the broken syntax of everyday speech. For example this is her interpretation of Konstantin’s famous line “We need the theatre, couldn’t, couldn’t do without it. Could we?” which shows a stumbling, self-conscious awkwardness.
Our director Chris Honer says about The Seagull “it’s very difficult to find absolutely what it’s about”. It seems to be always out of reach but after leaving the theatre you’ll be aware that you’ve certainly learned more about life. Yet it’s no surprise that The Seagull has become one of the most popular and influential plays of all time, such is the potential for it to be reinterpreted again and again.