I read Anton Chekhov’s The Sea Gull (1895) in translation during a summer vacation, back when I was home in Romania. Years later, when I came to study at Purdue University, IN, one of my first graduate courses was “Introduction to English Studies”; as term project, we had to do an Annotated Bibliography. Without too much thinking, I chose to focus on The Sea Gull. The articles were ranging from approaching the play thematically, symbolically, to performatively. I remember one critic discussing the sea gull itself as a scavenger creature, eating (edible) discarded items. A sea gull flies and is close to a body of water, it almost inhabits the horizon, and maybe it even smells the liberty differently than we do. Yet, it is a very grounded creature. The highs and lows are part of its identity — not even once alluding to a divide.
Andrei Şerban directed the play four times: at the Public Theater in New York 1981; another time in Tokyo, Japan at the Shiki Theatre Company; then at “Radu Stanca” Theater in Sibiu, Romania; and its latest production has been scheduled this fall at the Lenfest Center for the Arts of Columbia University. When I talked to him, he said that of all the plays written by the Russian playwright, this one was the most elusive. “Something always escapes me,” hinting that there may be a new secret to be discovered.
The play starts with one of the most memorable lines ever uttered by a character on stage and/or read in a script: Masha lamenting her life, “I am in mourning for my life. I am unhappy” (105). As reader or viewer, you feel chills aligning on your spine and an almost full gasp coming out of your mouth. But you don’t complete that gasp. And it’s important that you don’t. We are only at the beginning of a play that is described as “A Comedy in Four Acts” (103) and it ends in suicide, with Dorn (a doctor) uttering, “The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself…” (170).
How can suicide be considered source for/of laughter? How could Masha’s beginning line make us laugh? Was Chekhov, a doctor himself, trying to look deeper into the human brain at more serious issues such as depression, an affliction that back then had absolutely and only retrospectively outrageous (borderline comical) treatments? For example, one would be immersed in water for as long as a doctor would think was worth doing to cleanse the mind off its bad thoughts; or one would be turned around until the depressed would get dizzy; by so doing, it was believed the contents in their heads would be rearranged. All these absurd techniques aside, we cannot be sure how much of the author’s medical expertise was invested when he was creating these characters.
What we do know, however, is that the play is set in the countryside and that locals either cannot or do not have any attraction to seek ways that transcend their infectious monotonous lives. In such a context, then, the ones who would like to achieve immortality, the writers and the actresses in the play, may appear too artificial, locked in their obsession of chasing fame, famished and blind to see the reality.
But what is their reality? Is it any different than ours? Mr. Şerban believes the play is pertinent today, too, where several cultural national agencies noticed a cut in their budgets, when the current administration decided to discontinue the country’s programs with UNESCO, where Hollywood is still an exploiting, misogynistic environment, and when those who cannot have success are tossed mercilessly in the garbage.
The dream of success is a matter of hard work. This is what Mr. Şerban is teaching his students who are cast in this play and are about to graduate. When I walked into the theater, having read the play several times, I was at ease to notice that it was not overloaded with expensive, yet superfluous props and objects. The stage was almost empty, except for a rock in the middle, and rows of chairs in the background. In Treplev’s words to describe an ideal stage, “There is a theater for you. A curtain, two wings, and beyond that – open space. No scenery at all” (107); then, per Mr. Şerban’s witty direction, a character shows a copy of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space (1968). Through this fleeting gesture, we are reminded of the continuity of great ideas over time and how they sustain us, especially when we are not in school anymore.
Furthermore, before these students will hold their diplomas, knocking on several doors for auditions, some unsuccessful, Mr. Şerban teaches them that the true love for theater means discipline, frugality (props- and setting-wise), and flawless acting. It is evident to Mr. Şerban that this generation of actors would have to fight harder to keep their passion alive before being corrupt into thinking art is useless.
As a viewer, to me, it was also important to see how all actors were present on stage continuously, (sometimes) being seated on chairs that created another subtle dialogue. By so doing, the actors witness the play seamlessly, transitioning from actors into spectators back to actors. So, in addition to the play within a play as envisioned by Chekhov’s Treplev (even if briefly), Mr. Şerban adds his own, creating an even more complex representation of layered meanings. Students learn as they observe what happens on stage. Rather than being kept off stage, introduced only when the scene needs them/when they have lines, the actors push themselves on stage, pushing their visibility. In return, their silence reverberates in us. Through this directorial gesture, Mr. Şerban empowers his actors as well as makes us see/think of all the people involved in the production of a play.
At the end of the show we witness Nina’s transformation. She is not the naïve country girl whom we met in the beginning. She does not say lines dispassionately, lines which she does not understand. She speaks from her wounded heart about the hardships both in her profession and personal life; and it is because of these hurts that we see her metamorphosed. She says convincingly, “I have strength” and the other characters (except for Treplev) repeat, “I have strength.” Nina continues, “I believe” and “I am not afraid,” with the others echoing the message.
Mr. Şerban brings into this production of The Sea Gull a subtle intertextual surprise that fits perfectly (however, one has to be there to witness it – theatrical experiences are not interchangeable after all). Treplev, who has x-rayed his wounds in front of us, from his total humiliation and emasculation because of his mother’s lack of maternal love, to his inability to produce something valuable in writing that will have success, to Nina whose love was not returned, and to Masha’s love whom Treplev disregards, the unsatisfied and unloved man, isolated in the countryside with no source of genuine intellectual and emotional nourishment, commits suicide. He has been severely depressed for years, and that could be a clinical reading into his escalating, degenerating symptoms. As a consequence, the play may also point to how we view depression today and how stigmatized and misjudged depressed people are.
The gunshot was heard offstage; in this representation, Treplev was seated for a few minutes, then, towards the end, he stood up, and got close to the door. He is here/not here, and it is this thin divide that makes the spectator think. To experience it fully, you need to accept that you are (at) a threshold, that in-between this sliver of space is what keeps you in/out, just as we are in/out of ourselves in key moments of our lives, when accepting/rejecting others, and when learning how to deal with/reject failure.
Speaking with Mr. Şerban, it was clear that he wanted his students and spectators to take a look around and then inside themselves: where do we position ourselves when it comes to failure? How does our society make us feel about failure? How can we learn to dissociate ourselves from narrow-minded people who use derogatory words, violence, and cruelty as means of control? Can we shake them off like lint on our coats? The answer seems to be that we rise amid our fallings, we reach for the carafe of water even if it gets higher and higher, and we look straight into our reflected eyes in a mirror: I have strength. I believe. I am not afraid.
We walk through pain, even/especially if we bleed. But we keep walking. Mr. Şerban teaches us about resilience in a show that he has been directing for years, spanning decades and across continents. At the end of our warm talk, he said: “I will do The Sea Gull for the 5th time. In Bucharest, this summer.” A work is never ended because we continue to question what it means/t. The quest for meaning is the hardest, as always. There is nothing written in permanent ink, though, for through theater (and the arts) we, too, fly, return to the ground, and then cut the sky open to be free.
Catalina Florina Florescu graduated from University of Bucharest after which she came to the United States to earn her doctoral degree. She teaches at Pace University courses on theater and literature. More about the author here: http://www.catalinaflorescu.com/