I love reading Chekhov, yet I do find him tricky. His plays, I find, are almost deceptively simple, like many modernists we see in the 20th Century (I'm particularly thinking of Virginia Woolf), but nonetheless very beautiful reads. Last month, having finished Three Plays (The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and Ivanov), I read The Seagull and Other Plays, which comprises of The Seagull and Uncle Vania as well as three 'one act jests': The Bear, The Proposal, and A Jubilee.
The Seagull (Чайка) I found the trickiest of them all. I actually started to write a review of The Seagull a few weeks ago now, maybe longer, and actually had to give up! This attempt at a second go will be fairly brief. The play was written in 1895 and first performed in 1896, and tells the story of various conflicts between a group of characters: firstly, we learn that Medvedenko, a school teacher, is in love with Masha, the daughter of the estate manager Shamrayev, but feels unworthy of her love. Masha however does not love him anyway, she is in love with Konstantin Treplev, a playwright and son of the great actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, who so far has not been impressed by her son's attempts in the theatre. Treplev, meanwhile, is in love with Nina, the daughter of a landowner, who herself is in love with a writer, Trigorin (who is in a relationship with Arkadina). If that's not complicated enough, there's also Shamrayev's wife Polina, who loves Dr. Dorn, who blames the lake of the estate for all these romantic feelings bubbling away.
And so The Seagull deals with all of this, the conflicts between the characters such as Konstantin and Arkadina, and all the mismatched love interests, all while Arkadina wonders if she should sell the estate. It's an interesting portrayal of four artistic temperaments: the two writers, Konstantin and Trigorin, and two actresses, Arkadina and Nina. It had the slight air of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), and oddly enough Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603), having in it a play within the play as well as the conflicts between mother and son. I did enjoy it, but I was too aware of my own shortcomings when reading it. I recommend it to finer brains than mine!
Moving on now to Uncle Vania (Дядя Ваня). Despite the fact that Chekhov actually renounced the theatre after a poor reception to The Seagull, he carried on and in 1897 published Uncle Vania or Uncle Vanya as it's also spelled. It was first performed in 1899. Chekhov tells the story of Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky, 'Uncle Vania' of the play. He is the brother of Serebryakov's first wife (Vera Petrovna); Serebryakov is an elderly gentleman now married to the much younger Yelena. The characters reminisce about the old days, hating the dull staleness of the modern world. Yet, when the opportunity arises, Vanya's general ennui disappears as he declares his love for Yelena, who does not reciprocate. Later Vanya expresses his great disappointment in life and in not telling Yelena sooner. The claustrophobic atmosphere builds as Serebryakov's health declines and a storm (a literal storm) is brewing. Serebryakov's doctor Astrov is also there, and we learn that Sonya, the daughter of Serebryakov and Vera Petrovna, is in love with Astrov but he is unaware. Like Vanya, he has fallen for Yelena.
It's a play of disappointment and misunderstandings, and, I suppose as often in life, issues so often go unresolved. There's great restlessness in it, born from frustration and boredom. It's a great play and I enjoyed it, but as with Chekhov's other major works I find myself confused and with little to say.
And now, the 'Jests'. These three plays are very short indeed, and all one act. The Bear: A Jest in One Act (Медведь: Шутка в одном действии) was first published in 1888. The main character, Elena Ivanovna Popova, is in mourning for her husband who died seven months ago, and her footman Luka is trying to persuade her to come out of mourning, claiming she made a promise to always remain true to her husband's memory. When Smirnov arrives, telling her her husband owes him money, they argue about the money and also on love and how men and women love differently. Ultimately he challenges her to a duel (not caring that she's a woman) but instead the two end up falling for each other. In The Proposal (Предложение; 1890) Lomov intends to propose to Natalia, the daughter of Lomov's neighbour Chubukov. It all goes horribly wrong however, and they end up arguing about the meadows, a disputed piece of land between the two houses. Lomov, who is very sensitive about his health, has palpitations and a numb leg. He gives up only to try a little later, but they end up in another argument about their dogs, and Lomov ends up collapsing. Happily however they later agree to marry. Finally, A Jubilee, also known as The Festivities (Юбилей; 1891): more chaos as a bank prepares for its 15th year anniversary as Natasia Fiodorovna Merchootkina begs on behalf of her husband for his job back whilst Hirin, the bookkeeper, suffers a nervous breakdown. Like the others it's a neat little farce, though a touch darker than the others.
All in all a great book with two of Chekhov's most famous works and the more obscure jests. I did like the jests, but I did appreciate The Seagull and Uncle Vania more. As I keep saying, though, they do leave me feeling a little empty.