On October 18, 1896, newspapers came out with devastating reviews of Anton’s Chekhov’s play “The Seagull”, premiered at the Aleksandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg the night before. After such a shattering failure, the author swore to never write drama again, yet his plays eventually became the trademark and the pride of the Moscow Art Theater and the jewels of world drama.
It is generally believed that the play’s completely miserable failure was rooted in the actual staging traditions typical of the Aleksandrinsky Theater. The unwillingness of actors and directors to find ways of translating new ideas on stage seriously handicapped the performance.
The play was staged by Evtikhy Karpov, a director Chekhov resented. From day one, it became obvious that rehearsals weren’t progressing the way they were meant to. Chekhov already foresaw the imminent failure, as he complained to his sister in letters that everyone around was cheating and deceitful, that the show was very unlikely to be a success, and his mood was far from festive. On premiere night, his sister Maria recalled him looking very gloomy and unhappy. He was worried about the actors not grasping the idea, their poorly learnt lines, and their overall carelessness.
Another trouble the play faced was unmet expectations of the audience as, determined to see a comedy as was advertised, they were shown some high-brow sophisticated performance. As Chekhov’s sister later commented, right from the first scenes the audience was screaming, hissing, and the entire performance descending into chaos. Chekhov disappeared from the theater after the first lines had been spoken and, without even saying goodbye to his friends, left for his home estate in Melikhovo.
Maria Chitau, the actress of the Aleksandrinsky Theater recalled, “In the backstage there was talk that ‘The Seagull’ had been written in a very new way, and it not only excited the actors, but also scared them… No other play had ever been such a fiasco on the stage of the Aleksandrinsky Theater and never before had we heard hissing per se, say nothing of such unanimous hissing that topped any attempts to applaud and call out the actors and the author for bowing. The actors were plunged into the gloom of failure.”
The rebirth of the play occurred two years later, thanks to the Moscow Art Theater, meticulously weaving into the staging all of the details and the spirit Chekhov wanted to translate in his play. Against Chekhov’s will – as he had serious doubts whether he could survive another possible failure – and the heavy pressure of the past fiasco weighing over them, the company of the Moscow Art Theater managed to work wonders with the play, forever making it a masterpiece and earning themselves a reputation as a new progressive theater, with the silhouette of the seagull becoming the theater’s emblem ever since.