When literature is translated onto a stage, it becomes a play; it takes on a facet of reality that merely reading the words does not bring to the reader. Not every story translates perfectly into the medium of the play; plays have to have a lot of interaction between characters and environments to translate properly into theatre. Although there are certainly plays where not much happens, these plays are few and far between; most plays focus on the relationships between characters and their environments-- including the other characters that are present in the play.
In theatre, the actors are charged with the responsibility of giving the audience the experience of some event, real or imagined. Chekhov introduced a new and unique idea into Russian theatre; instead of focusing on the grand movements of those most powerful in society, or the deeds of the folk heroes of the day, Chekhov focused on the idea of the average person, and the drama that he or she experienced. It is this choice that makes Chekhov’s characters easy to psychoanalyze: they are average, normal people with the same everyday experiences that everyone else has. In this discussion, the psychoanalysis will focus on Chekhov’s character Treplev; in addition, there will be extensive consideration of Treplev’s thematic and psychoanalytic similarities and differences to Shakespeare’s character Hamlet, and Sophocles's character Oedipus.
- Historical Background
Chekhov’s play The Seagull was written in 1895, before the start of World War I and the fall of the Russian tsars. During this time, Chekhov was writing plays almost exclusively; he wrote four plays during this time, and The Seagull was one of the plays that received the most significant reception. Chekhov used his plays to examine what the common man was doing in his life, which was an important change for Russian literature and theatre; as this movement continued, Russia came closer and closer to an overthrow of the tsars and their long-standing regime.
Chekhov created the character of Treplev for his play The Seagull; this character could almost be considered a Chekhov self-insert. The character introduces new forms into Russian theatre, revolutionizing the art form; some would suggest that this is Chekhov’s long-term goal as well, especially with the ways that he challenged the preconceived notions of what could and should be presented to the audience on stage (Stroud).
It should be noted that at this time, most theatre was still traditional in many senses; Chekhov introduced new theatrical techniques that were designed to draw the audience into the story further (Stroud). Indeed, many of the key events of the play happen offstage; this appears to be a direct response to the traditional theatrical elements that had all the action of the play happening on stage (Stroud).
- Thematic Ideas
Chekhov explores a number of significant themes throughout the text. Treplev may be something of a self-insert of a character, but he represents the drive for perfection that can so easily overcome an artist. As Treplev works towards his ideal, he sometimes paralyzes himself in the pursuit of this perfection; he seeks a form of perfection that the other characters do not seek throughout the play.
Despite his insistence on perfection in theatre, Treplev seems to feel nothing but contempt for theatre as a whole; he seems to despise the idea of theatre, and consider it imperfect by its very nature. For instance, when faced with a perfect night, Treplev says: “Just like a real theatre! No artificial scenery is needed. The eye travels direct to the lake, and rests on the horizon. The curtain will be raised as the moon rises at half-past eight. Of course the whole effect will be ruined if Nina is late. She should be here by now, but her father and stepmother watch her so closely that it is like stealing her from a prison to get her away from home” (Chekhov). Although the night is perfect-- Treplev notes its perfection himself-- he cannot help but also note that the entire effect is ruined “just like a real theatre.” Treplev strives for perfection in a field that he considers imperfect by nature; this reflects his personality and his tendency towards fatalistic thinking perfectly.
The other theme that becomes extremely important for all the characters in the play is the theme of unrequited love. This does not necessarily mean unrequited romantic love, although there are instances of this romantic love in the play; in Treplev’s case, this also means unrequited familial love, although the word unrequited does seem to suggest a romantic attachment. Treplev’s love for Nina is returned only briefly; he experiences the return of her love for only a short moment of the play. He also experiences a lack of love from his mother throughout his childhood. This lack of love from the women in his life is something that will be considered heavily in the psychoanalysis done in section IV.
When Treplev finally kills himself at the end of the play in Nina’s honor, he is fulfilling the loop that was suggested with the titular seagull. When Treplev shoots the seagull for Nina, he is killing something to maintain their relationship; this represents the dead nature of their relationship, and it foreshadows the split of the couple and Nina’s eventual exit from Treplev’s life. The cycle of the relationship is analogous to the seagull in the end, especially after Treplev’s suicide. All the characters in the text experience longing for love or lives that they cannot have; it is this longing that seems to cause them the most trouble throughout the play. However, each character is faced with a choice between actions that will determine their future; Treplev, however, is the only one to commit suicide.
Treplev clearly has some problems with his mother in the context of his background. At one point, Treplev begins to discuss his mother with another of the characters; the other character asks if his mother will be jealous when she sees the play, and Treplev responds in the affirmative. When discussing his mother, Treplev says:
TREPLEV:[Pulling a flower to pieces] She loves me, loves me not; loves—loves me not; loves—loves me not! [Laughing] You see, she doesn't love me, and why should she? She likes life and love and gay clothes, and I am already twenty-five years old; a sufficient reminder to her that she is no longer young. When I am away she is only thirty-two, in my presence she is forty-three, and she hates me for it. She knows, too, that I despise the modern stage. She adores it, and imagines that she is working on it for the benefit of humanity and her sacred art, but to me the theatre is merely the vehicle of convention and prejudice. When the curtain rises on that little three-walled room, when those mighty geniuses, those high-priests of art, show us people in the act of eating, drinking, loving, walking, and wearing their coats, and attempt to extract a moral from their insipid talk; when playwrights give us under a thousand different guises the same, same, same old stuff, then I must needs run from it, as Maupassant ran from the Eiffel Tower that was about to crush him by its vulgarity (Chekhov).
Treplev spends so much of the play trying to be perfect because he wants to be impressive to his mother; he has never moved on from trying to impress his mother, it seems, and his obsession with impressing Nina is just another side to the same coin. It is interesting that he would use the flower game that children play in regards to his mother, as this is normally a game a child would play in the context of a potential romantic partner, not a familial one. Treplev craves his mother’s attention, but at the same time despises her; she is cold to him, and he chooses another woman to love who is cold to him.
- Oedipus and Treplev
Oedipus is, perhaps, one of the most famous characters of literature who is obsessed with his mother; in fact, when he is only a baby, there is a prophecy told to his family that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Although Treplev does not kill his father, he does have a strange obsession with his mother. In the same dialogue about the theatre and his mother as previously discussed in Section IV, Treplev says:
If we can't do that, let us rather not have it at all I love my mother, I love her devotedly, but I think she leads a stupid life. She always has this man of letters of hers on her mind, and the newspapers are always frightening her to death, and I am tired of it. Plain, human egoism sometimes speaks in my heart, and I regret that my mother is a famous actress. If she were an ordinary woman I think I should be a happier man. What could be more intolerable and foolish than my position, Uncle, when I find myself the only nonentity among a crowd of her guests, all celebrated authors and artists? I feel that they only endure me because I am her son. (Chekhov).
Treplev seems to understand that his mother’s relationship with him is tenuous at best; he knows that he will have a hard time convincing his mother that he is worthwhile. However, his relationship with his mother seems almost like the attention and affection that one would give to a lover, and Treplev’s relationship with Nina is remarkably similar. Treplev loves Nina unconditionally and wholly even though she does not seem to feel the same way about him (Chekhov). However, Treplev’s borderline-inappropriate relationship with his mother mirrors the relationship that Oedipus had with his mother.
Treplev seems to recognize his own neuroses only in the context of his mother. In the same speech, he says “Personally I am nothing, nobody. I pulled through my third year at college by the skin of my teeth, as they say. I have neither money nor brains, and on my passport you may read that I am simply a citizen of Kiev. So was my father, but he was a well-known actor. When the celebrities that frequent my mother's drawing-room deign to notice me at all, I know they only look at me to measure my insignificance” (Chekhov). He seems to take the success of his father and mother as a personal insult, rather than a point from which he can succeed; the relationship he has with his parents is keeping him from succeeding. Unless he is perfect, he cannot escape the shadow of his father and the love he has for his mother.
- Hamlet and Treplev
Arkadina quotes Hamlet during the course of the play in response to her son’s play, drawing into the fabric of the story the story of Hamlet. Like Oedipus, Hamlet had a contentious relationship with his mother; there have been a number of important scholars who have suggested that the relationship that Hamlet and his mother have borders on incestuously inappropriate (Stroud). This directly reflects the contentious, competitive relationship that Treplev has with his mother and father.
Hamlet’s father is dead, but he feels competitive pressures insofar as his uncle, Claudius, is concerned. The family relationships in Hamlet are roughly analogous to those of Treplev and his family; both Hamlet and Treplev have a contemptuous but intense relationship with their mothers, while Hamlet has a similar relationship with his uncle and stepfather Claudius as Treplev has with his actual father. For both these characters, their living father figure is not someone to look up to or aspire to be; instead, they are figures that they feel jealousy towards because of the positions of power that they hold and their relationships with their respective mothers.
- Discussion and Conclusions
The relationship that Treplev has with his mother and his father has a significant impact on the other relationships that he has throughout the play. The relationship he has with his mother and his father have encouraged his neurotic nature and drive for perfection; throughout the play, he talks extensively about his disdain for the theatre as a form of media, but he continues to write plays. Treplev is an intelligent character, but he is a little bit of a loser, because of his terrible relationship with his parents. Those relationships informed his relationships with the other characters of the play, including Nina, the character that Treplev falls in love with (Chekhov).
The theme of unrequited and unreturned love is a very important one in this play, especially as the characters and their relationships intersect and interact over the course of the events of the play. As the relationships of the people in the play evolve, the famous line of the play-- “I’m in mourning for my life”-- is uttered by one of the minor characters (Chekhov). It seems as though all the characters are in love with people they cannot have; all the major relationships of the story are torn asunder by Nina and her love. Treplev’s death at the end of the play is foreshadowed by the title of the play and the seagull he kills at the beginning of the play. He gives the dead seagull to Nina and it is, by the end of the play, representative of his only manner of escape from the life he designed for himself.
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