The Seagull (Russian: "Чайка"), written in 1896, is the first of what are generally considered to be Anton Chekhov's four major plays. It centers on the romantic and artistic conflicts between four theatrical characters: the ingenue Nina, the fading leading lady Irina Arkadina, her son the experimental playwright Konstantin Treplyov, and the famous middlebrow story writer Trigorin.
Like the rest of Chekhov's full-length plays, The Seagull relies upon an ensemble cast of diverse, fully developed characters. In opposition to much of the melodramatic theater of the 19th century, lurid actions (such as Treplyov's suicide attempts) are kept offstage. Characters tend to speak in ways that skirt around issues rather than addressing them directly, a concept known as subtext.
The play has a strong intertextual relationship with Shakespeare's Hamlet. Arkadina and Treplyov quote lines from it before the play-within-a-play in the first act (and the play-within-a-play device is itself used in Hamlet). There are many allusions to Shakespearean plot details as well. For instance, Treplyov seeks to win his mother back from the usurping older man Trigorin much as Hamlet tries to win Queen Gertrude back from Uncle Claudius.
The opening night of the first production was a famous failure, despite a reportedly astonishing performance by Vera Komissarzhevskaya as Nina. Chekhov supposedly walked out in the middle of the performance, much as Treplyov walks out on the performance of his play-within-a-play. This failure most likely occurred because the director had never dealt with a play as subtle and un-melodramatic as Chekhov's, and was unsure of how to stage it. However, when Konstantin Stanislavski directed it in a later production for the Moscow Art Theater, the play was a resounding success.
The play takes place on a country estate owned by Sorin, who is the brother of the actress Arkadina. In Act I, the people staying at the estate gather to see a play that Arkadina's son Konstantin Treplyov has written. The play-within-a-play stars Nina, a young girl who lives on a neighboring estate, in the role of the "soul of the world." We see some of Konstantin's work: it is highly influenced by Symbolist drama. Arkadina finds it ridiculous and incomprehensible, and Konstantin storms off. This act also sets up the play's many romantic triangles. The schoolteacher Medvedenko loves Masha, the daughter of the estate's steward. Masha, in turn, has an unrequited crush on Konstantin, who is courting Nina. When she tells this to the kindly old Doctor Dorn at the end of the act, he can do nothing but blame the moon and the lake for making everybody feel romantic.
Act II is much more loosely plotted and takes place an afternoon a few days later. Konstantin Treplyev has shot a seagull and presents it to Nina, who is horrified. Trigorin, a famous writer who is Arkadina's lover, enters. Nina asks him to tell her about the writer's life. He replies that it is not an easy one. Nina says that she knows the life of an actress is not easy, either, but she wants more than anything to be one. Trigorin sees the seagull and muses on how he could use it as a subject for a short story: "A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she's happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull."
Nina overhears Trigorin and is enthralled.
Act III takes place on the day when Konstantin, Arkadina, and Trigorin are planning to depart for Moscow. Konstantin is upset that Nina no longer wants to spend time with him, and off-stage he tries to shoot himself in the head. The bullet only grazes his skin, however. Nina presents Trigorin with a medallion that proclaims her devotion to him using a line from one of Trigorin's own books: "If you ever need my life, come and take it." Trigorin starts to want to stay, and asks Arkadina if they have to go. She flatters and cajoles him until he agrees to return to Moscow. After she has left, Nina comes to say a final goodbye to Trigorin. They kiss passionately and plan to meet again in Moscow.
Act IV takes place two years later, in the wintertime. Masha has married Medvedenko, though she still nurses an unrequited love for Konstantin. Various characters discuss what has happened in the two years that have passed: Nina and Trigorin lived together in Moscow for a time, until he abandoned her and went back to Arkadina. Nina never was a great success as an actress, and is currently on a tour of the provinces with a small theatre group. Konstantin has had some short stories published, but is increasingly depressed. Most of the play's characters go to the drawing room to play lotto. Konstantin, however, does not join them. Suddenly, Nina enters through a back door. She tells Konstantin about what she has done for the last two years. She starts to compare herself to the seagull—the bird Konstantin killed—then rejects that and says "I am an actress." She was abandoned by her lover (Trigorin) and forced to tour with a second-rate theatre company after the death of her child, but she seems to have a newfound confidence. Konstantin pleads with her to stay but she is in such disarray his pleading means nothing. She slips out as quietly as she arrived. The scene shifts back to the lotto game. There is a shocking gunshot from off-stage. Treplyov has killed himself.