Reading to Workshop: A Dramaturgical Exploration of Seagulls in A Cherry Tree
by T. Joyner
[You will find links to reviews of both the reading and the workshop productions, as well a a link to the most recent (and presumably final) version of the script under “Director” on this website’s bookmark bar.]
In early 2005, I was given the opportunity to direct a reading of a new play, Seagulls in a Cherry Tree by William Missouri Downs, as part of Playfest, the Orlando-University of Central Florida Shakespeare Festival’s annual festival of new plays. [The company has since changed its name to Orlando Shakespeare Theatre]. The reading was one of the success stories of that year’s Playfest and, in February of 2006, I directed a workshop production of the script with a largely new cast and the playwright in attendance.
In preparation for the reading, I corresponded extensively with the playwright and spoke with him several times by phone. After receiving notification that we would be working together again on the workshop, we renewed that conversation, primarily by e-mail as I continued to read, write and consider ideas on my own. I have transposed our correspondence and my thought processes from last year into a more formal presentation in the first sections of this paper. The last section is a record of my recent correspondence with Downs, relying heavily on the long e-mail I sent him recently, a summary of my critical take on the play in light of last year’s experience with the reading. This correspondence also includes extensive suggestions on the direction that I believed future revisions should take. Essentially, this paper is two things: a record of the work accomplished in producing this script for Playfest 2005 and 2006 and my personal examination of the play from the standpoint of a director preparing for two different stages of production.
In this process, I have come to see Seagulls in a Cherry Tree as far more than the Chekhovian pastiche it appears to be on the surface. It utilizes the stylistic tropes and underlying aesthetic of Chekhov to draw a parallel between the texture of life in early twentieth-century Russia and that of early twenty-first century America. As I wrote to Downs in our first exchange of e-mails in January, 2005:
What strikes me most forcefully is how seamlessly these characters, so firmly connected to the rhythms of Chekhov, work in a contemporary setting. The very seamlessness of that transition from the disaffected landed gentry of late-Czarist Russia to disconnected cultural-elite in mid-Bushie Amerika was enough to give my spine a shiver, let me tell you!
Very early in my process, then, the disturbing ease with which Chekhov’s character types, obsessions, and tragi-comic rhythms made the transition to a modern American context was the hook that drew me into the play. I quickly came to believe that a thoughtful, finely-tuned revision and carefully calibrated production could highlight that comparison and make for an entertaining evening of theatre.
It was in my capacity as a volunteer play reader from the community that I first came in contact with Downs’ play. Seagulls in a Cherry Tree which, as the title suggests, was inspired by the plays of Anton Chekhov, stood out as one of the more fully-realized pieces on offer that year. It had the virtues of genuine humor and an obvious intelligence, but it was also intriguing because it was not, as the title might suggest, a straightforward Chekhovian parody or pure pastiche. Instead, it had more in common with works like Chekhov in Yalta by John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow and Jane Martin’s Anton in Show Business: artful reinventions of Chekhov at the level of style and character, but also valid exercises in bringing his sensibilities and sensitivities to bear on contemporary concerns.
Seagulls tells the story of Boris, an older screenwriter of the Hollywood-hack variety, and his young protégée-slash-nephew, Stan, who have come to the Dantchenko Colony for Artists and Creative Inquiry in rural Idaho to complete work on a screen adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for Walt Disney Productions. There they find themselves beset and their work derailed by a gaggle of recognizable Chekhovian types: Madame Natasha, owner of the colony who sweeps in fresh from the touring production of Titanic; her brother, Peter, who tries (and comically fails) to mask his existential despair with forced optimism; Marsha, Natasha’s daughter, who passively wishes for a better life and finds her options for companionship sadly limited to Dr. Anton, the hard-drinking local podiatrist, for whom she pines, and Yepikhodov Vassilyitch Ivanitch Chubukov (aka “Bob”), a clumsy community college teacher and failed artist, whom she despises. Finally, there is the beautiful Nina, next-door neighbor to the colony clan, “wannabe poet/actress,” and unsubtle flirt when her ambitions are at stake.
Boris and Stan also find themselves caught up in the surprising resonance between their experience and their screenwriting endeavor as the play combines elements from all of Chekhov’s major stage works in an arrangement that manages to create an original story out of parts that are recognizable to anyone familiar with Chekhov’s oeuvre. Without denigrating the artfulness of Downs’s accomplishment in any way, it is Chekhovian plotting for the bullet-point attention span of the post-modern, TV generation:
- The Dantchenko colony is doomed to be subsumed into the gated McMansion community called “Cherry Pit Estates,” a fate resisted, though ineffectually combated by Natasha and Peter.
- “Bob” has Vanyaesque ambitions and expectations attached to his role as nominal caretaker of the colony, but no apparent prospects. Bob also owns a gun that is mentioned in Scene 1 and 2 and makes a pair of significant appearance in Scenes 3 and 4.
- Marsha longs for the liveliness of Moscow (Idaho) and hopes that Anton or the newly arrived Stan will take her there.
- Stan, however, has eyes only for Nina and ambitions to be an innovator, an actual purveyor of quality cinema whose first screen gem will be a science fiction opus called Orchard 200,001, “a blockbuster for the intellectual elite and not just fluff for the foolish masses” (24)
- Stan is, of course, doomed to disappointment in art and in love and leaves the stage in the play’s closing moments to shoot himself with Bob’s ubiquitous gun.
III. Preparation for the Staged Reading
On my initial reading, Seagulls in a Cherry Tree struck me as funny in a way that I could relate to: ironic without being arch or even decidedly postmodern, witty without being quippy, unselfconsciously absurd, and deftly rooted in character, even though some of the characters in question were eccentric in a still-vaguely-nineteenth-century-Russian way. Furthermore, I found much of the action compelling and a pair of scenes in the final act quite affecting.
On the down side, the play’s ending, though a kind of muted non-climax true to Chekhovian form, lacked resonance because the nominal protagonist was frustratingly passive. There were a few moments in which the play seemed to adhere too closely to its models, adapting a bit of Chekhovian business too literally, as when Madame Natasha entertains the audience awaiting Stan’s play with a card trick, ala Charlotta the governess in The Cherry Orchard, or when Peter sings a few bars from a Russian folksong that was probably obscure even in Chekhov’s day, or when “Bob’s” frustration emerges as a bear growl on a pair of occasions in the first scene, moments of absurdity cribbed from Uncle Vanya that seemed to require more translation into a contemporary idiom than Downs had given them. One thing that was perfectly clear: though the play was shot through with Chekhovian motifs and characters, it was also well on its way to being its own beast. “A script is not,” as David Ball puts it in Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays, “a prose narrative in mere dialogue form. It is writing heavily dependent on special methods and techniques for the stage.” Ball points up the necessary mastery of technique in analysis, comparing understanding a dramatic text’s mechanism to understanding the workings of a clock and suggesting that, “[f]or the theatre artist or technician it is more important to know what makes the clock tick than what time it is” (3). Thomas Turgeon’s Improvising Shakespeare: Reading for the Stage arrives at a similar conclusion by a different avenue, offering the thesis that the act of “interpreting” a dramatic text, of searching for its meaning in relationship to anything outside itself, is a trap that can lead to that greatest of all theatrical sins—the failure to engage the audience:
“Completing the play” does not mean using the theatre to illustrate the historical assertions or literary criticism or partisan advocacy produced by other kinds of reading. Rather, it means making specific choices in order to complete a self-sustaining enactment of a story capable of engaging the imagination of the audience . . . . the emotional impact of the completed play comes first. (3)
Understanding the mechanism of the play, then, is setting foot on the path to the play’s completion and that completion is achieved through first uncovering, then crafting and performing the play’s full emotional impact. Ball and Turgeon are solid examples of systems of production-oriented play analysis that focus on understanding the play’s structure through the mechanics of its action. This is a straightforward enough (if far from simple) task with plot-driven plays like Oedipus Rex, Hamlet or a traditional comedy like Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You, for example, but when dealing with more character-driven pieces like the Chekhov plays that serve as source material for Downs’s Seagulls, the challenge increases.
Intuiting that which is behind, beneath and between the lines of text on the page takes on a deeper significance for the director seeking a way into the play when the play’s “action” is almost indiscernible from the everyday and the play’s emotional impact proceeds from something as elusive as theatrical “character.” As David Ball points out, “On stage (or in real life) character is amorphous, shifting, intangible” (5). And character articulates itself in the best drama as a sketch, at best, left open to the contribution of the actor in the role. The dimensions of the challenge thus begin to come clear: character is the most elusive of dramatic properties in a playscript, yet, plays like Chekhov’s and, as a result of its strong Chekhovian inspiration and leanings, Downs’s Seagulls, reveal themselves in action that is almost wholly embedded in character. There is no “plot” to speak of. Even the play’s idea or theme is tied inextricably to character, since it is only through working out who each character is and how he or she relates to the others on the level of action that an understanding of the play’s central concerns emerges.
Despite David Ball’s advice that “Character . . . is not where analysis starts, but where it ends” (5), I concluded that the task of decrypting action in a play in which plot is not just secondary but tertiary, and action is revealed almost exclusively through character must begin with some understanding of which character actions complete the play and express its emotional impact. I would, then, begin my process by interrogating the play’s characters and their relationship to the play’s central idea. This, I concluded, would provide me with sufficient understanding of the play to stage a reading. The second part of the process, working backward from that understanding of character and idea to outline the mechanics of the play’s action, would have to wait for the workshop process.
Character and Idea
Though unique to Seagulls, the parallels between Chekhov’s characters and themes and those of Downs’s play provided a useful control for my impressions and so, somewhat inevitably, considering the nature and antecedents of Seagulls in a Cherry Tree, my idea of Chekhov informed my approach to Downs. Beneath the obvious homage aspects of Downs’s work, there is a respect for Chekhov’s attitude toward dramatic character and story reflected in the epigram to Seagulls, a famous quotation from Chekhov’s correspondence:
. . . in real life people don’t spend every minute shooting each other, hanging themselves, and making confessions of love. They don’t spend all their time saying clever things. They’re more occupied with flirting, eating, drinking, and talking stupidities . . . . Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives are being broken up. (italics Downs’s) (qtd in Downs 80)
Incorporating this “real life” ethos, Downs has constructed a world that echoes Chekhov not only on its surface, but at some depth. It is a world in which absurdity manifests itself with some regularity, but goes uncommented upon, balancing the everyday tragedies that are given their due in similarly muted tones. As with Chekhov, Downs looks askance at “characters who assume the self-regarding accents of high tragedy, or whose sense of themselves verges on self-delusion, the solipsistic inability to see the world around them” (Worthen 656) even as he tempers his judgments (as Chekhov did) with humor and a grudging affection that may be read as forgiveness. And just as Chekhov’s examination of turn-of-the-century Russian life was equal parts clinical and sympathetic, so do Downs’s characters reflect a similar objectivity as he transposes Chekhovian types into a recognizably American context.
The play’s discovery of an American context for Chekhov’s overarching message pointed to the deeper parallel between Downs’s work and that of his inspirational model. Chekhov’s major plays, beginning with The Seagull in 1896 and concluding with The Cherry Orchard in 1904, offered an extended commentary on the dissolution of the Russian social order that presaged revolution; Downs too touches on themes of a turn-of-the-century culture of privilege isolated from the wider world and in denial about its own vice of willful ignorance, suggesting that such tendencies are a precursor to social collapse. Uncle Peter (part Gaev, part Sorin) gives the most explicit statement of such concerns with his philosophical and political musings, statements of existential alienation uttered at socially inappropriate moments that he rejects as soon as he expresses them, as when he interrupts a card game with this outburst:
Wait a minute! Wait just a minute. I’ve had a revelation! The truth is, we are blind to our own inconsistencies, as empires tend to be. And so we are doomed to disintegrate – Rome didn’t fall, it crumbled from within! Persia, China, Meiji Japan, Czarist Russia – some expired more spectacularly than others, but our final fate is sealed long before the end as the core inconsistencies underlying our cultural and political orders grow ever more irreconcilable! (beat) No, wait, that’s not right. (72)
Peter is probably the single Seagulls character most entrenched in his Chekhovian origins, a problematic feature of the play that nevertheless pointed him up to me as a possible way into understanding the connection between character, idea and action in Seagulls.
However much he may still sound like a Chekhov parody in some of his moments, there is something very American about Peter that hints at an underlying strain of commonality between his echoes of garrulous, sentimental Russian eccentricity and his particular brand of masochistic optimism. He consumes food, drink, and television to excess, twists clichés into metaphysical complaints, and barrels into and through conversations as though the only real interchange that registers is the one going on between his own ears. He suggests both Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and the struggling disciple of some Tony Robbinsesque “Empower-Yourself-By-Enriching-Me” self-help guru. Deeper concerns about the world, God, and human nature burble out of Peter as though he were channeling the darker fears of the cultural zeitgeist before they are strangled by his ruthless good cheer. It is as though his inner spin-meister (a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People tucked under his arm) were scolding Peter for getting off the approved talking points, regardless of the real need for substantive discussion.
Peter’s sister, Natasha, a blending of Chekhov’s Arkadina and Ranevskya, displays more interest in Marsha (her daughter’s) prospects for marriage than in the actual circumstances of her daughter’s life and maintains an aloof relationship with reality that dovetails conveniently with that of her brother. At the same time, she demonstrates a genuine affection for the artists’ colony she founded, and her intentions, however misguided, are good, as manifested in her desire to put on a “telethon for the homeless” even as the IRS is about to foreclose on her property or her effort to encourage Anton to propose to Marsha. She is, nonetheless, self-obsessed in a way that recalls that icon of American television’s golden age, Lucy Ricardo, and her relentless drive to be part of Ricky’s show. Natasha’s idea of appropriate telethon fare is an attempt to set the world record for performing Phaedra. By herself.
In their closing moments on the stage, Natasha and Peter’s basically American optimism punctuates their sense of loss as they leave their childhood home, now owned by “Bob” and fated to become the Yepikhodov Vassilyitch Ivanitch Chubukov Bed and Breakfast. They will, one gets the impression, move on into the rest of their lives chewing scenery or cake as the impulse strikes them, neither destroyed or enlightened by their experiences in the colony’s last days.
In the figure of Nina, Downs replaces the large “R” Romantic idealism harbored by Chekhov’s Nina from The Seagull with a sharply observed materialism dressed in comic exaggeration, as when Nina tells Boris, “If I were in Hollywood, I’d do anything it takes – Eat rotten bread, live in a cold water flat, sleep with anyone who could further my career – Did I say that out loud?” (45). A far cry from Chekhov’s Nina, who tells Treplev “what really matters is not fame, or glamour, not the things I used to dream about – but knowing how to endure things. How to bear one’s cross and have faith” (181). Stan and Boris’s passion for Nina is clearly based on her attractiveness and not much else, since this “wannabe poet/actress” proves to be more opportunistic than poetic, more seductress than actress, and her “wannabe” should probably come with the footnote “and never will.” As Sarah Hankins, the actress who portrayed her in the Playfest reading put it in the first post-reading talk-back session, “This Nina is Chekhov’s Nina without the perspective . . . in The Seagull, the last time we see her, she comes back to see Treplev after having a child and after some months or years as a mistress and a mediocre actress . . . . She’s got a few miles of road behind her. My Nina – our Nina — hasn’t experienced any of that. She hasn’t paid the price Boris is going to exact from her.” (It occurs to me that it is equally likely that Downs’s Nina, once in LA, will attach herself to someone who can help her career more than Boris can, costing her another piece of her soul. She is not so much the victim of Boris’s lustful attentions as of her own misguided ambition.)
Constantine (Stan, as the other characters call him) and his Uncle Boris, like Natasha and Peter, are another pairing whose dramatic fates are intertwined. They open the play with an increasingly comic exchange about their project, the screen adaptation of The Cherry Orchard in which it becomes apparent that Stan is clueless and Boris feckless. It becomes equally apparent that Boris is deeply attached to his past credits. His work in the seventies apparently included script doctoring for Patton (he suggested the big flag behind George C. Scott in the opening scene), and “fixing” William Goldman’s screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (he got “Who are those fellows?” changed to the immortal “Who are those guys?”) His solo credits are a litany of the less-than-classic: Death Wish VI, Crime Wave II and A Dog’s Night Out. The only hint that Boris’s younger, more idealistic self still exists beneath his concern with “youthful demographics, cross-promotional marketing and a blockbuster sequel” (44) come by way of a confession to Nina that echoes The Seagull’s Trigorin and could be read as part of his seduction technique:
BORIS: You’re very kind, but fame? Happiness? – Yes, but no! These words have little meaning. Being a writer is joyless. All I am is obsessed. I mean, look at me – Script after script, I sell myself. I take the meaningful bits of my existence and sell them to the highest bidder. (44)
Honest or not, Boris expresses some recognition of the commodified nature of his soul that, perhaps, justifies his abandonment of the Chekhov adaptation as “unwriteable” (62). Yet this abandonment of the script, particularly in the context of the sexual relationship he develops with Nina, constitutes a betrayal of his nephew, Stan. The failure of the collaboration is Boris’s failure to honestly contribute, and is based on a morality informed by several decades in Hollywood’s tinseled jungle:
BORIS: I concede! Walt Disney made a hideous mistake hiring you. They’ve made an even bigger mistake hiring me! So let’s do the right thing!
CONSTANTINE: Admit we’re unqualified and go home?
BORIS: Yes, but no! I was thinking more along the lines of taking damaged goods, adding a few scenes of our own devising, paraphrasing a little and cashing the check. Look Stan, we know one thing for sure, all the previous writers failed. If they’d succeeded, we wouldn’t be here. (6)
If the collaboration with Stan is Boris’s failure, the script Stan produces on his own is Stan’s failure. His screenplay is a catastrophic genre travesty in a genre that thrives on catastrophic transgressions of taste, which means it must be bad indeed.  Downs’s Stan is The Seagull’s Treplev but, where Treplev’s overblown self-pity makes him insufferable, even as his desire for his mother’s approval makes that self-pity understandable, Stan’s naïve artistic pretensions are firmly embedded in that peculiarly American brand of materialism which commodifies all culture, high and low. In one moment, he is arguing that he and Boris need peace and quiet to “practice their art” as screenwriters and, in the next, he is trying to impress Nina with his clout: “As I was saying, I’m a screenwriter. I get paid lots of money to write. That’s my brand new Porsche out front” (14).
Stan’s callow materialism and corresponding belief that the trappings of success somehow equal actual success make him blind to the ambitious, equally materialistic reality beneath Nina’s beautiful façade and to the positive, possibly redemptive qualities of support and insight Marsha offers. This all makes him both the most conventionally comic and the most potentially tragic character in Seagulls. His inability to distinguish between art and commerce is played for laughs, most obviously in his disastrous Orchard 200,001 performance, and in this exchange with Nina from Part Three:
CONSTANTINE: Wait. I apologize. Nina . . . Words fail me. When one cannot talk, one must speak with symbols.
(CONSTANTINE opens his briefcase and hauls out a stuffed seagull toy. He lays it at her feet.)
NINA: Okay, this is really weird.
CONSTANTINE: It’s a stuffed seagull. I got it at a souvenir shop near town. It’s a symbol.
NINA: Yeah? I don’t get symbolism.
CONSTANTINE: It symbolizes your short sightedness when it comes to me and my deep desire for us to cuddle . . .
NINA: At the Moscow Community College, I flunked symbolism. CONSTANTINE: If you squeeze it, it squeaks – that symbolizes my cry of pain. It was made in China – that symbolizes how distant you are. Its label says it’s nonflammable – that symbolizes –
NINA: Okay, I get the point. (51-2)
Stan’s tragi-comic dance between art’s demand for genuine feeling and the market’s demand for commercial product comes to a hilarious conclusion in his gun-waving tirade against Boris’s fecklessness and Chekhov’s mundanity, which also touches on his tragic aspect:
CONSTANTINE: For years, I’ve looked up to you. When mom asked me what I wanted to be, I always said, “I want to be a screenwriter – like my Uncle Boris.” . . . When I was ten, I could quote every one of your movies . . . Now look at me, what do I know about Chekhov? His plays have no violence, no murders, no car chases – I’m lost! And they’re all topped off with anticlimactic climaxes of inarticulate, downtrodden, chronically indecisive people with so many names that I’m never quite sure who the hell is currently filled with bitter resignation. They are nothing more than people like me! (beat) Oh my god, no, I’m . . . I’m living in a Chekhov play. I’m a character in a goddamn Chekhov play! (62)
It is that final revelation much more than the loss of Nina (who really represents his desire to escape self-knowledge) that destroys Stan. His “I’m a character in a goddamn Chekhov play” conflates his recognition that he lacks his uncle’s capacity for rationalization with his revelation that he also lacks the willingness to sacrifice material success for his art. This reduces him to a level of mediocrity he, apparently, cannot live with and he spends the last scene of the play in a kind of melancholic funk that tips into suicidal depression. Grim stuff, to be sure but, ultimately, this being a comedy, Stan’s tragic fate as he goes to “say goodbye to the lake” in Part Four is subsumed by his own obliviousness and the ambivalence of the characters around him, becoming one with a recognizably Chekhovian strain of melancholy that does not rise to the overwrought level of tragedy:
MARSHA: I was in love with you.
MARSHA: Deeply. Completely.
CONSTANTINE: If only I’d known. That would’ve changed everything. Goodbye . . . forever.
(CONSTANTINE exits out the front door. MARSHA weeps. Beat. BOB enters from the kitchen.)
BOB: Have you seen my gun? (78)
If Peter and Bob are the play’s faux-philosophers, the gentle, possibly alcoholic, definitely closeted country podiatrist, Dr. Anton, comes nearest to expressing the play’s true outlook on the world in his reflections on the Meaning of It All. When discussing with Natasha, Boris, and Peter what life will be like in three hundred years he offers, “[o]ur present life, with which we are so reconciled, will someday seem strange, uncomfortable, pitiful, perhaps even politically incorrect” (34). Later, in Part Three, he responds to Stan’s complaints about the Nina/Boris connection with an expression of his own frustrations with love, a lament that soon drifts into a general bemoaning of not only his stalled personal life, but his professional frustrations and the philosophy that confirms it all:
DR. ANTON: I wish I had time for love. No, it’ll never happen, my life is too boring. Blisters, corns, black toenail, thick toenail, bunions, ingrowns, heel spurs, flat feet – The life of a podiatrist is never ending. And when I finally make it home, they call me back in – A railroad switchman who’s in great pain. I operate – he dies on the table. (beat) Those who’ll live a century from now, will they have good words for us? I doubt it. Our abbreviated lives’ll be forgot. . . . I’ll be utterly forgot. And you, my friend, the films you write will become antiquated – lost in some neglected archive. You’ll be nothing but an asterisk, a footnote that’s never referenced. (50)
Anton proves to be correct, certainly as regards his own long-term prospects. When Nina tries to get him to make a move on Marsha, he finally confesses that he is gay and has long harbored a “thing” for Bob. When he is unable to tell Marsha the truth, or pursue Bob, he loses out on life and love. In the context of his statements about being forgotten, his disconnection becomes of a piece with that of the play’s other characters: he is unable to find a way to articulate his own identity in the culture as it exists.
And then we have the Bob. Poor, identity-challenged Bob with his four part Russian name that wasn’t even his idea, his unrequited and unreciprocated love for Marsha, his dabbling in Western philosophy, his flirtation with suicide who, nonetheless, is behind the scenes pursuing his material dreams with an annoying charm that conceals his lack of a conscience. Perpetually both Vanya, the whining, bumbling failure, and Lopakhin, the overweening, nouveau riche winner-to-whom-go-the-spoils, he is, by virtue of the fact that he is the only character who actually states his goals and, to some degree, achieves them, the titular protagonist of the play. Though he recognizes, Sonja-like, that “we must suffer,” his own suffering doesn’t seem to have taught him anything. Nevertheless, he gets the colony, the girl and the chance to pronounce the play’s closing profundities:
BOB: I feel so alive – so alive that when I die, I think I’ll still be alive in some way. I’m kinda happy, in spite of everything. I know you’re not, but understand that we must suffer. Someday, we’ll remember how we suffered and smile. Angels will sing. The sky will fill with diamonds. All our pain will melt. And with a bit of luck, we’ll know why we suffered. (80)
But as I read the play, I struggled to see the possibility of any kind of emotional completion in Bob’s triumph, other than the consumer-satisfaction payoff some may get from his “happy ending”—a reaction which, if reinforced in production, would be a gross misreading of the play. From the audience’s viewpoint, Bob’s win should play like Lopakhin’s purchase of the cherry orchard: they can see that “the change is gonna come,” as Sam Cooke put it, but instead of promising a better world, it should be pretty clear that the Yepikhodov Vassilyitch Ivanitch Chubukov Bed and Breakfast Bob intends to establish is not likely to honor the odd sense of family and community that is being lost.
For this reason, I found it frustrating for Bob to have the last word and pronounce his own “kinda happy” happiness. However, the more I looked at it, the more I realized the ending is true to the play’s intent. The final words of the play are these:
BOB: Saw the oddest thing the other day – Seagulls standing in a cherry tree. Just standing there, doing nothing. All I could think is, that’s not right – that’s beyond comprehension. (beat) Funny, I bet even the gulls didn’t know what they were doing there. (80)
This revisits imagery from an earlier scene in the play, waiting for the reading of Stan’s screenplay to begin. Natasha, Peter, Boris and Dr. Anton observe something similar and comment on it. A seagull is perched in a cherry tree and Natasha observes, “Now that’s not right.” Peter comments that seagulls have paddles, not claws and so, “We’re witnessing something that is physically and . . . aviatrically impossible. How odd.” Dr. Anton puts the philosophical point on the moment, saying, “No more odd than we. Are any of us truly at home? We’re all out of place. Lost in a world that has never quite accepted us” (35). This is the point Bob echoes at the end of the play which, as I began to understand the play better, made one thing clear: Bob may be the character who most closely follows a standard dramatic arc from problem through obstacles to resolution, but this does not make him the protagonist of this play.
If the play can be said to have a protagonist at all, my initial instincts pointed to Marsha. Despite her inconsistent affections (is it Anton, or Stan . . . or Anton? Or Stan?) her inability to take responsibility for her own choices, her desperate desire to have a man take her away from all this, and her low-risk ambition to go to Moscow –“only one of the most exciting cities in all of Idaho”(28) — she is the one who really sees to the core of what is happening around her, if not within her. She is the character who Downs chooses to paraphrase the Chekhov quotation that is the play’s coda, when she says to Stan:
MARSHA: Maybe . . . maybe you should write a movie about real life. I mean, in real life people don’t fly around in anthropomorphic spaceships. We don’t spend every minute shooting proto lasers or making confessions of love. We’re more occupied with flirting, eating, drinking, and the rest of it. You should write a movie in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, watch TV, talk about the weather and play cards. Let everything be just as complicated and, at the same time, just as simple as it is in life. People eat their dinner and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives broken up. (47)
Marsha also lives this very thing she describes, and perhaps more fully than any of the other characters. Surrounded by the day-to-day and an active participant in the “flirting, eating, drinking, and talking stupidities” that describe the play’s relationships, her life is broken up and a new life established in the play’s closing scenes. In fact, Marsha’s experience of the play’s events constitutes the most affecting moments of Seagull in a Cherry Tree. After Anton reveals his sexual orientation to Nina, she tells him that Marsha must never know, that he must leave Dantchenko forever. Moments later, Peter and Natasha persuade him to speak to Marsha. Natasha gives him her ring, believing she has convinced Anton to propose, and extricates herself and Peter from the room.
ANTON: They want us to be alone.
MARSHA: Why? (seeing the ring) Oh my god.
ANTON: Marsha –
MARSHA: (choking back tears) I do.
ANTON: There’s something I need to tell you –.
MARSHA: I do.
ANTON: I know that we’ve known each other for a long time . . . Marsha, I’m worried about the weather. Do you know how cold it is?
MARSHA: Don’t know, the TVs on the blink. I can’t get the Weather Channel.
ANTON: Marsha . . . I . . .
MARSHA: Yes, my love.
ANTON: (beat) I . . . I . . . I think Chekhov was a brilliant writer. I can’t understand why Boris and Stan failed. I think The Cherry Orchard would make a brilliant Hollywood movie. He seems to be saying that the world will not perish because of murderers and thieves but from hidden hostility, petty squabbles, foolish people, and . . . and . . .
MARSHA: Missed opportunities?
MARSHA: Yes. I really should get the TV fixed – We need the Weather Channel.
ANTON: Marsha . . .
ANTON: Do I hear the phone ringing? (beat) There it is again. I’d better go. It might be an emergency – One never knows now does one.
MARSHA: The phone has been disconnected for two months.
(Caught in his own lie, ANTON runs out of words.)
ANTON: I’m sorry.
(He starts for the front door, then stops. Remembers the wedding ring and puts it on the table).
ANTON: Say goodbye to Bob for me. Give him my love.
(Then he remembers his wet bicycle. He grabs it and starts out. At the front door, he stops and tries to find exactly the right words, but all he can say is . . .)
ANTON: Life is . . .
(But he has no finish . . . He tips his hat and exits. MARSHA holds back her tears. We hear the sound of ANTON’s tinkling bicycle bell, ring-ring, ring-ring, and a dog’s bark.) (74-6)
This scene is the closest the play gets to melodrama and it could certainly be played that way, but the scene is, I think, rescued from that fate by the inarticulate nature of its players and, particularly, Anton’s failed closing effort to sum things up in an aphorism. It points up the gaping void in the lives of characters who have, until now, subsisted on a diet of aphorisms, philosophical formulations and ham-fisted attempts to frame their lives.
After several readings, then, and a close look at the characters and relationships, I arrived at the conclusion that the central idea of the play stands at the confluence of three of its thematic strands. First, the out-of-place-ness and disconnection common to all the characters; second, the utterly natural juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic aspects of everyday life, the reality that, for everyone, every day, as we go about our lives, “all the time [our] happiness is being established or [our] lives broken up”; third, the cultural context that is created by and helps perpetuate this disconnection and the particular, often absurd brand of comic/tragic juxtaposition that results.
The characters in Seagulls are disconnected from each other, from their own sense of self, from the real reasons that they are experiencing disconnection and even from the passionate desire to understand those reasons. It is a play about the failure of community and of happiness due to a pervasive, culture-induced apathy. This does not absolve the characters from responsibility for their choices at all. It is important to see, however, that these people do not swim outside of the mainstream of society. The world beyond Dantchenko is not so much a world that has never accepted people like the residents and hangers-on at the colony, but a culture that actively interferes with the formation of communal bonds by asserting the primacy of values based on material consumption. And even in this remote spot, those values prevail. The cable bill must be paid, The Weather Channel is a more vital connection to the environment than simply stepping outside, art without car chases and explosions is incomprehensible and the homeless appreciate Phaedra, but Natasha tours with Titanic.
When he acquires Dantchenko and Marsha, it becomes clear that Bob is the character in this play who most fully embodies what Anton talks about when he says “the world will not perish because of murderers and thieves but from hidden hostility, petty squabbles, foolish people. . . ” (74). Anton, Stan, and Marsha seem to experience most of the suffering all this entails, and the rest move on, so absorbed in their own delusions that they fail to fully feel it. In other words, it is not our grand failures that destroy us, but our small flaws, our lack of attention to our own real hopes, needs and desires and the resulting lack of understanding and empathy we have for others. In truth, the world is as it is not because of the monsters we make and the outsized crimes they commit on our behalf, but because every day six and a half billion people fail to inhabit E.M. Forester’s dictum to “only connect.” Instead, each of us commits a litany of sins of omission like those enacted by the characters at the Dantchenko colony who fail, in deeply human and sometimes funny ways, to live up to the best within themselves, to offer themselves unreservedly to those to whom they are closest, to stop the wild tarantella of consumption that is the dance of American life and look around, reflect, and feel the empty spots in our souls.
The big sins are, in other words, compounded of many smaller ones. Crimes against humanity that make for page one above-the-fold headlines are not even a blip on the radar at Dantchenko, and because the “hidden hostility, petty squabbles” and the like seem pretty silly up close, their real, cumulative damage often goes unnoticed. Even Stan’s apparent suicide and Marsha’s choice of a life of quiet desperation seem minor, in the larger scheme of things. Yet that vast canvas of history alluded to in conversations about life in the centuries to come, in Peter’s babblings about the meaning of it all and Stan’s struggles with the dilemma of art versus commerce is composed of little, human moments; of vignettes like that crushing, comic moment in which Anton’s inability to tell Marsha the truth sends them each off into a future unmoored from real hope for love. In that moment, they enact the ways in which we are all disconnected from the possibility of deeper fulfillment, the ways in which we conspire against our own best interests and surrender to our fear of the unknown, unknowable future.
This is the emotional completion the play seeks, a recognition that we, as individuals and as a culture, conspire in our own misery and suffering. That there is humor as well as melancholy to be found in such an understanding is evidenced by the laughs to be mined from the multi-faceted failure of these characters to thrive in their microcosm of the American universe. Their failure to connect, either to each other or to an understanding of their truest selves, even in a world filled with clear signs that something is not right, points to the play’s central idea: the life and the world we have made for ourselves is not a fertile ground for any human connection more substantive than “flirting, eating, drinking, and talking stupidities.” They (and, by extension, we) live inside an absurd construction in which contradiction manifests itself as business-as-usual, only rarely to be commented upon and certainly never a spur to action.
The question lingers: is this the characters’ fault, the culture’s fault, or just The Way Things Are? Chekhov’s answer was ambiguous, but ultimately hopeful—at least in The Three Sisters he clearly refers to a time in the distant future when things might be different, even as he acknowledges that flawed humanity makes that outcome a very distant prospect indeed. Downs’s answer is ambiguous too, which is fine and even necessary, in fact—but the corresponding long-range perspective is not as visible in Downs as it is in Chekhov. (Or perhaps it is only through the lense of history that we see the expansivenes of Chekhov’s perspective on history.) Recall that some of Bob’s closing lines are cribbed from Sonja in Uncle Vanya, evoking the hope for clarity about human suffering only after death, followed by Marsha’s surrender to the inevitability of her disappointment and capped by Bob’s reprise of the oddity of seagulls, sitting in a cherry tree, “doing nothing. All I could think is,” he continues, “that’s not right – That’s beyond comprehension. Funny, I bet even the gulls didn’t know what they were doing there”(80).
Downs, whether consciously or subconsciously, fails to reiterate the Chekhovian perspective that places hope at some distant remove, but places it nonetheless. Perhaps Downs lacks the innate personal optimism which Chekhov, for all his vaunted clinical detachment, seems to have retained. Or perhaps the failure is not personal, but cultural. The Chekhovian perspective on the distant future is expressed in Seagulls on a pair of occasions by Dr. Anton, but he leaves the narrative having failed to reconcile his identity with life at Dantchenko and, thus, his conclusions are muted by his final dramatic circumstances. Instead of the last words of the play go to the cluelessly grasping Bob. In a contemporary American context, then, the play seems to suggest that the benign comforts provided by our cultural belief in progress are not real. Our society’s historic faith in a better tomorrow, which has balanced our fear of what might really come to pass, has been undermined by contemporary realities. The way ahead is so unclear, we are not likely to produce works that speak, as The Three Sisters’ Olga does, of a time when the challenges we face might “bring happiness to those who come after us, peace and joy will reign on earth, and there will be kind words and kind thoughts for us and our times” (Chekhov 329).
IV. The Staged Readings
I made a few minor cuts and corrections, but left the script largely intact. Although Downs had generously given me permission to make changes in his absence, I was initially reluctant to do anything more than some minor editing, partially out of respect for the art and craft I know goes into any creative work, and partially out of my own lack of confidence in my ability to write something that would mesh cleanly with Downs’s work and not purely reflect my own taste and take on the play. I ultimately overcame my reluctance, sparked in part by a problem in coming up with a suitable stuffed seagull.
As implied by the scene excerpted earlier between Stan and Nina, the toy seagull is one of the two or three props that were absolutely required, even for a reading. I delayed too long in searching for one and, though I found the perfect prop on eBay (a stuffed version of Scully the Seagull from the Disney film The Little Mermaid), I could not have it delivered in time for the first performance. I ended up purchasing a small stuffed duck toy which had an additional feature: when you squeezed it, it quacked. I then had to justify the use of this alternative in the script, and came up with this change:
(CONSTANTINE opens his briefcase and hauls out a stuffed seagull toy. He lays it at her feet.)
NINA: Okay, this is really weird.
CONSTANTINE: It’s a stuffed seagull. I got it at the souvenir shop near town. It’s a symbol.
NINA: It’s a duck. A duck in pants.
CONSTANTINE: (defensive) It’s a water fowl! We’re in the middle of Idaho! It’s not like there’s a Disney Store around the corner! Like I said, it’s a symbol!
NINA (uncomfortable) Yeah? I don’t get symbolism.
This felt like a small and necessary change, under the circumstances. Though it reflected my sense of humor, it picked up on Downs’s own comic style, further developed the disconnect between Stan and Nina, and had the additional benefit of scoring another point off the running Disney gag in the play—never a bad way to go in the Orlando market, by the way.
The audience for the first performance was fifty to sixty people, and it went well. A few of the seams that held the script together seemed stressed in performance in ways that were not apparent on the page, and at least three of the performances were not, as mentioned previously, fully realized, even in the context of a reading. On the whole the response was positive, if not voluble. But it was a “Playfest audience” of people with an abiding interest in and often a connection to theatrical process, which gave their post-show comments and questions some weight and depth. A sampling of some of the best comments follows:
- “My favorite moments were the ones that didn’t happen. The poem that wasn’t finished, the incompleteness of the relationship between Anton and Marsha. Those were perfect Chekhovian moments.”
- “One thing I think Bill (the playwright) can do more of are those moments where the play becomes more than just a clever pastiche and becomes a comedy. Nina’s ‘they used me and now I’m going to use them’ becomes a very interesting twenty-first century statement by this character or when Astrov-nee-Anton comes out as gay . . . it gives a sense that these people are a twenty-first century reiteration of Chekhov, rather than just a reworking of familiar material.”
- “I think the playwright needs to keep the ‘cucumber moment,’ where Marsha pulls a cucumber out of her pocket and starts eating it. It’s so random, but it’s right out of Three Sisters and it’s one of those moments that just sets off the everyday-ness of it all. Plus, the sex thing.”
At least one of these comments raised the issue that had troubled me in my initial reading of the play: there seemed to be an incomplete quality to the transition in some of these characters between their Chekhovian inspiration and their status as contemporary Americans. It was not an issue that was going to be addressed at this stage of development, particularly with the playwright unavailable for rewrites, but it was something I wanted to revisit with Downs after the fact.
There were a couple of places where I felt the play failed to take the necessary step away from its source material or just dragged. With my confidence bolstered by my previous success at rewriting, I chose to make these somewhat larger changes prior to the second reading. They involved cutting Natasha’s card trick sequence prior to the beginning of the Orchard 200,001 performance and replacing it with Natasha attempting a performance of a monologue from Phaedra. I also trimmed the card game from the final scene, where it simply seemed to slow the forward motion of the play.
The second and final performance saw increased attendance and interest, due in part to a large showing of people directly involved in Playfest itself who had heard about the play from the staff and interns in the cast. Their response was more vocal. Lots of laughs, but in different places than in the previous performance, and comments that tended more toward the specific:
- “I’ve read a lot of Chekhov and done several of his plays but for a long time I was, like, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t get it” and this [Seagulls] made it accessible to us today. It captured the essence of Chekhov so we can appreciate it.”
- “I loved that Marsha typed his play for him and Stan didn’t even notice she was there. <Sigh>. Tragic. Painfully tragic. [Audience laughter]. And I was thinking, there’s always a Chekhovian character like that. Always a girl in his plays who is crying. And I never really loved that character. But I loved YOU [to the actress playing Marsha] and I loved the writing that made that character come to life for me.”
- “What did people think of the title? Is it good? Does it make you want to come see the play? Does it describe what this is? Did you think it was going to be a full-out parody?” [A discussion ensued and, though there was no real consensus emerged, the general feeling that there was more here than parody, whatever the title.]
- “It’s described as bizarre that there’s a seagull in the cherry tree. That they’re roosting there and they can’t do that. But I don’t hear them describing the fact that there are seagulls in Idaho as weird or bizarre.” [And, after some back-and-forth about “inland” gulls and the exact nature of the absurdist joke being made with the reference, the same commentator concluded his thoughts]. “Maybe there are inland gulls, but do most people know that? And are they [the characters] commenting on the weirdness of the gulls being in the tree, or just being there at all? [So I think] we need a little more clarity on the seagulls.”
Final comments from the organizers of the festival were also positive, indicating that the play was in the running for a workshop production the following year. And so it stood for some months. The regular work of the Shakespeare Festival resumed, the interns who had been part of the reading cast moved on, William Downs continued work on another new play. But Seagulls continued to circulate in the minds of the Playfest powers-that-be. A few weeks later, we were notified of OSF’s official interest in doing a workshop production, but there was no mention of my participation until a few weeks ago, when I was formally invited to return to direct the next stage in the play’s evolution in February, 2006.
V. Workshop Preparations
The Harriet Lake Festival of New Plays (formerly Playfest) was scheduled for February 8-19, 2006 and Seagulls in a Cherry Tree would have four workshop performances. The playwright was there for three of those four performances and the cast changed considerably, with several more experienced, Equity actors in key roles and only three of the original reading cast returning. I anticipated a great deal of work to be accomplished
fine-tuning a script that was, to my mind, well on its way to being a successful and widely performed play. As of the end of December 2005, when this was written, my work consisted of writing the first sections of this paper and conducting the correspondence that constitutes the balance of its pages.
In this exchange of e-mails, some quite short and to the point (Downs’s) and some quite extensive and discursive (mine), lives the collaborative process between writer and director, when both are anxious to learn, improve and expand the potential of the play. You will see that we are dealing with a wide variety of issues concerning the text at this point, including a major discussion of how best to end the play.
December 7, 2005
[Downs had just returned from seeing the first full-scale production of Seagulls in a Cherry Tree, a college production at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, where the play had won the first Columbus State University International Playwriting Competition].
The script has now had one reading and one production (the reading was at the Attic Theatre in L.A.). Both times it was staged as a farce. What I mean is that it had a very fast pace (this production with intermission was done in two hours flat) and sometimes the staging cut close to buffoonery. Although I think pace is critical, it would have been nice if they slowed down for some of the more heartwarming moments. But more, I don’t think they got that Chekhovian idea that people say laughable things with a straight face, regular energy and totally without any knowledge that what they are saying is nonsensical or even daft. And I think if they did, it might be much funnier. I mean the actors don’t have to help the comedy.
Example – I was listening to the news the other day. The CNN newscaster reported with a totally straight face about that Baptist preacher who was electrocuted while baptizing a convert – In beltline deep water he reach up to grab a microphone and zap! They cut back to the newscaster who gives a grim look – tragic, most tragic. The next report was about Rosa Parks’s funeral and they cut to some civil rights leader eulogizing her. He says, “God has a plan for everything” and “everything has a purpose” and “God wanted Rosa Parks to sit at the front of the bus.” Of course this begs the question, what was God thinking when he offed the preacher at the very moment he was winning a new convert? Cut back to the newscaster – no hint of irony. Zero realization. She says, “We’ll be back right after this message from our sponsor.” The commercial they run is for the Capital One credit card where David Spade beats up on the poor fat telephone answerer for saying “yes” instead of “no” when it comes to redeeming airline miles. Half way through the commercial Spade takes a live wire and starts shocking the hell out of the poor fat guy. This is life. This is Chekhov. And this is what makes Chekhov so great, because farcical characters and deeply tragic souls share the stage at the same time – but they never know they are farcical or tragic.
But there is something about art that makes us want everything on stage to be consistent. To share the same “ism.” How many times have we heard our writing professor complain that our script is inconsistent in tone. But life is not consistent. Comic moments are followed by tragic news which follows in the footsteps of farce. They must share the stage, as they do in life, not art.
December 11, 2005
[Inspired to flights of fancy by all the work I was doing on the play and Downs’s comments about the “farcical” nature of both previous productions, I sent him the following under the heading: “New Seagulls Ending (Theatre of the Absurd Version)”].
MARSHA: (tears) Cable bill — Sixty-five fifty-three. Too much. But what can we do?
BOB: (in his own world) Saw the oddest thing the other day — Seagulls standing in a cherry tree. Just standing there, doing nothing. All I could think is, that’s not right — That’s beyond comprehension. (beat) Funny, I bet even the gulls didn’t know what they were doing there.
(Beat as Shostakovich starts to fade up. STAN enters, smoking pistol in one hand and the stuffed toy duck from the previous scene dangling by its feet in his outstretched arm).
STAN: Finally got one!
(MARSHA, BOB react with wonder, surprise, alarm as the music builds and lights melt)
(Moments after stage is cleared of actors, lights up on a tableaux: duck and pistol in a pool of light downstage. No curtain call, just Shostakovich).
[Within hours, Downs replied].
Interesting. But this would make it farce. It’s very funny. I’m not sure.
December 12, 2005
[The next morning, I responded, appalled that he had missed the tongue I thought was firmly planted in my cheek].
I WAS JOKING!!!
(I guess I should have been more clear, but I was so sure you’d get it).
[Again, hours later, came the reply.]
What makes you think I have a sense of humor?! I’m relieved. What I can
say, sometimes I’m so dense.
December 13, 2005
[The next day, I’d thought about what really inspired my “new ending” idea and decided to reassure Downs further about my intentions for his play. After all, he’d just written saying he did not love the wholly farcical approach previous directors had taken and I wanted him to know that I got that].
Well, I’m betting you’re feeling like you just dodged a bullet. I can imagine what was running through your mind, something about a “horrible mistake” and “Is it too late to call Patrick and save this thing?”
That take on the ending was inspired by a story a professor of mine told me about an iconoclastic production of The Seagull he saw in Russia in which Dorn takes Trigorin aside at the end of the play and, instead of simply saying, “Konstantin has shot himself” he says “Konstantin has shot himself . . . again.” That one little word of change enraged the purists, but the director defended it by saying that was essential as a way to dig the play out from decades of layered Stanislavskism and restore it to its comic foundation. Not sure if he was right or justified, and if that’s the only change he made, I doubt it worked, but I always find that story instructive when thinking of Chekhov’s plays, because they ARE buried under a weight of cultural associations and interpretations and, sometimes (frequently) in such circumstances, radical solutions are needed.
Your whole play is about digging Chekhov out from those tired conventions associated with him, so my little joke arose out of a related impulse to put a new pair of shoes on the dog, just to see if he could still fetch. (Apparently, not so much.) I guess my point is, if we look at other possible solutions to the problem of how to end the play, how does the current solution hold up? Does it serve the central idea of the play? If we went in a different direction, what would it do to the play as a whole? These are a few of the questions I’ve been asking myself as I work on this paper. I’ve also always felt that being able to successfully parody of a thing is a reflection of how well one understands the thing. Not sure if my “absurd version” ending rises to the level of parody, but it was in that vein of appreciation for the original that it was intended.
My conclusion is that the current ending works very well, serving the purpose of the piece as you’ve expressed it to me. I have actually passed through the valley of the shadow on this issue: at first I didn’t GET the ending, then, for a while, I didn’t like it because it seemed to give Bob the last word and he just annoyed me. But then I really looked at it in context and also remembered, when seeing the reading, that it’s a PLAY and so it’s not only about the last word, but the last word and the last IMAGE. To have those two sitting there, not just Bob talking to himself, but Bob talking to Marsha, enables me/us to place the words in a variety of different contexts. How does it read if Marsha is diligently at work paying bills when Bob pronounces his coda and ignores him completely, or if she stops to listen? How about if she is looking out the window from her chair? Or if she crosses to the window on her line? And if he rises and moves away? Or if he finishes, starts writing again and his pen runs out of ink? Or some other variation on the theme? And when does the closing music come up? How many beats before the lights go down on them? There are so many ways to contextualize those words and tell the audience what is likely to come next — and that is what a lot of typical audience members think about as they leave a theatre : “I wonder what became of them after that?” Frequently, they apply their own happy-talk logic to whatever complex ambiguities they have been left with, but if we do our job right, only the willfully blind will be able to ignore the broader implications of that last moment, whatever we decide they need to be. I can’t remember who said it, but one idea that is very influential with me is to always think about the play that came before the first moments of this one and the play that starts right after lights out. So, I have come to really adore the ending of your play for its ambiguity and the opportunity that ambiguity represents. You’d have to have some really good reason to change it at this point.
Anyway, back to work.
December 15, 2005
[After all that, a day and a half later, I received the following e-mail from Downs].
I entered the building yesterday for an audition – A half a dozen students
competing for two open scholarships – mostly actors, but also one playwright. The head of acting, who also happens to be scholarship director, informs me that the playwright must perform a monologue just like the actors do. I point out that we stopped making playwrights do monologues two years ago. (They can if they wish but it’s not a requirement – their audition is presenting ideas for a play or readings from their plays). The scholarship director has no memory of this. I appeal to his logical side, “Does it make sense for playwrights to audition for a scholarship by performing a Mamet monologue?” But logical or not, he says we must do it his way until we officially decide. We have officially decided, but he still can’t remember. Just before we go into the theatre he has a brief realization that it in fact doesn’t make sense. But the audition goes forward. The playwright makes a noble attempt to stumble through the monologue – Having little actor training, she pretty much sucks.
And I sit there – Why is this playwright making a fool of herself? Why? Because the scholarship director can’t remember a conversation we had two years ago. In the end, he’ll agree that playwrights auditioning, as actors is absurd but the audition must go on. My life is full of Chekhov. And I too, like Chekhov’s characters, am tired and bored – not tired and bored with life, (Chekhov’s characters still enjoy playing games, watching the sunset or doing card tricks) but tired and bored with the fact that our actions and logic seldom changes things.
I hope you don’t think I’m another hare-brained playwright, but your comic ending is beginning to grow on me. Here’s how we make it work. We need to set up during the previous seagulls in the cherry tree scenes (scene 2 +) that one particular seagull is a real pain in the ass – he’s dive-bombing characters offstage and perhaps he took Madame Natasha’s hat. Later when Stan is trying to seduce Nina she can’t concentrate because (as she points out) there are bird droppings on his shoulder. Then we keep the Chekhov ending with the gunshot, along with Bob and his brief bit of realization that will change nothing and Marsha weeping. Beat. Then Constantine enters with a real dead seagull and a smoking gun. “I got it!” The lights fade on a triumphant Constantine – He has killed the albatross. And in doing so has committed an act just as absurd as living with a man you don’t love or making a realization about life and not applying it (or making playwrights audition with a Mamet monologue even though we agree it is not a good way to evaluate a playwright).
It will change nothing…
December 19, 2005
[By this time, I had completed a draft of the first sections of this paper and reached some strong conclusions about where I wanted to see our work go in the next month or so prior to the start of rehearsals. With the “new ending” idea on the table, I composed the following letter, which reflected the end product of my work on the play prior to the beginning of rehearsals, where Downs’s further changes would make themselves manifest in the production process, with live actors to contribute their own perspectives.]
Okay, so here we go with my evolving thoughts on the play and where I think it needs to go. You know I like the play very much, so I won’t insult you by slopping on the praise before I get to the critique.
Based on our conversations/correspondence, and my reading of both Chekhov and Seagulls, your take on Chekhov’s plays seems to be that they are keenly-observed domestic comedies about the cultured, leisured classes of early 20th century Russia, flavored by a healthy appreciation for the futility of much human action. I’d add that Chekhov’s version of keen observation is what gives them their “appreciation for the futility of much human action,” accounting for the tragic/melancholic tones common to his work. He understood that you can’t look that closely at life without seeing the connection between our (often funny) blindness and our (often unacknowledged and self-generated) misery.
My formulation of Seagulls is, then, that it’s a keenly observed domestic comedy about the pop-cultured, underemployed classes of early 21st century America, flavored by a healthy appreciation for the futility of much human action. (I would also argue that your play leans toward a more pointedly critical take on the dominant culture than Chekhov’s plays do, which in my opinion is a good thing and is a tendency I’d like to encourage without pushing you into overplaying it and betraying the inspiration). I also feel that Seagulls is not quite to the “keenly observed” stage, yet, because it remains too firmly tethered to its Chekhovian roots.
The universal always speaks to us best through the fully-realized specific.
If this sounds like something one of my grad profs would say, it probably is, which doesn’t mean I think it must be true–but since I phrased it so eloquently, I’m perfectly willing to defend it. This universal-through-the-specific thing is one of the great strengths of Chekhov. He captures his place and time so well that the characters and situations can be made to seem real and utterly, universally human in the hands of a skilled production team. This characteristic accounts for his enduring relevance AND for some of the problems of translation we experience in reading or producing his plays. These are not just problems of translation in language, but between his characters and settings and our context.
The places where the play works best are the places where you’ve made it specifically American and contemporary, and really reimagined Chekhov in the here-and-now, rather than simply transposing him from there-and-then: Boris/Stan, their work and relationship, Nina as ambitious young wannabe, Natasha as the older never-was, and even, to a large extent, Anton, philosophical and sexual exile from the dominant, feel-good culture.
The play’s weak spots are, to my mind, those places where the transition between Chekhov and Downs (or early 20th c. Russia and early 21st c. U.S.) are not fully realized: Bob needs a touch more Lopakhin, a touch less Vanya, I think, and his ultimate triumph is not sufficiently foreshadowed; Marsha’s reasons for being stuck in the weepy, need-a-man paradigm are still not clarified sufficiently; Peter remains the most obscure and problematic character in the play right now because he seems to have little connection to the story other than to provide some of the philosophical counterpoint. He also seems the most trapped in the “Russian eccentric” archetype, the most enslaved to his roots in Chekhov, rather than acting as a liberated offshoot of those roots.
It seems to me that what the play wants to be is “a fantasia in the Chekhovian style on American themes” in the same way that Heartbreak House is, in Shaw’s subtitle, “a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes” or Angels in America is “a gay fantasia on national themes.” My dictionary defines a fantasia as “a musical composition of no fixed form, its structure determined by the composer’s fancy,” for what that’s worth—which seems to apply more to Kushner than to Shaw and, either most accurately or perhaps not at all to Seagulls, depending on how you interpret “no fixed form” and “composer’s fancy.”
Personally, I think it’s an interesting way of thinking about the play. The “fantasia” label is used by both Shaw and Kushner as a justification for the free-form allegory in which they both, to differing degrees, engage. In terms of Seagulls, the “fantasia” element is the deft interweaving of Chekhovian tropes, character types and plot elements in a way that shines some light on the turn-of- the-century American experience on a cultural, rather than a political level, in much the way that Chekhov himself commented on the dying culture that underpinned Russia’s coming social implosion/revolution.
Because Seagulls is Chekhovian in style, it’s not as allegorical (i.e. heavy-handed) as Shaw or as Brechtian as Kushner, but it does offer, as you have pointed out to me, a subtle social critique about how little change is effected by all our grand insights, noble causes, etc. Angels ends with the arrival of the Angel (we’re talkin’ Part One here), Heartbreak House with the first bombs of World War I falling. It seems only appropriate that the death of American culture, democratic, populist, and based on a more nuanced, Emersonian understanding of “the pursuit of happiness” than that provided by Madison Avenue, Grover Norquist and the cast of Rent should be subtly metaphorized, in the final moments of a Chekhovian fantasia, as the death of Marsha’s hope for a fulfilled life or, perhaps, the death of an uncomprehending seagull who is, in turn, a metaphor for all of them and all of us.
So, to provide a frame for our work this year, I think what we need to focus on, in terms of the script itself, falls into three categories that I have, for lack of better terms, labeled Structural Tweaks, Americanization, and Thematics.
Structurally, I think the play is very solid. I just want to go over everything and make sure I understand how each moment creates the next. I’ve started that process, but since I like to apply David Ball’s “backwards sequential analysis” method to this kind of work, the ending we decide on will affect the process, so I’m holding up for a bit. I think that, because of the Chekhovian pattern of the action, we can get away with a few “incomplete moments” here and there, in which the cause-and-effect relationship is a bit . . . . loose or at least more thematic/stylistic in nature. But we don’t want too many of those and we don’t want to create unnecessary ones by failing to see the links that are there or failing to establish clear ones when they are really important. We don’t, in other words, want to leave gaps through which audience attention might slip.
The card game in Scene 4 does seem to slow the closing action down and, when we cut it in the second read-through last year, it seemed to help. There are other things I’d like to expand a bit (more on that later), so trimming that vignette might help.
Also, I’m not a big fan of Natasha’s card trick prior to Stan’s play. Last year, for the second reading, I wrote a little bit where she recited a passage from Phaedra that seemed thematically relevant to me at the time. We didn’t have the strongest actress in the role, so I’m not sure if it would have worked better than the card trick or not. Ultimately, I’m not interested in imposing my writing on your play, but in helping you find ways to make the play work better. I still think this is a problematic moment that we should look at.
Regarding the whole card game/card trick thing—the play doesn’t turn on a main action/spine that involves play or games, so those moments don’t serve to support the image system or underlying metaphor of the play. Also, because your play moves so much more quickly than a Chekhov play, these card/game elements seem to slow things down artificially, calling attention to themselves. They then feel like something forced into the plot purely because they’re “Chekhovian.” But the real Chekhovian-ness (if we can torture the already- overused descriptor further) of these moments is the frittering away of time and the diversion from the inevitable they represent. We need to find the (and here’s that phrase again) contemporary, American equivalent for these moments, if we decide to revise them – and I have some thoughts, but let’s save that for some other time.
Not sure if this is a structural issue or not, but it’s a question that lurks for me every time I read the play: Why, do you think, is Anton willing to tell Nina that he’s gay, but unable to tell Marsha? Is he afraid Bob will learn of his affections? Afraid of hurting Marsha? Something else going on that I’m missing? I guess it is a structural issue in terms of the credibility of that last Anton/Marsha scene. If we don’t have a hook on which to hang his refusal to open up to Marsha, after he’s told Nina, the later scene fails the truth test—and it absolutely must pass.
We need more foreshadowing of or clarity about Bob’s purchase of the colony. This came up in audience comments last year, and I think it’s valid. I don’t think it has to be a big thing, but in C.O., Lopakhin is clearly a financial player who tries to give the family the advice to lease the land several times, but is rebuffed, and so his purchase of the orchard is not wholly out of left field. Bob is painted as a loser, a flop—more Vanya than Lopakhin–and so his acquisition of the colony seems an under-motivated plot twist. If, on the other hand, he were to try to give Natasha and Peter advice about converting the colony into a B&B (following up on Marsha’s suggestion), and have his comments ignored, that, along with some mild foreshadowing of his financial windfall, might solve this problem while also giving the character some needed grounding.
Another comment from last year’s talk-backs: “It’s described as bizarre that there’s a seagull in the cherry tree. That they’re roosting there and they can’t do that. But I don’t hear them describing the fact that there are seagulls in Idaho as weird or bizarre.” [And, after some back-and-forth about “inland” gulls and the exact nature of the absurdist joke being made with the reference, the same commentator concluded his thoughts]. “Maybe there are inland gulls, but do most people know that? And are they [the characters] commenting on the weirdness of the gulls being in the tree, or just being there at all? [So I think] we need a little more clarity on the seagulls.”
And now, the big can of worms that I admit to opening up, wholly unintentionally: The ending we go with makes a HUGE difference both to the structure of the play and, more importantly in my opinion, to how the audience will feel at the end of the play. I say “more importantly” because, if we create a structural problem with the new ending, we should be able to fix it. It’s a mechanical issue. If, on the other hand, we give the audience the wrong signal and they end up not feeling the tragic/melancholic aspects of the play because we gave them a funny send-off, then we’ve screwed the pooch.
So, if we go with your new version, we shouldn’t fool ourselves that it’s not a big deal. Either ending may, as you suggest, still say that our actions don’t ultimately change much, that it’s all just “flirting, eating, drinking, and talking stupidities” but:
1) The new ending makes Stan the primary protagonist of the play and not Marsha, as is the case right now, which has implications that I haven’t fully evaluated, and . . .
2) . . . it alters the end point of the chain of action, making Stan’s act of trumpeting his “victory” over the bird the final “heap” of the play, triggered by . . . I’m not sure what. His exit after his brief exchange with Marsha seems a clear choice for suicide. The surprise of his return . . . not so clearly motivated by his previous moment on the stage, and I think it serves us best to create a clear connection between what we see in that scene with Marsha and what he does with it, and . . .
3) . . . in saying the same thing in a comic way that the old ending says in a melancholic/tragic way, we leave the audience with a different feeling about the experience they just had. I’m interested in leaving them with the feeling that has the most specific impact – the one that will help the conversation about the play’s meaning travel out of the theatre. Not sure how best to achieve that at the moment, but it’s nice to have options and have the conversation opened up.
On the one hand, the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of leaving the audience on a comic note, rather than a tragic one. The new ending has the virtue of reiterating Chekhov in a surprising way and as long as a perceptive soul can see that, yes, it was a surprise but it was also inevitable, based on what had gone before, I don’t have a problem with it. My biggest concern is that I just don’t want to do anything that undermines the larger point of the piece. Do we really need another play that allows us to disconnect from our feeling of complicity and self-recognition because it’s “just in good fun”? Not saying that’s what the funnier ending actually does, but it’s something we should think about carefully.
Some plays end in periods, some in question marks, and some in exclamation points. Plays that end in periods just aren’t very interesting–they either don’t have much on their minds to begin with or tell you what to think. Melodramas, many comedies and most overtly political plays work like this. They hold interest as relics of a period style, or for specific characters, relationships, or ideas expressed within them, but don’t tend to hold up well as living theatre. I don’t think Seagulls wants to be one of those plays. Question mark plays spark conversations outside the theatre on the larger issues raised by the text, even if those conversations begin with someone saying, “What was THAT about?” (The quality of such after-show conversations is not always inversely proportional to the actual quality of the drama, though that often seems to be the case). Exclamation points tend to foreclose a lot of that discussion by putting a happy or surprising tag on the package that can obscure the larger point, unless it serves to drive home that point in a dramatically powerful way. The current ending feels like a question mark to me, the one we’re talking about feels like an exclamation point—but I’m not sure what kind of exclamation point.
I’m sure there will be other structural changes that will come up as we work this year, but these are my primary areas of concern.
As previously noted, there are places where the play still feels too literally a pastiche and not yet quite enough its own thing. One of the most significant and enlightening comments from last year’s talkbacks (probably struck me as so brilliant because it corroborated something I’d been thinking myself) was that the play works best when it Americanizes the Chekhovian types and tropes. Anton’s revelation that he is gay as the reason for the “failed proposal scene” is probably the clearest example of this, but there are others, like Nina’s “they used me and now I’m going to use them” moment–a very interesting twenty-first century statement from the character. Boris and Stan’s screenwriting venture is the most recognizably American reimagining of Chekhov in the play, making Trigorin and Treplev collaborators in the major American entertainment medium was a stroke of genius, allowing their conflict over art vs. commerce to play out face-to-face, rather than by proxy through their relationship to “mom.”
At the same time, the places where the play is weakest for me are those places where it seems to channel Chekhov rather than reimagine him in a contemporary, American context.
1) Bob’s “bear growls” in Scene One just feel out of place to me. I cut them in our reading because I couldn’t figure out how to make them work. Too Russian, I think. Or too something not-reimagined, at least. It also seems to me that Bob’s clumsiness is enough baggage for any one character to haul, without making him a Bizarro World expat. (“Me am miserable! Life are good!”)
2) Marsha’s reiteration of the weepy, lovelorn Chekhovian female, while effective in many ways, still lacks sufficient justification in a contemporary American context. If she’s going to surrender herself to that archetype, we need to give the audience at least the opportunity to understand why a modern American girl believes she needs a man to save her, even if she doesn’t understand it herself. (I ain’t sayin’ there are no women like this, only that Marsha doesn’t really read as one of them in other scenes, so I think we need something to bridge the apparent gap).
3) Peter’s random insights and revelations need to move away from references to Dostoyevsky and long-lost Russian folk tunes and be more like his “laptop” speech, an effective paraphrase of Gayev’s ode to a bookcase. He needs to become a recognizable American version of Chekhovian eccentricity, become attached to some more familiar American archetypes. Can we fine-tune his garrulous, sentimental Russian eccentricity to highlight that American masochistic-optimism, where he seems to revel in the hardships life heaps upon him as “tests of character” and sentiment is of the Frank Capra variety, rather than . . . that strange, Russian kind that always seems vodka-induced? To me, Peter suggests but does not yet embody both Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and the struggling disciple of some Tony Robbinsesque “Empower-Yourself-By-Enriching-Me” self-help guru. (As I put it, in revising last year’s analysis for my paper, “Deeper concerns about the world, God, and human nature burble out of Peter as though he were channeling the darker fears of the cultural zeitgeist before they are strangled by his ruthless good cheer. It is as though his inner spin-meister (a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People tucked under his arm) were scolding Peter for getting off the approved talking points, regardless of the real need for substantive discussion.”)
Thought: Perhaps, as an example of what I’m talking about, we could develop in Peter a fascination with statistics, surveys, polls? The quantification and ranking of things seems a peculiarly American obsession, granting us the illusion of control over things that are far bigger than we are.
Clearly, I’d like to see him tethered more firmly to the idea of the “death of American culture” represented elsewhere by Boris’s resume of schlock movies, Stan’s struggles with the adaptation, Natasha’s pre-occupation with Phaedra (which I think could also be expanded somewhat), Nina’s willingness to whore herself for a taste of fame, etc. In other words, if his off-the-wall revelations emerged from the history of American ideas and letters, he would have a stronger connection to the central idea of the play, which is about us, not about them (Chekhov’s Russian aristos).
Thematics (sounds a bit too much like that bit of military doublespeak “metrics,” but it’s the best I can come up with):
I’ve already touched on some of this above, but I’m seeing both the contemporary cultural context (NOT topicality) of this piece and the general theme of disconnection as being things we can highlight in a number of small ways. At the moment, my take on the spine of the play is Harold Clurman-via-E.M. Forster: “to only connect” and the principle obstacle that prevents that main action from being achieved, leaving the characters with solutions to their various problems that fail to satisfy their common desire for connection, is the distorted values of the culture in which they live. These “distorted values” and the disconnection they engender are already represented in the play in many ways I’ve detailed elsewhere. A few other thoughts on how we might reinforce that system of images and associations that I haven’t yet mentioned:
1) Maybe a few dropped cell phones calls, a comment about the spotty service that affects the colony? Can they even get on the internet? I don’t want to overemphasize either technology as the problem or Dantchenko’s disconnectedness from the rest of the world as the issue, but the subtle ways in which the wider culture creates a context that makes interpersonal connection and real change difficult.
2) More on Bob’s plans for the B&B? Is there a way to reflect the larger idea of the play by giving him a chance to describe the world he plans to create from the colony? (Everybody pays in advance, going proposition, plans to use it as a location for a reality TV show, make it all “Hollywood rustic” but with homey touches . . . and plasma TVs in every room.)
3) Lopakhin specifically references the serfdom of his ancestors. Is there a way we can reflect Bob’s emergence from “serf” status in the culture: aspiring artist relegated to life in the public school trenches, perhaps, and when he finally got his grad degree, adjunct work at a community college was the best he could do? “My father and his father before him were public school teachers!” The disconnect between cultural reality and professed values is nowhere more clear than in the status of teachers in this country. Or is there another approach to resolving the question of Bob’s sudden rise to respectability? And should it involve his having bought Microsoft at $10/share, so we have an explanation for his sudden wealth?
4) Personally, I miss the theatricality of Chekhov’s set piece speeches. Bob has one early on about Marsha, but no one else in Seagulls speaks for that long about anything. I always found the big speeches one of the charms of Chekhov and, though I can see that they are a nineteenth century convention that probably doesn’t translate all that well, I still think there are a few places where we could hear more from one or two of the characters in ways that would illuminate them more fully for us AND touch more on the play’s larger themes. If this were a screenplay, I’d say this was the wrong way to go, but some verbal theatricality in this direction might be very powerful on the stage and give the actors something to chew on as well.
For example: I’d love for Boris to paraphrase the Act II Trigorin more fully. His “my radiant and beautiful life” speech to Nina, to be exact. Boris’s little “script after script, I sell myself” speech on page 43 could expand and delve more deeply into how he feels trapped by his muse, and how helpless he feels about it. It would give both him and Nina more nuance, Boris because he exhibits a level of self-reflection we would be surprised to discover he possesses and Nina because her love for him would be grounded in something other than unadulterated ambition. Of course, Boris’s “self-reflection” is likely to play out, in the final analysis, as a rationalization for why self-interest and what’s commercial always trumps his deeper, artistic impulses. (Kind of like some of the President’s [Bush II’s] recent speeches where his admissions of responsibility always, on close analysis, sound more like more justifications and defensiveness).
Marsha has one throw-away line about Anton “planting trees” that seems to come out of nowhere—a reference to Uncle Vanya’s Astrov that feels like a relic from an earlier version of the play, perhaps? It always makes me want to see more Astrov in Anton. Then, when reading last week’s NY Times Magazine “Year in Ideas” feature, I came across an article about “mashup maps” that you can create with software from Google (or other search engines) which allows the user to combine data from one website with maps from another, giving you a map of crime statistics, real estate listings, or “memory maps” where you can create a map charting places of significance in your personal history. Lots of variations are starting to crop up, as different kinds of political, social, personal and, I’m sure, environmental, data are applied to different maps. Of course, we’ve always had maps of this type made professionally, but technology’s power to put these tools into amateur hands reminded me of Astrov’s maps of the environmental impact of human occupation on “the district,” and of his wonderful speech to Yelena. “Here we have a picture of decay due to an insupportable struggle for existence . . . Already, practically everything has been destroyed, but nothing has been created to take its place.” A set-piece speech about Anton’s own mashup map of exurban expansion in the county where Dantchenko is located might offer us the opportunity to deepen our insight into Anton and into the play’s central idea.
Okay, so I think I’ve just inundated you with plenty of things to think about. Hope this sparks the creative process and meshes usefully with what you may be thinking after seeing the Columbus production.
The workshop production of Seagulls in a Cherry Tree in 2006 was, for me, a success. You may read the reviews of the original reading and the worskhop production here, and here. I believe the playwright learned a great deal about his play over the course of our work together, the cast had a wonderful time with it, and several of the changes we made remain in play in its final form, including the new ending discussed in these pages. The show has gone on to be produced a number of times, most frequently in university theatre programs. It was not chosen for a mainstage production by the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre the following year, but Playfest and OST have continued their relationship with Downs, producing his The Exit Interview in 2012.
 He was unable to attend Playfest due to a prior commitment to spend a semester out of the country.
 First produced at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in May of 1981, directed by Ellis Rabb and Gordon Davidson.
 Martin’s play won the American Theatre Critics Steinberg new Play award in 2000 and was the hit of the twenty-fourth annual Humana Festival of New American Plays in that year.
 Downs utilized the italicized portion of Chekhov’s thoughts to title the four scenes of the play, “Flirting,” “Eating,” “Drinking,” and “Talking Stupidities,” giving Seagulls a semblance of the four act structure of Chekhov.
 Postmodern irony provides another level of humor here. Stan bemoans, at the end of the act, that he “doesn’t get Chekhov,” but in fact, his screenplay is an artful paraphrase of Treplev’s equally awful play from Act I of the The Seagull, transposing its lurid images of “things as they will be two hundred thousand years from now” (Chekhov 128) into a silly “sci-fi” concept that casts Nina as an “anthropomorphic space ship” (38) who spouts technobabble like a Star Trek veteran—the contemporary equivalent of Treplev’s symbolist ravings. (Some may disagree with me that Treplev’s play is bad, but I’ve always thought of it as Chekhov’s way of pointing out that the Symbolists were off-base in their attempts to reinvent drama, and the fact that his plays are still being produced more than a century later while theirs, with a few exceptions by Strindberg and Ibsen, are mostly forgotten outside of the university classroom are evidence of this).
 According to National Wildlife Federation “birding expert” George H. Harrison, on the eNature website, “The name seagull is a misnomer. There are millions of gulls that spend their entire lives inland, and never see the sea.”
 Downs apparently approved, telling me that this change would stay in the next draft of the script.
 In my favorite Ain’t Life Strange moment, one audience member (and remember, there are only about eighty people in the house) actually confessed that she had played Nina in The Seagull in (wait for it) . . . Moscow, Idaho.
 This is my admittedly vague recollection of a story from my first semester of graduate school, quite some time ago.
 Downs is a professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, head of the playwriting program.