The Sea-Gull, by Anton Chekhov

ACT II

The lawn in front of Sorin’S house. The house stands in the background, on a broad terrace. The lake, brightly reflecting the rays of the sun, lies to the left. There are flower-beds here and there. It is noon; the day is hot. Arkadina, Dorn, and Masha are sitting on a bench on the lawn, in the shade of an old linden. An open book is lying on DORN’S knees.

Arkadina.

[To Masha] Come, get up. [They both get up] Stand beside me. You are twenty-two and I am almost twice your age. Tell me, Doctor, which of us is the younger looking?

Dorn.

You are, of course.

Arkadina.

You see! Now why is it? Because I work; my heart and mind are always busy, whereas you never move off the same spot. You don’t live. It is a maxim of mine never to look into the future. I never admit the thought of old age or death, and just accept what comes to me.

Masha.

I feel as if I had been in the world a thousand years, and I trail my life behind me like an endless scarf. Often I have no desire to live at all. Of course that is foolish. One ought to pull oneself together and shake off such nonsense.

Dorn.

[Sings softly]

“Tell her, oh flowers —”

Arkadina.

And then I keep myself as correct-looking as an Englishman. I am always well-groomed, as the saying is, and carefully dressed, with my hair neatly arranged. Do you think I should ever permit myself to leave the house half-dressed, with untidy hair? Certainly not! I have kept my looks by never letting myself slump as some women do. [She puts her arms akimbo, and walks up and down on the lawn] See me, tripping on tiptoe like a fifteen-year-old girl.

Dorn.

I see. Nevertheless, I shall continue my reading. [He takes up his book] Let me see, we had come to the grain-dealer and the rats.

Arkadina.

And the rats. Go on. [She sits down] No, give me the book, it is my turn to read. [She takes the book and looks for the place] And the rats. Ah, here it is. [She reads] “It is as dangerous for society to attract and indulge authors as it is for grain-dealers to raise rats in their granaries. Yet society loves authors. And so, when a woman has found one whom she wishes to make her own, she lays siege to him by indulging and flattering him.” That may be so in France, but it certainly is not so in Russia. We do not carry out a programme like that. With us, a woman is usually head over ears in love with an author before she attempts to lay siege to him. You have an example before your eyes, in me and Trigorin.

Sorin comes in leaning on a cane, with Nina beside him. Medviedenko follows, pushing an arm-chair.

Sorin.

[In a caressing voice, as if speaking to a child] So we are happy now, eh? We are enjoying ourselves to-day, are we? Father and stepmother have gone away to Tver, and we are free for three whole days!

Nina.

[Sits down beside Arkadina, and embraces her] I am so happy. I belong to you now.

Sorin.

[Sits down in his arm-chair] She looks lovely to-day.

Arkadina.

Yes, she has put on her prettiest dress, and looks sweet. That was nice of you. [She kisses Nina] But we mustn’t praise her too much; we shall spoil her. Where is Trigorin?

Nina.

He is fishing off the wharf.

Arkadina.

I wonder he isn’t bored. [She begins to read again.]

Nina.

What are you reading?

Arkadina.

“On the Water,” by Maupassant. [She reads a few lines to herself] But the rest is neither true nor interesting. [She lays down the book] I am uneasy about my son. Tell me, what is the matter with him? Why is he so dull and depressed lately? He spends all his days on the lake, and I scarcely ever see him any more.

Masha.

His heart is heavy. [Timidly, to Nina] Please recite something from his play.

Nina.

[Shrugging her shoulders] Shall I? Is it so interesting?

Masha.

[With suppressed rapture] When he recites, his eyes shine and his face grows pale. His voice is beautiful and sad, and he has the ways of a poet.

Sorin begins to snore.

Dorn.

Pleasant dreams!

Arkadina.

Peter!

Sorin.

Eh?

Arkadina.

Are you asleep?

Sorin.

Not a bit of it. [A pause.]

Arkadina.

You don’t do a thing for your health, brother, but you really ought to.

Dorn.

The idea of doing anything for one’s health at sixty-five!

Sorin.

One still wants to live at sixty-five.

Dorn.

[Crossly] Ho! Take some camomile tea.

Arkadina.

I think a journey to some watering-place would be good for him.

Dorn.

Why, yes; he might go as well as not.

Arkadina.

You don’t understand.

Dorn.

There is nothing to understand in this case; it is quite clear.

Medviedenko.

He ought to give up smoking.

Sorin.

What nonsense! [A pause.]

Dorn.

No, that is not nonsense. Wine and tobacco destroy the individuality. After a cigar or a glass of vodka you are no longer Peter Sorin, but Peter Sorin plus somebody else. Your ego breaks in two: you begin to think of yourself in the third person.

Sorin.

It is easy for you to condemn smoking and drinking; you have known what life is, but what about me? I have served in the Department of Justice for twenty-eight years, but I have never lived, I have never had any experiences. You are satiated with life, and that is why you have an inclination for philosophy, but I want to live, and that is why I drink my wine for dinner and smoke cigars, and all.

Dorn.

One must take life seriously, and to take a cure at sixty-five and regret that one did not have more pleasure in youth is, forgive my saying so, trifling.

Masha.

It must be lunch-time. [She walks away languidly, with a dragging step] My foot has gone to sleep.

Dorn.

She is going to have a couple of drinks before lunch.

Sorin.

The poor soul is unhappy.

Dorn.

That is a trifle, your honour.

Sorin.

You judge her like a man who has obtained all he wants in life.

Arkadina.

Oh, what could be duller than this dear tedium of the country? The air is hot and still, nobody does anything but sit and philosophise about life. It is pleasant, my friends, to sit and listen to you here, but I had rather a thousand times sit alone in the room of a hotel learning a role by heart.

Nina.

[With enthusiasm] You are quite right. I understand how you feel.

Sorin.

Of course it is pleasanter to live in town. One can sit in one’s library with a telephone at one’s elbow, no one comes in without being first announced by the footman, the streets are full of cabs, and all —-

Dorn.

[Sings]

“Tell her, oh flowers —-”

Shamraeff comes in, followed by Paulina.

Shamraeff.

Here they are. How do you do? [He kisses Arkadina’S hand and then Nina’S] I am delighted to see you looking so well. [To Arkadina] My wife tells me that you mean to go to town with her to-day. Is that so?

Arkadina.

Yes, that is what I had planned to do.

Shamraeff.

Hm — that is splendid, but how do you intend to get there, madam? We are hauling rye to-day, and all the men are busy. What horses would you take?

Arkadina.

What horses? How do I know what horses we shall have?

Sorin.

Why, we have the carriage horses.

Shamraeff.

The carriage horses! And where am I to find the harness for them? This is astonishing! My dear madam, I have the greatest respect for your talents, and would gladly sacrifice ten years of my life for you, but I cannot let you have any horses to-day.

Arkadina.

But if I must go to town? What an extraordinary state of affairs!

Shamraeff.

You do not know, madam, what it is to run a farm.

Arkadina.

[In a burst of anger] That is an old story! Under these circumstances I shall go back to Moscow this very day. Order a carriage for me from the village, or I shall go to the station on foot.

Shamraeff.

[losing his temper] Under these circumstances I resign my position. You must find yourself another manager. [He goes out.]

Arkadina.

It is like this every summer: every summer I am insulted here. I shall never set foot here again.

She goes out to the left, in the direction of the wharf. In a few minutes she is seen entering the house, followed by Trigorin, who carries a bucket and fishing-rod.

Sorin.

[Losing his temper] What the deuce did he mean by his impudence? I want all the horses brought here at once!

Nina.

[To Paulina] How could he refuse anything to Madame Arkadina, the famous actress? Is not every wish, every caprice even, of hers, more important than any farm work? This is incredible.

Paulina.

[In despair] What can I do about it? Put yourself in my place and tell me what I can do.

Sorin.

[To Nina] Let us go and find my sister, and all beg her not to go. [He looks in the direction in which Shamraeff went out] That man is insufferable; a regular tyrant.

Nina.

[Preventing him from getting up] Sit still, sit still, and let us wheel you. [She and Medviedenko push the chair before them] This is terrible!

Sorin.

Yes, yes, it is terrible; but he won’t leave. I shall have a talk with him in a moment. [They go out. Only Dorn and Paulina are left.]

Dorn.

How tiresome people are! Your husband deserves to be thrown out of here neck and crop, but it will all end by this old granny Sorin and his sister asking the man’s pardon. See if it doesn’t.

Paulina.

He has sent the carriage horses into the fields too. These misunderstandings occur every day. If you only knew how they excite me! I am ill; see! I am trembling all over! I cannot endure his rough ways. [Imploringly] Eugene, my darling, my beloved, take me to you. Our time is short; we are no longer young; let us end deception and concealment, even though it is only at the end of our lives. [A pause.]

Dorn.

I am fifty-five years old. It is too late now for me to change my ways of living.

Paulina.

I know that you refuse me because there are other women who are near to you, and you cannot take everybody. I understand. Excuse me — I see I am only bothering you.

Nina is seen near the house picking a bunch of flowers.

Dorn.

No, it is all right.

Paulina.

I am tortured by jealousy. Of course you are a doctor and cannot escape from women. I understand.

Dorn.

[TO Nina, who comes toward him] How are things in there?

Nina.

Madame Arkadina is crying, and Sorin is having an attack of asthma.

Dorn.

Let us go and give them both some camomile tea.

Nina.

[Hands him the bunch of flowers] Here are some flowers for you.

Dorn.

Thank you. [He goes into the house.]

Paulina.

[Following him] What pretty flowers! [As they reach the house she says in a low voice] Give me those flowers! Give them to me!

Dorn hands her the flowers; she tears them to pieces and flings them away. They both go into the house.

Nina.

[Alone] How strange to see a famous actress weeping, and for such a trifle! Is it not strange, too, that a famous author should sit fishing all day? He is the idol of the public, the papers are full of him, his photograph is for sale everywhere, his works have been translated into many foreign languages, and yet he is overjoyed if he catches a couple of minnows. I always thought famous people were distant and proud; I thought they despised the common crowd which exalts riches and birth, and avenged themselves on it by dazzling it with the inextinguishable honour and glory of their fame. But here I see them weeping and playing cards and flying into passions like everybody else.

Treplieff comes in without a hat on, carrying a gun and a dead seagull.

Treplieff.

Are you alone here?

Nina.

Yes.

Treplieff lays the sea-gull at her feet.

Nina.

What do you mean by this?

Treplieff.

I was base enough to-day to kill this gull. I lay it at your feet.

Nina.

What is happening to you? [She picks up the gull and stands looking at it.]

Treplieff.

[After a pause] So shall I soon end my own life.

Nina.

You have changed so that I fail to recognise you.

Treplieff.

Yes, I have changed since the time when I ceased to recognise you. You have failed me; your look is cold; you do not like to have me near you.

Nina.

You have grown so irritable lately, and you talk so darkly and symbolically that you must forgive me if I fail to follow you. I am too simple to understand you.

Treplieff.

All this began when my play failed so dismally. A woman never can forgive failure. I have burnt the manuscript to the last page. Oh, if you could only fathom my unhappiness! Your estrangement is to me terrible, incredible; it is as if I had suddenly waked to find this lake dried up and sunk into the earth. You say you are too simple to understand me; but, oh, what is there to understand? You disliked my play, you have no faith in my powers, you already think of me as commonplace and worthless, as many are. [Stamping his foot] How well I can understand your feelings! And that understanding is to me like a dagger in the brain. May it be accursed, together with my stupidity, which sucks my life-blood like a snake! [He sees Trigorin, who approaches reading a book] There comes real genius, striding along like another Hamlet, and with a book, too. [Mockingly] “Words, words, words.” You feel the warmth of that sun already, you smile, your eyes melt and glow liquid in its rays. I shall not disturb you. [He goes out.]

Trigorin.

[Making notes in his book] Takes snuff and drinks vodka; always wears black dresses; is loved by a schoolteacher —

Nina.

How do you do?

Trigorin.

How are you, Miss Nina? Owing to an unforeseen development of circumstances, it seems that we are leaving here today. You and I shall probably never see each other again, and I am sorry for it. I seldom meet a young and pretty girl now; I can hardly remember how it feels to be nineteen, and the young girls in my books are seldom living characters. I should like to change places with you, if but for an hour, to look out at the world through your eyes, and so find out what sort of a little person you are.

Nina.

And I should like to change places with you.

Trigorin.

Why?

Nina.

To find out how a famous genius feels. What is it like to be famous? What sensations does it give you?

Trigorin.

What sensations? I don’t believe it gives any. [Thoughtfully] Either you exaggerate my fame, or else, if it exists, all I can say is that one simply doesn’t feel fame in any way.

Nina.

But when you read about yourself in the papers?

Trigorin.

If the critics praise me, I am happy; if they condemn me, I am out of sorts for the next two days.

Nina.

This is a wonderful world. If you only knew how I envy you! Men are born to different destinies. Some dully drag a weary, useless life behind them, lost in the crowd, unhappy, while to one out of a million, as to you, for instance, comes a bright destiny full of interest and meaning. You are lucky.

Trigorin.

I, lucky? [He shrugs his shoulders] H-m — I hear you talking about fame, and happiness, and bright destinies, and those fine words of yours mean as much to me — forgive my saying so — as sweetmeats do, which I never eat. You are very young, and very kind.

Nina.

Your life is beautiful.

Trigorin.

I see nothing especially lovely about it. [He looks at his watch] Excuse me, I must go at once, and begin writing again. I am in a hurry. [He laughs] You have stepped on my pet corn, as they say, and I am getting excited, and a little cross. Let us discuss this bright and beautiful life of mine, though. [After a few moments’ thought] Violent obsessions sometimes lay hold of a man: he may, for instance, think day and night of nothing but the moon. I have such a moon. Day and night I am held in the grip of one besetting thought, to write, write, write! Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth — I write ceaselessly. I am, as it were, on a treadmill. I hurry for ever from one story to another, and can’t help myself. Do you see anything bright and beautiful in that? Oh, it is a wild life! Even now, thrilled as I am by talking to you, I do not forget for an instant that an unfinished story is awaiting me. My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano. I smell heliotrope; I mutter to myself: a sickly smell, the colour worn by widows; I must remember that in writing my next description of a summer evening. I catch an idea in every sentence of yours or of my own, and hasten to lock all these treasures in my literary store-room, thinking that some day they may be useful to me. As soon as I stop working I rush off to the theatre or go fishing, in the hope that I may find oblivion there, but no! Some new subject for a story is sure to come rolling through my brain like an iron cannonball. I hear my desk calling, and have to go back to it and begin to write, write, write, once more. And so it goes for everlasting. I cannot escape myself, though I feel that I am consuming my life. To prepare the honey I feed to unknown crowds, I am doomed to brush the bloom from my dearest flowers, to tear them from their stems, and trample the roots that bore them under foot. Am I not a madman? Should I not be treated by those who know me as one mentally diseased? Yet it is always the same, same old story, till I begin to think that all this praise and admiration must be a deception, that I am being hoodwinked because they know I am crazy, and I sometimes tremble lest I should be grabbed from behind and whisked off to a lunatic asylum. The best years of my youth were made one continual agony for me by my writing. A young author, especially if at first he does not make a success, feels clumsy, ill-at-ease, and superfluous in the world. His nerves are all on edge and stretched to the point of breaking; he is irresistibly attracted to literary and artistic people, and hovers about them unknown and unnoticed, fearing to look them bravely in the eye, like a man with a passion for gambling, whose money is all gone. I did not know my readers, but for some reason I imagined they were distrustful and unfriendly; I was mortally afraid of the public, and when my first play appeared, it seemed to me as if all the dark eyes in the audience were looking at it with enmity, and all the blue ones with cold indifference. Oh, how terrible it was! What agony!

Nina.

But don’t your inspiration and the act of creation give you moments of lofty happiness?

Trigorin.

Yes. Writing is a pleasure to me, and so is reading the proofs, but no sooner does a book leave the press than it becomes odious to me; it is not what I meant it to be; I made a mistake to write it at all; I am provoked and discouraged. Then the public reads it and says: “Yes, it is clever and pretty, but not nearly as good as Tolstoi,” or “It is a lovely thing, but not as good as Turgenieff’s ‘Fathers and Sons,’ “ and so it will always be. To my dying day I shall hear people say: “Clever and pretty; clever and pretty,” and nothing more; and when I am gone, those that knew me will say as they pass my grave: “Here lies Trigorin, a clever writer, but he was not as good as Turgenieff.”

Nina.

You must excuse me, but I decline to understand what you are talking about. The fact is, you have been spoilt by your success.

Trigorin.

What success have I had? I have never pleased myself; as a writer, I do not like myself at all. The trouble is that I am made giddy, as it were, by the fumes of my brain, and often hardly know what I am writing. I love this lake, these trees, the blue heaven; nature’s voice speaks to me and wakes a feeling of passion in my heart, and I am overcome by an uncontrollable desire to write. But I am not only a painter of landscapes, I am a man of the city besides. I love my country, too, and her people; I feel that, as a writer, it is my duty to speak of their sorrows, of their future, also of science, of the rights of man, and so forth. So I write on every subject, and the public hounds me on all sides, sometimes in anger, and I race and dodge like a fox with a pack of hounds on his trail. I see life and knowledge flitting away before me. I am left behind them like a peasant who has missed his train at a station, and finally I come back to the conclusion that all I am fit for is to describe landscapes, and that whatever else I attempt rings abominably false.

Nina.

You work too hard to realise the importance of your writings. What if you are discontented with yourself? To others you appear a great and splendid man. If I were a writer like you I should devote my whole life to the service of the Russian people, knowing at the same time that their welfare depended on their power to rise to the heights I had attained, and the people should send me before them in a chariot of triumph.

Trigorin.

In a chariot? Do you think I am Agamemnon? [They both smile.]

Nina.

For the bliss of being a writer or an actress I could endure want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own dissatisfaction with myself; but I should demand in return fame, real, resounding fame! [She covers her face with her hands] Whew! My head reels!

THE VOICE OF Arkadina.

[From inside the house] Boris! Boris!

Trigorin.

She is calling me, probably to come and pack, but I don’t want to leave this place. [His eyes rest on the lake] What a blessing such beauty is!

Nina.

Do you see that house there, on the far shore?

Trigorin.

Yes.

Nina.

That was my dead mother’s home. I was born there, and have lived all my life beside this lake. I know every little island in it.

Trigorin.

This is a beautiful place to live. [He catches sight of the dead sea-gull] What is that?

Nina.

A gull. Constantine shot it.

Trigorin.

What a lovely bird! Really, I can’t bear to go away. Can’t you persuade Irina to stay? [He writes something in his note-book.]

Nina.

What are you writing?

Trigorin.

Nothing much, only an idea that occurred to me. [He puts the book back in his pocket] An idea for a short story. A young girl grows up on the shores of a lake, as you have. She loves the lake as the gulls do, and is as happy and free as they. But a man sees her who chances to come that way, and he destroys her out of idleness, as this gull here has been destroyed. [A pause. Arkadina appears at one of the windows.]

Arkadina.

Boris! Where are you?

Trigorin.

I am coming this minute.

He goes toward the house, looking back at Nina. Arkadina remains at the window.

Trigorin.

What do you want?

Arkadina.

We are not going away, after all.

Trigorin goes into the house. Nina comes forward and stands lost in thought.

Nina.

It is a dream!

The curtain falls.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06