Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More Nina and Treplev

In response to my earlier posts about Nina and Treplev, I got the following email (in italics). I responded while I was reading (in boldface):

The Nina/Act IV question was particularly interesting. It makes me wonder what Konstantine has gone through over the course of the play (especially given the Seagull question you fielded). What happens to him in the three years between Act III and IV?

Does he stay, perfectly crystalized in that environment, shut up in the room, writing away? And so, when Nina comes back, maybe that's part of what's so interesting about it. He's another relic of her former life that she comes across.

Look at the moment when she first comes in and says to him, “Let me look at you.” In that moment, what does each of them see? Literally, what? In contrast to the young person each of them was (Describe those in detail too). The audience will be remembering that Nina and that Kostya of the first three acts too.

I think it must be more interesting than that, because that would make the gunshot a forgone conclusion. Him not changing at all is also impossible, because he's getting older.

And what does the play say happens to the seagull within us as we get older? Sorin is a Treplev who didn't actually kill himself, but what happened to his dreams?

I wonder if he could both be changed and stay the same, like, what would happen if she showed up and he was still wearing the same suit. (Or, if some clever costumer could make him an identical suit that was slightly smaller and shabbier.) "You've found your way..." something about Konstantine's stagnation is killing him. I wonder so much about what he sees in her, and how that's totally different from what she sees in herself. Every character has a way of explaining the world to themselves (I think you used to say this), and Chekhov puts them in situations outside of their vocabulary. I need to read the play again, but I think Act IV must be in some part about this.

[just FYI, at this point in the email, I started trying to figure out what I was talking about while I was writing it, so it might not track too cleanly...]

What happens to Kostya in the three years between Act III and IV? He becomes successful. He's getting published. He wears a new suit in Act IV. But what's happening to him? What's happening to the artist within him? Nina has discovered: “What's important is to endure.” To pick yourself up and get on with it. To compromise.
Nina will make it.
Konstantin won't. Why?

What is the seagull? Isn't it that passion within young people, that desire to soar, to reach for stars, to believe in possibility, that is youth? At the end of the play it's stuffed and sitting on a shelf. At the end of the play Nina has grown out of/abandons her dreams. She’s not a seagull, she’s an actress. (What's the mordant irony here?)
She’s found her way.
In seeing her now, Kostya finally utterly realizes he won't.

Look at who are the successful adults in the play. By Act IV Trigorin’s voice is even flatter and shallower than it ever was. Dr. Dorn just smiles and smokes his cigar and watches with detached amusement the human drama happening around him (and he's a doctor!). And Arkadina wins at lotto and at life as she always will. Why? What is the play saying about growing up? about succeeding? making it?

I wonder about the Hamlet reference in the play. I don't think Chekhov would ever give his characters the self-knowledge that Hamlet approaches... or, I don't think that knowledge would ever become as important to the drama of the story, because Nina has her own self-knowledge, is a Hamlet is her own right. There's something so unusual about Chekhov's work, something highlighted by the irony of the Hamlet reference. Konstantine is a "real-life" Hamlet. Something about seeing NOT the play that Konstantine writes, but the people who are putting on the play. I always imagine Chekhov's characters running around in a world too big for them, trying to make everything work out. Some of his humor must come from a paradox: "They're scared of ghosts, but they're language doesn't have the word "ghost" in it."

What is Hamlet's tragedy? He's a gifted creative passionate young man who simply cannot/will not adjust to the world of corruption, vice, hypocrisy, changing allegiances, spying, lying--All the things you have to do to survive and thrive in the world. (And the two women in his life simply do not get it either.) Where's the tragedy?

Ah yes. That's it. It's that Chekhov writes characters that have no way to talk about spirits. That's what Konstantine is doing in Act I: talking about spirits, and everyone thinks it's ridiculous.

Chekhov is parodying the Decadent Theatre of the time; e.g., Maeterlink’s plays. Kostya’s play isn’t very good. And Nina has no idea what she’s saying when she recites the lines in Act I. The contrast between how she says the lines then and how she says them with meaning and understanding in Act IV after life has done its job on her is part of the great grief of the play.

Nina comes in, a ghost from the past. I've always felt like Chekhov is laughing at people for having no idea what really governs their lives, like deeper fears and passions, but he brilliantly wrote it all in their everyday language and situations. Konstantine and Nina are then marvelous partly because they come closest to expressing more of their humanity than anyone around them. Partly what's tricky about playing Treplev must be that he doesn't know how to express himself. He's talking about his love for her, and all he can say is "I killed this seagull." Or, all he can say is to kill a seagull.

"I've hit bottom. I can't go any lower. And today I shot this seagull. I lay it at your feet". That offering of the dead seagull is his last despairing attempt to get across to her how much he is suffering in his frustration at trying to find his way into the adult world of art/commerce and even the woman who should understand him the most seems to be completely blind and deaf to his pain and fears and utter hopelessness.
(Why does Hamlet go postal with Ophelia? It's not just because he loves her and she wants to return his remembrances.)

The audience should be weeping through the last scene, but not sentimental tears. Not just for young love lost. There is deep loss, great grief. What should your audience be recognizing in their own lives? What has each of them had to give up, abandon, stuff and put on a shelf, in order to make their way in the world and through life?
Kostya slowly tears up all his writing and walks out of the room. The stage is empty.
The rest is silence.

Konstantine is a "real-life" Hamlet, which is a Hamlet without a ghost, without a crown, without revenge, without a Claudius... Konstantine is the drama of someone who is a Hamlet, in real life.

Anyway. Thank you for starting your blog. I think these thoughts may bode well for a future production of the Seagull.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Arms and the Man and other Shaw stuff

I'm reading St. Joan now. I like it. What's the deal with Arms and the Man? In St. Joan the stakes are apparent, I can't figure out what's so important to everybody in Arms.

The sham of romanticizing both love and war. (Which every second play at the time was doing.)
Blunt-schli (note the name) is a down-to-earth realist--who gets bowled over by Raina. And he knows it. He chuckles at her romantic notions even as he sees her slender neck in the moonlight and the play of her breasts beneath her negligee.

Raina thinks it's magnificent that her boyfriend is fighting in Iraq, defending freedom, storming through the desert--just like in all the books and movies. (Remember?: We'll be treated as liberators. They'll be dancing in the streets.)
But there's a Louka inside Raina too. She just has to try to keep that straight-shooter-within in check.

Raina and Sergius act all the time the way people going on their first date (or at the prom) do. Hence, "very tiring thing to keep up".
Both Sergius and Raina want to be perfect, the way books and ideals tell them a man and woman should be. (I remember as a student thinking just before each quarter of school that THIS time I'd be different, I wouldn't make all the same mistakes I made the last quarter, that I would be a better friend, that I wouldn't miss any classes, etc.)
But...they're human. Rats. Surely you can relate to: "which of the many Sergiuses tumbling about inside me is the real one?"
What's important to them? Being perfect. Living up to those ideals we are all presented with all the time.
But they're not perfect, they're human. How does that manifest itself in each of them?
By the way, there are people who try to be the perfect cynic or the perfect skeptic--know any of them?--and in trying to live up to THAT ideal, they're just being their own versions of Raina and Sergius. It can take a bit of courage to admit that there's a Raina or Sergius in yourself.

Bluntschli--he's Swiss with a shopkeeper's mentality. ("The Swiss national character.") Feet planted firmly on the ground. Do your job well, take no unnecessary chances. Save your ass, climb the rainspout. And then: ohmygod, she's exquisite!

Do you know Man and Superman? Without it, there never would have been Hollywood screwball comedies.

Vitality. Conviction. Shaw people have passions and they love to debate them, to argue, to interrupt one another, to agree, to object. And they have the gift of language. Think about those passionate debates/arguments/discussions that you must have had late into the night about theatre and acting and art and commerce and maybe religion. Surely there was a Jack Tanner among them. And lots of Tavies in the theatre department. And Sergiuses who believe in the purity and perfection of theatre and who scorn LA--and yet in their heart of hearts.....

Find Shaw people at The Poet's Corner in London where people literally bring their soap boxes and get up on them and start passionate discussions about ideas that they really care about.
Shaw found drama in conversation--but what talk! And comedy. He loved upsetting the applecart. There's an Irish leprechaun in each of his characters just delighting in pulling the rug out from an opponent or popping somebody's pretentious balloon or--well, you come up with your own metaphors. So long as you get to the sheer joy of engaging in passionate, witty, brilliant debate with intellectual and passionate equals. They play this game as professional tennis players play tennis--swift, powerful, relentless--and they don't often miss the goal, which is scoring the point, catching the opponent off guard, getting the audience to cheer. (This is what makes the last scene between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle a great battle of wits between intellectual equals and not a sentimental love story.)
Or think of a great basketball game--with a little Harlem Globetrotters capability at any moment just to keep everyone off balance a bit.

What's at stake? Humanity! Western civilization! Shaw really was a revolutionary. He joined the Fabian Society. Was shy as a youth, tongue-tied. He stuttered. He joined a debating society and found his voice in his passionate convictions about politics and society and the place of women, etc. etc.
But he also discovered that the best way to make people think was to get them to laugh first. Disarm them with a laugh and they are open to hearing an idea.
And he would do anything to get your attention: from the lowest kind of slapstick (Raina's father comes home and Mrs. Petkoff gets him a cup of strong Bulgarian coffee while Raina finds a pillow for his chair and Louka takes her good ole time going for Nicola to help the old man with his boots) to the momentous crackling of the ideas in the tent scene of St. Joan where the future of nationalism and religion and politics is at stake.

Shaw believes in reason, the power of reason to change the world--as all great comedy writers do from Aristophanes on.
Shaw could release the passionate believer inside YOU, he could get you on your toes, get your tongue on fire with your intellect and your convictions. He could give you the courage to leap into the arena and fight brilliantly and passionately for your convictions. Look at Marchbanks in Candida. See how he deals with Morell, who is much bigger, stronger, revered--and physically capable of knocking his little head off. Take a look at Bentley in Misalliance. Shaw's geniuses.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


I was hoping you could send me a quick sentence or two about Konstantin in The Seagull, when he comes in and lays the seagull at Nina's feet. I am working on it and am running into a trap. I want her to save me...to hug me and apologize for her behavior and promise me everything will be fine and that Trigorin is a cheesy bastard etc. What I find is that I end up going to anger (at the world and myself) when that is not the response. That seems quite "conclusionary" to me, it doesn't go anywhere. Any thoughts or suggestions?
I am just trying to concentrate on the basics of acting again. I feel like I really need it...because otherwise it's just no fun.

Why does he shoot the seagull?
What exactly does he want her do do when he lays it at her feet?

This isn't just about their love relationship-- it's about something a lot deeper than that.
Remember:  he wants to be an artist. (Why does Act I take place where and when it does?) What does that mean he wants to do? How does an artist know he has succeeded? (Note that all his mother wants is to be center stage and to hear applause.) His relationship with Nina and his relationship with his mother are both connected deeply with his great driving need to create art, to communicate with/to the world, to matter.   What happens to him during his play in Act I?

What's his greatest fear? He refers to it when he's talking with Sorin before everyone arrives to see his play.  And Arkadina cuts him off at the knees with it when they have their fight in Act III.  (Find, in your own experience, this great need and the great fear that comes with it. That's what you're going to bring to the dead seagull scene.)

He is eventually going to put the barrel of  the rifle in his own mouth and pull the trigger. He succeeds at the end of the play. He tries to do it sometime shortly after this scene in Act II.

What does he need?  to be understood, to know that he matters, that he has something to say to the world and that the world hears it, gets  it.  (Activate this in your own soul. I saw it all the time when you were in school--and I'll bet it's still there.)
What does he need from her at this very moment?  "I lay it at your feet".  What does he want to see in her eyes? What could she do that would say "I get it.  I understand."?
If someone, anyone, could let him know that they get it, that they realize where his torment is coming from, they would save his life.

Yes, he's angry. Mostly at himself for not being able to...what? What is an artist's deepest driving force?

If Trigorin weren't a successful writer, even if Nina was attracted to him but she knew he was a commercial hack, what difference would that make to what happens here?

Go beneath the love triangle to the real acid eating at his soul.  That's what makes him shoot the seagull and that is what will make him kill himself.

Where's the Treplev in your "I feel like I really need it...because otherwise it's just no fun"?

The Seagull: The Final Scene

In the final scene of The Seagull, what is Nina DOING?

Nina is returning to the last place where her life had some center and she's trying to rediscover how to hold herself together.
She searches through that whole scene. And she finds what she needs. And gradually she becomes whole.

When she enters she is utterly exhausted. By Life (Devise improvisations to get an actress to discover what "life" has been for her the last year or so. Lead to total exhaustion, near complete physical/emotional collapse. Not, however, mental breakdown.)
She leans against a bookcase. Ah! I remember this bookcase...Kostya read Pushkin love poems to me. My fourteenth birthday. He took the book from this shelf. Must get away from that memory. Oh, here's his desk. Didn't it used to be in the other room? Look at all the papers--yes, he's a writer now. Oh God, I want to sink into this chair and rest rest. No mustn't give in. Ah! there's the scratch on the floor--Yakov dropped the brass astrolabe--long ago--I was thirteen--visiting. Mustn't cry mustn't cry....I'm so tired, maybe if I just rest my head on my arms here on the sideboard---no! I'm a seagull (spine lifts and wants to soar...) No, I'm not. (no, spine can't lift anymore, it sinks) I'm an actress.

She's like someone who has survived a final awful drug overdose and fevered breakdown. She's coming out of it. She's reorienting herself. He watches. [And so do we.] He reaches. He pulls back to let her try to stand. She searches: for that girl she was who used to soar around the lake, for the exhilarating dream of opening nights and applause, for her baby, for.... Images, memories, tumble through her brain, her muscles. She cries. Treplev says "I love you" and she turns away. He wants to touch her, but he must give her her space. He reaches, he withdraws. He holds her, he releases her.

Through it all she becomes whole again. Step by step. Recovered image by image. She will survive. But at what price? What goes out of her irrevocably during the course of this scene? What is the sea gull?

And what does he see, sense, realize as he perceives her going through this process? that leads to "You have found your way. And I never will." Remember: this whole scene is leading to that gunshot.
Why does he shoot himself? What does he realize? What is the sea gull?