Speeding Up Chekhov

June 22, 2018   •   By Ayten Tartici

IN A 1907 ESSAY penned for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, the philosopher Giovanni Papini distinguished films — which, at the time, ran around 20 to 30 minutes — from plays on the basis of their economical compression: “In respect of the theater — which it partially attempts to replace — the cinematograph has the advantage of being a shorter, less tiring, and cheaper spectacle, therefore requiring less time, less energy, less money […] The cinematograph satisfies […] all these tendencies toward economy.” Papini’s exaltation of the less, less, less — with its focus on the ease with which one could consume film — brings to mind the Swanson TV dinner ads from the ’50s: “Get this,” one such commercial goes, “My wife never panics […] Mary Lou knows she can have a swell dinner ready in just twenty-five minutes. And talk about easy. You just heat and serve.” In his theory of the cinema, Papini offers a tribute to the briskly defrosted over the drawn-out meal.

The Italian thinker never lived to see the age of three-hour Marvel movies or the birth of “slow cinema,” but Michael Mayer’s dizzyingly fast film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull takes Papini’s early distinction between film and theater to heart. Compressing Chekhov’s original, which regularly clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours on stage, into a slim 98 minutes, Mayer’s The Seagull leaves reams of dialogue from the play on the cutting room floor. The basic arc of the original remains intact. Set on an idyllic lake in the country, the aspiring but frustrated playwright Konstantin Treplev competes for the attention of his mother Irina Arkadina, an aging actress, as well as for that of his girlfriend, girl-next-door Nina. Yet, both women are in thrall to big city literary star, Boris Trigorin. Feeling unwanted, Konstantin ultimately shoots himself in the head. In Chekhovian fashion, everyone is a little bad and a little complex.

Mayer’s film is the first major English-language film adaptation of The Seagull since John Desmond’s sluggish two-hour production in 1975. Shot over 21 days at the Arrow Park Lake and Lodge, a 19th-century Russian cooperative overlooking a lake in Monroe, New York, the film had a rehearsal schedule so minimal that Mayer compared it to attending a summer stock theater camp. As is well known, a lack of rehearsal time caused the spectacular failure of The Seagull’s first performance in 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The actors, having had only nine days and eight rehearsals to prepare, kept forgetting their lines. That Mayer’s tight production schedule proved possible owes much, no doubt, to the talent of the film’s cast, including heavy hitters like Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, and Corey Stoll.

Mayer’s choice to speed Chekhov up works: although the film’s breezy pacing pushes the work away from the realm of tragedy into comedy, it has the unexpected but felicitous effect of rendering women the verbal center of the film. Their rhetorical agility quickly becomes a foil to a gaggle of fickle, moody men. When Konstantin shoots a seagull and lays it at Nina’s feet, she retorts, “You keep talking in symbols. Maybe I am too simple to understand.” His pronouncements are as obscure as the shadowy figures in his allegorical play. Suffering from unrequited love for Konstantin, Masha (Elisabeth Moss) delivers many of the film’s best one-liners. To Medvenko, who asks why she’s wearing black, Masha snaps in a clipped, New York demotic, “I’m mourning. For my life” — abbreviating perhaps one of the most famous opening lines in the history of theater (in Ronald Hingley’s translation, the same line reads: “I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.”).

Masha not only understands her own emotions, but can instantly verbalize them. Asking Boris to autograph one of his books for her, she drunkenly quips, “None of that deepest regards or fondest wishes […] ‘To Masha, who doesn’t know where she comes from or what she’s doing in this life.’” She is a female Shakespearean fool, one whose self-aware jibes tickle her audience, even as they come at the expense of her own happiness. Stephen Karam’s truncated script heightens this comic tendency of Chekhov’s dialogue, reminding us of his subtitle, “A Comedy in Four Acts.” This is perhaps why, when the film slows down at the end, the scene of Nina (Saoirse Ronan) and Konstantin’s dramatic reunion feels so weak. That swing toward melodrama feels jarring, as the unfolding conversation between them creates atmospheric confusion.

The script shines when it sticks to its own sense of abrupt comic timing. Despite Masha’s pitiful devotion to young Konstantin, we find ourselves laughing at her dramatic self-knowledge and the acid zingers it comes wrapped in. She spends most of the film searching for or following Konstantin around like a puppy, her repetitive calls out to him (“Konstantin! Konstantin!”) becoming a soundtrack of their own. Moss does a remarkable job of portraying Masha’s sudden mood swings: one moment, high on cocaine, she is about to burst into tears; the next, she is traipsing around the estate, her composure intact. “Don’t look at me like that,” she admonishes Boris, “A lot of women drink, just not as openly as I do.” Alcohol and blow may be her crutch, but words are her weapon; she speaks to participate in her own destruction.

Irina (Annette Bening) is a similarly dazzling female fast-talker. Yet, instead of uttering isolated quips like Masha, she speaks in volumes. Bening had previously played Irina at the American Conservatory Theater while a graduate student at San Francisco State University and is pitch perfect as the self-obsessed, jabbering Russian actress. Unlike Masha, Irina is not about vocalizing her emotions. Instead, she is a hoarder of attention, for which volubility becomes key. In this sense, Bening’s perfomance recalls the flighty, manic-pixie Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1938), who will not shut up until she gets what she wants. A chronic interrupter, Irina constantly talks over everyone else, even in moments that require silence. She loudly criticizes the highbrow dullness of Konstantin’s play in its opening moments (“We’re already asleep”; “I think this is supposed to be high art”); later, bored with everyone else for reading and knitting in the house, she punctures the silence by complimenting herself on how well she’s aged (“Look at me”). There is no sparring partner capable of keeping up with her, including her paramour, the allegedly eloquent writer Boris, who proves defenseless against her verbal spellcasting.

The film drives home Irina’s endless verbal domination by taking advantage of techniques that are unique to the cinematic medium. In a brilliant montage sequence, Irina is one moment inside the living room lecturing Masha on how to look young; the next she is on the lake talking about her clothes; the next she is in the garden complimenting herself on her updo surrounded by a crowd of ladies. While all of the dialogue comes from Chekhov, in the play, these lines are all uttered in one location: on a bench near a lime tree against a croquet lawn. With fast cuts, the film takes us all around the estate, inside and outside the house, showing the peripatetic Irina engaging in what she loves doing the most: talking. But her words also prove to be harmful. Eavesdropping plays a larger role in the film than in the play, as Mayer’s actors often hear — and understand — what they are not supposed to. Nina overhears Irina’s pitying remarks spoken about her (“Poor Girl. Literally”; “Her father’s a monster”). Shortly before shooting himself, Konstantin listens from the adjacent room as his mother confesses that she has not read a single word he has written. The film also makes one notable addition. After Irina turns down an invitation from the others to sing (“Singing is hardly my forte”), Nina, the younger rival, is offered the opportunity; before the reticent ingénue can agree, however, the camera quickly cuts back to the same group indoors, as Irina belts, “Life was ecstasy.” Her jealousy suddenly overcomes any sense of false modesty.

By privileging highly verbal women, Mayer’s The Seagull feels in conversation with — intentionally or not — certain strains of American film culture and is, when combined with the choice not to use either Russian or English accents, an all-American adaptation. “Fast-talking dames,” as Maria DiBattista has noted in a book of that name, were an invention of the American talkies and came of age in the comedies of the 1930s and ’40s. Starlets like Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Claudette Colbert took to the screen as confident, world- and word-wise heroines, capable of talking their way into or out of anything, often opposite mumbling, bewildered male leads. A literary precursor to this cinematic type can be found in Gloria Patch from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, who charms Anthony Patch with her ability to talk “for her own pleasure, without effort.” Later, in 1941’s The Lady Eve, Stanwyck plays veteran card shark and con artist Jean Harrington, reeling in naïve ale fortune heir Charles Pike with her words. DiBattista ties this development in early cinema to the invention of a peculiarly American idiom, one that is democratic, slangy, and rapid fire.

The American mulier loquax has had a recent resurgence in the accelerated pace of certain television writing, most obviously in the work of Amy Sherman-Palladino, the mastermind behind the roadrunner feminine verbosity of Gilmore Girls, Bunheads, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In Gilmore Girls, it takes 20 seconds for Lorelai to zip through a page of dialogue. Her frequent consumption of coffee — no matter what time of day it is — is the quintessential symbol of that fluency and the engine of her tongue. Call it caffeine aesthetics, the hallmark of which is a riot of unbridled female speech. Taking her cue from Lauren Graham, who played Lorelai, Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel confessed in an interview that she consumes “lots and lots and lots of coffee” to play her role as Midge, the uptight Upper West Side housewife-turned-bawdy-comedienne. Fast talk, she reminds us, requires hard work, demands unfalteringly memorizing one’s lines.

As in early Hollywood classics, Sherman-Palladino’s women clash with the brooding, flustered American men congregated around them, struggling to keep up. We thus find a kind of can’t-waste-my-words masculinity, focused not on talking but on acting fast, not just in the laconic heroes of old Westerns. Call it instead “bullet” aesthetics. For example, although both Masha and Konstantin suffer from unrequited love, their responses to that pain are quite different. Masha tries to talk herself out of it (“Unrequited love,” she rationalizes, “it only exists in novels”; “Waiting for years for something that will never come”), while Konstantin quite literally takes himself out of it.

This is not to say that Mayer’s The Seagull operates at quite the same breakneck speed as Gilmore Girls or that Karam and Mayer have somehow reduced Chekhov to a screwball farce. But their choice to let the women speak, to really dish, persuade, and preen with their words, cannot help but feel a part of that broader cinematic tradition. The liberal changes Mayer and Karam took with the film’s ending only go to prove that point. Chekhov’s original concludes with one of the male characters announcing Konstantin’s death: “The fact is, Konstantin has shot himself.” In the film, however, the group remains congregated in the living room, still unaware of the reality of the situation, playing the lotto game, as a somewhat gimmicky voiceover of Nina recites lines from Konstantin’s play, thus refusing the dramatic silence Konstantin’s bullet brings with it.

Ultimately, however, the status of female talk remains ambiguous in the film. In Gilmore Girls, the faster Rory talks, the more allusions she lobs into the air, the smarter she proves herself to be. In Bringing Up Baby, Susan’s smart tongue gets her the boy. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge finds her own voice through the trials of her stand-up routine. But in The Seagull, what do these women get for all their banter? The scorn of men who still do not love them? The loss of those closest to them? Nina’s dramatic speech to Konstantin at the end of the film at least gestures toward self-understanding. She comes to realize that she is stuck in a loop, that she still loves Boris despite his abandonment of her. It is through talking to Konstantin that she persuades herself to do what he cannot: to continue on, to keep memorizing her lines.


Ayten Tartici is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Yale University. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Stanford Arcade, MAKE Literary Magazine, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among other venues.