01/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nothing Is Beautiful Unless it Is Serious

On 'The Seagull' starring Kristin Scott Thomas
The play runs till December 21

Just before I left home, I discovered that I couldn't find my eyeglasses. I was on my way to the Walter Kerr Theater to watch Chekhov's The Seagull. On the train, I kept thinking that I wouldn't be able to clearly see the actors on stage. The admirable Kristin Scott Thomas in her award-winning role as the aging actress Irina Arkadina -- would her expressions get dissolved in the dark? And her admirable cheek-bones?

I needn't have worried. The theater, with its steep seats, brings the audience close to the people on stage. The actors, in this production of the play by the Royal Court Theatre, were magnificent. Carey Mulligan, whom I had never seen before, playing Nina, an aspiring actress, brought a wonderful energy on stage. And as to Kristin Scott Thomas -- I didn't need glasses, I could have been blindfolded and still been touched by her radiance.

The play is set at a rural estate that borders a lake. Twice during the play, Irina Arkadina visits the estate with her lover, a famous writer named Trigorin. The city dwellers are visiting the provinces. But this is hardly the main drama. Much of the tension in the play arises from thwarted desire. To put it simply, A loves B, B loves C, C loves D. Also, D loves E, and E ruins her. There's also F who loves G, and G doesn't love anyone, except maybe himself. It could be confusing and it is marvel that Chekhov not only makes the drama real but also moving.

When The Seagull begins, we get to hear about Irina Arkadina from her grown-up son who is just about to stage a drama, a play within a play. The son believes that because he reminds his mother of her age she doesn't love him. He says, "She's thirty two when I'm not here, and forty-three when I am, that's why she hates me."

The audience responded with laughter at this line. I was surrounded by an older crowd, made up mostly of women, and they were tickled by Arkadina's charming narcissism. And they stayed with her as the play took a darker turn.

Scott Thomas, displaying a great range of emotion, revealed her Arkadina as loving, bullying, vulnerable, sly, desperate. The scene in which she was pleading with Trigorin that he not run away with Nina, the young, provincial actress who has fallen for him, was performed with perfect timing and passion. "Am I really so old and ugly," she asked, "that you can talk to me about other women without embarrassment?" But the truculence changed to something gentler and anguished. She said, her face bending to the ground, "You are the last page of my life..." And then, drawing herself closer to her errant lover, both of them now seated on the floor, "You're mine, you're all mine. This forehead's mine, these eyes are mine, this beautiful silky hair's mine too." And because her lover is a writer, of course, she also has words of praise and flattery for his art. "You're so talented and clever, the best of all the modern writers, you're Russia's only hope."

An empathic hush had fallen among the audience, but as Arkadina skillfully defused the threat to her love, everyone began to laugh again.

When it was first performed in 1896, in Petersburg, The Seagull was a disaster. The audience had booed and hissed. Here's an explanation from a work of criticism: "Chekhov had allowed a "popular music-hall actress -- who had no part in the play -- to use the occasion for her benefit night, and so a large part of the audience was drawn from the fans of her romping farces." Whatever the reason, the fact is that the crowd's response unnerved Chekhov; he hid in the dressing room, alone. Later, he said, "Not if I live to be seven hundred will I write another play."

A year later, Stanislavsky put the play on in Moscow and it was a brilliant success. And deservedly so. The Seagull is a play that conveys a tragicomic grasp of frustrated love among a small group of people, but it is also very successful in staging the drama of art's relation to life. Again and again, the actors on stage are caught in their search for ambition and success. They deal with failure.

At the heart of the play is the profound question of art, and its relation to life, and how patiently talent must play its hand. There is genuine seriousness of purpose, and Chekhov finds lyrical form to explore the question. As one character puts it: "Nothing is beautiful unless it is serious." This is the seriousness that the audience in Petersburg was perhaps objecting to on the play's opening night; and I have no way of knowing whether the audience on Broadway was as appreciative of that question as it was of the jokes about retirement and the need, stressed by Arkadina, to never let oneself get frumpy.