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May 12, 2013

The Notebook of Trigorin by Tennessee Williams, a Free Adaptation of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov translated by Ann Dunnigan, directed by Laura Braza, the Attic Theatre Company

Whatever Williams may have worked out for himself in this 1981 exercise of adaptation, he didn’t do Chekhov any good, much as he admired the Russian playwright.  Evidently it was important to Williams to write this play it but it's of interest mainly to those with an active concern with theater history  -- in that these are two very great playwrights and it could be said anything they did is of interest.

The play -- Chekhov pure or filtered through Williams -- is a web of unrequited love.  The characters gather on the estate of Sorin, brother of the famous actress Arkadina, who has come to vacation there with her lover Trigorin.  He is a successful and conventional writer, a foil for Konstantin, Arkadina’s son who, with his passionate, youthful belief in a need for “new forms” for literature, is staging his avant-garde play on an improvised outdoor stage.  Konstantin is in love with his actress, Nina who, in short order, falls in love with Trigorin (which might leave Konstantin available for Masha, the Steward’s daughter, who loves him passionately but it won’t happen).

The drama of the powerful first act of The Seagull -- and it retains some of its power here -- centers around Konstantin’s desire for his mother’s praise, attention and respect, and her laughing dismissal of his play which she finds absurd, with its all talk no action.  “Ah,” she whispers with amused irony to her worldly companion Trigorin, “recitative.”  Chekhov in this episode gave us great talk and action -- and we did not need Masha to tell us before hand, as she does in Williams’ adaptation, that Arkadina “will despise the play this evening and make no secret of it.”  Here, as elsewhere, what Chekhov implies, Williams highlights with a magic marker.

Williams pushes hard to cast light on the fascinatingly equivocal relationship Chekhov created between Arkadina and Trigorin.  What is the nature of their bond?  Trigorin chafes at its restraints yet they remain together, his fling with Nina, and the baby produced from it, notwithstanding.  Williams responds to the ambiguities by making Trigorin bisexual, inserting flings with men as well as that with Nina, a characterization that in the context seems forced and somewhat implausible. 

In Chekhov’s play, Dr. Dorm is a loving personality who, as a nature romantic, assigns passionate longings to the power of the nearby lake.  Dorn, in Chekhov, is a ray of hope amidst the bevy of dysfunctional characters.  In keeping with his own tragic vision, Williams’ turns him into a heartless misogynist.  

The earlier part of The Notebook of Trigorin, has more the feel and flavor of Chekhov, and as the play progresses Williams' tragic sensibility and vision of characters living in a world of their own illusions become more dominant.  As in the characters of Trigorin and Dorn, this produces distracting disjunctions.  Williams pulls a rabbit out of the hat at the very end in a grand gesture by Arkadina.  It’s wondrously theatrical, and the one point where, for a moment, I felt Williams has actually improved on Chekhov, until I realized that Arkadina, narcissistic but in touch, would not have done it:  Blanche Dubois of Streetcar Named Desire might well have.

Michael Schantz conveys the confidence, and underlying agitation of Trigorin, the successful author and alluring man.  Jeremy Lawrence is amusing and touching as the estate owner, Sorin, who confronts in old age his failure to achieve his two goals:  to marry and to be a writer. 

Beyond them, the acting is lackluster, one of the casualties of which is that the symbolic power of the seagull Konstantin shoots and presents to Nina as a love gift is lost.  Charise Green as Arkadina throws herself into arguments with effective no holds-barred emotionality but fails to convey the famous actress’s charisma.  She characterizes the narcissistic, dominating woman by screams so grating that I tucked in turtle-wise every time I saw them coming; otherwise she adopts an intimate affect so quiet a lot of her lines couldn’t be heard.   

According to the program, Williams wrote this adaptation to make the “quiet” “delicate” Chekhov more accessible to American audiences.  “Our theatre has to cry out to be heard at all …”   But quiet, delicate Chekhov has done very well in America and around the world, as has Tennessee Williams, both deservedly.  Just not in this hybrid.

The Notebook of Trigorin  plays at The Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca district through May 18th.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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Thank you for this very excellent and incisive analysis of the differences between the two plays. I was not familiar with Chekhov’s the Seagull and was somewhat disturbed that Chekhov, a physician, made the physician, Dr. Dorn, such a miserable character. The Williams adaptation gives no credit to the medical profession. Furthermore, this adaptation by Williams really does not make the symbolism of the Seagull apparent. I had to go to Wikipedia to figure out what that was all about. Although the world Chekhov portrayed is no longer – the people in the emotions are the same. The lesson here, as you put it so nicely, is to not try to improve upon a masterpiece or think you can adapt a great work of art to a different society. Even the great playwright must remain in the bubble of his or her own time.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I don't agree that there's a lesson here about not trying to inprove upon a masterpiece, or that you can't adapt a great work of art to a different society. I would never say ahead of time what a talented writer could or couldn't achieve -- you never know. This play is a disappointing adaptation but that doesn't mean that playwrights can't converse through the ages by taking up one another's plays. Look, for example, at all the wonderful ways Greek tragedies have been revisited, yielding insightful dramas with new meanings. Thanks for writing. Yvonne

Thank you for your reply - I agree with you - there have been many really excellent interpetrations of classics.

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