Chekhov the Buddhist

buddha-chekhovChekhov’s play The Seagull, seems to be a classic illustration of the Buddhist aphorism that desire is the cause of all suffering, and their inability to get what the desire leads to destruction, in some form or another.

Of course, it is the most self-aware characters that experience this the most. Masha, with her famous opening line “I wear black because I’m in mourning for my life,” both experiences her desire and accepts her fate. She’s madly in love with Konstantin, aware she’ll never get him, and so marries the dull-witted Medvedenko, know that at least, she will be able to control him. He is too dim to see the dangers of loving someone who doesn’t love him back. Masha commits a form of emotional suicide, killing her desire of Konstantin by marrying someone else.

Konstantin, of course, pays the ultimate price for his longing. He commits suicide when unable to obtain recognition, either as a writer or through the eyes of his would-be lover, Nina.  He has suffered a sense of unworthiness his entire life, growing up with the self-absorbed mother Irina and her crowd, who don’t pay any attention to anyone who isn’t famous, as they are.

It’s Nina, though, who gives the play its name and its central metaphor. She’s in thrall to Konstantin’s mother Irina, the famous actress. It’s she who says that the estate draws her, the way the seagulls are drawn to the lake. Her desire to become famous makes her susceptible to the suggestions of Trigorin, who, despite being “kept” by Irina, takes Nina as his mistress, at least until she has the bad taste to become pregnant. Nina sacrifices her health, both physical and mental in the service of her desire to become an actress.

As in Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s comedy comes from the absurdity of life: how we act in spite of ourselves, and how people like Trigorin and Irina who are quite small in spirit and talent are able to bedazzle nonetheless.


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