Academic journal article TriQuarterly

A Seagull in the Hamptons

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

A Seagull in the Hamptons

Article excerpt

By the time I wrote A Seagull in the Hamptons I already had a forty-year relationship with Anton Chekhov, having read and memorized the astonishing part of Nina in The Seagull when I was a student in high school. I continued to study his plays throughout my life, but it wasn't until I was almost forty that I felt ready to direct one of Chekhov's great plays. Adapted by Lanford Wilson, my production of The Three Sisters played to standing-room-only audiences at McCarter Theatre in 1991, and it was that production that cemented my love for Chekhov as a director and my admiration for him as a writer. In 2000, I directed and wrote my own adaptation of The Cherry Orchard. I wanted to understand writer to writer just how he melded comedy and drama, just how he captured the way people truly speak and behave, just how he constructed character and events. I felt in constant conversation with him as I worked on the play. In 2003, I adapted and directed Uncle Vanya. And last year, I returned to the play that had started my love affair with Chekhov. After faithfully adapting two of his plays and directing three, I wrote a free adaptation of The Seagull, called A Seagull in the Hamptons, set in the present day in Quogue, New York. I sensed him on my shoulder as I wrote, and the writing felt effortless.

Though I have now directed all four of the plays considered to be Chekhov's master works and adapted three of them, I know I cannot (nor, perhaps more accurately, will not want to) ever stay away from him for long. I always seem to return to Chekhov's plays because I find with him, as with a few other great writers, there is always something I missed, some richness of observation that I didn't see because I was either too young to understand it the first time around or had not yet experienced it. I try to reread Chekhov, certain plays of Shakespeare, Anna Karenina, and other great literary works every few years because each time they are completely new experiences, perhaps because each time, inevitably, I bring more of my life to them. For example, just a few years ago, I reread Anna Karenina to prepare for directing Nilo Cruz's brilliant play, Anna in the Tropics. I remembered reading the book in college and being swept away by the passionate love affair between Anna and Vronsky. This time through, however, I found myself practically skimming through the love affair chapters to read about the marriage of Levin and Kitty. I hardly remembered those two characters from my college reading! Their relationship was riveting to me in middle age, just as Tolstoy's descriptions of the serfs and the fields spoke volumes to me now and were meaningless to me when I was a sophomore in college. Speaking with a Russian friend of mine who is in her eighties about my experience she told me the same thing had happened to her. "Wait until you're eighty!" she exclaimed. "I finally understand the book." It is something I look forward to experiencing.

For many years, both as a writer and a director, I have been working on how to make historical material or works of art from the past speak evocatively to a present-day audience who may or may not have any familiarity with the world where the events took place or the world in which the work of art is ostensibly set. It is a crucial hurdle to overcome and is much more complex than simply costuming Shakespeare in contemporary dress or setting The Cherry Orchard on a ranch in Texas. (Yes, this has been done ...) As my colleague, the playwright Steven Dietz, said on reading my play, Mrs. Packard, which is set in nineteenthcentury Illinois, "Of course we writers write 'historical plays' because it is the best way to write about the present day." Ditto for directing a play set in the past.

I had been thinking for some time about directing and adapting The Seagull partly because the people in The Seagull and the concerns of The Seagull had haunted me for decades, but also because it now seemed thoroughly contemporary and essentially relevant to me and my personal life. …

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