Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Opening the Notebook of Trigorin: Tennessee Williams's Adaptation of Chekhov's the Seagull

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Opening the Notebook of Trigorin: Tennessee Williams's Adaptation of Chekhov's the Seagull

Article excerpt

At the end of his life, Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams was haunted by his inability to recapture the success he found early in his career, the period in which he wrote some of the most famous plays of the twentieth century including The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). The epitome of a prolific writer, Williams drew upon his yearning to reclaim his place as the premiere American playwright, a drive that led him to create over one hundred full-length and one-act plays, the majority of which were written after his last Broadway success with The Night of the Iguana (1961). Despite the quantity of production, there was one story that remained for Williams to tell, one story that had haunted him since his earliest days as a writer, one that he had been unable to bring himself to put down on paper. Here he was, the great innovator of the stage--celebrated for his creativity and originality--and the story that now occupied his every waking thought was the product of someone else's imagination. In 1981, just two years before his untimely death, Williams began work on his adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull entitled The Notebook of Trigorin. One of his final dramatic texts, the play was the product and culmination of a lifelong interest in the artistry of Anton Chekhov and a particular fondness for the Russian writer's masterpiece.

Like much of Williams's later works, the play has been largely ignored both by academics and by individuals or theater companies seeking to produce a Williams work. Only a small handful of productions, both professional and amateur, have arisen since the play premiered and only James Fisher's now ten-year-old article takes the play as its primary subject. (1) In these respects, the play has proved unsuccessful as it has failed to claim the kind of critical or scholarly attention given to Williams's earlier works such as The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire. The lack of scholarly and production interest in the play only supports the bias toward adaptations often ignored by critics and scholars on the basis of their "derivative" nature. (2)

At first glance, the stereotypes associated with adaptations--works that are secondary, derivative, and somehow diminished--seem applicable to this particular drama as it is a rather straightforward retelling of the classic Chekhovian narrative; yet upon further analysis, hugely significant differences begin to appear that make the play entirely unique. Despite the originality that Williams brings to the narrative, the majority of criticism surrounding the text (when it appears at all) as well as the criticism toward the occasional production mimic the suspicion surrounding adaptation in general. As a result, the text has been woefully overlooked, dismissed as an unsuccessful play that fails to live up to the brilliance of the Chekhov original, or the renown of much of Williams's other work. Such a critique is in keeping with the general bias toward adaptations; fidelity and proximity to an original source text have long been considered measures of success by audiences in regard to these works, a phenomenon that the field of adaptation studies has attempted to overwrite with new models that refrain from belittling a text simply because it does not faithfully reproduce the original and live up to some imaginary standard of authenticity. (3)

Because the general academic trend is to devalue adaptations, this study seeks to bring attention to this unstudied play and appreciate it on its own terms as an adaptation. (4) This involves not only recognizing its relationship to the Chekhovian original but acknowledging the new directions Williams creates within the narrative and attempting to understand the American playwright's motivations for the changes he makes to the text. In the first part of this study, I examine the history of the adaptation by investigating Williams's affinity for Anton Chekhov as well as his special interest in The Seagull. …

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