Analysis: Comparison of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and Anton Chekhov’s “Seagull”

First log post with explanation of what this train wreck is

And it is always a train wreck, though, in my opinion, sometimes a pleasant one–an experience worth going through. Perhaps that is not very true for this early log, but in my defense, it’s rather difficult forcing an analytical comparison between “Arcadia” and “Seagull” through the lense of romanticism at 2 AM in the morning, while having never actually analyzed any play besides Shakespeare before. Here we go!

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The comedy that wasn’t very funny and the play that used the Chekhov’s gun principle more than Chekhov himself. Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and professional writer during the 19th century, though throughout his writing career, he was mainly a practicing medical doctor. He originally started writing comedic short stories, vignettes, and sketches for money, but as he began undertaking longer plays, his style developed and eventually revolutionized Russian theater. Though he started out in the tradition of Russian melodrama, by the time he wrote “The Seagull” in 1895, he had already started writing with more realism and simplicity. From his emphasis on simplicity comes the phrase “Checkhov’s Gun,” a dramatic principle that every part of the story must have some significance or be used in some way. From “The Seagull” on, his work would gain an increasingly Symbolist bent, borrowing devices from Symbolist/Decadent writers like Maeterlinck. Contrasts between movement and stillness and human activities and nature are important, and that seems to be the reason for “The Seagull”’s lake backdrop, which is very carefully mentioned in the descriptions at the beginnings of Act 1 and 2. Other Symbolist elements he adopts include writing his characters with normal, unembellished speech and writing without any real plot.

Tom Stoppard is a contemporary British writer. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but fled as the Nazis encroached on it, eventually ending up in Britain. He’s been married three times and was a drama critic and journalist before becoming a playwright. Most of his plays have political commentary in it, but he also writes about a variety of different things(as opposed to Chekhov’s focus on the ordinary people).

A forewarning: following the theme of entropy in Arcadia, this log will inevitably descend into chaos the longer it goes on.

The most pervasive theme in Arcadia is that of entropy, the idea that the chaos in the universe is forever increasing, and irreversible. It makes sense then, that the structure of the play should reflect that. We begin with pretty standard back and forth between 1809 and the present, switching off between each scene. In the last scene however, the two time periods start to intersect, the time between each switch gradually decreasing before events eventually begin to happen in parallel(Thomasina and Septimus keep waltzing while Bernard makes his last hasty exist). The back and forth between the two waltzes, contrasts with the very first scene, of a student and her tutor sitting and discussing carnal pleasures and math. We’ve moved from math and sedentary positions to exciting movement and emotions. “The decline from thinking to feeling,” essentially, as Hannah puts it. The playful but platonic relationship between Thomasina and Septimus is now one of romance. Earlier on, Stoppard also makes a point to mention that the table is now cluttered with various items from both periods that just collected there. This descent into chaos, however, is almost orderly. It does not seem jarring or chaotic at all, because Hannah has essentially already unraveled the mystery in scene five and we get closure on the Chater business in scene 6. By scene 7, nothing significant happens, only some obligatory tying up of loose ends. We already know the fates of all the major 19th century characters, Thomasina, Septimus, and Chater. There is no more mystery left in the, well, mystery, because even though Hannah does not have proof of her theory at the end of scene 5, her conviction that she’s right and the proof is just waiting there to be found. What she does after that and what lies in store for Bernard and the others aren’t particularly compelling, since there was no central conflict for any of the modern characters, besides unraveling the mystery they each came to solve(Hannah and her hermit, Bernard and Chater, Valentino and the grouse). We are simply treated with a final scene between the present time and the final conclusion in the distant future that we already know of. Stoppard looks back on the transition into Romanticism at the start of the 19th century, and the orderly nature and neatly wrapped up ending seems at odds with the discussion of this turn towards disorder that is hinted at almost constantly. The fact that Stoppard can look back on this instance from the past, something that has already happened and is set in stone, is the reason the narrative is so orderly. There is no speculation of the future, which is what drives Thomasina and Septimus’s discussions. Instead of a rice pudding in the process of being mixed, which is where Thomasina and Septimus are at, with the emerging Romanticism movement in the background, Stoppard(and his readers) in the present day are already at the completely mixed and homogenous rice pudding. The events that have transpired cannot be undone, but that is the very reason for the order. Though we witness chaos, with everything from the tangled love threads between Septimus, Mrs. Chater, Captain Brice, Thomasina, etc., we already know what the end result is, so the events are predictable.

While “The Seagull” is not as noticeably structured in a certain way as “Arcadia” is, the general developments from act to act are similar to the 1809 plotline in “Arcadia.” Act 1 begins with Konstantin showing his play and establishes character relationships, such as Konstantin’s love for Nina and his anger at Arkadina’s relationship with Trigorin(and Trigorin himself). Scene 1 of “Arcadia” covers relationships between Thomasina, Septimus, and Chater. The next sections, scene 3 and act 2 for Stoppar and Chekhov respectively, continue in a similar fashion. The third section resolves the vague conflicts presented earlier: the Chaters are essentially shipped away to avoid more confrontation and Arkadina consoles Konstantin, promising to take Trigorin, the main source of his misery, away. There are still some new doors opened, with Lady Croom and Septimus getting together, as well as Trigorin’s and Nina’s plans to meet in Moscow, but for the most part, the majority of conflicts and storylines are resolved or at least concluded. The fourth section for both plays, scene seven and act four, though very different, essentially deal with the aftermath of the main story, as epilogues of sorts. Stoppard’s is marked by frivolity and an almost Romantic idea of everything coming a full circle, with present beginning to mimic the past. Chekhov becomes increasingly dark, from Masha’s marriage troubles, to Nina’s disgrace, culminating in Konstantin’s successful suicide. Both convey a feeling of spiraling away as the emotions evoked either seem to continue their fluent movement, as the romantic, if somewhat bittersweet, feelings from Thomasina and Septimus and Hannah and Gus, or seem to suddenly float alone in the atmosphere, as Chekhov’s decision to suddenly end with revealing Konstantin’s death leaves us with little closure and still clinging to the mood in the last few pages(in contrast to Stoppard, Chekhov conveys a melancholy mood with quiet dread, which is felt as you approach the end of the last page and wonder why nothing seems to have been resolved). Stoppard ends with harmony and fulfillment, while Chekhov ends with resigned emptiness, but both write the final scene in such a way that complete closure isn’t possible, and thus the feelings stay behind a little after the end.

Although their tones are very different, the very basic plot of the two plays is rather similar. If we ignore the modern scenes Stoppard uses to hint at some final unknown resolution to work towards, both plays are about an angsty, mediocre artist who challenges a more level headed and successful individual to a duel, over some event that is tinged with their anger at their inferiority and their love of a lady.

Chekhov’s storyline and Stoppard’s 1809 storyline both portray life as it is, a series of seemingly random events that don’t seem to be heading to a predictable end. Both playwrights seem to make events just happen, as if without a clear destination in mind. Noakes chats with Lady Croom on modifying the garden, with little interaction with Septimus, Chater, and Thomasina. Masha and Medvenko have little influence on Konstantin’s interactions(he is the main driving force of the plot). Scene one of “Arcadia” ends with Chater forgiving Septimus and autographing his book, and Septimus, Thomasina and others discussing the new garden with Noakes. The first act of “The Seagull” ends with a distraught Konstantin looking for Nina and Masha confessing her love of Konstantin. Neither beginning introduces a clear conflict and there are no hints offered to even begin to resolve them. The inclusion of a modern perspective looking back in Stoppard’s play, however, provides that ending. Suddenly, seemingly random events seem to have meaning seem to have meaning because we are reading them with the expectation that they’ll contribute to the unraveling of the mystery. Uncertainty alone doesn’t create mystery, because mystery implies that there is an answer if you look hard enough. Having Hannah, Bernard, and Valentino investigate the conclusion of the 1809 events right from the start is enough to set up this assumption that there is some end result to look forward to and try to predict.

In contrast to “Arcadia”’s, “The Seagull”’s ending doesn’t tie up any loose ends at all; it creates more actually. But that very fact makes it reflect real life more, and portray a less contrived picture of the consequences of strong emotions, particularly love.  

The fates of “Arcadia”’s characters are sealed before the play is over–it is explicitly stated in detail that Thomasina dies at this time from this, Septimus ends up in this place and dies in some year. Meanwhile, “The Seagull”’s ending is more predicted by foreshadowing, as the final events of act 4 parallel those in act 1 and 2: Nina leaves in a hurry, the Seagull comes into play, and then Konstantin shoots himself(unsuccessfully the first time), but its ending is very concrete and up in our face, as Konstantin’s death happens in real time. When presenting the seagull to Nina, he even says he intends to shoot himself like that someday. Stoppard on the other hand, has us witnessing the events leading up to Thomasina’s end. Because of the nature of Stoppard’s play, his ending is also more removed from reality, with this implied merging of timelines and ending with movement and music, not dialogue. But both of these things result in a character death off screen, and a lingering feeling of emptiness(though two different kinds). Also, Thomasina and Konstantin’s deaths technically both happen before the play officially acknowledges them(although we know Thomasina dies eventually, we don’t find out about the specifics until the modern scenes). The dread of knowing, in Stoppard’s play, and the dread of foreshadowing, in Chekhov’s(as soon as the seagull returns and the gun goes off, it’s apparent what’s happened, but the play still drags on a little while after), both create tension and expectation that are left hanging at the end. Thomasina and Konstantin both die in close proximity to the curtain drop, so we have no opportunity to see the aftermath of both deaths. But that is because both also make it clear that the aftermath doesn’t matter. Konstantin and Thomasina are the driving forces behind the plot of their respective stories, and once they die, there is no need to go on; or rather, it is impossible to go on because the plot would morph into something else.

Both characters dying off screen leave their deaths up to the imagination, somewhat distanced from us, and thus Romanticized almost. It’s not exactly a case of “too good to live in this world” but it is something similar, where they are both Romantic heroes, in a sense. Their death is idealized as something tragic, yet also beautiful, or at least poignant and meaningful. Thomasina’s genius goes unrecognized throughout the play, until the very end, and even then, it is only one person, Septimus, who becomes an outcast as part of the result. This is not counting Hannah and the modern characters, because the heroic aspect of the Romantic hero seems to be more from their isolation from their contemporary society. Though Thomasina is not socially outcast, her thoughts are, as they go against the prevailing Newtonian theory of the universe. She represents the shift in general thought toward realizing the chaos of the world and embracing uncertainty in science, once such a steadfast thing, while Konstantin represents the shift toward new art forms, like the Symbolist movement, which is closely tied to Romanticism.

Both Konstantin and Thomasina have ideas contrary to the norm and they both die before they are appreciated for them. And the type of ideas they have both involve the notion of allowing for uncertainty. Thomasina’s dwells on the constant movement towards disorder. Konstantin’s “new art form” is reminiscent of Symbolist works, which convey their messages in cryptic metaphors and symbols, leaving the truth to be found by interpretation. Rather than directly expressing emotions in acting or long speeches, characters actions might have been baffling, their conversations and word sometimes nonsensical. Like Thomasina’s musings on entropy, these new thoughts supported the idea that things didn’t have to make sense. In a way, both plays are meta about their respective characters’ ideas. Stoppard’s ending is essentially us resigning ourselves to Thomasina’s death, and accepting it as we are swept up in the romantic waltzes. Chekhov’s play itself is a play like Konstantin’s, though not as obviously Symbolist, a departure from conventional Russian theater with its use of subtext and symbolism(Schmidt). In that way, both authors are speaking to the issues in their current time period as well. For Chekhov, it is obviously the transitions in Russian theater at the time, but for Stoppard, whose play was written in the 1990s, it is more about the lasting influence of changes from that early period of Romanticism, the second law of thermodynamics that is widely accepted today and the prevalence of emotion over thought. One would expect that the modern characters might have moved past that by now, but the modern scenes have just as much romantic tensions and in the last scene, Stoppard makes a point to show how both time periods are the same, with the interplay of past and modern scenes, the table, and the decision to have Gus and Augustus (with that clearly very subtle naming) played by the same actor. Chekhov and Stoppard examine a period of time when we begin to tire of rationality and return to emotions. Stoppard’s is the rise of Romanticism while Chekhov’s is the rise of Symbolism, a reaction against the reaction against Romanticism.

It makes sense then, that the content of the plays, not just the reactions evoked, should also reflect that. In between the drama between Chater and Septimus, and the discussions between Thomasina and Septimus, Lady Croom occasionally comes in, complaining to Mr. Noakes about his Romantic vision for remodeling the garden. It portrays the initial reaction to Romanticism, which is one of dismissal and rejection, but as the play progresses, we still don’t really see a change in mindset. Thomasina is the only one who enjoys it a little, but that’s most likely because she is supposed to be the special character who stands above the others. Even in the present day, Hannah has a similar disdain for Noakes’s vision. By the end of the play, however, the emotion filled ending contrasts with the previous pages of solving a mystery and contemplating the universe. Its as if at last, feeling has won over intellectualizing, even though more idealized and emotional tones are sprinkled throughout when discussing them, such as Bernard’s lofty description of the exact type of note that should prove his theory or Valentine’s expression of love for the modern state of science.

The dynamics between Noakes and the other characters are similar to Konstantin’s attempt at his new art form too. Both have their ideas bulldozed over by superficial, self-absorbed rich women and seem a little pathetic. Noakes even has an acting direction to talk in a “bleating” way in response to Lady Croom’s criticism, while Konstantin is rather melodramatic, storming away from his play only because of his mother and trying to woo Nina with a  dead seagull. What’s interesting is that these characters that most apparently reject the new art forms, which supposedly support a shift toward emotion and an implied shift away from thinking, do very little thinking themselves. Arkadina reads aloud a passage from Sur L’eau by Maupassant, and immediately dismisses it as wrong, later not even bothering to continue reading, despite the fact that she snatched the book from Sorin and insisted on narrating it herself. She recites Hamlet to show off and doesn’t have the self-control to hold her laughter until the end of her son’s genuine effort at art. Lady Croom reacts with similar rejection of people who contradict or bore her, telling Chater that as long as he was her guess,“The Castle of Ortrano was written by whomever I say it was.”

Konstantin embodies all the characteristics of a tortured artist, a true Romantic hero seized with violent emotion and always misunderstood. In a word, angsty. Noakes reflects the way people tend to react to such artists, while Chater, the other artist in “Arcadia” leans more towards the internally self-torture. Combined Noakes and Chater could very well be Konstantin. Although Chater is not the main character of “Arcadia,” he, like Konstantin, moves the plot forward with his impulsivity and emotions. Their duel challenges upset the quiet country setting of both plays, and had it not been for their jealousy and anger having their talent dismissed, everything would stay the same. Granted, Arcadia would be the same either way, but the modern storyline doesn’t exist without Chater. Konstantin is indirectly the reason Nina runs away, the reason Masha is also having trouble making her decision to marry Medvedenko(and later, also another reason she isn’t happy married to him). Other characters never seem to take either one seriously though. Septimus treats Chater’s duel challenge as an annoyance and Trigorin has almost no interaction with Konstantin and treats his duel challenge in a similar way. In the end, this might serve to emphasize the nature of an artist’s power. The angst that comes from their art essentially gives them the power to push the stories forward, a power that reflects the Romantic notion of how important the artist and their own unique creations are. No matter how ridiculous and over the top they seem, Chater and Konstantin’s actions, the ones that result from the “tortured emotional artist” aspect of their personalities, have a lot of influence.

Both plots are driven by emotion in general. It is usually love, but jealously from both love and superior talents are often important too. In “The Seagull,” Konstantin is driven by his love for Nina, who’s in love with Trigorin, who reciprocates her love, but then he still loves Arkadina. Because of that, Konstantin is jealous of Trigorin, not only because he has his mother’s attention, a different kind of love, but also because he is acknowledged as more talented. Arkadina is jealous of Nina then, not only because she has Trigorin’s affection, but because she is, in a way, threatening her as an upcoming actress. Mother and son experience love and jealousy, but for both, it is intertwined with their insecurity about their position in life. For almost every love-troubled character(pretty much every significant character), the root of their problem is a lack of meaning in life. Masha is infatuated with Konstantin, but also struggling with what she wants in life. Right before Trigorin leaves, it’s implied that she’s resigned herself to not ever knowing “where she came from or why she goes on living.” Trigorin and Sorin’s love woes are also rooted in the fact that they hadn’t pursued love when they were younger and are now left to contemplate the how meaningful their life was, having missed out on many of the impulsive experiences of youth.

This close tie between love and a meaningful life is highlighted by the close proximity of two arguments that Arkadina has in the third act. First she argues with Konstantin over Trigorin, but it ends with them insulting each other’s talents: Arkadina’s acting in “cheap, second-rate plays,” and Konstantin’s inability to even write third-rate plays, according to each. After Konstantin starts crying and Arkadina comforts him, the following scene is very similar. Trigorin’s arrival sends Konstantin off and he and Arkadina begin to discuss love. It turns into an argument and again ends in discussion of talent, thought this time, instead of the argument being resolved by promises of love(Arkadina supposedly agrees to take Trigorin away to help Konstantin regain Nina’s love, though it’s obvious that she also wants Trigorin for herself, as seen when she later on whispers to herself “He’s mine again,” not one page later), it is resolved with Arkadina’s lavish praise of Trigorin’s writing genius. Loving someone in Chekhov’s play is tied to how talented or recognized they are, which is tied to how fulfilling life seems to be. To have meaning in life is to have love, but ordinary people cannot easily get there. In fact, the only two major characters satisfied with their love life in the end are the two most talented and famous, Arkadina and Trigorin.

In “Arcadia” there is a similar tie between love and the meaningfulness of life, though the latter part is conveyed differently. Instead of focusing on the gap between the extraordinary and ordinary people, Stoppard discusses the meaning of life through conversations between Thomasina and Septimus and Valentino and Hannah. In 1809 and the present, we still deal with the notion that the universe is headed toward its doom, as energy is constantly escaping and disorder constantly increasing. But in the very end, everyone gets a happy ending, or happy moment at least, because of their romantic relationships. Discarding the talk of math, Thomasina waltzes with Septimus, just as Hannah does the same with science and waltzes with Gus. Stoppard choosing to end the play with an atmosphere of romance and emotion signifies its place in the resolution of the conflicts, since it is in such close proximity to the actual final resolutions of the plot, with Thomasina getting the final piece to the puzzle, a drawing of Plautus and Septimus, right before she starts waltzing with Gus.

Romanticism’s emphasis on feeling over thinking came partially as a result of thinking and enlightenment ideals failing to offer meaning and truth. Thinking that the world operated rationally was becoming less comforting, given the new advancements in technology that brought on the Industrial Revolution and the failure of the French Revolution among other things. It is more prominent in “Arcadia” since it takes place in the same time period as the shift that created Romanticism, but both plays do deal with characters turning to emotion, which can’t ever be understood or handled in a precise and correct way to cope with the disorder of life and find a transcendent meaning beyond the surface of ordinary events and life. In Arcadia, the characters succeed, but in “The Seagull” they fail.

In general, the style of the playwrights seem to contradict what their characters say. In “The Seagull,” Konstantin’s art is quietly mocked or pitied, essentially for its Symbolist style. Nina doesn’t really get his play, his mother laughs at it(though that is also just because of her character), and the one person who enjoys it, Dorn, still offers advice on how to fix his writing. Yet there are instances of Symbolist style in Chekhov’s writing. He has symbols like the seagull, the lake, the weather, and the piano music. Stoppard’s character Hannah specifically laments the “decline from thinking to feeling” and that is exactly how the play progresses. For both plays, this seeming disconnect emphasizes the general feeling of disorder and makes the characters struggles even more significant. Their actions and word contradict the very story they exist in.

And now we reach the point where any semblance of order and organization that  still remains is thrown out the window. The French window that is. There are a few odd elements that are in both plays. The French windows in “Arcadia”’s second scene parallel the french doors in “The Seagull”’s fourth act. This could be related to the fact that the two plays have very similar settings, nice country houses owned by rich people. The nature setting is slightly different though, with the nature in Chekhov’s play predicting or reflecting the mood(for example, we start at sunset, an ironic start to the play and the fading light of day mirrors the quickly declining relationships between Nina, Konstantin, and Arkadina, while the darkness of the fourth act hints at the tragic ending from the beginning of the act) while Stoppard’s setting is just another element that reflects the futile resistance against the natural order of disorder.

Surprisingly, it seems that Arcadia applies Chekhov’s gun more often than Chekhov himself does. Thomasina draws Septimus’s turtle so Gus can discover the page later. The French windows described on set are there for no other reason than for Bernard to comment  on that as his opening line, so he can be established as a slightly pompous and scholarly person. Thomasina begins drawing Septimus and Plautus just so Hannah can find that piece of evidence she knows exists out there. Hannah’s certainty that she just had to find proof that was already out there reveals Stoppard’s more optimistic message about finding meaning in the chaos of life. It matches the ending, in that she has essentially accepted that the world is this way, but believes in order and meaning anyway.

In tone, content, and style, “The Seagull” and “Arcadia” are very different, but in the end, they are both results of authors reflecting on a time of change that rejected traditional notions of order and sought to find meaning and purpose by embracing chaos and disorder instead.

 

Bibliography

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich. The Seagull. The Plays of Anton Chekhov. Trans. Paul Schmidt. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. N. pag. Print.

“Romanticism.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

“Romanticism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Schmidt, Paul. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Plays of Anton Chekhov. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. 1-7. Print.

Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. London: Faber and Faber, 1993. Print.

“Tom Stoppard.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

 

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