Literary daybook, Oct. 18

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published October 18, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Oct. 18, Dr. Friedman-Bernal plans to have dinner with Dr. Lehman.
-- "A Thief of Time" (1985)
by Tony Hillerman

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1896, Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" opened in St. Petersburg. This is the first-written of Chekhov's four masterpieces -- "Uncle Vanya," "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard" are the others -- and though now regarded as one of the most influential plays in modern drama, its opening night was an infamous flop. During the writing, Chekhov admitted that he was "flagrantly disregarding the basic tenets of the stage," not only for having so much talk and so little action, but for having "started it forte and ended it pianissimo." During rehearsal he had implored the actors and director to give up the usual bombastic style and give his understatements a chance: "The point is, my friends, there's no use being theatrical. None whatever. The whole thing is very simple. The characters are simple, ordinary people." Convinced of disaster, he nearly withdrew his permission, and then nearly did not attend the opening himself; by Act 2 he was hiding backstage from the booing and jeering; at 2 a.m. he was still walking the streets alone. When he finally returned home, he declared to a friend that "Not if I live to be seven hundred will I write another play."

One explanation for the hostile reception is that "The Seagull's" premiere was also a benefit night for one of the cast, an actress popular for her work in comedy and the music hall. The large contingent of her fans in attendance wanted farce rather than Chekhovian subtlety, and many had come primarily for the three-act comedy that would follow that evening. When "The Seagull" got its second performance several days later, it was enthusiastically received, and was soon playing throughout Russia. When the play was directed by Stanislavsky two years later -- the first production of the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre -- it was a huge success, giving the MAT its famous seagull emblem, and provoking a young Maxim Gorky to write Chekhov that he had "never seen a play so wonderful and heretically brilliant as 'The Seagull.'" He added, "So you don't want to write for the theater? You must, damn it!"

Chekhov did not see that Moscow opening, as he was in Yalta trying to control his recently diagnosed tuberculosis. But he had seen some rehearsals, and at them the actress Olga Knipper, who became his wife in 1901. "Give me a wife, who, like the moon, would not appear in my sky every day," Chekhov had written his publisher A.S. Suvorin in 1895; by 1899 he was writing Olga, "Greetings last page of my life, great actress of the Russian land," and regretting what kept them apart: "the devil who implanted the bacilli in me and the love of art in you." Their correspondence is available in the 1997 collection, "Dear Writer, Dear Actress," and other editions.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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