Chekhov’s four major plays all feature characters who come to realize that they’ve wasted their lives and have not found happiness. These various characters are stuck in a rut, unable to change and adapt to the times. They are plagued by the hard truth that it is now too late. The plays share many of the same themes as his short stories, but whereas the form of the short story required him to focus heavily on a few set of characters and usually interpersonal romantic relationship, the form and structure of drama, with its many characters who have speaking parts, allows him to explore other types of relationship besides romantic ones.
The Seagull is a play about Konstantin Treplyov who lives in the shadow of his mother, a once famous actress. Konstantin aspires to be a renowned writer and finds himself envying Boris Trigorin, an already established writer, who is visiting his uncle’s estate because he is persuing an affair with the mother. While on the estate Trigorin begins a second affair with the son’s current love affair, a young countrygirl named Nina, who aspires to be an actress. Living the shadows of others accomplishments, losing his girlfriend to the writer he envies, and struggling to find his own artistic voice leads to suicide. This is about a boy struggling to find his place in the world. However, Nina’s struggle to fulfill her dream and become an actress parallels Treplyov’s struggle to become a writer. Everyone struggles to achieve the dream. Meanwhile the mother struggles with letting go of the past and being the parent she ought to be with her obviously mentally ill (depressed?) child. The mother seems to genuinely love her son, but she loves her lifestyle, fame, and vanity more. The play gives the impression that she persues her affair with Trigorin because it puffs up her ego and makes her feel young, beautiful. and famous like in her old acting days.
Uncle Vanya is about a man called Uncle Vanya who has given up a large portion of his life and financial security managing an estate in order to pay for the lifestyle of his brother-in-law who was a professor at a university. Now that the professor has aged, become sickley, and is living with a wife far too young for him, Uncle Vanya has come to the realization that all this sacrifice was for nothing. The professor’s scholarly work and ideas were frivolous and he is a selfish man who doesn’t appreciate the sacrifice of others. Uncle Vanya resents the life he has given up for him. He is especially concerned for Yelena, the young wife, who has her whole life ahead of her, but has given it up to the idea of remaining loyal to her aged husband. There are hints that Vanya secretly loves her, but it his concern can also be fueled by his desire to keep Yelena from the same fate of sacrificing her youth in order to support the professor. In other words, Vanya sees himself and his greatest mistake in her. It is really a depressing story in many ways; Uncle Vanya suffers terribly over the fact that he never lived his life because he sacrificed for the good of another whose work amounted to nothing useful. It’s a play about sacrificing our life to a delusion.
The Three Sisters is a play about three sisters and a brother living together after the death of their father and how their lives revolve around a group of army officers. They lonng to return to the city-life of Moscow where they spent their youth, but never manage to return. The brother marries a woman who is cruel to the servants and who cheats on her husband behind his back with a local town official, while the brother gives up his dreams of becoming a professor at a university. Instead he joins the local town council with the very man cheating on his wife and sinks into heavy debts from gambling. One of the sisters, Irina, chooses to marry one of the officers after he leaves the army, although she does not love him. She does believe she could have a good life with him despite the lack of love. However, he dies in a duel with another officier who loves her as well and vows to fight any rivals. This was my least favorite of the four plays.
The Cherry Orchard is about a noblewoman in severe debt who must do something to save her estate, but she is incapable of changing her frivolous ways. She continues handing out money to anyone who asks, holding parties she cannot afford, and is unwilling to chop down her prized cherry orchard in order to make vacation housing that would bring in enough money that would allow her to keep her property. This solution is offered by a local businessman and the son of a former serf who once worked on the same estate. So when the time comes for the auction to buy the property he is the one who ends up buying it and carrying out the plan. It shows the fuility of being unable to change one’s habits and ways in the face of a crisis. The cherry orchard that the noblewoman wanted to save will be cut down anyway. Many of the characters in the play are elderly nobility who cannot move beyond the past and reminisce about the glory days when the peasants were serfs who served them. The noblewoman who owned the estate suffers from a personal tragedy in the past that haunts her: the death of her son. The cherry orchard represents different things to different characters: a beautiful aesthetic object that should never change, a potential source of profit, and a connection to a lost past where nobles ruled and peasants served. It is a drama about the dangers of being unable to adapt to life’s changes.