Significant in Its Absence

Updated on September 3, 2017

In 1894, Czar Alexander III of Russia granted the military Courts the right to regulate dueling. Until this time, dueling had been illegal and romanticized. It was popular mostly among Russian writers and playwrights. That same year, Tolstoy, himself the survivor of many duels, wrote his Preface to the Works of Guy de Maupassant for the Russian translation of the French author, who had died the previous year. Tolstoy had been introduced to the work of Maupassant by Turgenev, after the two Russians had reconciled following a canceled duel. In his Preface, Tolstoy praises Maupassant's Bel Ami, a story that climaxes in a duel. It was also in 1894 that Chekhov started work on The Seagull, a play which references works by Tolstoy, Maupassant, and Turgenev. All of these authors were familiar with each others' works and had either written short stories on dueling - most entitled simply "The Duel" - or had written longer works prominently featuring duels.

In The Seagull, Chekhov also references Shakespeare's Hamlet, another classic play with a duel as one of its main scenes. In Act Two of The Seagull, Konstantin and Arkadina quote from the “Queen's Closet” scene, identifying themselves with Hamlet and his mother. When, in the next act, Arkadina and Konstantin get into an argument about her lover, the conflict between mother and son echoes that in the “Queen's Closet.” In Hamlet, this argument follows the death of Polonius, an event which leads to Hamlet's duel with Laertes and their shared demise. In The Seagull, however, the argument takes place after Konstantin's suicide attempt and after his challenge of Trigorin to a duel.

Or so we are told.

For, in The Seagull, Chekhov eliminates the duel. Indeed, it has been twice-removed. Not only does it fail to take place, but its cancellation occurs off-stage, between Acts Two and Three, at the very center of the play. In this play about traditional theater versus the new and youth versus experience (as with the duel in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons), Chekhov has ripped out the heart of 19th-century Russian literature. After dropping hints, alluding to Hamlet, subtly foreshadowing a duel, Chekhov abruptly tells the reader that it did not happen.

In reality, over-dramatic authors and offended officers may have dueled, but most people did not. As Arkadina asks Konstantin, “You don't have to duel. You don't, really... do you?” In 1894, Alexander III had regulated dueling, removing the romance. Chekhov sought to do the same. By removing the melodrama, Chekhov focuses on small actions, on the drama of everyday people's lives. They love, they argue, they envy, they hate, they fail. If they challenge someone to a fight to the death, they will likely be refused. If they are going to die dramatically, they will have to do it themselves.

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    © 2017 Larry Holderfield


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