[This text was written as an introduction to the production Une Mouette et autres cas d’espèces created by Hubert Colas/Diphtong Cie. This free adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull will also feature texts from Édith Azam, Liliane Giraudon, Angélica Liddell, Nathalie Quintane and Annie Zadek]
(Note: All sentences in quotation marks are lines from The Seagull. Most of them have been altered considerably but a few I left as is. Page numbers refer to the Laurence Senelick translation, Norton edition, 2010.)
We read a quote on the Internet. In a letter to A.S. Suvorin – dated April 13, 1895 – Anton Chekhov writes: “The bourgeoisie loves so-called “positive” types and novels with happy endings since they lull one into thinking that it is fine to simultaneously acquire capital and maintain one’s innocence, to be a beast and still be happy.” Chekhov’s father was a serf and we fear today, in the year 2016, the entire world is drifting backwards towards feudalism. Wikipedia says that: “The decline of serfdom in Western Europe has sometimes been attributed to the Bubonic Plague, which reached Europe in 1347, although the decline had begun before that date.” Russia is certainly not in Western Europe. In Russia, once again according to Wikipedia, feudalism was not abolished until 1861.
Along with feudalism, when we look towards the future we see war, famine and plague. Of course, if we look at the past we see much the same thing. When we look towards the future we also see nothing, since we have little idea what will actually happen in the future, just as we have little idea what has actually happened in the past. Chekhov died at age 44 and we are also currently age 44 (in this sense the author is speaking for all of us.) There is something classical about dying. There is something avant-garde about dying. The future is always a future we will not necessarily live to see.
We are wondering what The Seagull would be like if it were a play not about art but about activism. If instead of talking about ‘talent’ they spoke of action and repression. Page 78: “New forms of protest are what we need. New forms, and if there aren’t any, then we’re better off with capitalist totalitarianism and environmental collapse.” How can we imagine what comes next, how might it transcend the bland magic of our small daily lives? If ever there was a time for us to seriously ask ourselves such questions it is certainly right fucking now. Page 85: “There is not a lot of brilliant activism these days, it’s true, but in general the level has improved considerably.” La Commune de Paris, May ’68 – are these precedents we can continue to seize and build upon or simply the last gasps of a potential lost and long gone. All over the world, at every protest, lines of riot cops in full gear, helmets, shields, tear gas: an intimidation that might almost be described as pristine. As they surround us, we find ourselves trapped in the provincial life of no longer being able to imagine a future with any further potential than the present, or any greater charm than the past. There are no riot cops in The Seagull. There are only the riot cops working the kettle – stopping the blood flow – within the cholesterol-choked valves of our hearts. (That last line was quite bad, and it’s reasonable to assume the author hoped it would be cut.)
In its time, The Seagull was of course lightly censored. In some strange way, today we long for censorship. That someone would care enough about our words to bother banning even a single one. When you are marginal artists how do you know what it means to take an axe to the world and split it in two like a rotting log? What would Chekhov have written about the Russian revolution if he had been alive for its beginning or its end? (He died one year before the Revolution of 1905.) Were the ways in which Stalin censored the arts of his time in continuity with the very same censorship Chekhov so frequently experienced? Did Stalin get the Russia he wanted? Does any leader or artist ever get what they actually want? Page 79: “I wanted to get married and I wanted to be an author, but I didn’t manage to do either one.” We wanted emancipatory politics and a sustainable future, but instead got a well-written first act in front of a serene painted lake. So many we now know want little more than to move to the country and live by the water, to be close to nature and watch the fish so brilliantly die. When we write these things we feel immature. When we speak them we feel even worse. We only feel okay when we post them on the internet.
Carl Pope writes: “In 1915, as the American economy boomed, the huge supply chain that supported horse-drawn transport – harnesses and horseshoes, wagons and buggies makers (13,000 of them), farriers and blacksmiths, hay balers and feedmills – looked like a robust and vital segment for deploying capital. 1920 was the year of “Peak Horse” in the U.S.. By 1940 it was gone. This was not “low-cost”, incremental progress. It was an economic disruption so fierce that the phrase “buggy-whip maker” became a business simile for loser.” His point is that coal and oil might soon go the way of the horse and carriage. Page 105: “Forgive me, I bow down to your talent, I’m ready to give up ten years of my life for your sake, but horses I cannot give you.” We have always wanted to live in a city with no cars. Wouldn’t it be paradise to live in a city with no cars, like a theatre that blends intimately with the most graceful and sublime aspects of daily life? Why does the automobile industry get to decide how each city is built and made? If there were no cars and no plastic, how much oil would we really need? In just twenty years, between 1920 and 1940, the horse and buggy almost completely disappeared. Things can change so quickly. Karl Marx died in 1883. He never saw an automobile. What are the things that we’ll never see? And would we even want to see them if we somehow had the chance? The future is always a future we will not necessarily see.
Page 111: “To find out how it feels to be an effective activist. How does change feel? How do you realize you’re changing the world?” Page 115: “What do you call changing the world? I’m never satisfied. Worst of all is when I become paranoid and barely understand what useful action is. I feel that if I’m an activist I have an obligation to help the people, their suffering, their future, discuss science, human rights, et cetera, et cetera, and I do help people, exhausting myself; I’m attacked from every side, I make people angry. I hurtle back and forth like a fox hunted by the CIA. I see that capitalism and surveillance keep moving farther and farther ahead, while I keep moving farther and farther behind…” To fight the beasts and still be happy, since an activist life is often also a broken one. To move to the country and live as if your most vicious enemies were boredom and your own neuroses. To fight the beasts and fail, be crushed, while the beasts eat good dinners, take luxury vacations and go to the theatre. To fight your own beast, the crypto-fascist that lurks in each and every one of us. We need new forms, while no one believes new forms are even possible. But anything is possible, or if not anything than certainly a wide variety of possibilities we spend our time working as hard as possible not to consider. How could Chekhov ever have imagined we’d be speaking these things about him 112 years after his death?
Karl Marx died in 1883. The modern automobile was invented in 1886. Anton Chekhov died in 1904. The Russian revolution took place in 1917. Oil and coal will have more or less completely been phased out by 2045. Some of the people here tonight, watching us perform this introduction, will die in 2052, 2058, 2061, 2070, 2075, and other years that we won’t bother to list. Page 128: “People with no conscience but plenty of pretensions have nothing better to do than criticize the ones who are trying to make a difference. It’s a comfort to them, I’m sure.” Have nothing better to do than list the years that complete strangers may or may not die. Because, if nothing else, the little daily dramas we incite, inflame and endlessly play out are at least a distraction from the fact that each and every one of us might in the end die. But no one will die here tonight, on stage or off, if everything goes as planned. Page 129 (or page 121, lines 11 and 12): “If ever my life is of use to you, come and take it.”
Between this sentence and the next sentence, two years will have passed. Time goes so quickly. Money is often connected to tragedy. Page 138: “It’s dark outside. Somebody should tell them to pull down that barricade in front of the consulate. It stands there bare, unsightly, like a skeleton. When I was going by last night, I thought somebody was on it, crying…” Even more than a city with no cars we would like to live in a world without money. Money is an abstraction that allows cold savagery to exponentially increase. Page 140: “If money ever burrows into your heart, you’ve got to get rid of it.” Where there’s wealth there’s exploitation, endless gradations of poverty that shred possibilities and in the end force you to kill either something inside yourself or anyone near by. But, of course, none of that matters here tonight. Reality must not be strong-armed into confronting idealism. You turn on those closest to you when no one else is in range. Things can turn so quickly. Different temperaments will view the same few facts as completely disparate realities. Page 146: “There were moments when the world showed some talent for screaming or dying, but those were only moments.” Life is only a series of moments, but moments don’t pay the rent or give meaning, so we superglue them together with narrative. A beast that tells stories, a beast that buys and sells the stories we will never have a chance to live, a beast that exposes paradoxes, paradoxes that get us thinking and therefore do not help us in any way to act. Money is the lie that makes things possible, so possible we could weep. Page 160: “Now I know, understand, that in our work – it doesn’t matter whether we protest or run for office – the main thing isn’t success or failure, the things we feared or hoped for, it’s knowing how to endure.”
How to endure, how to smile when your boss effortlessly humiliates you in front of the others, when you have to scramble, hustle or betray someone in order to get by, or settle for less, or take more at the expense of others or at the expense of the world. To be a beast and still be happy, or smile politely as you endure being some happy beasts prey. To have your children hate you but pretend they don’t because you continue to give them money. Or have your children love you, but be so broken they barely know how. This is only the introduction. The introduction comes at the beginning, when what comes after is still in the future. The future is always a future we will not necessarily get to see. But anything can be the future. We can predict the worst, or hope for the best, or use every trick in our arsenal to manipulate what comes next – but as we whittle away our lives, while telling ourselves we are doing the exact opposite – the future can, will be and remains potentially anything. And, at the same time, it is always bound to look more than a little bit like the past. Page 160: “By chance man comes along, sees, and with nothing better to do destroys… Subject for a short story.” Or subject for a destroyed play.