One of the most-performed and celebrated works of drama, The Sea Gull was written in 1895 and first performed the following year. Chekhov’s play centres around the romantic and artistic conflicts of the four main characters; Arkadina, the fading actress; Konstantin, her son, a struggling playwright; the ingenue Nina and the famous writer Trigorin. The machinations of the story cover three years during which the relationships are tested by jealousy, ambition and passion. Each of the main roles are supported by an ensemble of superbly drawn characters, all leading to the shocking finale.
Konstantin is a young playwright with an overbearing mother and a kindly uncle, Sorin. His artistic efforts amount to much symbolism, but little truth, according to his mother, the well-known stage actress Arkadina. She is clinging onto the last vestiges of her career, refusing to believe that her star has dimmed somewhat since her glory days. The play opens with Konstantin setting up a makeshift theatre in the grounds of his uncle’s country house, preparing to produce a scene from his latest work, a monologue about the creation of life, of human existence and much else besides. He is attempting to create new artistic forms with abstract ideas and staging. The scene is performed by Nina, the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, with whom Konstantin is infatuated and who wishes to be a great actress like his mother. The family and friends gather to watch this play-within-the-play, including the famous writer Trigorin, with whom Arkadina (who is many years older) is having a relationship, much to the chagrin of her son. After an overwrought performance and some intrusive effects Arkadina derides the play and brands it pretentious and boring. Konstantin storms out in a fury, leaving the rest of the onlookers to fawn at his mother’s feet, as usual.
As the play progresses we see how Konstantin’s overpowering love for Nina manifests itself in a hatred of his mother and her lover, Trigorin. His jealous rages both at Trigorin’s success as a writer and his mother’s love for another result in his killing of a seagull, which he presents to Nina as a trophy. She is mortified by the offering and leaves the country to make her way in the world on the stage; Konstantin, in a deep depression, attempts suicide by gunshot…but, characteristically, he fails. Between acts two and three the action moves forward two years; Nina, who has been making her way as an actress, touring the country, returns, unexpectedly. Her aspirations to be a famous actress have been shattered by the life on the road. Konstantin, however, has had some success as a writer, with his work published, but is still troubled by his struggle to be a great writer, and the loss of his idealism and artistic integrity. The play culminates in a tragic act of violence, this time successfully executed.
Nina is a character that offers much, and is often seen as a pivotal role in the ascendency of an actress’ career (much like Konstantin, or Hamlet for an actor). Luise played this role at least twice, on stage and for television. The role is usually played by a youthful actress; Luise was 39 when she first played the part, in 1949. This was for the Brattle Theater in Massachusetts (pictured), with a cast which included Bryant Haliday as Konstantin (at the more expected age of 21) and Jan Farrand as his mother (notably far too young – she was born in the same year as Haliday). The production was directed by Farrand’s then husband Albert Marre, co-founder of the Brattle Theatre, and later an award-winning director on Broadway.
The casting of Luise in this production does seem incongruous given the age of her co-stars, however, her ability to convince in the part, no doubt due to her childlike quality, seems successful given the review in the Harvard Crimson, the only extant review I have found. The production is also mentioned briefly in the reminiscence of Roger Lee Kenvin, published in the Harvard Gazette in 1998, where he cites Luise’s ‘luminous performance.’ The play ran for two weeks, debuting on 19th October 1949. I have found no evidence that the production toured to other venues.
Luise reprised the role a year later in a new production of the play filmed for BBC television as part of their Sunday Night Theatre strand (pictured, right). By this time the production of full-length television drama was in its infancy and critics and audiences were not receptive to some of the material chosen for adaptation, The Seagull included, which was thought too morbid to captivate audiences. In the following years new work by established writers was commissioned especially for the series which, on the whole, proved critical and commercial successes. Luise appeared in one such production, J.B. Priestley’s The Stone Faces, broadcast in 1957. For this version of The Seagull Luise was part of a more appropriately aged cast, with Geoffrey Keen’s Konstantin and Jeanne de Casalis’ Arkadina (for full cast see the table, below). I have been unable to discover much else regarding the production and casting of this film and, indeed, whether it still exists. Any information would be gratefully received.
This is an interesting role for Luise, always keen to play in ‘the classics’. It is a shame she didn’t get to play the meatier role of Arkadina, the aging Norma Desmond-esque actress, a role to which she would have been much better suited later in life.
For The Brattle Theatre Company (19 – 30 October 1949)
Albert Duclos as Yakov, a labourer
Trescott Ripley as Masha (Marya Ilyinisha), daughter of Shamraev
Peter Temple as Semyon Semyonovitch Medvedenko
Bryant Haliday as Konstantin Gavrilovitch Treplev, son to Arkadina
Donald Stevens as Pyotr Nikolayevitch Sorin, brother to Arkadina
Luise Rainer as Nina Mihailovna Zaretchny, a young girl
Robert Fletcher as Yevgeny Sergeyevitch Dorn, a doctor
Jeanne Tufts as Polina Andreyevna, wife to Shamraev
Jan Farrand as Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, Madame Treplev, an actress
Thayer David as Ilya Afanasyitch Shamraev, Sorin’s steward
Albert Marre as Boris Alexeyevitch Trigorin, a literary man
Eleanor MacLean as Housemaid
Written by Anton Chekov
Directed by Albert Marre
Setting by Robert O’Hearn
Costumes by Richard Baldridge
Lighting by Miles Morgan
For the BBC Sunday Night Theatre production (1950):
Jeanne de Casalis as Madame Arkadina
Allan Jeayes as Sorin
Geoffrey Keen as Konstantin
Luise Rainer as Nina
Michael Hordern as Trigorin
Sydney Tafler as Dorn
Norman Claridge as Medviedenko
Michael Rose as Yakov
Tatiana Lieven as Masha
John Salew as Shamrayev
Nora Gordon as Paulina
Geoffrey Barrie as the Cook
Josephine Hunter as the Housemaid
Written by Anton Chekhov
Produced by Harold Clayton
Assistant producer: Kenneth Milne-Buckley
Production designed by Barry Learoyd