It is a summer evening at Sorin’s country estate. On a grassy knoll down by the lake, an “amateur” stage has been “hurriedly slapped together” for a performance. Yakov and some other workmen are hastily putting the finishing touches on the stage. Masha and her suitor, the schoolteacher Medvedenko, are on their way back from a walk. Medvedenko asks Masha why she is always dressed in black, and she replies that she is “in mourning for [her] life.” Medvedenko says he doesn’t understand Masha’s unhappiness—though she’s not a rich woman, she’s fairly well-off, and she has her health to boot. Masha replies that her unhappiness has nothing to do with money—even poor people can be happy, she says. Medvedenko says he isn’t so sure, and complains about his own precarious financial situation.
The opening moments of the play immediately establish its theme of unrequited love as one of life’s central sources of unhappiness. By introducing two minor characters and their private struggles with love first, Chekhov shows that unrequited love spares no one—and can seep into anyone’s life unexpectedly and indiscriminately.
As Masha and Medvedenko approach the stage, Medvedenko tells Masha that Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov, Sorin’s nephew, has written a play for his beloved Nina Zarechnaya to act in—the two young lovebirds are presenting a “joint artistic creation.” Medvedenko laments that the two young lovers are so happy when his own love for Masha is unrequited. He asks Masha if she refuses to love him because he is poor, but Masha blithely states that she simply “can’t reciprocate.” She chastises Medvedenko for complaining so often about his financial situation—there are much worse things, she says, than being poor.
Chekhov contrasts Masha and Medvedenko’s struggles in love with the suggestion that two young lovers have actually managed to find happiness at the lake. However, as the action continues, he will show that sometimes, even love that seems simple, pure, and straightforward is rife with deceit and disappointment.
Sorin and Treplyov walk down towards the stage area—Sorin, a frail older man, uses a walking stick. He complains about the sleepy decadence of country life as Treplyov urges Masha and Medvedenko to clear the area until the stage is ready. Masha and Medvedenko head back up to the house. Yakov and the other workers head down to the lake to cool themselves off, and Treplyov nervously tells them to be back for the start of the performance in ten minutes. Treplyov inspects the stage and explains to Sorin that he wants the performance to begin exactly as the moon starts to rise—but he is worried that Nina Zarechnaya will be late or unable to escape the watchful eyes of her overbearing father and stepmother, who don’t like her leaving her own house across the lake and spending time at Sorin’s.
This passage demonstrates how fussy Treplyov is about his art. He believes that his art reflects his soul and his worth as a human being, and he is determined to prove himself as both an artist and a man. This conflation of art and egotism, and the desire to use art as a means to personal glory, is part of the play’s central concern.
Sorin asks Treplyov why his mother (and Sorin’s sister) Arkadina, a well-known actress, is in a bad mood. Treplyov dismissively replies that she’s “bored” in the countryside, and “jealous” to boot—she doesn’t want Treplyov to put on the play for fear that her own lover, the famous writer Boris Trigorin, might “take a shine” to Nina Zarechnaya. Arkadina doesn’t want to see success on the stage belong to anyone but her—she can’t stand listening to any artist but herself receive praise. Sorin accuses Treplyov of being too sensitive, and assures him that his mother “adores” him and will love the play, too.
There are even greater depths to Treplyov’s desire to prove himself. Though he is in love with Nina and no doubt wants to impress her, the main object of his theatrical undertaking is to prove himself to his narcissistic, judgmental mother. Though Treplyov clearly has a complicated relationship with his mother and seemingly very few positive feelings about her, he still wants her approval quite desperately.
Treplyov, however, is now on a tear about his mother’s mercurial, hypocritical, narcissistic tendencies. Treplyov believes that his vain mother hates him because he is a reminder of her age—and the ways in which the “modern theater” is changing and leaving her behind. Treplyov knows that his mother is content to trod the boards performing outdated, sentimental works—but he himself believes theater is in need of “new forms.” In spite of his lofty ideals about art and expression, he feels barred from participating in real artistic communities because of who his mother is, and he constantly worries that he’s only allowed to attend certain parties and participate in certain conversations because other people “put up with [him] just because” he’s Arkadina’s son.
This passage reveals the true depths of Treplyov’s insecurity about his identity and agenda as an artist. He wants very badly to create, and to make art for art’s sake—but he knows how the machinery of fame and recognition work, and he is aware of how easy it is for real art to slip through the cracks. Treplyov wants to prove himself as an artist—but having been raised by a famous actress, there is a part of him that remains cynical about his ability to ever truly do so.
Sorin interjects to ask Treplyov what he knows about Arkadina’s beau, the novelist Trigorin. Treplyov describes the man as “clever enough” and taciturn—in his late thirties, he is younger than Arkadina, but is so “jaded” that he “can love only those who are no longer young.” Sorin laments that he himself never got to be even a “second-rate author”—to write was his life’s dream.
This passage hints at Treplyov’s deep underlying hatred of his mother’s much-younger paramour, and suggests that Treplyov has something of an Oedipal complex where his mother’s affections are concerned. A narcissistic and self-centered person, Arkadina has a limited amount of attention and love to give—and when Trigorin is getting it, Treplyov is getting none.
Treplyov is overcome by emotion as he hears Nina approaching—“even the sound of her footsteps,” he says, enchants him. As Nina enters, flustered but happy, Treplyov greets her as the “girl of [his] dreams.” Nina states that while she was lucky enough to be able to sneak out of her father’s house unnoticed, she can only stay for a little. Sorin hurries off to gather the others and bring them down for the performance. Treplyov and Nina, left alone, share a kiss. Nina remarks that, though her father and stepmother don’t like her coming down to the “bohemian” lake estate, she’s drawn to it “like a gull”—being around Treplyov and his family of artists fills her heart. Treplyov tells Nina that he loves her, but she shushes him as she hears footsteps approaching.
This passage explores Treplyov and Nina’s relationship more deeply. Though Treplyov appears head-over-heels in love with Nina, Nina is more drawn to the atmosphere of Treplyov’s life than to the man himself. She won’t tell him that she loves him back, tries to quiet his affections when she hears people approaching, and will only kiss him when they’re alone and unobserved.
Yakov is coming back up from the lake, and Treplyov asks him if all the special effects are ready for the performance. Yakov confirms that everything is set. Treplyov asks Nina if she’s excited to perform—she says she’s nervous to act in front of the famous Trigorin, whose “wonderful” stories she loves. Treplyov dismissively says he’s never read any of Trigorin’s work. Nina comments on the strange nature of Treplyov’s play, which is “like a read-through,” and contains “no living characters.” Nina says she’s a little disappointed that there’s no love interest in the piece before ducking behind the stage to get ready to go on—Treplyov follows her.
Again, this passage shows that Nina isn’t truly as in love with Treplyov as he’d like to think she is. She’s excited to perform in his work, but only because she believes it will garner the attention of more attractive, famous people. She even sort of disparages Treplyov’s work, complaining that it’s not to her taste.
Polina Andreevna, the wife of Sorin’s estate overseer Shamraev, comes down to the lake with Dorn, a doctor and guest of Sorin—and her own lover. She chides Dorn for failing to take care of himself in the damp weather in spite of knowing better due to his profession. She accuses him of being “so infatuated” with Arkadina that he exposes himself to rain and cold to be near her. All men, she laments, are “ready to fall on [their] faces at an actress’s feet.” Dorn says people naturally idealize actors and actresses, and Polina retorts that women have always idealized Dorn himself because of his status as a doctor.
Polina and Dorn represent yet another example of unrequited love. Polina is resentful of the fame Arkadina has, and of the ways in which people react to it. Fame is a destructive force within this play, and Polina knows that the desire to be around famous people in hopes of elevating one’s own social status is a dangerous thing.
Arkadina, Sorin, Trigorin, Shamraev, Medevenko, and Masha all arrive at the lake for the performance. Shamraev and Arkadina are discussing the declining state of Russian theater. At the sound of his mother’s voice, Treplyov comes out from behind the stage. In a booming voice, he calls out to the audience to enter into the world of his play—a “drama of what will be in two hundred thousand years.”
Arkadina comes down to her son’s performance already lamenting all that’s wrong with Russian theatre. This shows that she is judgmental and not predisposed to like her own son’s work.
The curtain rises, and behind it, the moon’s reflection on the beautiful lake can be seen. Nina, dressed all in white, is seated on the stage on a large boulder. In a whimsical monologue, she explains that “all living things” are, in the future, completely extinct. The earth is “chilly,” “empty,” and “ghastly.” Nina explains that she represents the “universal soul” of “human consciousness” and “animal instinct” mingled together. Arkadina remarks, in a low voice, on the ostentatiously “avant-garde” nature of the play. Treplyov begs his mother to be quiet.
Treplyov’s experimental play imagines a cold, desolate, lonely world—perhaps a reflection of his fears not just of the fate of the earth, but of his own life. As Arkadina begins to mock the play, Treplyov is clearly in distress—the play is as much for her as it is for himself or for Nina.
Nina’s monologue continues. She describes her existence as a “prisoner, flung into a deep empty pit.” On the desolate surface of the ruined earth, there is now only one battle left to fight—a struggle with Satan. Nina spots Satan approaching, and as she does, Arkadina remarks on a “stink of sulphur” overpowering the air—one of Yakov’s special effects. At this point, Arkadina and the others begin to poke fun at the play, and Treplyov, embarrassed and angry, calls for its end, instructing Yakov to lower the curtain before storming away from the lake.
Though Treplyov’s play attempts to wrestle with large, existential themes—and incorporate effects and new ideas—Arkadina sees it as a joke. The others around her, compelled by her fame and status, join her in making fun of the play, and Treplyov realizes his worst fears are true—without his mother’s approval, he believes, he will not be able to succeed or gain clout as an artist.
Sorin chastises his sister for offending Treplyov. Arkadina replies that her son told her the play was a joke, so she treated it as one—now, she says, he wants to claim it as his “masterpiece” only because she doesn’t like it. She is tired, she says, of her “temperamental, conceited little boy” and his attempts to make digs at her own artistry.
Arkadina and Treplyov clearly have an adversarial relationship, as signaled by her readiness to turn on her own son’s hard work and justify her own cruel actions.
Trigorin speaks up to defend Treplyov, stating that “everyone writes the way […] he can.” As the others begin debating the nature of art and theater, Arkadina calls for them all to stop taking about plays and enjoy the “glorious night.” Arkadina begins reminiscing aloud about the old days at the lake, when six or seven other families used to live at the shore. As she waxes poetic about the loud, decadent summers full of noise, music, and love affairs, she begins to feel guilty for how she treated Treplyov, and begins calling for him. Masha volunteers to go off and look for him.
As soon as the conversation revolves around actual art and not Arkadina or her fame and status, she doesn’t want it to take place anymore. She needs to be the center of attention at all times.
Nina comes out from behind the stage and greets everyone warmly. Sorin and Arkadina congratulate her on her performance, and Arkadina tells her she has an “obligation” to become an actress. Nina says that though acting is her “fondest dream,” it won’t ever come true. Arkadina introduces Nina to Trigorin—Nina shyly tells him that she’s read all of his work, and then asks whether he thought Treplyov’s play was “strange.” Trigorin says he didn’t understand a single word of it—but enjoyed Nina’s acting. He looks out at the lake and remarks on how much he loves fishing.
Nina has barely finished her performance, and already she’s bashing Treplyov’s play as a way of hopefully getting closer to Trigorin and Arkadina. Meanwhile, Trigorin’s love of “fishing” seems to tie into his desire to keep Nina on his hooks—however subconscious that impulse is at this point in the action.
Nina says it’s time for her to go. Arkadina begs her to stay longer, and Sorin and the others follow suit, asking her to linger just another hour. Nina, in tears, hurriedly runs off, stating that she can’t be out any longer. After she’s gone, Arkadina remarks on what a shame it is that Nina’s father has willed the entirety of her late mother’s fortune to his new wife, leaving Nina penniless. Dorn agrees that Nina’s father is a controlling “swine.” Arkadina, Sorin, and all the others except Dorn head back up to the house to get out of the cold.
The others pity Nina and see her as a bird trapped in a cage. Their infantilization of her blinds them to her darker impulses—her desire for fame and her need to use other, more establish artists as fodder for her dreams.
Dorn, alone, says to himself that he really enjoyed the play. He spots Treplyov and resolves to tell the young man how much he liked his work. Treplyov enters and tells Dorn that he’s hiding from the “unbearable” Masha. Dorn tells Treplyov how much he enjoyed the play, and how much he admires Treplyov’s talent. With tears in his eyes, Treplyov embraces Dorn, incredulously asking if the man really thinks he should continue writing plays. Dorn urges him to keep writing about things that are “important and everlasting.”
Dorn is one of the very few characters in the play who seems to encourage Treplyov’s art seriously and kindly. Treplyov, who is used to judgment, sarcasm, and alienation, takes Dorn’s words to heart—perhaps a bit too much.
Treplyov asks where Nina went, and Dorn tells him that she left for home. Treplyov despairingly begins muttering about how he has to see Nina. Masha finally catches up with Treplyov and tells him that Arkadina is asking after him. Treplyov tells her to tell Arkadina he’s gone out—and that no one should follow him. Treplyov runs off in pursuit of Nina.
Masha chases Treplyov here even as he chases Nina. The unrequited loves and missed connections within the play show just how destructive—and exhausting—it is to pursue unreturned love.
Masha tells Dorn that she needs his help. She tells him that she feels on the verge of “wreck[ing]” her life—she is in terrible pain because of how much she loves Treplyov. She lays her head on Dorn’s chest and sobs. Dorn comforts her, remarking on how “high-strung” the “spellbinding lake” makes all the young lovers around him.
The empathetic Dorn feels bad for Masha, and also for Treplyov. His attitude towards unrequited love in this passage suggests it’s a folly and a necessary rite of passage—but as the play continues on, Chekhov will demonstrate the dark, serious consequences of destroying oneself in the name of love and affection.