Richard Gilman has written a very good introduction to the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s plays. I always read introductions after I’ve got myself thoroughly familiar with the works in question, and I found the following passage illuminated some of the issues I was grappling with around the two Chekhov plays we’re looking at (The Seagull and Uncle Vanya):
Many ways exist for getting Chekhov wrong, so herewith a short guide to avoiding them. Don’t look for ‘realism’ in these plays; don’t expect conventional endings, happy or otherwise; be aware of how Chekhov often has one character subvert another’s point of view, when it threatens to harden into ideology or melt into sentimentality; keep alert to the hints and nuances in speeches, along with the literal words; don’t look for answers, to your problems or life’s dilemmas; throw away any idea you might have that drama is always about ‘conflict’, or, rather remember that in these plays conflict is more often internal – within characters – than between them; keep in mind that no single character in any play speaks wholly for Chekhov, the most unbiased and democratic of authors; don’t ever regard, admiringly or not, a Chekhov play as an exercise in ‘mood’ or ‘atmosphere’ – they’re solid works of imagination, not emotional vapours. Here is Virginia Woolf writing in 1920: ‘It is, as a rule, when a critic does not wish to commit himself, or to trouble himself, that he speaks of atmosphere.’ Don’t forget that Chekhov is often very funny, so feel free to laugh, aloud if the impulse strikes you.
As an aside, I wish I’d had that Woolf quote (on ‘atmosphere’) to hand at the last meeting, when some of our esteemed Culture Club members were content to look on Bob Dylan’s song Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts as an exercise in creating atmosphere, and in itself devoid of any meaning.