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This last week, Wheaton College’s Arena Theater did a wonderful job performing The Seagull. I went to the closing show and loved it. As promised by the director’s notes in the program, it was a strange combination of a comedy and a tragedy. Though I did genuinely laugh a few times, I felt that for the most part I wanted it to be a comedy just so I wouldn’t have to take it seriously and could pass it’s message off as a punchline. Alright, enough of that. This isn’t a review. I’d love to talk about the theatrical aspects of the play, the stage settings, the costumes and makeup, that gorgeous moon that filled half a wall and turned blood red at the end, but I won’t. I need to talk about the actual story and it’s implications.

The story is shockingly simple. Four acts that take place at exponentially increasing intervals follow 8 main characters. In the first act, we are introduced to a character who longs to enjoy fame but can’t even decide if she wants to pursue it; a character who is bathed in fame but feels he doesn’t deserve it and wishes he was a better writer as to receive a different, more complete kind of fame; a character who hates the modern permutation of his craft and wants to change it completely, only he’s no good at it and is jealous of those who are; a character who has lived a full, rich life but wasn’t satisfied with it; a character who lived an empty life and is satisfied with it but would rather have had another; a character who just wants to trade her money for happiness; a character who adores the previous one (unrequited of course) but wants to trade his happiness for money (and therefore more happiness) and finally a character who is outwardly completely satisfied but internally jealous, controlling and miserable. These characters interact, one acts in a play written by another, both are mocked by the rest (even though at least half of them honestly really liked it) and a few characters fall in and out of love with each other. The second act, set the next day, develops the characters, gives them a little shake then puts them in the fridge to marinate for a week till the third act where each character gets to reveal where they will go and what they will do in preparation for the fourth act, two years later. In this last act every character is laid bare either facing an exposition of their mediocrity or hurrying off to dinner to avoid it.

What really got me was with so many different types of mediocrity not a single one came up with the right answer. Each character was presented with the question of their own failures and no one had a good response. Half just hid and pretended it didn’t exist. One character just gave up and killed himself; another tried to look to her betters for inspiration but ended up hurting those that loved her and getting hurt by the ones she loved; yet another allowed others to control his actions. None of these are the correct solution to the problem of mediocrity.

As I left the theater in contemplation, every one of my aspirations was dashed against the rocks of my mediocrities. It took me almost an hour afterwards to realize that this play was not the accusation that I took it for. Rather it was a question: what is the correct response to the mediocrities in our life? If it is to keep struggling for excellence even in known futility, I don’t think it’s worth it. Is it to accept our failures and to try to incorporate them into our plans in a creative sort of jujitsu? Is it to turn to religion? Is it to team up with those who have different strengths and weaknesses? I do not know. I don’t think anyone has an answer once the question has been put to them.

Perhaps—and this really is a long shot—the only answer is the contemplation of the question and the realization that there is no good answer. Perhaps that’s the point that Chekhov was trying to make. Did he ask the question not to plunge us into despair at the realization of the unavoidability of our own shortcomings but rather to give us the solution? Is the poison its own antidote?

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