It was 1978 in the San Francisco suburbs, and I was an aspiring Chekovian. I was an actress, and I wore black, and I suffered, suffered, suffered.
When I was 17, I'd performed in almost twenty plays, I'd studied at ACT Young Conservatory for four years, and I was on my way to study in New York at the Lee Strasberg Institute with a full-tuition scholarship. The audition piece that had gotten me accepted was Nina's last speech from The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. I loved that play. (Why wouldn't a young Emo actress love a play that began: "Masha, Masha, why do you always wear black?" "I am in mourning for my life.")
The drama teacher who gave me Nina's monologue was wise, and knew me well. It was the perfect piece for me -- full of tragedy and full-bore living. Chekhov's views, his drama, his tragedy -- I could relate. Especially to Nina's tragic end: she gives up happiness for her art, her "vocation." Ahhh, I thought, how glorious to suffer for your art!
Here's the monologue:
"Why did you say you kissed the ground I walked on? You should have killed me instead. I'm so tired! I want to rest, I just want to rest. I'm the seagull ... No, that's not it. I'm an actress. That's it.
"He's here too. He is, isn't he? Well, never mind. He never believed in the theatre, he laughed at all my dreams, and little by little I stopped believing in it too. And then all the emotional stress, the jealousy; I was always afraid for the baby ... I started getting petty, depressed, my acting was emptier and emptier ... I didn't know what to do with my hands, I didn't know how to hold myself onstage, I couldn't control my voice. You don't know what that's like, to realize you're a terrible actor. I'm the seagull ... No, that's not it...
"Remember that seagull you shot? A man comes along, sees her, and destroys her life because he has nothing better to do ... subject for a short story. No, that's not it ... What was I saying? Oh yes, the theatre ... I'm not like that anymore. I'm a real actress now. I enjoy acting, I'm proud of it, the stage intoxicates me. When I'm up there I feel beautiful. And these days, being back here, walking for hours on end, thinking and thinking, I could feel my soul growing stronger day after day.
"And now I know, Kostya, I understand, finally, that in our business -- acting, writing, it makes no difference -- the main thing isn't being famous, it's not the sound of applause, it's not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens. You have to keep on believing. I believe, and it helps. And now when I think about my vocation, I'm not afraid of life."
Part of me wonders how I could have gotten accepted to the Strasberg Institute with the kind of emoting I must have done performing this thing. Part of me cringes at the high drama of this piece.
Yet, realistically, I have spent thirty years wrangling with Nina's questions of art and happiness.
Now I no longer wear (so much) black. And when I do it's because, hey, it looks good on me! I certainly don't Suffer with a Capital S as much, and I distinctly don't believe you need to sacrifice your happiness for your art. I believe I make my best art when I'm happy.
And yet, those last three sentences. What Nina asserts, I have come to understand as well:
I understand, finally, that in our business -- acting, writing, it makes no difference -- the main thing isn't being famous, it's not the sound of applause, it's not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens. You have to keep on believing. I believe, and it helps. And now when I think about my vocation, I'm not afraid of life.
As a veteran of the writing life, I've come to believe that Nina wasn't sacrificing happiness by following her artistic path. I think she was finding it.