Audience notes: there is a sudden loud noise in the last act.
It’s a summer evening on a Russian farm, and family and friends are gathering to watch the first performance of Konstantin’s avant-garde play. Their conversations reveal a growing chain of misdirected desires. Medvedenko wants Masha, who secretly loves Konstantin, who’s in love with Nina; Polina, married to Shamrayev, desires Dorn instead.
The performance is not a success, and Konstantin angrily halts it. He had wanted his play to impress his famous mother and captivate Nina, its star. But Nina is drawn to Arkadina’s lover, the writer Trigorin, who embodies the artistic fame that she craves.
Konstantin, grown increasingly distraught, appears before Nina carrying a dead seagull. He has shot it, he tells her, as he will one day shoot himself. While she is horrified, Trigorin is intrigued. The dead bird sparks his idea for a story about a girl, “happy and free,” who is destroyed by a man, “just like this seagull here.”
Noting his nephew’s frustrations, Sorin asks Arkadina to give Konstantin money to travel and spread his wings. Arkadina, always tight-fisted with others, says no. She is soon confronted by another request for freedom; Trigorin begs her to release him so he can pursue Nina. Arkadina’s passionate refusal temporarily quells him, but when he learns that Nina is running away to become an actress in Moscow, Trigorin arranges to meet her there.
Two years later. Masha has married Medvedenko, but like her mother, she’s still in hopeless love with another. Nina’s attempt at escape seems similarly fruitless. According to Konstantin, she never achieved real success on the stage, and Trigorin has left her and returned to Arkadina.
Konstantin, too, seems stuck. While he’s had several of his stories published, he fears he’s fallen into the same artistic complacency he once despised.
As Konstantin reads over a story draft with increasing despair, Nina suddenly appears. Konstantin tells her he feels dead without her, but she’s been hired by a provincial theatre company and cannot stay. She lost hope, she says, but has found her strength and talent again. She reveals she’s still in love with Trigorin. Then she goes. Despondent, Konstantin slowly rips up his manuscripts and leaves.
Arkadina, Trigorin and the others return and resume their card game. And in the next room, Konstantin makes his story about the seagull come true.