NOVEMBER 24, 2020
“We need new forms.” This is what the young playwright Konstantin Treplev advocates at the beginning of Anton Chekhov’s 1895 play The Seagull. It is also the situation in which theaters find themselves today. How might the constraints of the pandemic generate new forms? While live readings and performances on Zoom have become increasingly popular, a recent adaptation of The Seagull by Celine Song at New York Theater Workshop turned to a different virtual platform. Chekhov’s play was performed on the videogame The Sims 4, streamed live via Twitch in two installments.
Twitch, the leading live-streaming platform for gamers, has seen its viewership skyrocket in lockdown. Still, one might be forgiven for thinking that this unlikely crossover between the worlds of gaming and New York theater wouldn’t draw huge crowds. And yet, on opening night there were several hundred people watching the live-stream — far more than you would get for a regular Tuesday matinee. At the time of writing, the first installment of the production (Acts 1 and 2) has amassed a total of 8,725 views.
The Sims 4 describes itself as a “life simulation” videogame, which made it a surprisingly effective vehicle for Chekhov’s naturalist theater. Nothing much happens in Chekhov’s plays; nothing much happens in The Sims. In both fictive worlds, characters ramble around a large house. They eat meals, they fall in and out of love, they talk but fail to listen to each other. This is also, of course, the theater of everyday life in the pandemic — a reflection of the mundane routines that fill up hours of confinement. Early critics of Chekhov were baffled by the uneventful nature of his plays — the endless talking, the card-playing. But Chekhov offered a clear explanation — “I simply wanted to say to people honestly: ‘Look at yourselves, look at how bad and boring your lives are!”
While Chekhov’s plays may have challenged his era’s received notions of eventfulness and dramatic structure, the Sims production deconstructed even those few events that do punctuate The Seagull. We might say that The Sims displays a deeper commitment to naturalism than the Moscow Art Theater, with its emphasis on the performance of routine biological needs, such as using the bathroom, eating, and sleeping. Indeed, the Sims characters’ incessant need to urinate threatened to derail what plot there is. Act One is largely structured around the young actress Nina’s performance of Treplev’s new, experimental play. In the Sims adaptation, we watched as Song valiantly tried to gather everyone on the sofa for the payoff, but to no avail. No sooner had Arkadina sat down than she got up again to use the bathroom. The other characters moved around the room incessantly. No one paid attention to Nina. This failure, though, was perfect. In the original, the aging actress Arkadina continually mocks and interrupts her son’s play until he is forced to cut the performance short. As one person in the chat observed: “Everything going on right now is more Chekhov than Chekhov.”
As it turns out, Sims characters possess free will. The player-director can issue commands, but they can be roundly ignored. This happened often. After the chaos of the play-within-the play scene, Song briefly turned off their free will so that she could exert slightly more control over their actions. Soon after, though, she decided to turn their free will back on. (Song wondered aloud whether a cheat code should be used to eliminate characters’ need to use the bathroom. The chat forcefully rejected this idea.)
There was a kind of anarchic pleasure in watching the characters unwittingly rebel against the writer and director. Of course, the illusion of life is the mimetic ideal of any realist representation, but rather than unfinished characters insisting on their own reality and demanding to perform, as in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Song’s production explored a different relationship between characters, actors, director, and author. What happens when actors are blissfully unaware that they are characters in a play?
This was the first playthrough of The Seagull from start to finish that Song had ever done, and so much of what happened was unexpected for her as well. It was a thrill to see Chekhov’s play transformed in response to the logic of the game. For example, at the beginning of Act Four, Medvedenko tries to persuade Masha to return home to care for their newborn baby, but Masha resists: “What a bore you’ve become. You used to do a little philosophizing at least; now it’s all home and baby, baby and home.” Song had latched onto this detail of Masha’s frustrations with motherhood and wanted to facilitate it. But in order to do so within the world of the game, she first needed to have Masha and Medvedenko flirt, go on a date, kiss, get married, have sex (“Woohoo” in Sims parlance) — all in order to conceive a child. This developed a whole new plot line, giving far more dramatic space to the lives of Masha and Medvedenko. Then, towards the end of the production, we waited nearly 40 minutes for the pregnant Masha to finally give birth. We were all becoming increasingly impatient. The group chat was full of suggested hacks to induce labor. Buy a bassinet! Try this cheat code! Speed up time! When it finally happened, I felt genuine relief.
We were also waiting for Treplev to die. Chekhov’s well-known axiom that a gun introduced in the first act must go off by the end was also thwarted by the rules of the game: no guns allowed in The Sims. And so, Treplev could not shoot himself off stage in the last moments of the play. Instead, we watched as he slowly starved to death in his room, where he sat writing at his computer. (As if the game were aware of the mood Song was trying to create, Treplev’s computer at one point started to malfunction, sending sparks flying.) In one of the more inspired scenic design choices, Song filled Treplev’s room with dozens and dozens of seagulls. The play’s symbolist (albeit, comedically so) undertones were further heightened by the fact that the seagulls kept inexplicably vanishing and then reappearing. Once again, the game seemed to be self-consciously playing along by haunting Treplev with these spectral seagulls.
As with any live performance, part of what we were there to witness was chance and contingency. Song’s production was an exploration of theatricality — of what makes theater theater — at a moment when theater is being forced to re-make itself. Roland Barthes once defined theatricality as theater-minus-text. Theatricality, in other words, resides in the signs on stage beyond the written text: it is gesture, light, objects, movement. Song’s nearly 6-hour staging came remarkably close to Barthes’s ideal, as very few lines from Chekhov’s text were actually spoken. (Sims, naturally, speak Simlish.) It was not so much a production of Chekhov’s play, but a production about doing the play. Even on a virtual videogame streaming site, there was a real sense of liveness that is constitutive to theater. It emphasized the act of play.
Why do we watch other people play, whether video games on Twitch or a theatrical role on stage? And why are people drawn to games like The Sims, which reproduce the mundanity of our own lives? The sociologist Roger Caillois suggested that play is a non-productive activity; it is “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.” Play would thus seem to defy the logic of the gig economy in which every hobby, every skill, everything you do for fun could and should be monetized. (Although it bears emphasizing that Twitch does just that. Players become “entrepreneurs” as they collect advertising revenue from their video-game streams. The spheres of labor and play are perhaps not as distinct as Caillois theorized.) Nonetheless, watching others play offers a welcome, even if illusory, respite from an economic order that demands constant productivity. And when the game being played is as boring as The Sims, it feels even more transgressive: there are no distinct goals, no levels to progress through. Nothing needs to happen. The experience is a gloriously Chekhovian — that is, lifelike — mix of chaos, absurdity, and boredom.
Robyn Jensen is a visiting assistant professor in the German and Russian Department at Pomona College. Her work focuses on twentieth-century Russian culture, with an emphasis on photography theory and visual culture, aesthetic theory, and theater.