ANTON CHEKHOV 1897
Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece of frustrated longing and wasted lives, was originally a much more conventional drama in its earlier incarnation. Previously known as The Wood Demon, the play was rejected by two theaters before premiering in Moscow in December of 1889 to a very poor reception (it closed after three performances). Sometime between that date and 1896, Chekhov revised the play, altering it radically. Although the work that emerged is more static than the original—in terms of narrative events, far less happens—it is considered one of the most poignant evocations of thwarted desire ever written. Vanya is literally haunted by the man he might have been: “Day and night like a fiend at my throat is the thought that my life is hopelessly lost.”
Uncle Vanya was scheduled to premiere at the Maly Theater in Moscow, but the Theatrical and Literary Committee overseeing it and other imperial theaters asked Chekhov to make substantial revisions to the play. Instead of making the suggested changes, he withdrew the play and submitted it to the Moscow Art Theater, where Uncle Vanya was first performed on October 26, 1899, under the direction Konstantin Stanislavsky. It was well received.
With Uncle Vanya and Chekhov’s three other dramatic masterpieces—The Sea Gull, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard—Chekhov demonstrated that a production could be riveting without conforming to traditional notions of drama. In Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, Russian author Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita) noted that Chekhov’s plays are not overtly political or freighted with a social message: “What mattered was that this typical Chekhovian hero was the unfortunate bearer of a vague but beautiful human truth, a burden which he could neither get rid of nor carry.” Today, Chekhov stakes a double claim in the world of literature: he is equally acclaimed as a master of the short story and of the dramatic form. Uncle Vanya is widely considered to be his greatest achievement in the latter genre and a masterpiece of modern drama.
Born on January 29, 1860, in the port village of Taganrog in the Ukraine, Anton Chekhov was the third son of Pavel Yegorovitch and Yevgeniya Yakovlevna (Morozov) Chekhov. Though the family was descended from Russian peasants, Chekhov’s grandfather purchased the family’s freedom, allowing Chekhov’s father to run a small grocery store. The family’s fortunes took a sudden turn for the worse, however, when his father’s store went bankrupt in 1876. Following that disaster, his parents moved to Moscow, leaving Chekhov in Taganrog to complete his education.
In 1879, Chekhov reunited with his family in Moscow, where he began studying for a degree in medicine at Moscow University. In 1884, he completed his studies, began to practice medicine, and started publishing short, humorous sketches in popular magazines. In 1886 these collected sketches were published as a book, entitled Motley Stories. According to his biographers, Chekhov only began to take his writing seriously after he moved to St. Petersburg in 1885 and befriended an influential editor named A. S. Suvorin. During the late-1880s, Chekhov wrote some of his most famous short stories, including “The Kiss” and “The Steppe.”
Chekhov had attended plays by Nikolai Gogol and William Shakespeare growing up in Taganrog, as well as appearing as an actor on the amateur and professional stage. In the 1880s, Chekhov began to write one-act and full-length plays. Many of his dramatic efforts were poorly received; the 1896 premier of The Sea Gull at the Imperial Alexander Theater in St. Petersburg was drowned out by whispering and derisive laughter. Chekhov’s fortunes as a playwright improved after he met Konstantin Stanislavsky, who produced The Sea Gull at the Moscow Art Theater in 1898. In fact, the Moscow Art Theater was so indebted to Chekhov that an ideogram of a sea gull—from Chekhov’s play of that title—still adorns the theater’s curtain. In 1899, the Moscow Art Theater presented Uncle Vanya, a revised version of Chekhov’s one-act play The Wood Demon. Chekhov’s reputation as an innovative and influential dramatist rests with Uncle Vanya and his two subsequent plays, The Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).
Even as his literary fortunes grew, Chekhov continued to work as a doctor, often refusing payment for the care he dispensed because he earned a good living from writing. In the summer of 1901 Chekhov married Olga Leonardovna Knipper, an actress from the Moscow Art Theater. Ill with tuberculosis, he spent much of his last years traveling to health spas in Europe. He died on July 2, 1904, in Badenweiler, a German health resort, and was buried in Moscow. Chekhov was a highly regarded short story writer and dramatist in his own lifetime and recognition and appreciation for his unique literary gifts have continued to grow throughout the twentieth century.
The play opens on a cloudy afternoon in a garden behind the family estate of Serebryakov. Marina, the old nurse, is knitting a stocking, while Astrov, the doctor who has been called to tend to one of Professor Serebryakov’s ailments, is pacing nearby. Astrov laments that he’s aged tending the sick and that life “itself is boring, stupid, dirty.” Having no one to love, he complains that his emotions have grown numb. When he worries that people won’t remember him, Marina answers: “People won’t remember but God will remember.”
When Vanya enters, yawning from a nap, the three complain about how all order has been disrupted since the professor and his wife, Yelena, arrived. As they’re talking, Serebryakov, Yelena, Sonya, and Telegin return from a walk. Vanya calls the professor “a learned old dried mackerel,” criticizing him for his pomposity and the small-ness of his achievements. Vanya’s mother, Maria Vasilyevna, objects to her son’s derogatory comments. Vanya also praises the professor’s wife, Yelena, for her beauty, arguing that faithfulness to an old man like Serebryakov means silencing youth and emotions—an immoral waste of vitality. Act I closes with Yelena becoming exasperated as Vanya declares his love for her.
It is evening and this act is set in Serebryakov’s dining room. Before going to bed, Serebryakov complains of being in pain and of old age. After he is asleep, Yelena and Vanya talk. She speaks of the discord in the house, and Vanya speaks of dashed hopes. He feels he’s misspent his youth, and he associates his unrequited love for Yelena with the devastation of his life. Not only is Vanya distraught about his own life, but he tells Yelena her life is dying, too. “What are you waiting for?” he asks her. “What curst philosophy stands in your way?”
Alone, Vanya speaks of how he loved Yelena ten years before, when it would have been possible for the two to have married and had a happy life together. At that time, Vanya believed in Serebryakov’s greatness and loved him; now those beliefs are gone and his life feels empty. As Vanya agonizes over his past, Astrov returns and the two talk together, drunk. Sonya chides Vanya for his drinking, and he answers: “When one has no real life, one lives in illusions. After all, that’s better than nothing.” Sonya responds pragmatically: “All our hay is mowed, it rains every day, everything is rotting and you occupy yourself with illusions.”
Outside, a storm is gathering and Astrov talks with Sonya about the suffocating atmosphere in the house; Astrov says Serebryakov is difficult, Vanya is a hypochondriac, and Yelena is charming but idle. He laments that it’s a long time since he loved anyone. Sonya begs Astrov to stop drinking, telling him he is beautiful and should create rather than simply destroying himself. The two speak obliquely, though inconclusively, of love.
When the doctor leaves, Yelena enters and makes peace with Sonya, after an apparently long period of mutual anger and antagonism. Trying to resolve their past difficulties, Yelena reassures Sonya that she had strong feelings for her father when she married him, though the love proved false. The two women converse at cross purposes, with Yelena confessing her unhappiness and Sonya gushing about the doctor’s virtues. Yelena is generous in her assessment of Astrov, describing him as a
genius—a rare individual who is brave and free and imagines the future happiness of mankind.
Vanya, Sonya, and Yelena are in the living room of Serebryakov’s house, having gathered to hear Serebryakov’s announcement. Vanya calls Yelena a water nymph and urges her, once again, to break free, saying playfully: “Let yourself go if only for once in your life, hurry and fall in love with some River God.” Sonya complains that she has loved Astrov for six years and that because she is not beautiful, he doesn’t notice her. Yelena volunteers to question Astrov and find out if he’s in love with Sonya. Sonya is pleased, but before agreeing she wonders whether uncertainty is better because then, at least, there is hope.
When Yelena asks Astrov about his feelings for Sonya, he says he has none and concludes that Yelena has brought up the subject of love to encourage him to confess his own emotions for her. Astrov kisses Yelena, and Vanya witnesses the embrace. Upset, Yelena begs Vanya to use his influence so that she and the professor can leave immediately. Before Serebryakov can make his announcement, Yelena conveys to Sonya the message that Astrov doesn’t love her by saying he won’t be coming to the estate in the future.
Serebryakov proposes that he solve the family’s financial problems by selling the estate, using the proceeds to invest in interest-bearing paper and buy a villa for himself and Yelena in Finland. Angrily, Vanya asks where he, Sonya, and his mother would live. He protests that the estate belongs to Sonya and that Vanya has never been appreciated for the self-sacrifice it took to rid the property of debt. As Vanya’s anger mounts, Yelena shouts:“I’m going away from this hell! I can’t bear it any longer.” Vanya, clearly in despair, announces: “My life is lost to me! I am talented, intelligent, brave. . . . Had I lived a normal life, there might have come out of me a Schopenhauer, a Dostoyevsky. . . . I am through with keeping accounts, making reports. I am losing my mind. . . . Mother, I am in despair! Mother!” Instead of comforting her son, Maria insists that Vanya listen to the professor. And Sonya pleads with her father: “One must be merciful, Papa! Uncle Vanya and I are so miserable!” Vanya leaves but then returns moments later with a gun. He fires the pistol point blank at Serebryakov but misses.
As the final act opens, Marina and Telegin wind wool and discuss the planned departure of Serebryakov and Yelena. When Vanya and Astrov enter, Astrov says that in this district only he and Vanya were “decent, cultured men” and that ten years of “narrow-minded life” have made them vulgar. Vanya has stolen a vial of Astrov’s morphine, presumably to commit suicide; Sonya and Astrov beg him to return the narcotic. “Give it back, Uncle Vanya!,” says Sonya. “I am just as unhappy as you are, maybe, but I don’t despair. I bear it and I will bear it till the end of my life. Then you bear it, too.” Vanya returns the vial.
Yelena and Serebryakov bid everyone farewell. When Yelena says goodbye to Astrov, she admits to having been carried away by him, embraces him, and takes one of his pencils as a souvenir. Serebryakov and Vanya make their peace, agreeing all will be as it was before. Once the outsiders have departed, Sonya and Vanya pay bills, Maria works on a pamphlet, and Marina knits. Vanya complains of the heaviness of his heart, and Sonya speaks of living, working, and the rewards of the afterlife: “We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. . . . In your life you haven’t known what joy was; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. . . . We shall rest.”
Sonya is Serebryakov’s daughter by his first marriage and Vanya’s niece. Hard-working and plain in appearance, Sonya is twenty-four and has been in love with Astrov for six years. When Yelena offers to ask Astrov about his feelings for Sonya, she wavers, saying, “Uncertainty is better. . . . After all, there is hope—” Like the others, Sonya confesses to deep unhappiness but is more pragmatic. It is Sonya who holds the family together. When Vanya complains of how heavy his burdens are, she says: “What can we do, we must live!” The play closes with her soliloquy about the value of hard work in this lifetime and rest and beauty in the next.
A twenty-seven-year-old beauty and charmer, Yelena is married to the already elderly professor Serebryakov. Like her namesake Helen of Troy, Yelena is a woman whose beauty stirs men to action though she herself suffers from inertia. She freely admits that she’s idle and bored, and she believes that any type of useful activity, such as nursing or teaching, is beyond her. Astrov jokes, “Both of you, he [Serebryakov] and you—infected us with your idleness.” Yelena admits that she married out of true feeling, but that she no longer loves her husband and is now very unhappy. She dismisses Vanya’s affections but is clearly attracted to Astrov. Directors disagree about Yelena’s character. Sometimes she is portrayed as beautiful and vapid, flirtatious and cruel. Others see her as a vibrant life force that woos men away from their goals and therefore brings about their unintentional destruction, an idea that’s supported by Astrov’s statement, “It’s strange how I am convinced that if you should stay on, there would be an enormous devastation.”
Dr. Mikhail Lvovich Astrov
As Act I opens, Astrov, the village doctor, is lamenting that he’s grown old and has not had a single day off in more than ten years. At times, Astrov appears to be close to desperation: “I work harder than anyone in the district, fate strikes me one blow after another and there are times when I suffer unbearably—but for me there is no light shining in the distance.” In addition to his other frustrations, Astrov is haunted by the death of one of his patients, a railroad switchman, who died of typhus under his care. Yelena describes Astrov as having a tired, nervous, interesting face; he is a vegetarian who’s passionate about nature and interested in the conservation of the woods, but he also drinks heavily and is curiously oblivious to Sonya’s love for him. Many parallels exist between Vanya and Astrov; both feel beaten down by life, both are attracted to Yelena, and both believe they’ve squandered their talents and are now living lives of vulgarity and frustration.
Professor Alexander Vladimirovich Serebryakov
A retired professor who was regarded as a Don Juan in his younger days, Serebryakov is now married to the beautiful Yelena Andreevna. Serebryakov is Sonya’s father and was married to Vanya’s sister, Vera, who has since died. The professor has settled on the estate of his first wife because he can’t afford to live anywhere else. Vanya criticizes him for striding around like a god, yet having achieved nothing of significance in his field (art history). Serebryakov is idolized by his mother-in-law, Maria, but Vanya despises him, having come to view him as an old fraud who’s sapped everyone of their vitality. Serebryakov sets off a firestorm by suggesting that the estate, which belongs to Sonya, be sold so that he and Yelena can buy a villa in Finland.
See Sofia Alexandrovna
Ilya Ilich Telegin
An impoverished landowner, Telegin lives on the estate and dines regularly with the family. Chekhov describes his speech as high-pitched and pretentious. Nicknamed “Waffles” because of his pockmarked face, Telegin argues for faithfulness, describing how his wife left him the day after their wedding because of his appearance, yet he remained loyal to her, supporting the children she had with her lover.
- In 1994, Louis Malle directed a film version of Uncle Vanya, entitled Vanya on 42nd Street. The film takes an usual approach to Chekhov’s text in that it portrays a theatre company rehearsing the play for production. The lives of the actors mirror the action within the playwright’s script. Playwright David Mamet (Speed the Plow) wrote the adaptation of the play, Grammy nominee Joshua Redman created the jazz score, and Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn (as Vanya), and Andre Gregory starred in the production.
- In 1962, Stuart Burge filmed and directed a film adaptation of Uncle Vanya, which starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Rosemary Harris, and Michael Redgrave. The onstage version of the play was directed by Olivier at the Chichester Drama Festival.
Chekhov describes Marina, the old nurse, as a plain, small woman; she is a soothing presence among the frustrated, lovelorn, and angry characters on the estate. Overtly nurturing, she is often associated with food or drink (“A cup of lime-flower tea or tea with raspberry jam and it will all pass,” she says in an attempt to console Sonya).
The Uncle Vanya of the title, Voynitsky is forty-seven years old, stylishly dressed, and yawning when he first appears in Act I. A year before the play opens, he realized that he’d wasted his life by working to support the professor, whose great genius turned out to have been illusory. Vanya is in love with Yelena, whom he urges to take better advantage of her youth than he did. Discontented and angry, Vanya is derailed by his own impotence and anger; he continually makes nasty jabs at Serebryakov. After months of grumbling, Vanya erupts into violence when the professor proposes that the estate be sold so that he and Yelena can purchase a villa in Finland. Vanya shoots at the professor but misses. Having wasted his talents and squandered his life, Voynitsky has become a peripheral figure who supports his sister’s family, rather than living his own life. Even his designation in the title of the play—he’s known as someone else’s uncle—suggests how far from the center of the action his life is lived.
Maria Vasilevna Voinitskaya
Maria Vasilevna is the widow of a privy councillor, Vanya’s mother, and Serebryakov’s mother-in-law. A liberal with an unwavering commitment to women’s rights, she adores the professor and is content to spend her life furthering his work. As Vanya describes her: “My old magpie Maman is still babbling about the emancipation of women; with one eye she looks into the grave and with the other she rummages through her learned books for the dawn of a new life.” Throughout most of the play, Maria reads or writes without looking up, lost in thought.
Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky
See Uncle Vanya
See Ilya Ilich Telegin
Anger and Hatred
Recognizing that he has wasted his life furthering the professor’s scholarship, Vanya responds in anger, a new and unaccustomed emotion for him. Although Vanya’s displeasure simmers throughout the play, it erupts into violence after Serebryakov announces his plan to sell the estate so that he and Yelena can buy a villa in Finland. Vanya then attempts to shoot the professor, only to miss, emphasizing the futility of his rebellion. Vanya’s full name, Voynitsky, hints at his potential for belligerence (the Russian word for “war” is “voyna”).
Appearances and Reality
Vanya rails against Serebryakov’s intellectual posturing, knowing that the professors’s claims of intelligence are a fraud. “You were to us a creature of the highest order and your articles we knew by heart,” says Vanya. “But now my eyes are open! I see everything! You write about art, but you understand nothing of art! All your works, that I used to love, are not worth a brass penny! You fooled us!” Although some of Vanya’s charges have merit, Chekhov’s message is more complex. Serebryakov is not as bad and false as Vanya makes him out to be, but he is a self-absorbed, sick old man who has come to fear Vanya and his outbursts of indignation.
Choices and Consequences
Vanya’s mother, Maria Vasilyevna, chides her son for railing against his fate, when he’s taken so few steps to change the course of his life. “It looks as if you are challenging your former convictions,” she says to Vanya. “But they are not guilty, it’s you are guilty. You keep forgetting that a conviction in itself is nothing, it’s a dead letter. . . . You should have been doing something.” Serebryakov echoes the same sentiments when he departs, saying, “One must, ladies and gentlemen, do something.” Although his remarks are ironic given his own barren efforts, they also contain some element of truth.
Vanya claims that he has been deceived by Serebryakov, but Chekhov also suggests that Vanya has deceived himself. After all, if Vanya has read the professor’s articles for twenty-five years, why does it take him so long to notice that the professor’s scholarship is empty and the man is “a soap bubble”? In many scenes, Vanya deceives himself. When Vanya exhorts Yelena to have an affair, he is, in part, motivated by self interest. He says, “Faithfulness like this is false from beginning to end; it has a fine sound but no logic.” One could argue that the case Vanya makes for adultery is equally suspect.
Duty and Responsibility
Work is one of the major themes of Uncle Vanya. Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov all complain that Yelena’s idleness has infected them, luring them from their responsibilities to loaf with her. When Sonya suggests that Yelena work, she responds: “It is only in sociological novels they teach and cure sick peasants, and how can I suddenly for no reason go to curing and teaching them?” Sonya answers: “And in the same way I don’t understand how not to go and not to teach.” Chekhov may be critiquing
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- It has been suggested that Astrov’s initial conversation with the nurse acts as an overture to the play, hinting at the important issues that Vanya and others will later elaborate upon, just as a musical overture introduces certain melodic themes. How might Astrov’s speech be viewed as an overture? Also, discuss how Sonya’s concluding speech might be viewed as the play’s finale.
- Research the lives of peasants in Russia in the late-nineteenth century. What are the similarities and differences between the enslavement of African Americans in the U. S. and serfdom in Russia? Examine Marina and Telegin in Uncle Vanya and consider what Chekhov might be saying about the various classes in Russian society.
- The characters in Uncle Vanya often discuss work and idleness. For instance, Astrov, in parting from Yelena, says: “You infected us with your slothfulness. I have lazed away a whole month, while the people have grown sicker. . .” What is Chekhov saying about the value of honest work? Be sure to discuss each character’s attitude toward work, including the views set forth by Serebryakov and Maria Vasilyevna.
- Chekhov was a practicing doctor, and doctors often appear in his plays. Analyze how Astrov’s profession makes him like—or unlike—the other characters in the play. Compare and contrast Astrov with the doctor characters in other Chekhov plays, such as Dorn in The Sea Gull or Tchebutykin in The Three Sisters.
- Astrov is admired by Sonya and Yelena for his love of nature and his commitment to conservation. Sonya praises him for believing that “forests adorn the earth, that they teach a man to understand the beautiful and inspire him to lofty moods.” And Yelena describes Astrov’s passion for the woods this way: “When he plants a little tree, he is already imagining what it will be like in a thousand years, he is already dreaming of the happiness of mankind. Such people are rare, one must love them.” How does Astrov compare to ecologists of today?
idleness, but he also takes a dim view of meaningless work: Serebryakov’s empty efforts at intellect provide an excuse for him to be demanding and pompous; and Maria Vasilyevna’s work is a form of escapism, allowing her to shut out the emotional needs of her family.
Throughout his plays, Chekhov is concerned with the human condition and how people endure great unhappiness and personal frustration. Many of the sorrows the characters experience are inevitable. When Astrov says goodbye to Yelena, the farewell is tinged by an awareness that human life is sad: “It’s odd somehow,” he says, “We have known each other, and suddenly for some reason—we will never see each other again. And that’s how it is in this world.” The clearest evocation of how the frustrations of the characters are simply part of the human condition comes in Sonya’s final speech. “What can we do,” she says, “we must live!. . . We’ll live through a long, long line of days, endless evenings; we’ll bear patiently the trials fate sends us; we’ll work for others now and in our old age without ever knowing any rest, and when our hour comes, we’ll die humbly.”
Limitations and Opportunities
Vanya sees his life as circumscribed by the sacrifices he made for the professor. In a rage, he shouts, “I’m gifted, intelligent, courageous. If I’d had a normal life I might have been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky.” However, even Vanya recognizes that his own possibilities may not have been so great as he sometimes claims. When his mother laments that Vanya was once a man of strong convictions and a bright personality, he responds sarcastically, “Oh, yes! I used to be a bright personality that didn’t give light to anybody.”
Love and Passion
Vanya and Astrov both adore Yelena, Yelena is captivated by Astrov, and Sonya is in love with Astrov. Sonya tells Yelena: “I have loved him now for six years, loved him more than my own mother; every minute I hear his voice, feel the touch of his hand; and I watch the door, waiting; it always seems to me that he will be coming in.” Passion in Uncle Vanya seems like an avenue for suffering, not salvation. Yelena attributes her great unhappiness to having been mistaken in her love for Serebryakov. She also compares love for a woman to the reckless devastation of the woods and criticizes men for possessing “the demon of destruction” in their dealings with the opposite sex.
Return to Nature
Astrov speaks eloquently of the beauty of the woods, and his love of nature is one reason why Sonya and Yelena are drawn to him. Passionate about the need to conserve forests, he says that the woods are being destroyed “because lazy man hasn’t sense enough to bend down and pick up fuel from the ground.” Astrov also laments, “Forests are fewer and fewer, rivers dry up, game becomes extinct, the climate is ruined, and every day the earth gets poorer and uglier.” Man’s wanton destruction of nature has parallels to the unhappiness of the members of Serebryakov’s family, who feel their lives are unfulfilled and ruined. Astrov says, “He must be a reckless barbarian to burn this beauty in his stove, destroy what we cannot create again.”
Success and Failure
The dramatic action of Uncle Vanya occurs within a few months time, when Voynitsky stops accepting a secondary role in life, as family provider, uncle, and dutiful son, and instead rails against the injustices of his life. For Vanya, the recognition of personal failure briefly spurs him to declare his love for Yelena, to assert his frustration, and to draw attention to Serebryakov’s sense of unbridled entitlement. However, Vanya is doomed to fail, even as he fails in his attempt to avenge himself and murder Serebryakov.
Wealth and Poverty
Money matters in Uncle Vanya. Serebryakov and Yelena are staying at the estate because they can’t afford to live elsewhere; Telegin dines with the family because he is too impoverished to have his own home. Most importantly, it is Serebryakov’s proposal to sell the estate and convert the proceeds into interest-bearing paper that sets off Vanya’s wrath. The dramatic climax of Uncle Vanya, when Vanya confronts Serebryakov, consists of an accounting of debts, past and present. Among Vanya’s grievances is the pittance he’s been paid, wages “fit for a beggar.” Wealth has been squandered, as well as youth and time.
One way to understand the construction of Uncle Vanya is to contrast it with its earlier incarnation, The Wood Demon. Eric Bentley, in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, called The Wood Demon “a farce spiced with melodrama.” In that version, Chekhov emphasizes the romantic interests of the characters and the play concludes with the coupling of Astrov and Sonya. No one is successfully paired up in Uncle Vanya. In The Wood Demon Vanya commits suicide. In Uncle Vanya Vanya survives only to have his bleakest fears about life confirmed. Wrote Bentley: “To the Broadway script-writer, also concerned with the rewriting of plays (especially if in an early version a likable character shoots himself), these alterations of Chekhov’s would presumably seem unaccountable. They would look like a deliberate elimination of the dramatic element.” Uncle Vanya is constructed in a purposefully unconventional way, one that illustrates certain ideas about how individuals bear up and continue to live in the midst of considerable suffering.
Uncle Vanya is set entirely within Serebryakov’s estate. Although the play opens in the garden behind the estate, most of the action takes place inside the rambling, twenty-six-room estate that Vanya and Sonya have managed and Sonya presumably owns. Many of the characters find the atmosphere stifling. Yelena describes the house as a crypt, a place of exile, and later, as hell, while Serebryakov says he feels like he’s “fallen from the earth on to some foreign planet” and he calls the estate “a labyrinth” and “a morgue.” Vanya describes the monastic life he’s lived, working inside the estate to further Serebryakov’s career, as sitting “like a mole inside these four walls,” and Astrov says he couldn’t
survive a month in the house, “I’d suffocate in this air.” The setting is intentionally static and claustrophobic. One of the hallmarks of a Chekhov play is that it takes place within a single setting. The fact that every scene takes place on the estate heightens the sense of desolation and futility experienced by the characters.
Point of View
One of Chekhov’s innovations was to write plays without a single clear hero or heroine. In Uncle Vanya and Chekhov’s other major plays, several characters are of nearly equal dramatic stature. Here, Vanya, Astrov, Sonya, and Yelena are the main characters and each experiences similar frustrations. The audience comes to understand each of the four characters’ unique point of view through his or her speeches when alone and the confidences he or she shares with the other characters.
Realism is an artistic movement in which authors or artists attempted to depict human beings as they actually appear in life. Begun in the 1840s in Europe and Russia, realism was a response to the highly subjective art and literature produced by the Romantic movement. Chekhov—a preeminent realist—builds up a sense of character through physical description in his stage directions and through the characters’ descriptions of one another. His characters are not larger than life but have recognizable foibles. Marina is a realist heroine; she clucks at the chickens and offers tea to the characters at inappropriate moments. Vanya also appears realistically—rather than a dignified, dramatic entrance, he makes his first appearance yawning. And Serebryakov complains of mundane matters like gout and other aches and pains.
In 1861, one year after Chekhov was born, Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia. Serfs were essentially slaves and were forced to work for their owners unless they could purchase their own freedom. Once peasants were no longer owned by
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1897: Marxist Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov is exiled to Siberia for three years for smuggling illegal literature from Europe into Russia, organizing strikes, and printing anti-government leaflets and manifestoes. Ulyanov was the older brother of Lenin, the father of Russia’s communist revolution.
Today: Soviet president Boris Yeltsin regularly meets with world leaders, including U. S. President Bill Clinton, to exchange ideas.
- 1897: Regard for conservation of natural resources is low, with most not considering the impact of the vast depletion of forests. In Uncle Vanya, Astrov is concerned with the devastation of the forests. He proposes that instead of wood, peat could be used for heat and stones for building houses.
Today: Conservation of natural resources is a primary concern. About 655 million acres—or approximately 29% of the land area of the United States—has been designated forestland and is under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture. The state with the largest national forest area is Alaska (22.2 million acres), followed by California (20.6 million acres).
- 1897: In Uncle Vanya Sonya and Vanya become distracted by the arrival of Serebryakov and Yelena, allowing the crops to remain untended. Food shortages are a regular occurrence in Europe and Russia. In 1891 and 1892, Russia was crippled by famine after the country’s crops failed. Millions were reduced to starvation and the rural peasants raided towns looking for food. The famine was partially relieved by a shipment of some three million barrels of flour from the United States.
Today: Each year, the United States produces approximately 59.5 million metric tons of wheat, 7.9 million metric tons of rice, and 187 million metric tons of corn. In 1995, the U. S. exported $55.8 billion worth of agricultural products.
- 1897: Money is an important theme in Uncle Vanya. In Russia, Finance Minister Sergei Yulievich Witte introduces the gold standard. World gold production reaches nearly 11.5 million ounces, up from 5 to 6 million ounces per year between 1860 and 1890.
Today: The U.S. produced roughly 320 metric tons of gold in 1995.
- 1897: In Uncle Vanya Astrov is haunted by the death of one of his patients from typhus. In 1854, an epidemic of typhus devastated the Russian army, and the disease continues to be a threat throughout the century.
Today: Typhus is no longer a problem; in 1930, Harvard bacteriology professor Hans Zinsser—with help from John Franklin Enders of Children’s Hospital, Boston—developed the first antityphus vaccine. Today, AIDS is the most serious epidemic in the U. S. and other industrialized nations. By 1995, more than half a million people had died of AIDS.
others, they were not necessarily free because most of them had no possessions and were enslaved through indebtedness. In the 1860s, peasants constituted eighty percent of the population of Russia.
Once serfdom was abolished, Russia underwent a period of social unrest, characterized by student rebellion and protests by political radicals. In 1872, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was translated into Russian and the Russian people were introduced to the basic tenets of communism. In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by terrorists. Alexander III assumed rule of the country, and what followed was a time of mass arrests and deportations. Alexander III ruled until his death in 1894, when Czar Nicholas assumed power.
Although Chekhov’s plays and stories aren’t overtly political, the writer was the grandson of a serf and throughout his lifetime he came into frequent contact with the peasants and other poverty-stricken members of Russian society because of his work as a physician. In 1890, Chekhov visited the prison of Sakhalin, to care for the sick and record the conditions of the prisoners. Despite an awareness of the plight of others, Chekhov was not among the university radicals or dissidents who pressed for reform through public demonstrations. The peasants may play prominent roles in his work, but Chekhov was not an artist who was particularly concerned with politics.
The narrowness, vulgarity, and isolation of life in Russia are part of the fabric of the characters’ lives. Astrov says, “I’m fond of life as a whole, but this petty, provincial life of ours in Russia—that I can’t stand, I despise it utterly.” What Chekhov takes exception to is the spiritual bankruptcy of life in Russia, more than the corruptness of the country’s politics. Harvey Pitcher pointed out in The Chekhov Play that the plight of the Russian intelligentsia was hardly an original subject when Chekhov embraced it. In fact, the talented man for whom there’s no place in society was already a literary cliche by the time Chekhov wrote his plays.
In Uncle Vanya Chekhov is concerned with class distinctions. Marina, the old nurse, is a sterling character, and she is the only individual on the estate who seems truly at peace. Characters like Astrov are ground down by hard work and poor conditions; their freedom is curtailed by the sudden demands of well-to-do hypochondriacs like Serebryakov, who capriciously summons Astrov and then refuses to see him. Vanya’s charges against Serebryakov center around the sacrifices of time and effort he’s made, but he’s also aggrieved by the poor wages he’s earned. “For twenty-five years,” says Vanya, “I have managed this estate, worked, sent you money, like a most conscientious clerk, and during all that time you not once thanked me. All the time—both in my youth and now—you paid me five hundred roubles a year for wages—fit for a beggar—and you never once thought of increasing it by even one rouble!”
Artistically, Chekhov was also a man of his times. A proponent of realism, he pays careful attention to how people actually act or live, not to some highly subjective or romantic vision of life. Thus, some of the finest dialogue of Uncle Vanya closely resembles real conversations, where individuals talk at cross purposes or misinterpret one another. For instance, when Sonya confesses her love for Astrov to Yelena, Yelena praises the doctor for his industry and bravery, but then begins to speak of her own feelings: “There’s no happiness for me in this world.” Instead of responding to her heartfelt admission, Sonya laughs from pleasure at her recent conversation with the doctor: “I am so happy . . . so happy!” she exclaims. In his realism, Chekhov is akin to other great nineteenth-century writers like George Eliot, Emile Zola, and Gustave Flaubert.
Uncle Vanya was first published in 1897 but was not performed by the Moscow Art Theater, where it premiered, until October 26, 1899. Well received by audiences, Uncle Vanya was not entirely a success in Chekhov’s own estimation. The directors at the Moscow Art Theater—Konstantin Stanislavsky and V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko—did not understand Chekhov’s artistic vision, and Chekhov, sick with tuberculosis by the time Uncle Vanya was produced, could not intervene. Nemirovich-Danchenko wrote, “Chekhov was incapable of advising actors. . . . Everything appeared so comprehensible to him: ‘Why, I have written it all down,’ he would answer.” Stanislavsky admitted to being slightly confounded by Chekhov’s plays; he said that when he went to produce The Sea Gull, he didn’t know how to proceed, the words were too simple.
Even if Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko failed to fully appreciate Chekhov’s vision, Uncle Vanya was much better received than its earlier incarnation, The Wood Demon. Chekhov’s second full-length play, The Wood Demon was rejected by two theaters before premiering in Moscow in December 1889; it played for only three performances before closing. Chekhov insisted that The Wood Demon never be staged again, and he would not permit it to be included in his Collected Works.
Although Chekhov quickly gained fame for his short stories, his plays puzzled many Russian audiences and even other Russian writers. When Chekhov met Leo Tolstoy, the War and Peace author said to him: “But I still can’t stand your plays. Shakespeare’s are terrible, but yours are even worse!” Tolstoy was harsh in his critique of Uncle Vanya, which he saw performed by the Moscow Art Theater on January 24, 1900. The novelist berated Chekhov for having done nothing to support Astrov’s contention that he and Vanya are the only decent and intelligent men in the district. Why, asked Tolstoy, should the audience have such a high opinion of these two men? Pitcher quoted Tolstoy as having said that Vanya and Astrov “had always been bad and mediocre, and that is why their sufferings cannot be worthy of interest.”
However, some critics point out that Tolstoy’s public statements may not have been entirely accurate. Pitcher noted that Tolstoy sketched out the plan for his own play, The Living Corpse, after having seen Uncle Vanya. As Pitcher stated: “Although Tolstoy, the rational thinker, could not help finding Chekhov’s play inadequate, Tolstoy, the man of feeling, seems to have responded more positively to Uncle Vanya than he was willing to admit.”
Thomas A. Eekman, in his introduction to Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, said that Chekhov was not a darling of early critics, including the traditional Russian populists. Eekman cited Nikolai K. Mikhailovsky, who blamed Chekhov for writing without social concern and for failing to adequately portray the peasants. Socialists, noted Eekman, thought Chekhov lacked political and revolutionary spirit. Vladimir Nabokov, in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, commented on this exact point: “What rather irritated his politically minded critics was that nowhere does the author assign this type to any definite party or give him any definite political program. But that is the whole point. Chekhov’s inefficient idealists were neither terrorists, nor Social Democrats, nor budding Bolsheviks, nor any of the numberless members of numberless revolutionary parties in Russia.”
Those critics who have not viewed Chekhov through a political lens have proven more generous. One prevailing opinion is that Chekhov gave expression to the loss and hopelessness of the Russian intelligentsia and landowners in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution. In the Soviet Union after the Revolution, a country radically different from old Russia, critics tended to dismiss Chekhov as a representative of bygone times.
Nabokov hailed Chekhov as a true artist, but he found that his artistry did not lie in his word choice. Wrote Nabokov: “Russian critics have noted that Chekhov’s style, his choice of words and so on, did not reveal any of those special artistic preoccupations that obsessed, for instance, Gogol or Flaubert or Henry James. His dictionary is poor . . . his literary style goes to parties clad in its everyday suit. . . . The magical part of it is that in spite of his tolerating flaws which a bright beginner would have avoided . . . Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was. . . . The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterization, the vivid detail, and the fade-out of human life—all the peculiar Chekhovian features—are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness.”
Chekhov has always been highly regarded in Great Britain and the United States. In Great Britain in the 1920s, writers like Virginia Woolf and John Galsworthy embraced him, and Chekhov is revered in the United States today; his plays are frequently revived in both countries. Some critics have noted that this is odd, since Chekhov’s plays—with their overriding sense of helplessness and their plotlessness—are not what usually constitutes a theatrical success. Eric Bentley wrote in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov:“Why is it that scarcely a year passes without a major Broadway or West end production of a Chekhov play? Chekhov’s plays—at least by reputation, which in commercial theater is the important thing—are plotless, monotonous, drab, and intellectual: find the opposite of these four adjectives and you have a recipe for a smash hit.” Performing Chekhov, Bentley suggested, is an act of rebellion against the system: “It is as if the theater remembers Chekhov when it remembers its conscience.”
Judd is a writer and book reviewer with an M.F.A. in English from the University of Michigan and a B.A. from Yale. In this essay, she discusses various the methods of indirect action employed by Chekhov in Uncle Vanya.
About suffering they were never wrong/ The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place/ While someone else is eating
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Three Sisters, a Chekhov play first produced at the Moscow Art Theater in 1901, is the story of a wealthy Russian family who longs to move to Moscow, but the three sisters find themselves mired in provincial life. Like Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters is a play of thwarted desires and indirect action.
- In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s characters long to preserve an orchard that holds fond memories rather than allowing it to be chopped down and turned into a subdivision.
- Chekhov was deeply influenced by Leo Tolstoy. There are parallels between Tolstoy’s treatment of the peasants and of religious faith in Anna Karenina and Chekhov’s treatment of the same subjects in Uncle Vanya. However, Anna Karenina is also considered one of the world’s great, tragic love stories.
- Like Chekhov, George Eliot was a proponent of realism in literature. Her masterpiece—Middlemarch—is the story of Dorothea Brooke, a woman who wants to make a worthwhile contribution to society but is thwarted by a tragically misbegotten marriage.
- Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady is one of the world’s finest novels about deception and frustrated desires.
or opening a window or just walking dully along... . —“Musee des Beaux Arts,” W. H. Auden
When it comes to portraying the anguish of the human condition, no other dramatist, past or present, equals Chekhov, especially in Uncle Vanya, his classic of thwarted desire. In practically every scene of the play, the characters give voice to their boredom, pain, and despair, yet Uncle Vanya is also filled with moments of lightness and comedy. Chekhov examines frustration and loss of hope indirectly, placing nearly all the climactic moments off stage, many of them in the distant past.
Chekhov is known for pioneering a dramatic technique—indirect action—which concentrates on subtleties of characterization and the interactions between individuals, instead of on flashy revelations or unexpected plot twists. In this play, “Everything,” as Vanya says, “is an old story.” Vanya has been editing Serebryakov’s work for twenty-five years; Sony a has spent six years loving Astrov without her affections being returned; and Astrov has slaved away as a country doctor for the past eleven years. Emotional scenes have been played out and the characters are exhausted and cranky. When Maria Voinitskaya begins to describe a letter she’s received, Vanya interrupts her: “But for fifty years now we talk and talk, and read pamphlets. It’s high time to stop.”
If Uncle Vanya were a more conventional drama, Chekhov would have begun the play with the arrival of the professor and Yelena. Instead, the characters are already bored with one another by the time the curtain rises, and the first glimpse the audience catches of Vanya highlights the sense of malaise: he is yawning after an afternoon nap. In a less innovative play, Chekhov would have shown Vanya’s growing disillusionment with the professor as it unfolded, rather than presenting it as an accomplished fact. In fact, the central drama of the play—Vanya’s realization that he’s squandered his own talents in serving the professor—occurs a year before the play begins.
When Vanya’s mother observes that he’s changed beyond recognition, he says: “Up to last year, I deliberately tried just as you do to blind my eyes with this pedantry of yours and not to see real life—and I thought I was doing well. And now, if you only knew! I don’t sleep nights because of disappointment, and anger that I so stupidly let time slip by, when now I could have had everything that my old age denies me!” Strikingly, Chekhov is not content to let the drama of such an impassioned speech pass without a moment of deflation. Sonya chides: “Uncle Vanya, that’s boring,” withholding even the most meager comfort.
Love is also denied, again and again, in Uncle Vanya. Except for two hurried embraces between Astrov and Yelena, the only romantic consummation occurs in Vanya’s daydream of proposing to Yelena ten years prior, before she’d married Serebryakov. “It was so possible,” says Vanya. “Now we both would have been awakened by the storm; she would have been frightened by the thunder and I would have held her in my arms and whispered: ‘Don’t be afraid, I am here.’ Oh, beautiful thoughts, how wonderful, I am even smiling.” Vanya is so demoralized that he can’t even bring himself to fantasize in the present tense.
More telling is the fact Vanya doesn’t sustain the thought of a romance with Yelena but launches immediately into another mental harangue about the piteous state of his life. “Why am I old?” cries Vanya, who then give voice to his real passion: how he has been deceived by the professor: “I adored that Professor, that pitiful, gouty creature, I worked for him like an ox!” For Vanya, the self-deception of his love for Serebryakov is far more painful than his unrequited love for the professor’s wife.
Many critics have observed that Chekhov’s three great plays—Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard—are difficult to describe because so little happens. Yet a lack of dramatic action is central to Chekhov’s design. Articulating his artistic approach in a critique of a performance of Uncle Vanya, Chekhov faulted the actress who played Sonya for having thrown herself at Serebryakov’s feet in Act III. “That’s quite wrong,” said Chekhov, “after all, it isn’t a drama. The whole meaning, the whole drama of a person’s life are contained within, not in outward manifestations. . . . A shot, after all, is not a drama, but an incident.” In other words, what matters to Chekhov is the individual’s emotions and motivations, not the activities that occupy his or her days. True to his convictions, Chekhov portrays the gun shot in Uncle Vanya as a ludicrous non-event, with Vanya firing at point-blank range only to miss the mark. Underscoring the absurdity of this act of untutored violence, Chekhov has the beautiful and bored Yelena struggle with Vanya, preventing him from firing again.
Although a conspicuous absence of drama is certainly a form of indirection, Chekhov’s penchant for inserting humor into the most gloomy pronouncements or situations is an even more radical, anti-dramatic strategy. In Uncle Vanya heartbreakingly sad moments are undercut by incongruous details or moments of outright silliness. In some ways, Chekhov works like a magician, using the misdirection of humor to divert the audience from the sadness that engulfs Vanya, Astrov, Yelena, and Sonya. No matter how great the misery of the characters, Marina offers the same, simplistic cure—linden tea, vodka, or some noodle soup. The old nurse is unruffled by the accusations family members hurl at one another, reducing passion to the nonsense sounds made by animals. “It’s all right, my child,” Marina tells Sonya. “The geese will cackle—and then stop . . . cackle—and stop.” And when Marina believes that Vanya has shot Serebryakov, she says, “Ough! Botheration take them!” and goes right on knitting.
Despair itself takes on its own black humor in Uncle Vanya. When Yelena makes the casual observation, “And fine weather today. . . . Not hot. . . .” Vanya responds: “It’s fine weather to hang yourself.” The intense self-pity of Vanya’s pronouncement is so inappropriate that it catches the audience off guard in much the way the physical comedy of a pratfall does. In Chekhov’s plays, even pleasantries are subverted. The humor of Vanya’s relentless gloominess is heightened by the nonchalance of those around him. For the characters in Uncle Vanya, talk of suicide is so unexceptional that no one bothers to ask Vanya what’s wrong or even to respond to his noisy despair. At times, the play possesses the deadpan humor of an Addams Family cartoon, where dark statements are viewed as too banal, too commonplace, to warrant acknowledgment or comment.
Writing in Anton Chekhov’s Plays, Charles B. Timmer maintained that elements of incongruity, which he termed “the bizarre,” have been overlooked in Chekhov’s work, and he described the dramatist’s approach this way: “The bizarre is not necessarily absurd: it is, as it were, a statement, or a situation, which has no logical place in the context or in the sequence of events, the resulting effect being one of sudden bewilderment; the bizarre brings about a kind of mental ‘airpocket’: one gasps for breath, until the tension is relieved by laughter.”
To illustrate, Timmer pointed to the moment in Act IV when Astrov is about to take leave of Vanya and Sonya. In a scene that should be highly emotional, Chekhov flouts expectations by having Astrov
observe a meaningless detail—a map of Africa hanging on the wall. “I suppose down there the heat in Africa must be terrific now!” exclaims the doctor as Sonya and Vanya pay bills. According to Timmer, “this element of restraint, applied in a scene that is charged with emotions, greatly intensifies the impression on the spectator. The element of the bizarre as a technique to retard the action and restrain the emotions is used frequently by Chekhov in his plays.”
Why would Chekhov write about the frustration and sadness of the human condition, only to undercut these emotions time and again with a noticeable lack of drama and eruptions of humor? In many ways, the lack of drama is Chekhov’s point. Many critics have observed that Uncle Vanya is, in some sense, an anti-play, one where the characters try to strike out and change their lives, only to fail miserably. At the end of the final act, when Marina invites Astrov to drink some vodka, the audience is reminded of the very first scene of the play when she makes the exact same offer to him. Chekhov further underscores that old patterns have been re-established by having Vanya tell Serebryakov at their parting, “You will receive what you used to receive accurately. Everything will be as always.”
Imprisoned in static lives, Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov make a bid for something larger and grander—for love or for an acknowledgment of how they’ve suffered—but nothing comes of their tired rebellion. The action of the play is indirect because it’s internal, the plotting of a break that fails to materialize. As Eric Bentley wrote in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov:“In Uncle Vanya, recognition means that what all these years seemed to be so, though one hesitated to believe it, really is so and will remain so.”
In Uncle Vanya there is no way out of misery, no light at the end of the tunnel. “You know,” says Astrov, “when you walk through a forest on a dark night, if you see a small light gleaming in the distance, you don’t notice your fatigue, the darkness, the thorny branches lashing your face . . . but for me there is no small light in the distance.” Vanya is also without hope: “Here they are: my life and my love: where shall I put them, what shall I do with them? This feeling of mine is dying in vain, like a ray of sunlight that has strayed into a pit, and I myself am dying.” Such a bleak message can hardly be contemplated directly. Nor can Chekhov provide an answer beyond the half-hearted suggestion that the only way to live with such pain is to practice indirection.
When Astrov asks why Vanya isn’t seeing Yelena and Serebryakov off, he answers: “Let them go, and I . . . I can’t. I feel very low, I must busy myself quickly with something. . . . Work, work!” Ultimately, in a world where there’s no hope that the frustration will end, when there is no light and the characters’ own sparks have been extinguished in a pit of engulfing darkness, all there can be is indirection and distraction—moments of humor, oases and panaceas like hard work and Marina’s cup of linden tea.
Source: Elizabeth Judd, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
Donald Ray field
Rayfield provides an overview of Uncle Vanya, discussing the manner in which Chekhov was able resurrect one of his biggest flops, The Wood Demon, as a new play that would come to be regarded as one of his masterworks.
Uncle Vanya (Diadia Vania) can be seen as the last of Chekhov’s earlier plays, all based on a problematic, male antihero. It was published in 1897 and first performed in 1899, after The Seagull, and was written, or reconstituted, out of the wreck of The Wood Demon, between 1892 and 1896. It is thus, also, the second of Chekhov’s mature plays, its acts not broken into scenes, its Act IV an anti-climax of embarrassed departure, its tone hovering between cruel comedy and pathos. The basic plot, two thirds of the text, and the characters are carried over from The Wood Demon: comparing the two plays is a lesson on how a flop may be turned into a great play.
The core of both plays is the arrival of the professor and his young second wife, disrupting the life, and threatening the livelihood, of his daughter Sonya and of Uncle Vanya. The differences in Uncle Vanya are, firstly, that the Uncle turns the gun against the professor, not himself, but farcically fails to alter anything; secondly, that a new Act IV makes a mockery of reconciliation and instead leaves the old professor in full charge while the remaining characters are abandoned to their desolate future; and thirdly, that the catalyst of the action—the ecological idealist, the doctor—is also a lecherous alcoholic. Thus the inverted principles of Chekhovian comedy are established: age triumphs over youth, the servants rule their masters, and the normal world has crumbled. The subtitle—Scenes from Country Life—is deliberately ironic.
Like many other Chekhov plays, Uncle Vanya incorporates material from his stories which certainly would have guided a contemporary audience’s interpretation. Dr. Astrov’s impassioned (though comically pedantic) laments for the ravaged environment recapitulate the lyrical complaints of the story Panpipes (Svirel) of 1887; the professor, terrified of death and torturing his wife and daughter with his hypochondria through a stormy summer night, is parodying the impressive professor, the narrator of A Dreary Story (Skuchnaia istoriia) of 1889. But once this material is in a dramatic framework, comic absurdity evaporates the authorial presence; the residual lyricism is to be found in the non-verbal elements—the storm winds, the nightwatchman’s banging of a rail, the reproachfully silent piano, Telegin’s tentative strumming of a guitar, Marina’s knitting, or the starling in a cage.
The play was first offered to the state Maly theatre in Moscow. After the failure of The Seagull the Maly prevaricated and Chekhov ceded Uncle Vanya to the Moscow Arts Theatre, which had made a success of The Seagull. Stanislavsky was persuaded to take the role of Dr. Astrov under Nemirovich-Danchenko’s direction. As always, Stanislavsky saw social comment and pathos in the ruin of the sensitive provincials, Uncle Vanya and Astrov, by the ruthless professorial careerist from the capital; Chekhov’s laconic comments, however, stressed the dry comedy. Nevertheless, Uncle Vanya has a little of the autobiographical input that made The Seagull so shocking a play: the self-sacrificing Sonya, doomed to spinsterhood, was clearly recognisable as Chekhov’s sister Marya, while the play’s impoverished and diseased landscape was specified as the Serpukhov district around Chekhov’s estate, Melikhovo.
By 1900 Uncle Vanya was acclaimed: for the first time Chekhov could consider himself a playwright by vocation and not renounce the theatre, although the play’s success embarrassed him as much as earlier plays’ failures: literati and their wives wept, while country doctors saw it as an expression of their grievances. Russian critics felt it was “an exercise in thought, in working out life and finding a way out”.
The one resistant spectator was Tolstoy: “I went to see Uncle Vanya and I was appalled. . . Where’s the drama? The play treads water”. In fact, in refusing to let actions have their usual dramatic consequences—nobody arrests Uncle Vanya for firing at the professor—Chekhov shows his genius for unprecedented dramatic compression. Yelena doesn’t have to compare herself to a caged bird: the starling is there in its cage. The forests don’t catch fire (as they do in The Wood Demon): Astrov looks at the map of Africa and remarks how hot it must be there. The clothes are vestimentary markers of the character’s neuroses: the professor in his galoshes and overcoat, Uncle Vanya in his flashy tie. The climaxes are built up as carefully as Ibsen’s: Act Ill’s announcement of the professor’s plan to appropriate the entire estate for himself starts a long crescendo that culminates in gunshots. But the tension is constantly broken by apparent parody: Uncle Vanya goes over the top, claiming he “could have been Dostoevsky or Schopenhauer”, reverting to infantile tantrums at his mother’s knee. A modern audience reacts as Chekhov intended—they cannot weep at farce, but take their lead from Marina, the imperturbable servant, for whom all this row is “ganders cackling”.
The key to Uncle Vanya, as to The Cherry Orchard, is in the doomed trees. Astrov’s passionate defence of them is comic because it bores and puzzles his listener, Yelena; but it switches the audience’s concern from the disrupted family to nature off-stage, which desperately signals its distress to the uncaring characters. Uncle Vanya, unlike Platonov or Ivanov in earlier plays, is thus out of focus, for all his eponymous status: his irrelevance makes him, in the last analysis, comic. What Chekhov shows happening to the Voinitsky family is only a symptom of a more fatal convulsion in the outside world—among the epidemics and dried-up rivers of the Russian landscape.
Source: Donald Rayfield, “Uncle Vanya” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 850–51.
In this review of Uncle Vanya, MacCarthy appraises Chekhov’s work as a unique dramatic achievement in the sense that, while its subject matter is not sensational or thrilling, it is nevertheless a griping, “violently interesting” example of theatrical craft.
Uncle Vanya was called by Tchekov “scenes from country life.” He wished to make it perfectly clear from the outset that he was not writing a Scribe, a Sardou, or even an Alexandre Dumas fils play. He was writing a Middlemarch, only he was writing it for the theatre. He went so far as to steal one of George Eliot’s characters (vide Landmarks of Russian Literature), Mr. Casaubon, who appeared in the flesh in this play. It is not undramatic because it is violently interesting; and it is dramatic, not because
“UNCLE VANYA CAN BE SEEN AS THE LAST OF CHEKHOV’S EARLIER PLAYS, ALL BASED ON A PROBLEMATIC, MALE ANTIHERO”
there is any sustained plot or any dexterity of move and countermove between the characters, but because the glimpses of ordinary everyday life which Tchekov gives us remind us poignantly of what we have seen in our everyday life. In fact, Tchekov meets the need of the Russian gentleman who said: “Je vais au théâatre pour voir ce que vois tous les jours.” If that is your need, Tchekov does more than meet it, he fulfils it. If, on the other hand, you aspire to see just those very things which are lacking in your everyday life, that is to say, a spy killing Lord Kitchener, or M. Clemenceau throttling M. Poincaré on the cornice of the Arc de Triomphe, then Tchekov will disappoint you. Imagine Tchekov’s Uncle Vanya being offered to an ordinary successful manager, and supposing, as was not long ago the case, no one had heard of Tchekov, he would at once say, “When is this play going to begin?”; and at its close, “why has it ended?”
The first act introduces us to a group of characters. In the second act the same group of characters have abounded in their own sense, abounded but not bounded, for they have not made one step forward. In the third act, one of the characters, Uncle Vanya himself, exasperated beyond human endurance, lets off a pistol at Professor Casaubon and misses him. That is all the action, properly speaking, there is in the play. In the fourth act, some of the characters leave the house where the conversation has been proceeding, and Uncle Vanya and Sonia, his niece, remain behind. That is all that happened. Yet the juxtaposition of these characters in these peculiar circumstances and the conversation which they make between them, open out vistas of thought and feeling. After seeing this play we know the whole lives of the seven or eight characters. We know their past, although they have told us little of it; we can guess their future. Moreover, although they belong to Russia, and to a distinct and marked epoch of Russian history, the period of stagnation preceding the Russo-Japanese war, during which, as a Russian
“UNCLE VANYA IS DRAMATIC, NOT BECAUSE THERE IS ANY SUSTAINED PLOT OR ANY DEXTERITY OF MOVE AND COUNTERMOVE BETWEEN THE CHARACTERS, BUT BECAUSE THE GLIMPSES OF ORDINARY EVERYDAY LIFE WHICH TCHEKOV GIVES US REMIND US POIGNANTLY OF WHAT WE HAVE SEEN IN OUR EVERYDAY LIFE”
once said, “Russia was dying of playing Vindt” (which is about the same as auction-bridge), we have met these characters in every other country. They swarm in London; not a few were in the audience when the play was being acted. We have each of us met Uncle Vanya full of good intentions and ideals turned slightly sour, brave in words, feeble in action, easily reduced to despair and tears, who, if exasperated sufficiently, can fire off a pistol which will never hit anyone. We have known Professor Casaubon’s young wife, Elena, sensuous, non-moral, the would-be guardian angel, the harmless Circe so much more fatal to people like Dr. Astrov and Uncle Vanya than Circe herself, with all her paraphernalia of golden looms and grunting swine. We all of us have known Sonia, the plain, unattractive, good niece, who loves in vain and remains behind to do the accounts for her uncle. But, the reader will say, if we know all these people by heart, if the characters of George Eliot, and many other novelists, are being paraded before us, where is the originality of Tchekov as a dramatist. His originality lies in this; not only has he put real people on the stage—dramatists have done that from the days of Aristophanes to those of St. John Hankin—but what Tchekov has done and what nobody else has ever attempted, is to put on the stage that which in all other plays happens during the entr’actes. That is to say, when you see a drama, when the passionate lovers say good-bye, when all is over, you know that the ordinary life of the people concerned must, in spite of everything, go on; that they must change their clothes, have breakfast, tea and supper, and that after the last good-bye has been said there will come a moment when someone will say, “The carriage is at the door,” and the carriage will drive up and the guests will get into it and go, and the host will remain at home. Tchekov shows you all this; he shows you the guests going and the other people remaining at home. You hear the dull machinery of everyday once more creaking in its customary groove. This experience is novel and indescribably moving when it is presented on the stage with discretion. Of course, a great deal depends upon the acting. You cannot act a Tchekov play in the same way that you act a Pinero play, not even with the starriest of casts. Tchekov learnt this himself by bitter experience. When one of his first plays, The Sea Gull, was first produced at Petrograd at the State-paid theatre, the Comèdie Française of Russia, full of tradition and competence, the play did not get across the footlights. But when it was gently treated by the Art Theatre at Moscow, and the play was allowed to act itself, the effect was tremendous.
So it was at the Court Theatre on Sunday and Monday. The play was produced by M. Theodore Komisarjevsky, late producer and art director at the Moscow State Theatre. It was one of the best performances the Stage Society has given, immensely superior to their last performance of the play just before the war. I missed, however, Miss Gillian Scaife as Sonia, and in some respects I preferred Mr. Guy Rathbone’s Uncle Vanya to Mr. Leon Quartermaine’s. Mr. Leon Quartermaine made him a little too harsh; he was neither sympathetically weak nor hysterically weak enough. In that last scene, when Uncle Vanya and Sonia sit down at the neglected writing table to work again—the only cure for their disappointments—and she makes her dim little speech about the world beyond the grave where they will forget the stale ache of them, Mr. Quartermaine did not give with equal poignancy the sense of suffering passively, such as only the weak and empty know. He ought, too, to have been made-up to look older. Miss Rathbone was perhaps a little too much the good schoolgirl, and hardly woman enough. I think in that last scene it would have been better if she had made a subtle distinction between the first part of her speech when she is repeating sincerely, yet, in a way, by rote, those consolations in which she believes, and the last few words when she puts her arms round his neck. She was excellent in all the scenes with Dr. Astrov and with Elena, excellent indeed in her bearing throughout. Miss Cathleen Nesbitt was an admirable Elena; her walk and gestures were perfect, with their suggestion of indolence and restlessness, as of an unsatisfied woman, neither cold nor passionate, a torment to herself, who tantalises others and leads them on to torment her. Her acting made it quite clear how exasperating Vanya’s passion for her was, how impossible it was for her to be even decently kind to him sometimes; if only Mr. Quartermaine had made us sympathise, too, as much with Vanya in these scenes, the scenes between them would have been perfect, but he could not be utterly, helplessly emotional. Though Elena longs to be rid of her pestering lovers, she really is only interested in love. Miss Nesbitt acted the scene in which Astrov tries to interest Elena in his ideas extraordinarily well; her boredom, her inability to keep her mind on anything but the man who is talking to her she expressed to perfection.
I have a great respect for Mr. Franklin Dyall as an actor. I have never seen him fail, and I have seen him succeed where success is rare. He can give as well as anyone (and how few such actors there are) an impression of an intense character somehow bedevilled, run-to-seed, spoilt. He would make an admirable Rolling in The Wild Duck, or a good Larry in John Bull’s Other Island. This characteristic suits the part of Astrov. To Sonia, Astrov, in spite of his coarseness and drunkenness, seems so fine in himself, and he even moves Elena a little. To her, too, he seems superior to the others, and she thinks of that superiority in characteristically feminine terms as “a streak of genius.” The idealist gone wrong is often attractive to women; he is a person to be saved, too, which is an extra attraction, while the sense of a conflict within him suggests to them possibilities of passion. Mr. Hignett as the professor was duly empty and fatuous, yet, as he should be, a man of imposing exterior. He has written rows of books and stacks of articles on art and literature, saying in them what all clever people knew before and others take no interest in at all. We know him well. The minor parts—the old nurse (Miss Inè Cameron), the amiable tame cat of the house, Telyegen (Mr. Dodd), Vanya’s old mother (Miss Agnes Thomas)—were beautifully played. When you have a good producer, one of the first effects noticeable is that everybody in the play becomes conscious of the importance of their parts. It was an admirable production, and it was borne in on one again what all clever people know and others, alas ! take no interest in—namely, that it is not talent but the art of production that our stage lacks at the present time.
Source: Desmond MacCarthy, “Tchekov and the Stage Society” in the New Statesman, Vol. XVIII, no. 451, December 3, 1921, pp. 254–55.
Bentley, Eric. “Craftsmanship in Uncle Vanya” in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 169-85.
Eekman, Thomas A. Introduction to Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 1-7.
Nabokov, Vladimir. “Chekhov’s Prose” in Critical Essays on Anton Chekhov, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 26-33.
Pitcher, Harvey. The Chekhov Play, University of California Press, 1985.
Timmer, Charles B. “The Bizarre Element in Chekhov’s Art” in Anton Chekhov’s Plays, W. W. Norton, 1977, pp. 272-85.
Bordinat, Philip. “Dramatic Structure in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya” in Chekhov’s Great Plays, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 47-60.
A discussion of how Chekhov’s plays are structured.
Gilman, Richard. Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening into Eternity, Yale University Press, 1997.
An examination of each of Chekhov’s full-length plays, placing them in the context of Russian and European drama and of the artist’s own life.
Koteliansky, S. S., editor and translator. Anton Tchekhov: Literary and Theatrical Reminiscences, Benjamin Blom, 1965.
A collection of literary and theatrical reminiscences of Chekhov from writers Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky and from directors V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky, as well as excerpts from Chekhov’s diary.
Magarshack, David. “Purpose and Structure in Chekhov’s Plays” in Anton Chekhov’s Plays, W. W. Norton, 1977, pp. 259-71.
An essay that discusses how Chekhov’s plays were interpreted by the Moscow Art Theater and how his plays are constructed.
Melchinger, Siegfried. Anton Chekhov, Frederick Ungar, 1972.
This book provides a biographical essay and discussions of all Chekhov’s major plays.
Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life, Henry Holt, 1998.
A well-structured and comprehensive biography of the writer. Rayfield is a noted Chekhov scholar.
Vitins, leva. “Uncle Vanya’s Predicament” in Chekhov’s Great Plays, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 35–46.
An essay on Uncle Vanya.