What is the historical context behind Uncle Vanya?
Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya between 1896 and 1898. The play represents the existential plight and daily struggles of Russian middle class intellectuals, including Dr. Mikhail Astrov and Ivan Voinitsky, also called “Uncle Vanya,” the forty-seven year old who manages the estate of his relative, the famous Professor Serebriakov. Astrov feels responsibility for people’s health and for his country’s well-being. He regrets the environmental degradation of his area and finds meaning and personal consolation in helping people. This consolation is not available for Uncle Vanya, who spent two decades of his life working for Serebriakov, who turns out to be an empty, hypocritical person who cares only for himself and his own well-being.
Serebriakov plans to sell his estate and get rid of both Uncle Vanya and his own young daughter, Sonya, who works for him selflessly. Uncle Vanya is angry and desperate, feeling that he has spent his life working for a mere illusion. He tries to kill Serebriakov but fails and then thinks about suicide. The gentle and heroic Sonya talks him out of it. In contrast, Serebriakov’s relatively young and beautiful wife Helen, like her husband, lives only for herself and cares for nothing and no one beyond her own comfort.
Chekhov opposes Serebriakov’s urban, market-oriented egoism to the altruism of “little people,” such as Astrov. His critique of capitalist selfishness in contrast to the positive portrayal of Astrov’s commitment to service to the Russian people made the play popular with the Russian left-wing intelligentsia. Chekhov himself, however, was not optimistic about revolution; instead he focused on the decline and decay of old ways of life and values being destroyed by the new capitalist reality of the late nineteenth century.
Uncle Vanya was written by Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright. It initially appeared in print in 1898 and was first performed in Moscow in 1899 at the Moscow Art Theater. The production was directed by Konstantin Stanislavski, who pioneered a style of acting and actor training grounded in the actor's inner experience. Although Stanislavski's system was developed a few years after this production, he was already quite concerned with naturalism as a guiding production principle. Chekhov's work also was strongly influenced by naturalism as an artistic principle.
The two main rulers of Russia in the late nineteenth century were Alexander III who ruled from 1881 to 1894 and his son Nicholas II (1894 to 1917). At this time, Russia was a highly unequal society, and also considered somewhat of a provincial backwater when compared to Europe. It was still a primarily agricultural economy, with aristocrats (often absentee landlords) owning the lands and impoverished serfs working it. Even after the serfs were freed, they remained an underclass. The royal family was autocratic, nationalistic, and inward-looking, and they opposed free speech and other forms of democratic reform. Despite this, the liberalizing and even revolutionary movements that led to the Russian Revolution were simmering under the surface.
Chekov wrote Uncle Vanya during a period of social, political and economic upheaval in Russia. During the 19th century, Russia was trying to move from a mediaeval to a modern economic and social system. This upheaval continued well into the 20th century, leading up to the Russian Revolution.
Chekov was the grandson of a serf. Serfs were left over from mediaeval times, and were essentially slaves. The serfs were freed in 1861, when Chekov was a year old. However most former serfs and families were extremely poor. Although this is not an overly political play, Chekov was concerned with the plight of the poor and downtrodden.