Anton Chekhov’s oeuvre opened Russian literature and world drama to the art of everyday trifles and occurrences. In exploring Russian society, Chekhov questioned the purpose of life, but he was less interested in finding an answer than in posing the right questions.
To understand Chekhov’s drama, it is necessary to understand the milieu in which he wrote, the innovations that were changing Western theater practices, and the stance of the dramatist himself. Russia in the 1880’s and 1890’s was experiencing the erosion of rigid class distinctions that had characterized the ancien régime. Much of the landowning gentry was impoverished and under the necessity of selling off parcels of their large estates to the rising mercantile and industrial class. Serfdom had finally been abolished, and the enormous peasant class was faced with both displacement and new opportunities. The age of those great Russian novelists Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy was coming to a close, and as it did it was opening the way for a new kind of art. Throughout Western civilization, science and technology were modifying the lenses through which artists and philosophers looked at the world and humanity’s place within it.
This was the age of literary realism and naturalism, and writers began to focus on the lives and problems of ordinary people. On the stage, the theater of social consciousness pioneered by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg gave rise to a new kind of dramaturgy and stagecraft. Chekhov took the realistic innovations of the Scandinavians one step further in creating his kind of naturalistic drama, a drama with no real beginnings or endings, and one that recognizes the complexities and continuities of life.
Chekhov, trained as a physician, was eminently suited for this kind of examination. His practice had carried him to all the levels of Russian society and intensified his objective observational powers. Initially acclaimed as a short story writer, he began to write for the theater in the early 1880’s. The four plays considered his masterpieces—Uncle Vanya, Chayka (1896; The Seagull, 1909), Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters, 1920), and Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908)—emerged from the period during which Konstantin Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre, where Chekhov’s plays first found successful productions. Chekhov did not, however, approve of the highly realistic and tragically inclined interpretations that the first productions of the Moscow Art Theatre gave to his plays. Until his death in 1904, he insisted that he had written comedies of Russian life.
Uncle Vanya, the second of Chekhov’s plays produced by the Moscow Art Theatre, is a reworking of an earlier play from 1889 entitled The Wood Demon (Leshy). Uncle Vanya eliminates many of the more romantic elements and rambling aspects of the earlier version and shifts some of the focus from the physician character (the wood demon of the 1889 play) to the new title character. Indeed, it has been argued that Uncle Vanya has no single protagonist but rather four major characters, Ivan (Uncle Vanya), Dr. Astrov, Sonya, and Yelena. The critic Philip Bodinat went so far as to declare that the protagonist of the play is “the individual” as embodied by each of the four major characters in conflict with the stifling environment of provincial Russian life.
Certainly, Uncle Vanya depicts characters who have the potential to live fuller lives but who cannot escape from the rut of societal expectations and self-imposed restrictions. Chekhov draws these individuals sympathetically but critically. Ultimately, they are all frustrated in their attempts to embrace a more meaningful existence. They are offered the...
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possibility of art, but this opportunity is repeatedly devalued. When Sonya pleads with Yelena to play the piano to celebrate their reconciliation, Yelena must first secure the permission of her husband, who is disturbed by the music when he is not feeling well; he refuses, and the two women must do without the music. Later, it is Yelena who is the agent obstructing the artistic impulse. She asks to see Astrov’s drawings of the forest, intending to sound him out about his feelings for Sonya. He spreads them out before her and explains how they depict the destruction of the area, but when he realizes that she is bored by his passion, he whisks them out of sight.
Serebryakov, the retired professor, embodies a withered academic view of art as described in Vanya’s angry outburst: A person lectures and writes about art for precisely twenty-five years, but he understands precisely nothing about art. For twenty-five years he’s gone on chewing up and spitting out everyone else’s ideas about realism, naturalism, and every other kind of nonsense. For twenty-five years he’s been lecturing and writing about what intelligent people have known for a long time and what stupid people have no interest in. To put it bluntly, for twenty-five years he has been pouring from one empty pot into the next.
Vanya’s anger and frustration stem from his long-held delusion that he is contributing to the world’s knowledge by working to secure the means for the professor to carry on his writing.
Love, another means for rising above the mundane, is also thwarted throughout the play. Vanya’s unrequited passion for Yelena is doubly painful because he realizes that he might have won her devotion had he wooed her when she was younger. Yelena confesses to Sonya that she once thought she loved her husband because of her fascination with his fame, but it was a hollow passion that could not endure. The attraction between Astrov and Yelena is thwarted by social and moral conventions, yet it also destroys any hope of Astrov’s ever reciprocating Sonya’s devotion.
The close of the play finds all of the characters in the same situation they occupied before Serebryakov and Yelena descended on the estate. The one difference is that now they must live without the illusions of their hopes. Each must once again take up the stifling trifles of daily life to distract themselves from their lives of quiet desperation. However, Chekhov also reveals that what transpires on stage is not the only conclusion to the dilemmas the characters face. In essence, what Chekhov does is to throw out a challenge to the members of the audience to examine their own lives and expectations.