Indirect Action in Uncle Vanya

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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 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; Sonya 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....

(This entire section contains 1842 words.)

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‘‘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.

Tchekov and the Stage Society

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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 be- cause 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 théâtre 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 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 Comédie 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 madeup 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 Iné 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.

Uncle Vanya

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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 III’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.


Critical Overview


Uncle Vanya (Drama Criticism)