Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Uncle Vanya

Eric Bentley (essay date 1946)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Craftsmanship in Uncle Vanya," in In Search of Theater, Alfred A. Knopf, 1953, pp. 342-64.

[In the following essay, which was written in 1946, Bentley examines Chekhov's modifcations of The Wood Demon to create Uncle Vanya and explores the author's manipulation of mundane details in the latter play to achieve "a drama of imagination and thought."]

The Anglo-American theater finds it possible to get along without the services of most of the best playwrights. Æschylus, Lope de Vega, Racine, Molière, Schiller, Strindberg—one could prolong indefinitely the list of great dramatists who are practically unknown in England and America except to scholars. Two cases of popularity in spite of greatness are, of course, Shakespeare and Shaw, who have this in common: that they can be enjoyed without being taken seriously. And then there is Chekhov.

It is easy to make over a play by Shaw or by Shakespeare into a Broadway show. But why is Chekhov preserved from the general oblivion? 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 opposites of these four adjectives and you have a recipe for a smash hit.

Those who are responsible for productions of Chekhov in London and New York know the commodity theater. Some of them are conscious rebels against the whole system. Others are simply genuine artists who, if not altogether consciously, are afflicted with guilt; to do Chekhov is for them a gesture of rebellion or atonement, as to do Shakespeare or Shaw is not. It is as if the theater remembers Chekhov when it remembers its conscience.

The rebels of the theater know their Chekhov and love him; it is another question whether they understand him. Very few people seem to have given his work the careful examination it requires. Handsome tributes have been paid Chekhov by Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, and Gorky, among his countrymen; and since being taken up by Middleton Murry's circle thirty years ago, he has enjoyed a high literary reputation in England and America. The little book by William Gerhardi and the notes and obiter dicta of such critics as Stark Young and Francis Fergusson are, however, too fragmentary and impressionistic to constitute a critical appraisal. They have helped to establish more accurate general ideas about Chekhov's art. They have not inquired too rigorously in what that art consists.

I am prompted to start such an enquiry by the Old Vic's engrossing presentation of Uncle Vanya in New York. Although Vanya is the least well known of Chekhov's four dramatic master-pieces, it is—I find—a good play to start a critical exploration with because it exists in two versions—one mature Chekhov, the other an immature draft. To read both is to discover the direction and intention of Chekhov's development. It is also to learn something about the art of rewriting when not practiced by mere play-doctors. There is a lesson here for playwrights. For we are losing the conception of the writer as an artist who by quiet discipline steadily develops. In the twentieth century a writer becomes an event with his first bestseller, or smash hit, and then spends the rest of his life repeating the performance—or vainly trying to.

Chekhov's earlier version—The Wood Demon—is what Hollywood would call a comedy drama: that is, a farce spiced with melodrama. It tells the story of three couples: a vain Professor1 and his young second wife, Yelena; Astrov, the local...

(This entire section contains 8821 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

doctor, who is nicknamed the Wood Demon because of his passion for forestry, and Sonya, the Professor's daughter by his first marriage; finally, a young man and woman named Fyodor and Julia. The action consists to a great extent in banal comedic crisscrossing of erotic interests. Julia's brother seems for a time to be after Sonya. Yelena is coveted rather casually by Fyodor and more persistently by Uncle Vanya, the brother of the Professor's first wife. Rival suitors, eternal triangles, theatric adultery! It is not a play to take too seriously. Although in the third act there is a climax when Uncle Vanya shoots himself, Chekhov tries in the last and fourth act to re-establish the mode of light comedy by pairing off all three couples before bringing down the curtain on his happy ending.

Yet even in The Wood Demon there is much that is "pure Chekhov." The happy ending does not convince, because Chekhov has created a situation that cannot find so easy an outcome. He has created people who cannot possibly be happy ever after. He has struck so deep a note that the play cannot quite, in its last act, become funny again.

The death of Vanya is melodrama, yet it has poignancy too, and one might feel that, if it should be altered, the changes should be in the direction of realism. The plot centers on property. The estate was the dowry of Vanya's sister, the Professor's first wife. Vanya put ten years' work into paying off the mortgage. The present owner is the daughter of the first marriage, Sonya. The Professor, however, thinks he can safely speak of "our estate" and propose to sell it, so he can live in a Finnish villa on the proceeds. It is the shock of this proposal, coming on top of his discovery that the Professor, in whom he has so long believed is an intellectual fraud—coming on top of his infatuation with Yelena—that drives Vanya to suicide. And if this situation seems already to be asking for realistic treatment, what are we to say to the aftermath? Yelena leaves her husband, but is unable to sustain this "melodramatic" effort. She comes back to him, defeated yet not contrite: "Well, take me, statue of the commander, and go to hell with me in your twenty-six dismal rooms!"2

The Wood Demon is a conventional play trying, so to speak, to be something else. In Uncle Vanya, rewritten, it succeeds. Perhaps Chekhov began by retouching his ending and was led back and back into his play until he had revised everything but the initial situation. He keeps the starting-point of his fable, but alters the whole outcome. Vanya does not shoot himself; he fires his pistol at the Professor, and misses. Consequently the last act has quite a different point of departure. Yelena does not run away from her husband. He decides to leave, and she goes with him. Astrov, in the later version, does not love Sonya; he and she end in isolation. Vanya is not dead or in the condemned cell; but he is not happy.

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. Has not Prince Mirsky told us that Chekhov is an undramatic dramatist? The odd thing is only that he could be so dramatic before he rewrote. The matter is worth looking into.

Chekhov's theater, like Ibsen's, is psychological. If Chekhov changed his story, it must be either because he later felt that his old characters would act differently or because he wanted to create more interesting characters. The four people who emerge in the later version as the protagonists are different from their prototypes in The Wood Demon, and are differently situated. Although Sonya still loves Astrov, her love is not returned. This fact is one among many that make the later ending Chekhovian: Sonya and Astrov resign themselves to lives of labor without romance. Vanya is not resolute enough for suicide. His discontent takes form as resentment against the author of his misery. And yet, if missing his aim at such close quarters be an accident, it is surely one of those unconsciously willed accidents that Freud wrote of. Vanya is no murderer. His outburst is rightly dismissed as a tantrum by his fellows, none of whom dreams of calling the police. Just as Vanya is the kind of man who does not kill, Yelena is the kind of woman who does not run away from her husband, even temporarily.

In the earlier version the fates of the characters are settled; in the later they are unsettled. In the earlier version they are settled, moreover, not by their own nature or by force of circumstance, but by theatrical convention. In the later, their fate is unsettled because that is Chekhov's view of the truth. Nobody dies. Nobody is paired off. And the general point is clear: life knows no endings, happy or tragic. (Shaw once congratulated Chekhov on the discovery that the tragedy of the Hedda Gablers is, in real life, precisely that they do not shoot themselves.) The special satiric point is also familiar: Chekhov's Russians are chronically indecisive people. What is perhaps not so easy to grasp is the effect of a more mature psychology upon dramaturgy. Chekhov has destroyed the climax in his third act and the happy consummation in his fourth. These two alterations alone presuppose a radically different dramatic form.

II.

The framework of the new play is the attractive pattern of arrival and departure: the action is what happens in the short space of time between the arrival of the Professor and his wife on their country estate and their departure from it. The unity of the play is discovered by asking the question: what effect has the visit upon the visited—that is, upon Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov? This question as it stands could not be asked of The Wood Demon, for in that play the Professor and Yelena do not depart, and Vanya is dead before the end. As to the effect of the Professor's arrival, it is to change and spoil everything. His big moment—the moment when he announces his intention to sell the estate—leads to reversal in Aristotle's sense, the decisive point at which the whole direction of the narrative turns about. This is Uncle Vanya's suicide. Vanya's futile shots, in the later version, are a kind of mock reversal. It cannot even be said that they make the Professor change his mind, for he had begun to change it already—as soon as Vanya protested. Mechanical, classroom analysis would no doubt locate the climax of the play in the shooting. But the climax is an anticlimax. If one of our script-writers went to work on it, his "rewrite" would be The Wood Demon all over again, his principle of revision being exactly the opposite of Chekhov's. What Chekhov is after, I think, is not reversal but recognition—also in Aristotle's sense, "the change from ignorance to knowledge." In Aristotle's sense, but with a Chekhovian application.

In the Greeks, in much French drama, and in Ibsen, recognition means the discovery of a secret which reveals that things are not what all these years they have seemed to be. 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. This is Vanya's discovery and gradually (in the course of the ensuing last act) that of the others. Thus Chekhov has created a kind of recognition which is all his own. In Ibsen the terrible thing is that the surface of everyday life is a smooth deception. In Chekhov the terrible thing is that the surface of everyday life is itself a kind of tragedy. In Ibsen the whole surface of life is suddenly burst by volcanic eruption. In Chekhov the crust is all too firm; the volcanic energies of men have no chance of emerging. Uncle Vanya opens with a rather rhetorical suggestion that this might be so. It ends with the knowledge that it certainly is so, a knowledge shared by all the characters who are capable of knowledge—Astrov, Vanya, Sonya, and Yelena. This growth from ignorance to knowledge is, perhaps, our cardinal experience of the play (the moment of recognition, or experimental proof, being Vanya's outburst before the shooting).

Aristotle says that the change from ignorance to knowledge produces "love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune." But only in The Wood Demon, where there is no real change from ignorance to knowledge, could the outcome be stated in such round terms. Nobody's fortune at the end of Uncle Vanya is as good or bad as it might be; nobody is very conclusively loving or hating. Here again Chekhov is avoiding the black and the white, the tragic and the comic, and is attempting the halftone, the tragicomic.

If, as has been suggested, the action consists in the effect of the presence of the Professor and Yelena upon Sonya, Vanya, and Astrov, we naturally ask: what was that effect? To answer this question for the subtlest of the characters—Astrov—is to see far into Chekhov's art. In The Wood Demon the effect is nil. The action has not yet been unified. It lies buried in the chaos of Chekhov's materials. In Uncle Vanya, however, there is a thread of continuity. We are first told that Astrov is a man with no time for women. We then learn (and there is no trace of this in The Wood Demon) that he is infatuated with Yelena. In The Wood Demon, Sonya gets Astrov in the end. In Uncle Vanya, when Astrov gives up Yelena, he resigns himself to his old role of living without love. The old routine—in this as in other respects—resumes its sway.

The later version of this part of the story includes two splendid scenes that were not in The Wood Demon, even embryonically. One is the first of the two climaxes in Act III—when Yelena sounds out Astrov on Sonya's behalf. Astrov reveals that it is Yelena he loves, and he is kissing her when Vanya enters. The second is Astrov's parting from Yelena in the last act, a scene so subtle that Stanislavsky himself misinterpreted it: he held that Astrov was still madly in love with Yelena and was clutching at her as a dying man clutches at a straw. Chekhov had to point out in a letter that this is not so. What really happens is less histrionic and more Chekhovian. The parting kiss is passionless on Astrov's side. This time it is Yelena who feels a little passion. Not very much, though. For both, the kiss is a tribute to the Might-Have-Been.

Astrov's failure to return Sonya's love is not a result of the Professor's visit; he had failed to return it even before the Professor's arrival. The effect of the visit is to confirm (as part of the general Chekhovian pattern) the fact that what seems to be so is so; that what has been will be; that nothing has changed. How much difference has the visit made? It has made the case much sadder. Beforehand Astrov had maintained, and presumably believed, that he was indifferent to women. Afterward we know that it is Sonya in particular to whom he is indifferent. The "wood demon," devoted to the creative and the natural, can love only Yelena the artificial, the sterile, the useless. To Sonya, the good, the competent, the constructive, he is indifferent.

The Professor's visit clarifies Astrov's situation, indeed, his whole nature. True, he had already confessed himself a failure in some of the opening speeches of the play. The uninitiated must certainly find it strange (despite the august precedent of Antony and Cleopatra) that the play starts with a summary of the whole disaster. Yet the rest of the play, anything but a gratuitous appendix, is the proof that Astrov, who perhaps could not quite believe himself at the beginning, is right after all. The action of the play is his chance to disprove his own thesis—a chance that he misses, that he was bound to miss, being what he was. What was he, then? In the earlier version he had been known as the Wood Demon or Spirit of the Forest, and in Uncle Vanya the long speeches are retained in which he advances his ideal of the natural, the growing, the beautiful. Because he also speaks of great ennobling changes in the future of the race (not unlike those mentioned in the peroration of Trotsky's Literature and Revolution), he has been taken to be a prophet of a great political future for Russia in the twentieth century. But this would be wrenching his remarks from their context. Astrov is not to be congratulated on his beautiful dreams; he is to be pitied. His hope that mankind will some day do something good operates as an excuse for doing nothing now. It is an expression of his own futility, and Astrov knows it. Even in the early version he was not really a Wood Demon. That was only the ironical nickname of a crank. and Astrov In the nickname has gone,3 and Astrove is even more of a crank. When Yelena arrives, he leaves his forest to rot. Clearly they were no real fulfillment of his nature, but an old-maidish hobby, like Persian cats. They were ersatz; and as soon as something else seemed to offer itself, Astrov made his futile attempt at seduction. Freud would have enjoyed the revealing quality of his last pathetic proposal that Yelena should give herself to him in the depth of the forest.

The actor, of course, should not make Astrov too negative. If one school of opinion romanticizes all Chekhov characters who dream of the future, another, even more vulgar, sees them as weaklings and nothing else. Chekhov followed Ibsen in portraying the average mediocre man—I'homme moyen sensuel—without ever following the extreme naturalists in their concern with the utterly downtrodden, the inarticulate, the semihuman. His people are no weaker than ninety-nine out of every hundred members of his audience. That is to say, they are very weak, but there are also elements of protest and revolt in them, traces of will-power, some dim sense of responsibility. If his characters never reach fulfillment, it is not because they were always without potentialities. In fact, Chekhov's sustained point is precisely that these weeping, squirming, suffering creatures might have been men. And because Chekhov feels this, there is emotion, movement, tension, interplay, dialectic, in his plays. He never could have written a play like Galsworthy's Justice, in which the suffering creature is as much an insect as a man.

The Might-Have-Been is Chekhov's idée fixe. His people do not dream only of what could never be, or what could come only after thousands of years; they dream of what their lives actually could have been. They spring from a conviction of human potentiality—which is what separates Chekhov from the real misanthropes of modern literature. Astrov moves us because we can readily feel how fully human he might have been, how he has dwindled, under the influence of "country life," from a thinker to a crank, from a man of feeling to a philanderer. "It is strange somehow," he says to Yelena in the last scene, "we have got to know each other, and all at once for some reason—we shall never meet again. So it is with everything in this world." Such lines might be found in any piece of sentimental theater. But why is it that Chekhov's famous "elegiac note" is, in the full context, deeply moving? Is it not because the sense of death is accompanied with so rich a sense of life and the possible worth of living?

III.

Chekhov had a feeling for the unity of the drama, yet his sense of the richness of life kept him clear of formalism. He enriched his dramas in ways that belong to no school and that, at least in their effect, are peculiar to himself. While others tried to revive poetic drama by putting symbolist verse in the mouths of their characters, or simply by imitating the verse drama of the past, Chekhov found poetry within the world of realism. By this is meant not only that he used symbols. Symbolism of a stagy kind was familiar on the boulevards and still is. The Broadway title Skylark is symbolic in exactly the same way as The Wild Duck and The Seagull. It is rather the use to which Chekhov puts the symbol that is remarkable. We have seen, for instance, what he makes of his "wood demon." This is not merely a matter of Astrov's character. Chekhov's symbols spread themselves, like Ibsen's, over a large territory. They are a path to the imagination and to those deeper passions which in our latter-day drama are seldom worn on the sleeve. Thus if a symbol in Chekhov is explained—in the manner of the raisonneur—the explanation blazes like a denunciation. Yelena says:

As Astrov was just saying, you are all recklessly destroying the forests and soon there will be nothing left on the earth. In the same way you recklessly destroy human beings, and soon, thanks to you, there will be no fidelity, no purity, no capacity for sacrifice left on the earth either! Why is it you can never look at a woman with indifference unless she is yours? That doctor is right: it's because there is a devil of destruction in all of you. You have no mercy on woods or birds or women or one another.

What a paradox: our playwrights who plump for the passions (like O'Neill) are superficial, and Chekhov, who pretends to show us only the surface (who, as I have said, writes the tragedy of the surface), is passionate and deep! No modern playwright has presented elemental passions more truly. Both versions of Uncle Vanya are the battle-ground of two conflicting impulses—the impulse to destroy and the impulse to create. In The Wood Demon the conflict is simple: Vanya's destructive passion reaches a logical end in suicide, Astrov's creative passion a logical end in happiness ever after. In Uncle Vanya the pattern is complex: Vanya's destructive passion reaches a pseudo-climax in his pistol-shots, and a pseudo-culmination in bitter resignation. Astrov's creative passion has found no outlet. Unsatisfied by his forests, he is fascinated by Yelena. His ending is the same as Vanya's—isolation. The destructive passions do not destroy; the creative passions do not create. Or, rather, both impulses are crushed in the daily routine, crushed by boredom and triviality. Both Vanya and Astrov have been suffering a gradual erosion and will continue to do so. They cry out. "I have not lived, not lived … I have ruined and wasted the best years of my life." "I have grown old, I have worked too hard, I have grown vulgar, all my feelings are blunted, and I believe I am not capable of being fond of anyone." Chekhov's people never quite become wounded animals like the Greek tragic heroes. But through what modern playwright does suffering speak more poignantly?

At a time when Chekhov is valued for his finer shades, it is worth stressing his simplicity and strength, his depth and intensity—provided we remember that these qualities require just as prodigious a technique for their expression, that they depend just as much on details. Look at the first two acts of Uncle Vanya. While the later acts differ from The Wood Demon in their whole narrative, the first two differ chiefly in their disposition of the material. Act I of The Wood Demon is a rather conventional bit of exposition: we get to know the eleven principals and we learn that Vanya is in love with Yelena. In Uncle Vanya Chekhov gives himself more elbow-room by cutting down the number of characters: Julia and her brother, Fyodor and his father are eliminated. The act is no longer mere exposition in the naturalistic manner (people meeting and asking questions like "Whom did you write to?" so that the reply can be given: "I wrote to Sonya"). The principle of organization is what one often hears called "musical." (The word poetic is surely more accurate, but music is the accepted metaphor.) The evening opens, we might say, with a little overture in which themes from the body of the play are heard. "I may well look old!" It is Astrov speaking. "And life is tedious, stupid, dirty. Life just drags on." The theme of human deterioration is followed by the theme of aspiration: "Those who will live a hundred or two hundred years after us, for whom we are struggling now to beat out a road, will they remember and say a good word for us?" The overture ends; the play begins.

Analyses of the structure of plays seldom fail to tell us where the climax lies, where the exposition is completed, and how the play ends, but they often omit a more obtrusive factor—the principle of motion, the way in which a play copes with its medium, with time-sequence. In general, the nineteenth-century drama proceeded upon the principles of boulevard drama (as triumphantly practiced by Scribe). To deal with such a play, terms like exposition, complication, and denouement are perfectly adequate because the play is, like most fiction, primarily a pattern of suspense. The "musical" principle of motion, however, does not reflect a preoccupation with suspense. That is why many devotees of popular drama are bored by Chekhov.

Consider even smaller things than the use of overture. Consider the dynamics of the first three lines in Uncle Vanya. The scene is one of Chekhov's gardens. Astrov is sitting with the Nurse. She offers him tea. She offers him vodka, but he is not a regular vodka-drinker. "Besides, it's stifling," he says; and there is a lull in the conversation. To the Broadway producer this is a good opening because it gives latecomers a chance to take their seats without missing anything. To Chekhov these little exchanges, these sultry pauses, are the bricks out of which a drama is built.

What makes Chekhov seem most formless is precisely the means by which he achieves strict form—namely, the series of tea-drinkings, arrivals, departures, meals, dances, family gatherings, casual conversations, of which his plays are made. As we have seen, Chekhov works with a highly unified action. He presents it, however, not in the centralized, simplified manner of Sophocles or Ibsen, but obliquely, indirectly, quasi-naturally. The rhythm of the play is leisurely yet broken and, to suspense-lovers, baffling. It would be an exaggeration to say that there is no story and that the succession of scenes marks simply an advance in our knowledge of a situation that does not change. Yet people who cannot interest themselves in this kind of development as well as in straightforward story-telling will not be interested in Chekhov's plays any more than they would be in Henry James's novels. Chekhov does tell a story—the gifts of one of the greatest raconteurs are not in abeyance in his plays—but his method is to let both his narrative and his situation leak out, so to speak, through domestic gatherings, formal and casual. This is his principle of motion.

The method requires two extraordinary gifts: the mastery of "petty" realistic material and the ability to go beyond sheer Sachlichkeit—materiality, factuality—to imagination and thought. (Galsworthy, for example, seems to have possessed neither of these gifts—certainly not the second.) Now, the whole Stanislavsky school of acting and directing is testimony that Chekhov was successfully sachlich—that is, not only accurate, but significantly precise, concrete, ironic (like Jane Austen). The art by which a special importance is imparted to everyday objects is familiar enough in fiction; on the stage, Chekhov is one of its few masters. On the stage, moreover, the Sachlichkeit may more often consist in a piece of business—I shall never forget Astrov, as played by Olivier, buttoning his coat—than in a piece of furniture. Chekhov was so far from being the average novelist-turned-dramatist that he used the peculiarly theatrical Sachlichkeit with the skill of a veteran of the footlights. The first entrance of Vanya, for instance, is achieved this way (compare it with the entrance of the matinee idol in a boulevard comedy):

Vanya (comes out of the house; he has had a nap after lunch and looks rumpled; he sits down on the garden-seat and straightens his fashionable tie): Yes.… (Pause.) Yes.…

(Those who are used to the long novelistic stage-directions of Shaw and O'Neill should remember that Chekhov, like Ibsen, added stage-directions only here and there. But the few that do exist show an absolute mastery.)

How did Chekhov transcend mere Sachlichkeit and achieve a drama of imagination and thought? Chiefly, I think, by combining the most minute attention to realistic detail with a rigorous sense of form. He diverges widely from all the Western realists—though not so widely from his Russian predecessors such as Turgenev, whose Month in the Country could be palmed off as a Chekhov play on more discerning people than most drama critics—and his divergences are often in the preservation of elements of style and stylization, which naturalism prided itself it had discarded. Most obvious among these is the soliloquy. Chekhov does not let his people confide in the audience, but he does use the kind of soliloquy in which the character thinks out loud; and where there is no traditional device for achieving a certain kind of beginning or ending, he constructs for himself a set piece that will do his job. In Uncle Vanya, if there may be said to be an overture, played by Astrov, there may also be said to be a finale, played by Sonya. For evidence of Chekhov's theatrical talents one should notice the visual and auditory components of this final minute of the play. We have just heard the bells jingling as the Professor and his wife drive off, leaving the others to their desolation. "Waffles"—one of the neighbors—is softly tuning his guitar. Vanya's mother is reading. Vanya "passes his hand over" Sonya's hair:

Sonya: We must go on living! (Pause.) We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya! We shall live through a long, long chain of days and weary evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate sends us; we shall work for others, both now and in our old age, and have no rest; and when our time comes we shall die without a murmur, and there beyond the grave we shall say that we have suffered, that we have wept, that our life has been bitter to us, and God will have pity on us, and you and I, uncle, dear uncle, shall see a life that is bright, lovely, beautiful. We shall rejoice and look back at these troubles of ours with tenderness, with a smile—and we shall have rest. I have faith, uncle, fervent, passionate faith. (Slips on her knees before him and lays her head on his hands; in a weary voice) We shall rest! ("Waffles" softly plays on the guitar.) We shall rest! We shall hear the angels; we shall see all heaven lit with radiance, we shall see all earthly evil, all our sufferings, drowned in mercy, which will fill the whole world, and our life will be peaceful, gentle, sweet like a caress. I have faith, I have faith. (Wipes away his tears with her handkerchief.) Poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying. (Through her tears) You have had no joy in your life, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. We shall rest. (Puts her arms around him.) We shall rest! (The watchman taps; Waffles plays softly; Vanya's mother makes notes on the margin of her pamphlet; the Nurse knits her stocking.) We shall rest! (Curtain drops slowly.)

The silence, the music, the watchman's tapping, the postures, the gestures, the prose with its rhythmic repetitions and melancholy import—these compose an image, if a stage picture with its words and music may be called an image, such as the drama has seldom known since Shakespeare. True, in our time the background music of movies and the noises-off in radio drama have made us see the dangers in this sort of theatricality. But Chekhov knew without these awful examples where to draw the line.

A weakness of much realistic literature is that it deals with inarticulate people. The novelist can of course supply in narrative and description what his milieu lacks in conversation, but the dramatist has no recourse—except to the extent that drama is expressed not in words but in action. Chekhov's realistic milieu, however, is, like Ibsen's, bourgeois and "intellectual"; a wide range of conversational styles and topics is therefore plausible enough. But Chekhov is not too pedantic about plausibility. He not only exploits the real explicitness and complication and abstractness of bourgeois talk; he introduces, or reintroduces, a couple of special conventions.

The first is the tirade or long, oratorically composed speech. Chekhov's realistic plays—unlike Ibsen's—have their purple patches. On the assumption that a stage character may be much more self-conscious and aware than his counterpart in real life, Chekhov lets his people talk much more freely than any other modern realist except Shaw. They talk on all subjects from book-keeping to metaphysics. Not always listening to what the other man is saying, they talk about themselves and address the whole world. They make what might be called self-explaining soliloquies in the manner of Richard III—except for the fact that other people are present and waiting, very likely, to make soliloquies of their own.

This is the origin of the second Chekhovian convention: each character speaks his mind without reference to the others. This device is perhaps Chekhov's most notorious idea. It has been used more crudely by Odets and Saroyan; and it has usually been interpreted in what is indeed its primary function: to express the isolation of people from one another. However, the dramaturgic utility of the idea is equally evident: it brings the fates of individuals before the audience with a minimum of fuss.

In Chekhov, as in every successful artist, each device functions both technically and humanly, serves a purpose both as form and as content. The form of the tirade, which Chekhov reintroduces, is one of the chief means to an extension of content; and the extension of content is one of the chief means by which Chekhov escapes from stolid naturalism into the broader realities that only imagination can uncover. Chekhov's people are immersed in facts, buried in circumstances, not to say in trivialities, yet—and this is what differentiates them from most dramatic characters—aware of the realm of ideas and imagination. His drama bred a school of acting which gives more attention to exact detail than any other school in history; it might also have bred a school of dramaturgy which could handle the largest and most general problems. Chekhov was a master of the particular and the general—which is another sign of the richness and balance of his mind.

IV.

Obviously Chekhov is not a problem playwright in the vulgar sense. (Neither is Ibsen; neither is Shaw. Who is?) Nor is his drama about ideas. He would undoubtedly have agreed with Henry Becque: "The serious thing about drama is not the ideas. It is the absorption of the ideas by the characters, the dramatic or comic force that the characters give to the ideas." It is not so much the force Chekhov gives to any particular ideas as the picture he gives of the role of ideas in the lives of men of ideas—a point particularly relevant to Uncle Vanya. If Vanya might be called the active center of the play (in that he precipitates the crisis), there is also a passive center, a character whose mere existence gives direction to the action as a whole.

This is Professor Serebryakov. Although this character is not so satisfactory a creation as the professor in Chekhov's tale "A Tiresome Story," and though Chekhov does too little to escape the cliche stage professor, the very crudeness of the characterization has dramatic point. Serebryakov is a simple case placed as such in contrast to Vanya and Astrov. His devotion to ideas is no more than a gesture of unearned superiority, and so he has become a valetudianarian whose wife truly says: "You talk of your age as though we were all responsible for it." Around this familiar and, after all, common phenomenon are grouped the others, each of whom has a different relation to the world of culture and learning. The Professor is the middle of the design; characters of developed awareness are, so to say, above him; those of undeveloped awareness below him. Above him are Vanya and Astrov, Yelena and Sonya—the men aware to a great extent through their superior intellect, the women through their finer feeling. Below him are three minor characters—Waffles, Vanya's mother, and the Nurse.

The Nurse, who is not to be found in The Wood Demon, stands for life without intellectuality or education. She sits knitting, and the fine talk passes her by. She stands for the monotony of country life, a monotony that she interprets as beneficent order. One of the many significant cross-references in the play is Vanya's remark at the beginning that the Professor's arrival has upset the household routine and the Nurse's remark at the end that now the meals will be on time again and all will be well.

Vanya's mother stands on the first rung of the intellectual ladder. She is an enthusiast for certain ideas, and especially for reading about them, but she understands very little. Less intelligent, less sensitive than Vanya, she has never seen through the Professor. Her whole character is in this exchange with her son:

Mother: … he has sent his new pamphlet.

Vanya: Interesting?

Mother: Interesting but rather queer. He is attacking what he himself maintained seven years ago. It's awful.

Vanya: There's nothing awful in that. Drink your tea, maman.

Mother: I want to talk.

Vanya: We have been talking and talking for fifty years and reading pamphlets. It's about time to leave off.

Mother: You don't like listening when I speak; I don't know why. Forgive my saying so, Jean, but you have so changed in the course of the last year that I hardly know you. You used to be a man of definite convictions, brilliant personality.…

On a slightly higher plane than the tract-ridden Mother is the friend of the family, Waffles. If Vanya is the ruin of a man of principle, Waffles is the parody of one. Listen to his account of himself (it is one of Chekhov's characteristic thumbnail autobiographies):

My wife ran away from me with the man she loved the day after our wedding on the ground of my unprepossessing appearance. But I have never been false to my vows. I love her to this day and am faithful to her. I help her as far as I can, and I gave her all I had for the education of her children by the man she loved. I have lost my happiness, but I still have my pride left. And she? Her youth is over, her beauty, in accordance with the laws of nature, has faded, the man she loved is dead.… What has she left?

Just how Waffles is able to keep his equilibrium and avoid the agony that the four principals endure is clear enough. His "pride" is a form of stupidity. For him, as for the Professor, books and ideas are not a window through which he sees the world so much as obstacles that prevent him seeing anything but themselves. The Professor's response to the crisis is a magnanimity that rings as false as Waffles's pride:

Let bygones be bygones. After what has happened. I have gone through such a lot and thought over so many things in these few hours, I believe I could write a whole treatise on the art of living.…

Waffles also finds reflections of life more interesting than life itself. In The Wood Demon (where his character is more crudely drawn), having helped Yelena to run away, he shouts:

If I lived in an intellectual center, they could draw a caricature of me for a magazine, with a very funny satirical inscription.

And a little later:

Your Excellency, it is I who carried off your wife, as once upon a time a certain Paris carried off the fair Helen. I! Although there are no pockmarked Parises, yet there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!

In the more finely controlled Uncle Vanya this side of Waffles is slyly indicated in his attitude to the shooting:

Nurse: Look at the quarreling and shooting this morning—shameful!

Waffles: Yes, a subject worthy of the brush of Aivazovsky.

Aside from this special treatment of the modern intellectual and semi-intellectual, aside from explicit mention of various ideas and philosophies, Chekhov is writing "drama of ideas" only in the sense that Sophocles and Shakespeare and Ibsen were—that is to say, his plays are developed thematically. As one can analyze certain Shakespeare plays in terms of the chief concepts employed in them—such as Nature and Time—so one might analyze a Chekhov play in terms of certain large antitheses, such as (the list is compiled from Uncle Vanya) love and hate, feeling and apathy, heroism and lethargy, innocence and sophistication, reality and illusion, freedom and captivity, use and waste, culture and nature, youth and age, life and death. If one were to take up a couple of Chekhov's key concepts and trace his use of them through a whole play, one would find that he is a more substantial artist than even his admirers think.

Happiness and work, for instance. They are not exactly antitheses, but in Uncle Vanya they are found in by no means harmonious association. The outsider's view of Chekhov is of course that he is "negative" because he portrayed a life without happiness. The amateur's view is that he is "positive" because he preached work as a remedy for boredom. Both views need serious qualification.

The word work shifts its tone and implication a good deal within the one play Uncle Vanya. True, it sometimes looks like the antidote to all the idleness and futility. On the other hand, the play opens with Astrov's just complaint that he is worked to death. Work has been an obsession, and is still one, for the Professor, whose parting word is: "Permit an old man to add one observation to his farewell message: you must work, my friends! you must work!"4 Vanya and Sonya obey him—but only to stave off desperation. "My heart is too heavy," says Vanya. "I must make haste and occupy myself with something.… Work! Work!" To Sonya, work is the noblest mode of self-destruction, a fact that was rather more than clear in The Wood Demon:

Astrov: Are you happy?

Sonya: This is not the time, Nikhail Lvovich, to think of happiness.

Astrov: What else is there to think of?

Sonya: Our sorrow came only because we thought too much of happiness.…

Astrov: So! (Pause.)

Sonya: There's no evil without some good in it. Sorrow has taught me this—that one must forget one's own happiness and think only of the happiness of others. One's whole life should consist of sacrifices.…

Astrov: Yes ….(after a pause). Uncle Vanya shot himself, and his mother goes on searching for contradictions in her pamphlets. A great misfortune befell you and you're pampering your self-love, you are trying to distort your life and you think this is a sacrifice.… No one has a heart.…

In the less explicit Uncle Vanya this passage does not appear. What we do have is Sonya's beautiful lyric speech that ends the play. In the thrill of the words perhaps both reader and playgoer overlook just what she says—namely, that the afterlife will so fully make up for this one that we should learn not to take our earthly troubles too seriously. This is not Chekhov speaking. It is an over-wrought girl comforting herself with an idea. In The Wood Demon Astrov was the author's mouthpiece when he replied to Sonya: "You are trying to distort your life and you think this is a sacrifice." The mature Chekhov has no direct mouthpieces. But the whole passage, the whole play, enforces the meaning: work for these people is not a means to happiness, but a drug that will help them to forget. Happiness they will never know. Astrov's yearnings are not a radical's vision of the future any more than the Professor's doctrine of work is a demand for a workers' state. They are both the daydreams of men who Might Have Been.

V.

So much for The Wood Demon and Uncle Vanya. Chekhov wrote five other full-length plays. Three—Ivanov, That Worthless Fellow Platonov, and The Wood Demon—were written in his late twenties, and are experimental in the sense that he was still groping toward his own peculiar style. Two plays—The Seagull and Uncle Vanya—were written in his middle thirties; the last two plays—The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard—when he was about forty.

Chekhov's development as a playwright is quite different from that of Ibsen, Strindberg, or any of the other first-rate moderns. While they pushed tempestuously forward, transforming old modes and inventing new ones, perpetually changing their approach, endlessly inventing new forms, Chekhov moved quietly, slowly, and along one straight road. He used only one full-length structure: the four-act drama; and one set of materials: the rural middle class. For all that, the line that stretches from Ivanov (1887-9) to The Cherry Orchard (1903) is of great interest.

The development is from farce and melodrama to the mature Chekhovian drame. The three early plays are violent and a little pretentious. Each presents a protagonist (there is no protagonist in the four subsequent plays) who is a modern variant upon a great type or symbol. Ivanov is referred to as a Hamlet, Platonov as a Don Juan, Astrov as a Wood Demon. In each case it is a "Russian" variant that Chekhov shows—Chekhov's "Russians" like Ibsen's "Norwegian" Peer Gynt and Shaw's "Englishman" representing modern men in general. Those who find Chekhov's plays static should read the three early pieces: they are the proof that, if the later Chekhov eschewed certain kinds of action, it was not for lack of dramatic sense in the most popular meaning of the term. Chekhov was born a melodramatist and farceur; only by discipline and development did he become the kind of playwright the world thinks it knows him to be. Not that the later plays are without farcical and melodramatic elements; only a great mimic and caricaturist could have created Waffles and Gaev. As for melodrama, the pistol continues to go off (all but the last of the seven plays have a murder or suicide as climax or pseudo-climax), but the noise is taken further off-stage, literally and figuratively, until in The Three Sisters it is "the dim sound of a far-away shot." And The Cherry Orchard, the farthest refinement of Chekhov's method, culminates not with the sharp report of a pistol, but with the dull, precise thud of an ax.

These are a few isolated facts, and one might find one hundred others to demonstrate that Chekhov's plays retain a relationship to the cruder forms. If, as Jacques Barzun has argued, there is a Balzac in Henry James, there is a Sardou in Chekhov. Farce and melodrama are not eliminated, but subordinated to a higher art, and have their part in the dialectic of the whole. As melodrama, The Seagull, with its tale of the ruined heroine, the glamorous popular novelist, the despairing artist hero, might have appealed to Verdi or Puccini. Even the story of The Cherry Orchard (the elegant lady running off to Paris and being abandoned by the object of her grand passion) hardly suggests singularity, highbrowism, or rarefaction.

In the later plays life is seen in softer colors; Chekhov is no longer eager to be the author of a Russian Hamlet or Don Juan. The homely Uncle Vanya succeeds on the title page the oversuggestive Wood Demon, and Chekhov forgoes the melodrama of a forest fire. Even more revealing: overexplicit themes are deleted. Only in The Wood Demon is the career of the Professor filled in with excessive detail (Heidelberg and all) or Astrov denounced as a socialist. Only in the early version does Vanya's mother add to her remark that a certain writer now makes his living by attacking his own former views: "It is very, very typical of our time. Never have people betrayed their convictions with such levity as they do now." Chekhov deletes Vanya's open allusion to the "cursed poisonous irony" of the sophisticated mind. He keeps the substance of Yelena's declaration that "the world perishes not because of murderers and thieves, but from hidden hatred, from hostility among good people, from all those petty squabbles," and deletes the end of the sentence: "… unseen by those who call our house a haven of intellectuals." He does not have Yelena explain herself with the remark: "I am an episodic character, mine is a canary's happiness, a woman's happiness." (In both versions Yelena has earlier described herself as an "episodic character." Only in The Wood Demon does she repeat the description. In The Wood Demon the canary image also receives histrionic reiteration. In Uncle Vanya it is not used at all.)

Chekhov does not tone things down because he is afraid of giving himself away. He is not prim or precious. Restraint is for him as positive an idea as temperance was for the Greeks. In Chekhov the toned-down picture—as I hope the example of Uncle Vanya indicates—surpasses the hectic color scheme of melodrama, not only in documentary truth, but also in the deeper truth of poetic vision. And the truth of Chekhov's colors has much to do with the delicacy of his forms. Chekhov once wrote in a letter: "When a man spends the least possible number of movements over some definite action, that is grace"; and one of his critics speaks of a "'trigger' process, the release of enormous forces by some tiny movement." The Chekhovian form as we find it in the final version of Uncle Vanya grew from a profound sense of what might be called the economy of art.

We have seen how, while this form does not by any means eliminate narrative and suspense, it reintroduces another equally respectable principle of motion—the progress from ignorance to knowledge. Each scene is another stage in our discovery of Chekhov's people and Chekhov's situation; also in their discovering of themselves and their situation (in so far as they are capable of doing so). The apparent casualness of the encounters and discussions on the stage is Chekhov linking himself to "the least possible number of movements." But as there is a "definite action," as "large forces have been brought into play," we are not cheated of drama. The "trigger effect" is as dramatic in its way as the "buried secret" pattern of Sophocles and Ibsen. Of course, there will be people who see the tininess of the movements and do not notice the enormousness of the forces released—who see the trigger-finger move and do not hear the shot. To them, Chekhov remains a mere manufacturer of atmosphere, a mere contriver of nuance. To others he seems a master of dramatic form unsurpassed in modern times.

Notes

1In cases where Chekhov changed the name of a character for his later version, I have used the later name only, to avoid confusion. And I have called each person by the designation that non-Russians most easily remember: "the Professor," "Waffles," "Astrov," "Sonya."

2In general I quote from published translations of Chekhov: the English of The Wood Demon is S. S. Koteliansky's; of Uncle Vanya, Constance Garnett's. But I have altered these versions, consulting the Russian original wherever alteration seemed desirable.

3From the title as well as from the dialogue. For not only does the center of interest shift from Astrov to Vanya, but Chekhov deliberately drops from his masthead the evocative demon in favor of the utterly banal uncle. If the name Vanya sounds exotic to non-Russian ears, one has to know that it is the equivalent of Jack.

4So Constance Gamett. Actually Chekhov does not here use the Russian word for "to work" (rabotat), which is his leitmotiv; he uses an idiom meaning "you must do something!" ("Nado delo delat!")

Philip Bordinat (essay date 1958)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Dramatic Structure in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 16, 1958, pp. 195-210.

[In the essay below, Bordinat contends that Uncle Vanya has no single protagonist but that four characters collectively comprise "the individual," who fills the role. The critic maintains that the play is structured around a "series of bids by 'the individual,' whichever character it might be, for some kind of value or happiness in the provincial Russian 'wasteland' that Chekhov pictures for us."]

Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya has often been criticized as being aimless, implying a lack of sound dramatic structure. Yet the play confounds these formalist critics by continuing to be successful on the stage. My view is that the play is built on a rigid structural framework and that the play does possess specific direction.

Chekhov was certainly conscious of the need for a basic framework for his plays. The following statement from one of his letters indicates his realization of the importance of climax in a play:

The first act can go as long as an hour, but the others must not take longer than thirty minutes. The climax of the play must occur in the third act, but it must not be too big a climax to kill the fourth act.1

In addition to Chekhov's concern with climax, this pas-sage suggests his interest in proportion. Yet this passage, though it suggests a consciousness of some of the structural problems of the playwright, tells us little about Uncle Vanya. It is in the examination of the play in the light of some of me basic rules for constructing a play that the structure becomes clear. We can see, then, that there is an aim and that Uncle Vanya adheres to the conventional structural pattern of exposition, dramatic incident, rising action (through a series of complications), climax, and resolution.

For these formal qualities to become evident, however, the reader must accept a unique idea of protagonist in Uncle Vanya. The suggestion is here advanced that there is no single protagonist in the play; rather, the protagonist is "the individual." Thus, the protagonist is no one character throughout the play, but each character during the time when he is attempting to find some value in Chekhov's Russian "wasteland." In other words, the protagonist is "the individual" in the abstract.

The question may be raised at this point: "But what about Vanya? Surely he is the protagonist." It is true that Vanya is onstage for a major portion of the play; it is also true that, when he is not onstage, he is often kept before us through the conversations of the other characters. On the other hand, there are extended periods when the audience is far more concerned with the fate of Astrov, Yelena, or Sonya than they are with Vanya. It is a rule of the drama that the fate of the central character should always be paramount in the minds of the audience. Such is not the case in our reactions to Vanya nor to any other single character in the play. Rather, we are concerned with the series of bids by "the individual," whichever character it might be, for some kind of value or happiness in the provincial Russian "wasteland" that Chekhov pictures for us.

It is well to remember that Uncle Vanya is a revision of his early, less controlled play, The Wood Demon.2 Chekhov, in his revision, supports the idea of no single protagonist by, in a sense, leveling the characters relative to their respective interest value for an audience. The fact that the name of the play was changed from The Wood Demon, which refers to Khrushchev, Doctor Astrov's counterpart, to Uncle Vanya reflects such a change of thinking on the part of the playwright. Consistent with this change of thinking is the omission of Yegor Voynitskiy's (Vanya in Uncle Vanya) suicide. Thus, Vanya is carried through to the final curtain. Furthermore, in Uncle Vanya Chekhov makes Sonya much more appealing and Yelena more cowardly than either was in The Wood Demon. All of these changes suggest that Chekhov was bringing these characters to the level of protagonist, thus enabling each to be "the individual" during a part of the play.

Let us now consider dramatic structure. A basic structure test that is often applied by playwrights to a new play idea is that of the fighting triad. Samuel Seldon describes the fighting triad in this way:

Nearly all successful plays are built around a triad so arranged as to imply a conflict.

PRINCIPAL FORCE OPPOSING FORCE DECIDING AGENT

The Principal Force is that driving desire of the central character which motivates the action. It is his desire for an object or person, or for a change of condition. The Opposing Force is the desire of someone else—a rival, foe, or other inimical presence—to block the fulfillment of the first character's want. And the Deciding Agent is that thing which finally turns the course of the conflict to the advantage of the first or the second force. The age-old plot involving two men and a girl is a perfect example of the triad.

Principal Force Opposing Force Deciding Agent
The desire of
the man for
the girl.
The desire of
the rival for
the same girl.
The mind of
the girl.3

If the fighting triad is applied to Uncle Vanya with Vanya or any single character as the central character, the term "principal" could hardly be used because there are similar forces in the other characters which often occupy audience interest for significant periods of the play. On the other hand, if "the individual" is considered as the central character, the triad applies.

Principal Force Opposing Force Deciding Agent
The individual's
desire for hapiness.
The provincial
Russian
"wasteland."
The overpowering
quality of
the Russian
"wasteland."

Through the use of "the individual" as protagonist, the playwright avoided the impossible task of having to create an all-encompassing, everyman character to give his play universal significance. Instead, he achieved this appeal through four characters. Two are men, one a doctor and the other a gentleman farmer; and two are women, one married, physically beautiful and spiritually ugly, and the other unmarried, physically unattractive and spiritually beautiful. However, though the introduction of "the individual" as protagonist simplified one problem it intensified another, the problem of exposition.

The major exposition of any play is difficult; but in Uncle Vanya, in addition to the usual details of time, place, and situation, four major characters had to be developed in enough detail to make each one of them of central interest to an audience during that portion of the play in which he would represent "the individual."4 In a sense, it was the problem of introducing four protagonists. In accomplishing this huge task, Chekhov violated a number of fundamental rules; yet the results are rewarding. In the opening scene of the play, Chekhov violated a cardinal rule of dramatic exposition in that he introduced two characters who both know all of the information that must be imparted to the audience. Thus, the questions which Doctor Astrov puts to Marina, the nurse, are unnatural in that he already knows the answers to them:

Marina pours out a glass of tea: Here, drink it dearie.

Astrov reluctantly accepting the glass: I don't feel like it somehow.

Marina: Perhaps you'd like a drop of vodka?

Astrov: No. I don't drink vodka every day. It's too close anyway. A pause. By the way, Nanny, how many years is it we've known each other?

Marina pondering: How many? The Lord help my memory.… You came to live around here … well, when was it? … Sonechka's mother, Vera Petrovna, was still living then. You came to see us for two winters when she was alive.… That means that at least eleven years have gone by.… After a moment's thought. Maybe more.…

Astrov: Have I changed a lot since then?

Marina: Yes, a lot. You were young and handsome then, but you've aged now. And you're not as good looking as you were. There's another thing too—you take a drop of vodka now and again.

(I, 93)5

At this point, Astrov takes up the story and proceeds to give an extended answer to his own question. In most plays having a major character put two such contrived questions about himself to another character and then having him launch into an extended, inadequately motivated self-analysis in answer to his own question would be the worst kind of dramaturgy. However, in Uncle Vanya, Chekhov's violation of convention seems to fit into context, in that he was attempting to create an atmosphere of boredom in which people act without reason. Here people talk about the past because there is little meaning in the present or hope for the future; there is only the past when there was still hope for a good life.

The entrance of Uncle Vanya illustrates another break with dramatic convention, for there is absolutely no preparation for his entrance. He simply appears, yawning, upon the stage, having just awakened from a nap. Then, in answer to the question "Had a good sleep?" he proceeds to give an extended treatment of the upset in his living routine since the professor and his wife came to live with them, thus for the first time mentioning the dramatic incident. The effect of this speech on the audience is much like the feeling produced on an individual who has politely asked another "How are you?" and is forced to listen to an extended analysis of that person's medical history. The information is hardly interesting in itself, but the surprise of the reply holds the audience. In both cases, we have a bore; yet we are compelled to listen. Vanya's speech, in addition to accentuating the utter boredom of the situation, initiates the preparation for the entrance of Professor Serebryakov and his wife, Yelena.

A brief discussion of the professor's upsetting habits precedes his and Yelena's entrance. The entrance seems to come too soon, for we have learned nothing about Yelena. The audience can only assume that she is the right age and type for the professor. Chekhov outraged dramatic convention in getting them onstage, for he had the couple enter with Sonya and Telegin. Vanya (Voynitskiy) draws the attention of the audience to the entrance when he says:

Voynitskiy: They're coming, they're coming! Don't fuss!

Voices are heard. Serebryakov, Yelena Andreyevna, Sonya, and Telegin approach from the farther part of the garden, returning from their walk.

Serebryakov: It was beautiful, beautiful! … Wonderful scenery!

Telegin: Yes, Your Excellency, the views are remarkable.

Sonya: To-morrow we'll go to the plantation, Papa. Would you like to?

Voynitskiy: Tea's ready, my friends!

Serebryakov: My friends, will you be good enough to send my tea to my study? I've something more I must do to-day.

Sonya: I'm sure you will like it at the plantation.

Yelena Andreyevna, Serebryakov, and Sonya go into the house. Telegin goes to the table and sits down beside MARINA.

Voynitskiy: It's hot and close, but our great man of learning has got his overcoat and goloshes on, and he's carrying his umbrella and gloves.

Astrov: He's obviously taking care of himself.

(I, 95-96)

This apparently premature entrance seems to serve the function of a preview, for three important characters merely pass through. Yet, the brief conversation identifies Professor Serebryakov and his daughter, Sonya, while Telegin stops on stage to contribute to the ensuing discussion. Yelena crosses the stage and exits. Yet, with Sonya identified through her reference to "Papa," the audience would realize that the other woman is Yelena, the professor's wife. This realization would come as a shock to the audience, for she is much too young for the professor, and she is beautiful. Audience curiosity regarding Yelena would be aroused at this point, and Vanya's comments would accentuate this curiosity:

Voynitskiy: But how lovely she is! How lovely! I've never seen a more beautiful woman in all my life.

Then he adds:

Her eyes … a wonderful woman!

(I, 96)

These two utterances by Vanya would create a desire in the audience to have another look at the woman, seen only briefly, who could motivate such comments.

The four characters representing "the individual," or the protagonist, have been presented to the audience during the first quarter of the first act. The remainder of the exposition consists of dialogues which elaborate on these characters and on the antagonist, Serebryakov. Some of these speeches are long and often about the speaker, himself. Here again Chekhov reinforced the utter boredom and hopelessness of the situation, for the boring situation is often characterized by people talking at length about themselves and what they might have been. The following speech by Vanya is typical:

Oh, yes! I used to be an inspiring personality who never inspired anybody! … A pause. I used to be an inspiring personality! … You could hardly have made a more wounding joke! I'm forty-seven now. Up to a year ago I tried deliberately to pull the wool over my eyes—just as you do yourself with the aid of all your pedantic rubbish—so that I shouldn't see the realities of life … and I thought I was doing the right thing. But now—if you only knew! I lie awake, night after night, in sheer vexation and anger—that I let time slip by so stupidly during the years when I could have had all the things from which my age now cuts me off.

(I, 100-101)

Reflected here is both the boredom and the hopelessness of Vanya's and, for that matter, the provincial Russian's situation. A desert much like T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland" is suggested when Astrov comments on wanton waste, later in the first act:

You can burn turf in your stoves and build your barns out of stones.… Well, I would consent to cutting wood when people really need it, but why destroy the forests? The Russian forests are literally groaning under the axe, millions of trees are being destroyed, the homes of animals and birds are being laid waste, the rivers are getting shallow and drying up, wonderful scenery is disappearing for ever—and all this is happening just because people are too lazy and stupid to stoop down and pick up the fuel from the ground. To Yelena. Isn't it so, Madam? Anyone who can burn up all that beauty in a stove, who can destroy something that we cannot create, must be a barbarian incapable of reason. Man is endowed with reason and creative power so that he can increase what has been given him, but up to the present he's been destroying and not creating. There are fewer and fewer forests, the rivers are drying up, the wild creatures are almost exterminated, the climate is being ruined, and the land is getting poorer and more hideous every day.

(I, 103-4)

Here we have a Russian "wasteland" characterized by boredom, hopelessness, destruction, and lack of creativity. The intellectual sterility is evidenced by the professor, who is described as "a dull old stick, a sort of scholarly dried fish." The reference to dryness is significant in this and in the reference to "the rivers … getting shallow and drying up …" in the above quotation. Both augment the impression of a "wasteland."

Thus Chekhov effectively acquainted the audience with the major characters, the mood, the setting, and the dramatic incident of the play.6 It is true that he violated certain dramatic conventions, but he seems to have gained rather than lost from these violations.

Early in the first act, Chekhov began to develop suspense according to the fighting triad, through three dramatic situations each involving an attempt by "the individual" to find a measure of happiness in the provincial Russian milieu. The three situations are as follows:

  1. The attempt of Vanya to secure the love of Yelena.
  2. The attempt of Astrov to secure the love of Yelena.
  3. The attempt of Sonya to secure the love of Astrov.

Each of these situations holds our attention for a part of the play, but no one of them dominates throughout.

The first hint we have of Vanya's desire for Yelena occurs early in the first act when he comments on her loveliness as she is leaving the stage for the first time (I, 96). The situation is finally resolved in the fourth act. Coming between these passages are three other scenes involving Vanya and Yelena, one in each of the first three acts. Each of these scenes ends in complete frustration for Vanya. The scene at the end of the first act is typical:

Yelena: … Perhaps, Ivan Petrovich, you and I are such good friends just because we both are such tiresome and boring people. Tiresome! Don't look at me like that, I don't like it!

Voynitskiy: How else can I look at you if I love you? You are my happiness, my life, my youth! I know the chances of your returning my feelings are negligible, just zero—but I don't want anything—only let me look at you and hear your voice.…

Yelena: Hush, they might hear you! They go into the house.

Voynitskiy following her: Let me talk of my love, don't drive me away—that in itself will be such great happiness to me.…

Yelena: This is a torture.

(I, 105-6)

The suspense generated during a scene of this kind is considerable. The same may be said of the scenes between Astrov and Yelena.

The Astrov-Yelena situation develops possibly more suspense than the Vanya-Yelena situation because the characters are attracted to each other. Once more Chekhov initiated suspense by a subtle hint when Yelena says to Vanya in the first act:

The doctor has a tired, sensitive face. An interesting face. Sonya is obviously attracted by him; she's in love with him, and I understand her feelings. He's visited the house three times since I've been here, but I'm shy and I haven't once had a proper talk with him or been nice to him. He must have thought me bad-tempered.

(I, 105)

In the second act, Astrov describes Yelena as "an exceptionally attractive woman!" (II, 113). Later in the act, he says to Sonya:

What still does affect me is beauty. I can't remain indifferent to that. I believe that if Yelena Andreyevna wanted to, for instance, she could turn my head in a day.… But that's not love, of course, that's not affection.

(II, 118)

Shortly after this speech, Astrov and Yelena are bracketed together. Sonya says to Yelena:

Tell me honestly, as a friend.… Are you happy?

Yelena: NO.

Sonya: I knew that. One more question. Tell me frankly—wouldn't you have liked your husband to be young?

Yelena: What a little girl you are still! Of course I should. Laughs. Well, ask me something else, do.…

Sonya: Do you like the doctor?

Yelena: Yes, very much.

(II, 120)

Then Yelena speaks at length in praise of Astrov. Finally, the preparation for the big scene between Astrov and Yelena is complete. The lines immediately preceding the scene reflect the playwright's skill in bringing his audience up to a high level of expectation. Yelena soliloquizes first about Sonya, and then she continues about Astrov:

… To fall under the fascination of a man like that, to forget oneself.… I believe I'm a little attracted myself.… Yes, I'm bored when he's not about, and here I am smiling when I think of him.… Uncle Vanya here says I have a mermaid's blood in my veins, "Let yourself go for once in your life." … Well, perhaps that's what I ought to do.… To fly away, free as a bird, away from all of you, from your sleepy faces and talk, to forget that you exist at all—everyone of you! … But I'm too timid and shy.… My conscience would torment me to distraction.… He comes here every day.… I can guess why he comes and already I feel guilty.… I want to fall on my knees before Sonya, to ask her forgiveness and cry.…

(III, 126-27)

At this moment, when Yelena's mind is full of her feelings for Astrov, he shocks her from her thoughts:

Astrov comes in with chart: Good-day to you! Shakes hands. You wanted to see my artistic handiwork?

(III, 127)

From this point, Chekhov increases the suspense by having Astrov bore her with talk about the maps of his reforestation projects. Then, when she admits to being bored, the playwright once more delayed the intimate scene that must come by shifting the conversation to Sonya's love for Astrov. Finally, he shifted the discussion to their own relationship:

Astrov: … There's only one thing I don't understand: Why did you have to have this interrogation? Looks into her eyes and shakes his finger at her. You're a sly one!

Yelena: What does that mean?

Astrov laughs: Sly! Suppose Sonya is suffering—I'm prepared to think it probable—but what was the purpose of this cross-examination? Preventing her from speaking, with animation. Please don't try to look astonished. You know perfectly well why I come here every day.… Why, and on whose account—you know very well indeed. You charming bird of prey, don't look at me like that, I'm a wise old sparrow.…

Yelena perplexed: Bird of prey! I don't understand at all!

Astrov: A beautiful, fluffy weasel.… You must have a victim! Here I've been doing nothing for a whole month. I've dropped everything, I seek you out hungrily—and you are awfully pleased about it, awfully.… Well, what am I to say? I'm conquered, but you knew that without an interrogation! Crossing his arms and bowing his head. I submit. Here I am, devour me!

Yelena: Have you gone out of your mind?

Astrov laughs sardonically: You are coy.…

Yelena: Oh, I'm not so bad, or so mean as you think! On my word of honor! Tries to go out.

(III, 130-31)

In spite of Astrov's persistence, Yelena continues to resist him. Thus Yelena's lack of courage, which keeps her from defying convention, forces Astrov back into the utter boredom of his life as a country doctor and dooms her to the boredom of her marriage with the professor. Their bids for happiness are frustrated.

Sonya's attempt at happiness with Astrov is also frustrated. The doctor, who despite his submission to his environment could react to the superficial beauty of Yelena, is dulled to the point of being incapable of reaction to the less obvious but more substantial beauty of Sonya. Chekhov made this situation more poignant by having Sonya confess her love for Astrov to Yelena, who in turn acts as an unsuccessful emissary to Astrov. Chekhov here achieved added suspense, for the audience is concerned not only with Astrov's reaction to Yelena's mission but also with Sonya's reaction to the disappointing news. Here is one of the most emotionally moving scenes in the play, for the playwright arranged to have Sonya learn the unhappy news at the professor's meeting. Thus, she must suffer while in the group rather than alone:

Serebryakov: But where are the others? I don't like this house. It's like a sort of labyrinth. Twenty-six enormous rooms, people wander off in all directions, and there's no finding anyone. Rings. Ask Mar'ya Vasil'yevna and Yelena Andreyevna to come here!

Yelena: I'm here.

Serebryakov: Please sit down, my friends.

Sonya going up to Yelena, impatiently: What did he say?

Yelena: I'll tell you later.

Sonya: You're trembling? You're upset? Looks searchingly into her face. I understand.… He said he wouldn't be coming here any more … yes? A pause. Tell me: yes? YELENA nods her head.

Serebryakov to Telegin: One can put up with ill health, after all. But what I can't stomach is the whole pattern of life in the country. I feel as if I had been cast off the earth on to some strange planet. Do sit down, friends, please! Sonya!

Sonya does not hear him; she stands and hangs her head sadly. Sonya! A pause. She doesn't hear. To Marina. YOU sit down too, Nanny.

(III, 132-33)

At this point, shortly before the climax of his play, Chekhov introduced a flash of humor. The professor facetiously informs the group that "the Inspector General is coming." This attempt at humor, coming while the audience is still reacting to Sonya's suffering and contrasting with the mood pervading the theater at the moment, helps to emphasize Sonya's suffering. The laugh evoked is a cruel trespass upon Sonya in her grief.

The professor's proposal brings our attention back to Vanya and, therefore, justifies the name of the play. The professor, in an effort to escape completely from the discouraging provincial atmosphere by selling this Russian country estate, endangers the material security of Vanya and Sonya. Furthermore, there is the danger of Vanya's having Yelena drift completely out of his life. This danger, however, relates only to the first of the three dramatic situations mentioned earlier in the discussion. Yet, the professor's proposal is a threat to "the individual" in each of the other two dramatic situations, as well; for Yelena would also be removed from Astrov's life; and Astrov, without a place to visit, would be removed from Sonya's life. Furthermore, Astrov would have no escape from his day-to-day routine and, as a result, no one with whom to discuss his theories of lost opportunity. However, it is Vanya who protests indignantly and then accuses the professor of ruining him:

I will not be silent! Barring SEREBRYAKOV'S way. Wait, I haven't finished yet! You've ruined my life! I haven't lived. I have not lived! Thanks to you I've destroyed, I've annihilated the best years of my life! You've been my worst enemy! … My life is ruined! I have talent, courage, intelligence.… If I had had a normal life, I might have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoyevskiy.… Oh, I'm talking rubbish! … I'm going out of my mind.… Mother, I'm in despair! Mother!

(III, 136-37)

Yet, in his protest, Vanya is outlining not only his own lost opportunities but those of "the individual"—Sonya, Astrov, Yelena, and even the professor—all whose hopes are crushed in the Russian provinces. The climax, which follows immediately with Vanya's abortive attempt to shoot his "worst enemy," symbolically reflects the frustration of "the individual," his inability to carry through to completion any plan requiring decisive action.

In the final act, Chekhov resolved each of the three dramatic situations in a way that shut out hope for value or happiness for "the individual." First, Astrov and Yelena say good-bye forever:

Astrov: It is strange somehow.… Here we've known one another, and all at once for some reason … we shall never see each other again. That's the way with everything in this world.… While there's no one here—before Uncle Vanya comes in with a bunch of flowers, allow me … to kiss you … good-bye.… Yes? Kisses her on the cheek. There … that's fine.

Yelena: I wish you every happiness … Looks around. Well, here goes—for once in my life! Embraces him impulsively, and both at once quickly step back from each other. I must be off.

Astrov: GO as soon as you can. If the horses are ready, you'd better be off!

Yelena: I think someone's coming. Both listen.

Astrov: Finita!

(IV, 146-47)

Following this exchange, Vanya bids farewell to Yelena:

Voynitskiy warmly kisses YELENA'S hand. Good-bye.… Forgive me.… We shall never see one another again.

Yelena moved: Good-bye, dear Ivan Petrovich. Kisses him on the head and goes out.

(IV, 147-48)

Finally, Sonya and Astrov part:

Sonya: When shall we see you again?

Astrov: Not before next summer, I expect. Hardly in the winter.… Naturally, if anything happens you'll let me know and I'll come. Shakes hands with them. Thank you for your hospitality, your kindness … for everything, in fact. Goes to the nurse and kisses her on the head. Good-bye, old woman!

Marina: SO you're going before you've had tea?

Astrov: I don't want any, Nurse.

Marina: Perhaps you'll have a drop of vodka?

Astrov irresolutely: Perhaps.…

(IV, 149)

Chekhov quickly resolved the three dramatic situations and, at the same time, brought his play back to the point where it opened, that is, with Marina's offering Astrov "a drop of vodka." It is as if nothing has happened; yet something has happened. "The individual," represented by Vanya, Astrov, Sonya, and Yelena, has been defeated; nor is there hope for "the individual," whether it be Yelena committed to a life of boredom with the professor or the others doomed to the unrelieved lethargy of the Russian provinces. Astrov has already spoken the epitaph:

The people who come a hundred years or a couple of hundred years after us and despise us for having lived in so stupid and tasteless a fashion—perhaps they'll find a way to be happy.… As for us.… There's only one hope for you and me.… The hope that when we're at rest in our graves we may see visions—perhaps even pleasant ones. With a sigh. Yes, my friend! In the whole of this province there have only been two decent, cultured people—you and I. But ten years of this contemptible routine, this trivial provincial life has swallowed us up, poisoned our blood with its putrid vapors, until now we've become just as petty as all the rest.

(IV, 143)

Chekhov has, in Uncle Vanya, written a play that obeys the rules of dramatic construction if the reader will accept the idea of the protagonist's being "the individual." Without the idea of "the individual" in Uncle Vanya, our interest shifts from one character to another in a way that implies not a single motivating force, but a separate force for each of the three important dramatic situations in the play. Thus, these three situations seem unrelated dramatically. However, when "the individual" is accepted, the "individual's" desire for happiness becomes the central motivating force in the play. At this point it can be seen that the three important dramatic situations are related dramatically to each other; and the structural framework of exposition, dramatic incident, rising action, climax, and resolution becomes clear.

Notes

1 David Magarshack, Chekhov the Dramatist (New York: Hill and Wang, 1952), p. 46.

2The Wood Demon was completed in October 1889 and first produced on December 27 of the same year. Uncle Vanya was completed before the end of 1896 and first produced on September 30, 1899. Chekhov achieved far greater economy and polish in Uncle Vanya than he had in The Wood Demon. In characterization, for example, he secured greater concentration by cutting the number of characters from thirteen in The Wood Demon to nine in Uncle Vanya.

3 Samuel Seldon, An Introduction to Playwriting (New York, 1946), p. 41.

4 In 1900 Chekhov was faced with a similar problem of exposition in Three Sisters. He says in a letter to Gor'kiy, dated October 16, 1900, "It has been very difficult to write Three Sisters. Three heroines, you see, each a separate type and all the daughters of a general." See Constance Garnett, trans., Letters of Anton Chekhov (New York: Macmillan, 1920), p. 400.

5 All quotations from Uncle Vanya have been taken from Elisaveta Fen, trans., The Seagull and Other Plays (London: Penguin Classics, 1954).

6 The dramatic incident is the entrance of Professor Serebryakov and his wife, Yelena. The impact of the professor and Yelena upon the several protagonists of the play causes each of these protagonists to make one last attempt to find happiness. The suspense of the play depends upon audience concern as to the outcome of these attempts.

Tyrone Guthrie (essay date 1969)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "A Director's Introduction," in Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Tyrone Guthrie and Leonid Kipnis, The University of Minnesota Press, 1969, pp. 3-8.

[In the essay below, Guthrie underscores the ironic tone of Uncle Vanya.]

The impression made by Chekhov's plays depends a great deal upon the period of time from which they are viewed.

In the first decade of this century, when they were new, it was their lack of event which seemed so very noticeable. A group of characters compelled the attention, because they were so lifelike, so interesting, and so various; but, compared to the characters in other plays of the epoch, they did nothing. A milieu was created, but there was scarcely any activity—no big scenes, no strong situations, as in the still popular plays of Scribe and Sardou; no great rhetorical set pieces, as in Shakespeare, Racine, Goethe, or Schiller; no problems were debated, as in the theatre of Ibsen or Shaw.

Chekhov's plays, even in Russia, in Stanislavsky's productions for the Moscow Art Theatre, which were also shown in St. Petersburg and Kiev, seemed strangely lacking in the qualities which audiences had learned to regard as "dramatic." Abroad, with the barrier of translation imposed upon the original texts, they were even harder to understand.

In the English-speaking theatre it was many years before any translations appeared other than those of Mrs. Constance Garnett. Her versions have many splendid virtues, and in some ways have never been surpassed, but they do, in my estimation, lack humor and lightness. All the characters seem to be melancholy, tearful eccentrics; and for a generation Chekhov was regarded as an arch-apostle of Russian Gloom.

Gradually it began to be apparent that the emotion of Chekhov's characters is strongly tempered by humor; that the general tone of his major works is absolutely not tragic or heavily emotional; it is affectionately ironic. It is ironic that the beautiful old cherry orchard is going to be cut down to make way for a suburban real-estate development—ironic, not tragic; and Madame Ranevskaya is not, though many leading ladies have tried to make her so, a Tragedy Queen; she is a charming birdbrain. It is ironic that the three sisters never reach Moscow; but their yearning is predominantly sentimental; there is no reason to suppose that, had Moscow been achieved, they would have been any happier. Tusenbach dies in a silly, meaningless duel with a psychopath; it is ironic but not tragic; there is no reason to suppose that Irina's married life with him would have been more successful than Masha's with her schoolmaster.

Finally, Uncle Vanya: the formula is very similar to that of The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. A group of characters is presented in a situation which, while potentially tragic, is treated ironically. In Uncle Vanya the situation between Vanya and the Professor is developed into a big scene; but, when the crisis occurs, it is not the tragic clash of incompatibles as Sophocles might have presented it; not the blood-orgy of Seneca, nor the noble mind o'erthrown of Shakespearean tragedy; it is not a thrillingly dramatic "curtain," such as Dumas, Sardou, Pinero, even Ibsen would have been unable to resist. It is farce. The climax of Uncle Vanya takes place at the end of Act Three. The men exchange angry words; Vanya flourishes a gun; the women scream; the Professor flies in terror; a shot is fired. But since Vanya is the trigger-man the bullet is far off the mark. The scene ends with the protagonist collapsing in a flood of angry, frustrated, pathetic, but essentially absurd tears.

As always, Chekhov offers marvelous acting opportunities, not merely to the actors who have the longest parts, but also to those whose characters appear to be less fully developed: the nurse, the old bluestocking Maman, Waffles are all rewarding parts. In Laurence Olivier's excel-lent and enormously successful production with the British National Theatre Company, these three parts were taken by three senior players of the utmost celebrity and eminence. Immediately they became not one-dimensional decorations on the fringe of the play. They took their place, as intended, as essential parts of the pattern, essential voices in a piece of intricate, but beautifully intelligible, chamber music.

What of Astrov? It is my view that this part should not be played romantically. Although Sonia is deeply in love with him and Yelena too feels his charm, it is not intended, I think, that he should charm the audience. In this play he expresses the sort of sentiment which in The Cherry Orchard is uttered by Trofimov, the perennial student; in The Three Sisters similar sentiments are scored for two voices, those of Vershinin and Tusenbach. In each of these cases high-flown sentiment is put into the mouths of characters whom Chekhov, in his affectionate-ironic way, clearly did not regard as high-flyers. I believe that the same sort of irony is intended in the case of Astrov.

He is noble; he is attractive; but he is running away from his personal problems, taking refuge in overwork and alcohol. The inference, I suggest, is that he is no less perceptively aware of the personal problems which beset him than of the ecological problems which surround him. And in both cases he is incapable of following up a correct diagnosis with an effective treatment. I think that the actor who plays Astrov must avoid the stereotype of the handsome, lonely hero fighting insuperable odds. That performance can be left for the movie version.

Nowadays I do not think that audiences regret the lack of event, the lack of obvious drama in Chekhov. Compared to those of, for example, Harold Pinter, his plays seem positively action-packed and their dialogue develops a theme almost as relentlessly as that of Sophocles.

This means that a production of Chekhov today can af-ford to be less explicit both in storytelling and in the expression of character than was necessary thirty or forty years ago. It is no longer expected that every picture should "tell a story." Indeed it is becoming rather old-fashioned to do so. The movies have pulled the rug from under the sort of painting in which a Lady (in full evening dress) is depicted face down on the hearthrug, what time a Gentleman (in full evening dress) "registers" stern feeling by biting his lips, while he stands at the chimney-piece with a packet of letters in his hand. A similar change has occurred in drama. Movies and television supply the public demand for narrative. With plots unraveling every hour, from breakfast till bedtime of every day, from cradle to grave, we no longer need go to the theatre to see one more plot unravel.

The greatest drama has never, I guess, depended very much upon plot; comment has always been more important than narrative. This is not to say that none of the great dramatic masterpieces have good plots; Oedipus Rex, for instance, has a plot as thrilling, far more simple, and rather more coherent than The Perils of Pauline. But many of the great masterpieces are distinctly weak in the plot department. No one can be very much interested in the story development or surprised at the denouement of Prometheus Bound; it is more than its strange yet conventional story which makes Phèdre as great as it is; Hamlet certainly has a complex, but hardly a tidy, plot; Molière's plots are tidy enough but as stylized as ballad poetry, as predictable as the multiplication table, while Congreve's are barely intelligible and suffocatingly tedious; Ibsen told some good stories, but no better than many a lesser playwright; The Importance of Being Earnest is a masterly comedy, but what would one make of a synopsis of its plot?

Chekhov stands at the close of an era when narrative was an important ingredient of drama. It may, almost certainly will, become so again. But not yet. Now, and for a while, the so-called well-made play seems a dated and obvious formula. But it does not yet appear so to the audience, which, naturally, is a little behind the playwrights, actors, directors, and so on, whose business it is to be concerned with these matters.

I was interested when, a few years ago, I was connected with a production of The Three Sisters which its audiences gradually turned into the sort of performance to which they were accustomed and which they wanted. Without their conscious intention, the actors were pushed by the audience in the direction of big scenes, strong situations, comedy routines, emotional confrontations.

After about eight or ten performances the production had become subtly but unmistakably distorted. The comedy was louder and funnier, the pathos had become sentimental, moments of delicate tension had broadened into theatricality.

Absolutely this was not the fault of the actors; there was no indiscipline, no cheap playing for personal glory or obvious applause. I could not—and as its director I was familiar with every phrase, every gesture—detect any departure from the agreed routine of the production. It was all the fault of the people "out front." They were intelligent, eagerly sympathetic, alertly aware that the play was both funny and sad, but they were reacting as they were accustomed to react when "at the theatre," looking for and evoking big scenes, strong situations, heroes, heroines, and all the familiar claptrap of the well-made play.

I guess they were only able to evoke the claptrap because the seeds of it were already in the production. Our performance was too like A Play and not sufficiently like Real Life.

With Chekhov a happy medium needs to be sought. The performance must be just sufficiently theatrical to "hold" an audience in a large, though not very large, house; not so theatrical that an intelligent spectator says "How theatrically effective" instead of "How true."

Ieva Vitins (essay date 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Uncle Vanja's Predicament," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter 1978, pp. 454-63.

[In this essay, Vitins argues that Vanya's family ties are the source of his passivity and impotence.]

Overlooked in discussions of Uncle Vanja's ineffectuality as a male protagonist is a textual network of emotional ties which bind him to his dead sister, her family, and his mother. To a great degree these ties serve to repress his masculinity and prevent him from establishing a family of his own or making an imprint on the outside world.1 Vanja has become a peripheral male figure, a veritable "Uncle Johnnie" who proudly supports his sister Vera's family and experiences the role of husband vicariously. It is only years after Vera's death and the recent remarriage of her husband that he becomes dissatisfied with his secondary role in life.2 He ceases temporarily to act the uncle and family provider; instead, he vents his hatred for the brother-in-law he formerly admired and assumes the role of self-dramatized suitor of the new wife Elena. Querulous and aggressive, he suggests a man painfully out of character, whose impotence reflects the sterility of the dying gentry class. This seemingly sudden change was criticized by early readers for its lack of motivation within the play and has been inadequately treated by later critics.3 When considered within the context of the play's underlying family drama, however, it is psychologically convincing and justified.

Until recently, Vera has been the sole love-object in her brother's life, displacing an unresponsive mother in his affections.4 Idealized in his memory, she emerges as "a beautiful, gentle creature as pure as the blue sky above us, a fine, generous girl" (Act III).5 When she leaves home to marry the son of a common priest, Serebrjakov, who subsequently becomes a respected professor of art history, Vanja not only gives up his inheritance but also pays the debts on her estate. For twenty-five years he has devoted his energy to its management in order to provide her family with a steady income. Even after Vera's death, ten years before, he continued to send money to Serebrjakov, in whose scholarship he took great pride: "I was proud of him and his great learning. I lived, I breathed by him! It seemed to me that every-thing Vanja's role as self-sacrificing brother so absorbs him that it stifles his desire for other women; he is at a loss to understand why he did not fall in love with Elena when his sister was still alive:

… To think that ten years ago I used to meet her at my sister's when she was only seventeen and I was thirty-seven. Why didn't I fall in love then and ask her to marry me? It would have been the most natural thing in the world. And she'd be my wife now. Yes. And tonight the storm would have woken us both. She'd be scared of the thunder and I'd hold her in my arms and whisper, "Don't be afraid. I'm here."

(Act II)

It appears that even Vanja's high regard for Serebrjakov was determined more by Vera's feelings for her husband than by objective considerations of intellectual worth. Since Vera loved the professor "as only angels in heaven can love beings as pure and lovely as themselves," Vanja, by extension, also came to worship him, investing him with the authority and respect due to a father figure. Fear of losing Vera's love and a son's fear of the "castrating" father no doubt also motivated Vanja's unquestioning devotion to the man.7

In the past year, however, Vanja has become disillusioned with the now retired professor, and it is the latter's arrival on the estate, accompanied by Elena, that precipitates the events which bring about the temporary breakdown in the pattern of Vanja's existence. For by remarrying, Serebrjakov has abrogated his bond to Vera and set Vanja free from emotional obligation. This in turn triggers long repressed hostility, part of the price of the brother's unrealized love of his sister; the formerly passive uncle displays belligerent qualities suggested in his family name, Vojnickij (from the Rus-sian word for "war," vojna). He openly admits to the envy behind his admiration of the man who, in his "Don Juanish" success with women, has been the victorious rival for his sister's, mother's, and Elena's love. He no longer regards Serebrjakov with the blind worshipping eyes of the sister and mother, but with the equally subjective lenses of the brother-avenger facing his "worst enemy." The professor's contributions as a scholar, though flashy like his name ("silver," serebro), now strike Vanja as shallow and insignificant: "Now he's retired you can see exactly what his life is worth. Not a page of his work will survive him. He's totally obscure, a nonentity. A soap bubble! And I've made a fool of myself, I see it now, a complete fool" (Act II).

The boldness of Vanja's attacks on the professor stems not only from his conviction that the man is an impostor, but also because he is no longer an effective sexual rival. Physically moribund, "a man in a shell," Serebrjakov is now instinctively afraid of the physical threat behind Vanja's hatred, and even refuses to be left alone with him: "No, no! Don't leave me alone with him! No. He'll talk my head off' (Act II). Most importantly, Serebrjakov's success as a ladies' man has become suspect, for Vanja is aware that the beautiful Elena no longer loves her hus-band and that she too has been blinded by the professor's fame.

When considered against the background of his feelings for Vera and his desire for revenge, Vanja's sudden infatuation and pursuit of Elena suggest the emergence of a hitherto suppressed and forbidden aspect of his love for his sister. By occupying Vera's position as Serebrjakov's wife, Elena becomes, in effect, Vanja's "foster" sister. But whereas in Vera he recognized only spiritual beauty (as implied by her very name, the Russian "Faith"), Elena (Helen), the lovely disrupter of tranquility and home, appeals to him physically: "… but isn't she lovely? Lovely! She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen" (Act I). Before her, the brother-protector succumbs to the brother as would-be seducer, one who defies the rival he no longer deems worthy of the sister. (See Valency, 196; Irwin, 28.) Čexov did not ignore the implied incestuous overtones in the situation; although not stated in Uncle Vanja, they are alluded to in the earlier play Wood Demon where rumor links the uncle in an affair with Elena.

Is nothing sacred to you? You might remember, you and the dear lady who's just gone out, that her husband was once married to your sister. And that you have a young girl living under the same roof. Your affair's already the talk of the whole country. You should be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves.

(Act III)

Although Vanja professes a strong physical desire for Elena, psychologically, he is incapable of attaining his goal. Like Vera, Elena is a woman to behold, worship, and protect, but never possess. The "sister," in both her spiritual and physical aspects, remains inviolate:

Vojnickij: YOU are my happiness, my life, my youth. I know there's little or no chance of your loving me, but I don't want anything from you. Only let me look at you, listen to your voice—

Elena: Sh! Someone might hear you.

Vojnickij: Let me speak of my love. So long as you don't drive me away, that's all I need to be the happiest man on earth.

(Act I)

Vanja remains "prisoner of his passivity, the lack of vigor from which he has always suffered" (Valency, 184).

If Vera gave the household a reason for its existence and cohesiveness, Elena upsets its established order and re-fuses to contribute to its proper functioning, admitting that domestic concerns completely bore her. She sees herself accurately as an episodic figure in the house; inevitably she vitiates every family role she undertakes. Her beauty and sexuality endow her with an energy that lends an element of vitality to the monotonous daily life on the estate and threatens to destroy its very core by exposing and exacerbating family tensions:

We are in a bad way in this house. Your mother hates everything except her pamphlets and the professor. The professor's overwrought, he doesn't trust me and he's afraid of you. Sonja's annoyed with her father and with me too. She hasn't spoken to me for a fortnight. You loathe my husband and openly sneer at your mother, and I'm so much on edge I've been on the verge of tears a dozen times today. We are in a bad way, aren't we?

(Act III)

Elena finds a certain similarity in character between Vanja and herself—both are "abysmal bores." She regards him more as a brother-confidant than a suitor; his decla-rations of love and physical attentions clearly exasperate her. By telling him that he should not participate in petty squabbles but mend them, she urges him to resume his role as uncle. At the same time, she prevents him from doing so; her idleness is infectious, and her paralyzing beauty unmans him.

Appropriately, it is a glance from his niece Sonja, reminding him of her dead mother, that brings to the fore-ground Vanja's guilt about his changed behavior:

Sonja: The hay's cut, there's rain every day, and it's rotting. And you spend your time on illusions. You've completely abandoned the farm. I do all the work myself and I'm about at the end of my tether. Uncle, you have tears in your eyes.

Vojnickij: The way you looked at me just now, your dead mother used to look like that. My darling—. (Eagerly kisses her hands and face.) My sister, my darling sister—. Where is she now? If she only knew! Oh, if she only knew!

Sonja: Knew what? What do you mean, Uncle?

Vojnickij: It's so painful, such a wretched business. Never mind. I'll tell you later. It doesn't matter. I'll go.

(Act II)

In one of his outlandish yet revealing bits of hyperbole, the household hanger-on Telegin provides an insight into the nature of the "wretched business" alluded to by Vanja. Upset by Vanja's insistence that Elena should be un-faithful to Serebrjakov because she does not love him, Telegin protests that unfaithfulness in marriage is the same as treason to one's country. Vanja immediately squelches him, as if realizing that he himself has committed a kind of "treason" by surrendering his earlier way of life to the pursuit of Elena, thereby betraying his sister and the lifestyle he maintained out of loyalty to her. Yet he is at the same time aware that such unfaithfulness is perhaps his and Elena's only escape from the emptiness of their personal lives to some measure of freedom. (See Gurvič, 114.)

In contrast to Vanja, Sonja (the Russian Sophia) has been endowed with a nature which might have enabled her to move outside the narrow confines of the immediate family and establish a life of her own. From her mother she has inherited spiritual strength, from her father, a sense of purpose, and with Vanja she shares her industriousness. Yet like her uncle, she is sexless, lacking in beauty, and "as a woman" fails to attract the doctor, Astrov, whom she loves "more than my own mother." Astrov claims that he might have considered marriage to Sonja, but Elena's beauty quickly turns his thoughts to seduction. Sonja is blind to the threat presented by Elena; at first she distrusts her, for she has taken her mother's place, but eventually the stepmother wins her over (ironically, they even drink a Bruderschaft), and Sonja confides in her as she would her mother, confessing her love for Astrov. By accepting the role of confidante and even volunteering to serve as matchmaker, Elena further injures her family image. In truth she acts as Sonja's rival, not mother, and foils whatever chances her stepdaughter might have had with Astrov, thereby destroying the family's sole hope for a future generation.

Just as Sonja fails to see in her beautiful stepmother a rival for Astrov's attentions, Vanja fails to see that Astrov has replaced Serebrjakov as his sexual rival. The two men have been longtime friends; they share intelligence, a life of sacrifice and hard work. If Vanja's concern is for his immediate family and the estate, Astrov, a doctor, concerns himself with the larger community and the forest which he admits is his true love. The "family" gratification which Vanja earlier derived from providing for the future of his kin, Astrov finds in planting trees: "When I plant a young birch and later see it covered with green and swaying in the breeze, my heart fills with pride and I—" (Act I). Both men are infected by Elena's beauty, but for Vanja it is a beauty to behold, whereas for Astrov, feminine beauty is to be savored and enjoyed. Women for Vanja are fated to be sister-friends; for Astrov, friendship between the sexes can be established only after the woman has been the man's mistress. In some sense, the sexually aggresive Astrov realizes in Vanja's stead his would-be aspect as seducer: he is desired by both his friend's "foster" sister and his niece. There is even a vague hint that the relations between Vera and Astrov were not indifferent: the doctor marks the beginning of his physical decline from about the time of her death. Vanja's disillusionment, on the other hand, appeared the previous year, after Serebrjakov's remarriage. The difference in the manner of the two rival-friends is highlighted when Vanja, by way of an apology, pleads Elena's favor with a bouquet of fall flowers, while Astrov, weary of a verbal game of sexual innuendoes, embraces her. As Čexov himself noted, "Uncle Vanja cries, Astrov—whistles."8

The final shattering of Vanja's male ego in the play comes not when he discovers Elena in Astrov's arms, but immediately following, at the unprecedented family gathering called by Serebrjakov. Significantly, both Vanja and Sonja, the most family-conscious members present, are at the outset reluctant to participate in the event. Vanja is stunned by what he has just witnessed, and Sonja, by Astrov's rejection. The meeting does not bring the family its much-needed unity but hastens its disintegration.

In his proposal to sell the family estate, Serebrjakov implements his patriarchal authority to bring about the dis-solution of the family hearth. Despite his "fall" from favor in the eyes of all but the mother Marija Vasil'evna, he continues as head of the household. "No one questions your rights," Elena tells him earlier, and she submits when he denies her permission to play the piano. Unfeelingly, Serebrjakov equates his brother-in-law's life of labor with the amount of cash that the property will bring for Elena and himself in the city. Since Vanja's remaining identity is so inextricably bound up with the estate, the proposal that it be taken from its lawful owner, Sonja, the last member of the Vojnickij line, is tantamount to his emasculation. Nor can he tolerate the humiliating prospect of being reduced to the position of Telegin who, deprived of all family rights, is obliged to live out the rest of his days as a sponger on the estate that formerly belonged to his uncle.9 Consequently, Vanja's dramatic attempt to assert himself by shooting at the professor is as understandable its choice (even in its choice of weapons) as its abortive outcome.10 At long last the son openly challenges the father, in this case, an impostor; yet as always, from "a habit of missing" (Valency, 190), he is doomed to remain ineffectual before him. And tellingly, it is Elena who tries to wrest the pistol from him after shooting (from Astrov, however, she takes a pencil as a memento). He even blunders his suicide attempt by failing to keep his new rival Astrov from discovering the morphine he has taken from him. (Suicide by morphine would have enabled Vanja to take posthumous revenge on the doctor by implicating him in the act.)

Vanja's failure as a man extends even to his unsuccessful bid for maternal love. When overwhelmed by the import of Serebrjakov's plan, he turns in desperation to his mother for comfort; she not only rejects him,11 but tells him to heed the professor's advice:

Vojnickij: My life's ruined. I'm gifted, intelligent, courageous. If I'd had a normal life I might have been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoevsky.… But I'm talking nonsense, I'm going mad. Mother dear, I'm desperate. Mother!

Mrs. Vojnickij: (sternly) Do as Alexander says.

(Act III)

She alone continues to idolize her ex-son-in-law and prefers him to her own son. Her empty and impassioned pre-occupation with liberalism and women's emancipation has deprived the family of a viable mother. Instead, the old nanny, Marina, fills the vacuum by answering the family's need for a nurturing and comforting mother figure. She provides a link between the present and the seemingly happier past. Throughout, she is associated with food and drink. 12 The play opens as she urges Astrov to eat and reassures him with her faith in God. Astrov recognizes her as the only being of whom he is fond: "I don't want anything, I don't seem to need anything, and there's no one I'm fond of. Except just you perhaps.… I had a nanny like you when I was a little boy" (Act I). The demanding professor responds to her alone when he is ailing, for she sympathizes with his pain and attends to him as she would a child:

Marina: … Old folks are like children, they want a bit of affection, but who feels sorry for old folks? … Come along to bed, my dear. Come on, my lamb, I'll give you some lime-flower tea … I'll say a prayer for you.

Serebrjakov: (very touched) Come on then, Marina.

(Act II)

Sonja, too, runs to Marina for solace, not to her maternal gradmother; the nanny is the only person who senses her vulnerability as an orphan:

Sonja: (pressing to the nurse) Nanny, nanny!

Marina: It's all right, my child. The geese will cackle for a while and then they'll stop.… They'll cackle a bit and then they'll stop their cackling.

Sonja: Nanny!

Marina: (stroking her head) You're shivering as if you'd been out in the cold. There, there, little orphan. God is merciful. A cup of lime-flower tea or tea with raspberrry jam and it will all pass.…

(Act III)

Because she represents order and domestic tranquility, Marina complains most about the Serebrjakovs' effect on the household. With a few well-chosen remarks she ridicules and deflates Vanja's emotional outbursts and flights of self-dramatization. She compares both his and the professor's antics to those of barnyard animals.

By the end of the play, however, Sonja has taken over the central female role in the family. Like Marina, she offers food (by contrast, Astrov offers himself to Elena to be eaten!) but never acquiesces, like the nanny, to serving vodka in order to mask life's realities. In a play which abounds with imagery of seeing and non-seeing, Sonja initially opts for clarity of vision. Even when "it's easier when you don't see," she chooses to learn Astrov's true feelings for her. She refuses to tolerate her father's silliness, criticizes her uncle's recent drinking habit which he treats as a substitute for his earlier illusions in regard to Serebrjakov ("When one has no real existence, one lives by illusions"), and she entreats Astrov not to drink. For the moment, he complies with her request, but his acceptance of vodka and refusal of bread from Marina before departure punctuate his estrangement.

Denied her dream of becoming Astrov's wife, however, Sonja also seeks an alternative to emotional realities. She becomes surrogate wife, mother, and sister to her uncle. He, in turn, will be her sole male companion and loving mate. She embraces and comforts him, urges him to work, and creates a new illusion, turning his thoughts away from the frustrations of this world to work and the peace of an afterlife, much as Marina had earlier done for Astrov. Her concluding words to Vanja after the Serebrjakovs and the doctor have fled the estate incorporate Marina's faith in God and Astrov's reliance on a better future.13

Despite his numerous failures, Vanja ultimately manages to keep the estate intact and successfully defends his right to resume his role as uncle and family provider. Because the others have always seen him in that role and have chided him for abandoning it, it is not surprising that they readily forgive his violent aberration: "I've just tried to murder somebody, but no one thinks of arresting me or putting me on trial. So they must think I' m mad" (Act IV). He becomes reconciled with the professor and states his intention to return to the status quo:

Serebrjakov (to Vojnickij): We'll let bygones be bygones. So much has happened and I've been through so much and thought so many thoughts these last few hours, I could probably write a whole treatise on the art of living for the benefit of posterity. I gladly accept your apologies and beg you to accept mine. Good-bye.

Vojnickij: You'll be receiving a regular amount as before. Everything will be just as it was.

(Act IV)

Yet Vanja has been deeply shamed by his brief interlude on center stage, and he will never regain his former pride, aware as he now is of his own impotence and the falsity of the man he serves. If by the end of The Wood Demon Vanja's predecessor commits suicide, thereby neatly bringing to a close the old gentry line, and Sonja, there an attractive woman, is to marry the play's democratic hero, in Uncle Vanja both niece and uncle are doomed to live out a sterile existence on the estate. This sterility is under-lined in the stage directions for the fourth act: in the rambling twenty-six room house, Vanja's room "serves as his bedroom and the estate office." He is, in effect, "married" to the family hearth, unable to leave.14 Astrov, it is noted, has a table in Vanja's room, but significantly, he is an infrequent visitor to the house. For he finds the atmosphere stifling, as do the other "outsiders." Elena refers to the house as a crypt, a place of exile, while Serebrjakov calls it a labyrinth. All three abandon it at the end of the play.

Vanja is perhaps the most poignant example in Čexov's plays of a man whose lasting attachment to a sister or mother has decisively affected his desire and ability to lead an independent life, but he is only one of several such ineffectual brothers and sons. Treplev's troubled relationship to his mother in The Seagull is recognized as a salient factor in his inability to cope with life and offers striking parallels to the family situation in Uncle Vanja.15 Andrej, in Three Sisters, is loved and looked up to by his sisters, but is cuckolded soon after his marriage and turns out to be a disastrous pater familias. Finally, the tearful Gaev in The Cherry Orchard (Lopaxin refers to him as "an old woman") adores his sister but can do nothing to save the family estate, nor lead a productive life. Each of these men, in his over-refined sensitivity and lack of physical and intellectual vigor, is somewhat of an "old woman," or perhaps an affable and harmless "uncle."

Notes

1 Maurice Valency, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), 181-203, dwells on the neurotic and masochistic aspects of Vanja's character. Harvey Pitcher, The Chekhov Play: A New Interpretation (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1973), 75-78, identifies frustration as the "keynote" of the play, but does not focus on the role of the family in determining Vanja's behavior. V. Lakšin, Tolstoj i Čexov (M.: Sov. pisatel', 1975), 413, is sensitive to the play's text, but mentions the family only in passing. Daniel Gilles, Chekhov: Observer Without Illusion, tr. C. L. Markman (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1967), 295, recognizes the family as a source of Vanja's dilemma, but barely touches on this line of thought: "(Vanja) begins to wonder whether he himself has been the dupe of family feeling." See also

2 Isaak Gurvič, Proza Čexova: čelovek i dejstvitel'nost' (M.: GIXL, 1970), 38-39, observes that number of Čexov's heroes and heroines of the 1890s suffer from disenchantment with their "calling": "… at times the juxtaposition of a person as he is with his name becomes the vehicle of a story, gives rise to a special plot interest." In this regard Z. Papernyj, "Sjužet dolžen byt' nov …, " Voprosy literatury, 1976, No. 5,182-83, notes that Čexov's titles tend to be pivotal for a work; thus, the change of the play's title from that of the earlier version, The Wood Demon, to Uncle Vanja points to the new significance that attaches to Vanja and his family role. It ironically underlines the hero's ill-fated attempt to assume a more central role in life (and on stage). G. Berdnikov, Čexov-Dramaturg (M.: Iskusstvo, 1972), 173, ignores this important shift in emphasis by dismissing the title change as irrelevant and stressing Astrov as the central character.

3 The literary-theatrical committee of the Maly Theater which first reviewed the play found among its shortcomings that "the change in Vojnickij's attitude toward the professor, whom he previously worshipped, is incomprehensible" and that it is inexplicable how Vojnickij could go after Serebrjakov with a pistol. See the notes to A. P. Čexov, Sobranie sočinenij (12 vols.; M.: GIXL, 1963), IX, 689-90. Later critics, including Valency, Pitcher, Ermilov, Lakšin, and Berdnikov, tend to ignore the impact that the disruption of the family circle by the remarriage has had on Vanja, disregarding the information that his disillusionment begins not with the arrival of the Serebrjakovs but further back. Vanja has been "different" and "unrecognizable" for a year already, from about the time of the marriage.

4 Otto Rank, Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage (Wien: Franz Deuticke, 1926), 407, writes of the close connection between the sibling-complex and the parent complex: "… sie (die Schwester) zuerst als Konkurrentin um die Mutter gilt, bald aber als idealer Ersatz an ihre Stelle treten kann. Sie übernimmt in den Phantasien dann die Rolle des reinen Frauenideals, welcher die Mutter durch ihre Angehörigkeit an den Vater in den Augen des Knaben meist unwürdig geworden ist."

5 I have used the English version in Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanja, in The Oxford Chekhov, tr. Ronald Hingley (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961). The canonical Russian text of Djadja Vanja is in Sobranie Sočinenij, IX, 482-532.

6 An echo of Vanja's dilemma, one which underscores the relevance of the dead sister in his life, is heard in the fate of Telegin, godfather of Vanja's niece Sonja. Because of his unappealing appearance, Telegin's wife aban-dons him the day after their wedding; yet he remains true to her and gives up his property to support her children by another man. When this man dies, the wife, as Telegin understands it, is left with nothing, whereas he himself still has his pride. The parallel between Vanja's devotion to Vera and that of Čexov's sister to Čexov is striking. Their relationship is discussed at length by Virginia Llewellyn Smith, Anton Chekhov and the Lady with the Dog (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), 165-72. Surprisingly, she says almost nothing about Uncle Vanja, although it seems highly relevant for her study.

7 See John T. Irwin, Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1975), 47: "On the one hand, there is an aggressive reaction of the son toward the castrating father, a desire for the father's death, a desire to kill him. But on the other hand, there is a tender reaction, a desire to renounce the object that has caused the father's anger by assuming a passive, femi-nine role in relation to him—in short, to become the mother in relation to the father."

8 Konstantin S. Stanislavskij, Sobranie sočinenij, (3 vols.; M.: Iskusstvo, 1954), I, 232.

9 Karlinsky notes that the loss of the family homestead, a recurring theme in Čexov's work, has a basis in the writer's own biography. See Simon Karlinsky and Michael Heim, Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (Berkeley, Cal.: Univ. of California Press, 1975), 441.

10 An illuminating discussion of the shooting incident and Vanja's failure to commit suicide is to be found in Z. Papernyj, "Roždenie sjužeta," in Čexovskoe čtenie v Jalte (M.: 1973), 39-51.

11 Her behavior suggests that of the "terrible," "denying" mother discussed by Erich Newmann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, tr. Ralph Manheim (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), 66-68.

12 Styan, 102, takes a harsher view of Marina, referring to her comfort as "dried religious fatalism" and her offer of food as a "comical greeting" to Astrov's longing for human affection.

13 One hardly need view Sonja's resignation as an indication of "deep religiosity," as does David Magarshak, Chekhov the Dramatist (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), 224. Nor does the "weight" of the play deny Sonja "her faith before she opens her mouth" (Styan, 98). For a summary of J. J. Moran's "poll" of readings of the play's ending, see Styan, 140-41.

14 "From the time of puberty onward the human individual must devote himself to the great task of freeing himself from the parent: and only after this detachment is accomplished can he cease to be a child and so become a member of the social community. For a son, the task consists in releasing his libidinal desires from his mother, in order to employ them in the quest of an external love-object in reality.… In neurotics, however, this detachment from the parents is not accomplished at all; the son remains all his life in subjection to the father and incapable of transferring his libido to a new sexual object." Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, tr. Joan Riviere (1924; rpt. New York: Pocket Books, 1975), 345-46.

15 For a discussion of Treplev's relationship to his mother, See Thomas G. Winner, "Chekhov's Seagull and Shakespeare's Hamlet: A Study of a Dramatic Device," American Slavic and East European Review, 15 (1956), 103-11, and Robert L. Jackson, "Chekhov's Seagull," in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert L. Jackson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967), 99-111. Of note also is Pitcher's treatment, 51-52, and Valency, 195.

Michael Frayn (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Introduction to Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Michael Frayn, Methuen, 1987, pp. ixxxii.

[In the following, Frayn surveys the genesis and development of Uncle Vanya.]

No one knows exactly when Uncle Vanya took its present form. It was most probably in 1896, between the completion of The Seagull in the spring of that year and its disastrous premiere in St. Petersburg that October. It was first produced in the following year, as the second of Chekhov's four last great plays. But in its origins it goes back to a much earlier period than any of them. It is substantially a reworking of The Wood Demon, which was conceived nearly a decade before, when Chekhov was twenty-eight, and still only just emerging as a serious writer. Its development into its final form was tortuous and painful, and it is the story of Chekhov's own development as a dramatist. It was many times nearly abandoned; so was Chekhov's new career. At an early point both play and career nearly took off in a startlingly different direction, when Chekhov proposed changing the subject to the story in the Apocrypha of Holofernes and his decapitation by Judith, or else Solomon, or alternatively Napoleon on Elba, or Napoleon III and Eugenie. The possibilities are as extraordinary to consider as Vanya's own missed alternative career as a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky.

Chekhov's original conception was bizarre enough. It was for a collaboration between himself and Suvorin, the wealthy publisher who was, somewhat improbably, his closest friend. Suvorin had literary ambitions of his own, and wrote stories which he submitted to Chekhov's practical and often devastating criticism, and a play, Tatyana Repina, which Chekhov parodied. The first work on the proposed collaboration seems in fact to have been done by Suvorin rather than Chekhov. In a letter written in November 1888—the earliest reference to the joint venture—Chekhov acknowledges receipt of 'the beginning of the play', and congratulates Suvorin on the creation of one of the principal characters—Blagosvetlov, who was to become Serebryakov in the final version. 'You've done him well: he's tiresome and irritating from the very first words, and if the audience listens to him for 3-5 minutes at a stretch, precisely the right impression will be produced. The spectator will think: "Oh, dry up, do!" This person, i.e. Blagosvetlov, should have the effect on the spectator of both a clever, gouty, old grouser and a dull musical comedy which is going on for too long.' It was a little ironical that this tedious character was Suvorih's contribution to the enterprise, because some people thought later that Chekhov had based him on Suvorin.

In the same letter Chekhov goes on to remind Suvorin of 'the bill of our play'—a list of eleven characters, with a description of each of them. Of these eleven, four can be recognised as the precursors of characters in the final version of Uncle Vanya. One of them, Blagosvetlov's daughter, bears little resemblance to the plain, hard-working Sonya she eventually became, and is more like Yelena, her lethargic and beautiful stepmother. But the other three are already the substantial originals of Serebryakov, Astrov, and Vanya himself. Blagosvetlov is a retired government official, not an academic, but he is 'of clerical origins, and was educated in a seminary. The position he occupied was achieved through his own efforts … Suffers from gout, rheumatism, insomnia, and tinnitus. His landed property he got as a dowry … Can't abide mystics, visionaries, holy fools, poets, or pious Peters, doesn't believe in God, and is accustomed to regard the entire world from the standpoint of practical affairs. Practical affairs first, last, and foremost, and everything else—nonsense or humbug.' Astrov, at this stage, is still a land-owner rather than a doctor. But he already has his amazingly prescient concern for the ecology (and is already nicknamed the Wood Demon because of it). He already believes that 'the forests create the climate, the climate influences the character of the people, etc etc. There is neither civilisation nor happiness if the forests are ringing under the axe, if the climate is harsh and cruel, if people are harsh and cruel as well …' Blagosvetlov's daughter is attracted to him, as Yelena is in Vanya, 'not for his ideas, which are alien to her, but for his talent, for his passion, for his wide horizons … She likes the way his brain has swept over the whole of Russia and over ten centuries ahead …'

His account of the proto-Vanya is brief, and contains characteristics which were later discarded ('Drinks Vichy water and grouses away. Behaves arrogantly. Stresses that he is not frightened of generals. Shouts.') But in outline Uncle Vanya is already there—and in describing him Chekhov is also laying down the first outline of the plot: 'The brother of Blagosvetlov's late wife. Manages Blagosvetlov's estate (his own he has long since run through). Regrets he has not stolen. He had not foreseen that his Petersburg relations would have such a poor appreciation of his services. They don't understand him—they don't want to understand him—and he regrets he has not stolen.'

Chekhov says in his letter he will sketch out the rest of Act One himself and send it to Suvorin. He undertakes not to touch Blagosvetlov, and suggests sharing the work on Blagosvetlov's daughter, because 'I'll never be able to manage her on my own.' The great arborealist will be Chekhov's up to Act Four, then Suvorin's up to a certain scene where Chekhov will take over because Suvorin will never manage to catch the right tone of voice. Then he will leave Suvorin to start Act Two, as he did Act One.

It is difficult to believe that this strange two-headed beast would have been any substitute for the Vanya it would presumably have displaced. Fortunately, perhaps, Suvorin seems to have backed down, and left Blagosvetlov as his sole contribution, because a month later Chekhov was writing to ask him why he was refusing to collaborate on The Wood Demon (as it was by this time called), and offering to find a new subject altogether if Suvorin would prefer it. This was when he proposed switching to Holofernes or Solomon, or one of the two Napoleons.1 But not even the attractions subject could tempt the literary-minded magnate back into harness, and the following spring Chekhov reluctantly began to struggle with the material on his own.

There were some moments of elation in the weeks that followed, judging at any rate from the bulletins to Suvorin. 'Act III is so scandalous that when you see it you'll say: "This was written by a cunning and pitiless man" …' 'The play is terribly strange, and I'm surprised that such strange things are emerging from my pen.' There were also more or less simultaneous moments of discouragement, when he informed other cor-respondents that he was not going to write plays, and that he was not attracted by the idea of fame as a dramatist. By the end of May, with only two acts written, he had given up, and in September he had to start all over again from the beginning.

Then, when it was at last finished, the play was rejected out of hand by both the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, which had just successfully staged Ivanov, and by the Maly in Moscow. An unofficial meeting of the Petersburg section of the Theatrical-Literary Committee, which vetted all the plays submitted for production in the imperial theatres, judged it 'a fine dramatised story, but not a drama.' Lensky, the actor for whose benefit performance the play had been offered to the Maly, returned the manuscript to Chekhov with a particularly crushing dismissal. 'I will say only one thing: write a story. You are too contemptuous of the stage and of the dramatic form, you have too little respect for them, to write drama. This form is harder than that of the story, and you—forgive me—are too spoiled by success to study as it were the basic ABC of the dramatic form, and to learn to love it.' Even Nemirovich-Danchenko, another member of the committee, who was later of course to be a co-founder with Stanislavsky of the Moscow Arts Theatre and one of Chekhov's most important patrons, thought that Lensky was right in diagnosing ignorance of the demands of the stage (though he thought Chekhov could easily master them). 'Say what you like,' he wrote, 'clear, lifelike characters, an interesting conflict, and the proper development of the plot—these are the best guarantee of success on the stage. A play cannot succeed without a plot, but the most serious fault is lack of clarity, when the audience can't possibly grasp the essence of the plot. This is more important than any stage tricks or effects.' Chekhov swore again—not for the last time—to give up playwriting. But in the end he rewrote once more, and did a completely new version of the last act, with which he had been having difficulties from the beginning. The play was then produced, in December 1889, by a Moscow commercial management. It was dismissed by the critics not only as untheatrical, but also as 'a blind transcription of everyday reality,' and was taken off after three performances.

With hindsight, the most remarkable thing about The Wood Demon is how much of Uncle Vanya is already there—often word for word. All the essential material of Act One, including most of the big speeches; almost the whole of Act Two; and in Act Three the entire scene in which Serebryakov proposes to sell the estate. It seems amazing that this wealth of brilliant scenes was not enough to alert even the most sluggish producer and the most jaded critic to Chekhov's powers in the theatre. But it is true that they fail to make the impact they should because he had not yet overcome certain faults recognisable from his two earlier full-length plays, Ivanov and the one written when he was a student (untitled, but called Platonov in some versions and Wild Honey in mine). The characters are too simple; too noble and Tolstoyan in the case of the Wood Demon himself, too coarsely comic in the case of Orlovsky, the debauched son of a local landowner. The setting of the first and last acts has wandered in pursuit of the picturesque; and there is something unsettling about the tone of the whole. It may have seemed offensively naturalistic to contemporary critics, but to the modern reader it veers more towards the facetiousness of Chekhov's early comic journalism, and towards a certain bucolic jollity, which sit oddly with the story that is beginning to emerge. At the end of Act Three all resemblance to the later version ceases. Vanya attempts to shoot not Serebryakov but himself, and succeeds. So the last act is left without a Vanya, and instead proceeds by way of a sunset picnic alongside an old watermill to a happy ending, with the Serebryakovs more or less reconciled, the Wood Demon and Sonya paired off, and even the debauched Orlovsky settling down with a nice girl. Nemirovich-Danchenko's assessment of the play is shrewd; the story is not clear. And the reason is that Chekhov has not yet recognised the story he is trying to tell.

After its failure in Moscow the play was abandoned again, and might well have remained so for good. It seems to have been Prince Urusov, a jurist and well-known literary figure, who provoked Chekhov into starting work on it again—somewhat ironically, because Urusov admired the earlier version so much that he persisted to the end in believing that Chekhov had ruined it by turning it into Uncle Vanya. It was Urusov's request for permission to reprint the text of The Wood Demon, in fact, that made Chekhov re-read it. He evidently did not like what he saw (years later he was still telling the loyal Urusov: 'I hate that play and I try to forget about it') and it was presum-ably this reawakened dissatisfaction that made him set to work on it again. The internal evidence, at any rate—the dates of the diaries and notebooks which were the provenance of some of the material in the new version—suggests that the reworking was done the following year, in 1896; and in a letter to Suvorin written that December is the first reference to Uncle Vanya—already, apparently, a finished text. If this dating is correct then the project was probably only just completed in time, because after the debacle with the St. Petersburg opening of The Seagull in October he once again swore off playwriting.

The play in its new form still faced one final rebuff. The Maly Theatre asked for it, which gave the Theatrical-Literary Committee the chance to produce an even more magisteral rejection and scheme of improvement than before. Its report identified a number of 'unevennesses or lacunae' in the play, and complained of 'longeurs', such as 'the extended eulogy of forests, shared between Sonya and Astrov, and the explanation of Astrov's theory of arboriculture.' The committee was worried about the distressing frequency with which it believed Vanya and Astrov were shown suffering from hangovers, and the unfortunate effect that would be produced if this were thought to be the cause of Vanya's attempt to shoot Serebryakov. It felt that Vanya and Astrov 'as it were merge into a single type of failure, of superfluous man', and it complained that 'nothing prepares us for the powerful outburst of passion which occurs during the conversation with Yelena.' It reserved its greatest concern, though, for Vanya's treatment of Serebryakov. 'That Vanya could take a dislike to the professor as Yelena's husband is understandable,' it conceded; 'that his sermonising and moralising cause irritation is also natural, but the disillusionment with Serebryakov's academic stature, and indeed more precisely with him as an art historian, is somewhat strange … nor is it a reason for his being pursued with pistol shots, for his being hunted down by someone who is no longer responsible for his actions.' The unfairness of shooting professors because you have a low opinion of their academic achievements seems to have spoken deeply to the committee's learned members.

This time, however, Chekhov declined all suggestions for rewriting. By now, in any case, the play had been successfully produced in a number of provincial theatres, and it was finally established in Moscow by being produced at the Arts Theatre—though its reception there was initially more muted than the hysterical success which The Seagull had just enjoyed in the same place. With hind-sight we can see that Chekhov's reworking of the material from The Wood Demon, whenever it was done, has shifted it across the crucial divide that separates the four last plays from all his earlier ones—from all the earlier ones in the world.

Some of the changes he has made are straightforward improvements in dramatic technique. He has concentrated the setting of the play on the place where the real events of the story actually happen—the Serebryakovs' estate—and he has stripped out the superfluous characters. But in the course of doing this he has had an idea of genius. He has elided the debauched young neighbour, Orlovsky, with the Wood Demon. The most upright and selfless character in the original play is now the one who also indulges in periodic drinking bouts; instead of being in love with Sonya he is now, like Orlovsky, first coarsely knowing about Vanya's relations with Yelena, and then ready to propose a passing liaison with her himself; he has become Astrov in all his dark, self-contained complexity. And Yelena, a figure of uncompromised virtue in the original version, has become fascinated by him, so that, engaged as she is to advance poor Sonya's cause with him, she has become touched by the same characteristic ambiguity.

With these changes the whole tone of the play has been modified. The bucolic geniality and the facetiousness have gone, and left exposed the sense of wasted life at the heart of the story. By the same token the mood has changed from one of comfortable idleness to one of uncomfortably interrupted work. The importance of work in these last four plays is not always grasped. An impression lingers that they are about impoverished gentry with nothing to do all day but watch their fortunes decline; 'Chekhovian' is a synonym for a sort of genteel, decaying, straw-hatted ineffectualness. There are such characters, it's true—Telegin, the ruined neighbour who is living on Vanya's charity, Gayev and his sister in The Cherry Orchard—but they are few in number. Why do we tend to pick on them when we think about these harsh plays? A bizarre combi-nation of nostalgia and condescension, perhaps—nostalgia for a lost world of servants and rural leisure, easy condescension from the moral superiority of our own busy lives. What we forget, when we are not face to face with them, is that most of the people in these plays are not members of the leisured class at all. They have to earn their living, and earn it through hard professional work. We catch them at moments of leisure, because this is when they can stand back and look at their lives, but their thoughts are with their jobs. The memory that re-mains with us from The Seagull is of people sitting in a garden and enjoying their 'sweet country boredom'. Who are these idle folk? They are two actresses, two writers, a doctor, a teacher, a civil servant, and a hard-pressed estate manager. Some of them have time to sit down because they are only at the beginning of their careers, some because they are at the end; the others are simply on holiday. The idleness of Masha and Andrey, in Three Sisters, is remarkable because it is in such contrast to the drudgery of Masha's husband and her other two sisters; the idleness of the fading landowners in The Cherry Orchard is being swept aside by the industrious energy of the new entrepreneurs and activists. At the centre of Vanya is a woman so drugged with idleness that she can't walk straight; but the corrupting effects of this are felt in the lives around her, and they are lives of hitherto unceasing toil—whether the pedantic labours of her husband, or the agricultural steward-ship of Vanya and Sonya, or the sleepless rural medicine of Astrov. These working lives are already the background of The Wood Demon, but there they remain off-stage, somewhat secondary to the picnicking and moral-ising. In the final version, Vanya's bitterness over his years of misdirected sacrifice has become the centre of the action, and its culmination is now the resumption by Vanya and Sonya of their labours. In fact they resume them on stage, in front of our eyes. This is not the first time that work has been shown on stage. In The Weavers, first produced in Berlin three years earlier, Haupt-mann had shown the wretched weavers labouring at their looms. For that matter we see the gravediggers briefly at work in Hamlet, and we have seen plenty of servants serving, soldiers soldiering, and actors rehearsing. But this is surely the first great theatrical classic where we see the principals set about the ordinary, humdrum business of their lives. In fact work is one of the central themes in Chekhov. Work as the longed-for panacea for all the ills of idleness; work as obsession and drudgery and the destruction of life; work as life, simply. What Sonya looks forward to in heaven for herself and her uncle at the end of the present play is not finding peace, as some translations have it; what she says, five times over, in plain everyday Russian, is that they will rest.

Chekhov's second masterstroke in the rewriting, even more fundamental and consequential than the new ambiguity of the characters, is his alteration to the aim of Vanya's revolver. All his full-length plays up to this point have re-solved with the death of one of the central characters. Now, instead of letting Vanya likewise tidy himself away after his confrontation with Serebryakov, he has had the idea of making him turn murderer instead of suicide—and of failing.

In the first place this is simply a more interesting development. For the pacific and long-suffering Vanya to have been driven to attempt murder tells us much more about the intensity of his anger and of his sense of betrayal; and his missing the target is something he at once recognises as bitterly characteristic. This is slightly obscured by the traditional translation of his line. 'Missed again!' sounds as if it refers only to the two shots. The word he uses in Russian, however, refers not only to a missed shot but to any kind of mistake. What he is thinking of is surely all the missed opportunities in his life, and in particular his failure to have made advances to Yelena when she was still free. Then again, the fact that he misses at point-blank range opens up a whole series of questions about the nature of these mistakes. Perhaps they are not serious attempts at all; even as he pulls the trigger he says 'bang!', like a child with a toy revolver. And even if he sees them as seriously intended, are they examples of what a modern psychiatrist would call self-sabotage? And if they are, is the unconscious objective to protect himself from the consequences of success? Not only from being tried for murder, but from being tested as a lover and husband, from having the chance (as he at one moment believes he could have done if only he had lived 'normally') to become a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky—and then failing, with no possibility of concealing his own responsibility for it?

In the second place, the failure of this dramatic gesture to have dramatic consequences destroys the drama; or rather it destroys the neatness with which the slow and confused changes of the world we inhabit are concentrated theatrically in simple and decisive events. The world of Vanya is the ambiguous and unresolved world of The Seagull—stripped of even the final note of resolution suggested by Konstantin's suicide. Most of the relatively few notes Chekhov gave to the director and actors were to do with this dislocation and diffusion. He missed the production in Moscow, because he had been exiled to Yalta for his consumption, but when he saw the play, on a tour the Arts Theatre made in 1900 to the Crimea, one of the actresses in the company remembered his telling them afterwards that Sonya shouldn't kneel and kiss her father's hand on the line 'You must be merciful, father' at the end of Act Three, because 'after all that wasn't the drama. All the sense and all the drama of a person is on the inside, and not in external appearances. There was drama in Sonya's life up to this moment, there will be drama afterwards—but this is simply something that happens, a continuation of the shot. And the shot, in fact, is not drama—just something that happens.'2 In a similar spirit he deprecated Stanislavsky's direction that Astrov should make his pass at Yelena, in Act Four, 'like a drowning man clutching at a straw.' By then, says Chekhov in a letter to Olga Knipper, who was playing Yelena, Astrov knows that nothing is going to come of his attraction to her, 'and he talks to her in this scene in the same tone of voice as he does about the heat in Africa, and kisses her in the most ordinary way, quite idly.' Stanislavsky remembered him as saying, after the performance in the Crimea, "'He kisses her like that, though."—And here he planted a brief kiss on his own hand.—"Astrov has no respect for Yelena. In fact when he leaves the house afterwards he's whistling."'

More important even than the nature of the failed murder are the consequences it has for the last act. Chekhov, as we have seen, had already tried various versions of this. What had caused the problem was his odd insistence, in all the variants of The Wood Demon, on placing Vanya's suicide at the end of Act Three, so that this traditional dramatic resolution still left everything unresolved for everyone else. But he had been feeling his way towards something with this arrangement, and now that Vanya remains alive it becomes clear what it is: precisely that—remaining alive. It is survival itself, the problem of going on with life after it has been robbed of hope and meaning. 'The ability to endure' had already been identified by Nina at the end of The Seagull as the most important quality in life. Now Sonya takes it up as her watchword—'Endure, uncle! Endure!'—as she coaxes Vanya through his despair at the prospect of living for another dozen years, and as the future dwindles to a 'long, long succession of days and endless evenings' unilluminated by either any sense of purpose or any prospect of alteration. From now on the tragedy in Chekhov's plays will be not death but the continuance of life; the pain of losing the past, with all the happiness and wealth of possibilities it contained, will always be compounded by the pain of facing the future in all its emptiness. Two more characters will die, it is true. Tusenbach's death in Three Sisters, though, is shown not as his tragedy—the imminence of it gives him his first real awareness of the world and his first real pleasure in it—but as one more of the losses which empty the sisters' future of meaning. Firs is left dying at the end of The Cherry Orchard, but the sale of the estate, which finally destroys any hopes the Gayevs have had in life, has al-ready occurred, like the attempted murder of Serebryakov, at the end of Act Three, so that the last act is left once again to show life continuing, and Gayev and his sister facing—with in this case what one might think to be an ironically misplaced insouciance—even grimmer futures still.

The insistence upon endurance is connected with another idea which first emerges in Vanya, and which will domi-nate Three Sisters as well—the conviction felt by some of the characters that the sufferings which stretch to the visible horizon of the future are in some way to be redeemed by a happiness lying beyond that horizon. Some of this optimism plainly has a quality of desperation about it; it is easy to recognize the obsessiveness with which Vershinin keeps returning to the idea that life on earth will be 'astonishingly, unimaginably beautiful' in two or three hundred years time, or perhaps a thousand, particularly since it doesn't seem to matter to him exactly when, provided only the prospect exists. But the two passionate and heartbreaking speeches with which these plays end, by Sonya in the present play and by Olga in Three Sisters, are something else again. The forms of redemption that the two women expect are different; Sonya sees it as coming only in the next world, but does see it as some kind of personal recompense to herself and her uncle. Olga expects the sufferings of the present to purchase happiness in this world—but a happiness which will be experienced only 'by those who live after us'. Both speeches, though, are so eloquent, and so powerfully placed, that we cannot help wondering whether they reflect some deep beliefs of this nature in Chekhov himself.

The external evidence in favour of this reading is slight. In his notebooks he once expressed the hope that 'Man will become better when we have shown him to himself as he is,' and the writer Vladimir Tikhonov remembered him as saying that once people had seen themselves as they were 'they will surely by themselves create a different and better life. I shall not see it, but I know that everything will be changed, that nothing will be like our present existence.' There is an echo of Vershinin here, if Tikhonov has quoted him correctly, but it is a rare one. His notes make it clear that the only unconditional pre-diction he made for the future was that people would continue to think the past was better. He had no Utopian political views of any sort, as his famous letter to another writer, Aleksei Pleshcheyev, makes clear. In a letter to a third writer, Shcheglov, he states categorically that he had no religion, which would rule out any possibility of his entertaining the sort of hopes that Sonya does. And on a number of occasions he specifically dissociated him-self from the ideas of his characters. 'If you're served coffee,' he says in a letter to Suvorin, 'then don't try looking for beer in it. If I present you with a professor's thoughts, then trust me and don't look for Chekhov's thoughts in them.' For him as author, he says in the same letter, his characters' ideas 'have no value for their content. It's not a question of their content; that's changeable and it's not new. The whole point is the nature of these opinions, their dependence upon external influences and so on. They must be examined like objects, like symptoms, entirely objectively, not attempting either to agree with them or to dispute them. If I described St. Vitus' dance you wouldn't look at it from the point of view of a choreographer, would you? No? Then don't do it with opinions.' In another letter to Suvorin he took up the latter's complaint that one of his stories had not resolved the question of pessimism. 'I think that it's not for novelists to resolve such questions as God, pessimism, etc. The novelist's job is to show merely who, how, and in what circumstances people were talking or thinking about God or pessimism. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and what they are talking about, but merely an impartial witness. I heard a confused conversation, resolving nothing, between two Russian people about pessimism, and I have to pass on this conversation in the same form in which I heard it, but it will be evaluated by the jury, i.e. the readers. My job is merely to be talented, i.e. to be able to distinguish important phenomena from unimportant, to be able to illuminate characters and speak with their tongue.'

We do not have to suppose the author shares the beliefs expressed in these two speeches to find them moving, any more than we have to share the beliefs ourselves. The very remoteness, the very impossibility, of that sky dressed in diamonds, of that peace and happiness on earth, is what makes the speeches so poignant. And yet the force and insistence of the idea, in the two successive plays, is very striking. Even if they do not express beliefs which Chekhov shared, they may reveal a similarly poignant yearning of his own for a future whose unattainability he was just beginning to grasp. It is a common experience for people in early middle age, which is where Chekhov was when he wrote these plays, to come over the brow of the hill, as it were, and to see for the first time that their life will have an end. But the end with which Chekhov came face to face in mid-life was suddenly much closer still. It was not until six months after he had finished Vanya that he had his first major haemorrhage, and that his tuberculosis was finally diagnosed. But he had been spitting blood for a long time. He insists over and over again in his letters that this is the most normal thing in the world; but the more he insists the more one wonders. As Ronald Hingley puts it in his biography: 'Can Anton really have been unaware, still, that he suffered from tuberculosis? It seems incredible that a practising doctor could continue to ignore symptoms of which the possible purport might have struck any layman. On the other hand, as Chekhov's own works richly illustrate, human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception. Did the man who deluded others about the desperate condition of his health also delude himself? Or did he hover between self-deception and self-knowledge?'

It was at some point in that final year before the diagnosis was made that he was writing Vanya in its definitive form and giving up the idea of death as a dramatic resolution. Perhaps somewhere inside himself he had begun to recognize what was happening to him. Perhaps, now that he was suddenly so close to it, death seemed a little less neat, a little less of an answer to the equation; perhaps it began to seem more like something you could look as far as, or beyond, but not at. And even if Chekhov hadn't yet seen the truth about his condition, per haps Sonya and the others had in a sense seen it for him. A writer's characters, particularly when they are not forced to represent his conscious thoughts, can be appallingly well-informed about his unconscious ones. It is ironical. Chekhov most sedulously absented himself from his works. Sonya's passionate invocation of an after-life in which he didn't believe may be one of our rare glimpses of him—and of an aspect of him that he couldn't even see himself.

Notes

1'Chekhov himself did in fact start on the Solomon project, and the following fragment was found among his papers. The metaphysical anguish which the king expresses in this monologue appears to derive not from the figure of wealth and wisdom in Chronicles but from the author of Ecclesiastes. The ascription to Solomon in the first verse of Ecclesiastes ('The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem') was once taken liter-ally, but is now thought to be conventional. The book is now considered to be the work of a much later author, and its wonderful melancholy Epicurean charm more Hellenistic than Judaic.

Solomon (alone). O, how dark life is! No night in all its blackness when I was a child struck such terror into me as does my unfathomed existence. My God, to my father David Thou gavest but the gift of bringing words and sounds together as one, of singing and praising Thee with plucked strings, of sweetly weeping, of wresting tears from the eyes of others and of finding favour with beauty; but to me why gavest Thou also a languishing spirit and unsleeping hungry thought? Like an insect born out of the dust I hide in darkness, and trembling, chilled, despairing, fearful, see and hear in all things a fathomless mystery. To what end does this light of morning serve? To what end does the sun rise from behind the Temple and gild the palm-tree? To what end is the beauty of women? Whither is younder bird hastening, what is the meaning of its flight, if it and its fledglings and the place to which it hurries must come like me to dust? O, better I had never been bom, or that I were a stone to which God had given neither eyes nor thoughts. To weary my body for the night I yesterday like a common workman dragged marble to the Temple; now the night is come, and I cannot sleep … I will go and lie down again … Forses used to tell me that if one imagines a flock of sheep running and thinks hard about it then one's thoughts will dissolve and sleep. This will I do … (Exit.)

2There is something askew—and perhaps this is in keeping with the obliqueness of the play—about either Chekhov's note or the actress's memory of it, because his own stage direction calls for Sonya to kneel, if not to kiss her father's hand, while the line can hardly be construed as a 'continuation of the shot' because it occurs before it.

Gary Saul Morson (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Uncle Vanya as Prosaic Metadrama," in Reading Chekhov's Text, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, Northwestern University Press, 1993, pp. 214-27.

[In the following essay, Morson reads Uncle Vanya as a "metaliterary satire of histrionics and intelligentsial posing."]

Solyony: I have never had anything against you, Baron. But I have the temperament of Lermontov. [Softly] I even look like Lermontov …so they say …

—Chekhov, The Three Sisters

THEATER OF THEATRICALITY

It might be said that the fundamental theme of Chekhov's plays is theatricality itself, our tendency to live our lives "dramatically." In Chekhov's view, life as we actually live it does not generally conform to staged plots, except when people try to endow their lives with a spurious meaningfulness by imitating literary characters and scenes. Traditional plays imitate life only to the extent that people imitate plays, which is unfortunately all too common. There are Hamlets in life primarily because people have read Hamlet or works like it. The theater has been realistic only when people have self-consciously reversed mimesis to imitate it.

Such reverse mimesis is typical of Chekhov's major characters. His plays center on histrionic people who imitate theatrical performances and model themselves on other melodramatic genres. They posture, seek grand romance, imagine that a tragic fatalism governs their lives, and indulge in Utopian dreams while they neglect the ordinary virtues and ignore the daily processes that truly sustain them. Such virtues—the prosaic decencies in which Chekhov deeply believed—are typically practiced by relatively undramatic characters who do not appreciate their own significance.1 In the background of the play and on the margins of its central actions, truly meaningful prosaic life can be glimpsed.

Because histrionics is Chekhov's central theme, his plays rely to a great extent on metatheatrical devices. Those devices show us why the world is not a stage and why we should detect falsity whenever it seems to resemble a play. Metatheatricality is most obvious in The Sea Gull, Chekhov's first major dramatic success. Indeed, Chekhov's use of the technique in this play borders on the heavy-handed. We have only to recall that one major character, an actress, behaves as theatrically with her family as she does on the stage; that her son is a playwright who de-votes his life to romantic longing and ressentiment; that an aspiring young actress tries to reenact the romance of a famous novel by sending its author a quotation from it; that citizens from Hamlet suffuse the action; and, of course, that a play-within-a-play provides the point of reference for all other events. Uncle Vanya dispenses with much of this overt machinery while still maintaining the metatheatrical allusions it was designed to create. In effect, the internal play expands to become the drama itself. Like a committee of the whole, Uncle Vanya be-comes in its entirety a sort of play-within-a-play.

As a result, the work reverses the usual foreground and background of a drama. In most plays, people behave "dramatically" in a world where such behavior is appropriate. The audience, which lives in the undramatic world we all know, participates vicariously in the more interesting and exciting world of the stage. That, indeed, may be one reason people go to the theater. In Uncle Vanya the characters carry on just as "dramatically" as anyone might expect from the stage, but they do so in a world that seems as ordinary and everyday as the world of the audience. Consequently, actions that would be tragic or heroic in other plays here acquire tonalities of comedy or even farce. Chekhov never tired of reminding Stanislav sky and others that his plays were not melodramas but precisely (as he subtitled The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard) comedies. Chekhov gives us dramatic characters in an undramatic world in order to satirize all theatrical poses and all attempts to behave as if life were literary and theatrical. Histrionics for Chekhov was a particularly loathsome form of lying, which truly cultured people avoid "even in small matters."2

Chekhov's toying with the dramatic frame may be seen as a particularly original use of a traditional satiric technique. Like his great predecessors in parody, he transforms his main characters into what might be called "generic refugees."3 That is, he creates characters who would be at home in one genre but places them in the world of another. So Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, and Ilya Ilych Oblomov become comic when forced to live in a realistic world rather than the chivalric adventure story, the romantic novel, or the idyll of which they dream. War and Peace places its epic hero, Prince Andrei, in a novelistic world where epic heroism is an illusion; Middlemarch confers refugee status on Dorothea in its Prelude about how she, like Saint Theresa, needed an "epic life" to realize her potential but, in the nineteenth century, could find only prosaic reality. As these examples show, this technique does not preclude an admixture of sympathy in the satire.

Chekhov's main characters think of themselves as heroes or heroines from various genres of Russian literature, which is ironic, of course, because they are characters in Russian literature. Having read the great authors, they, like many members of the intelligentsia, plagiarize significance by imitating received models. Here it is worth observing that the Russian term intelligentsia does not mean the same thing as the English word intelligentsia, which underwent a shift in meaning when borrowed from the Russian. In Russian, an intelligent (member of the intelligentsia) was not necessarily an intellectual, and not all intellectuals were intelligenty. A member of the intelligentsia was identified as such by a particular way of living—bad manners of a specified sort were important—and above all by a complex of attitudes, including militant atheism, an opposition to all established authority, socialism, and a mystique of revolution. Prosaic virtues were regarded as unimportant, if not harmful, and a taste for the grand and dramatic was cultivated. Intelligenty were expected to adopt one or another grand system of thought that purported to explain all of culture and society and promised an end to all human suffering if a given kind of revolution should take place; the function of the intelligentsia was to adopt the right system and make sure its recommendations were put into practice. To do so, solidarity—what Chekhov despised as intellectual conformism—was needed. If by intellectual we mean someone characterized by independence of thought, we can see how it was easily possible for an intellectual to be an "antiintelligentsial" and for an intelligent to be antiintellectual. A member of an intelligentsia "circle," even if he never read a book, would be considered an intelligent more readily than Leo Tolstoy, who expressed utter contempt for this whole complex of beliefs and lived a manifestly nonintelligentsial life.

Not surprisingly, this dominant tradition of the intelligentsia generated a countertradition of thinkers who rejected its fundamental premises. Tolstoy's masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, explicitly attack all grand systems of thought, all attempts to find hidden laws of history, and, consequently, all prescriptions for universal salvation. For Tolstoy, and the countertradition generally, it is not the dramatic events of life that matter, either for individuals or for societies, but the countless small, prosaic events of daily life.

It was above all this aspect of Tolstoy's thought that had the most profound influence on Chekhov, who, as we have seen, constantly expressed the deepest skepticism about the intelligentsial mentality and valued everyday virtues.

Invited to join one intelligentsia circle, Chekhov responded with an accusation of hypocrisy and a restatement of his most cherished values—honesty and simple acts of kindness, for which "you've got to be not so much the young literary figure as just a plain human being. Let us be ordinary people, let us adopt the same attitude toward all, then an artificially overwrought solidarity will not be needed."4 In the twentieth century this countertradition—the kind of thought I call prosaics—has been represented by that remarkable anthology of essays by disillusioned intelligenty, Landmarks: A Collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia (1909); by Mikhail Zoschenko; and by the literary and cultural critic Mikhail Bakhtin.5

Both Chekhov and Tolstoy understood that the prestige of the intelligentsia cast a shadow on educated society as a whole and predisposed people to adopt grand roles drawn from literature. Chekhov's characters imagine that they are heroes or heroines in a genre suffused with romance, heroism, great theories, and decisive action, or else they try to play the lead roles in tragic tales of paralyzing disillusionment and emptiness. They consider themselves to be either heroes or "heroes of our time." But their search for drama unfolds in Chekhov's universe of prosaics.

In its examination of histrionics, Uncle Vanya is in a position to exploit metatheatrical devices. Uncle Vanya is theater about theatricality, and so its main characters are continually "overacting." One reason the play has proven so difficult to stage in the right tonality—as critics and directors have constantly noted—is that the actors must overact and call attention to their theatrical status but without ceasing to play real people who truly suffer. They must not over-overact. Their performance must allude to but not shatter the dramatic frame.

When we watch Uncle Vanya, we do not see actors playing characters. We see characters playing characters. They labor under the belief that this role-playing brings them closer to "true life," but in fact it does the opposite. The audience contemplates real people—people like them-selves—who live citational lives, that is, lives shaped by literary role-playing, lives consisting not so much of actions as of allusions. We are asked to consider the extent to which our own lives are, like the title of this play, citational.

TURGENEV'S GOUT

If criticism, the authority of which you cite, knows what you and I don't, why has it kept mum until now? Why doesn't it disclose to us the truth and immutable laws? If it had known, believe me, it would long ago have shown us the way and we would know what to do.… But criticism keeps pompously quiet or gets off cheap with idle, worthless chatter. If it presents itself to you as influential, it is only because it is immodest, insolent, and loud, because it is an empty barrel that one involuntarily hears. Let's spit on all this.

—Chekhov, letter to Leontiev-Shcheglov, March 22, 1890

Chekhov places members of the intelligentsia at the center of his play because they are especially given to self-dramatization and because they love to display their superior culture. As they cite novels, criticism, and other dramas, Chekhov shapes his metaliterary satire of histrionics and intelligentsial posing.

Old Serebryakov, we are told at the very beginning of the play, was a former theology student and the son of a sexton. These are just the roots one would choose if one's goal was to display a typical member of the intelligentsia. A professor of literature, he peevishly demands that someone fetch his copy of the poet Batyushkov, looks down on those with fewer citations at their disposal, and tries to illuminate his life with literary models.

He makes even his illness allusive: "They say that Turgenev developed angina pectoris from gout. I'm afraid I may have it."6 At the beginning of his speech to the assembled family in act III, he first asks them "to lend me your ears, as the saying goes [Laughs]." As is so often the case in Chekhov's plays, the line is more meaningful than he knows, for the speech he has prepared, like that of his Shakespearean model, is made under false pretenses. Appropriately enough, he continues his game of allusions by citing Gogol's famous play—"I invited you here, ladies and gentlemen, to announce that the Inspector General is coming"—evidently without having considered that its action concerns confidence games. Like Uncle Vanya,The Inspector General involves multiple layers of role-playing, mutually reinforcing poses, and self-induced self-deceptions. In his last appearance of the play, the professor proposes to transform its action into yet another occasion for professional criticism: "After what has happened, I have lived through so much, and thought so much in the course of a few hours, that I believe I could write a whole treatise for the edification of posterity." It is hard to decide whether to call this line pathetic or repulsive, but in either case it ought to disturb us professionals more than it has.

If the old professor projects ill-considered confidence in his merely citational importance, then Voinitsky, who has at last understood such falsities, can only create new ones. He realizes that for most of his life he has been content with a vicarious connection to the professor's vicarious connection to literature, but all he learns from his disillusionment is that the professor was the wrong intermediary.

Given our own views of the professor, we may take at face value Voinitsky's denunciation of his work as an uncomprehending and momentarily fashionable deployment of modish but empty jargon. But that only makes Voinitsky's desire for a better connection with literature even more misguided. Filled with all the self-pity, impotent rage, and underground ressentiment of a disappointed member of the intelligentsia, he regrets that he is too old to surpass the professor at his own game. Chekhov brilliantly merges despair and slapstick humor—we seem to check ourselves in midlaugh—when Voinitsky declares: "My life is over! I was talented, intelligent, self-confident …If I had had a normal life, I might have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky …" To put it mildly, the choice of Dostoevsky as an example of someone who lived "a normal life" suggests a rather odd (but intelligentsial) understanding of normality. And we are aware of Dostoevsky's penchant for de-scribing the very mixture of megalomania and self-contempt that Vanya so pathetically displays.

As if to mock both Voinitsky's precarious connection to literature and his self-indulgent pleas for pity, Chekhov has the ridiculous and truly pitiful Telegin interrupt the scene of confrontation. Telegin insists on his own incredibly vicarious link to scholarship:

Telegin [embarrassed]: Your Excellency, I cherish not only a feeling of reverence for scholarship, but of kinship as well. My brother Grigory Ilych's wife's brother—perhaps you know him—Konstantin Trofirnovitch Lakedomonov, was an M.A.…

Voinitsky: Be quiet, Waffles, we're talking business.

In Telegin's pathetic "perhaps you know him" and in the truly Gogolian name Lakedomonov we may perhaps detect another allusion to The Inspector General. In Gogol's play, Pyotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky would feel his life were worth-while if the powers that be knew of his mere existence:

Bobchinsky: I humbly beg you, sir, when you return to the capital, tell all those great gentlemen—the senators and admirals and all the rest—say, "Your Excellency or Your Highness, in such and such a town there lives a man called Pyotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky." Be sure to tell them, "Pyotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky lives there."

Khlestakov: Very well.

Bobchinsky: And if you should happen to meet with the tsar, then tell the tsar too, "Your Imperial Majesty, in such and such a town there lives a man called Pyotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky."

Khlestakov: Fine.7

Telegin is a Bobchinsky for whom professors have replaced admirals. Voinitsky seems unaware that he treats Telegin with the same disregard that he so resents in the professor's treatment of him.

Voinitsky is undoubtedly correct that his mother's "principles" are, as he puts it, a "venomous joke." As he now sees, she can only repeat received expressions "about the emancipation of women," without being aware that her own behavior verges on an unwitting counterargument. Her actions also suggest unconscious self-parody as she, presumably like so many shallow members of the intelligentsia, constantly "makes notes on the margins of her pamphlet." This stage direction closes act I, and the phrase is repeated by a number of characters, so by the time the stage directions repeat it again at the very end of the play, we are ready to apply Voinitsky's phrase about the professor—perpetuum mobile—to her as well. Her first speech concerns these insipid pamphlets that she imagines to be, in Voinitsky's phrase, "books of wisdom."

Her devotion to intelligentsial concerns has led her to idolize the old professor; she alone remains unaware that he is not what he pretends to be. But it is not so much her vacuity as her small, incessant acts of cruelty to her son that deprive her so totally of the audience's sympathy. As her son regrets his wasted life, she reproaches him in canned phrases for not caring more about the latest intellectual movements: "You used to be a man of definite convictions, an enlightened personality." We may imagine that Voinitsky's rage at the professor's proposal to deprive him of the estate is fueled to a significant extent by resentment of his mother, who repeats, as she has evidently done so often, "Jean, don't contradict Aleksandr. Believe me, he knows better than we do what is right and what is wrong." Even the professor, who has utter contempt for her, is not so intolerable as she is. Perhaps he senses, as we do, that as Telegin is a paltry double of Voinitsky, so Maria Vasilievna farcically duplicates him.

IDLENESS AND THE APOCALYPSE OF SQUABBLES

Elena Andreevna, the professor's young wife, and Astrov, the doctor who is summoned to treat him, each combine prosaic insight with melodramatic blindness. Though they often fail to live up to the standards they recommend, they do glimpse the value of everyday decency and ordinary virtues. They even understand, more or less, the danger of histrionic behavior, cited self-pity, and grand gestures, all of which nevertheless infect their own speeches. For this reason, Chekhov can use these speeches to enunciate the play's central values while simultaneously illustrating the consequences of not taking these values seriously enough.

Elena comes closest to a Chekhovian sermon as she fends off Voinitsky in act II:

Elena Andreevna: Ivan Petrovich, you are an educated, intelligent man, and I should think you would understand that the world is being destroyed not by crime and fire, but by hatred, enmity, all these petty squabbles … Your business should be not to grumble, but to reconcile us to one another.

Voinitsky: First reconcile me to myself! My darling …

Elena is absolutely right: life is spoiled not by grand crises or dramatic disappointments but by "petty squabbles." It is all the more ironic, then, that in praising prosaic virtues she cannot avoid images of catastrophe and the rhetoric of apocalypse. Characteristically, her choice of words strikes Voinitsky most: "All that rhetoric and lazy morality, her foolish, lazy ideas about the ruin of the world—all that is utterly hateful to me."

Perhaps Chekhov intended Elena as an allusion to Dorothea Brooke, although Elena lacks Dorothea's unshakable integrity. Elena married the professor, just as Voinitsky worked for him, out of an intelligentsial love. Her speech about petty squabbles suggests that she has reflected on his daily pettiness and self-centered petulance, which he explicitly justifies as a right conferred by his professorial status. And so Elena, who has studied music at the conservatory, requires and does not receive per-mission to play the piano.

Elena understands that something is wrong, but not what would be right. We first see her in act I ignoring, almost to the point of the grotesque, the feelings of Telegin:

Telegin: The temperature of the samovar has fallen perceptibly.

Elena Andreevna: Never mind, Ivan Ivanovich, we'll drink it cold.

Telegin: I beg your pardon … I am not Ivan Ivanovich, but Ilya Ilych … Ilya Ilych Telegin, or, as some people call me because of my pockmarked face, Waffles. I am Sonichka's godfather, and His Excellency, your husband, knows me quite well. I live here now, on your estate … You may have been so kind as to notice that I have dinner with you every day.

Sonya: Ilya Ilych is our helper, our right hand. [Tenderly] Let me give you some more tea, Godfather.

If these lines are performed as I think Chekhov meant them, one will detect no reproach, no irony, in Telegin's voice. He has so little self-esteem that he expects to be overlooked, and so he reminds people of his existence—or of his brother's wife's brother's existence—sincerely, out of a sense that he is too insignificant to be remembered even when he is constantly present. Chekhov uses Telegin as a touchstone for the basic decency of other characters: is it worth their while to be kind to someone who is obviously of no use to anyone? In this scene, Elena fails the test, and Sonya, who calls him Godfather, passes it. Voinitsky, we remember, calls him Waffles, a nickname that only the pathetic Telegin could possibly accept and even repeat.

Elena does not work but, rather, as Astrov observes, infects everyone around her with her idleness. The old nurse speaks correctly when she complains that many of the household's ills derive from the visitors' disruption of old habits, habits related to work. A schedule, arrived at over the course of decades and carefully calibrated so that the estate can be well managed, has been replaced by a purely whimsical approach to time: Marina is awakened to get the samovar ready at 1:30 in the morning.

The intelligentsia may view habits as numbing, but from the standpoint of prosaics, good or bad habits more than anything else shape a life. Attention, after all, is a limited resource, and most of what we do occurs when we are concentrating on something else or on nothing in particular, as the sort of action and dialogue in Chekhov's plays makes clear. And yet it is the cumulative effect of all those actions, governed largely by habit, that conditions and indeed constitutes our lives. Moreover, habits result from countless earlier decisions and therefore can serve as a good index to a person's values and past behavior. That, indeed, is one reason Chekhov emphasizes them so much and one way in which he makes even short literary forms so resonant with incidents not directly described. Chekhov's wiser characters also understand that attention can be applied to new problems that demand more than habit only if good habits efficiently handle routine concerns. They keep one's mental hands free.

Relying on beauty, charm, and high ideals—she really has them—Elena does not appreciate the importance of habits, routine, and work. For her, life becomes meaningful at times of high drama, great sacrifice, or passionate romance. That is to say, it can be redeemed only by exceptional moments. Consequently, when those moments pass, she can only be bored. Sonya tries to suggest a different view. She values daily work and unexceptional moments, but Elena cannot understand:

Elena Andreevna [in misery]: I'm dying of boredom, I don't know what do do.

Sonya [shrugging her shoulders]: Isn't there plenty to do? If you only wanted to …

Elena Andreevna: For instance?

Sonya: You could help with running the estate, teach, take care of the sick. Isn't that enough? When you and Papa were not here, Uncle Vanya and I used to go to market ourselves to sell the flour.

Elena Andreevna: I don't know how to do such things. And it's not interesting. Only in idealistic novels do people teach and doctor the peasants, and how can I, for no reason whatever, suddenly start teaching and looking after the peasants?

Sonya: I don't see how one can help doing it. Wait a bit, you'll get accustomed to it. [Embraces her] Don't be bored, darling.

Elena significantly misunderstands Sonya. Given her usual ways of thinking in literary terms, she translates Sonya's recommendations into a speech from an "idealistic novel." That, presumably, is why she ignores the possibility of helping with the estate and singles out teaching or doctoring the peasants. She imagines that Sonya offers only a ridiculous populist idyll.

If that were what Sonya meant, Elena's objections would be quite apt. Her misunderstanding allows Chekhov to make a characteristically prosaic point about meaningful activity. In the Russian countertradition, the dynamics and significance of work—daily, ordinary work—figure as a major theme. Elena's only idea of work corresponds to a view that Levin learns to reject in Anna Karenina—work "for all humanity"—and she correctly rejects that choice as work "for no reason whatever." What she cannot understand is the possibility of a different sort of work that would be meaningful: prosaic work.

Thinking like a member of the intelligentsia, she believes that either meaning is grand and transcendent or else it is absent. Her mistake in marrying the professor has convinced her that transcendent meaning is an illusion, and so she, like Voinitsky, can imagine only the opposite, a meaningless world of empty routine extending endlessly. But Sonya's actual recommendation, like the sort of daily work Levin describes as "incontestably necessary," implicitly challenges the very terms of Elena's, and the intelligentsia's, dialectic.

Sonya recommends taking care of the estate because it has to be done. She can draw an "incontestable" connection between getting the right price for flour and making the estate operate profitably or between not allowing the hay to rot and not indulging in waste, which is troubling in itself. Like Tolstoy, Chekhov had utter contempt for the intelligentsia's (and aristocracy's) disdain of efficiency, profitability, and the sort of deliberate calculation needed to avoid waste. That is one reason the play ends with the long-delayed recording of prices for agricultural products.

When Elena characterizes caring for peasants as a purely literary pose, Sonya replies that she does not see "how one can help doing it." For Sonya, it is not a literary pose, and it serves no ideology but is part of her more general habits of caring for everyone. High ideals or broad social goals have nothing to do with her efforts on behalf of others, as we see in this very passage when she responds not with a counterargument but with a sympathetic embrace of the despairing Elena.

Sonya understands that both work and care require habits of working and caring. One has to know how they are done, and they cannot just be picked up "suddenly," as Elena correctly observes. Elena has the wrong habits, and that is her real problem. What she does not see is that she needs to being acquiring new ones, which is what Sonya is really recommending.

WASTE BY OMISSION

             those graceful acts,
Those thousand decencies that daily flow.
                          —Milton, Paradise Lost

Least of all does Elena need romance, which is what Astrov offers. Like Elena and Voinitsky, he is obsessed with the vision of a brief, ecstatic affair in a literary setting. You are bound to be unfaithful sometime and somewhere, he tells Elena, so why not here, "in the lap of nature … At least it's poetic, the autumn is really beautiful … Here there is the plantation, the dilapidated country houses in the style of Turgenev." He might almost have said in the style of Chekhov. When this pathetic attempt at seduction fails, Astrov intones "Finita la commedia," a line that, interpreted literally, does correctly characterize his desire for romance as comic, if not farcical. When he repeats "Finita!" soon afterward, the possibility of farce grows stronger.

Astrov constantly looks for literary or theatrical images to explain his life. "What's the use?" he asks at the beginning of the play. "In one of Ostrovsky's plays there's a man with a large moustache and small abilities. That's me." In fact, these self-pitying allusions make him a good example of the "more intelligent" members of the intelligentsia as he describes them:

Astrov: … it's hard to get along with the intelligentsia—they tire you out. All of them, all our good friends here, think and feel in a small way, they see no farther than their noses: to put it bluntly, they're stupid. And those who are more intelligent and more out-standing, are hysterical, eaten up with analysis and introspection … They whine.… [He is about to drink]

Sonya [stopping him]: No, please, I beg you, don't drink any more.

Of course, this very speech examplifies the intelligentsia's indulgence in self-pitying self-analysis. Astrov whines about whining, and what's more, he knows it. But this self-knowledge does him no good for reasons that Chekhov frequently explores.

Some self-destructive behavior can be modified by an awareness of what one is doing, but not the sort of introspection that Astrov describes. On the contrary, the more one is aware of it, the more that awareness becomes a part of it. (Perhaps that is what Karl Kraus meant when he said that psychoanalysis is the disease that it purports to cure.) The more Astrov blames himself for whining, and for whining about whining, the more he whines about it. This sort of introspective self-pity feeds on itself; so does alcoholic self-pity, which is why Chekhov has him drink while complaining.

To persuade him not to drink, Sonya reproaches Astrov for contradicting himself. "You always say people don't create, but merely destroy what has been given them from above. Then why, why, are you destroying yourself?" And in fact, Astrov has spoken powerfully about waste and the need for prosaic care; his speeches are the closest Chekhov comes to a Tolstoyan essay or to one of Levin's meditations.

Astrov's lectures on what we would now call "the environment" sound so strikingly contemporary that it is hard to see them in the context of Chekhov's play. In a way not uncommon in literary history, their very coincidence with current concerns provokes critical anachronism or the interpretation of them as detachable parts. It is worth stressing, therefore, that Astrov does not object to any and all destruction of trees. "Now I could accept the cutting of wood out of need, but why devastate the forests?" he says. "You will say that … the old life must naturally give place to the new. Yes, I understand, and if in place of these devastated forests there were highways, railroads, if there were factories, mills, schools, and the people had become healthier, richer, more intel-ligent—but, you see, there is nothing of the sort!" The chamber of commerce might well concur.

What bothers Astrov, what bothers Chekhov, is waste. And waste results from the lack not of great ideals but of daily care. The forests disappear for the same reason that the hay rots. After Sonya offers her breathless paraphrase of Astrov's ideas, Voinitsky, with his clothes still rumpled and his bad habits showing, refuses to see the point:

Voinitsky [laughing]: Bravo, bravol . . All that is charming, but not very convincing, [to Astrov] and so, my friend, allow me to go on heating my stoves with logs and building my barns with wood.

Astrov: You can heat your stoves with peat and build your barns with brick.… The Russian forests are groaning under the ax … wonderful landscapes vanish never to return, and all because lazy man hasn't sense enough to stoop down and pick up fuel from the ground.

What destroys the forests, and what destroys lives, is not some malevolent force, not some lack of great ideas, and not some social or political evil. Trees fall, and lives are ruined, because of thoughtless behavior, everyday laziness, and bad habits, or, more accurately, the lack of good ones. Destruction results from what we do not do. Chekhov's prosaic vision receives remarkably powerful expression in these passages.

Astrov and Sonya also give voice to that vision when they describe how the ruin of forests is not just an analogue for but also a cause of needlessly impoverished lives. To paraphrase their thought: the background of our lives imperceptibly shapes them, because what happens constantly at the periphery of our attention, what is so familiar that we do not even notice it, modifies the tiny alterations of our thoughts. Literally and figuratively, our sur-roundings temper the "climate" of our minds. Like good housekeeping and careful estate management, unwasted forests subtly condition the lives unfolding in their midst.

Where Sonya, and especially Astrov, go wrong is in their rhetoric, which, like Elena's, becomes rapidly apocalyptic or Utopian. They intone lyrical poetry celebrating prosaic habits and praise undramatic care with theatrical declamation:

Sonya: If you listen to him [Astrov], you'll fully agree with him. He says that the forests … teach man to understand beauty and induce in him a nobility of mind. Forests temper the severity of the climate. In countries where the climate is mild, less energy is wasted in the struggle with nature, so man is softer and more tender; in such countries the people are beautiful, flexible, easily stirred, their speech is elegant, their gestures graceful. Science and art flourish among them, their philosophy is not somber, and their attitude toward women is full of an exquisite courtesy …

Astrov: … maybe I am just a crank, but when I walk by a peasant's woodland which I have saved from being cut down, or when I hear the rustling of young trees which I have planted with my own hands, I realize that the climate is somewhat in my power, and that if, a thousand years from now, mankind is happy, I shall be responsible for that too, in a small way. When I plant a birch tree and then watch it put forth its leaves and sway in the wind, my soul is filled with pride, and I … [seeing the workman who has brought a glass of vodka on a tray] however … [Drinks]

They expect a lot from trees. The doctor and his admirers show enthusiasm in the sense Dr. Johnson defined the word: a vain belief in private revelation. Sonya's enthusiasm reflects her love for Astrov, but what does Astrov's reflect? In his tendency to visionary exaggeration, in his millenarian references to the destiny of all mankind, we sense his distinctly unprosaic tendency, in spite of everything, to think in the terms of drama, Utopias, and romance—and to drink.

Notes

1 Chekhov's belief in the prosaic virtues and skepticism of the grandiose and dramatic, in which he detected falsity, is often expressed explicitly in his correspondence. Consider, for instance, his famous letter of March 1886 to his wayward and talented brother Nikolai. "In my opinion," Chekhov wrote, "people of culture must fulfill the following conditions":

  1. They respect the human personality and are therefore forebearing, gentle, courteous, and compliant. They don't rise up in arms over a misplaced hammer or a lost rubber band. They do not consider it a favor to a person if they live with him, and when they leave, they do not say: "It is impossible to live with you!"
  2. They are sympathetic not only to beggars and cats.…
  3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.
  4. They are pure of heart and fear lying like fire. They do not lie even in small matters.… They don't pose.…
  5. They do not humble themselves in order to arouse sympathy in others. They do not play upon the heartstrings in order to excite pity.… They don't say, "I'm misunderstood!" …
  • They develop an aesthetic taste. They cannot bring them-selves to fall asleep in their clothes, look with unconcern at a crack in the wall with bedbugs in it, breathe foul air, walk across a floor that has been spat on, or feed themselves off a kerosene stove.… What they, and especially artists, need in women is freshness, charm, human feeling, and that capacity to be not a … [whore] but a mother.…

… Such are cultured people. It is not enough to have read only Pickwick Papers and to have memorized a monologue from Faust.…

What you need is constant work (Ernest J. Simmons, Chekhov: A Biography [Boston, 1962], 111-13).

2Simmons, 111.

3 For a more extensive discussion of "generic refugees," see Gary Saul Morson, "Genre and Hero / Fathers and Sons: Inter-generic Dialogues, Generic Refugees, and the Hidden Prosaic," in Literature, Culture, and Society in the Modern Age, ed. Edward J. Brown, Lazar Fleishman, Gre-gory Freidin, and Richard Schupbach, Stanford Slavic Studies 4.1 (Stanford Calif., 1991), 336-81.

4 Letter to Leontiev-Shcheglov, May 3, 1888, Simmons, 165.

5 I have discussed the concept of "prosaics" in a number of articles, including "Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities," The American Scholar (Autumn 1988):515-28; "Prosaics and Anna Karenina," Tolstoy Studies Journal 1 (1988):1-12; "Prosaics, Criticism, and Ethics," Formations 5, no. 2 (Summer-Fall 1989):77-95; and "The Potentials and Hazards of Prosaics," Tolstoy Studies Journal 2 (1989): 15-40. The concept is also mentioned in my book Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in "War and Peace" (Stanford, Calif., 1987). It is central to the argument of the book I coauthored with Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford, Calif., 1990).

6 Citations from Chekhov's plays are from Chekhov: The Major Plays, trans. Ann Dunnigan (New York, 1964).

7 Milton Ehre, ed., The Theater and Plays of Nikolay Gogol: Plays and Selected Writings, trans. Milton Ehre and Fruma Gottschalk (Chicago, 1980), 104.

Donald Rayfield (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Reception of Uncle Vania," in Chekhov's Uncle Vania and The Wood Demon, Bristol Classical Press, 1995, pp. 61-72.

[In the essay below, Rayfield offers an overview of the reception of Uncle Vanya, emphasizing critics' reactions to Chekhov's reworking of The Wood Demon.]

Our own critical interpretation of Uncle Vania can only build on the Russian public's reception, at first bemused, then enthusiastic, of the work. Three factors inhibited the response: firstly the play was published two years before it was first performed in Moscow 26 October 1899 (even though it had had a number of provincial performances from 1897); secondly, although The Wood Demon had been read and seen by only a few hundred people, it was widely known that the new play was a reworking of its lame prototype; thirdly The Seagull, which was published in the same 1897 edition of Chekhov's collected plays, was still recovering its reputation from its disappointing first staging in St Petersburg. It was not until the triumphant Moscow Arts Theatre performance of autumn 1898 that Chekhov's reputation as a great playwright became permanently unassailable.

The first critics responded to the written text, which they found far less interesting than such controversial stories as "Peasants." They were sceptical about its viability on the stage: 'Seven or eight years ago the same play, as The Wood Demon, was performed on one of the Moscow private stages [ … ] Now the drama, or as the author modestly calls it, "Scenes from country life" has been significantly reworked [ … ] The impression from reading the play is very great and very depressing, oppressive. It is difficult to predict its success on the stage. Even after reworking it is unlikely to find success with the average spectator [ … ] Much is vaguely sketched, the whole action seems to be wrapped in mist, perhaps deliberately. You have to give it a lot of thought to understand the motives behind the heroes' actions and evaluate all the truth in them. But spectators like clarity, precision, definition, firm, even sharp contours. So-called "mood" (and there is no end to the mood in the play!) is valued very little in the auditorium.' (Novosti dnia, 5 June 1897).

Such opinions kept Uncle Vania off the metropolitan stage. In May 1897 Chekhov's friend Sumbatov-Iuzhin offered to have it or The Seagull staged by the Moscow Maly Theatre: but it was not until February 1899 that the acting director of the Maly formally asked for the performing rights and only then did the Theatrical-Literary Committee meet at the home of the director of the Moscow office of Russia's Imperial Theatres for a reading. The actors present loved the play; the bureaucrats on the committee (including I. I. Ivanov who had loathed The Wood Demon) insulted the author and damned the play by demanding revisions: 'we recognise it as deserving of production on condition that minor cuts and revisions are carried out in accordance with the indications of the Committee's department and a second submission to the Committee.' Unfortunately, Nemirovich-Danchenko felt that as director of the Moscow Arts Theatre he could not allow a conflict of interests to arise by attending and swinging the committee's verdict by his single vote.

The committee sent Chekhov a more substantial, if obtuse, critique:

Its staging has certain unevenness or gaps. Before Act 3 Uncle Vania and Astrov seem to merge into the type of failure, superfluous man which is fairly successfully sketched in Mr Chekhov's works. Nothing prepares us for that powerful burst of passion which occurs during his talk with Elena13 [… ] That Voinitsky might take a dislike to the professor as Elena's husband is understandable [ … ] but disillusion in Serebriakov's greatness as a scholar, especially as an art historian is somewhat strange [ … ] is no excuse for pursuing him firing a pistol, chasing him like a madman. If the spectator were to link this state with the drunken state in which the author for some reason too often portrays both Uncle Vania and Astrov, the unpleasant and unexpected introduction of these two shots into the play takes on a peculiar and undesirable nuance. The character of Elena might need somewhat more clarification [ … ] Perhaps the main female character on the stage, the cause of so many alarms and dramas, endowed with a 'tiresome' character, she arouses no interest in the spectator. The play has longueurs, from a literary point of view these drag out the action with no profit to it. One instance is the protracted praise of forests in Act 1, shared by Sonia and Astrov, and the explanation of Astrov's theory of afforestation, so is the explanation of the maps, so is even the finely conceived depiction of the peace that falls after Elena and her husband have left, in the end of the play, and Sonia's dreams. In this final scene which comes after the main dramatic interest is exhausted the contrast should have been reduced to brief, bare essentials.

In April Chekhov visited one committee member, Teliakovsky, after this letter for a 'conversation'. The latter recalls: 'Chekhov was absolute sang-froid. He asked me not to fuss about his play being blackballed, said that of course he would change nothing in the play [ … ] and to calm me promised to write a new play by autumn specially for the Maly.' Thus, thanks to the conservatism of the Imperial theatres,14 Stanislavsky and NemirovichDanchenko were presented with the play they had hoped for to consolidate the success of their production of The Seagull.

Meanwhile Uncle Vania was winning a shadowy provincial popularity. We know that it was performed in Kazan in October 1897 and with great success in Pavlovsk (the summer resort of many Petersburgers) in 1898. In autumn it played in Odessa and Kiev (a staging that Chekhov saw a few years later). Chekhov read the play to amateur actors who performed it in Serpukhov, a few miles from Melikhovo. In November it played in Chekhov's home town, Taganrog, where his cousin reported 'especially great success'. Nizhnii Novgorod, and Tiflis were other centres important enough to force Moscow and St Petersburg critics to take note of provincial reactions to what they had spurned. A critic who saw the Pavlovsk production already noted the Act 4 as 'a stage chef-d'oeuvre' which made the play 'the most impressive work on the stage of recent years.' The Russian-language press in Tiflis (Kavkaz, 2 May 1899) showed the heart-felt empathy which provincial and colonial audiences in the Russian audience were to accord all the later Chekhovian drama, as if Chekhov were the first metropolitan writer to understand the dreary hopelessness of their lives on the fringe: 'in a truly Chekhovian way, that is with fine observation and deep psychological analysis [ … ] we see clever, talented, educated people spending their whole lives on trivia and withering in unconscious quietism, busy with things that are beneath them, gradually sucked into base trivial lives, existing with no profit to others or themselves.'

One perceptive Chekhovian stood alone: A. I. Urusov stood by his fondness for The Wood Demon. 'I have carefully reread Uncle Vania and must with sadness tell you that in my opinion you have ruined The Wood Demon. You have crumpled it, reduced it to an outline and disfigured it. You had a splendid comic villain: he has vanished, and he was necessary to the internal symmetry, and rogues of that stature, with luxuriant and bright plumage, is what you are especially good at. It was precious to the play, bringing in a humorous note. The second sin, in my view, is still more heinous: changing the pace of the play. The suicide in Act 3 and the nocturnal scene by the river with the tea table in Act 4, the wife's return to the doctor—all that was newer, bolder, more interesting than the end you have now. When I was retelling The Wood Demon to the French, it was this that struck them: the hero is killed, but life goes on. The actors I spoke to were of the same opinion. Of course, Uncle Vania is good, better than anything being written now—but The Wood Demon was better' (letter to Chekhov, 27 i 99).

One might also take Tolstoy's play A Living Corpse of 1900 as expressing a marked preference for The Wood Demon over Uncle Vania: Tolstoy's wayward hero, after his fictitious death is exposed, shoots himself so that his wife may marry a man worthy of her love, a plot which seems to turn the suicide of Voinitsky and reconciliation of the Serebriakovs into a morally coherent sequence, however much it may seem to be at odds with the asceticism preached elsewhere by Tolstoy. The failure of The Wood Demon continued to haunt Uncle Vania: when in 1901 the Society of Russian Playwrights and Opera Com-posers was deciding what play to recommend as the out-standing play of the previous year for the Griboyedov prize, they refused to consider Uncle Vania on the grounds that it was 'an adaptation of the same author's The Wood Demon which had already been considered.'

In Spring 1899 Nemirovich-Danchenko was glad to accept Uncle Vania for the Moscow Arts Theatre with no changes: Nemirovich-Danchenko directed (Stanislavsky was too busy preparing A. K. Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan the Terrible). Nemirovich-Danchenko persuaded Stanislavsky to play Astrov, although the latter's first preference was the title role.15 Chekhov was present at one rehearsal of two acts in May and intervened to supply maps of Serpukhov with Melikhovo at the centre for Act 3. Chekhov was laconic, even cryptic, to any actor who asked him for help in interpreting a role: 'It's all written there,' was his standard reply. Only questions of dress—especially Vania's splendid tie—were expanded on by the author. The remaining rehearsals went on in Chekhov's absence, but with Nemirovich-Danchenko, Meierkhold and Olga Knipper all giving the playwright slightly varying accounts of the play's progress. Except for Knipper, the final casting corresponded not at all with Chekhov's original preferences, particularly for Komissarzhevskaia as Sonia and Davydov (who had acted in The Wood Demon) as Voinitsky. Stanislavsky's wife, Lilina, took Sonia, while Vishnevsky, who played Voinitsky, was probably the only actor whom Chekhov wholeheartedly trusted to interpret his part intelligently. As the theatre's co-director, and as Astrov on stage, Stanislavsky had more influence than Chekhov over Knipper's interpretation of Elena: 'For a greater difference from Arkadina, I'd give Elena—of course in the quiet places—more immobility, drawl, idleness, reserve and worldliness and, at the same time, I'd give more shadow to her temperament.' Their co-operation was close: Knipper confessed, 'When I felt [Astrov's] infatuated gaze, full of cunning, and heard his caressing irony, "You're cunning", I was always annoyed with that "intellectual" Elena for not going to visit him in his forest nursery.'

Meanwhile illness had forced Chekhov to retire to Yalta, from where he wrote to Vishnevsky (8 x 99): 'How upset and annoyed I am that I can't be with you all, that I am missing almost all rehearsals and the performances and know them only at second hand, whereas it would be enough for me to be present at rehearsals to recharge myself, to get experience and get down to a new play.'

The production appears to have been an outstanding success. Nemirovich-Danchenko's and Stanislavsky's production copy16 gives some hint of the care and ingenuity with which they realised Chekhov's directions and of their contribution to the play's success.… The greenery of the opening scene went far beyond Chekhov's specifications. For Act 1 Stanislavsky specified mosquitoes, real chickens for Marina to round up, and even a dog. In creating the mood he specified that Astrov should smoke with a long cigarette holder and roll his own papirosy, while Voinitsky was to appear in a dressing-gown, and Maria Vasilievna with both pince-nez and lorgnette with a handbag full of pencils. The prop list for Act 2 was likewise inventive: hot water bottles were added to Serebriakov's medicines. As with The Cherry Orchard, Stanislavsky came into his own in the more crowded choreography required for Act 3. He opens it with Elena and Sonia playing a piano duet (thus spoiling the sym bolism of the silent piano), Voinitsky throwing his hat and overcoat on a chair and conducting the performance, correcting Soma's wrong notes. When the clock strikes one, Voinitsky checks his watch. During Sonia and Elena's brief exchange Stanislavsky had Sonia on the verge of sobbing, chewing her fingernails, while Elena jerks her hand away from Soma's lips. In the climax of the act Stanislavsky had all mention of numbers and figures heavily stressed. Voinitsky was to come to the front of the stage and, with his back to the audience, confront Serebriakov. Stanislavsky then crossed out Voinitsky's threatening words, 'You won't forget me' (Budesh' menia pomnit') and after the bungled murder attempt had Voinitsky point the gun at his own forehead, with a ten-second silent freeze before the curtain fell. The same meticulous care and the same need to fiddle with the text is found in Act 4. The care is expressed in the orchestration of non-verbal elements at the end: the cricket chirping, the rain dripping from the roof, the banging of the night-watchman and the guitar climax with heavy rain. Much of Elena's and Astrov's farewell is rearranged, with a long pause inserted in which Elena leans with her elbows against the door frame, as if blocking any exit.

There is one touch that Stanislavsky puts on the last page after his own signature, 'Finished 27 May 1899, K. Alekseev: "And life anyway is stupid, boring," is Chekhov's own phrase.' It suggests how close Astrov is to Chekhov (at least in Stanislavsky's opinion), so that we may well interpret the progression from the Wood Demon to Astrov as representing a disillusion and coarsening in the author's own self.

Nemirovich-Danchenko and his colleagues kept sending telegrams to Yalta, rousing Chekhov from his sickbed, sending him barefoot in the dark to his newly installed telephone. Chekhov was irritated and embarrassed not to have seen the play even in rehearsal, even more by an item in a newspaper: 'A. P. Chekhov, very interested in the staging of his drama Uncle Vania by the Artistic-Popular Theatre troupe, has sent a writer-friend a letter asking for details of the staging of Uncle Vania. ' But to judge by the telegrams Chekhov received, Stanislavsky's production met the same ecstatic audience response as his Seagull. Olga Knipper, however, like some of the cast, felt dissatisfied until several performances had taught the actors how to cope with the Chekhovian 'images'. Nemirovich-Danchenko felt that the text itself was still not perfect, that the motivation for Voinitsky's attack on the professor was so obscure that it inhibited audience response. (Later, in his articles, Nemirovich-Danchenko blamed his production for devoting more time to sound effects than the lyrical potential of the text.) Nevertheless, by the sixth performance (10 November 1899) Vishnevsky, who played Voinitsky, could write: 'We acted amazingly today!!! The theatre was crammed to overflowing. I have never known such a reception [ … ] Groans and shouts filled the theatre! We had fifteen curtain calls.'

Chekhov's rivals went to see it: Gorky, by no means a friend of Chekhovian drama, commented, 'I don't consider the play a pearl, but I see more content in it than others do; its content is enormous, symbolist, and in form it is a completely original, unique thing.' Shortly afterwards (24 January 1900), Tolstoy visited MKhaT. His dairy records, 'I went to see Uncle Vania and was indignant.' He is reported to have complained that 'despite brilliant passages there was no tragic situation, that it was pointless to hint at any meaning in the sound of the guitar or of the cricket, that Astrov and Voinitsky were rubbish, idlers, running from action, that they should have married peasant girls and stopped pestering Serebriakov.' The perversity of this response is outrageous when we consider Tolstoy's late drama, particularly A Living Corpse, where the best elements are very Chekhovian irrational touches and liberalism.

The success of Uncle Vania, performed by professionals and amateurs in the provinces, was unprecedented, so much so that the new director of the Imperial theatres overrode their previous decision and only MKhaT's intervention stopped the Aleksandrinsky theatre from performing it in Petersburg. Effectively, Stanislavsky was acquiring a monopoly of Chekhov in the metropolitan theatre, which Nemirovich-Danchenko defended as 'a defence of Chek hov's artistic interests'. (Nemirovich-Danchenko consid ered St Petersburg actors, especially in the Maly theatre, as unsuitable for Chekhovian characters because of their incorrigibly handsome voices and rhythms.)

In their letters to Chekhov it is remarkable how unanimously critics agreed that this play was closely linked with The Seagull as a basis for a new drama and a 'hammer to beat the public's head'. Likewise, attention focused on Act 4 and the tragic implication that Sonia and Voinitsky now had no future. Chekhov's cousin, Georgi Mitrofanovich, in his letter from Taganrog spoke for many: 'The tableau of the final act was extraordinarily sad and depressing, it left on all the spectators an impression that was heavier than any tragic scenes.' The reactions were often personal, even intrusive: one MKhaT actor wrote, 'I a man of 22 wept … not only for uncle Vania, for Astrov, but mainly for you. God, how alone you are and how little personal happiness you have. Astrov's notes of universal grief are covered by a heavy chord of lack of love, happiness, personal happiness.' Uncle Vania may have been the first major Chekhov play to be performed abroad, for an amateur group of Russians played it in Paris in January 1902.17 One spectator recorded in her diary, 'amid the merriment and noise of Paris I heard a sound penetrating right into my heart—a voice from the homeland, an echo of its life.' Many of these reactions, optimistic, pessimistic, puzzled or adoring, were addressed to Chekhov and his occasional, if taciturn responses are sometimes illuminating: for instance in one reply to an actress's letter he enlarged on his conception of Elena, 'Perhaps Elena Andreevna may seem incapable of thinking or even loving, but when I was writing Uncle Vania I had something quite different in mind.'

Faced with the play's success on stage, the literary critics began to run with the hare, not the hounds. The Moscow critics in particular drifted away from their usual assessments based on sociology and representativeness and began to appreciate novelty as a virtue: 'Mr Chekhov feels, thinks and perceives life in episodes, particulars, in its flotsam and jetsam and, if one may say so, infinite parallels that never intersect, at least, not on any visible plane,' wrote one of his most perceptive critics, Kugel (Teatr i iskusstvo [1900] 8, 168-9). In St Petersburg it was the symbolists who were readiest to welcome Chekhov for, as Filosofov put it, 'truly decadent refinement'. (Chekhov was less inclined to read, let alone respond to, professional criticism: 'I don't read such articles so as not to foul my mood' he wrote to Nemirovich-Danchenko [3 xii 99].) However, on 6 November 1899 Rakshanin in the Stock Exchange Gazette (Birzhevaia gazeta), usu-ally the most aesthetically inclined of the Petersburg newspapers, took a broader view: 'Until recently playwrights of all countries and times wrote dramas, comedies and vaudevilles for the stage. For these writings there were definite forms, specific requirements, there was a tradition which seemed unshakeable. [ … ] We are now undoubtedly present at a battle of a new tendency in dramatic writing with the established forms, and Anton Chekhov is at the head of the movement. [ … ] Uncle Vania of course is not a comedy, even less a drama, undoubtedly it is not a vaudeville—it is in fact "a mood in four acts".'

It was not until 10 April 1900, when the MKhaT came to Sevastopol that Chekhov saw his play in production. Stanislavsky records: 'We were moved by the dark figure of the author hidden in the director's box behind the backs of V1. Nemirovich-Danchenko and his wife. The first act had a chilly reception. By the end success had become a great ovation. The author was called for. He was in despair, but still came forth.' Chekhov went back-stage with advice, especially on Astrov. Stanislavsky realised: 'Astrov is a cynic, he has become one from contempt for the vulgarity around him. He isn't sentimental and doesn't sulk … he cancels out the lyricism of Uncle Vania's and Soma's finale.'

The influence of Uncle Vania grew with its reputation; in Germany it clearly affected Arthur Schnitzler, whose play Der einsame Weg (The Lonely Way [1903]),18 with its dandy hero Stephan von Sala, stakes his claim to be called the 'German Chekhov'. 'Not much has made such an unforgettable impression on me as Uncle Vania in as staged by the Moscow Arts Theatre,' Schnitzler wrote."19

In Russia Uncle Vania became the least contentious of Chekhov's plays; its relative simplicity, its brevity and economy, the absence of complicated effects and sets made it accessible to provincial repertory and amateur theatre; its title role was easily identifiable with many a spectator's uncle and thus became a byword. Maiakovsky, an unlikely worshipper of Chekhov, argued in his Two Chekhovs (1914) that (like the futurists) Chekhov was an innovative artist of words, not ideas: 'Take his bloodless dramas. Behind the stained glass of words life is discernible only as much as is necessary. Where another writer would have needed to use a suicide to justify someone's parading round the stage, Chekhov gives the highest drama in the simple "grey" words: Astrov: "But the heat in that Africa there must be really terrific".'

After the revolution Chekhov became an official icon, and provoked reaction not so much against him as against the mummification of his work. Bulgakov satirises Uncle Vania in his play The Days of the Turbins, where the embattled heroes compete for the attention of an unhappily married Elena: no sooner does the poet-figure declare 'We shall rest' than nine gun-shots belie his hopes. Osip Mandelstam's sketch (1935) for a broadcast20 on Uncle Vania is indignant. It opens with the cast list and then asks: 'Why are they together? [ … ] Try and define the qualities or kinship of Voinitsky, son of the widow of a privy councillor, of the mother of the professor's first wife, with Sofia Aleksandrovna, the professor's daughter by his first wife. I for one find it easier to understand the funnel-shaped outline of Dante's comedy with its circles, routes and spherical astronomy, than this petty-passport nonsense. A biologist would call the Chekhovian principle ecological. Cohabitation is the determining factor for Chekhov. There is no action in his plays, there is only contiguity and the unpleasantnesses that result. Chekhov takes a sample with a pipette from a non-existent human "mire". People live together and just cannot separate. That is all.'

In post-Soviet prose, Viacheslav P'etsukh showed the same touching irreverence in his sketch Uncle Senia,21 where the actor of this name has to play Uncle Vania in a provincial performance: 'things were so bad that in the middle of Act 4 Voinitsky, thanks to a whim of the Vologda director, commits suicide.' Pretending to be dead, Uncle Senia snarls at the sufferings of Uncle Vania: 'No, what a life they screwed up, the dogs—it was a fairy tale, not life!'

The very success of Uncle Vania has prevented Russian directors from much experimentation—only the Soviet insistence on making Soma's last speech a prophecy of post-revolutionary bliss temporarily blighted the Chekhovian mood. With the fragmentation of Russia's theatres in the 1990s, however, some experimentation has taken place. Desnitsky's classically minimal production on the tiny stage of the theatre U nikitskikh vorot of 1993 contrasts with the Petersburg Maly theatre's attempt (directed by Sergei Solovipv) to prove Nemirovich-Danchenko wrong by assembling the maximum of detail and turning it into a compendium of Chekhoviana, giving Uncle Vania the cello that uncles traditionally play in Russian literature (e.g. in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons or Chekhov's Ivanov), making Sonia (however unlikely) a secret drinker of vodka like Masha in The Seagull, with Soma's hay-making visible from the house (like the hay in Stanislavsky's production of The Cherry Orchard), emphasising the emotional weight behind every mention of the dead Vera Petrovna, amassing detail with an exactitude and fussiness that would amaze even Stanislavsky. Uncle Vania also acquired a second life in the Russian cinema. Notable is the 1975 version by Mikhail Konchalovsky in which Bondarchuk plays a rather middle-aged Astrov and Smoktunovsky plays an omni-present Vania, who, when not taking part in the action, is listening to it through the wall from his den of a room, in a house of almost Edgar Allen Poe atmosphere: the mood of brooding depression intensifying to the point of insanity is cinematically powerful, even though it is unfaithful to the callous comic strain of Chekhov's play.

Although Chekhov's second life can be said to be taking place in English, Chekhov's plays met the greatest resistance in England. The London production of Uncle Vania in 1914, however, roused The Times to commend it as 'a play utterly opposed to all our English notions of play making, a play of will-less people, futile people, drifters, just … pottering on with their disappointed, frustrated lives22 … not Vania, but little Sonia, little Other reviewers condemned it as 'a desolate, dreary, competent piece of work, no doubt good for us to see once …'. Directed by Komisarjevsky in 1921, the next English version of Uncle Vania was more successful: 'what Chekhov 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,' commented Desmond McCarthy in New Statesman, while James Agate declared the play 'quite perfect,' a view which long remained challenged, however tragically or comically Chekhov's subtitle 'Scenes from country life' was interpreted. Howard Barker, a radical playwright turned producer, however, has now decided to resolve his 'quarrel with Chekhov a man [ … ] who has to some extent institutionalised failure' by staging a version of Uncle Vania in which Vania shoots straight at the professor, with catastrophic results.23

If in Germany Uncle Vania found a ready acceptance (until the coming of the Nazis), in France it had to overcome the prejudice of critics such as Schlumberger, who in 1921 declared that the play 'lacked gathering, sacrifice in establishing the plan, it scorns the underlining of action, without which our taste for architecture is unsatisfied.' When Georges Pitoëff (who had studied under Stanislavsky) staged Uncle Vania in 1922, however, the view was trans-formed: Lucien Descaves found it had 'an anguish and an undeniable beauty.' In Japan, after Maurice Baring's chapter on Chekhov's plays had been translated, Uncle Vania was singled out for attention, just as in China it became by the 1950s the favourite foreign play.

Not only readers, but theatre performers, have been swayed by the interpretations of literary critics. In the English-speaking world they tended to emphasise the elegiac, melancholy aspects of Uncle Vania and played down the farce. Some of the best (and most influential) critiques have come from scholars with no knowledge of Russian; few have equalled the insights of F. L. Lucas in his The Drama of Chekhov, Synge, Yeats and Pirandello (London: Cassell, 1963). Although Lucas dismisses The Wood Demon out of hand, [he identifies] Uncle Vania and its diatribe against Serebriakov with Chekhov's personal loathing of critics. In such critiques Chekhov's play was pulled out of its Russian context and placed in a wider and larger context of unhappy comedies of love, of sylvan settings destroyed, from Ronsard and Molière to Thomas Hardy and Flaubert, whose god-like Dr Riviere Lucas turns into a Titanic predecessor of the Chekhovian doctor. Such an approach, of course, is open to the accusation that it contradicts Chekhov's own insistence on the comic nature of his work and the critic, like critics of Molière, is forced to take refuge in the notorious phrase 'Then Chekhov [Molière] was wrong.'

Of the linguistically qualified critics in English, David Magarshack (in Chekhov the Dramatist [New York: Hill and Wang, 1960]) was the first to deal adequately with the relationship between The Wood Demon and Uncle Vania. He divides Chekhov's plays into conventional plays of direct action and innovative plays of indirect action; he called The Wood Demon a play of transition, and classified Uncle Vania as a play of indirect action, setting out in parallel columns at least one scene from Act 1 of each play to show how very similar texts have different impact in changed frameworks. Before Magarshack no critic had given The Wood Demon such a fair examination. Magar-shack emphasises the complete opposition of Chekhov's intentions and achievement: 'teeming with coincidences and deus ex machina situations [ … ] the action of the play is in fact full of unlife-like melodramatic touches.'

Maurice Valency attracted attention to his study of Chek hov's drama by the serendipity of his title, The Breaking String (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966). He gave the first coherent account in English of the genesis of The Wood Demon and rightly points out that the play's contemporary critics never objected to the worst faults of the play: the use of 'found' letters and diaries to make the plot and hasten its denouement. Valency is a loyal Chekhovian in insisting that Uncle Vania's 'comedic aspects are quite incompatible with a tragic action' and sees the play as an ambiguous drama in which all the characters are mentally ill and 'have wrapped themselves up more or less comfortably against the elemental blasts'. The critical complacency becomes questionable only when Valency concludes that Uncle Vania shows 'Chekhov had achieved a certain proficiency in this exacting medium' (whereas 'the Three Sisters is not a well-made play. It is a chronicle in which may be discerned only the vestiges of a plot.')

Other critics such as J. L. Styan (Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays [Cambridge University Press, 1971]) have directed their efforts not so much towards a reader's interpretation but a director's staging. Styan is anxious that the director should appreciate the agrarian poverty of the world outside Chekhov's sets. Otherwise, too, this is an interpretation that centres on political issues: an interesting poll is produced to show how critics and directors of all nations split almost evenly on whether to interpret Sonia's last speech as a call for optimism or an illusion born of despair. The concern for consensus forces Styan to relegate his best insights to footnotes, notably a comment that the end of Act 2, in which Astrov and Sonia negotiate their future non-relationship foreshadows Act 4 of The Cherry Orchard and the even bleaker scene between Varia and Lopakhin.

The next generation of critics, such as Richard Peace (Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays [Yale: Harvard University Press, 1983]) and Laurence Senelick (Modern Dramatists: Anton Chekhov [London: Macmillan, 1985]) have paid less attention to Chekhov's development as a whole and have treated Uncle Vania as a work in the modern canon. Peace pays special attention to the almost Japanese role of the tea-drinking around which Act 1 is constructed and investigates the symbolism of the names, Voinitsky representing the 'warring' principle (voin-) and Elena the principle of idleness (len'-). Senelick has been more concerned to integrate Uncle Vania with modern, especially French drama (Beckett). Senelick points out the Bergsonian nature of Chekhovian time, as a flow outside which the characters are unable to stand, imprisoned like Proust in subjective time. The play thus becomes more like a novel, for time, it is implied in Chekhovian drama, must go on flowing after the curtain-fall. Senelick has fewer insights into the genesis of Chekhov's work than Russian critics, but his is one of the best attempts to fit it into the 20th-century European Zeitgeist, to see its link to the desolate symbolism of Strindberg. Perhaps the tendency to recruit Chekhov posthumously into the Theatre of the Absurd has gone too far; as the German critic Maria Deppermann has pointed out in a number of articles. Uncle Vania opens and closes with scenes of human affection which are completely uncharacteristic of the absurd and the alienated. However hopeless, Sonia's consolation of Vania and, however uncomprehending, Marina's concern for Astrov affirm some sort of sense and communion in human life.

Notes

13 Chekhov marked this part of the document in pencil with an irritated 'On whose part?' [U kogo?] As he was to insist to Olga Knipper, who not for the last time showed disappointing perversity in interpreting her roles, Astrov was not passionate towards Elena, but idly lecherous.

14 In 1899, however, the Aleksandrinsky theatre in St Petersburg tried and failed to secure the play and override the Committee's ban.

15 The power of Stanislavsky's acting may explain why some spectators felt that Astrov, not Voinitsky; should be the title role, that the centre of gravity had not really shifted from the doctor to Voinitsky in the conversion of The Wood Demon into Uncle Vania.

16 I am very grateful to the curator and archivist of the Museum of MKhaT in Moscow for permission to study this copy. It is numbered 18890, and dated 27 May 1899, with additional notes for Acts 1 in NemirovichDanchenko's hand (in red and blue). As the copy awaits publication I have agreed to restrain from a comprehensive description of Stanislavsky's an-notations and have limited myself to a few quotations and to a rough reproduction of Stanislavsky's sketches for the sets. Stanislavsky had unsewn a copy of Chekhov's Plays (1897) and for every page of Chekhov's text of Uncle Vania he interleaved a page of notes before rebinding the play. Most of Stanislavsky's many additional stage directions were not incorpo-rated into Chekhov's next edition of the work (1901). It is clear, however, that the few changes in the final version of Uncle Vania in Chekhov's collected works stem mostly from Stanislavsky's alterations.

17 There were, however, several performances in Czech in Prague and the Bohemian provinces in 1901.

18 Schnitzler's play was performed in Russian in MKhaT on the same night in 1904 as Uncle Vania was first performed in the Künstler theater in Vienna.

19 See Maria Deppermann, Tschechov unci Arthur Schnizler, in Kluge, op. cit., pp. 1161-85.

20 The talk was never broadcast: see Osip Mandelstam, Sobranie sochinenii IV (Paris, 1981) 107-9.

21 Viachelsav P'etsukh, Tsikly (Moscow, 1991) 155-61.

22A sentence repeated almost verbatim in another unsigned review of the play in The Times in 1945.

23The Guardian (9 April 1994) 29.

Previous

Essays and Criticism