Uncle Vanya – Footnotes
Chekhov as Comedy:
We talked during our episode about how it can seem unlikely that Chekhov’s late plays are described as comedies when the characters are all so unhappy. In fact, both The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard proclaim their intentions in their sub-title: A Comedy in Four Acts. Uncle Vanya is described as Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts, which suggests a potential variety of stories and fates. Three Sisters is signposted as A Drama in Four Acts, perhaps presaging a more conventionally serious play.
Chekhov said of Three Sisters that it “turned out to be dreary, long and awkward; I say awkward because it has four heroines and a spirit more gloomy than gloom itself”. I confess that I have often thought that it felt that way!
The desecration of the environment:
One of the most striking notes I took away from my rediscovering Uncle Vanya was how prophetic the warnings are about the destruction of our environment. The resonances are even more explicit in Conor McPherson’s text, particularly in Doctor Astrov’s impassioned references to the disappearing local forests and wildlife: “swathes of forest are disappearing under the axe, the soil turns to dust and blows away”. This could clearly have been written about our own times.
Even more specifically Astrov is planting trees himself, because as Sonya says: “Did you know that trees soften the climate”. A softer climate in which she even suggests that arts and science will thrive, and people will be more courteous to each other, especially to women. A romantic idealism perhaps, but also enlightenment through associated values.
Most pointedly Astrov throws down the gauntlet to future generations, to us: “I think about those people, a hundred years from now, they’ll have it all figured out Here’s what we can hope for”. Some hope.
Sonya’s unrequited love:
Surely the most heart wrenching scenes in the play are those showing Sonya suffering in her unnoticed love for Astrov. Chekhov ratchets up the poignancy of her predicament through two classic tropes: first when she dares to test Astrov’s feelings by asking him to imagine her younger sister was in love with him, and then even more excruciatingly when Yelena offers to speak to Astrov on her behalf. We know not only that her suit is a hopeless cause but that Yelena herself is aware that Astrov has feelings for her and vice versa.
Chekhov also captures so succinctly the relentless, solitary intensity of her love: “I’ve been in love with the doctor for six years now…I hear his voice, I feel his hands squeezing mine. Every time I look at the door I expect him to come in – but when he actually arrives it’s like he doesn’t even see me”.
Chekhov’s minor characters:
One of the great strengths of Chekhov’s plays is the depth of the minor characters, all of whom are given their own life stories. Even if they are apparently figures of comedy, they are also treated with empathy and dignity. In Uncle Vanya the character of Telegin or Waffles is a wonderful Chekhovian character, both funny and tragic at the same time. He has his big moment of telling his story about his wife leaving him the morning after his wedding to return to her old boyfriend, after one night of what he described as “conjugal bliss”, which clearly wasn’t for her, and then how he remained faithful to her all his life, supporting her illegitimate children. Throughout his faithfulness he claims to have maintained his pride and integrity. It is somehow both pathetic and noble, and in the current West End production Peter Wight captures his pride and his wounded sorrow beautifully.
Stanislavski on Chekhov:
The partnership between Chekhov and the famous producer and director Stanislavksi was hugely significant for both men, and for the development of drama. Stanislavski had a special understanding of Chekhov’s artistic intentions and method, and he applied this understanding to create a new form of dramatic technique that focussed on the inner truth of the characters’ stories. There is a passage from Stanislavski’s My Life in Art that is quoted in the introduction to the Penguin Classic collection of Chekhov’s plays that I thought is worth highlighting for its perceptive summary of the elusive quality of Chekhov’s dramatic comedies:
In his dramatic works Chekhov has achieved an equal mastery over the internal as well as the external truth….The truth moves us by its unexpectedness, by its mysterious links with our forgotten past, by its inexplicable foreknowledge of the future, by that peculiar logic of living experience which baffles common sense, which seems to mock or even play malicious tricks on human beings, at times perplexing them utterly and at times making them laugh.
I cannot pretend to be qualified to summarise the influence of Chekhov on the art of dramatists that followed over the past century and more. There are a few direct attributions that I came across in my researches:
- George Bernard Shaw’s play of 1919, Heartbreak House, was clearly modelled on Chekhov, as he explicitly acknowledges in its subtitle: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. Its ensemble cast of English gentry locked together in a country house under the existential threat of the first world war clearly echoes Chekhov’s settings, although Shaw is more overt in his use of his characters as mouthpieces for social messages.
- Stanislavski, and perhaps indirectly Chekhov, had a major impact on the course of 20th century drama through their influence on Lee Strasberg and his approach to what became known as “method” acting. Strasberg was in the audience when the Moscow Art Theatre brought its productions of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters to New York in 1923. In his Group Theatre company and the Actor’s Studio that followed Strasberg taught performers to access their personal feelings and memories to convey the inner truths of the characters. Although it is not essential to apply the method to effectively dramatize Chekhov, this approach did highlight the psychological realism of his drama.
- In the 1940’s in America, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller’s reflected the influence of Chekhov in their focus on precise family dynamics and personal frailties, heightened by a mythical vision. When Williams was asked to name his favourite writers he said: “Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov”.
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