Uncle Vanya

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Uncle Vanya
Astrov in Uncle Vanya 1899 Stanislavski.jpg
Konstantin Stanislavski as Astrov
in the Moscow Art Theatre production in 1899.
Written by Anton Chekhov
Original language Russian
Setting Garden of the Serebryakov family estate
IBDB profile

Uncle Vanya (Russian: Дядя ВаняDyadya Vanya) is a play by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. It was first published in 1897 and received its Moscow première in 1899 in a production by the Moscow Art Theatre, under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski.

The play portrays the visit of an elderly professor and his glamorous, much younger second wife, Yeléna, to the rural estate that supports their urban lifestyle. Two friends, Vanya, brother of the Professor's late first wife, who has long managed the estate, and Astrov, the local Doctor, both fall under Yelena's spell, while bemoaning the ennui of their provincial existence. Sonya, the Professor's daughter by his first wife, who has worked with Vanya to keep the estate going, meanwhile suffers from the awareness of her own lack of beauty and from her unrequited feelings for Dr. Astrov. Matters are brought to a crisis when the Professor announces his intention to sell the estate, Vanya and Sonya's home and raison d'être, with a view to investing the proceeds to achieve a higher income for himself and his wife.

Background[edit]

Uncle Vanya is unique among Chekhov's major plays because it is essentially an extensive reworking of his own play published a decade earlier, The Wood Demon.[1] By elucidating the specific changes Chekhov made during the revision process – these include reducing the cast-list from almost two dozen down to a lean nine, changing the climactic suicide of the The Wood Demon into the famous failed homicide of Uncle Vanya, and altering the original happy ending into a more problematic, less final resolution – critics such as Donald Rayfield, Richard Gilman, and Eric Bentley have sought to chart the development of Chekhov's dramaturgical method through the 1890s.

Rayfield cites recent scholarship suggesting Chekhov revisited The Wood Demon during his trip to the island of Sakhalin, a prison colony in Eastern Russia, in 1891.

Characters[edit]

  • Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov (Александр Владимирович Серебряков) – a retired university professor, who has lived for years in the city on the earnings of his late first wife's rural estate, managed for him by Vanya and Sonya.
  • Helena Andreyevna Serebryakova (Yelena) (Елена Андреевна Серебрякова) – Professor Serebryakov's young and beautiful second wife. She is 27 years old.
  • Sofia Alexandrovna Serebryakova (Sonya) (Софья Александровна Серебрякова) – Professor Serebryakov's daughter from his first marriage. She is of a marriageable age but is considered plain.
  • Maria Vasilyevna Voynitskaya (Мария Васильевна Войницкая) – the widow of a privy councilor and mother of Vanya (and of Vanya's late sister, the Professor's first wife).
  • Ivan Petrovitch Voynitsky ("Uncle Vanya") (Иван Петрович Войницкий) – Maria's son and Sonya's uncle, the title character of the play. He is 47 years old.
  • Mikhail Lvovich Astrov (Михаил Львович Астров) – a middle aged country doctor.
  • Ilya Ilych Telegin (Илья Ильич Телегин; nicknamed "Waffles" for his pockmarked skin) – an impoverished landowner, who now lives on the estate as a dependent of the family.
  • Marina Timofeevna (Марина Тимофеевна) – an old nurse.
  • A Workman

Plot[edit]

Act I[edit]

A garden in Serebryakov's country estate. Astrov and Marina discuss how old Astrov has grown, and how he feels bored with his life as a country doctor. Vanya enters, yawning from a nap, the three complain about how all order has been disrupted since the professor and his wife, Yelena, arrived. As they’re talking, Serebryakov, Yelena, Sonya, and Telegin return from a walk. Out of the professor's earshot, Vanya calls him "a learned old dried mackerel," criticizing him for his pomposity and the smallness of his achievements. Vanya’s mother, Maria Vasilyevna, who idolizes Serebryakov, objects to her son’s derogatory comments. Vanya also praises the professor’s wife, Yelena, for her beauty, arguing that faithfulness to an old man like Serebryakov means silencing youth and emotions — an immoral waste of vitality. Astrov is forced to depart to attend a patient, but not before delivering a speech on the preservation of the forests, a subject he is very passionate about. Act I closes with Yelena becoming exasperated as Vanya declares his love for her.

Act II[edit]

The dining room, several days later. It is late at night. Before going to bed, Serebryakov complains of being in pain and of old age. Astrov arrives, having been sent for by Sonya, but the professor refuses to see him. After Serebryakov is asleep, Yelena and Vanya talk. She speaks of the discord in the house, and Vanya speaks of dashed hopes. He feels he’s misspent his youth, and he associates his unrequited love for Yelena with the devastation of his life. Yelena refuses to listen. Alone, Vanya questions why he did not fall in love with Yelena when he first met her ten years before, when it would have been possible for the two to have married and had a happy life together. At that time, Vanya believed in Prof. Serebryakov’s greatness and was happy to think that his own efforts supported Serebryakov's work; now he has become disillusioned with the professor and his life feels empty. As Vanya agonizes over his past, Astrov returns, the worse for drink, and the two talk together. Sonya chides Vanya for his drinking, and responds pragmatically to his reflections on the futility of a wasted life, pointing out that only work is truly fulfilling.

Outside, a storm is gathering and Astrov talks with Sonya about the suffocating atmosphere in the house; Astrov says Serebryakov is difficult, Vanya is a hypochondriac, and Yelena is charming but idle. He laments that it’s a long time since he loved anyone. Sonya begs Astrov to stop drinking, telling him it is unworthy of him to destroy himself. The two discuss love, during which it becomes clear that Sonya is in love with the Doctor and that he is unaware of her feelings.

When the doctor leaves, Yelena enters and makes peace with Sonya, after an apparently long period of mutual anger and antagonism. Trying to resolve their past difficulties, Yelena reassures Sonya that she had strong feelings for her father when she married him, though the love proved false. The two women converse at cross purposes, with Yelena confessing her unhappiness and Sonya gushing about the doctor’s virtues. In a happy mood, Sonya leaves to ask the professor if Yelena may play the piano. Sonya returns with his negative answer, which quickly dampens the mood.

Act III[edit]

Vanya, Sonya, and Yelena are in the living room, having been called there by Serebryakov. Vanya calls Yelena a water nymph and urges her, once again, to break free. Sonya complains to Yelena that she has loved Astrov for six years but that, because she is not beautiful, he doesn’t notice her. Yelena volunteers to question Astrov and find out if he’s in love with Sonya. Sonya is pleased, but before agreeing she wonders whether uncertainty is better than knowledge, because then, at least, there is hope.

When Yelena asks Astrov about his feelings for Sonya, he says he has none and concludes that Yelena has brought up the subject of love to encourage him to confess his own emotions for her. Astrov kisses Yelena, and Vanya witnesses the embrace. Upset, Yelena begs Vanya to use his influence so that she and the professor can leave immediately. Before Serebryakov can make his announcement, Yelena conveys to Sonya the message that Astrov doesn’t love her.

Serebryakov proposes that he solve the family’s financial problems by selling the estate, and using the proceeds to invest in interest-bearing paper which will bring in a significantly higher income (and, he hopes, leave enough over to buy a villa for himself and Yelena in Finland). Angrily, Vanya asks where he, Sonya, and his mother would live. He protests that the estate rightly belongs to Sonya and that Vanya has never been appreciated for the self-sacrifice it took to rid the property of debt. As Vanya’s anger mounts, he begins to rage against the professor, blaming him for the failure of his life, wildly claiming that, without Serebryakov to hold him back, he could have been a second Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky. In despair, he cries out to his mother, but instead of comforting her son, Maria insists that Vanya listen to the professor. Serebryakov insults Vanya, who storms out of the room. Yelena begs to be taken away from the country and Sonya pleads with her father on Vanya's behalf. Serebryakov exits to confront Vanya further. A shot is heard from offstage and Serebryakov returns, being chased by Vanya, who is wielding a loaded pistol. He fires the pistol again at the professor, but misses. He throws the gun down in disgust and sinks into a chair.

Act IV[edit]

As the final act opens, a few hours later, Marina and Telegin wind wool and discuss the planned departure of Serebryakov and Yelena. When Vanya and Astrov enter, Astrov says that in this district only he and Vanya were "decent, cultured men" and that ten years of "narrow-minded life" have made them vulgar. Vanya has stolen a vial of Astrov’s morphine, presumably to commit suicide; Sonya and Astrov beg him to return the narcotic, which he eventually does.

Yelena and Serebryakov bid everyone farewell. When Yelena says goodbye to Astrov, she admits to having been carried away by him, embraces him, and takes one of his pencils as a souvenir. Serebryakov and Vanya make their peace, agreeing all will be as it was before. Once the outsiders have departed, Sonya and Vanya pay bills, Maria reads a pamphlet, and Marina knits. Vanya complains of the heaviness of his heart, and Sonya, in response, speaks of living, working, and the rewards of the afterlife: "We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. . . . You've had no joy in your life; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. . . . We shall rest."

Themes[edit]

Uncle Vanya is thematically preoccupied with frustrated hopes and what might be called the "wasted life"; Chekhov's characters are each unhappy, and (like Tolstoy's unhappy families) they are each unhappy in their own way. In this sense, there are many parallels with other Chekhov plays.

Arguably it remains somewhat difficult to organize these concepts into a coherent theme as they belong more to the play's "nastroenie," its melancholic mood or atmosphere, than to a distinct program of ideas.

Productions[edit]

Scene from Act I, Moscow Art Theatre, 1899.

Although the play had previous small runs in provincial theatres in 1898, its metropolitan première took place on 7 November [O.S. 26 October] 1899 at the Moscow Art Theatre. Constantin Stanislavski played the role of Astrov while Chekhov's future wife Olga Knipper played Yelena. The initial reviews were favourable yet pointed to defects in both the play and the acting. As the staging and the acting improved over successive performances, however, and as "the public understood better its inner meaning and nuances of feeling," the reviews improved.[2] Uncle Vanya became a permanent fixture in the Moscow Art Theatre.

Other actors who have appeared in notable stage productions of Uncle Vanya include Franchot Tone, Cate Blanchett, Jacki Weaver, Antony Sher, Ian McKellen, William Hurt, George C. Scott, Donald Sinden, Derek Jacobi and Trevor Eve. The cast of the celebrated 1963 Laurence Olivier production is discussed below under Film and opera adaptations. The play was also adapted as the new stage-play Dear Uncle by the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who reset it in the 1930s Lake District – this adaptation premiered from July to September 2011 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.[3]

The Reduced Shakespeare Company performed a shortened version of the play on their BBC radio show, which contained only three lines:
Are you Uncle Vanya?
I am.
[Gunshot sounds]
Ouch!

Uncle Vanya and Zombies by Anton Chekhov and Markus Wessendorf, a post-apocalyptic stage adaptation of Chekhov's play with the following premise: "After a major zombie outbreak on the island of Oʻahu, a television network has turned Kennedy Theatre into a studio for their new reality show Theatre Masterpieces and Zombies. The major challenge for the contestants on this show is to survive their performance of a classic play while fending off zombies released onto the stage by the popular host. After the success of last month's The Tempest and Zombies, tonight's show will feature a classic example of Russian Realism, Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1897)." Uncle Vanya and Zombies premiered in November 2012 at Kennedy Theatre in Honolulu.[4][5]

Film and opera adaptations[edit]

Over the years, Uncle Vanya has been adapted for film several times.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Awards
  • 2003 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival
Nominations
  • 1992 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival
  • 2000 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ryan McKittrick (2008). "Moscow's First Uncle Vanya: Checkhov and the Moscow Art Theatre". American Repertory Theatre. Archived from the original on 2008-06-19. Retrieved 2008-10-13. 
  2. ^ Simmons, Ernest (1962). Chekhov, A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. p. 486. 
  3. ^ Alfred Hickling (2011-07-14). "Dear Uncle – review | Stage". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-11-25. 
  4. ^ Ryan Senaga (2012-11-10). "Review: 'Uncle Vanya' an unexpected charmer". Honolulu: Honolulu Pulse. Retrieved 2013-05-01. 
  5. ^ Steve Wagenseller (2012-11-14). "The Wasted Life of Zombies". Honolulu: Honolulu Weekly. Retrieved 2013-05-01. 
  6. ^ Quotes taken from the VHS recording issued by Arthur Cantor Films, New York.

Further reading[edit]

  • Chekhov, Anton; Marian Fell (trans.) (1916) [1899]. Uncle Vanya: Scenes From Country Life (Tenth edition ed.). Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2008-10-13. 

External links[edit]