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Uncle Vanya

The following is a translated abstract from a larger thesis presented at the Theatrical Studies Department, University of Athens (professor Spyros Evangelatos).

During the rehearsals for the staging of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Art Theater of Moscow, the writer rarely gave explanations to the actors about their roles. When asked, he replied “it’s all written there”.
This play touches deeply our soul and that’s why the attempts to analyze it are at a time difficult and important. However, when something touches your soul, you want to know why this happened, to investigate it, to understand. Sometimes the understanding of an emotion makes it more important, more deep; that must be one of the reasons that critics write.

Historical elements

The play was written in a period of strikes, revolutionary agitations and helpless reformations in Russia. A few years ago, Alexander II had been murdered. The Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were approaching. This confusion, fear and hope are reflected in Chekhov’s plays. It is not suggested that the play dramatizes contemporary historical events; each creator is a member of a society that has created him and therefore influences his work. Besides, plays like the Cherry Orchard can be considered also as a prophecy, in which future social and political changes, at the peak of whose is the Revolution of October 1917, are depicted.
One could perhaps claim that in Uncle Vanya some true historical facts are suggested, such as the murder of Alexander II in 1881- Vanya’s attempt to kill his spiritual father, Serebriakov. Russians called their Zahr “father”; he was a monarch at the top of social hierarchy. Vanya, Sonia and Helena are actually disappointed by Serebriakov, the top of their domestic hierarchy, while they all once worshiped him. Serebriakov’s people is now repressed and ready to revolt. Only Vanya’s old mother keeps faith with him, reminding us of the ageing and obstinate upper-class in Russia.
Furthermore, the only “decent, thinking people” of the play, as Astrov claims, are Vanya and himself, whose actual life is in contradiction with their ideal one- as Hugh Mac Lean writes in the Handbook of Russian Literature - which they approach only through memory or imagination. They live in the country, far away from the vivid and desired St. Petersburg’s society, where Serebriakov lives. This may imply that, in Chekhov’s Russia, a mixture of eastern monarchy and pale attempts towards the protection of human rights, people with value were often neglected, while others were overestimated.

The place

Action takes place in Russian country. These countrymen wear “extraordinary ties” as Chekhov himself once said. Astrov and Vanya are worthy and cultivated, although they live in the countryside. Besides, Sonya believes “forests make the earth beautiful, teach people how to conceive beauty and inspire them.” Astrov, much later, argues that these beautiful forests are slowly destructed, that earth becomes ugly; peasants are uneducated; poverty is stronger than purity of nature. Despite purity and harmony country life isolates him from the reigning upper society. When Teliegin talks about how beautiful the weather is and how beautifully the birds sing, his words sound ironic.

Dramatic Action

Dramatic Action is subtle, internal, with many hints and hidden meanings. Conflicts are hard to be seen; the external peace, the balance is very seldom disturbed. Repetitions, such as the opening dialogue of the play between Marina and Astrov-which is repeated just before he leaves in Act IV- give sometimes the impression that nothing changes; after these four Acts, though, some of the heroes will leave the house-not with the hope of a better life but because of the fear and disappointment by this one- others will remain, heart-broken and sad, having lost the hope for Happiness in this life. People’s lives will be radically changed, but if you are not very attentive, you may not even notice.
These lives are not ideal. Each hero has his own problem and they are often unable to communicate, unable to discuss; it sometimes seems as if they talk simultaneously without listening to one another; emotions are seldom shared.
What is also very important is that the attention of the viewer/reader is drawn by all those different and complete voices. This constitutes an additional challenge for a director, who must choose very competent actors even for the smaller parts and train them all so that they become a coherent body. Only the attentive, careful construction of a coherent body during rehearsals may create the impression of the ‘deconstruction’ mentioned above. Only if actors communicate deeply, they will persuade us they do not communicate at all.

Dramatis Personae

I must now breach this ’coherent body’. In this translation of my thesis, I chose to talk only about some of the characters, for I find it proper not to exceed 2,000 words .

Astrov is a doctor and also an ecologist –many decades before the birth of the ecological movement .He is a hard working doctor, “as nobody else in our region”, as himself says. Astrov is a talented man and talent means “to be daring, open-minded, to fly high” (Helena, Act II).However, adds Helena, “a talented man in Russia cannot remain pure”. Astrov is already old. He loves none. What reveals that he is a man of sensibility is his tenderness towards Marina and his love for the forests. And people who love forests “are beautiful, sensible, their speech is elegant, their movements graceful, they are gentle with women” says Sonya(Act I), describing Astrov as she sees him, an Astrov that does not exist anymore.
His only vices are vodka and beautiful women. Once a month he gets drunk; he then feels successful and so powerful that all the others seem inferior to him. Helena excites him but he does not love her as Vanya does. He accuses people of being destructive, while he is both self-destructive and eager to destroy Helena-saving her at the same time. Astrov’s behavior is controversial, combining vices and virtues, one of which is his faith in the future, the feeling he’s trying hard for the future happiness of coming generations.
La commedia is soon finita (Astrov, Act IV) for him, as he admits both ironically and bitterly. Being aware of his impotence to persuade Helena to stay, he does nothing but cries “how weird” and gives her a bear-hug.

Uncle Vanya is also quite pessimistic about the present; in addition, he despises the future, too. He is a pessimist because he is ashamed of himself, tired loving a woman that does not want him and disappointed in his idol, professor Serebriakov.
He also is a hard worker- or rather used to be before Helena’s arrival-he is honest and sincere. He has many things in common with Astrov and if we asked ourselves the common question about writers “with whom does Chekhov feel more related” the answer would probably be: “with both of them”. Astrov talks about them both referring to a mutual fate and Sonya, when she sees them drinking exclaims “Look at you! You are the perfect match!”
Vanya, before having betrayed himself and being betrayed by others, was a talented man, too, a man who could have been “a Schopenhauer, a Dostoyevski”, as himself says. More comical than Astrov, Vanya is brave and daring; he is only late, in both the cases of Helena and Serebriakov.
There is a lack of the right timing; and a lack of love from his mother and his spiritual father. His mother’s indifference never stops, not even when he cries for help, for support, when he asks her to play her role. She has dedicated her life in her child’s enemy. He needs a maternal figure. In the end, Sonya will become the mother of her uncle.

Sonya is a hard-working girl who takes care of everybody, loves her uncle and is in love with Astrov. As she knows that she is not beautiful, she does not try to seduce Astrov, yet she almost confesses her love to him.
She is not an object of admiration, like Helena; she does not envy her, though. She trusts to her. When rejected by Astrov, Sonya does not feel anger neither hate. When Astrov leaves, she says “he left” and enters the house to continue her everyday tasks. Despite the fact she is heart-broken and miserable, she is a survivor, too. The love she feels for her uncle- who is as miserable as her but more aged and disappointed- and her faith to after-life will help her to endure life.

In all Chekhov’s plays there is a dramatic distance between the aspirations and illusions of the various characters and reality. In a way the plot of Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, can be summarized as “lost expectations”, or “lost illusions”. There is a feeling of collective frustration, due to the fact that all actual opportunities seem to have been lost. One however has to keep in mind that Chekhov does not despise or underestimate them. This sympathy or identification to their sufferings constitutes in a way the basis for his persisting optimism that a better future awaits younger generations.

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