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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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