This play was written by Anton Chekhov over a period of many years, but completed in 1897 and performed in 1899 at the Moscow Art Theatre. The play focuses on the Voynitsky household, who have been plunged into turmoil by the appearance of the irritable Professor Serebryakov and his beautiful young wife Elena. "Uncle" Vanya Voynitsky is the professor's brother-in-law; the professor was once was married to Vanya's beloved, now deceased, sister, and it was to support the professor that Vanya sacrificed his adult life in hard work and privation. Other characters include the professor's diligent adult daughter Sonya and a doctor, Astrov, whose idealism has waned and who now spends much of his time drunk. Astrov and Vanya love Elena; Sonya loves Astrov. It is classic Chekhov: a tragic comedy of breakdowns and conversational cross-purposes caused by the loss of a full and meaningful life.

I have just seen two productions of this play: one live, performed by Toronto's acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre Company; and one filmed, Louis Malle's adaptation Vanya on 42nd St., which I had seen in the cinema in 1994 when it was new and just saw again on video.

The play that I just saw was certainly sad, but the pathos was punctuated by farcical moments of almost vaudevillian one-liners and slapstick, while the movie gave rather more prominent place to tears. One of my companions at the theatre, a recent arrival from the Czech Republic, related that he had seen the play in high school, when it was presented in a much more sober fashion than the version we saw. However, the program explained that Chekhov was dissatisfied with the Moscow Art Theatre's treatment of his plays as dramas, since he saw them as comedies. A quotation from Chekhov to another (unnamed) writer, reproduced in the program, reads:

"You tell me that people cry at my plays. I've heard others say the same. But that was not why I wrote them. It is Stanislavsky who made my characters into cry-babies. All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again, 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!' What is there to cry about?"

So Soulpepper, it seems, was closer to the mark.

For me, films are often preferable to plays, which can feel claustrophobic and artificial in a way movies do not. The exaggerated voices and actions of stage actors and the restricted space in which they must move often pales for me in comparison with the paradoxical intimacy of films, which can show a whole world of settings yet pull in to catch a whisper or a sigh that would be missed in a theatre setting. That was not the case here, though. The movie version of this play is set in a crumbling New York theatre, and the cramped space of the stage was compressed even further as the actors bunched up on a bench or sofa so that the camera could take in several faces at once. Soulpepper's version took place in a living room with faded carpet, ringed by a dirt "path" around which a servant pushed a wheelbarrow; the curtain was a sheet of plastic down which "rain" drizzled; the backdrop, a sheet which billowed in a storm. The actors moved around the stage, Elena not restricted to sitting on the bench watching Vanya rant, instead moving to the back to lean in an open doorway, boredom in every line of her body. The stage production seemed much more vital, much more alive, to me. I was surprised.

Having said all that, I well remember when I saw the film, for it was the first time I'd seen the luminously beautiful and talented Julianne Moore perform; I was stunned at how good she was, and she remained so at this second viewing. And Wallace Shawn as Uncle Vanya? Well, it's hard to believe a man so odd-looking, so short, so bald, and with such a nasal voice, can do more than be the Grand Nagus (which he does admirably), but he is very good in this role. The actors save the movie, but the concept of filming this play in this fashion was, I feel now, an interesting experiment which looks much less successful after seeing a virtuoso live performance.

This node is about Uncle Vanya, a play in four acts written by Russian author Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.

Reading Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is like immersing yourself into a steaming vat of poisonous vapours. The characters seem to breathe in their own vapours of discontentment and create an atmosphere that chokes everybody. With several characters accusing the others of being responsible for their unhappiness, they tend to irritate each other with their complaints.

The title character, Uncle Vanya, or Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky is incredibly bitter about his own life and jealous of his brother in law, Professor Serebriakov. Having paid for his brother in law's education by sending him profits from his farming work, Vanya is stricken by misfortune. His sister that married Serebriakov dies and the professor marries Elena Andreevna, a young woman that Vanya himself was in love with. His love for her and desire to be with her do not weaken over the years. Therefore, Ivan Ivanovich follows her around, professing his love, and trying to talk her into an affair all the while cursing his former brother in law, who has had the luck of being financially supported by him and blessed with a beautiful, young woman that he had wanted.

Elena Andreevna meanwhile feels herself cursed by her marriage to Serebriakov. The man had become unbearable and impossible to be around. Resentful of being unable to be in the company of intellectual people, he takes his anger out on her and accuses her of not loving him anymore and desiring to cheat on him with a younger man. His accusations, though unfounded, do reflect Elena's secret yearnings. Disappointed with him, Elena wishes that she could be in the arms of a companion who is loving, charming, warm, and vigorous instead of being tied down to an ill elderly man in constant need of care and who, worst of all, is bitter and whiny. The play reveals Elena to be in a neurotic, torn state of mind; she is aware of her desire for a younger man and is still somewhat flirts with and entices other men. However, she is determined to press down her impulses and remain faithful to her husband. Her resolution doesn't bring her any peace of mind and she often grieves over being chained against her own desires to an undesirable, repulsive man.

The disappointment with life experienced by Doctor Astrov is more metaphysical, as he tends to think over things more deeply than any of the other characters. He laments the destruction of forests and is in despair about the general rotten nature of mankind. He perceives his patients, the peasants, to be of a rough and dumb nature, unable to understand the complexities of life, and transcend their everyday concerns of farming, eating, and getting incredibly drunk on vodka. The intellectuals on the other hand are equally unbearable, because they seek a superficial life of pleasure. Astrov views their involvement in discussions of philosophy, music, and art as meaningless games meant either for entertainment or for the competitive advantage of using knowledge as a way to increase self prestige.

Astrov's belief in the self-serving nature of intellectual achievement indirectly comments on one the characters in the play, more specifically Serebriakov. Elena Andreevna and Ivan Petrovich both talk about how Serebriakov's career as a university lecturer of art history served to bolster his ego; his smarts attracted women and the prestige of his colleagues as well as students. It is precisely the attention of colleagues and students that Serebriakov misses in his retirement.

Serebriakov seeks to bolster his ego at the farm by demanding that his intellectual smarts be respected by others. He tells his wife that when he has something to say to the others at the estate, they should listen to him, because that's the kind of respect he feels himself entitled to by his career. He thus feels insulted when his words aren't taken seriously. Uncle Vanya's hatred of Serebriakov is mostly due to the latter's succesful use of his smarts as a mechanism of power. Vanya's dead sister and his beloved Elena Andreevna both fell in love with Serebriakov because they were attracted to his genius. In the case of Elena Andreevna, Serebriakov had lured her with his image of intellectual brilliance into an otherwise unhappy marriage. Vanya realizes that this "image of genius" had served to ruin both his and Elena Andreevna's life. If not for Serebriakov's having attracted Elena, Vanya would have been able to win her over himself and be a more loving husband for her than the professor. Thus, both would have been happy.

As the situation stands, Vanya compares his love for Elena to a sun ray striking a deep pit in the ground. Just like the ray of sun loses its warmth and power to illuminate by hitting a cold, dark pit in the ground, his own heart loses its love and warmth because Elena has rejected him and fell into the snare of the deceptive Professor. Cursing this evilness of fate, Uncle Vanya refuses to talk to Elena's husband altogether. But towards the end of the play, Ivan Petrovich's hatred towards Serebriakov is expressed by more than just avoidance, as Vanya unsuccessfuly aims two gunshots at the professor.

With people being angry enough with each other to both quarrel and shoot from a gun, one would hope that some benevolent character in the play would try to stop them from throttling each other's throats. Such a character is Sonya, the daughter of the professor and his first wife, also niece to Ivan Petrovich. Being related to him and the Serebriakov, she is sympathethic to both and tries to get them to view matters from each other's point of view and to reconcile. She is more understanding of her uncle's bitterness than the others. Through her eyes, the reader is also able to gain a compassionate viewpoint towards this man that otherwise comes across as an annoying ranter who always complains about the professor. Sonya reveals her Uncle Vanya's sensitive side in one of the most poignant moments of the play, when Vanya begins to shed tears while looking into Sonya's face. "Why are you suddenly crying," asks Sonya. "You look so much like your mother, and looking at your face makes me see hers," replies Ivan Petrovich.

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