There are many reasons why Uncle Vanya stands out among the great masterpieces Chekhov wrote at the end of his life. The only one of his late plays to be published before it was performed, Uncle Vanya was also the only one to be staged first in the provinces before being given its metropolitan premiere. Russian theatregoers had begun to take Uncle Vanya to their hearts even before Stanislavsky’s fabled production for the Moscow Art Theatre sealed the play’s success in October 1899, a full two years after its first performance in faraway Rostov-on-Don. Indeed, the previous year Maxim Gorky had written to Chekhov to tell him that he had sat through a performance in Nizhny Novgorod sobbing his eyes out.
With the availability of the published script, Uncle Vanya also rapidly became a favourite with amateur dramatic societies, and thousands of theatregoers across the country saw the play before its author received the opportunity to attend a performance himself. Marooned by his illness in the temperate climes of Yalta, Chekhov had to wait until the Moscow Art Theatre undertook a special tour to the Crimea: the company’s reputation had been made in its inaugural season in 1898 with his work, and it was eager to repay the debt. Uncle Vanya was performed in the author’s presence in Sevastopol, on 10 April 1900, followed on subsequent nights by Hauptmann’s Lonely Lives, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and The Seagull. The four plays, all written in the previous decade, were then performed in Yalta to great acclaim.
Chekhov gave Uncle Vanya the apparently insouciant sub-title “Scenes from Country Life,” appropriating the sub-title of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Appropriately, the play was first staged in provincial theatres, and its popularity with audiences who lived hundreds of miles from Russia’s two main cities is understandable. Having grown up in remote Taganrog, Chekhov knew first-hand how desperate life could be in the provinces, and by this time he had written numerous stories about intelligent but nondescript people who seem to suffer unjustly, or without understanding why (the despairing village schoolteacher in his 1897 story In the Cart would provide perhaps the most eloquent variation on this theme). In Uncle Vanya, he created on stage a cast of unhappy characters, in whom many people felt for the first time that they were seeing reflections of themselves. Chekhov’s subtle dramas of mood were light years away from the clichés of Russia’s ossified conventional theatre with its stock characters.
Uncle Vanya also struck a chord with audiences in Moscow. Chekhov’s younger brother Mikhail, the future director, thought he recognised the shadow of their selfless, hard-working sister Masha behind the character of Sonya, for example. Others were reminded of their own family situations when encountering the play’s complex web of dysfunctional relationships on stage. And the hundreds of doctors who attended the special performance of Uncle Vanya in Moscow that Dr. Chekhov had arranged for them during the 1902 Pirogov Congress of Physicians felt a natural sympathy with Astrov, as did the playwright himself. Chekhov completed Uncle Vanya at his small estate in the Moscow countryside, where, amongst other things, he had planted trees, treated peasants, and made friends with Pyotr Kurkin, an idealistic young zemstvo doctor he had worked with during the cholera epidemic of 1892. Kurkin, who brought geographical factors into the study of disease, and lent his maps for the Moscow Art Theatre production, was one of the main inspirations for Astrov.
In Uncle Vanya, Chekhov had boldly written a play about a group of unremarkable individuals who seemingly randomly enter and leave, after holding desultory conversations which invariably degenerate into arguments. Uncle Vanya is neither tragedy nor farce, and the script is littered with strange pauses - what is dramatic about that? Chekhov seemed to have turned the conventional play inside out, having decided to create a drama out of the seams and stitch work one is not supposed to see.
When the play was first staged in translation in London in 1914, this was not theatre as British actors or audiences knew it. But gradually, as British theatres adjusted their focus and became accustomed to this radical new approach to drama, they came to understand what audiences in Russia intuitively grasped: that beneath its surface preoccupation with the sometimes self-indulgent concerns of the late nineteenth-century intelligentsia, Uncle Vanya was a play about life, and what we make of the hand that we are dealt. Chekhov’s light touch masks an engagement with the conundrum of human existence which we can all relate to, and which is as relevant today as it was in the 1890s. Storm Jameson put it well in 1920 when she noted that Chekhov’s drama was “not concerned with facts of everyday life but with life itself, its value and meaning.” Uncle Vanya’s universality becomes apparent when we consider its subsequent fate in its performance in English-language productions. In the latter part of the 20th century, helped along by Constance Garnett’s genteel Edwardian translation, actors like Lawrence Olivier turned Uncle Vanya into an elegy for the decline of the English aristocracy, largely shorn of humour. The identification of Chekhov’s elliptical technique with British restraint, has since been challenged by Anthony Hopkins’ Welsh Uncle Vanya, in his film August (1996), Brian Friel’s Irish tinted adaptation (1998), and John Byrne’s Uncle Varick, in which the play is transplanted to 1960’s rural Scotland (2004). Uncle Vanya has also been effectively transported to the contemporary urban setting of New York in Louis Malle and Andre Gregory’s film Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), and to the Australian outback in Michael Blakemore’s Country Life (1994).
By calling his central character Vanya, Chekhov nevertheless suggests he is a kind of everyman: his nickname is the diminutive of Ivan, the Russian form of John. As the drama critic for the Observer declared in a review of 1945: “This is… Everyman who ever frittered away his powers and chances and found himself near 50, unloved, unoccupied, and unfulfilled.” Chekhov was all of 36 when he completed Uncle Vanya, and was aware he himself would never reach the age of 50. In a letter he wrote to his best friend Alexei Suvorin at this time, he confided that he was coughing blood. Six months later a lung hemorrhage made public the tuberculosis which would kill him before his 45th birthday, and it was this knowledge of his own mortality which informed the life lessons imparted in Uncle Vanya.
Chekhov spent his short life making the most of it, by devoting himself at least as much to philanthropy, ecology and the hard work of honouring his creative gifts, as he did to hedonistic pursuits. By writing plays about the pain arising when people who have clung to their habits and delusions are forced to confront a reality which contradicts them, he hoped to encourage his complacent audiences to live each day as if it were their last. And yet the sentiments expressed in Uncle Vanya are a million miles away from the deeply entrenched didactic tradition in Russian letters, nor are they in any way portentous. Chekhov’s theatre-going life had begun with a visit to Offenbach’s exuberant operetta La belle Hélène when he was a teenager in Taganrog, and the irreverence of its parody of Greek mythology and “straight” opera left its mark on his mature drama. As he wrote once in a letter: “In spite of all my attempts at being serious, the result is nothing; with me the serious always alternates with the trivial.”
The genius of Uncle Vanya and of all Chekhov’s late plays, is the fine balance he manages to strike between the compassion evinced for victims of life’s flagrant injustices, whereby one person has it all, and the next has nothing, and the humour provoked in him by the absurdity of the human condition.
“You ask what life is,” he wrote to Olga Knipper a few months before his death. “That is like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot and there is nothing more to know.”
Rosamund Bartlett is the author of Chekhov: Scenes From a Life, editor of Chekhov: A Life in Letters and translator of the Chekhov anthology, About Love And Other Stories.
Uncle Vanya | 5 February – 26 March 2016 | Info & Tickets