Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts

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Here is the summary for you to get a clearer idea about this impressive novel.

Uncle 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, Yelena, 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, suffers 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, with a view to investing the proceeds to achieve a higher income for himself and his wife.

Review:

Anthon Chekhov is widely regarded as one of the masters of Russian literature. His life was relatively short, dying from tuberculous at the age of 44. His life spanned a period of Russian history that can be described as post-serf, pre-automobile, from 1860 to 1904. I saw The Cherry Orchard produced a couple decades ago and recently read the play. I just finished Cédric Gras’ excellent L’hiver aux trousses (Essais – Documents) (French Edition) concerning his travels in the Russian Far East. Gras made a few references to Chekhov in his book, and I decided to add Sakhalin Island (Alma Classics) to the to-read list. Gras also referred to the “Uncle Vanya” like aspects of one person he met in his travels; I had no idea what he meant, and decided to remedy that forthwith.

“Uncle Vanya” was first published in 1897, and performed in 1899. Like “The Cherry Orchard,” the setting is a country estate in rural Russia. The emancipated serfs/peasants are in the deep background. There are six to eight principal characters: the estate owner with the various relationships and hangers-on. Professor Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov (ah, don’t you love those Russian names, in all their glory?), who is bordering on his dotage, is re-married, to 27-year old Helena. Ivan Voitski, who is “Uncle Vanya,” was the Professor’s brother-in-law via his first marriage. Sonia is the Professor’s daughter from that first marriage. And Michael Astroff is a country doctor, tending ailments physical as well as mental, including some of his own. A good mixture of “star-crossed” individuals, that Chekhov handles with Balzac-like precision.

As one might suspect, the young wife is “up for grabs,” the center of attention for most of the males. Sonia, who is “plain,” and knows it, would love to be the center of at least one man’s attention – alas. And there is considerable conflict between Uncle Vanya and the Professor, with the former describing the later as: “for twenty-five years he has been reading and writing things that clever men have long known and stupid ones are not interested in; for twenty-five years he has been making imaginary mountains our of molehills.”

Chekhov demonstrates a strong ecological streak, and love of the natural world, long before the first “Earth Day.” Consider the remarks of Doctor Astroff: “Oh, I don’t object, of course, to cutting wood from necessity, but why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever. And why? Because men are too lazy and stupid to stoop down and pick up their fuel from the ground.” And this is written at the end of the 19th century!

Dr. Astroff also chimes in on the eternal questions of male-female relationships: “A woman can only become a man’s friend after having first been his acquaintance and then his beloved – then she becomes his friend.” Overall, the play is morose and gloomy, with Uncle Vanya saying it might be a fine day for a suicide. The climactic scene, and one that it is important to recall if one is to be “au courant” in literature, is the failed homicide attempt made by Uncle Vanya. In fact, his gun is a reference point. The attempt is the closing of the third act. The fourth act is a “long good-bye” that I felt added very little to the play, and thus, overall, believe it rates 4-stars.

About the Author

Anton Chekhov

Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Isaac Levitan (1886)

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (Russian: Антон Павлович Чехов[note 1]IPA: [ɐnˈton ˈpavɫəvʲɪtɕ ˈtɕɛxəf]; 29 January 1860[note 2] – 15 July 1904[note 3]) was a Russian playwright and short-story writer who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. His career as a playwright produced four classics, and his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics.[3][4] Along with Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Chekhov is often referred to as one of the three seminal figures in the birth of early modernism in the theatre.[5] Chekhov practiced as a medical doctor throughout most of his literary career: “Medicine is my lawful wife”, he once said, “and literature is my mistress.”[6]

Chekhov renounced the theatre after the reception of The Seagull in 1896, but the play was revived to acclaim in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre, which subsequently also produced Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and premiered his last two plays, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. These four works present a challenge to the acting ensemble[7] as well as to audiences, because in place of conventional action Chekhov offers a “theatre of mood” and a “submerged life in the text”.[8]

Chekhov had at first written stories to earn money, but as his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which have influenced the evolution of the modern short story.[9] He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.[10]

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