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Saturday, September 04, 2010

Uncle Vanya

Happiness, or the lack of it, is much on the minds in Uncle Vanya, Chekhov's play that he calls "Scenes from Country Life." How a viewer takes it in depends on that viewer's state of mind--one that is precariously close to a crackup may be pushed to the edge, but then again, that same person may find profound relief.

The title character is one of the more depressed in all of modern literature. He is crippled with regrets. At forty-seven, he has devoted his life to managing his deceased sister's estate, which is now in the hands of her husband, a pompous professor, whom Vanya loathes. To makes things worse, his own mother prefers the professor to him, and the old man has taken as his second wife the much younger and beautiful Yelena, whom Vanya had a chance at marrying years earlier but didn't act.

In the first act Vanya pours out his miseries, much to the disgust of those around him, even his niece, Sonia, who works just as hard alongside him, and is also equally unhappy. She's in love with the local doctor, Astrov, who tells everyone he is incapable of loving anyone. Astrov, as we have seen with characters in Three Sisters, is obsessed with how the future will regard his generation. He is especially interested in the loss of trees, and spends his free time working on maps to show how the flora and fauna have gone missing in just fifty years time. He shows these maps to Yelena, but she is not interested, instead thinking of how to ask Astrov if he could love Yelena, or perhaps she is thinking of how she loves the doctor herself.

As with Chekhov's other plays, the characters here seem to be insulated, living in a bubble. A few workmen wander in and out, but it seems like a contained universe. And they don't do much--just complain about their lot in life. The character of Waffles, the former owner of the estate who now lives there out of the kindness of the professor, is the exception. He was jilted by his wife the day after their wedding, but he remained true to her to his old age, saying he still had his pride, while she had lost her youth, her beauty, and her lover.

The despair is palpable in this play, and in the wrong hands it could seem like a pity party, but I find it gripping and moving. Especially the third act, in which the Professor suggests selling the estate, to which Vanya explodes in anger, venting years of frustration at the man. He even takes out a gun and tries to shoot the old man. He misses, and later says ruefully: "To have made such a fool of myself--firing twice and missing both times! I shall never forgive myself for that." He has also pinched a bottle of morphine from Astrov, who angrily takes it back. But then, in a delicious wrinkle, Astrov tells him: "If you really feel you must put an end to yourself, why don't you go into the woods and shoot yourself there? But do give me back the morphia, or else there will be talk and suspicion. People might think I'd given it to you. It'll be quite enough to have to do your post-mortem. Do you think I shall find it interesting?"

Chekhov, after close to two hours of suffocating misery, allows his characters some breathing room, but not much. Astrov admits that he might have loved Sonia if he had been aware of it a few months earlier, and then betrays lust for Yelena, who tells him she was once tempted by him, but no longer. Sonia longs for Astrov, but keeps alive hope in uncertainty, and when Yelena offers to find the doctor out for her, almost doesn't want to know.

The end offers one of the most fatalistically poignant speeches I know, in which Sonia urges her uncle to go on: "Well, what can we do? We must go on living! We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through a long, long succession of days and tedious evenings. We shall patiently suffer the trials with Fate imposes on us; we shall work for others, now and in our old age, and we shall have no rest. When our time comes we shall die submissively, and over there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we've suffered, that we've wept, that we've had a bitter life, and God will take pity on us."

Then, she closes, "We shall rest! We shall hear the angels, we shall see all the heavens covered with stars like diamonds, we shall see all earthly evil, all our sufferings swept away by the grace which will fill the whole world, and our life will become peaceful, gentle, and sweet as a caress. I believe it, I believe it. Poor Uncle Vanya, you're crying. You've had no joy in your life, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. We shall rest. We shall rest!" If anyone in a theater isn't left in a puddle after that, they have no soul.

The best adaptation I've seen of this play is Andre Gregory's terrific film Vanya on 42nd Street, which was filmed in a decaying Times Square theater, with Wallace Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena. I thought it was one of the best films of 1994. Just this week I took a look at two productions from the BBC on DVD. One was from 1970, with the notable cast member being Anthony Hopkins as Astrov. The other was from 1991, and it was Chekhov by way of Chicago, as the translation was by David Mamet and directed by Gregory Mosher. As one might imagine, it had a much more contemporary feel (though no vulgarities), with words like "deadbeat" and "freeloader" used. David Warner made a fine Vanya, with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Yelena and Rebecca Pidgeon as Sonia. Ian Holm was Astrov, though he was a too old for the part. When Yelena says he looks no older that thirty-six, Holm, who was sixty at the time, seems like he's about to bust out laughing.

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