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Uncle Vanya | Context

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Realism

During the mid-19th century many writers moved away from romanticism and its often emotional language and emphasis on feelings toward realism. Realist writers attempted to portray people and events as they really were, rather than as idealized constructs. Anton Chekhov used this realistic approach to writing. A keen observer of people, he attempted to present characters as they really were without interjecting his personal opinions on how he thought they should act or feel.

He wrote about the ordinary lives of ordinary people, and probed what made them tick. He examined human nature and human interactions. He described their ordinariness, their miseries, and their dissatisfactions with life as well as their yearnings and dreams and the factors holding them back from realizing those aspirations.

Chekhov did not provide a moral or lesson to be learned in his stories and plays. Instead, he presented his observations about human nature without any judgment or moralizing. His works probe the existential questions of life—or those that deal with the nature of human existence—but present no answers. Instead, he wanted readers to reflect on these questions and interpret his short stories and plays based on their own experiences. His works have withstood the test of time because of their focus on existential topics and universal questions, rather than social or political issues unique to a specific period of history.

In Uncle Vanya characters grapple with the same existential questions at the heart of so many of Chekhov's works. Both Astrov and Vanya question whether their lives have meaning. Vanya has regrets for a life wasted rather than well lived. He is filled with loathing, both for the professor and himself, because he has spent 25 years working to support the professor's aspirations rather than doing something more meaningful and lasting. He mourns the fact he never married, never found someone to love and be his companion. He feels life has passed him by. His frustrations reach a peak when he shoots at his adversary, but the act fails to shed any illumination on his situation or on how to move forward. In many creative works, a dramatic action like this is followed by a denouement in which a character discovers a solution to a predicament. However, Vanya has no climactic moment or insights that will lead to change. Similarly, Astrov experiences a crisis of confidence in his abilities as a physician following the death of a patient during surgery. He wonders whether he is still able to be a good doctor.

Should Vanya and Astrov make changes in their lives? Are they capable of improving their lives or are they destined to lives of discontent? Chekhov does not provide answers for such questions. Like a seasoned medical professional, Chekhov presents an astute observation of characters and their interactions with each other, but he lets this presentation inspire whatever questions arise as relevant to the audience. Uncle Vanya reflects the uncertainty of real life and its lack of overall meaning.

Perspective as a Doctor

Anton Chekhov was both a physician and a writer. Although he stopped working full time as a doctor once his writing output increased, he continued to provide medical care on a limited basis. His training and skills as a doctor greatly influenced his short stories and plays. He was a trained observer and was very astute in noting symptoms of both physical and mental illnesses.

In Uncle Vanya Chekhov describes several characters' mental disorders: Vanya appears to be experiencing depression. In Act 1 he admits he no longer believes it is worthwhile to be ambitious or to try for anything. He is filled with regrets over how his life has turned out and thinks the only thing left is an empty old age. He openly acknowledges his hopelessness when he responds to a pleasantry by saying, "A fine day to hang oneself." There are other signs of depression. He has stopped working in the past year and mopes about the estate without any sense of purpose or direction. He has a negative outlook on just about everything and thinks his despondency is irreversible. He is preoccupied with his own misery and is insensitive toward the feelings of others. He cuts off his mother from speaking, telling her, "We've been talking and talking and reading pamphlets for half a century. It's high time we stopped," causing her to mention he has changed in the past year and become unpleasant.

Serebryakov, the older man Vanya loathes, is alarmed about physical symptoms in one moment that don't bother him later. This may be an indicator of hypochondria, or an unwarranted belief one's health is worse than it is. For example, he often requests a doctor visit for his physical ailments but then he skips the visit because his symptoms have improved. He is preoccupied with his health and with death. He has gout (inflammation of the joints or extremities), rheumatism (inflammation of the muscles and joints), and migraines. In Act 2 he attempts to diagnose himself, speculating his gout may have turned into angina pectoris (chest pain caused by heart disease) as it did for someone else. He calls himself "an old man, almost a corpse" and predicts he "can't drag on much longer." He uses his alleged poor health to force others to cater to his needs. It gives him an excuse to be selfish and inconsiderate of others. For example, he snaps at his daughter Sonya when she gives him the drops he asked for. He shrouds himself in the possibility of imminent death and uses it to set the tone of his interactions with others. In Act 3 he starts out a meeting he has called by stating, "I can accept bad health," but then says he cannot accept living in the country. In this way, he can be manipulative. Who can deny a dying man what he wants, he seems to say?

Astrov, the doctor, is healthy but appears to be experiencing burnout. In Act 1 he tells Marina all he has done in the past 10 years is "work [his] fingers to the bone." He has not had one day off and is forever on his feet. He is worried he is becoming like some of the eccentrics he treats. He knows his professional abilities are still intact, but his "feelings have ... deadened." He has no passion for work or for life. He is unable to find pleasure in anything and doesn't "want anything." The only emotion he admits to having is guilt over a patient who died on the table during surgery when he was working nonstop during a typhus epidemic. In Act 3 Astrov describes how he retreats to Vanya's room when he is feeling "so worn out [he is] about to drop." There he can "amuse" himself, or relieve himself of the pressures of being a doctor. When he is there no one expects anything and he cannot disappoint anyone.

Life Stages

In 1959 German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson proposed that human beings pass through a series of eight stages during their development. Children go through five in which they develop trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, and identity. During young adulthood (roughly 18 to 40 years old), people develop intimacy. In middle adulthood (40 to 65 years old), according to this theory, they develop generativity, or the ability to make a difference to society, and in later adulthood (65 years and older), they develop ego integrity, or a sense of fulfillment. At any one of these stages individuals could become "stuck" and fail to develop fully. For example, young children may develop distrust rather than trust, or young adults may be unable to fully develop their identities and have role confusion instead. Adults in middle adulthood can face issues of generativity versus stagnation, whereas older adults can face issues of ego integrity versus despair. Although Erikson's theory was not developed during Chekov's lifetime, the theory provides insight into Chekov's characters.

Astrov, Vanya, and Serebryakov are middle-aged men grappling with issues of generativity versus stagnation and ego integrity versus despair. Although Erikson proposed ego integrity as a stage people over 65 went through, individuals in the 19th century might have experienced it earlier because of shorter life expectancies at that time.

The play opens with Astrov facing issues of ego integrity versus despair. Astrov asks Marina if he's changed in the time he's known her. He notes that in the past 10 years he's "become a different person," and he seems baffled as to how that happened. He describes how all he has done is work, and now he has grown old. He's also afraid he's become an eccentric. Rather than being proud of his achievements and satisfied with himself, he finds life "boring and stupid and filthy" and himself "dumber," though "not a complete idiot yet."

Astrov also questions whether he has helped to make the world a better place, the issue at the core of the generativity versus stagnation stage of Erikson's theory. As a physician he has helped many people. After a patient dies on the operating table, however, he questions whether he has done more harm than good. He worries how future generations will view him. He asks Marina, "Will they have anything good to say about us? ... Will they even remember us?"

Astrov's concern about generativity is also demonstrated by his interest in forests. He plants trees and cares for his forest preserve to make the world better for future generations. In Act 1 he describes how if a forest makes some future person happy, maybe he will "have had some small part in that happiness."

Vanya, too, is concerned about generativity and integrity. He believes his life lacks meaning because he spent his time and energy to support his former brother-in-law's work and that work did not produce anything of value. In Act 1 he describes Serebryakov's own lack of generativity as infertility: "Twenty-five years of spilling his seed on the hard, dry ground." In Act 2 he explains how Serebryakov's failures reflect his own. He explains how he "lived and breathed through him. Every word he uttered or wrote seemed to me the voice of genius" Now, though, Vanya says, "He's retired and you can see his life in the balance. Not one page of writing will survive him, he has no name, he's a nonentity. A soap bubble." By extension, the sum total of Vanya's life is nothing. He, too, is as fleeting and insubstantial as a soap bubble.

In contrast, Telegin has a more developed sense of generativity than either Astrov or Vanya. In Act 1 Telegin describes how his wife left him the day after their wedding. Despite being unable to share a life with her and have children, he is carrying on his desire for generativity by providing financial support for the education of the children she had with her lover. In this way he feels he is able to help make the world a better place even after he is gone.

Serebryakov is also struggling with ego integrity and generativity. In Act 2 he reveals his despair at being retired when he cries out, "I want to feel alive, I love success, acclaim, the pulse of the world." Now that he is retired, he finds his life empty and feels he is smothering as if he is in a "tomb." It is not the place making him feel this way; it is the absence of any activity that makes his ego lack integrity.

Moscow Art Theatre

Anton Chekhov's plays profoundly affected modern drama. By staging Chekhov's plays, The Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) helped him to change how plays were performed and produced. Up until 1882 the Russian government forbade any public theaters except those under the control of the Imperial Court. This resulted in the existence of only two theaters where plays were regularly performed. Despite Russia's having some of the world's best playwrights, such as Alexander Pushkin, A.K. Tolstoy, Alexander Afinogonev, and Alexander Ostrovsky, the performances generally were not spectacular. An imperial censor regulated what could be said and done and ruled on questions of morals and artistic taste. There was little, if any, artistic direction. Instead, the actors discussed the play and the director supervised their rehearsals. Actors wore their own clothes, and the settings were created out of whatever furniture was available in the theater's stock.

After the state ended its monopoly, several commercial theaters opened, but they were risk averse and not prone to experimentation. They continued to produce plays the way they had been produced under the Imperial Court.

In 1888 an amateur society, the Moscow Society of Art and Literature, was founded. One of its founders, Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938), was willing to experiment and was more interested in the artistic direction of the play than in its mere performance. Stanislavsky became the first actual Russian stage director, and he changed how plays were produced. He implemented rigid standards for the actors' performances, concentrating not just on their actions but on their facial and body expressions. Actors went through numerous rehearsals in which he directed every element. He focused on stage effects and scenic illusions.

In 1897 Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943) founded the Moscow Popular Art Theatre. It became the Moscow Art Theatre the next year. Its founders stated its mission was to be an "intelligent, moral open theater" that enlightened and uplifted the working class. They aimed to present plays differently than in the past. For example, each play would have its own unique setting and costumes. Performances would be an artistic experience, not a social occasion. In addition, they wanted the plays to be more realistic and natural rather than overly stylized and formal. The actors would focus on the subtler subtexts of the play and its inner drama rather than on creating and feeding its external drama.

The Moscow Art Theatre soon gained a reputation for the unique way plays were performed there. The performance of Chekhov's The Seagull in 1898 cemented its reputation. The play also became Chekhov's first major success.

Chekhov and Stanislavsky began collaborating, and several other of Chekov's plays were performed at the theater. Uncle Vanya was performed at the Moscow Art Theatre during its second season. It was well received by audiences and eventually became a standard in the theater's repertoire. Chekhov wrote some plays, such as Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, specifically for the MAT; they were performed in 1901 and 1904 respectively.

In general Chekhov's plays focused on realism, human nature, and everyday interactions. This, as well as their focus on inner drama rather than on a series of dramatic events, made them well suited for the experimental style of the MAT, which, over time, would become one of the most influential theaters of modern drama in terms of presenting real, inner life.

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