On Uncle Vanya: Part Two


First Person

But how I got to thinking about my drunken love affair, years ago in Saint Petersburg, is Sam Gold’s new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, playing now at the Soho Rep.

It’s ninety-nine-cent Sunday, and the line of sweaty New Yorkers edging for shade outside the eighty-seat theater is long. They are bored and tired. It’s a muggy ninety degrees. “We’re never going to get in,” I hear one complain to another; later, outside the bathroom, where they sell vodka shots for three dollars a piece, I hear an excited woman say to her date: “I can’t believe we made it!” Most of the people who stood or sat in line (many since two P.M.) did not see the show. My own guests, who had driven in from the Bronx for the production, were turned away.

“I’m the reviewer,” I tried to convince the guy at the door.

“Man, we don’t get lines like this, even for the Sunday show. I’ll have a revolt. It wouldn’t be fair.”

My friends went to see a movie, and my date and I went to our corner seats, right by the couch where the Professor would later be shot (and not).

It’s a new adaptation by Annie Baker, and the first thing to say is: the writing is brilliant. Annie Baker is one of the best young playwrights working today. Of course, it’s Chekhov, so she’s building on a solid foundation. But what makes Baker’s translation and adaptation superior—in the writing—to any other Uncle Vanya I’ve read or seen is her insistence on strictly following Chekhov’s own maxim that the language should be as simple, authentic, and realistic as possible.

For example: after the doctor’s (Astrov’s) promise to quit drinking, Nanushka advises the excited Sonya that, for a man who has to travel and work in the dirty Russian villages, “It’s hard to stay clean and sober.” “Clean and sober” is an American cliché for the state of a recovered alcoholic. It’s the ordinary language anyone would use to describe someone who was off the bottle—especially the plainspoken, unreflective Marina Timofeyevna. But Baker makes it new—makes it worth listening to—he can’t stay “clean” because of the dirty Russian villages and peasants. When she speaks the American cliché she speaks it for Russian reasons. Baker practices this kind of astonishing verbal magic over and over again, and as a translator myself I was envious.

But she never uses slang terms: she never cheapens the dialogue, she doesn’t Americanize it in that unfortunate way so many filmmakers have tried to Americanize Shakespeare. Dachas are still dachas; peasants are still peasants. When Astrov complained about the destruction of forests and “climate change” I winced, and I worried for Baker: then I went to the text and in fact Baker had it right—Chekhov was just ahead of his time—Astrov does in fact express concerns about deforestation and its effect on the climate.

One more compliment on the writing: in many places, Baker follows the excellent, recent translation by Peter Carson. This shows her confidence. We translators are often tempted to change the work of a previous translator simply so that our own translation will differ from a previous (good) one, and this is always a mistake. Baker uses Carson where he gets it right; when she can use her own poetic gifts and vision to go him one better, she improves on his text. Because it is a play, she is not publishing it as a new translation, and so her heavy reliance on Carson is not an intellectual fault, it’s an artistic virtue.

Uncle Vanya is a play about two failed love affairs—both with the same woman—attempted by two failed drunks. The drunken lovers are Astrov, a country doctor (played here by the terrific Michael Shannon), and Uncle Vanya, played by Reed Birney. The object of their ardor is Yelena (Maria Dizzia), who is married to the Professor (Peter Friedman). So it’s a love triangle, from which the husband is excluded—as husbands always should be. If you haven’t read the play recently, the plot is simple: The Professor and his beautiful wife, half his age, have moved to the country for his retirement, where his daughter Sonya (played by Merritt Wever) owns a farm that she runs with her Uncle (Vanya). All of the proceeds of the farm go to support Sonya’s father, the Professor. But when the Professor and his sexy wife join their relatives in the country, the simple, stable harmony of the farm is destroyed, in part by the Professor’s posturing, endless demands, old age, and hypochondria, but more by the glamour and lazy boredom of Yelena, who distracts Astrov, Uncle Vanya, and even Sonya out of their normal, healthy habits. Yelena is indolent and reeks with the sensuality of indolence—the privilege of beauty, which in this play is contrasted with the morality of hard work.

Chekhov is not a fan of country life—nor is he a fan of city life. We tend to forget that this great genius died at the age of forty-four—after a hard life of working as a physician in both the country and the city (he described medicine as his wife, literature as his mistress)—because he had the studied, gentle skepticism of a much older man. Like any good doctor, he was an empiricist (two great philosophers before him, the skeptic Sextus Empiricus and the empiricist John Locke, were also physicians), and he hesitates to attach ethical valence to any of the situations he describes, preferring to describe what he sees without judging it. “Only a great, rare, deep genius can catch what surrounds us daily, what always accompanies us, what is ordinary,” Gogol wrote, no doubt influencing how Chekhov saw the role (and the style) of the artist, and that is what he gives us in Uncle Vanya. “A writer must be humane to his fingertips,” Chekhov tells us, and to be humane is (among other things) to withhold judgment when one can, and when one cannot, to be quick to forgive.

Nevertheless, there is a bit of moralizing in the play: drunkenness is bad, if inevitable; boredom is bad, the result of a weak mind or a weak character; life is worth living for love, though you are unlikely to find it; beauty is dangerous and destructive, work is healthy and productive; nature is better than civilization. All of these are familiar Chekhovian themes and after all not terribly controversial. The underlying theme of the play anticipates the major themes of existentialism: in the absence of a God and traditional values, where shall we now find the meaning of life? Chekhov is too wise to give answers; he presents the situation: boredom turns to hope, hope to passion, and passion to drink. “We’re all creeps,” Astrov complains in Baker’s wonderful formulation (Carson uses the much less effective and less accurate “eccentrics”), and the main reason we’re all creeps is that we’re all bored, and boredom is unbearable. The one person who piques everyone’s interest—Yelena, played cleverly by Maria Dizzia as a slut who nevertheless refuses to cheat on her husband—herself complains of boredom more than anyone else in the play.

But what I wanted to focus on is drunkenness, lying, love, and work. Chekhov famously wrote to his brother, advising on these matters:

What [good men] want in a woman is not a sexual playmate … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood … They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion … What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will … Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read.

Not that Chekhov was a prude: “Chekhov wrote of sex with honesty and lack of fuss as he wrote of all human experience,” Eudora Welty correctly observed, and in Uncle Vanya he gets the temptations of adultery just right. What are they? Here’s Chekhov’s list, by character:

For Uncle Vanya:

1. To sleep with Yelena is to prove his equality with the Professor, always part of a man’s desire to sleep with another man’s woman, especially if he is a friend, most especially if he is a friend one envies, resents or admires;

2. Yelena represents meaning in Uncle Vanya’s life: he knows and constantly reminds us that he’s made nothing of himself intellectually—he works an estate, does the accounts, turns a profit, is a kind of middle manager—but to take Yelena to bed would make real the passions he has suppressed in service of the estate, would realize his inner life (something he knows he will never do);

3. Yelena is beautiful—for Vanya, she is an unapproachable beauty: at one point she all but offers him a kiss, leaning against him when she should pull away, and he turns away himself, afraid to take what he wants;

4. Yelena is an ideal: when he is drunk Vanya lies to himself and to her, insisting that she is the whole meaning of his life—he means it, while drunk, but when sobriety returns to him (and it doesn’t really return until after he has tried to murder the Professor and finally the Professor and Yelena leave), he knows that all there is for him is work.

For Astrov:

5. Yelena loves him.

6. Unlike Vanya, Astrov wants to fuck this woman, and he knows she wants him: he grabs her, he forces her to kiss him.

7. When drunk Astrov is Dionysian: he sings, he bawls, he shouts; he is ribald; he wants to satisfy his desires—and a woman who will cheat on her husband is exactly the kind of lawlessness the drunk revels in: he wants her to cheat, to betray, to be young, to care about nothing but passion, no matter who is harmed.

For Yelena:

8. Adultery is a celebration of her beauty, which she knows she is losing—she tells her husband she will join him in old age in just a few years;

9. Adultery is vanity—she loves flattery, and to know she is desirable;

10. Adultery is freedom from boredom, it is the spice of vice, it is Augustine’s stealing the pomegranates only to throw them away, for the sheer joy of sin;

11. Adultery is the solution to her boredom—why should she work, when she can flirt?

12. When she is drunk, with Sonya, it is the desire to have something more in her life than she has had—to expand her life, to return to her piano, to play music again, to believe in art—to which the Professor says simply, at the end of act 2, before the curtain falls, “No.”

Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell and is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine.

Read previous installments here.