Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Strain of Constant Contact

Poster for the premiere of Uncle Vanya at the Moscow Art Theater (1899) / Image courtesy of

[This fall, the theater program at Saint Martin’s University, headed by David Hlavsa, put on a fantastic production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Now that the show has wrapped, I think it’s fair to share with readers of this blog the program note that I wrote in my capacity of “cultural advisor” to the play. Enjoy!]

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As a playwright, Chekhov’s aesthetic method was to toss his characters into a pressure cooker and crank up the heat. In each of his major plays, individuals from different backgrounds are assembled in a single household, and gradually the strain of constant contact brings out the worst in them. (Really, isn’t this a definition for all drama—a mix of characters forced into view for a fixed span of time?) Even in Uncle Vanya’s subtitle, “Scenes from Country Life,” Chekhov prepares us for his method of concentrated engagement: the countryside, unlike the city, gives the characters nowhere else to go. Social interaction must occur on an isolated estate.

In this play, two unwelcome outsiders, Professor Serebryakov and his young wife Yelena, have come into the household and upset the status quo. Early in the first act, Uncle Vanya and the servant Marina go right to the crux of the problem: he complains that the old professor and Yelena have caused things to go “topsy-turvy,” and Marina replies, “We used to have lunch at one o’clock, like normal people… now we eat at six or seven.” Nothing is as it should be. The samovar is set out for tea in the morning, but the professor sleeps until noon. Astrov, the doctor, goes even further in his critique: “You and your husband,” he scolds Yelena in the final act, “have infected us all with your uselessness.” While their presence may in fact have stirred up his passions, Astrov longs for their departure so that he can again annihilate his ego through work. Like the others, he needs its diversion to get himself by.

The disruption of routine underscores the frustration of the characters. No one is fulfilled. No one seems certain what his or her purpose in life is. In this respect, Chekhov differs from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and others in the generation of Russian writers that preceded his, who would have offered clear moral guidance for their audience. But in Uncle Vanya, even those characters who may have once felt a sense of purpose—for instance, Astrov with his forestry projects—seem incapable of making real progress or changing much of anything. They are ineffectual. So they drink. They drink out of a sense of futility. And they drink the wrong thing at the wrong time: they should be sipping tea at the appointed hour, but instead they rely on vodka to cope whenever they like. “When I’m drunk,” says Vanya, “life seems more like life.”

Only in routine can these characters find solace—only in the numbness of modern life, tediously doing the books to keep the estate afloat or sleeplessly trudging about the countryside, treating an unending line of sick patients. What is the meaning of these struggles and sacrifices? Why make them? These are the questions that Chekhov poses to us. We may wonder whether our tribulations have any purpose at all, but in the end we hope that they will move us, God willing, closer to the ultimate “rest” invoked by Sonya in her final lines.

Jamie Olson
Saint Martins University

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Besides wonderful performances by the actors, the SMU production also featured our family samovar, pictured here in an onstage photo by my wife Anna:

As anyone who has seen or read the play knows, this was no bit part!