For March, the Play On! challenge was post-renaissance plays. The guidance said anything post-renaissance is allowed and Wilde and Shaw are welcome…which meant they were the first playwrights I thought of and looked at. I’ve read both though, and love Oscar Wilde, so – as part of the point of my taking part in this challenge was to challenge myself – decided I needed to look further afield.
The further ended up being Russia and I picked Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, which I knew nothing about (a seeming habit with me for picking books). I have, however, read some of his short stories and know a little about the period in Russian history the play was written and set in (1897). Because of this, I think I expected something a little more political but, whilst there were some references to the industrialisation that was taking place at the time, this play is much more about the internal – human nature in general and love in particular.
Set on a poor rural estate, the story focuses on the upset a visit from an elderly professor and his much younger wife (Yelena/Helena) causes Uncle Vanya, his mother, his niece – who is also the professor’s daughter by his first marriage – Sonya, and the local doctor, Astrov.
The professor has been living in the city for many years, with the estate funding his extravagant lifestyle, and (now) that of his new wife. In the city, the professor is a man about town, an intellectual, well known and well respected. At least that is what Uncle Vanya, his mother, and Sonya thought until the ill old man turned up at their door, upsetting their routines and causing chaos with his demands and health complaints.
It is then they realise they have built a picture of him that is nowhere near reality and that their sacrifices and years of living close to the poverty line have all been for nothing; the professor’s behaviour suggests he knows as much too. It doesn’t help that both Uncle Vanya and Astrov have fallen for the beautiful young wife, or that she has realised she was more in love with the idea of the professor than she is with the man himself. It all comes to a head when the professor, himself unhappy with rural life, announces that the best thing to do is to sell the estate so he can afford to move back to the city.
In parts, the play feels like it is going to turn into a farce, with drunken characters going in an out of rooms and misunderstandings when people walk in on each other when they shouldn’t and there are some moments of dark humour. These moments are few and far between though and, for me, despite the fact I had read it was a tragi-comedy, the play was pure tragedy.
Everyone goes through their days in a general malaise, picking at each other and unpicking every mistake they feel they have made with their lives. The characters complain – a lot – but do nothing to help themselves. No one is satisfied with what they have, what they have achieved; and they all seem to really dislike each other.
In the end, I disliked them all too and, as a result, I disliked the play. My initial sympathy for Uncle Vanya and Sonya disappeared quickly and the ending left me just plain old depressed, maybe a little bit frustrated too. For all that happened, nothing happened. As a play, it wasn’t that long but I found it a struggle to stick with it. As a story, I just couldn’t engage with it because I had no sympathy for any of the characters. All in all then, not for me I’m afraid! Have you read it – what were your thoughts?