Saturday, October 19, 2013

Uncle Vanya

Like "The Seagull," Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" starts quickly: with breathtaking efficiency, Chekhov establishes the situation and induces his characters to bare their souls within the first ten minutes of the play. At this stage in the proceedings, the gloom and morbid defeatism seems hysterical, a theatrical pose. The next two hours demonstrates that the situation is every bit as bleak as the characters have proclaimed, that their plight is as hopeless as they have expressed it to be shortly after the curtain rose on them, and, if anything, things will only go from bad to worse. The trajectory of these plays is from self-dramatizing proclamations of hopelessness to a clinical demonstration that this hopelessness is real, actual, and irreversible to, at last, something approaching a tragic recognition and reconciliation with the fatal destiny that has stranded these characters on this shoal of misery. Chekhov's Vanya and his adversary, the doctor, wallow in their unhappiness and tell us, at the outset, that they are miserable -- as the play progresses, the play pitilessly forces them to earn this misery. The effect of "Uncle Vanya" is that what appears "dramatic" -- that is, contrived and exagerrated in the first half of the play -- seems naturalistic, inevitable, and unavoidable in the second part of the show. "Uncle Vanya" is eerily prescient in the doctor's concern about climate change, deforestation, and the devastation of the Russian ecology, although it's important to realize that the alcoholic physician's opinions on these matters, although forcefully presented, represent his own precise form of failure, his sphere of bad faith, the ridiculous self-absorption and evasion that prevents him from being a good and virtuous man. Modern audiences, applauding the doctor's prophetic environmentalism, perhaps, fail to notice that during the long scene where his opinions are expressed (mostly through Sonya), the physician is preening himself on his apocalyptic predictions while a wounded workman, for whom the doctor has been summoned, is presumably bleeding to death at some noisome factory near the country estate where he is tarrying, awaiting yet another glass of vodka. (Chekhov's technique is extraordinary; the comic velocity of the opening scenes and the playwright's hasty full-throated and bold attack is startling. Further, his device of having one character talk for another -- for instance, Sonya explicating the doctor's environmentalism -- complicates and deepens our understanding both of the doctor's intelligent, if glib, ecological concerns and Sonya's hapless love for him.) The fundamental question presented by the play is to what extent Vanya's bitter hysteria is a representation of the truth. Hysteria, a word applied to Vanya several times, represents one adaptation to entrapment and disappointment; Vanya's hysteria is so abundantly obvious to the other characters that they don't call the authorities when he twice tries to murder the Professor -- he is so feckless and inept that no one even takes his homicidal fury seriously. Other adaptations to the characters' confinement and ineffectuality are demonstrated in the play: Waffles' masochism shows us what happens when someone wallows in misery and allows misfortune to define him. The elderly professor responds to the depredations of old age with sheer panic, another form of hysteria that induces in him an impressive range of (probably) psychosomatic symptoms. Sonya strugges fitfully to escape her fetters, but, ultimately, withdraws from any effective action -- she dispatches her romantic rival to demand an answer from the doctor as to whether he loves her with predictably catastrophic results. What did she think was going to happen? The beautiful Elena protests her loveless marriage to the old man by teasing the other men and sowing discord among them. Only the old nurse and the ancient grandmother seem to have miraculously escaped the seething misery in the household -- the old nurse is compassionate if ineffectual; grandma, an anarchist, calls herself "an old gladiator" and Chekhov symbolizes the cost that she makes others pay for her ruthless self-sufficiency: she is completely deaf and can't communicate with any of those around her. The Guthrie Theater's 2013 production of "Uncle Vanya" boasts a pointlessly complex set -- the play could be presented without any props at all. Brian Friel's adaptation seems a bit too facile to me, too modern, I think -- althought the plight of Chekhov's characters is universal, their circumstances are uniquely Russian and part of the fascination of the play is observing a brittle system of social relations poised on the brink of suicide. Uncle Vanya's plot to murder himself, like all of his stratagems, fails pathetically -- but the society of which he is a part is in the process of killing itself. I thought the performances in the final act were a bit too shrill, as if the hysteria animating the first three acts has not entirely resolved itself into the placid resignation of self-entombment with which the play concludes. Critics in the local newspaper have complained that the play, in this production, is presented with too great an emphasis on humor. I didn't think this was a defect, but thought that the apparently hysterical over-statement in the first half of the play did not convincingly resolve itself into a clarity of emotion in the second part. In my view, "Uncle Vanya" should start loud, desparate, and over-acted with the performances becoming quieter and more involuted as the show proceeds. That wasn't Joe Dowling's approach to this production and, perhaps, the esteem in which I hold this play -- "Uncle Vanya" is one of the greatest of all theater-pieces -- makes me suggest a quixotic and unduly abstract approach to the show.

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