Appreciating Vanya

I just watched the 1991 BBC production of Uncle Vanya, and I’ve come away with a new appreciation of the play, and not just because it features the gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Previous productions I’d seen came off as whiny. A bunch of bored nincompoops moaning about their boredom, their hypochondria, their drab lives, etc.

I’ll admit, the problem may have been partially mine. I think it takes a bit of maturity to appreciate Chekhov. You have to have lived a bit, and in this case, it also helps to have experienced knowing the foolishness of falling for someone half your age but not being able to help it.

David Warner brings dignity to Vanya’s pain, and the production captures the humor of Chekhov’s writing as well as the pathos.  I have to quibble a bit with casting Ian Holm as Astrov. The doctor should be at least a decade younger.  And who in their right mind thought Rebecca Pidgeon was “plain”? Not that Pidgeon’s acting detracts in any way from the production, but the idea she’s not pretty enough to be married is laughable.

Many people have puzzled over Chekhov’s remark that his plays are comedies, since they so often end sadly, if not tragically (e.g., The Seagull). But what I feel is that his comic moments (and I did laugh out loud at times), harken not to the bon mots of his contemporary Oscar Wilde, or the tradition of Molière (long a staple of Russian theatre). Instead, he prefigures the absurdism of Beckett, honing in on the repetitive nature of life, and the ridiculousness of human behavior. Astrov knows that it’s Yelena’s beauty that captivates him and that they have nothing in common, and he can’t resist it regardless. Sonya idolizes Astrov, even when it’s clear he has no interest in her. Yelena knows she’ll trapped in a life of idle boredom with the professor, yet when offered a chance of excitement and intellectual stimulation, she can’t bring herself to take action “once in her life.”

The genius of Chekhov is that these are not comic figures or stereotypes, but real people in whom we see ourselves mirrored.

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