Uncle Vanya (1897)
by Anton Chekhov
Misdirected passions. A strange assortment of characters in which all are afloat on a sea of despair, searching and thrashing about for love's deliverance. No one is happy, except the Nanny. All are in love, but with the unattainable. Beauty and mystery are sought—that special glimmer of light that one wants but cannot capture. The result is either futile violence or stifling isolation. And yet how compelling love is on stage! How we want the lovers to unite, despite the boundaries of decency and the sacred bonds of marriage. How we are trained to yearn for romance. And yet it won't be realized here. Such a beautiful, sad depiction of melancholy.
The great Chekhovian blend of tragedy and farce is also here: Uncle Vanya firing a gun at his brother-in-law and missing, while he shouts "Bang! Bang!" Chekhov’s comic sight comes from his ironic juxtaposition of the characters' passions and their inability to achieve them, their ideas and their reality, their professions and their behavior. (The disconnect between these seems only to grow greater through his plays.) The comedy comes in the architecture and the tragedy in the emotional lives of the characters. Of course an actor like Stanislavsky would feel Chekhov's plays were tragedy, he was an actor and in touch with the character’s reality, and less academic about structure or audience perspective.
Ever the good doctor—one part friend, one part diagnostician, Chekhov was trained in seeing both with empathy and with analytical distance. When there was no human suffering in the offing, such as in the imaginary conceit of a play, this analytical distance turns to a wry smile and a knowing wink to the audience: "We are this way, aren't we?" His wink is gentle, compassionate, in a way that approaches the divine wink. We see our tragic suffering with distance, as if from God's all-seeing eye: Why do you poor creatures take this all so seriously? Do you not see the greater purpose?
To be clear, from what we can tell, Chekhov did not see the greater purpose. An agnostic, he could find no solutions from the Church of his childhood. He sought them in Art, and, as Symbolist and contemporary Andrey Bely alluded, the vision of Chekhov's art surpassed the vision of the artist. On a related note, it is interesting that the doctor in this play, Astrov, should come to just as bewildered an end as Vanya, the passionate nobody. Chekhov knew despair and tragedy, but in his plays his craftsmanship kept him removed. Almost.
The despair leaked into his endings. Even in a comedy like The Seagull, he could never see a way out for his characters other than (what most would label) tragedy. There, he turned to a Romantic and melodramatic ending. Only with his swansong, The Cherry Orchard, with its scattershot mix of joy and pain and possibility, did the afflicted writer submit control simply to the true ending of all: the unknown. With Uncle Vanya, all end up isolated and unfulfilled despite all their lifetime of work. This is Chekhov's Absurdism, a lulling of love and pain into sleep. “We shall rest… We shall rest...”