SOURCE: "Craftsmanship in Uncle Vanya," in In Search of Theater, Alfred A. Knopf, 1953, pp. 342-64.
[In the following essay, which was written in 1946, Bentley examines Chekhov's modifcations of The Wood Demon to create Uncle Vanya and explores the author's manipulation of mundane details in the latter play to achieve "a drama of imagination and thought."]
The Anglo-American theater finds it possible to get along without the services of most of the best playwrights. Æschylus, Lope de Vega, Racine, Molière, Schiller, Strindberg—one could prolong indefinitely the list of great dramatists who are practically unknown in England and America except to scholars. Two cases of popularity in spite of greatness are, of course, Shakespeare and Shaw, who have this in common: that they can be enjoyed without being taken seriously. And then there is Chekhov.
It is easy to make over a play by Shaw or by Shakespeare into a Broadway show. But why is Chekhov preserved from the general oblivion? Why is it that scarcely a year passes without a major Broadway or West End production of a Chekhov play? Chekhov's plays—at least by reputation, which in commercial theater is the important thing—are plotless, monotonous, drab, and intellectual: find the opposites of these four adjectives and you have a recipe for a smash hit.
Those who are responsible for productions of Chekhov in London and New York know the commodity theater. Some of them are conscious rebels against the whole system. Others are simply genuine artists who, if not altogether consciously, are afflicted with guilt; to do Chekhov is for them a gesture of rebellion or atonement, as to do Shakespeare or Shaw is not. It is as if the theater remembers Chekhov when it remembers its conscience.
The rebels of the theater know their Chekhov and love him; it is another question whether they understand him. Very few people seem to have given his work the careful examination it requires. Handsome tributes have been paid Chekhov by Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, and Gorky, among his countrymen; and since being taken up by Middleton Murry's circle thirty years ago, he has enjoyed a high literary reputation in England and America. The little book by William Gerhardi and the notes and obiter dicta of such critics as Stark Young and Francis Fergusson are, however, too fragmentary and impressionistic to constitute a critical appraisal. They have helped to establish more accurate general ideas about Chekhov's art. They have not inquired too rigorously in what that art consists.
I am prompted to start such an enquiry by the Old Vic's engrossing presentation of Uncle Vanya in New York. Although Vanya is the least well known of Chekhov's four dramatic master-pieces, it is—I find—a good play to start a critical exploration with because it exists in two versions—one mature Chekhov, the other an immature draft. To read both is to discover the direction and intention of Chekhov's development. It is also to learn something about the art of rewriting when not practiced by mere play-doctors. There is a lesson here for playwrights. For we are losing the conception of the writer as an artist who by quiet discipline steadily develops. In the twentieth century a writer becomes an event with his first bestseller, or smash hit, and then spends the rest of his life repeating the performance—or vainly trying to.
Chekhov's earlier version—The Wood Demon—is what Hollywood would call a comedy drama: that is, a farce spiced with melodrama. It tells the story of three couples: a vain Professor1 and his young second wife, Yelena; Astrov, the local doctor, who is nicknamed the Wood Demon because of his passion for forestry, and Sonya, the Professor's daughter by his first marriage; finally, a young man and woman named Fyodor and Julia. The action consists to a great extent in banal comedic crisscrossing of erotic interests. Julia's brother seems for a time to be after Sonya. Yelena is coveted rather casually by Fyodor and more persistently by Uncle Vanya, the brother of the Professor's first wife. Rival suitors, eternal triangles, theatric adultery! It is not a play to take too seriously. Although in the third act there is a climax when Uncle Vanya shoots himself, Chekhov tries in the last and fourth act to re-establish the mode of light comedy by pairing off all three couples before bringing down the curtain on his happy ending.
Yet even in The Wood Demon there is much that is "pure Chekhov." The happy ending does not convince, because Chekhov has created a situation that cannot find so easy an outcome. He has created people who cannot possibly be happy ever after. He has struck so deep a note that the play cannot quite, in its last act, become funny again.
The death of Vanya is melodrama, yet it has poignancy too, and one might feel that, if it should be altered, the changes should be in the direction of realism. The plot centers on property. The estate was the dowry of Vanya's sister, the Professor's first wife. Vanya put ten years' work into paying off the mortgage. The present owner is the daughter of the first marriage, Sonya. The Professor, however, thinks he can safely speak of "our estate" and propose to sell it, so he can live in a Finnish villa on the proceeds. It is the shock of this proposal, coming on top of his discovery that the Professor, in whom he has so long believed is an intellectual fraud—coming on top of his infatuation with Yelena—that drives Vanya to suicide. And if this situation seems already to be asking for realistic treatment, what are we to say to the aftermath? Yelena leaves her husband, but is unable to sustain this "melodramatic" effort. She comes back to him, defeated yet not contrite: "Well, take me, statue of the commander, and go to hell with me in your twenty-six dismal rooms!"2
The Wood Demon is a conventional play trying, so to speak, to be something else. In Uncle Vanya, rewritten, it succeeds. Perhaps Chekhov began by retouching his ending and was led back and back into his play until he had revised everything but the initial situation. He keeps the starting-point of his fable, but alters the whole outcome. Vanya does not shoot himself; he fires his pistol at the Professor, and misses. Consequently the last act has quite a different point of departure. Yelena does not run away from her husband. He decides to leave, and she goes with him. Astrov, in the later version, does not love Sonya; he and she end in isolation. Vanya is not dead or in the condemned cell; but he is not happy.
To the Broadway script-writer, also concerned with the rewriting of plays (especially if in an early version a likable character shoots himself), these alterations of Chekhov's would presumably seem unaccountable. They would look like a deliberate elimination of the dramatic element. Has not Prince Mirsky told us that Chekhov is an undramatic dramatist? The odd thing is only that he could be so dramatic before he rewrote. The matter is worth looking into.
Chekhov's theater, like Ibsen's, is psychological. If Chekhov changed his story, it must be either because he later felt that his old characters would act differently or because he wanted to create more interesting characters. The four people who emerge in the later version as the protagonists are different from their prototypes in The Wood Demon, and are differently situated. Although Sonya still loves Astrov, her love is not returned. This fact is one among many that make the later ending Chekhovian: Sonya and Astrov resign themselves to lives of labor without romance. Vanya is not resolute enough for suicide. His discontent takes form as resentment against the author of his misery. And yet, if missing his aim at such close quarters be an accident, it is surely one of those unconsciously willed accidents that Freud wrote of. Vanya is no murderer. His outburst is rightly dismissed as a tantrum by his fellows, none of whom dreams of calling the police. Just as Vanya is the kind of man who does not kill, Yelena is the kind of woman who does not run away from her husband, even temporarily.
In the earlier version the fates of the characters are settled; in the later they are unsettled. In the earlier version they are settled, moreover, not by their own nature or by force of circumstance, but by theatrical convention. In the later, their fate is unsettled because that is Chekhov's view of the truth. Nobody dies. Nobody is paired off. And the general point is clear: life knows no endings, happy or tragic. (Shaw once congratulated Chekhov on the discovery that the tragedy of the Hedda Gablers is, in real life, precisely that they do not shoot themselves.) The special satiric point is also familiar: Chekhov's Russians are chronically indecisive people. What is perhaps not so easy to grasp is the effect of a more mature psychology upon dramaturgy. Chekhov has destroyed the climax in his third act and the happy consummation in his fourth. These two alterations alone presuppose a radically different dramatic form.
The framework of the new play is the attractive pattern of arrival and departure: the action is what happens in the short space of time between the arrival of the Professor and his wife on their country estate and their departure from it. The unity of the play is discovered by asking the question: what effect has the visit upon the visited—that is, upon Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov? This question as it stands could not be asked of The Wood Demon, for in that play the Professor and Yelena do not depart, and Vanya is dead before the end. As to the effect of the Professor's arrival, it is to change and spoil everything. His big moment—the moment when he announces his intention to sell the estate—leads to reversal in Aristotle's sense, the decisive point at which the whole direction of the narrative turns about. This is Uncle Vanya's suicide. Vanya's futile shots, in the later version, are a kind of mock reversal. It cannot even be said that they make the Professor change his mind, for he had begun to change it already—as soon as Vanya protested. Mechanical, classroom analysis would no doubt locate the climax of the play in the shooting. But the climax is an anticlimax. If one of our script-writers went to work on it, his "rewrite" would be The Wood Demon all over again, his principle of revision being exactly the opposite of Chekhov's. What Chekhov is after, I think, is not reversal but recognition—also in Aristotle's sense, "the change from ignorance to knowledge." In Aristotle's sense, but with a Chekhovian application.
In the Greeks, in much French drama, and in Ibsen, recognition means the discovery of a secret which reveals that things are not what all these years they have seemed to be. In Uncle Vanya, recognition means that what all these years seemed to be so, though one hesitated to believe it, really is so and will remain so. This is Vanya's discovery and gradually (in the course of the ensuing last act) that of the others. Thus Chekhov has created a kind of recognition which is all his own. In Ibsen the terrible thing is that the surface of everyday life is a smooth deception. In Chekhov the terrible thing is that the surface of everyday life is itself a kind of tragedy. In Ibsen the whole surface of life is suddenly burst by volcanic eruption. In Chekhov the crust is all too firm; the volcanic energies of men have no chance of emerging. Uncle Vanya opens with a rather rhetorical suggestion that this might be so. It ends with the knowledge that it certainly is so, a knowledge shared by all the characters who are capable of knowledge—Astrov, Vanya, Sonya, and Yelena. This growth from ignorance to knowledge is, perhaps, our cardinal experience of the play (the moment of recognition, or experimental proof, being Vanya's outburst before the shooting).
Aristotle says that the change from ignorance to knowledge produces "love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune." But only in The Wood Demon, where there is no real change from ignorance to knowledge, could the outcome be stated in such round terms. Nobody's fortune at the end of Uncle Vanya is as good or bad as it might be; nobody is very conclusively loving or hating. Here again Chekhov is avoiding the black and the white, the tragic and the comic, and is attempting the halftone, the tragicomic.
If, as has been suggested, the action consists in the effect of the presence of the Professor and Yelena upon Sonya, Vanya, and Astrov, we naturally ask: what was that effect? To answer this question for the subtlest of the characters—Astrov—is to see far into Chekhov's art. In The Wood Demon the effect is nil. The action has not yet been unified. It lies buried in the chaos of Chekhov's materials. In Uncle Vanya, however, there is a thread of continuity. We are first told that Astrov is a man with no time for women. We then learn (and there is no trace of this in The Wood Demon) that he is infatuated with Yelena. In The Wood Demon, Sonya gets Astrov in the end. In Uncle Vanya, when Astrov gives up Yelena, he resigns himself to his old role of living without love. The old routine—in this as in other respects—resumes its sway.
The later version of this part of the story includes two splendid scenes that were not in The Wood Demon, even embryonically. One is the first of the two climaxes in Act III—when Yelena sounds out Astrov on Sonya's behalf. Astrov reveals that it is Yelena he loves, and he is kissing her when Vanya enters. The second is Astrov's parting from Yelena in the last act, a scene so subtle that Stanislavsky himself misinterpreted it: he held that Astrov was still madly in love with Yelena and was clutching at her as a dying man clutches at a straw. Chekhov had to point out in a letter that this is not so. What really happens is less histrionic and more Chekhovian. The parting kiss is passionless on Astrov's side. This time it is Yelena who feels a little passion. Not very much, though. For both, the kiss is a tribute to the Might-Have-Been.
Astrov's failure to return Sonya's love is not a result of the Professor's visit; he had failed to return it even before the Professor's arrival. The effect of the visit is to confirm (as part of the general Chekhovian pattern) the fact that what seems to be so is so; that what has been will be; that nothing has changed. How much difference has the visit made? It has made the case much sadder. Beforehand Astrov had maintained, and presumably believed, that he was indifferent to women. Afterward we know that it is Sonya in particular to whom he is indifferent. The "wood demon," devoted to the creative and the natural, can love only Yelena the artificial, the sterile, the useless. To Sonya, the good, the competent, the constructive, he is indifferent.
The Professor's visit clarifies Astrov's situation, indeed, his whole nature. True, he had already confessed himself a failure in some of the opening speeches of the play. The uninitiated must certainly find it strange (despite the august precedent of Antony and Cleopatra) that the play starts with a summary of the whole disaster. Yet the rest of the play, anything but a gratuitous appendix, is the proof that Astrov, who perhaps could not quite believe himself at the beginning, is right after all. The action of the play is his chance to disprove his own thesis—a chance that he misses, that he was bound to miss, being what he was. What was he, then? In the earlier version he had been known as the Wood Demon or Spirit of the Forest, and in Uncle Vanya the long speeches are retained in which he advances his ideal of the natural, the growing, the beautiful. Because he also speaks of great ennobling changes in the future of the race (not unlike those mentioned in the peroration of Trotsky's Literature and Revolution), he has been taken to be a prophet of a great political future for Russia in the twentieth century. But this would be wrenching his remarks from their context. Astrov is not to be congratulated on his beautiful dreams; he is to be pitied. His hope that mankind will some day do something good operates as an excuse for doing nothing now. It is an expression of his own futility, and Astrov knows it. Even in the early version he was not really a Wood Demon. That was only the ironical nickname of a crank. and Astrov In the nickname has gone,3 and Astrove is even more of a crank. When Yelena arrives, he leaves his forest to rot. Clearly they were no real fulfillment of his nature, but an old-maidish hobby, like Persian cats. They were ersatz; and as soon as something else seemed to offer itself, Astrov made his futile attempt at seduction. Freud would have enjoyed the revealing quality of his last pathetic proposal that Yelena should give herself to him in the depth of the forest.
The actor, of course, should not make Astrov too negative. If one school of opinion romanticizes all Chekhov characters who dream of the future, another, even more vulgar, sees them as weaklings and nothing else. Chekhov followed Ibsen in portraying the average mediocre man—I'homme moyen sensuel—without ever following the extreme naturalists in their concern with the utterly downtrodden, the inarticulate, the semihuman. His people are no weaker than ninety-nine out of every hundred members of his audience. That is to say, they are very weak, but there are also elements of protest and revolt in them, traces of will-power, some dim sense of responsibility. If his characters never reach fulfillment, it is not because they were always without potentialities. In fact, Chekhov's sustained point is precisely that these weeping, squirming, suffering creatures might have been men. And because Chekhov feels this, there is emotion, movement, tension, interplay, dialectic, in his plays. He never could have written a play like Galsworthy's Justice, in which the suffering creature is as much an insect as a man.
The Might-Have-Been is Chekhov's idée fixe. His people do not dream only of what could never be, or what could come only after thousands of years; they dream of what their lives actually could have been. They spring from a conviction of human potentiality—which is what separates Chekhov from the real misanthropes of modern literature. Astrov moves us because we can readily feel how fully human he might have been, how he has dwindled, under the influence of "country life," from a thinker to a crank, from a man of feeling to a philanderer. "It is strange somehow," he says to Yelena in the last scene, "we have got to know each other, and all at once for some reason—we shall never meet again. So it is with everything in this world." Such lines might be found in any piece of sentimental theater. But why is it that Chekhov's famous "elegiac note" is, in the full context, deeply moving? Is it not because the sense of death is accompanied with so rich a sense of life and the possible worth of living?
Chekhov had a feeling for the unity of the drama, yet his sense of the richness of life kept him clear of formalism. He enriched his dramas in ways that belong to no school and that, at least in their effect, are peculiar to himself. While others tried to revive poetic drama by putting symbolist verse in the mouths of their characters, or simply by imitating the verse drama of the past, Chekhov found poetry within the world of realism. By this is meant not only that he used symbols. Symbolism of a stagy kind was familiar on the boulevards and still is. The Broadway title Skylark is symbolic in exactly the same way as The Wild Duck and The Seagull. It is rather the use to which Chekhov puts the symbol that is remarkable. We have seen, for instance, what he makes of his "wood demon." This is not merely a matter of Astrov's character. Chekhov's symbols spread themselves, like Ibsen's, over a large territory. They are a path to the imagination and to those deeper passions which in our latter-day drama are seldom worn on the sleeve. Thus if a symbol in Chekhov is explained—in the manner of the raisonneur—the explanation blazes like a denunciation. Yelena says:
As Astrov was just saying, you are all recklessly destroying the forests and soon there will be nothing left on the earth. In the same way you recklessly destroy human beings, and soon, thanks to you, there will be no fidelity, no purity, no capacity for sacrifice left on the earth either! Why is it you can never look at a woman with indifference unless she is yours? That doctor is right: it's because there is a devil of destruction in all of you. You have no mercy on woods or birds or women or one another.
What a paradox: our playwrights who plump for the passions (like O'Neill) are superficial, and Chekhov, who pretends to show us only the surface (who, as I have said, writes the tragedy of the surface), is passionate and deep! No modern playwright has presented elemental...
A founder of both the modern short story and modern prose drama, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, was born in the sea town of Taganrog, Ukraine in 1860. His father was a religiously fanatical grocer whose own father had bought his family out of serfdom only one generation earlier. As a result, Chekhov was intimately acquainted with nineteenth-century Russian provincial life, a household not unlike those in family history his own serving as setting for Uncle Vanya. When Chekhov was 15, his father went bankrupt, forcing part of the family to move to Moscow. Chekhov became financially independent at this time, supporting himself through tutoring jobs, and ultimately began medical studies at Moscow University in 1879. During this time, he also began to write to help support his family, freelancing for newspapers and magazines and gaining avid acclaim as a comic short story writer. Chekhov was devoted to his two professions throughout his life, famously quipping that medicine was his lawful wife, while literature was his mistress.
Chekhov began writing in earnest upon graduating from medical school in 1884. During the late 1880s, Chekhov published both hundreds of short stories, won the Pushkin Prize (1888), and produced a number of failed plays, such as Ivanov (1887) and The Wood Demon (1889). Chekhov would return to the later in 1895, rewriting it as Uncle Vanya. After pause in the early 1890s, during which Chekhov undertook a famous research tour of Siberia, traveled in Singapore, India, Ceylon, and the Suez Canal region, and nursed his weak health, he entered the period for which he is best known, that of his four most celebrated dramatic works: The Sea Gull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Chekhov died of tuberculosis in Germany in 1904.
Though he would not live to see it, Chekhov would, with these late plays in particular, ultimately transform the modern theater. In the history of drama, these emotionally-charged works helped found what Russian critics have termed the theater of nastroenie--concept for which "mood" and "atmosphere" are the closest English equivalents. Along with Ibsen and Strindberg, Checkhov also pioneered what David Magarshack calls the "indirect action" play. Eschewing direct and continuous narrative action, this play uses understatement, broken conversation, off-stage events, and absent characters as catalysts of tension all the while remaining within a realistic frame. As one might imagine, the use of such indirect action often implies a rejection of the classical Aristotelian plot line, in which rising and falling action frame an immediately recognizable climax and give way to a denouement. As Andreas Teuber notes, plays such as Uncle Vanya and the contemporaneously written The Seagull furthermore reveal Chekhov as a great dialogist. Each play features the orchestration a number of modes of speech--brooding oratory, pauses, digressions, breakdowns, and everyday conversation--in ways unmatched on the contemporary stage. Finally, Chekhov also remains remembered for his ability to combine the comic and tragic genres. Indeed, he was often disappointed that his plays were performed as tragedies, believing that their gloomier aspects should have never undercut their humorous ones.
Although Chekhov's early plays do not number among his great works, they nevertheless afford--as the rewriting of the The Wood Demon into Uncle Vanya illustrates--a precious opportunity to chart his development and consider some of the stylistic shifts particularly at stake in Chekhovian drama. A rather conventional melodrama, The Wood Demon tells the store of three erotically entangled couples, following a predictable trajectory through their crisscrossing love affairs. The plot peaks in a climatic suicide (Vanya's) and ends happily with the pairing off of the surviving characters. Uncle Vanya, Chekhov's masterpiece on lost time, wasted lives, and impossible loves, revises the play altogether. Gone is conventional plot, all erotic intentions appear fundamentally unrealizable, an almost farcical and botched murder stands in for what Eric Bentley calls the play's "pseudo-climax", and a miserable domestic scene brings us to the end. We will elaborate the significance of these rather marked shifts below.
As Teuber notes in his brief biography on Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw was the first among Western playwrights to introduce Chekhov's influence to the stage, modeling his "Heartbreak House" (1919) on The Cherry Orchard. It was not until the mid-1920s, however, that Chekhov caught on with English audiences, at which point he became one of the dramatists performed regularly in British playhouses. According to Teuber, Chekhov's notion of subtext--an underlying subject or theme, in this case particularly in dialogue--has proved especially influential in American drama, informing authors as divergent as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Clifford Odets. Finally, some critics have also argued that Chekhov anticipates Brecht's technique of Verfremdungseffekt" (the critical "estrangement" or "distanciation" of the audience from the spectacle on-stage) and Beckett's techniques of dramatic stasis and derealization.