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There's nothing like a botched murder plot to make audiences sit up and take notice.
Unless that botched murder plot takes place in Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, in which all the characters pretty much just say "meh" and go on with their lives. See, Chekhov's play is about wasted time and unrequited love (sound like high school, anyone?), and it bucks tradition by not really being about any great event or super climactic moment. It's sort of like Seinfeld in 19th-century Russia.
Now, bucking tradition was one of Chekhov's hobbies. He was a medical doctor who lived from 1860 to 1904 and wrote masterpiece short stories and plays in his spare time. Chekhov is famous for the way he creates a realistic, even mundane mood rather than just slamming you over the head with fantastic ideas or dramatic conflicts. He was into showing the way the Russian upper classes on the eve of the Russian Revolution were just kind of waiting for their way of life to end.
Uncle Vanya was published in 1897 and premiered onstage in 1899, right on the eve of the 20th century. If you can remember way back to the Y2K mania, you'll know that people tend to get antsy at the dawn of a new age. Normal, everyday things take on more importance because they are emblematic of the times. And, yeah, we'll go there: people get a little crazy, too.
So what does this all have to do with Uncle Vanya? Well, for starters, anxiety about the future shows up everywhere. The country folk don't want the city slickers to sell their farm out from under them. Some characters get freaked out about industry's effects on the environment. No one really knows whether their crushes are going to work out. Some of these people waste their entire lives working for others or loving those who don't love them back.
No easy answers here, folks.
Just like in real life, things in this play kind of fizzle out without reaching a big, dramatic climax. And Chekhov was totally doing this on purpose. Uncle Vanya is actually a rewrite of one of Chekhov's earlier plays, The Wood Demon. That play, written ten years earlier, climaxed with Uncle Vanya (same character) killing himself. In Uncle Vanya, though, he tries to knock off his brother-in-law and misses his shot. Twice. What a useless guy, right? He's not even good at making a play exciting.
But seriously, the lack of a climax and resolution make the play pretty modern and avant-garde (yeah, we said that). Audiences probably expected a tragedy like The Wood Demon. Instead, they got something hard to define. Is it tragedy? Comedy? Tragicomedy? Something else? As you read Chekhov's play, try to put yourself in the shoes of those 19th-century playgoers, wondering what the new century will bring.
What, you've never lived on a Russian farm translating books for your rich in-laws? Don't worry—neither have we, and we still liked Uncle Vanya. It might not be obvious how a 19th-century Russian play about a bunch of dead-end lives really has anything to do with us today, but once you get to reading you'll see how there are actually a lot of parallels between the society portrayed in the play and the one we're enjoying today.
As we mentioned in the "In a Nutshell" section above, Uncle Vanya's about a society in the midst of a huge change: the Industrial Revolution. Ever notice how as soon as you save up enough to buy the newest gadget, they come out with a cooler one that not only has sixty-seven-way video chat but also lets you take pictures of your dog in various interplanetary settings? All that change can make people nervous. What if the next tablet makes better grilled cheese sandwiches than you do, making you obsolete?
And that's one of the underlying currents in Uncle Vanya.
Of course, the characters in the play aren't worried about smart phones; they're still concerned about the invention of the chainsaw. One character, Dr. Astrov, is super worried about how everyone is cutting down the forests to burn the wood and build houses like there's no tomorrow. (And, wait, is there a tomorrow? It's the end of the century, and sometimes people at the ends of centuries aren't so sure about that.) Others are struggling to make a profit from their country estate and really aren't making enough to squeak by. But the idea carries over: worries about where our society and our planet are going are nothing new.
So, okay, Uncle Vanya was written at a time when all kinds of things were changing and the Revolution was right around the corner. What do the characters in the play do in the face of all this change? They meet it head on, of course, and usher in a bright new future.
These chumps do nothing. Got that? Nothing. They're all miserable, but they don't do anything to solve their problems. They just blame everybody else. Meanwhile, the world is changing, and life goes on, leaving them behind. The way these people live their lives is so sad it's funny. And that's the point. Want to know how not to live your life? Watch these folks live theirs. It'll scare you into action, and that's just what our boy Chekhov wants.
All About Anton
Everything you wanted to know about Chekhov but were afraid to ask.
Learn from the Best
A collection of quotes on writing by the big A. C. himself.
Vanya in the Big City
Vanya on 42nd Street is a New York-ified movie version of the play.
Can't Go Wrong with Sir Anthony
This BBC version of the play stars Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Astrov.
That's Dr. Chekhov
Anton might have a lot in common with Astrov: he himself was a medical doctor.
Try, Try Again
The Wood Demon, an earlier Chekhov play on which Uncle Vanya is based, was not so hot.
Cate, Meet Yelena
Watch the Australian actress Cate Blanchett talk about her role in Uncle Vanya.
Watch a trailer for the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Uncle Vanya.
Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti as Vanya
The actor Paul Giamatti talks about a film in which an actor playing Vanya has a nervous breakdown.
Want to hear the audio version of the play? You're in luck.
Who Plays What
The poster from one production of the play.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot
An early portrayal of Uncle Vanya.
There He Is
The author, Anton Chekhov, as a young man.