Labor, love, and ennui in Uncle Vanya
The Seagull Project, a company committed to the works of Chekhov, began life with The Seagull and every two years has presented one of Chekhov’s four major plays, directed by ACT’s John Langs. With this production of Uncle Vanya, the company has now performed all of his repertoire. Langs typically makes bold, risky choices. Some concern the non-verbal dimensions of theatre, for instance, his controversial, extended use of dance in The Cherry Orchard, or his innovative use of props and movement in Three Sisters. Other of his choices are more directly ideological, such as emphasizing parallels between American slavery and Russian serfdom in The Cherry Orchard. (See our critique of this production….) It is in the presentation of an ensemble on stage that Langs is generally at his most creative, charting the complex emotional dynamics of a set of people, operating both as an unstable jumble of individuals and as a collective. Of these four plays, Vanya is the least ensemble-driven, as its title suggests. Langs takes perhaps his boldest risks ever in response to the smaller scale of this play, departing significantly from the script in his staging.
The titular character (played by Peter Crook), along with his niece, Sonya (Sunam Ellis) , is a caretaker for the country estate of his brother-in-law Prof. Serebryakov (Mark Jenkins). Vanya’s mother (Amy Fleetwood) also lives on the estate. The professor and his much younger second wife Yelena (Alexandra Tavares) arrive to visit. The play centers around Vanya’s descent into depression, culminating in a sort of psychotic break, the main cause of which is Yelena’s repeated rebuffs of Vanya’s advances. Vanya’s last straw is learning that Serebryakov intends to sell the estate on which he and Sonya have been hard at work for many years. The story climaxes with Vanya attempting first to kill the professor and then himself, but failing in both. The play ends with Vanya and Sonya, turning to their work, alone on the estate, rejected by love and in many ways back where they started.
As a team, we came to differing conclusions about the play’s ethos and the respective arcs of various characters. One saw Vanya as fundamentally miserable, tortured by what he now feels is a wasted life. For another team member, it’s less misery than ennui that defines him. They write ‘the play opens on a sticky, too-warm fall afternoon. The heavy air, the weight of the heat, the accompanying lethargy of an Indian summer day sets the tone for Vanya’s ennui. Yes, he’s depressed, he’s full of a great sadness for what he feels he’s lost (or been cheated by life), but ennui comes from boredom: it’s a listlessness or feeling of weariness from a lack of purpose. Vanya, for all his labor, for all that he thinks of himself and his untapped potential, is a man without autonomous purpose. He can’t, like Sonya, find existential purpose in the daily struggle of living and laboring with the promise of eventual rest. In Sonya’s final monologue she lays this out for Vanya asking:
What can we do? We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept and that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. … [Vanya weeps] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, Wait! We shall rest. We shall rest’.
We also differed in our understanding of the play’s conclusion. For one, Sonya’s development, and future, is tragic, in parallel with Vanya’s; both fail in romantic love, and appear trapped by and in the estate. All that mitigates the tragedy is the affective bond between the two. Another of us sees a more positive outcome that arises from Sonya’s ability to find value in her work, something that puts her in parallel with Dr. Astrov. In that reviewer’s opinion, Sunam Ellis’s Sonya struck the perfect balance of hopeful and practical. Though she’s rejected by Astrov, he leaves full of respect and admiration for her. Sonya’s sense of purpose gives value to her life: to care for the estate, Vanya, and herself. Astrov has purpose: to care for the sick, to be a steward of the forest, and himself.
As a team we agree that Astrov’s love of the forest preserve trumps any other love in the play. Some of the most beautiful language comes from Astrov talking about the unspoiled landscape. He’s driven by the idea of preserving as much of the natural world has he can. Astrov’s environmental activism aligns with Chekhov’s personal skepticism towards Russia’s rampant industrialization and his nostalgia for the psychological freedom and autonomy that were once provided by the wild spaces of his country.
In some ways, this is the same philosophy that drives many of the environmental fundraising campaigns today: we’re losing our humanity (technology has taken over our lives) and saving and caring for the spaces of wilderness still left in the world offer a sort of redemption for our multitude of sins. But, perhaps contradictorily, Astrov is a doctor. He’s a man of science and technology who relies on technological innovation for his work. However, his love of nature, and more importantly his actions to preserve and care for the natural world, seem to fill him with deeper, more fully-realized purpose. All at once Astrov relies on innovation (read: industrialization) and despises its effects on humanity. He doesn’t romanticize the natural world, at least not in the Romantic way. He explains the slow environmental violence with aid of a map saying:
The elk, the swans, the black cock have disappeared. It is, on the whole, the picture of a regular and slow decline which will evidently only take about ten or fifteen more years to complete. You may perhaps object that it is the march of progress, that the old order must give place to the new, and you might be right if roads had been run through these ruined woods, or if factories and schools had taken their place. The people then would have become better educated and healthier and richer, but as it is, we have nothing of the sort. … We are confronted by the degradation of our country, brought on by the fierce struggle for existence of the human race. … And almost everything has gone, and nothing has been created to take its place.
Astrov’s intense concern with preserving the forest stems from the desire to save people; without nature, humanity will crumble. He can’t always save his patients on the operating table but his quest to preserve the forest can redeem this failure through saving many more. We love Astrov’s environmentalism because it’s full of the contradictions many of us encounter as we slog through environmental crisis after crisis towards climate collapse. He, like Sonya, continues to see a purpose in his labor; it even brings him joy, despite the sense of impending doom that progress (read: industrialization) will win. Sonya and Astrov labor with purpose as the sky crashes down around them – and, to me, that seems like the brave thing to do because sometimes it’s all we can do.
As a team, we also agreed that Vanya’s malaise derives from a crippling self-absorption: his great flaw is he does not offer up enduring love or care for anyone or anything outside himself. Vanya expects that his love will produce dividends: if he loves Yelena she’ll return his love in equal measure. His expectations and sense of entitlement (the driving force of his character arc) always leave him disappointed. Sonya and Astrov both embrace a much more adaptable philosophy of love: purposeful, intentional love of someone or something is worth doing simply because we are alive.
The optics of racial casting in ACT’s production either intentionally or unintentionally highlight a white, male fragility narrative. Peter Crook, a white actor of a certain age, plays a character who feels that he deserves more out of life, stands alone in his expectation. Both Sunam Ellis (playing Sonya) and Sylvester Foday Kamara (Astrov), who are visibly actors of color, play characters who adapt their expectations when they encounter failures, and carry on. In a gendered sense, Yelena (Alexandra Tavares) aligns with Sonya. She knows that her choice to marry the Professor requires her to sacrifice parts of what she might want in a relationship: sexual pleasure, spontaneity, and privacy; however, she’s willing to adapt her expectations because of the relative power the marriage provides. She marries him and reaps the benefits of white privilege. Vanya’s indignation isn’t a luxury that either Sonya, Astrov, or Yelena are afforded. This production suggests that a sense of male, racial entitlement shapes Vanya’s behavior and psyche.
Yelena is given an unexpected degree of power in Langs’s production. In the middle of the play, the professor has gone off to bed, complaining of some malady or other, leaving Yelena and Sonya to talk. In the script, Yelena’s request for permission to play the piano is refused by her husband, and that is the end of Act II. But in this production Yelena and Sonya decide to sing and play anyway. This act of defiance highlights the power that Yelena holds in her relationship in spite of what we might expect in a traditional marriage: the man as ultimate authority over a woman’s actions and behaviors. Yelena and Sonya seem to take pleasure in the act of making music as much as in the defiance of the Professor’s wishes. At one point in the production Yelena even shows up on stage in a pantsuit/jumpsuit. Again, the gendered power dynamic between Yelena and the men (particularly Vanya and the Professor) is disrupted. Ultimately, the pantsuit may have been a little more “Yelena 2020” than we were expecting, but it was a fruitful risk to take.
These were clever choices that served nicely to counteract the professor’s bluster and pretense to authority over his estate. A less successful directorial choice was to have Peter Crook on stage for virtually every scene. And this was not because Crook was playing characters other than the titular Vanya. On the contrary, it was, apparently, very much Uncle Vanya present at all times, peering at the other characters and listening in on their conversations. Because there was no acknowledgment from the other characters of Vanya’s extra-scriptural appearance, there was no change in structure or in plot that this decision necessitated. One may suppose that the idea was to reinforce the thematic idea that Vanya, having been so long present at the estate, had in effect become a part of it. He had blended so much into the furniture that he was in some sense synonymous with the house itself.
Nevertheless, this decision to have Vanya constantly lurking seems problematic. For one thing, the resultant ambiguity about how exactly we as the audience were supposed to understand this silent and otherwise apparitional Vanya was of an objectionable sort: Was this Vanya’s ghost? Why was he invisible to the other characters, if indeed he was? Or was it perhaps Vanya himself, but in a trance? Was he actually learning of others’ conversations in some supernatural sort of way?
But more important, Vanya’s constant presence on stage clashes with his character arc as someone who, though perhaps at first seeming like a part of the woodwork, struts and frets his hour upon the stage in the second act with some newly won rage and pain. Vanya is a character who undergoes a genuine psychological metamorphosis, and this change is muted and less clear when he is in constant view of the audience. “One must write plays in which people come and go,” Chekhov said, as ACT’s program ironically reminds us.
Even if we ultimately agreed that Vanya’s depression (or ennui) results from the challenges of living in a degenerating, rapidly-industrializing world, he never fully succumbs to his anxieties. As Sonya reminds us in the final monologue, the fact remains: Vanya is alive, and he is living, and the endurance of simply living offers its own sort of purpose.