by Beatrice Bosco
Uncle Vanya is the most beautiful and crystalline of all Chekhov's plays. It is a diamond; I can't even say how he constructed it because you can't see the joins. Chekhov doesn't give Uncle Vanya a genre. He doesn't call it a drama or a play. He just writes Uncle Vanya: Scenes from a Village Life. –Director Lev Dodin
Together with Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov is considered instrumental in the development of modern drama. His contribution, so unique as to require the term "Chekhovian," includes an emphasis on the detailed actions of daily life and the importance of subtext—unspoken emotions and motivations. The enduringly modern quality of Chekhov's work ensures his continuing audience appeal. Chekhov's literary reputation among writers is without equal. Admired by authors from Virginia Woolf to Woody Allen—including Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham, John Cheever and Raymond Carver—Chekhov's influence as a writer of fiction is pervasive. He is one of the most frequently cited influences of contemporary writers. When 25 notable writers were asked in 1987 to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov was cited by 10 of them, twice the nominations of any other writer. Together with Guy de Maupassant, Chekhov is credited with mastering the short story form. Chekhov's reputation rests as much on his dramas as on his stories, despite having written almost 600 stories and only a handful of plays.
The grandson of an emancipated serf, Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860, in Taganrog, Russia. When his father bankrupted the family business and fled with the family to Moscow, Chekhov remained behind to finish school, and moved to Moscow at the age of 19 to enroll in medical school at Moscow University. He helped support his family by writing popular stories and sketches. He quickly developed a reputation as one of Russia's finest writers, and won the coveted Pushkin Prize at age 27. He practiced medicine throughout his life, though he derived little income from it, often treating the poor for no fee. He suffered from tuberculosis from an early age, and died at 44 in 1904. In the last years of his life, he wrote his four major plays—The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904).
Chekhov's life spanned tumultuous times in Russia, between the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Some critics consider his work prescient, illustrative of the failures of the landowning class, while others see in it nostalgia for the old regime. It would be a mistake, however, to overemphasize the social content of his plays because of subsequent historical events. Chekhov was interested in depicting the world as it was, rather than interpreting or drawing moral lessons from it. "One has to write what one sees, what one feels, truthfully, sincerely," he wrote. "My concern is to write, not to teach!"
In this, Chekhov differed from his contemporary Leo Tolstoy, for whom realism was intended to elevate the reader with moral lessons. Chekhov's plays, like the popular melodramas of the late nineteenth century, involve suicide, murder, foreclosure, and conniving in-laws. His characters, though often passionate about their beliefs and desires, are not types or stand-ins for ideas. Without heroes, antagonists or a focus on action, his plots are a seemingly formless series of small events: meals, casual conversations over tea, arrivals and departures. Chekhov considered his own works as comedies. His tone is mildly ironic as he juxtaposes immensely comic moments with despondency, loneliness and other dark elements of the human condition.
In contrast to his works of fiction, Chekhov's plays were not embraced immediately either by theater artists or audiences. The premier of The Seagull went so badly that Chekhov hid backstage from the catcalls, and declared that, "Not if I live to be 700 will I write another play." The play found a home at the Moscow Art Theatre under the leadership of actor/director Constantin Stanislavski, whose theories of acting, which emphasize naturalism and ensemble, were a perfect match for Chekhov's plays, and transformed twentieth-century theater.
Chekhov's characters surrender to life's disappointments but do not give in to despair. They experience the pain of self-recognition, question the meaning of human existence, but find solace, often in work. In Uncle Vanya, 47-year-old Vanya has dedicated his life to managing the family estate for his brother-in-law, a recently retired professor of art. Once having revered the professor for his scholarship, Vanya had made the sacrifice willingly, but by the time the play begins, Vanya has grown disillusioned: "I lie awake at night, heartsick and angry, to think how stupidly I've wasted my time." The attraction he feels for the professor's beautiful young wife compounds the suffering and hopelessness he feels.
Known as a sympathetic realist and a gentle humanist, Chekhov's plays concern human isolation and the impossibility of understanding each other. Characters experience sorrows that seem inevitable, and must simply endure unhappiness. In the final speech of the play, Vanya's niece Sonya says:
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.
In spite of the desolation, hopes deferred and pleasures lived vicariously, Chekhov's psychological insight and keen powers of observation depict the complex experience of being alive. As Maxim Gorky wrote of the man himself in Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov, "I think that in Anton Pavlovich's presence, every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more oneself."