Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
9 June 2023
The play Uncle Vanya, subtitled Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts, is unique in Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s oeuvre of full-length plays: the playscript we know today, and which is performed all over the world is actually a rewriting of his earlier work, The Wood Demon. It was staged in 1889, but was not a success, and was performed only three times. In Uncle Vanya, the author kept the basic features of The Wood Demon plot, some of the situations and the names of the characters. However, the changes were so radical that he was justified in giving the play a different title. He had already written it in 1896, but after the unsuccessful first performance of The Seagull in the same year, he was somewhat reticent about theatre, favouring to pursue publishing books. In 1897, however, something happened that brought about a significant turning point in Chekhov’s career as a playwright: in Moscow, the director and actor Stanislavsky and the playwright Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre (MHAT). In 1898 they staged The Seagull with great success, and Uncle Vanya the following year. It kept being revived for twenty years and became famous throughout Russia, Europe and America. Chekhov was not only a shareholder in the theatre company from the very beginning, but also wrote the two plays he was still able to complete, with MHAT in mind.
Uncle Vanya occupies a very special place in Slovenian theatre as well: it was the first play by Chekhov to be staged at the Ljubljana Drama Theatre (then called the Provincial Theatre) and the first full-length Chekhov play in Slovenian (the first one being the one-act play The Bear staged at the Slovenian Theatre in Trieste in 1908). Translated by Friderik Juvančič and directed by Hinko Nučič, it opened in November 1909, ten years after its world premiere. For as long as fifteen years, Uncle Vanya and The Bear were the only Chekhov plays known to Slovenian theatre audiences. It was presented in several productions, until Boris Vladimirovič Putjata directed The Cherry Orchard, translated by Josip Vidmar, at the Ljubljana Drama in 1923. Vidmar went on to translate Uncle Vanya for a production, staged in 1939 at the Drama. Almost 50 years later, in 1988, Milan Jesih completed a new translation for the Trieste production. The upcoming production will be based on a new translation by Tatjana Stanič. She summarised her views on the translation of the title as follows: “Djadja will remain uncle (striček), although this is the form, chosen by the first translator of the play into Slovenian, not by Chekhov who combined the diminutive of Ivan with the neutral form of the noun ›uncle‹in the title of the play. However, Uncle Vanya, with its double trochaic pattern, retains the original melody that Stric Vanja would lack. Moreover, the diminutive form not only expresses fondness, but also expands semantic clues into very interesting undertones of ›striček‹ as a form of address.… What is more, the power of tradition and literary memory is not to be ignored, hence it is perfectly reasonable that the first translator’s decision should live on as gracious heritage and a living reference.”
Chekhov’s plays have been associated with a paradox since their inception: although Chekhov is one of the few playwrights who had theatre performance in mind while writing, his plays are considered to be among the most difficult to stage. Paradoxically, it is precisely their very theatricality – that is, his awareness that the spoken language of the play, undoubtedly important, is only one of many means at the disposal of actors and directors – that has made them come fully to life in different times, places and cultures. Of the many themes that Uncle Vanya raises or touches on fleetingly, the one that surely speaks to us at the present moment most compellingly, poignantly, almost prophetically, is the view that Doctor Astrov takes of nature. Astrov is not a romantic environmentalist: his view of the environment is – given the scientific provenance of his profession – formed by empirical data, infallible statistics, and methodical observation of nature, while his experience in the field work has probably contributed to his insight that environmental destruction is intensely socially conditioned. Unrelenting greed on the one hand, and ignorance and backwardness on the other, combined with a daily struggle for survival. Almost everything has been destroyed, and nothing has been created to replace it.