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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Silvija Jestrović

Uncle Vania after the Theatre of the Absurd:
or Shifting the Boundaries of Interpretation

Two things are essential for a play's production, as I have often told you. First, we must find the thought in a theatrical form. This form I call a jeu de théâtre and around it I shall build the performance. (Meierkhol'd, quoted in Houghton, 117)

Directors who staged Chekhov often believed to have found the keys to an ideal interpretation of Chekhov's plays. Stanislavskii saw his Moscow Art Theatre and Chekhov's drama united in the same aim to achieve “artistic simplicity and truthfulness on stage” (Allen 11). “I would like to direct The Seagull theatrically, as Chekhov wrote it,” asserted Vakhtangov, positioning himself in opposition to his mentor Stanislavskii (Vakhtangov 188). The production history of Chekhov's plays both in Russia and around the world shows that his work has undergone numerous oscillations and metamorphoses, being staged in wide variety of styles and manners-from Stanislavski's realism and theatre of the mood to postmodern deconstructive interpretations of classics as done, for instance, by the New York based Wooster Group. Yet, in most cases the various incarnations of Chekhov's plays on stage have oscillated between two opposite poles-realism, stemming from Stanislavskii's legacy, and absurdism, originating in various anti-naturalistic interpretations of Chekhov.

These different readings and stylistic interpretations of Chekhov's plays have existed both synchronically and diachronically. Along side Stanislavskii's well-known approach to Chekhov existed Vakhtangov's and Meierkhol'd's interpretations that traded the realism of the Moscow Art Theatre for theatricality and conscious stylization. Vakhtangov, escaping the influence of Stanislavskii, formulated the notion of imaginative realism — a combination of inner emotional realism and external theatrical form that can range from stylization to grotesque. For him Chekhov's plays were by no means “slice of life” pieces, but theatrical material that craved its own unique staging form. In his production of Chekhov's The Wedding, Vakhtangov found, what seemed to him, the organically Chekhovian staging form in exaggerated gestures, movements and utterance, creating a satirical, cruel and nightmarish sense of reality. Vakhtangov turned Chekhov's play into an absurd-grotesque insisting on puppet-like qualities of the characters. Meierkhol'd staged Chekhov's three one-act farces- The Anniversary, The Bear, and The Proposal —in the manner of vaudeville, highlighting the physical rather than psychological approach to Chekhov. In his 1967 staging of Chekhov's Three Sisters, Russian director Anatolii Efros followed this line of absurdity and nihilism, placing the characters into a Beckettian limbo on a stage dominated by a tree with iron leaves. In his staging of Chekov's Three Sisters, Iurii Liubimov involved the notion of distancing and breaking the stage illusion by leaving the wall of the Taganka Theatre open to reveal the noisy streets of Moscow as an ironic illustration of the yearning the main protagonists have for the metropolis. In Europe, among the numerous notable productions of Chekhov is certainly the performance directed by Otomar Krejča in Prague, whose absurdist depiction of Chekhov's stage-world as cold and cruel, had political dimensions alluding to the post-war Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia. In his staging of Cherry Orchard, the renowned Italian director, Giorgio Strehler, chose to go beyond veristic details, creating a metaphorical white-on-white scenery with an overhead membrane of petals in a diaphanous veil, moved slowly by the actor's and audience's breathing. In his 1983 staging of Uncle Vania, director Andrei Serban placed the characters in a maze of corridors where as Serebriakov in the play says “you can never find anyone.” That enabled the action to evolve in a slapstick rhythm following the tradition of Meierkhol'd rather than Stanislavskii. Some of the greatest European directors of the 20th-century tried their hand on Chekhov's plays including Brook, Bergman, Vitez, and many others.

Nevertheless, Stanislavskii's staging of Chekhov left an imprint on our cultural consciousness that has often resulted in some sort of Pavlovian reflex when it came to interpretations of Chekhov's plays. The dramatic opus of Chekhov has become the epitome of theatre based on subtext, pauses, psychological realism, and intensive emotional suffering. Even though directors from Vakhtangov to Liubimov in Russia and to Andrei Serban and the Wooster Group in North America diverted more or less radically from Stanislavskii's approach, Chekhov's work has been taken as a prime example of drama written for the theatre of the mood. In spite of very different interpretations of Chekhov's plays all over the world, his work still seems to be in a way entrapped within the Stanislavskian paradigm.

Stanislavskii's theatre presumes the notion of the invisible “fourth wall,” where the audience is given the sensation of peeking through a keyhole into the life on stage; the inner communication circle remains closed and the message is never sent directly to the audience. Stanislavskii's approach is, however, not so much about photographically depictiing of reality as creating the theatre of the mood (nastroenie). The mood of the production helps the actors to be absorbed in the stage world, not to present the character but to merge with it-to be the character. Likewise, the stage event aims to evoke a feeling or mood in the audience that will enable them to identify with the gloomy and monotonous life of Chekhovian characters. In addition, Chekhov's plays, or rather Stanislavskii's interpretation of them, have served in a way as a blueprint for Stanislavkii's System. All the crucial elements of the System, from communicating the subtext to psychological action, were inspired by Chekhov's dramaturgy. Stanislavskii himself admitted:

Chekhov gave that inner truth to the art of the stage which served as the foundation for what was latter called the Stanislavsky System, which must be approached through Chekhov, or which serves as a bridge to the approach to Chekhov. (Stanislavsky 329)

After the guest performance of Stanislavskii's theatre in New York, director Lee Strasberg and his collaborators, fascinated by the truthfulness of the theatre of the mood, founded in 1931 the Group Theatre modeled after the Moscow Art Theatre. Strasberg created his variation of Stanislavskii System-the concept of method acting, still dominant in North American films-and applied it in his staging of Chekhov's plays. In staging of Three Sisters, Strasberg aimed to go further than Stanislavskii in truthfulness of the characters by stripping them of all theatricalities. This even further reinforced the assumption that Chekhov and Stanislavskii are an inseparable item.

Tracing productions of Chekhov's works in Canada from 1926 to 1980, Douglas Clayton (1997) outlines three phases. The first phase stretches to the 1950's, within which Chekhov's short plays were sporadically performed; Chekhov was placed alongside the group of realist bards-Ibsen and Shaw; while his dramaturgy was assumed identical to Stanislavskii's approach to theatre. In the 1950's, as the professional theatres in Canada were established, Chekhov's influence was felt more strongly. As Clayton claims, one of the most significant productions of Chekhov in Canadian theatre is Jack Landau's staging of Three Sisters at the Crest Theatre in Toronto. Even though this production remained to some extent within Stanislavskii's framework, it shifted the emphasis in staging, creating a balance between melancholy and sadness on the one side and comedy on the other. In the 1960's and 70's as Canadian theatre was coming of age and as the Stratford Theatre Festival was inaugurated, Chekhov became fully established within the Canadian theatre repertoire. In 1965, John Hirsch directed The Cherry Orchard at the Stratford Festival, following the notion of Chekhov's dramaturgy as comic in nature. Writing about this production, critic Urjo Kareda was among the first to view Chekhov as the forbearer of the theatre of the absurd:

Chekhov cannot, must not, be removed from his stature at the head of modern drama. His extraordinarily subtle and valuable tragicomic technique has established a pattern which has been repeated, for plays of quite different effects, by many of the most important dramatists, Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter. (qtd. in Clayton 159)

Even though this is considered a precedent in the Canadian reception of Chekhov that announced a new post-Stanislavskii era, relapses into naturalism, often falsely based on Stanislavski, as well as the approach that Chekhov is identical to the theatre of the mood are still quite common.

In the following segment of this essay I will look at a recent Canadian staging of Uncle Vanya, produced by the Soulpepper Theatre Company, to demonstrate that Chekhov based blindly on Stanislavskii's postulates is in danger of coming across as a dated playwright, and yet to show that, even within the paradigm of the theatre of the mood, a contemporary staging of Chekhov wittingly or unwittingly bares traces of the absurdist tradition. Soulpepper, a young, high-profile company, continues a long tradition of staging Chekhov in Canada. The company, formed by stage veterans from the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, is dedicated to promoting Canadian productions of classical plays. Almost every year, there is a Chekhov play or an adaptation thereof in the company's repertory. For the production of Uncle Vanya the company invited Hungarian director Laszlo Marton, who as many before him tried to open Chekhov with Stanislavkii's keys. Soulpepper's production of Uncle Vanya displayed both the limitations of modern Chekhov staged within the framework of Stanislavskii's theatre of the mood and occasionally suggested the absurdist potential of this play for the contemporary stage.

Deeply buried sentiments, emotions larger than life, and sufferings are the main attributes of Chekhov's characters filtered through Stanislavskii. This approach undermines the apparent, but rarely acknowledged discrepancy between the emotional intensity and its cause. It is true that Chekhov's characters do not suffer for nothing, they suffer from nothingness. Yet, modern productions a la Stanislavski often treat this existential condition as “a sudden tragic turn of fate.” Marton's production follows in these footsteps, allowing the actors to sink into emotions within the boundaries of psychological realism. This made the suffering and the emotionality in the production somewhat exaggerated and inadequate, since it was taken for granted. There is a certain emotional excessiveness and inadequacy in Chekhov that on the one hand, becomes either artificial or too sentimental when entirely psychologically motivated.

Marton's staging of Uncle Vanya backgrounds one of the landmarks of Chekhov's writing-the pauses-and their potential to reinforce subtext. Stanislavskii, who in a way canonized Chekhov's pauses, went far beyond what Chekhov specified in his stage directions. Moreover, Stanislavskii used pauses as means of making the dialogue more life-like and of highlighting the mood of hopelessness. Thus, at times, the pace of dramatic events was almost at the rate of real life. Nevertheless, Chekhov's pauses could be interpreted differently-as devices of impeding communication, of pointing to the inadequacy of language to convey emotions and real meaning, and as means of exaggerating the artificiality of the dialogue, rather than emulating the natural flow of a conversation. Director Laszlo Marton does not really choose any of these possibilities and by neglecting the importance of pauses in Chekhov, his stage dialogue verges on the style of TV sitcoms. On the other hand, the pace in Marton's staging indicates yet another missed opportunity for Uncle Vanya to be released from the prison-house of psychological realism. This production, while remaining within the Stanislavskian paradigm, suggests a possibility of two different treatments of time in the play, so that the action could have oscillated between speed and slowness. Slowness in the rhythm indicates the erosion of time as the everyday monotonous pace of life of Chekhov's characters that could have be viewed as somewhat similar to Beckett's treatment of time. The guests, particularly Elena Andreevna, create the illusion of activity, accelerating the pace of events that potentially could have been on the verge of slap-stick, as it almost happens, wittingly or not, in Marton's staging of the climax scene in Uncle Vanya. This collision of slowness and speed in the play makes the Stanislavskian psychological realism out of place and craves for a different and more stylized approach that remains missing in this particular production. Moreover, Stanislavskii's psychological realism undermines the political aspects of Chekhov's work, which Soulpepper's production also confirmed. In Marton's staging, the class aspect of Uncle Vanya, where a group of people works hard for two persons who do not work at all but suffer from boredom and hypochondria, remains in the background.

Marton insisted on sound effects to establish the atmosphere of the production, in the manner that Stanislavskii popularised. In his well known book My Life in Art, Stanislavskii comments on sound effects in Chekhov:

Twilight, sunrise, and sunset, thunderstorms and rain, the first sound of birds in the morning, the clatter of horses' hoofs on a bridge and the rumble of a departing carriage, the striking of a clock, the chirp of a cricket, the ring of alarm-bells — Chekhov needs all these, not for external stage effect, but in order to reveal to us the human soul. [...] We were unjustly ridiculed for our crickets and other sound effects which we used in Chekhov's plays, when we were only following his stage directions. ( Stanislavskii 292)

However, Chekhov made use of sound, but not nearly in the amounts Stanislavski preferred to employ. The playwright was in fact quite ironic about the sounds of crickets, nightingales, clocks and sleigh bells, promising to write a play where none of these effects would be heard. In the Soulpepper production of Uncle Vania the sounds of a dog barking, of pouring rain, and a clock that is constantly ticking are used less excessively than in Stanislavskii to create the atmosphere of remoteness and monotony. Even though these sound effects remain within the realist framework of the production, in Marton's staging they often seem to be one step from crossing the boundary of realism and theatre of the mood.

Even thought Marton chooses Stanislavskii's paradigm to approach Uncle Vanya, it seems that he could also not fully resist the absurdist potential of the play. In Michael Levin's set design for the production, a Persian carpet was placed on a mud floor and elegant salon furniture mixed with wooden boxes. Also, the directorial solution of the farewell scene when all the characters, following an old Russian superstition, sit waiting for a few moments before parting, reveals in its mechanicality profoundly absurdist traits. This production confined Chekhov's play within the constrains of Stanislavskii's realism, believing that an ideal Chekhov for the 21st century still resides in the theatre of the mood. On rare occasions throughout the show there were moments when it seemed as if the production wanted to break free and reveal its true absurdist nature. Moreover, the Soulpepper Company put the production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya next to the productions of two Ionesco's plays in the repertoire of their last season, perhaps unwittingly suggesting the affinity of the Russian classic for absurdist tendencies.

Why insist so much on the absurd in Chekhov, who is considered to be one of the chief writers of the 20th century realism? Diderot has shown us that realism involves a degree of stylization, adjustment, and artificiality of characters, events, and emotion in order to convey the sense of truthfulness and probability. Reality itself, though, is more often than not disproportionate, bewildering, improbable-it allows things to occur without a strong motivation and not in accord with our sense of logic. Realism presents reality in a controlled and controllable framework. Realism is a device and an artistic trick of creating an artificial framework through which action, characters and emotions are controlled, motivated, made convincing, and so “ruddy with life they practically need birth certificates” (Martel vi). The absurd is higher form of realism; it points to the artificiality of a realist framework. Chekhov is a realist who wittingly or unwittingly points to the fact that realism of closed structure dramaturgy subverts itself-since his dramatic events and characters are made so real that they almost come across as absurd.

There are two kinds of absurd suggested through Chekhov's plays: one is inherent in the nature of his work that depicts the tragicomic meaninglessness of existence, rendering daily life too absurd to fully fit into the realist framework of probability; the other kind of absurd in Chekhov's plays points to the future-to the dramatic trend that will become prominent in the 1950's, pioneered by very diverse authors most notably Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter that have been placed under the umbrella of Martin Esslin's term theatre of the absurd.

Esslin's theatre of the absurd is too broad to be fully useful since it covers a wide variety of dramatic works and authors who, aside from breaking with the assumed logic of reality, have very little in common. Nevertheless, the term is above all a historical reference: it indicates a trend that came to being in the 1950's, embracing different artistic voices that had in common the tendency to push realism to the point of bursting, to exaggerate reality until it appears unreal and illogical. Also the trend bears affinity with the philosophy of existentialism. Theatre of the absurd is clearly not a movement nor even a very coherent trend that could be granted a label post festum, as was the case with Expressionism, for instance. Theatre of the absurd, covering writers of very different sensibility and cultural backgrounds, does not chart a coherent dramaturgical style, but rather a worldview that has strongly influenced dramaturgical thinking, creation, and reception in the 20th century theatre. In that light, Chekhov, understood as a precursor of the theatre of the absurd, is less of a harbinger of a certain dramturgical style, rather he prefigures a new relationship to reality conveyed through playwriting that could stylistically go, as the practice has shown, in various directions with a few elements in common.

If we look briefly at the play-text of Uncle Vania we find number of elements that point both to the absurdity within the world of Chekhov's play and that prefigure the notion labelled theatre of the absurd. While the characters within Stanislavskii's framework come across as sentimental, when approached theatrically and not psychologically, as Vakhtangov and Meierkhol'd did, their emotionality suddenly becomes comical. The Wooster Group's performance Brace up! — an adaptation of the Three Sisters — made this emotionality absurd by presenting all three sisters as old ladies in wheelchairs, so when they dream of “Moscow, Moscow...” or desire to work , the impossibility for them to fulfil their dreams becomes apparent and exaggerated to absurd proportions. There is a certain mechanicality in which Chekhov's characters switch from intensive emotions to their daily routines and back again. Their psychology is present, but somewhat subverted, so that the characters also display “something mechanically encrusted on the living” (Bergson 57) to use Henri Bergson's expression employed in his definition of laughter. In other words, they are truly tragicomic, embodying an existential anguish though a laughable, rather than tragic perspective.

As in the theatre of the absurd, the traditional dramaturgical dynamic of cause and effect is disrupted. The visit of Elena Andreevana and the professor provoke the activity within an insulated environment wherein time normally passes slowly and monotonously. Nevertheless, all the emotional and physical activity of the characters ends in nothingness. Sonia is in love with Astrov, realises that he does not love her, and she suffers; but no action takes place as a result. Sonia does not drown in a river as a heroine of a tragedy would normally do. The whole plot evolves around Elena Andreevna's and Astrov's impossible love, but things remain the same at the end. Astrov and Vania, both in love with Elena Andreevna, realize that they are rivals; they fight, and the issue gets resolved to some extent, so the traditional outcome of the duel is avoided; yet it is not a happy ending either. The events culminate in the Professor's announcement of selling the estate; as a result there is fighting, there are tears, there are even gun-shots. But there is no need to “pick up the bodies”: everyone stays alive and the old order of things becomes slowly reestablished. No one sells the estate, the visitors leave, Vania and the rest of the household continue to work as they used to, continuing to provide for Professor and Andreevna. There is, however, an inner change in the characters invoked by the emotional turmoil. Nevertheless, the characters are almost back to the point where they had been before the play started. Chekhov claimed that if there is a gun on the wall in the first act, it has to fire in the third. What happens when the gun misfires? Chekhov's plays offer more an illusion of a plot and of traditional dramatic causality rather than its structural embodiment. Moreover, as drama of the absurd, Chekhov's plays are profoundly nihilistic in nature, which Meierkhol'd, Vakhtangov, and other directors have sensed correctly.

That Chekhov intended to write comedies, which turned out to be tragedies, is the well-known anecdote. Even though Chekhov wrote Three Sisters specifically for Moscow Art Theatre, his distaste for Stanislavskii's approach was no secret. The playwright openly criticized not only Stanislavskii's production of his work but also the overall critical approach that labelled his work pessimistic and imposed a sentimental reading of it:

You say you have cried at my plays. And you are not he only ones. But this is not why I wrote them, it was Alekseev [Stanislavskii] who turned them into cry-babies. I wanted something else. I simply wanted to say to people honestly: 'Look at yourselves, look at how bad and boring your lives are!' The important thing is, that people should understand this, and when they understand it , they will, without fail, create themselves another and better life. I will not see it, but I know — it will be completely different, and nothing like this life. And until it arrives, I will say to people again and again: 'Understand, how bad and boring your lives are!' What is there in this to cry about? (qtd. in Allen 23)

In the context of Chekhov's own view of his work, it could be said that Vakhtangov, Meierkhol'd and the entire tradition of absurdist Chekhov is more true to the playwright and his work. On the other hand, it is also often true that writers are not necessarily the best interpreters of their own work. Interpreting Chekhov having the theatre of the absurd in mind is of course just one possibility. Each dramatic text is a map of codes that could lead in several directions. The problem with opening Chekhov's work with Stanislavskii's keys is in the assumption that this approach is the most true to Chekhov, in spite of the fact that a number of directors chose other possibilities. This, however, does not mean that Chekhov a la Stanislavskii is forever dated, but rather that this approach has become automatized. The conventions of theatre of the mood applied in staging of Chekhov have turned stale and are no longer fully capable of establishing the link with a contemporary audience. I once helped on a production of Chekhov's Uncle Vania. In the production meeting, the director said: “If he (meaning Chekhov) wants me to do his play this way, I will by all means do it!” This sentence puzzled me for a while. What is it actually that Chekhov wants some hundred years after he wrote his plays? Chekhov was unhappy with Stanislavskii's staging of his plays and allegedly hard to please. In any case, it is a wrong question. Perhaps, a better one would be, “What makes Chekhov our contemporary?” (to paraphrase Jan Kott). “In every work of art there is something that links it to the past and something that points to the future,” writes Czech Structuralist Jan Mukařovský (Mukařovský 35). The theatre of the absurd is the future towards which Chekhov's plays have partly pointed. By discovering these links to both past and future it becomes possible to establish the relationship between a classical text and the contemporary context of the performance. This indicates, however, that it is not possible to grant a new life to a play on the premise of permanent and unchanging significance, but rather on the ground of change and adaptation.

Works Cited

  • Allen, David. Performing Chekhov. London; New York: Rutledge, 2000.
  • Bergson, Henri. Laughter An Essay On The Meaning Of The Comic. Trans: C. Brereton and F. Rothwell. London: Macmillan, 1911.
  • Clayton, Douglas. Chekhov Then and Now: The Reception of Chekhov in World Culture. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
  • Houghton, Norris. Moscow Rehearsals: An Account of Methods of Production in the Soviet Theatre. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1938.
  • Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002.
  • Mukařovský, Jan. Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. Ann Arbor. U of Michigan Press, 1970
  • Stanislavskii, Constantin. My Life in Art. Trans. J. J. Robbins. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967.
  • Vakhtnagov, E. Evgeny Vakhtangov. Ed. L. Vendrovskaya and G. Kaptereva, trans. D. Bradbury, Moscow: Progress, 1982.
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