Or is it Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, that appears to be the more usual spelling at least currently but I have spelt it the way I have in the title to this essay as that is how the Penguin Classics edition of 1959 which I have been reading has it so I will stick with it throughout.
The first thing that strikes you reading the play is that for the first two acts Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky, whom his niece Sonia calls Uncle Vania, is largely an ensemble character and it is only in acts three and four that he comes to the front. The first act sets the dynamic tensions between the protagonists. There had clearly been a quiet routine in the house for many years with Sonia and Vania running the estate which had been her mothers dowry when she married professor Serebriakov. Sonia’s mother died some years ago and the professor has now retired to the estate from his home in the city and brought with him his second wife Yeliena who is just 27 years old, between them they have seriously upset the normal running of the household. To make things more complicated Astrov, the doctor who looks after the professor’s gout is attracted to Yeliena as is Vania, whilst Sonia is in love with Astrov. You just know it’s going to get messy and Vania is gloomy about the future as only a Russian can be…
Yeliena – What a lovely day … not too hot either
Voinitsky/Vania – It would even be pleasant to hang oneself on a day like this…
There are four other characters in the play, all of which play minor roles so beyond the list below I won’t cover their actions.
- Maryia Voinitskaia is Sonia’s grandmother/ Vania’s mother
- Ilyia Ilyich Telyeghin was a local landowner but has lost all his money and now lives on the estate.
- Marina an old children’s nurse
- A workman – just needed to fill in such as fetching horses etc. when the main characters wouldn’t do such things.
Act two sees the complicated relationships become more strained. The doctor has been summoned but the professor won’t let him see him this means that he is yet again at the house and wants to spend time with Yeliena to convince her to leave the professor. Vania muses to himself that he missed his chance with Yeliena ten years ago
Voinitsky – [Alone] She’s gone! ten years ago I used to meet her at my sister’s house. She was seventeen then and I was thirty-seven. Why didn’t I fall in love with her then and ask her to marry me? It could have been done so easily! She would have been my wife now.
The professor meanwhile is in pain with the gout and frustrated with his existence at the estate where he feels he is wasting his time and doesn’t get on with anyone there.
Serebriakov – After devoting all my life to learning, after growing used to my study, to my lecture room, to esteemed colleagues – to find myself suddenly, for no reason at all in this crypt, to have to meet stupid people every day, to have to listen to their trivial conversation. I want to live; I love success, I like being a well known figure, I like creating a stir of the world, but here I feel an exile. To spend every minute regretting the past, watching others succeed, fearing death. I can’t! It’s more than I can bear.
Meanwhile Yeliena decides to at least try to make up with Sonia and during their talk admits that although she loved the professor when they married she soon realised her mistake but will remain true to him come what may. At the same time Sonia confesses her love for the doctor and asks Sonia to see if she can find out if he loves her.
Things come to a head in act three, Yeliena talks to the doctor about Sonia and he says he doesn’t love her but interprets the conversation as Yeliena using that as an excuse to talk to him about love. he makes a clumsy pass at her during which he kisses her as she is pushing him away and this is seen by Vania who is just coming into the room at that point. Straight after this before anyone can settle the professor calls everyone together to say that he has decided to sell the estate and buy a villa in Finland for himself and Yeliena. At this Vania explodes with fury, the estate doesn’t belong to the professor but to Sonia and he has given no thought as to where the people who have always lived there might go and it is his family that should decide what to do with the estate as they paid for it
Voinitsky – The estate was originally bought for ninety-five thousand roubles. My father only paid seventy thousand and twenty-five thousand remained on mortgage. Now please do listen! This estate would never have been bought if I hadn’t given up my share of the inheritance in favour of my sister, whom I loved deeply. What’s more, I worked like an ox for ten years, and paid off the whole mortgage.
Serebriakov – I regret that I started this conversation.
Voinitsky – The estate is free from debt and in good condition simply because of my own efforts, and now that I’ve grown old, I’m to be kicked out!
Serebriakov – I don’t understand what you are driving at!
Voinitsky – For twenty-five years I’ve been managing this estate, I’ve been working and sending you money like the most conscientious bailiff you could have, and all this time you’ve never once thanked me for it. All this time – when I was young and now just the same – I’ve been getting a salary of five hundred roubles a year from you, a pittance! and never once have you thought of adding a single rouble to it!
Serebriakov – Ivan Petrovich, how was I to know? I am not a practical man and I don’t understand anything about these matters. You could have added as much as you liked.
Voinitsky – Yes indeed, why didn’t I steal? Why don’t you all laugh at me now because I didn’t steal. It would have been fair enough and I shouldn’t now have been a pauper now!
The professor leaves the room shortly after this, soon followed by Vania and a shot is heard off stage then both men run into the room and Vania fires again, both shots miss, Vania drops the pistol and collapses into a chair as the act ends.
To be honest act four which is set the next day feels like a bit of a let down after the excitement of act three. It has been decided that the professor and Yeliena will leave straight away. With them going the doctor has no reason to still be there and he also leaves. Vania and Sonia sit down to work on the books of the estate which have been neglected whilst the professor has been there and all returns to how it was before.
I’ve seen the play performed, although that was many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it but this was the first time I had read the script. The book contains eight plays in all so I will be reading those later.