Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Lucy Bailey
March-April, July 2012
The Print Room
First performed in 1899 and subtitled Scenes from a Country Life, Uncle Vanya is a revision of an unsuccessful play produced ten years earlier, Wood Demon, in which the wild spirits of Slavic folklore are harnessed to evoke the magic of the woods. Chekhov wrote to a friend in 1892: “It’s wonderful in the forest. Landowners are very stupid to live in parks and orchards, and not in the forest. In the forest you can feel the presence of divinity.” In 1892 the playwright had just bought himself the 500-acre country estate Melikhovo, four-fifths of which was wooded. At a time when deforestation was an increasing concern among Russia’s scientists and large landowners, Chekhov found the means and spare moments to plant pine, fir, and cherry trees by the dozens over the six years that he lived on the estate.
Chekhov wrote most of his greatest stories and plays at Melikhovo, and, as a practising rural doctor, he also managed to treat thousands of patients, most of whom were peasants who had never before received proper medical care. Long drives by horse and carriage on bad roads to reach these peasants damaged Chekhov’s already poor health (he knew he had tuberculosis from 1884). To keep up his spirits, he surrounded himself with family and friends at Melikhovo, and none was more important to him than his fiercely devoted sister, who grew vegetables and worked as his medical assistant. Chekhov punctuated his days with early, regular meals around a crowded table that heaved with good humour. As in his plays, life’s dramas were played out amid the eating and drinking and laughter.
Not long after buying Melikhovo, Chekhov observed, “. . . when you move to the country you are hiding not from people but from your own self-love, which can be inaccurate in town around people, and unreliable.” Rosamund Bartlett notes, though, that in his last years at Melikhovo, Chekhov often felt “tired, bored and lonely”. His country estate was a world away from the buzz of literary fame that he experienced in Moscow and, to a much greater degree, St. Petersburg. That most European of Russian cities, St. Petersburg in the 1880s and 1890s provided intellectual stimulation for the small number of Russians fortunate enough to have received a university education, like Uncle Vanya’s Professor Serebryakov. Yet, in Chekhov’s view, this educated elite had far too many egocentric members and small-minded cliques. He could never be one of them, however much he enjoyed their praise.
Chekhov had, after all, descended from a grandfather who bought his way out of serfdom in the northern Caucasus. He himself grew up in poverty with an abusive father and, in 1890, spent months at a Siberian penal colony to learn about prisoners’ lives. Plus, he never expected to live long. When Chekhov travelled to Europe, the ostentatious luxury of the resorts appalled him. The famous paintings in European museums failed to move him. He preferred the cemeteries and the circuses with their clowns.