By: Nissim Farhy  | 

Arts & Culture: “Uncle Vanya:” An Ode to Chekhov and the Age of Chronic Angst

We find ourselves in an age where escape is everywhere. Any minor social discomfort, boredom or negative feeling can be easily mitigated by simply pulling our phones out of our pockets. While manifested in modern ways, this theme of attempting to escape life is an old one, and one that Anton Chekhov explored in his 1899 play “Uncle Vanya.” 

At the end of the spring semester, the Yeshiva Student Union, along with the Office of Student Life, offered a trip to view Lila Neugebauer’s adaptation of the play. Starring Steve Carell as Vanya and William Jackson Harper as the Doctor, the drama unfolds on a rural Russian farm estate. Hell breaks loose as Vanya’s egoist brother-in-law, ‘the Professor,’ joins the farm with his beautiful new wife Yelena due to suffering from gout and a loss of popularity. Vanya, overcome with love for Yelena and despair of his own life, announces that his life “has become a total chaos.” Similarly, suffering from trauma over the loss of one of his patients, and disillusionment with his isolation, the Doctor joins the family as they navigate the tumultuous nature of life. Sonya, Vanya’s niece and the glimmer of hope in the play, is also plagued by insecurities and her own love fantasy with the Doctor. 

With this motley and melancholy crew, the play offers a satirical take on the chronic angst of life, as the audience gets a front row seat to lives of seemingly unimportant people. Vanya laments, “Who will remember us in a hundred years?” Ironically, not only has the play garnered attention 124 years after its original production, with its emphasis on monologue and emotion over elaborate sets and music, its themes of despair and hope are relevant today. 

Chekhov does more than provide a front row seat to other’s chronic frustration; he brings the audience into the play. Chekhov believed that life as escapism arises primarily from witnessing others suffer. Bearing witness leads to despair and rumination, rather than personal tragedy itself. Chekhov beckons and tests the audience to feel the characters’ pain and angst, rather than laugh at their predicament. These sentiments are acutely felt by the audience as the quivering voice of Sonya, at a moment of despair declares, “Enough!” As Chekhov wrote in a letter to his brother, “Civilized people must have compassion for other people … Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye.”

The opening scene unfolds with Vanya sitting on a bench intoxicated and bemoaning his state of affairs. He is madly in love with a woman he cannot have, has devoted his life to a man he no longer cares for and uses alcohol and opiates as a means of escapism. These two symbols appear frequently in the play and are prevalent in many of Chekhov’s other short stories including “A Nervous Breakdown,” where a law student is horrified by the plight of others, and “Ward No. 6,” where a doctor is tortured by his inability to help his suffering patients. However in “Uncle Vanya,” the characters are horrified and tortured by their own existence; regretting their life unlived as they turn from the suffering of others, Chekhov hones in on what he described as the most dangerous drug: nihilism. “This way of thinking,” an engineer in Chekhov’s story “Lights” cries out, “contains in its essence something addictive, narcotic, like tobacco or morphine. It becomes a habit, a need. You use every moment of solitude, every available opportunity to indulge in thoughts of the pointlessness of life.” 

Vanya is emblematic of this nihilistic philosophy. After faithfully taking care of the farm with Sonya for 30 years and returning the profits to his sister and brother-in-law, the Professor, he sinks into despair. He sees the Professor in person with his lavishness and honor, realizes the life he missed out on and becomes overwhelmed with envy and regret. “I am smart!” he cries, “And I have wasted my life!” 

The life unlived is the recurring concept dramatized in the play as part of the self absorbed escapism. With Yelena bemoaning her loss of a future with the Doctor, and the Doctor with her, the Professor with the loss of his stature, and most permanently the unnamed sister’s death; every character seems fixated on their own troubles as everyone around them crumbles. Plagued with the inevitability of choice and the butterfly effect, the characters and audience suffer with the nagging thought: “What if I had done differently?”

The one exception to this self absorbed phenomenon is Sonya. Raised by her uncle Vanya and in the shadow of the beauty and excellence of her unnamed mother, Sonya has much reason for self-pity. Yet — above everyone else — she is there to prevent Vanya from suicide, pull the Doctor out of his drunken stupor and reengage the family together. She does what no other character is willing to do: feel the chronic pain of others. Chekhov, who built hospitals for the poor, supplied books to public libraries and funded educational institutions for the needy, acutely felt the chronic suffering of those around him like Sonya. 

Unlike other philosophers of his time, Chekhov felt that the assurances of savior philosophies such as Communism, Scientism and belief in the Übermensch, were futile as best dramatized in his story “Three Sisters,” in which Russian siblings hope for a future that never materializes. It is perhaps for this reason that the play is called “Uncle Vanya:” Sonya, not Vanya, is the hero as she is looking out for others like her uncle.

After the Professor decides to return with Yelena to the city, the chaos in the estate verging on the absurd terminates as swiftly as it was ensued. One moment Vanya is on the verge of murdering his brother-in-law and committing suicide, the next he is at the table diligently taking care of overdue paperwork with Sonya. One moment love is chaotic with the Doctor having an affair with Yelena, Sonya lovesick for the Doctor and Vanya in turn accosting Yelena, the next all eroticism appears to settle as the Doctor returns to his practice, and Sonya and Vanya acquiesce to living together alone. One moment there is mayhem, the next tranquility. Chekhov’s self-insertion of Sonya, who engages in manic activity randomly laughing and dancing in the rain for no reason, imagines angst as absurdity, much as the philosopher Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Echoing Camus, Vanya remarks at the start of the play, “What fine weather it is today, can’t choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself.” 

The nagging question at the end of Uncle Vanya as in many of Chekhov's plays is the question of the denouement. “Chekhov often ends with a question mark,” Chekhov enthusiast and actor Ethan Hawke said, “The whole play is a series of question marks, and that’s why they are fun.” While Sonya and Vanya are settled back in the estate the question remains if anything was accomplished. Sonya is still single, Vanya didn’t get Yelena and the Doctor must not return. Perhaps they exchanged one form of escapism for another: work instead of nihilism.

At the end of the play I had the opportunity to ask Carell who starred as Vanya about the problematic conclusion. “You know I think there was a denouement,” Carell said. “It was him [Vanya] being with his practical daughter … With someone he loves and someone that loves him back.”


Photo Caption: YU meets Steve Carrel who starred as Vanya

Photo Credit: Nissim Farhy