Cabin Fever (No, not the horror film)

“Cabin fever is an idiomatic term, first recorded in 1918, for a claustraphobic reaction that takes place when a person or group is isolated and/or shut in a small space, with nothing to do for an extended period. Cabin fever describes the extreme irritability and restlessness a person may feel in these situations. A person may experience cabin fever in a situation such as being in a simple country vacation cottage. When experiencing cabin fever, a person may tend to sleep, have distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, dark or hail ”

Thank you Wikipedia.

Three years ago I was in France for Christmas with a friend and her family in a beautiful 15th century manor house in Nimes. It was December, the snow was deep and crisp and beautiful to someone who’s used to hot sun and dry soils. There were six of us staying in this enormous chateau, and we had great visions of holing ourselves up for the winter, watching tv, eating bread and olive oil and playing romantic French songs on the old piano beside the fire. The first meal was perfect, we chatted away in rolling French and everyone seemed to be enjoying everyone who was enjoying them. A cosy scene indeed.
As time went on, however, the frost in the wind outside seemed to seep under the cracks in the doors and windows, and little by little we became disenchanted with one another. The food became less divine, the weather went from magical to thoroughly depressing, and my friend’s warm and welcoming family slowly turned into a small group of very sad, very irritable individuals. Time wore on, and spats turned to frequent screaming matches, until when I woke up in the mornings the house seemed a little smaller than it did when I’d gone to sleep the night before. The walls closed in around us, pressing us together and forcing us to accept our mutual humanness – our stupid mistakes, our boring conversations, our lack of talent and vibrancy in all but a few exhausted areas. I found myself wrapping up in every piece of clothing I had brought and venturing out into the deep, sludgy snow to get out of the giant hairy moustache that was that family.

To this day I hate snow, and I hate Nimes, and I haven’t spoken to the family since. It was a blessed reprieve to step out into the departure terminal in Paris, and I daresay they were relieved to see me go.

This is called Cabin Fever. When two or more people are isolated in a confined space for too long, without external stimuli or contact with nature, bad things happen. People start to go a little mad, start to do things that they would otherwise do. I think it hearkens back to our fear of being in a cave with a big rock rolled across it. Where do we go if something attacks from the inside?

There are only three things that scare me to the point of having a phobia:
1. clowns (whoever thought that was ok??)
2. the fear that I will one day be homeless and living on a moth-eaten patch quilt on the streets of New York with an anemic cat that I’ve called Miss Puss.
3. Being trapped in an inescapable place

Yelena is trapped in so many ways – she is trapped in a disillusioned marriage to a man she can’t bring herself to love. She is trapped in her obligations to her step-daughter which deny her the freedom to love the one person she could possibly have a chance with, and she is trapped in this house full of bitter, dissatisfied people whose hearts and minds are either too tired or too inaccessible to be of any comfort to her.

Of course, we’re all trapped in this little freak show that is Uncle Vanya, in our own twisted way. We are planets in orbit, revolving around and inextricably bound to a locus that seems to be a vacuum of What Ifs and If Only I Hads.

While I agree with Jeff that this play is a comedy, and I agree that we’re all a little cartoonish in one sense or another, I think there’s something very powerful about Cabin Fever and the way it’s going to affect us all out there on stage. Think about this, next time we rehearse, or next time you’re going over lines. ” A person may tend to sleep, have distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, dark or hail.” Again, it begs the question – what do you do when something attacks from the inside?






2 thoughts on “Cabin Fever (No, not the horror film)

  1. Thomas Kavanagh

    Jamie and Jules,

    Great posts. Jamie, I really think you nailed one of the central “conditions” (illnesses? anxieties?) of the Voinitsky estate right on the head: to be mired in the past is… torture. Without consistent contact with the outside world, one can feel alone–even in a group that has known each other for years. All characters, less maybe Waffles and Marina, yearn for an “escape from the estate.” Even Maria diligently writes letters to her co-activists abroad; Astrov wouldn’t dare come into this… sinkhole… unless he were there to pull Yelena (and maybe Vanya?) out.

    I’m reminded of the “ball and chain” work we did together last Friday in Kali’s workshop… of the sensation of being stuck to another. Because it’s not necessarily the estate that is doing the “trapping,” its the actions (or inaction) of the others which prevents movement. It’s as if we are all tied together by ropes and we are running in different directions.

    One thing in particular really struck me about both of your descriptions of cabin fever… weather was a containing, intrusive force in both cases. Violent weather, storms especially, seem to be physical perpetrators of isolation.

    Two things came to mind here:
    1) The storm in Act 2 occurs when the restless company tries to deal with their discomfort.
    2) In Virginia Woolf’s beautiful stream-of-multiple-consciousnesses novel, To the Lighthouse, nature also “seep[s] under the cracks in the doors and windows,” (as, Jamie, you described the storm had done). I couldn’t find this quote I was looking for about the flora surrounding the protagonist’s country estate, and how it was–over the course of many years–slowing intruding upon the household. Instead, I found a lovely quote about the force of the sea, and how it was at times a comforting force, and at others an encroaching menace:

    15-16 – “. . . so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, ‘I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorsely beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.”

    -Thomas K

  2. Jules Odendahl-James

    I really love the invocation of cabin fever in relationship to Vanya. It always amazes me, especially when NC has its brushes with winter weather, how quickly the warm, cuddly feelings of togetherness inspired when one is sequestered give way to stir-craziness and dissatisfaction with the people/place where one is restricted. Even a relative hermit like myself can only last two days, three maximum, before I’m outside doing everything I can to de-ice the driveway and the neighborhood roads to cut a pathway out even if it’s just a 10 minute trip to the mini-mart for snacks. It is also a good reminder of how isolated these estates were in Chekhov’s time. So it seems like they’d be glad for the company since they wouldn’t normally have it. BUT the company isn’t happy about being there and they disrupt the status quo to such an extent that no one (hosts or visitors) is having anything close to a good time but for a good long while it seems like no one is willing to leave. So resentment, restlessness, and seething emotions. How many steps away is this situation from becoming fodder for a horror film? (There is one called Cabin Fever, 2002, directed by none other than Eli Roth.)

    I’ve just been reading an interview with (Sir) Ian McKellen about actors and Chekhov and something he said reminded me of your mention of “trapped”-ness (even with the best possible fellow castmates). McKellen was talking about “set[ting] up a company of actors who can do three or four plays one after the other. As usual, in those circumstances, Chekhov immediately springs to mind as a very good way of binding a group. The major joy of Chekhov is the group that does it.” So we have to find the path to maintaining the joy of the working group (who WANT to be together) so that they can imbue the struggle of the character group (who really DON’T want to be together). It seemed that Kali’s workshop was a good start along that journey.

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