Is Uncle Vanya a comedy or tragedy? A melodrama or new realism? Realism or absurdism?
Short answer: Yes.
For evidence to support this claim, I turn to Verna Foster’s 2004 book The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. I was reading her discussion of Chekhov and tragicomedy as you all were in warm-ups for Kali’s workshop on Friday and given how much duality we’ve discovered and are actively courting with this production, Foster’s arguments seemed all the more compelling. I’m going to offer some of her observations about Chekhov as part of a first wave of tragicomedies in the 20th century sprinkled with some observations you all have been making in workshop, posts, and resonances from text we read aloud last Tuesday.
Please to enjoy.
[I]n each [play from Ibsen, Chekhov, O’Casey and Synge that she analyzes] the tragicomic arises from the gap between illusion and reality. Generally the major characters are comic in their fantasies, tragic in the realities of their lives. In Renaissance tragicomedy, by contrast, it is illusion that is tragic (the apparent danger of death), but the true state of things is comic. […] In modern tragicomedy it is the characters, not the audience, who may sometimes be spared the full consciousness of the tragedy of their existence. Hjalmar Ekdal in The Wild Duck, for example, may think himself tragic, but his tragic self-image is actually part of his comic fantasy, and he remains unaware of the real tragic contours of his life to which the audience bears witness. (119)
Foster argues that Vanya is a central comic character who perceives himself as tragic. (Thomas, this is part of what I was thinking of on Friday when we talked about whether Vanya really believes he could have been in the ranks of Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky.)
For Vanya, his pain is real, but his grandiloquent sense of what – “normally” —he might have been is ludicrous, as he himself immediately realizes: “But I’m talking nonsense.” […] Chekhov …transforms the melodramatic gunplay in Uncle Vanya into comedy that underscores both Vanya’s ineptitude and his painful awareness of his own insufficiency. (127-8)
I was particularly taken by Foster’s attention to how Chekhov pays attention to natural and social environments in building the tragicomic tension and its expression. (The notion of dependency that can have sour undertones also reminded me of Jamie’s cabin fever post.)
Chekhov’s tragicomic vision of life is grounded in his dramatization of realistic social communities comprising person of varying personality, age, and social status brought together (usually on an estate) by ties of family, friendship, and dependency. […] [In the Act 3 shooting scene of Vanya] Chekhov underscores the complex emotional effect he creates through his use of an ensemble of voices: Serebryakov’s pompous selfishness, [Yelena’s] desperation, Telegin’s comic irrelevance, Sonia’s quiet unhappiness, and the old nurse Marina’s wise belittlement of the behavior of her employers: ‘The geese will cackle for a while and then they’ll stop. (128)
And, back to my first post about how much I think Beckett echoes Chekhov just in a different register:
Anticipating Beckett, Chekhov expressed the classic tragicomic insight of modern drama that our awareness of time passing is tragic but the way we pass time is often farcical. (130)
That perspective on time and (dis)satisfaction reminded me of a monologue from Andrey we did not read last Tuesday from Three Sisters. It follows immediately on the heels of the scene between Irina and Tuzenbach that we did read. Here it is:
ANDREY: Oh, whatever happened to the past, when I was young and happy and intelligent, when I dreamed wonderful dreams and thought great thoughts, when my life and my future were shining with hope? What happened to it? We barely begin to live, and all of a sudden we’re old and boring and lazy and useless and unhappy. This town has a hundred thousand people in it, and not one of them has ever amounted to a thing. Each one is just like all the others: they eat, drink, sleep, and then they die …. more of them are born, and they eat, drink, and sleep too, and then because they’re bored, they gossip, they drink, they gamble, they sue each other, the wives cheat on the husbands and the husbands lie, they pretend they don’t see anything or hear anything, and the children end up just as aimless and dead as their parents. (313, Schmidt translation)
But for Foster, Chekhov’s characters lack of/inability to communicate is the result of self-absorption not the result of the kind of turn inward that is required of characters who inhabit a laid-waste Beckettian landscape. In both circumstances, it is the disconnect between what is said vs. what is meant or what is not said, we get tragicomic tension where “the text is funny but the subtext is not” (Foster, 134).
Chekhov writes tragicomedy at its most realistically subtle, achieving his effects through subject, telling juxtapositions, and the orchestration of an ensemble of voices recognizable to his middle-class audience. At times the tragic seems barely perceptible, but it is always just below the surface of the ordinariness of the lives Chekhov depicts, providing in Andrei Bely’s word an ‘aperture into Eternity.’ (135)
Picking up on the Bely connection, I found an abstract from a UNC-Chapel Hill slavic scholar, Jenya Spallino-Mironava, for a 2011 conference paper “Less is More: Tracing the Development of Chekhov’s Art of the Unspoken” in which she looks at the differences between Uncle Vanya and The Wood Demon in terms of their very different use of pause and silence. Spallino-Mironava writes:
[The contrast in the scripts] suggests that pauses in Chekhov evolve from serving mainly to create the impression of “life as it is,” in the realist tradition [The Wood Demon], to bringing what Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko termed the lyrical “undercurrent” (“podvodnoe techenie”) to the fore and becoming “apertures into Eternity,” in the words of Andrei Bely [in Uncle Vanya]. While realistic in their very nature, pauses in mature Chekhov can be seen as holes in the lattice of life, as breaks in the fabric of the text, which allow the transcendent undercurrents of human existence to come forth from just below the surface of the ordinariness of life portrayed.
More on “ordinary” action and character development in upcoming post.