Tag Archives: realism

Chekhov, Vanya, and Tragicomedy.

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.



a Chekhov to bind them

Apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the amazing work done with Kali in last Friday’s workshop. I’ve also been reading a lot from directors and actors (past and present) about their impressions about the playwright and his work, thinking specifically about how the Moscow Art Theater basically emerged as Chekhov’s theater, even though he worked with them for only the last 4-5 years of his life (since he died at age 44) and from that union of playwright and an emerging theater company grew so much of the structure, vocabulary and tone of we use in acting and playwriting study and practice today. To that end I wanted to share some observations about ensemble building from Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen collected inThe Cambridge Companion to Chekhov (2000).

Nunn on gathering a group (which included McKellen) to work on The Three Sisters:

I could see that there was great value in doing a Chekhov; actors know that working on a Chekhov play is like to be a democratic experience and that everybody is required to provide an equal amount of contribution and initiative. The Chekhov play becomes ‘company-forming’ material. (102)

McKellen on his “next” Chekhov project:

I’m going to do Dorn in The Seagull this autumn [1998] at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, with Jude Kelly directing. That play is so essentially about theatre people that a company of actors can bring an awful lot of their own lives to it, even though it was written a hundred years ago and in another country. We’re going to set 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. Also, every detail of the relationships between the characters, whether they speak to each other much or not, is very clearly present in the text. It’s very easy and quick to read what the situation is, which isn’t true of Ibsen, for example. Chekhov is a wonderful friend to the actor. (131)


The pared-down setting and the rehearsal props are reminiscent of Our Townbut Thornton Wilder used those devices to keep the audience aware that they were watching a play; Gregory and Malle use them, paradoxically, to show how little the details of setting matter when the details of character are worked through and profoundly right. At some point in the first act, we stop noticing that we’re not watching a fully designed production—or if the thought does occur to us now and then, it’s as an emissary from the real world pinching us to remind us that this is a movie of a rehearsal of a play, before we forget again and are swept up in the emotional turmoil of the characters’ lives. The key item in the movie for exploring this notion is the “I  New York” coffee cup on the dining room table, an anachronism that becomes merely part of the fabric of the setting, imbued like everything else with the indolent, unsettled atmosphere of this Russian country estate. This interaction of late-twentieth-century New York actors with a turn-of-the-century Russian text acknowledges both and celebrates the tension between them as well as the overlap. That’s why the music we hear behind the opening and end credits isn’t, say, a balalaika melody but a marvelous jazz score by Joshua Redman. The point is that Uncle Vanya speaks as powerfully to contemporary Americans as it did to Russians at the sunset of the age of the czars. The magnificence of the performers, perhaps the most extraordinary group of actors ever gathered to bring Chekhov’s play to life, confirms it.

From Steven Vineberg’s review of Vanya on 42nd Street “An American Vanya” as packaged by Criterion Collection for DVD release. The bolded section reminded me a bit of our conversation after the viewing of Gregory’s film last Friday and how this production seeks to invest the audience deeply in the complex inner worlds of these characters paradoxically (perhaps) as a way to open a window into the very constructed process of making those characters. To be both transparent and immersive … that is our challenge.

Experimental Parameters

As promised, a list of the parameters of our experiment that I read aloud at our Friday, Aug. 30th class meeting.

    1. Theater is a space of imagination, thoughtfully informed by worlds, times, and experiences outside its space.
    2. Within Uncle Vanya characters’ realities are driven by feelings and their ability/inability to be articulated through language and action.
    3. The purpose of character teams casting is to offer actors a chance to unlock a shared, yet separate, understanding of complex characters by making specific, detailed choices born in the space where language and physicality meet. This approach offers an audience the chance to pay close attention to character construction through actor performance.
    4. We seek to disrupt our audience’s nostalgia about historical realism by focusing their attention on our fabricated world within the walls of Sheafer. We are offering the audience a glimpse into the process of constructing theatrical reality — just as the characters seem to be processing the notion of “how did I get here?” in their lives. Everything is transparent and open but not improvisatory, simplistic, or unprepared.
    5. Baker writes of her approach to the text,

The goal was to create a version that would make Chekhov happy; to create a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play’s first productions in the provinces in 1898.

We seek a similar, lofty goal: to create a version that appears as something new, unseen before and yet ultimately recognizable and relatable to our contemporary Duke University audience.

And a few of the items Jeff mentioned about performance conventions:

  • We will be thinking about Chekhov’s vaudevilles and the swing of the pendulum in his major works between farce and trageey; laughter and tears.
  • Some characters will be broader in their performance than others based on their actions and given circumstances.
  • Audience members (both on and off-stage) are always aware that we are watching a rehearsal/performance of the play (as in Vanya on 42nd Street).
  • Music is used for transitions and, in vaudeville terms, interludes (possible song & dance moments).
  • Character teams work together, helping each other prepare for their chance to tell the story.
  • Age will be achieved with costume, props, movement, voice. Not makeup.