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Drama Club: Tuesdays with Chekhov

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You see them on a Friday night when you feel like going out. You chuckle at the questionable Hollywood talent that acts in them. You may have tried out for one back in high school. But how many of us actually read plays?

Skipping drama is understandable – plays are meant to be performed above all else. Yet provided you have a great wordsmith, close readings can allow you to catch all the nuances you might miss on a first-time viewing. It can also allow you to say with absolute authority that no, Ashlee Simpson is not an ideal casting choice.

For the first few weeks at Drama Club, I’ll be tackling Anton Chekhov’s four great plays: Three Sisters, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. Historical and Chekhovian contexts, among other things, will be highlighted. It’s sure to be quite the adventure for this Chekhov virgin.

So let’s get this show on the road! Curtains, please.

Play: Uncle Vanya

Year Published: 1899

Point in Chekhov’s Career: Second of his four major plays

The quiet monotony of Vanya’s country life has been shaken by some new roommates: his sister’s widower, Professor Alexander Serebriakov, and the professor’s beautiful, much younger second wife, Yelena. Bitter dissatisfaction, deep hatred and repressed longings all come out amidst the group, which also includes the professor’s daughter, Sonya, and a local doctor, Mikhail Astrov.

Historical Context:

Russia wasn’t in full-on crisis mode yet, with the Russian Revolution 18 years away. Drawing close, however, was the Russian Revolution of 1905, which saw several acts of terrorism and a widespread call for rights such as universal suffrage.

Uncle Vanya’s mother, Mrs. Voinitsky, is a vanguard for such change. She is a proponent of women’s suffrage whose feminist views are discussed by Vanya. “She has one foot in the grave and the other on a stack of feminist pamphlets, still on the lookout for the millennium,” he remarks in the first act. Mrs. Voinitsky wouldn’t be able to vote in Russia until the 1917, but New Zealand kick-started the trend in 1890 when it granted women suffrage.

Oh and guess who was born in 1899? Another legendary Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov.

Chekhovian Context:

Uncle Vanya was actually a reworking of one of Chekhov’s earlier plays, The Wood Demon. A major plot point that didn’t transfer was the hero’s suicide. Instead, Chekhov has Vanya misfire at his brother-in-law in a frenzied rage. The Wood Demon is only rarely performed and discussed, as Chekhov openly loathed it.

Like Chekhov himself, Vanya is not some idle aristocrat. He has toiled on a farm for years, forsaking nearly all of his profits to support his brother-in-law’s work, which he is furious to discover is idiotic. The revelation drives him to attempted murder and leaves him with a distaste for intellectualism.

Somewhat similarly, Chekhov put himself through high school when his father went bankrupt. He lived in his old family home, but without his family, tutoring the nephew of the man who had bought it out. Despite his poverty, he went on to become a physician. Also like Vanya, he had an aversion to “pretentiousness and fuss.”

Luckily, no records indicate that Chekhov shared Vanya’s homicidal tendencies towards his in-laws.

The Ideal Modern Vanya:

He’s got to be middle-aged, pissed off and extremely unhappy. Perhaps Viggo Mortensen? Based on The Road, he’s got pitiable misery down.

Kristin Hunt is an undergraduate journalism major at Syracuse University. She dreams of the day she owns a personal library the size of Belle’s from Beauty and the Beast. Her column, “Drama Club,” appears every Tuesday.

Photo of Mortenson: Viernest


Written by whitney teal

March 23, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Drama Club

Tagged with , ,

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