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Uncle Vanya

Anton Chekhov

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Plot Overview

A founder of both the modern short story and modern prose drama, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, was born in the sea town of Taganrog, Ukraine in 1860. His father was a religiously fanatical grocer whose own father had bought his family out of serfdom only one generation earlier. As a result, Chekhov was intimately acquainted with nineteenth-century Russian provincial life, a household not unlike those in family history his own serving as setting for Uncle Vanya. When Chekhov was 15, his father went bankrupt, forcing part of the family to move to Moscow. Chekhov became financially independent at this time, supporting himself through tutoring jobs, and ultimately began medical studies at Moscow University in 1879. During this time, he also began to write to help support his family, freelancing for newspapers and magazines and gaining avid acclaim as a comic short story writer. Chekhov was devoted to his two professions throughout his life, famously quipping that medicine was his lawful wife, while literature was his mistress.

Chekhov began writing in earnest upon graduating from medical school in 1884. During the late 1880s, Chekhov published both hundreds of short stories, won the Pushkin Prize (1888), and produced a number of failed plays, such as Ivanov (1887) and The Wood Demon (1889). Chekhov would return to the later in 1895, rewriting it as Uncle Vanya. After pause in the early 1890s, during which Chekhov undertook a famous research tour of Siberia, traveled in Singapore, India, Ceylon, and the Suez Canal region, and nursed his weak health, he entered the period for which he is best known, that of his four most celebrated dramatic works: The Sea Gull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Chekhov died of tuberculosis in Germany in 1904.

Though he would not live to see it, Chekhov would, with these late plays in particular, ultimately transform the modern theater. In the history of drama, these emotionally-charged works helped found what Russian critics have termed the theater of nastroenie--concept for which "mood" and "atmosphere" are the closest English equivalents. Along with Ibsen and Strindberg, Checkhov also pioneered what David Magarshack calls the "indirect action" play. Eschewing direct and continuous narrative action, this play uses understatement, broken conversation, off-stage events, and absent characters as catalysts of tension all the while remaining within a realistic frame. As one might imagine, the use of such indirect action often implies a rejection of the classical Aristotelian plot line, in which rising and falling action frame an immediately recognizable climax and give way to a denouement. As Andreas Teuber notes, plays such as Uncle Vanya and the contemporaneously written The Seagull furthermore reveal Chekhov as a great dialogist. Each play features the orchestration a number of modes of speech--brooding oratory, pauses, digressions, breakdowns, and everyday conversation--in ways unmatched on the contemporary stage. Finally, Chekhov also remains remembered for his ability to combine the comic and tragic genres. Indeed, he was often disappointed that his plays were performed as tragedies, believing that their gloomier aspects should have never undercut their humorous ones.

Although Chekhov's early plays do not number among his great works, they nevertheless afford--as the rewriting of the The Wood Demon into Uncle Vanya illustrates--a precious opportunity to chart his development and consider some of the stylistic shifts particularly at stake in Chekhovian drama. A rather conventional melodrama, The Wood Demon tells the store of three erotically entangled couples, following a predictable trajectory through their crisscrossing love affairs. The plot peaks in a climatic suicide (Vanya's) and ends happily with the pairing off of the surviving characters. Uncle Vanya, Chekhov's masterpiece on lost time, wasted lives, and impossible loves, revises the play altogether. Gone is conventional plot, all erotic intentions appear fundamentally unrealizable, an almost farcical and botched murder stands in for what Eric Bentley calls the play's "pseudo-climax", and a miserable domestic scene brings us to the end. We will elaborate the significance of these rather marked shifts below.

As Teuber notes in his brief biography on Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw was the first among Western playwrights to introduce Chekhov's influence to the stage, modeling his "Heartbreak House" (1919) on The Cherry Orchard. It was not until the mid-1920s, however, that Chekhov caught on with English audiences, at which point he became one of the dramatists performed regularly in British playhouses. According to Teuber, Chekhov's notion of subtext--an underlying subject or theme, in this case particularly in dialogue--has proved especially influential in American drama, informing authors as divergent as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Clifford Odets. Finally, some critics have also argued that Chekhov anticipates Brecht's technique of Verfremdungseffekt" (the critical "estrangement" or "distanciation" of the audience from the spectacle on-stage) and Beckett's techniques of dramatic stasis and derealization.

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