Act II - Part One
Act II begins at night with the professor and Yelena asleep and sitting next to each other in the dining room. A night watchman can be heard tapping in the garden. The two awaken, Serebryakov complains of his gout and rheumatism. He damns old age, declaring that he has become detestable to himself and those around him. He accuses Yelena in particular of hating him; how could such a young beauty not resent the corpse to which she is attached? Claiming weariness, Yelena begs him to be quiet. Serebryakov sarcastically replies that it seems he has worn everyone out; he, on the other hand, is having a great time.
Continuing his lament, Serebryakov (ironically) complains that while everyone listens to Voynitsky and Maria, they find his own voice abhorrent. In his old age, he has a right to egoism, and people must attend to him. He has spent his life in scholarship and suddenly finds himself in a "tomb," plagued by the "good-for-nothing talk, talk, talk" of fools. Serebryakov feels as if in "exile" and spends his days yearning for the past and fearing death. With deep resignation, Yelena consoles him: soon she too will be old.
Sonya then enters and reproaches her father for abusing Dr. Astrov—apparently Serebryakov holds him in nothing but contempt. Voynitsky then enters, noting the storm brewing outside. He has come to relieve Yelena and Sonya of their night watch over the professor; the professor reacts in terror—"He'll talk my head off!" he exclaims.
Marina then enters and, speaking of her own aches, tenderly takes Serebryakov to bed. She recalls the years when his first wife, Vera Petrovna, slaved away to care for him; deeply moved, the professor exits the dining room with Sonya and Marina, leaving Yelena and Voynitsky alone.
Complaining of yet another sleepless night with the professor, Yelena cries that the house is "going to rack and ruin" and enjoins Voynitsky to help bring its members together. Much to her dismay, he bends to kiss her hand. When Yelena recoils, Voynitsky once again laments the many wasted years, during which he has had nothing to do with his life and love. Whereas the storm will renew nature, it will not help Voynitsky. His thoughts will haunt him like an "evil spirit." "My feelings are wasting away in vain," he cries, "like a ray of sunlight failing into a pit, and I too am wasting away."
Yelena is numb to his entreaty. When Voynitsky persists, she accuses him of being a drunken bore; Voynitsky rejoins that at least drink makes one feel alive. Yelena leaves, and Voynitsky makes a soliloquy that mourns what might have been had he married Yelena when they first met ten years ago. He also reveals that he once worshipped the professor and has worked the estate to provide him with an income, the summation of his wasted life.
Some disconcerting comic relief ensues. A tipsy Astrov—philosopher and visionary no longer—enters with a guitar-playing Telegin. As Telegin continually warns that everyone is sleeping, one could speculate that this scene is spoken in a whisper. Astrov sings a folk song about the master of the house having no place to go to bed. Asking Voynitsky about Yelena, he coarsely suggests that Voynitsky is in love with her and has perhaps already been her lover. Upon being reproached, he admits to being arrogant and shameless when drunk. Only then does he feel "monumental" rather than "eccentric," able to effect his great plans for the future.
Act II begins with two parallel night watches: that of the tapping guard outside and the vigil the members of the household keep for the aging professor within. In turn-of-the-century provincial Russia, the night watchman would tap the grounds with his stick to signal that all was well and warn potential trespassers that the residents were home. As we will discuss in detail, we find the opposite case with the night watch inside: nothing is well in this household "gone to rack and ruin" and no one feels quite at home.
We can best chart this ruin and sense of dislocation with the dialogue between the professor and Yelena. Here we find the telltale motif of estrangement discussed earlier. The egotistical, almost infantile Serebryakov describes a sense of alienation in his body becoming detestable and foreign with age. Indeed, he even dreams that his left leg belongs to someone else. His sense of estrangement, however, does not only refer to the body but to place as well: retirement has sent him into "exile." Unwelcome and unwanted, he is not at home at his own estate, disrupting its routine with his arrival. Here we might thus recall Astrov's folk song, which ends with the phrase: "There's no place for the master to go to bed"
Serebryakov also describes himself as having been consigned to a "tomb"; notably, the motif of death appears throughout this scene. To recall Voynitsky's accusation from Act I, it appears that living takes too much effort for Yelena. She appears "dead" to the world, numb to the laments of her husband and of Voynitsky. Voynitsky, haunted by the "evil spirit" of his thoughts, drinks to feel alive and finds himself wasting away. We might wonder then—particularly in light of the brewing storm—if the sound from the night watchman outside is more ominous than reassuring, something akin to death's knock on the door.
Along with these dying characters, the scene conjures the memory of a ghost—that of Serebryakov's first wife, Vera Petrovna (vera being Latin for "true" and Petrovna being a variant of the Greek word peter, meaning rock or stone). In this scene, the memory of Vera causes a marked shift in the dialogue's tone: Marina conjures the years past, and the sardonic Serebryakov is moved to near-silence. As Vera is never discussed in detail, however, her significance remains elusive. To some extent, the opening dialogue in Act I marks the time before Astrov's ruin as the time when Vera still lived. On his own part, Voynitsky is haunted by memories of Vera: in the exchange with Sonya in the following scene, he will grow teary when he sees Vera's look in hers. Moreover, his envy of the professor's success with women—a success he describes in reference to his angelic sister above all—points to an almost incestuous obsession with her ghost. In this play about time past, the dead woman comes to emblematize the unrecoverable losses that each character seems to harbor.
[Additional note: Eugene Bristow identifies Astrov's folk song as a castuaka, a topical and funny folk verse analogous to the limerick in English.]
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