Act I opens on a muggy autumn afternoon in the garden of Professor Serebryakov's estate. Marina, an old nanny, sits knitting by a samovar as Astrov, the country doctor, paces back and forth. Astrov reminisces about the time when he first came to the region, a time when Vera Petrovna—Serebryakov's first wife and mother to his daughter Sonya—was still alive. Marina notes that since then Astrov has lost his good looks, started to show signs of age, and taken to drinking. Astrov then goes into an extended speech about his "boring, stupid, sordid" life, a life in which he is overworked and surrounded by "eccentric people". As a result, his feelings are "dead to the world": Astrov needs nothing, wants nothing, and loves no one.
Refusing Marina's offer of food, Astrov then recounts how he went to Malitskoe over Lent to treat an epidemic of spotted typhus. One of his patients died while under chloroform, and he is plagued with guilt. Astrov also laments that future generations will not bother to remember those living in the present. Marina comforts him: God will remember.
Voynitsky (or Uncle Vanya), Serebryakov's brother-in-law by his marriage to Vera Petrovna and caretaker of the estate, then enters yawning. He complains that the professor and his wife, having recently relocated to the estate from the city, have thrown the estate out of kilter, drawing everyone into sleep, boredom, and lethargy. Marina concurs, bemoaning the disruption of their dining schedule.
Suddenly Serebryakov,—ridiculously over-dressed in an overcoat, a pair of galoshes, and a pair of gloves—his current young wife Yelena, Sonya, and Telegin, an impoverished landowner dubbed "Waffles" for his pockmarked face, return from a stroll. Speaking of plans to visit a forest preserve, the party enters the house; Telegin joins the group in the garden.
Dreamily Voynitsky sighs about Yelena's beauty. When Astrov reproaches him for not joining the conversation, Voynitsky replies listlessly that he has nothing to say, that he has grown old and lazy. Bitterly, he goes on to caricaturize the other members of the household. His mother, Maria, is a "lazy old crow" who has "one eye fastened on the grave" and the other fixed on her pamphlets "for the dawn of a new life." The professor is an "old, dried up biscuit, a learned, smoke-cured fish", a pompous charlatan of an art historian who knows nothing about art and has already faded into obscurity. Indeed, Serebryakov has spent his life "pouring from one empty pot into the next"—the empty pot of this joke referring to the vacant bodies of his mind, ideas, works, and students.
When Astrov remarks that Voynitsky seems to envy Serebryakov, he readily concurs. In particular, Voynitsky envies Serebryakov's success with women: the examples he adduces are his angelic late sister, his mother (who worships the professor), and the beautiful Yelena. He then points out the illogic of Yelena's fidelity to her dottering, decrepit husband. He questiones how it can be moral to deny one's vitality and youth while immoral to deceive a husband one despises.
Voynitsky's remarks almost reduce Telegin to tears. Apparently his wife deserted him the day after their wedding because of his "unprepossessing appearance." "Waffles" has remained faithful, however, supporting the children she has had by her lover. Though miserable, he has retained his pride, while his wife has grown old, and her lover has died.
As one might have noticed, most of the characters of Uncle Vanya are consumed with lethargy, boredom, and regret over their disappointing lives, mourning years they have wasted in drudgery and the ways in which their fates might have been different. To recall Voynitsky's description of his mother, the characters here are half-dead with bitterness and hopeless seek the renewal of their lives. Their malaise is reflected in the mugginess of the afternoon; indeed, Voynitsky will remark in the following scene that in such "lovely weather" one could hang oneself.
Astrov introduces this theme of the wasted life in two extended speeches. Notably Astrov describes being surrounded by "eccentric people" and then, in the course of his disappointing life, becoming "strange" himself. This motif of estrangement—referring to a sense of alienation from not only those around you but from yourself as well—will recur in relation to the aging doctor. Astrov's becoming strange to himself over the years is materialized here by his "colossal" and "asinine" moustache—a moustache utterly foreign to his own self-concept.
One might also note that the motif of self-estrangement describes Astrov's constant introspection as well. To some extent, the self-reflection he undertakes requires that he "make himself strange", that he distance himself from what is conventionally considered the most familiar—one's inner life. This self-estrangement is matched by the distance Astrov takes from the world around him when brooding. Though ostensibly addressed to Marina, his speeches seem to proceed entirely without their manifest listener in mind. Note how Astrov suddenly remembers that Marina is next to him at the end of his first speech ("Except you, perhaps, you're the only one I may love") and then rambles off into a memory of his childhood nanny.
Also of interest is Astrov's story of the patient who dies while anesthetized. A few lines above, Astrov relates how his feelings have become dead to the world, how he no longer needs, wants, or loves. This numbness is tantamount to a kind of anesthesia: thus we can consider the dead patient Astrov's double, and, indeed, Astrov himself might be aware of this doubling. Tellingly, his "feelings [come] back again" when the patient dies. As he confesses: "I was tortured so much by my conscience I felt that I'd deliberately killed him." One could argue then that Astrov "kills"—albeit accidentally—the anesthetized patient, which doubles for ending his own anesthetizing in order to feel again, even if that feeing is one of guilt.
Speeches such as Astrov's will recur throughout Uncle Vanya, the inner life of the characters constantly standing to release a torrent of unhappy introspection. In reading these artificially long speeches, however, we should keep in mind that they burst through the surface of a realistic, everyday context—indeed, a dialogue, action, and setting defined by banality and petty detail. Recall, for example, the anecdote of the dining schedule or Voynitsky's famous understated entrance: "[Comes out of the house. He has had a good nap after lunch and appears rumpled. He sits down on a bench and adjusts his stylish tie.] Yes [pause] Yes" One might also recall here that the name "Vanya" is as common as "Jack" or "John" in English. Such use of banality helps to compose the very particular malaise described above, the misery in passing through the course of the everyday. Indeed, as we will see, everyday routine will ultimately subsume the changes in the characters' lives that their speeches might seem to foreshadow.
Chekhov's petty details lend themselves to comedy as well: the humor in Voynitsky's entrance is clear. Thus we cannot close this discussion without noting how the tragedy of these first scenes is interlaced with comic elements (indeed, Chekhov, famous for his ability to meld both genres, lamented that his plays were interpreted so tragically). There are a number of obvious examples of humor here: the "unprepossessing" Telegin or "Waffles" is held up for ridicule. Voynitsky's caricatures of his mother and the professor are hilarious, posing him as a sort of bitterly comic misanthrope, the character who explicitly and insightfully points out the miserable nature of those around him.
There also appears some subtle moments of humor. For example, when Marina offers Astrov something to eat after his first speech, she perhaps both ironizes his endless oratory (one wonder if she is really listening) and reveals herself as oblivious to these ruminations in her blind religious faith. Such an ironic interpretation of dialogue would find new voices in Chekhov's text alongside its manifestly tragic content: in this case, voices that criticize an indulgence in introspection as well as a simple-minded religiosity. In blending the tragic and comic, Uncle Vanya allows for endless flights of fancy along these lines.
[Additional note: the verse Voynitsky quotes in his tirade against the professor is from the I.I. Dmitriev's 1794 satire, Somebody Else's Doctrine. As the verse suggests, the satire's main character lacks talent in writing poetry.]