Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Emotional Landscapes: UNCLE VANYA

JUNE 4, 2010. Uncle Vanya very famously deals with wasted lives. Everyone in the play loves, but no one seems to love the right person at the right time. And in the single instance where two characters are, in fact, connected by love, Chekhov has placed the obstacles of fear, duty, and marriage between them. For everyone else, the obstacle is time: characters are too old, or they are too young, or they did not act when they should have, or lifetimes did not align, or – in Voinitsky’s case – too much time was spent pursuing the wrong goal. At the start of the play, Voinitsky is 47 years old, and has to share living quarters with the woman he loves (Yelena) and her husband (Serebryakov), Voinitsky’s former mentor and employer who now represents the futility of his youthful ambition. His only line of emotional defense is to pursue Yelena unabashedly:

VOINITSKY: How can I look at you differently? I love you.You’re my happiness, my life, my youth. I don’t expect you to love me back. I’m not asking for that. I just need to look at you, to hear the sound of your voice.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: Shhhh! Someone will hear you.

(They go toward the house.)

VOINITSKY: (following her) I need to tell you I love you.That’s all. Don’t send me away. Just that will make me happy.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: This is unbearable.

Voinitsky’s second line of assault is to lash out against his old mentor Serebryakov for myriad faults (my personal favorite is “He’s retired, but no one’s ever heard of him”), all involving things he has taken from Voinitsky, without ever outwardly confessing that Serebryakov now possesses the woman he loves. To be fair, Yelena gives Voinitsky no real reason to believe she could ever love him. She tells him, “You and I are friends … because we’re both of us weak and boring.” Later on in the play we discover that she loves Astrov, the young beauty-and-forest-obsessed doctor whom she characterizes as “creative. Do you understand? Do you know what that means? He’s daring, a free spirit – he has vision. When he plants a tree, he wonders what will become of it in a hundred years.” And Astrov loves her just as passionately. It is the connection between these two characters that we root for – and yet Chekhov does not allow us that satisfaction. Instead, he allows Voinitsky’s impotent rage to build until he must make a pitch for his beloved Yelena, only to witness her in the arms of Astrov. This is the last straw, and every emotion roiling inside Voinitsky – love, envy, self-loathing, rage, fear – erupts, manifesting in the clownish attempted murder of Serebryakov. In this, also, pathetically, Voinitsky fails.Finally, he makes a half-hearted attempt at suicide, which is thwarted by Astrov.

As a result of his experience in this toxic household, Serebryakov collects Yelena and moves her away – but not before she shares a pitiful goodbye with Astrov:

ASTROV: Why don’t you stay? Please. You have nothing to do, no goals. Sooner or later you’ll give in to your feelings – it’s inevitable. Wouldn’t it be better here than in Kharkov or Kursk? In nature, at least it’s poetic …

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: You’re funny. I’m angry with you, but I’ll remember you with pleasure. You’re interesting – unique. We’ll never see each other again, so why hide it? I was in love with you. Well, let’s shake hands. Don’t think badly of me.

Here Chekhov gives us something of an out. This is, truly, a tragic parting, but he allows us something of ironic distance through the ridiculousness of the situation. Astrov continues:

ASTROV: People are sick, and peasants allow their cattle to eat the saplings in my forests. You and your husband bring destruction. That’s a joke, of course. Still, it’s strange – I’m sure if you stayed, it would end in disaster. I wouldn’t come out alive, and neither might you. Well then, go. Finita la commedia!

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: (taking a pencil from his table and quickly hiding it) I’m taking this pencil, as a memento.

ASTROV: Strange. We meet, and suddenly we’re apart.That’s how it is in this world. But since we’re alone, and as Uncle Vanya is not about to arrive with roses for you – may I give you a farewell kiss? May I? (He kisses her on the cheek.) There. Good.

YELENA ANDREYEVNA: I wish you luck. (She looks around.)Oh, well. For once in my life. (She throws herself into his arms. They separate quickly.) I have to go.

Uncle Vanya is a play where everyone loses, and only two come even close to winning, perhaps making their loss all the more tragic. The lesson seems to be “don’t waste your life,” and yet each of these characters deliberately set out to do the right thing and, in the absence of knowledge about the future, misjudged. So how do we know the correct path? Serebryakov, certainly no role model, posits that work itself is the answer, and this is echoed in Sonya’s play-ending speech about God eventually giving them the opportunity to rest, once work is done, . But Astrov, the sole beacon of light in this grim comedy, looks to the future in this admonishing speech to Voinitsky:

ASTROV: People in a century or two will sneer at us for stupidly wasting our lives. Perhaps they’ll have the secret of happiness. But our only hope is that we’ll dream in our coffins – maybe good dreams. Who knows?

It is now a century later. Do we have the secret of happiness? I will posit that we do, and that it is this:

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