An Abundance of Uncle Vanyas: Chekhov on the Russian Stage

Pippa Crawford examines the staying power of Russia’s greatest playwright

Chekhov (centre) reads to the Moscow Art Theatre troupe, 1900. © Popperfoto / Getty Images

Chekhov (centre) reads to the Moscow Art Theatre troupe, 1900. © Popperfoto / Getty Images

Spend an afternoon wandering around a European capital of your choice, and I can guarantee it won’t be long before you stumble upon Anton Chekhov. The pre-revolutionary dramatist, with his darkly comic tales of unrequited love, suicide and artistic failure, has become a well-worn favourite, his plays staged more often than those of anyone bar Shakespeare. He is revived so relentlessly that one questions how he could ever have been considered inert. So just what is it about these plays that has endured over a century of performances, with countless regime changes and butchered translations along the way?

Chekhov in his Time

No history of Chekhov would be complete without a mention of Konstantin Stanislavskii and the Moscow Arts Theatre. Stanislavskii, who pioneered naturalistic ‘Method’ acting, directed the 1898 revival of The Seagull, appearing himself as Trigorin. The play had premiered two years previously in Petersburg and been poorly received, with audiences laughing uproariously at tragic speeches. Luckily, Stanislavskii’s production was a big hit, cementing his reputation and Chekhov’s. The two had a turbulent relationship, with the author at several points lamenting: ‘Stanislavskii has ruined my play!’ Nonetheless, Stanislavskii’s influence was significant; if you’ve been lucky enough to catch a production of The Seagull, some techniques — the use of shadows and sensitive sound effects (chirping crickets, running water) — can be traced back to these early shows. Chekhov’s mistress and, later, widow, Olga Knipper, for whom the parts of Masha in Three Sisters and Ranevskaia in The Cherry Orchard were written, was also closely involved with the Moscow Arts Theatre. She continued to appear in and champion Chekhov’s plays long after his death in 1904. 

The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre © A.Savin, WikiCommons

The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre © A.Savin, WikiCommons

Revolutionary Chekhov

The 1917 revolution triggered a crackdown on artistic freedom, which was at first introduced gradually. Amongst Chekhov’s plays only The Cherry Orchard, in which an aristocratic family are forced to sell their estate to a nouveaux-riche former serf, was seen as ripe for revolutionary reinterpretation. The divide between the fading, nostalgic characters and the hopeful idealists is already discernible in Chekhov’s text, but productions such as Nemirovich-Danchenko’s in 1940 made heavy cuts, and played it minus the author’s sympathy for the old order. 

The Thawing of Chekhov

The execution of director Vsevolod Meyerhold, also 1940, cast a long shadow over Soviet theatre. Like Shostakovich, Meyerhold was accused of ‘formalism’ — paying more attention to a work itself than to its ideological meaning. It wasn’t until after Stalin’s death in 1953 that unadulterated Chekhov could finally be performed again. Now, you might be wondering: would Chekhov’s small-scale genteel ‘tragedies’ continue to move audiences who had experienced ‘real’ horror on the grand scale — thirty-six years of on-off warfare and ideological oppression? The answer is yes. Chekhovian characters wrestle with individual demons, they pace and pontificate about family, existence and God, and this was appealing to Khrushchev’s society. After all, such personal questions had been deemed irrelevant for decades. The word ‘soul,’ cut by Nemirovich, was put back in for Tovstonogov’s 1965 Three Sisters at the Bolshoi. The late 60s saw several bold productions, which made explicit the sexual tension implicit in Chekhov’s prose. New directors emerged: ‘Efros the Terrible’ put on a controversial Seagull, in 1966, which executed Konstantin by gibbet. Stagnation under Brezhnev brought both the past and future of the Soviet state under the microscope, and directors used Chekhov’s disillusionment with the late Tsarist period to channel these concerns. 

Georgii Tovstonogov’s ‘Uncle Vanya,’ at the Bolshoi, 1982 © Wittenborn Art Books, Alan Wolfsy Fine Arts

Georgii Tovstonogov’s ‘Uncle Vanya,’ at the Bolshoi, 1982 © Wittenborn Art Books, Alan Wolfsy Fine Arts

Chekhov Today

Post-perestroika, Yeltsin’s ‘New Russia’ grew fat on Makdonalds and MTV. The classics could easily have been forgotten, yet instead a new generation of Russians were tempted back to the theatre by directors like Sergei Zhenovach. In a 2000 interview he stated: ‘we are returning ... because the need has arisen in people for something eternal and steadfast; life is so shaky, so unstable, so unpredictable. Today there is one ruler; tomorrow there will be a different ruler... There is a desire for something pure, real and sincere, candid feelings, genuine passions.’ Prescient words indeed as we move into the Putin era. Mirzoev’s 2015 Cherry Orchard, a dark rewrite whose transfer from Moscow’s Pushkin Drama Theatre to the Barbican was facilitated by Roman Abramovich, explores Russia’s uneasy relationship with wealth. Russia may have changed irrevocably, but Chekhov’s richness is such that there is something in each play to highlight the particular foibles of each new era, as well as a mordant wit that withstands the passing of years. 

Chekhov Abroad

Parallel to the story of Chekhov in Russia is the equally tangled trail charting his afterlife overseas. After the first wave of émigrés left Russia in 1917, Chekhov’s plays were introduced, country by country, to an intrigued and sometimes baffled public. Chekhov’s longstanding relationship with British theatre has been well-documented, from the 1937 Saint Denis production of Three Sisters starring Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave and John Gielgud, to Rebecca Frecknell’s freshest interpretation, currently showing at the Almeida.

But did you know that Chekhov was particularly popular in Ireland? According to Senelick it was both the ‘comic’ and ‘fatalistic’ elements that resonated. American audiences in the wake of the Depression also empathised particularly with the ‘small town’ characters in Three Sisters, bounded to the fringes of a vast landmass and dreaming of a distant metropolis they would never visit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Bear did not go down well in Nazi Germany. Despite the ideological gulf between themselves and the Communists in power in the Eastern Bloc, the Fascists condemned Chekhov’s characters for much the same reasons: their inertia and decadence.

And with contemporary Chekhov on the international stage, symbolism is becoming ever more fluid. Nekrošius used Uncle Vanya’s oppression as a metaphor for Russia’s dominance over Lithuania; under Suzuki in Japan, where Chekhov has a huge fanbase, the same play became a dreamlike study of personal loneliness. These plays are invariably associated with Chekhov’s homeland, but as Russia herself likes to play with the definition of ‘Russianness’, ‘Chekhov in exile’ is definitely worth a watch. 

So if you can’t make it to Moscow this time — don’t panic.

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About the author

Pippa Crawford is studying Russian at UCL. She looks forward to getting deeper into the literature and theatre scene this year in St. Petersburg.