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Theatre / Uncle Vanya

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One of Anton Chekhov's major plays, Uncle Vanya is a four-act play that deals with jealousy (both professional and interpersonal), wasted potential, unrequited love, sickness, age, and a bevy of other dreary topics in the context of a country home in 19th century Russia. Vanya is neither hero nor anti-hero, living in a house with an aged professor, Serebryakov; his wife, Elena; his mother, Maria; his niece, Sonya, and a nurse called Marina. Essentially, the play consists of a period of time when the professor becomes ill. A doctor named Astrov comes to visit to help, and slowly the feelings among numerous characters unravel during Astrov's stay. The play subverts a number of dramatic conventions, and was first performed at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1899. It has since been accepted as both a classic of Russian theatre and a key example of naturalism.

This play provides examples of:

  • All Love Is Unrequited: With one notable exception, between Elena and Astrov — however, even that relationship cannot happen.
  • Angst: Almost everyone. Vanya about how he hates the professor and how he wishes that he would have married Elena before now; Sonya about how ugly she is and how lovely Astrov is; Elena about how she hates the atmosphere in the house; Astrov about how no one cares for the environment; even more minor characters like Maria tend to complain.
  • Anticlimax: Naturally, when Vanya attempts to murder Serebryakov, and fails.
  • Arcadia: Depressingly exaggerated — it's too quiet, and hence is deathly dull and stifling.
  • Berserk Button: Vanya, after the professor kindly informs them that he intends to move to St. Petersburg with Elena and Sonya, selling the estate. Cue attempted homicide.
  • Broken Pedestal: Vanya laments about how he used to worship the professor's work, and how he and Sonya gave every penny to him in order to fund his work. Now, he feels quite differently, as evidenced by his attempted homicide at the end of Act 3.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Ironically averted. When Vanya does attempt to murder the professor, it is totally done off-stage with no clues present that he is about to shoot him.
  • Downer Ending: Serebryakov does as he threatens in the previous act and leaves with Elena, Astrov parts from Elena by acknowledging they can never be together, and, of course, there is Uncle Vanya's attempted suicide. Naturally, the mood that everything in this life is completely pointless remains right until Sonya's final speech.
  • The Hero: Subverted: Although one might expect Vanya to be the key role in the piece, Chekhov deliberately sought to create imperfect characters of equal importance with Grey-and-Grey Morality.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Vanya laments that if he hadn't wasted his life being a property manager for an academic hack, he could have been a great writer and thinker, in his words, another Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky.
  • I Have This Friend: Twice. Sonya asks Astrov for advice about a "friend" who is in love, which he completely misses, and later Astrov assumes that Elena is using this trope when she tries to tell him that Sonya is in love with him.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Astrov intervenes when Vanya steals some of his pills to kill himself.
  • Love Dodecahedron: To put it shortly: Vanya loves Elena, who is married to the professor, and who loves Astrov, who reciprocates her affections (unfortunately, this romance is never realised in the play, but for a short kiss), and who is loved by Sonya.
  • Love Hurts: Basically everyone — it's the source of all the Angst.
  • Our Acts Are Different: It was not the dramatic convention at the time to have four acts — five was in fact the norm for dramas of Chekhov's time.
  • Present Day: The piece is pretty much set contemporarily to when it was written, in order to demonstrate the sort of mood pervading Russia at the time.
  • Repetitive Name: Ilya Ilych Telegin. Someone accidentally calls him Ivan Ivanich, and he corrects them.
  • Shout-Out: In the original Russian text, the professor begins his speech in Act 3 by telling his assembled family members than a government inspector is coming. This is a reference to an earlier play called The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol; a popular one that audiences would have been very familiar with.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Definitely comes out on the cynicism side — the whole point of the play is to show how futile and worthless the main characters' existences are.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Both Astrov's and Vanya's opinion of Elena's marriage to the professor.