The Melodies of Melancholy
a dissembling of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya by Whit Flint
“Any idiot can face a crisis - it’s day to day living that wears you out."
The economic shift and industrial progress in our society suggests opportunities are bigger and brighter than 120 years ago but our nature is the same, we sit and complain and avoid making a simple change. What stops us from challenging ourselves, challenging our fate? Breaking up, falling in love, quitting, moving away? As with most internal hesitations of personal evolution, the answer is rooted in fear. Fear of what could happen, fear of repeating what has already happened - and the most existential of crises - fear of not knowing what will happen. The paralysis of uncertainty and being out of control.
Chekhov began his dissection of theatre structures when he surveyed the landscape and pushed back on the established norm of theatre. Until the late nineteenth century most writing derived from typically one of two source materials: 1) TRAGEDY - complete collapse, disasters and grief or 2) HISTORY - royal societies and their figurative and literal wars. It was this very expectation that Anton Chekhov made his life’s pursuit to deconstruct and peer into the relationships, risks and questions of boredom, the mundane. His beliefs being that the monotony of life was just as nuanced and complex as the battles of kings and queens.
In his pioneering of new theatrical expression, Chekhov had been radically inventing a foreign language. His process was that of a painter: a stroke here, a counterstroke, lines, angles, curves, juxtaposition, a composition of human life that was a reverse-engineering. Less was more. Additionally, his conduit to deeper observation was a certain math, a trigonometry - the study of angles and relationships. What is found in each of his major works is a radical abandonment of the linear movement. He turned the page, clockwise, on the other side, flipped it over, shredded it’s element and gave us a view from a dimension obscured in dramatic literature until him.
Uncle Vanya is unceasingly observant of the jagged edges and scarring of the human condition. A neon light on anger and disappointment. It holds it’s position as the narrative of nihilistic ennui, a tapestry of regret that simmers in it’s own embarrassment. It’s also the closest any of the canon gets to deeming certain characters villains or heroes. And it’s only by a close shave that the story finds sympathy and human foible in even the least palatable of behaviors.
The class structure of elitism and success arrive through Serebrykov and his much younger wife (and former student), Yelena. Their return to the family country home ushers in a new sound, crack in the walls… a seething jealousy in the flesh which picks at various unhealed sores. Serebryankov attempts to enact order only making him the ultimate source of all resentment. His intentions are good but too late. Yelena, like everyone else, craves the opportunity to break free from her current existence. However, her defense against being proactive is the same ailment everyone suffers from… an allergy against revealing deeper or dangerous feelings and conditions. It’s the silence that speaks loudest.
We squint our eyes as Vanya, a jaded, depressed, suicidal, middle-aged man cavalierly abolishes every relationship, and rots in his own self-destruction. Underneath all of his venom is a corrosive pain. A reason. Everyone, no matter the vitriol spewed or rash exposes, has a reason. And the brick wall erected is a flawed philosophy that if you don’t talk about it, it’ll go away. But it doesn’t. Ever. What festers grows. And through the course of the play most connections tiny pivots are made, small corrections applied…but in true Chekhovian form, a return to a strained idle resumes.
With each Chekhovian play the nerve center can be found in it’s title. Three Sisters purposely omits mention of their brother, Andre. This is because it is through his kaleidoscope of dissatisfaction that we watch the play. Similarly, Uncle Vanya is not the ballad of a broken man, but rather the hopeful plea from a niece to her only protector. And it’s her voice that helps us discover that through all the thorns, incisions, and aches, life is worth living. Sophie stands as the moral and spiritual compass. It’s the centralized relationship of Vanya and Sophie that the play takes shape. Their bond defies the years of anguish and pain. Her X-ray scan allows for her to see through everyone’s tirades, irritations, and cruelty. It’s Sophie’s sober scope that acts as the only lighthouse back to shore. And even though plagued by her love for the immature, near-sighted, and alcoholic Astrov, as soon as she’s rejected she silently vows never to speak of love again. Sophie’s resolute determination shifts to a noble duty to care for her mother’s remembrance - as well as a willingness to bear her uncle’s emotional weight. A courage that supersedes her yearnings. And it’s the final image that Vanya falls into her protective and caring arms as she exhibits strength with unmatched compassion and generosity
The central paradox of Vanya is that inertia is intensely active. It is a choice to remain still. Each member of the household stakes raw claim on our affections, and at every subtextual turn an observation internally alters us as the next appeal of desire is made. Of all his literary contributions it’s that of the Chekhovian pause that shifted the entire paradigm of what was until then the theatrical form. He unlocked for both artist and audience the ocean of subtleties through an allegiance to razor sharp truth. A trademark of honesty that is found in what is not said. Or a pause. A long pause, even.
Anton’s assertion was that harmoniously or callously, we are connected. And it’s in Vanya that the oblivious and the tortured speak. A play where each character has so much love to give and nowhere for it to go, a population that lead lives of quiet desperation. This hopelessness ultimately becomes both destructive and contagious. And the malaise seeps into and infects every thought, word and action. Irrational and emotional vices mirroring the same fleeting escapism of the stimulants consumed.
Uncle Vanya is perfectly poised - moreso than any of the other major works - in a nuanced ether of neither merely comedy nor tragedy. It’s loudest crescendo being that of acceptance. That life must be hard for the bright spots to be seen. And that the difficulties to find the bare truth on stage parallel’s our daily life.
“Art, especially the stage, is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling. There are in store for you many unsuccessful days and whole unsuccessful seasons: there will be great misunderstandings and deep disappointments…you must be prepared for all this, expect it and nevertheless, stubbornly, fanatically follow your own way.”
Each of the major works is built by three common themes: love, work and time. Vanya being the most densely occupied by the matter of work. How the toil can both crush our souls as well as give us a sense of existential purpose.
As the carousel of passion in the play races to a grim final position, each character must face embracing uncertainty and forego the desperate sprint to fill internal voids. It’s the quest to examine the momentary balm that external validation offers. It’s the travel of the play for each character to find acceptance and contentment in the present. To see the forest thru the trees.
Anton gives us a voyueristic vantage point within the rural and isolated four walls as a family laments the monotony of their existence, the coma of contemplation and the atrophy of forgotten hope.
A brutal exploration of the gasps of missed connections. A picture frame of raw human desire.
Chekhov’s prescient folk song to the melodies of melancholy.