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Prophet of doom

(May 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 186, May 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov in a version by Frank McGuinness

Between the old order dying and the new one being born, a variety of morbid symptoms appear, argued the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He could have been describing this and the other plays of the Russian playwright Chekhov.

Uncle Vanya, subtitled ‘scenes from rural life’, is set on a Russian country estate at the end of the 19th century. Chekhov portrays the rural landowners, representatives of a class which is dying.

Vanya is an intelligent and sensitive man whose life has passed him by. He has worked the estate for the benefit of his hated brother-in-law the professor, Serebryakov, revered by the family but a worthless academic. ‘Not one page of his work will survive him’, says Vanya. But now for Vanya too ‘the fire has gone out’ because of ‘living in this backwater’.

Everyone – Vanya, the doctor Astrov with his forestry schemes, the professor, the women Sonya and Elena who are both unhappy in love – finds their lives unfulfilled and disappointing. At the end Vanya and Sonya return to running the estate. Work is seen as their salvation.

Yet we know that even this isn’t possible. The antiquated methods of working the land have led to tiny rates of return on the estates, a discontented peasantry and frustration among those like Astrov who have a more visionary view.

Only six years after Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya, those same peasants rose up in revolution against their landlords, and in less than 20 years two revolutions swept this way of life away forever.

Chekhov has much sympathy for the old life even while he portrays it as doomed. The professor’s answer to low rates of profit is to sell up and invest in capital. His wife Elena remarks that ‘it’s only in modern novels that people have time for the peasants’. In contrast, representatives of the old values like Vanya and Sonya do have time for the peasants, but have no answer to their poverty.

This is an Irish Russian Chekhov, translated with beautiful dialogue by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness and produced by the Derry theatre company Field Day. The frustrations of an Irish country estate of the same period are easy to imagine – so much so that references to vodka or noodles almost seem out of place.

The play is extremely well acted, especially by Stephen Rea in the title role who combines sarcasm with self pity to produce a Vanya who is both very funny and very sad. This production very successfully conveys a social sense of the ‘idiocy of rural life’ while at the same time giving the play a sense of urgency and dynamism sometimes missing from productions of Chekhov.

Plays at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London

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