Re-Righting Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya
by Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe
Whenever the American theatre remembers its conscience it remembers Chekhov.
—Eric Bentley, “Chekhov as Playwright (Reconsiderations, No. XI)”
Eric Bentley’s assertion operates on multiple levels. On one hand, in terms of kinds of aesthetic pleasure, Bentley positions Chekhov’s plays as engaging in difficult pleasures, which are complex and require a kind of focus and attention that immediate pleasures do not demand. On the other hand, since conscience concerns one’s inner feelings and Chekhov’s work is predicated upon the internal and psychological operations of individuals, the statement acknowledges Chekhov’s impact on the development of theatre, for his legacy is that, in some measure, he has influenced everything in the theatre that has come after him.
Indeed, Chekhov’s revolutionized theatre with his technique of concealing action beneath the humdrum conduct of everyday life. He is equally interested in characters’ adherence to banal daily routines as well the effects of a radical breach in routine, both of which are present in Uncle Vanya. In his notebooks, Chekhov declared, “Let everything on the stage be just as complex and at the same time just as simple as in life. People have dinner, merely dinner, but at that moment their happiness is being made or their life is being smashed.”
For Chekhov, action is contained in language, rather than plot. In The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner defined drama as “language under such high pressure of feeling that the words carry a necessary and immediate connotation of gesture.” Moreover, in performance as in everyday life, language consists not only of words but also of spaces between words, of silences that bear the weight of action as well, and involves tempo, cadence and the like. In fact, all of language is a physical act. Chekhov’s writing is extremely concentrated, employing a minimum of words rather than voluminous linguistic excesses, toward the aim of reflecting the truth of real life. In Uncle Vanya, the oft-disjointed dialogue mirrors the stagnant lives of farmers, doctors, servants, retired intellectuals, and boarded beauties.
As Peter Brook observes, “it is construction that counts, rhythm, the purely theatrical poetry that comes not from beautiful words but from the right word at the right moment. In the theatre, someone can say yes in such a way that the yes is no longer ordinary—it can become a beautiful word, because it is the perfect expression of what cannot be expressed in any other way.” It is a simplicity that is as full as silence, and in Chekhov’s plays everything happens in the spaces of these words and silences. Indeed, something is growing inside of each silence in Uncle Vanya—emotion intensifies or diminishes, intention is revealed, action stirs, hope is born, passion crosses over to resignation. Words, silence, gesture and action all work together such that one can operate as a container for another.
For her adaptation of Uncle Vanya, Annie Baker decided that “[t]he goal was to create a version that would make Chekhov happy; to create a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play’s first productions in the provinces in 1898.” Baker strictly follows Chekhov’s own maxim that the language should be as simple, authentic, and realistic as possible. One strategy for achieving this, according to Baker,
was to preserve all the quoting and name- dropping that takes place in the original Russian. (Waffles’s exclamation “It was a scene worthy of Aivazovsky!” is usually translated as “It was a scene worthy of a painter of shipwrecks!”). Similarly, the grammar of the original text – endless run-on sentences, ellipses, the awkward repetition of words – has been paid special attention. Words like “creep” are an attempt to loyally translate the slang of 19th Century Russia.
Baker offers an adaptation that is unadorned. In so doing, her choices provide spaces for audiences to reflect upon the actions, and perhaps to hear more precisely the intentions behind each expression. Take for example, Baker’s usage of the word “creep.” In his translation, Peter Carson uses “eccentrics,” a term historically applied with a level of tenderness or endearment. Eccentrics are often thought to be charming and might draw one near; whereas, individuals do not routinely wish to draw closer to creeps. Betsy Hulick uses the term “oddball” in her version. However, Bakers monosyllabic term is more efficient when compared to a disyllabic word, and monosyllabics tend to land with stiff force.
Moreover, in one specific instance, Baker writes, “I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all creeps. Everyone in the world, behaving naturally, is a complete creep. So the truth is, Vanya, you’re totally normal.” In contrast, Hulick writes, “I am now of the opinion that it’s normal to be odd. You are perfectly normal.” In this instance, Hulick expresses the sentiment clearly and as two direct and complete thoughts. Whereas Baker’s text sort of meanders, resembling real life and the way in which our ideas are not easily expressed. In this moment especially, these words are offered as comfort, but in moments when comfort is most needed, it can be difficult to know precisely what to say in exactly the right way.
Of her efforts, Baker states, “We will never know if that goal was achieved, but it was the guiding principle behind this text.” Throughout, Baker’s text is unornamented in such a way that reveals its beauty, a beauty that Brook describes as “the perfect expression of what cannot be expressed in any other way.”