Anton Chekhov: existentialist, polemicist, humanitarian In this essay, as the title suggests, I want to discuss the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. It is his plays, and only his plays that will dominate this essay, for his short stories are so large (he wrote 450 in all) that, to give Chekhov the full respect he deserves, it would be fitting to speak about these short stories in another essay entirely. The playwright wrote five great plays, and it is these plays that shall be discussed in this essay. These plays five are Ivanov, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. Before I speak of these plays, I will, with all my best efforts, give some preliminary information. Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, six-hundred miles south of Moscow. Unfortunately, much of Chekhov’s plays have not survived, albeit this is not as unfortunate as it appears. For he was a child, and going off earlier plays, they can hardly be regarded as masterpieces, he, like any other great artist does, matures with age. He completed a five-year course as a medical student and in 1884 become a doctor. It was this period, in the early 1880s that Chekhov began to write plays but they lacked structure, a great deal of action happened in them, too much, and in all fairness, were not very good. He was only in his twenty-seventh year when he finished the first draft of one of his great plays, which is Ivanov. It is this play that will be examined presently.
Nicholas Ivanov is a landowner in his thirties; his wife, Sarah, is dying of tuberculosis. Some years later Chekhov would, at the age of forty-four, succumb to this dreadful malady. Ivanov, however, does not look after his wife as he should. He ignores the doctor's advice in taking her to the baths where fresh air is. Instead, he is far too busy meandering and seducing the younger neighbour. Sarah dies. Later we see a final confrontation between the doctor and Nicholas. There is a great deal of existentialism in the plays of Chekhov. Wasted lives and lost loves is perhaps something which best describes these Chekhovian dark comedies. Michael Borkin, a distant relative of Ivanov’s sums up the idea of wasted lives perfectly: ‘A man’s life is like a bright flower blooming in a meadow. A goat comes along and eats it up. No more flower.’ Absurdity persists in Chekhov everywhere, and this absurdity does not arise from plot or the environment which the characters reside; this existential hopelessness comes only from the characters. It is they who fail, disappoint, and beat themselves up on the ‘I could have been’s.’ It is almost as life has eluded them. Another character in the play, Matthew Shabelsky, Ivanov’s uncle on his mother’s side, often, as much as Chekhov’s characters do in his plays, speaks of how his life was once filled with some sort of happiness and contentment, but sadly, that no longer appears to be the situation. Who am I? What am I? I was rich, free, quite happy – but now I’m a parasite, a scrounger, a degraded buffoon. If I express indignation or contempt, I only get laughed at. And when I laugh they shake their heads sadly and say the man’s a bit cracked. More often than not they don’t hear or notice me. Sometimes when these characters speak, one would believe they were eighty or ninety. They would think this more often than not because these characters have given up on life and they genuinely believe no more opportunities will arise for them to redeem themselves. Nevertheless, these characters are not in their eighties or nineties, they are not in their sixties, or even fifties. These characters are in their forties, thirties and even in their twenties, and their lives are empty and vacuous. All life has been drained out of them. However, the great tragedy is they could have been something but for some misguided reason nothing ever presented itself to them, and so forever and a day they are living an existential nightmare. Nicholas Ivanov is in his thirties and is a rather pathetic figure if we are to be blunt about the matter. He feels the need to throw pity upon himself. He is not somebody we feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy for either. His wife, Sarah, is dying from something quite terrible, and he spends his spare time seducing another woman. He is, in sooth, waiting for his wife to die. His pity is not for her but himself. He mourns his life: God, how I despise myself. How I loathe my own voice, footsteps, hands – these clothes, my thoughts. Pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? And pretty mortifying. Less than a year ago I was strong and well, I was cheerful, tireless, and dynamic...My eloquence moved even ignorant louts to tears, I could weep when I saw unhappiness and protest when I met evil... But now, oh God! I’m worn out, I’ve no faith, I spend days and nights doing nothing...There’s nothing I hope or care about, and my spirit quails in fear of the morrow. Then there’s Sarah. I swore to love her forever, told her how happy we’d be, offered her a future beyond her wildest dreams. She believed me. These five years I’ve watched her giving way beneath the weight of her own sacrifices and wilting in the struggle with her conscience, but God knows she’s never looked askance at me or uttered one reproach. What then? I stopped loving her. How? Why? What for? I can’t understand. Now she’s unhappy and her days are numbered. And I’m low and cowardly enough to run away from her pale face, sunken chest, and pleading eyes. How shameful. [Pause.] Little Sasha’s touched by my misfortunes and tells me, at my age, that she loves me. It goes to my head, so I can’t think of anything else. I’m spellbound, it’s music in my ears. So I start shouting about being born again and being happy. But next day I believe in this new life and happiness about as much as I do in fairies. What’s the matter with me? What depths have I sunk to? Where does my weakness come from? What’s happened to my nerves?... I just don’t understand. I might as well shoot myself and be done with it. This is the third act when his wife is still alive. At thirty-five, he speaks as if he were an octogenarian but we know he is not. He is a young man. He is a local government official ‘concerned with peasant affairs,’ so the text tells us. Chekhov referred to Ivanov and the other plays under review as ‘dark comedies.’ They are clearly dark, but you have to look with a fine magnifying glass to spot the comedy. With Chekhov, though, it is the case of digging. The more you read his plays the more you unearth, the more you unearth the more you understand and consume his ‘dark comedies.’ In act four Ivanov makes a series of (relatively) long speeches about his own misery and his inability to do anything and to even function. He is a broken man on the verge of collapse. Just to recap the recent events relating to Ivanov in the play. His wife Sarah has tuberculosis and dies, he remarries and remains unhappy. He draws scornful ire from doctor Lvov. His life is breaking down before our very eyes. Like many of Chekhov’s characters there appears to be no escape. He cannot even work or write anymore. All his senses, creativity, rationale, have given up. We can see no way for himself to free himself from this manic crisis. We get the impression it will end only one way. Either that or a revolution within his mind will erupt. Nevertheless, with the words emanating from his mouth, it seems highly unlikely: Once an intelligent, educated, healthy man begins feeling sorry for himself for no obvious reason and starts rolling down the slippery slope, he rolls on and on without stopping and nothing can save him. Well, what help is there for me? What could it be? ...I can’t write bad verse, nor can I worship my own laziness and put it on a pedestal. Laziness is laziness, weakness is weakness – I can’t find other names for them. I’m done for, I tell you, there’s no more to be said. When we hear him utter those words in act four, and there is more, and he appears to be getting worse every time he speaks, we ponder what the end of the play will bring. Indeed, we cannot be totally optimistic about the future. It appears he is beyond redemption. His mind is imprisoned and is unable to escape. But there is more: I used to be young, eager, sincere, intelligent. I loved, hated and believed differently from other people, I worked hard enough – I had hope enough – for ten men...I was in a hurry to expand all my youthful energy, drank too much, got over-excited, worked, never did things by halves...and now I look how cruelly life, the life I challenged is taking its revenge. I broke under the strain – I woke up to myself at the age of thirty, I’m like an old man in his dressing-gown and slippers. Heavy-headed, dull-witted, worn out, broken, shattered, without fear or love, with no aim in life, I mean around, more dead than alive, and I don’t know who I am, what I’m living for or what I want. Love’s a fraud, so I think, and any show of affection just sloppy sentimentality, there is no point in working, songs and fiery speeches are cheap and stale. Shortly afterwards he shoots himself. It is almost as if his entire mind is disabled and in reality, there was only ever one outcome. Chekhov wrote the play in 1887, when he was only twenty-seven. However, Ivanov, as well as other characters in his plays such as Vanya, Astrov, Irina, Treplev, are, of course, Russian, but the plays and especially the characters speak to all of us; to all of humanity. It can be argued Chekhov himself is an acute observer of the human mind, and he documents the human condition. Yet there appears to be much of the playwright in the plays himself. What we are presented with are characters that are not only existential absurdities in a sort of Kafkaesque state of mind, they, unlike Steinbeck’s characters in his novels, have no hope whatsoever. The hope is vanished, never to return, and the most terrible thing of all is we see the condition, if it is a condition, slowly deteriorating. We get a morbid and damning sense that only two options remain: death or perpetual misery. In this instance, towards the end of Ivanov, Nicholas says, ‘I’m on my last legs-I’m so weak I can hardly stand.’
Two years after Ivanov, Chekhov finished writing his next play, The Seagull. This play, quite literally flopped and the young playwright fell into a deep depression. He vowed never to write another play again. However, when the theatre producer, actor and practitioner, Konstantin Stanislavsky took over the production of the play, it was an overwhelming success and Chekhov broke out of his sombre mood. It has been argued repeatedly in the plays of Chekhov, you can sense the revolution in the atmosphere, but of course we never see one. Nothing happens in these plays yet everything happens. The revolution will come; we know it will. Peter Brook, the legendary theatre director, once observed that Chekhov is akin to playing a tape recorder and hearing the tape play. Chekhov, the strange fellow he was, took it upon himself to dismiss and rubbish Henrik Ibsen’s plays, and later, in regard to Ibsen’s plays, he regarded them as something special. With a first reading of Chekhov, many of us may not be impressed but each time we re-read Chekhov then we start to comprehend the universal genius of the Russian. I must write, I must-. Hardly have I ended one story when I somehow have to write another, then a third and fourth on top of that. These are the words of the young writer, Trigorin. The start of the rather long speech seems, a little at least, Chekhovian. What is so bad and miserable about writing, we must ask. There is no Beckettian damnation here, or is there? Consider the next line of the speech: ‘What’s so wonderful and brilliant about that, eh? It’s such a barbarous life’. These five words: ‘it’s such a barbarous life,’ is echoed throughout Chekhov’s plays. Many of his characters believe it, it is almost as if the lot of them are suffering from a catastrophic mental illness that is incurable. The older they get the worse the irritation becomes. We suspect the play is called The Seagull because Constantine Treplev, the twenty-five-year-old writer, shoots a seagull, that is before he shoots himself, as Ivanov did. It is Trigorin who is having all the success as a young writer, and he is some years younger than Treplev. Constantine Treplev’s mother, Irina, talks a great deal about him and his works. Nevertheless, Treplev himself is hardly the beacon of happiness. As a young man, he says things like: ‘I feel like I am wasting my life.’ We should recall Chekhov’s wasted lives and lost loves. We get the sense no matter what befalls these Russians, they will, waste their lives, and lament their peculiar existential nightmare.
We see the agonies in Trigorin as in Chekhov himself. They are both writers, and young ones at that. It has been made clear of Anton Chekhov’s deep depression when the play failed and the young Trigorin reveals the pressures of a writer. We can only think of the author of Ivanov and The Seagull when he speaks. I’m afraid sometimes afraid they’re just waiting to creep up, grab me and cart me off to an asylum like the lunatic in Gogol. And in my young days, in my best years, when I was just beginning, this writing business was sheer agony. An obscure writer feels clumsy, awkward, out of place-especially when things aren’t going well. We do know Chekhov himself was having tremendous agonies as a writer, and he would often rage against writing and the theatre itself. For it is true to say he loved the theatre and hated it. It would be unreasonable to suggest Chekhov wrote about the tortures of life without experiencing them for himself, or did he? Ingmar Bergman, even in his comedies, people suffer, and with Bergman, we do not see a world in which God creates everything. It is people who are in control of their, often, bleak lives. All life has no purpose. It has no meaning for Vladimir and Estragon, for Meursault in Camus’ story, even in the novels of Zola. It is existential madness.
The second point to consider in Trigorin’s speech is his constant referral to ‘my young days’ and ‘when I was just beginning,’ we get the feeling he may be older than his young age; but he is not. What must he be like if he reaches thirty, forty, fifty and beyond? It is not certain whether he will be around at that time, Chekhov died a young man. The summer he died Stanislavsky wept and wept for the entirety of the season. We see, in each of his plays, a doctor present, apart from The Cherry Orchard. In Ivanov, there is doctor Lvov, in The Seagull, Eugene Dorn, Astrov in Uncle Vanya, in The Three Sisters, Chebutykin. Whoever first raised the idea that all fictional writing is biographical may have a valid point. A final point with regard to Chekhov, he did not give up practicing medicine until 1897, due to the worsening of his illness. He, would, practice medicine through the day and write short stories at night time. One must not give the false impression that only a man’s world exists in these dark comedies. This is certainly not the case. The point can be proved here. For, in any case, the title of the play, The Three Sisters, ought to make it clear. Nina Arkadina, the young actress towards the end of the play, speaking to Treplev, appears not only fatigued and restless but more disturbingly her mind is losing its grip on reality. For she says: ‘I’m a seagull. No, that’s wrong. I’m an actress – Ah, well...ah, well. It doesn’t matter. I’m a seagull. No, that’s wrong. Remember you shot a seagull?’ For Treplev’s part, he is astutely aware Nina is losing her mind and soon enough that is clear. For her, hope seems abysmal. All these lives, that have the ability, talent, intellect, and at times the genius to give the world, never quite manage to achieve anything significant or anything at all. It is almost as if these people are in the middle of a macabre dream, rather, a nightmare, but terrifyingly, the nightmare will never end. There is no waking up because the nightmare is infinite: death only ends it.
The Cherry Orchard is a wonderful play with equally wonderful characters. We have Gayev of course, who famously laments a bookcase. His sister, Madame Ravensky, Trophimof, the ‘perpetual student,’ Lopakhin, the manservant, Firs, who, at eighty-seven is hard of hearing. Like all Chekhov’s plays, it is bleak, and we, as readers and audience, are anxious about the fate of the cherry orchard. The fifty-one-year-old Gayev, like Firs, offers gentle humour, while Anya tells him, ‘uncle do be quiet.’ He laments an old bookcase as if it were a living person: Dear most and honoured bookcase. In you I salute an existence devoted for over a hundred years to the glorious ideals of virtue and justice. In the course of the century your silent summons to creative work has never faltered, upholding in several generations of our confidence and faith in a better future and gathering in us the ideas of virtue and social consciousness. Tears roll down Gayev’s eyes after this little eulogy to the bookcase. It is a beautiful piece of poetry and it tells us a great deal about the gentle humanity Chekhov had. For nobody could have this sort of humanity without creating these characters and having them saying the things they say. He has already been mentioned in the essay, the characters have no hope of, well, anything. Nevertheless, the bookcase, of course, is an inanimate object. It cannot, in any case, think, feel, feel sadness, and achieve anything spectacular or anything at all. It is a bookcase. As for the other characters in the play, they do not have the same luck as this bookcase Gayev praises. Madam Ravensky, for example, is rather blunt and candid in her criticisms: ‘you people shouldn’t get to see plays, you should try watching your own performance instead, what drab lives you all lead and what a load of rubbish you all talk!’
With the exception of Vanya and Astrov in Uncle Vanya Lopakhin is perhaps the character, not a terribly benign one, who speaks of the existential absurdities in reference to himself. For he says: To be honest, the life we lead is preposterous. My father was a peasant, and an idiot who understood nothing, taught me nothing and just beat me when he was drunk, with a stick too. As a matter of fact I’m just a big numbskull and idiot myself. I never learnt anything and my handwriting’s awful. A pig could write as well as I do, I’m ashamed to let anyone see it. What Chekhovian characters often do is speak of the idiocy and misery of their own lives, and not of other people’s apart from perhaps Vanya. We do get it but it is hardly an emerging theme. It also must be added these disillusioned people speak with such coherence. They are all semi-Freud’s: they have the acute ability to examine their own lives, and they are quite blunt about it as well. It is true we never see these people in their jobs, working. Instead, we see them lamenting their woes elsewhere. Often in fact, they are not even in their own homes. This is the ‘dark comedy’ Chekhov speaks about. When Lopakhin says: ‘I’m just a big numbskull’ and ‘a pig could write as well as I do,’ it is comedy, bleak comedy. We, in reality, laugh at other’s misfortunes.
It is the ‘perpetual student,’ Peter Trophimof, who shifts away from berating and lampooning himself. Like a man condemned, that is not to say he does not do it at all, he does, but he offers us more than that. Peter is well liked in the play, and we, the audience member and reader, appreciate his intellect and tomfoolery. In this instance, instead of criticising his own life, he gives a philosophical and ideological argument on Russia. In this long speech in act two, he says the following: Mankind marches on, going from strength to strength. All that eludes us will one day be within our grasp, but, as I say, we must work and we must do what we can for those who are trying to find the truth. Here in Russia very few people do work at present. The kind of Russian intellectuals I know, far and away the greater part of them anyway. They still don’t know the meaning of hard work. They call themselves an intelligentsia, but they speak to their servants as inferiors and treat the peasants like animals. They don’t study properly, they never read anything serious. In fact they don’t do anything at all. Science is just something they talk about and they know precious little about art. Oh, they’re all very earnest. They go around looking extremely solemn. They talk of nothing but weighty issues and they discuss abstract problems, while all the time everyone knows about the workers are abominably fed and sleep without proper bedding, thirty or forty to a room-with bed-bugs everywhere, to say nothing of the stench, the damp and moral degradation. And clearly all our fine talk is just meant to pull the wool over our eyes and other people’s too. Tell me, where are these children’s crèches that there is all this talk about? Where are the libraries? They’re just things people write about, we haven’t actually got any of them. What we have got is dirt, vulgarity and squalor. I loathe these earnest faces. They scare me, and so do earnest conversations. Why can’t we keep quiet for a change? This is a savage indictment on Russian culture and society. In Fact, if we read all the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century, we get much of the same from Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Pushkin and so on. However, Chekhov is different. It is his characters that suffer because of the corrosive degradation they are all subject to. We, of course, seldom get vicious attacks on the Russian intelligentsia and hierarchy but Trophimof offers us something different. Instead of characters in the play bewailing their own existence, Trophimof here is looking at the symptoms, the root cause of the problem. One of the major questions that ought to be asked regarding Chekhov and his plays, is this: are the characters portrayed in these Chekhov plays victims of a pernicious, repressive, barbarous society or are the characters themselves culpable for the failures in their lives? There is little need for Chekhov to be overtly political. It is not necessary, for example, for him to say the Tsar needs hanging because he is a filthy beast, or Bulgakov, who during the Soviet era, to say Lenin and Stalin are murdering bastards and need whipping. Such words would see them in grave danger anyway. However, if Ivanov, Treplev, Nina and others’ lives were put forward one-hundred years and lived in modern-day Paris, London or New York, would their lives be much better? Is the fault with the individual? It is clearly not with God, as Bergman would have it. Nothing is definite with Chekhov, and nothing is really ever resolved. It is up to the audience and reader of his plays to come to their own conclusions. Of course, Peter Trophimof, in the famous speech quoted, attacks the Russian intelligentsia. Michael Bakunin, a Russian contemporary, went on to do this, well he did not go on to do it, he made the distinction before Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard. In fact, we can hardly call Bakunin a contemporary of Chekhov’s: he died when the young future playwright was still in school. However, his critique of ‘the new class,’ a formidable prediction that proved to be true, for he predicted men of knowledge will convert this knowledge into power He writes: The reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, or an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe onto the mass of the ignorant ones. So perhaps Peter Trophimof is the anarchist, disguised as a student, who knows. Nevertheless, as is abundantly clear, Trofimof’s criticisms are quite different to Bakunin’s astonishing prediction. For the ‘perpetual student’ argues that they ‘don’t do anything’ and that ‘they have never read anything serious.’ However, when you attack societies for not having crèches and nurseries and that ‘they’re just things people write about in novels,’ well that is a clear attack against the state. For who else is to blame for having no libraries? It is sad to say The Cherry Orchard is chopped down, and Firs, the old man, we assume, dies. As the play ends we hear nothing, everybody departs except Firs. It is almost as if we can hear the silence. We read the play and when we finish reading the play, we can hear the felling of trees. Perhaps the cherry orchard is like life. Whatever we can say about it only disaster looms. It is true, everybody that was born at a certain time has died. Why must the death of an orchard be any different? Chekhov, it is true, forces us to analyse our own lives. We see how terrible these lives have become then inevitably go on to look at our own. His characters, like Steinbeck’s, have been battered and bruised. The fundamental difference though is significant. Tom Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath, or Juan Chicoy, in the Wayward Bus, keep going, and with your Ivanov’s and Trigorin’s we can lay the claim they are oppressing themselves. They create their own downfall. You know I’ve never done a thing and that’s a fact. Since I left the university I haven’t lifted a finger, I’ve never even read a book. I’ve read nothing but newspapers (takes another newspaper out of his pocket). See what I mean? I know from newspapers there was somebody called Dobrolyubov, for instance, but what that fellow wrote I’ve no idea. I can’t say I greatly care either. This is the fifty-two-year-old army doctor, Ivan Chebutykin, speaking in The Three Sisters. Out of all Chekhov’s doctors in his plays, Chebutykin is potentially the most absurd. He is amusing, we can be sure of that, he is, what some may call an ignoramus. He, in the play, at the most inopportune moment, pulls a newspaper out of his pocket. We must remember that is fifty-two and has never read a book. However, later in the play we see a more serious side to him: Damn the whole lot of them. To hell with them. They think I’m a doctor and cure diseases, but I know absolutely nothing. What I did know I’ve forgotten. I don’t remember a thing. My mind’s a blank. To hell with them. I had a patient at Zasyp last Wednesday, a woman. She died, and it was all my fault. Yes indeed. I did know a thing or two about twenty-five years ago, but now I’ve forgotten it all, it’s all gone. Perhaps I’m not even a human being, perhaps I only pretend to have arms and legs, perhaps I don’t exist at all, and imagine I walk about and eat and sleep. Oh, how nice not to exist. Who the hell cares? A couple of days ago at the club they were talking about Shakespeare and Voltaire. I’ve never read them, never read a word of them, but I managed to look as if had and everybody else did the same. Could anything be more vulgar? Or more sordid? Then I suddenly remembered the woman I killed on Wednesday. It all came back to me and I felt rotten, dirty, twisted inside. So I went and got drunk.
In this long speech, the doctor tells us a great deal. The patient he speaks of, haunts him and it is clear his life is filled with a certain emptiness. He even says: ‘Oh, how nice not to exist.’ It is a sad indictment for a doctor who, it appears, has not the soundest of minds. Nevertheless, even if he were the most wonderful doctor in the world, he still would be the unfortunate figure that he is. He even despises himself for pretending to have read Voltaire and Shakespeare, and so it goes. We get the distinct impression that he despises himself. That is the thing with Chekhov’s characters; we get the sense they all despise themselves in one way or another and this theme runs through his dramatic works, and their fate, so it would seem, is doomed. It does not matter what walk of life these characters come from, what their jobs are, their experiences or whatever, they, in the end, fail. However, the failure is something awful, because, in some cases, they are brilliant people, and they are trapped in an existential bubble, which they are never quite able to escape. They physically cannot escape their own miseries. Yet, it is interesting to note, despite the pessimism that runs through his plays, we do not see it as depressing, ourselves, because every word the characters speak is poetry, and we cannot help but empathise and sympathise with these, sometimes desperately pathetic people. Of course, there are other characters in the play who are equally troubled, and one of these is forty-two-year-old army commander, Alexander Vershinin. Some of his words, sentences, even speeches in The Three Sisters are haunting. In one particular lengthy speech in act one he makes us think of our dreary lives and the place we live. For it is true, there are unhappy souls everywhere: I don’t think there exists, or ever did exist, a town so dull and dreary that it has no place for intelligent, educated men and women. Let us suppose that amongst the hundred thousand inhabitants of this town – oh, I know it’s a backward, rough sort of place – there’s no one else like you there. Well, you obviously can’t hope to prevail against the forces of ignorance around you. As you go on living you’ll have to give way bit by bit to these hundred thousand people and be swallowed up in the crowd – you’ll go under, but that doesn’t mean you’ll sink without trace – you will have some effect. Perhaps when you’re gone there will be six people like you, then twelve and so on. We are forced to think of our own existence here. For how many of our towns are ‘dreary?’ ‘dull?’ and/or ‘backward?’ This is common to most people and although people, quite generally, loath to admit it is the plain truth. People leave unhappy lives it is true, and part of that problem is the slum in which they are native to. It need not be a working-class ghetto either. It is quite noble then that a writer such as Chekhov to put so much emphasis on human suffering. Whether it is doctors, landowners, professors, servants, teachers, peasants and anybody else. It gives us all pause for thought. Some of the most poignant and profound sentiments expressed by a single person in these five great plays of Chekhov presented in this essay is one of the three sisters, Irina. Her speeches remind us of what I consider Chekhov’s greatest creation, uncle Vanya. It is because she speaks of the possibility of having wasted her life; Vanya is forty-seven but Irina is twenty-three: ‘I can’t remember Italian for ‘windows’ – or ‘ceiling’ either. I’m always forgetting things. I forget something every day and life is slipping away, it will never, never come back again and we shall never go to Moscow either, I just know we shan’t.’
‘Life is slipping away,’ and yet she is only twenty-three. Treplev was twenty-five, Trigorin was younger and he killed himself. It appears to make little difference what age they are, it also, is as if their lives have been destroyed already, that their life was doomed before they were even born. That is the impression we are given. It is though wherever we live and whatever we choose to be, say a writer of some kind, and we know we are one of the great writers in history, but somehow for whatever reason, are not able to publish our work, and end up a one of life’s greatest failures. The awful thing is that the potential is there, but the lives of the people that have this potential are literally wasted. If we look at the final piece from this play, also from Irina, it is both haunting and terrifying: Oh, I’m so miserable. I can’t, I won’t, I will not work. I’ve had enough. I used to be at the post office and now I work for the town council, and I loathe and despise everything they give me to do. I’m twenty-three, I’ve been working all this time and my brains shrivelled. I’ve grown thin and ugly and old and I’ve nothing to show for it, nothing, no satisfaction of any kind, while time passes by I feel I’m losing touch with everything fine and genuine in life. -it’s like sinking down, down in a bottomless pit-I’m desperate. Why am I still alive, why haven’t I done away with myself? I don’t know. This is not a lengthy speech at all but it does say a great deal, it says for more than what is spoken. It is shocking to hear these words for a twenty-three-year-old. This ‘bottomless pit’ she speaks of is an accurate description not just of her mental state but of most characters in the plays of Chekhov. She is unhappy at work; well that is a universal problem. People can easily identify with that because they have experience the same difficulties. There is no changing these moods, what is needed is to save these characters from even more perpetual misery is a revolution. It is not a social revolution that is required here but a revolution of the mind: a revolution Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist, spoke of. A revolution to free the mind of all its chains as it were. In today’s society if people expressed the sentiments Irina had there would be calls for an intervention of some kind. A counsellor perhaps, or some other therapy, but it is normalised in Chekhov’s world; it has all become normal, and at this ‘bottomless pit,’ she stays. Astrov and Vanya are two truly great characters in the play, Uncle Vanya. Astrov, a doctor, is forty-four, and Vanya, forty-seven. This was Anton Chekhov’s last play; his and the doctor’s name could not be more similar. As for Vanya – he is full of absurdities, frivolity, pity, regret, disillusionment, and doom. The two of them are idealists who have great qualities, but the great tragedy is the inevitability of it all. I would like to speak of these two characters individually, firstly, I will speak about Astrov at length, and the naturally Vanya. The doctor, according to Marina, an old nurse, the idealistic doctor has never had a day off work in ten years. He is, what we may call a great humanitarian, an ecologist, environmentalist, a man who upholds cherished values, composed of the utmost decency, and yet has not the energy to sustain himself any longer.
What kind of provincial, parochial life we get in Russia – that I simply can’t stand, in fact I despise it. As for my own private life, well, heaven knows there’s absolutely nothing good about that. You know, sometimes when you walk in a wood on a dark night there is a glimmer of light shining in the distance, isn’t there? Then you don’t notice how tired you are or how dark it is or how the thorns and twigs hit you in the face. As you well know, I work harder than anyone else around here, the most awful things are happening to me and there are times when the whole business really gets you down. But for me there’s no light shining in the distance. I don’t expect anything for myself anymore.
Astrov is not one of those numbskulls that is about to take his own life through a barrel of a gun; in fact, he is far from a numbskull. In many ways, he has similarities with the ‘perpetual student,’ Peter Trophimof. They both speak of ‘Russia,’ this may appear like an odd thing to say but it is not. It is true all the plays are set in Russia but that is hardly ever emphasised, only when we see an ideologue like Trophimof or Astrov is the ideal of Russia questioned or even mentioned. In addition, when such people do mention the country it is very purposely done. For Astrov is passionate about the natural world, and he feels Russia, his homeland, is being destroyed. This is one aspect of Astrov which is unique amongst the characters in Chekhov’s plays. We see where his true passion lies in the following lines:
The forests of Russia are crashing down before the axes, millions upon millions of trees perish, the homes of bees and birds are devastated, rivers grow hollow and dry up, wonderful scenery disappears without a trace and all because man’s so lazy – hasn’t the sense to bend down and take the fuel from the ground...only an unreasonable brute could harm beauty like this in his stove, destroying what we cannot create, so he can add to what he’s been given. But up until now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing. Rivers dry up, wild lives become extinct, the climate’s ruined, and the land grows poorer and uglier every day...But when I walk past our village woodlanders which I’ve saved from the axe or hear the rustle of my own saplings, planted with my own hands, I feel that tools have some slight control over the climate that if man is happy a thousand years from now I’ll have done a bit towards it myself. When I plant a young birch and later see it conversed with green and swaying in the breeze, my heart fills with pride. There are some important points to be made about this speech and I shall deal with each one separately. It is both illuminating and curious how Astrov says ‘the forest of Russia’ and not the forests of humankind or mankind, or some other distant place, or rather, forests generally, but he mentions Russia, this is significant. It is also significant that he does not mention Russia again throughout the entire speech. If the word Russia is removed then we can say the following: there is no specific social, political, ecological or even moral argument aimed specifically at Russia. However, the doctor is attacking Russia and the debasement of the world’s habitat and natural beauty. For he says: ‘Only an unreasonable brute could harm beauty like this’...it is a very revealing speech and has many layers. ‘Russia is our garden,’ so says Peter Trophimof.
In 1954, 2002, 1987, 3094, we say with certainty that the environment will be an issue for the likes of Astrov in the world today, and there are many of them. Global warming, climate change, the carbon footprint, the melting glaciers, CO2 emissions, pollution, greenhouse gasses. All these are contemporary problems, and still, from late nineteenth century ideals, Doctor Astrov is speaking of these issues and ideals. He is far more impressive and advanced than the majority, and even by today’s standards, and it is a corrosive degradation that has not gentle ecologists who care for the aesthetic environment but ‘unreasonable brutes’ who wish to annihilate it. The two atom bombs dropped in 1945 alone killed most of it, and human life, we may add, quite significantly. The third point is the man himself: Astrov. He speaks of the ‘millions and millions of trees (that) perish, the homes of birds and bees are devastated...forests keep disappearing.’ This is a man who has dedicated his life to such practices, and for him, as long as he does his ‘bit’ that will protect future generations, and see a glimpse what life will be like in a hundred years in the future when he will be rooted in his grave. Astrov is, in his speeches, prophetic, eloquent, coherent, profound, and in some, chilling: Those who live a century or two after us and despise us for leading lives so stupid and tasteless, perhaps they’ll find a way to be happy, but for us – there’s only one hope for you and me, and when we’re resting in our graves we may have visions. Even pleasant ones perhaps. Yes, my dear fellow, in our whole district there are only two decent, civilised people – you and I. But ten years of this contemptible parochial existence have brought us down. This poisoned atmosphere has poisoned our blood and we’ve become as second rate as the rest of them. Astrov here is talking to Vanya. In that monologue, he sums up what a Chekhovian character is, for he says it all: it is both deep and meaningful, and as always is the case when he speaks, he is full of wonderful humanity. The people then for Astrov will ‘despise us for leading lives so stupid.’ This is the entire crux of the sheer stupidity and idiocy, one may add, of all the characters. These characters are not tramps moseying the streets, neither are they drug addicts where they are slaves to the drug or perhaps alcohol, they have not been to prison, nor have they led lives that are so awful, like as a Dickensian character, such as David Copperfield has. No, we have professors, doctors, landowners, brilliant students, and so on. Still, they are so preposterous and dilapidated that we must laugh at their peculiar and irrational behaviour. When one considers Astrov’s words, once again they must contemplate the actions of their own lives. But say they are frivolous, stupid, foolish, self-conceited oafs, and they analyse their own lives and are well aware of their faults, if they were true Chekhovian’s they would carry on leading the same, often dull lives, complain and go around in this fashion throughout their whole lives. Who knows, perhaps they may shoot themselves or just carry out this ‘parochial’ existence. Uncle Vanya is the most interesting character in the play and the most tragic. He is forty seven and believes he has wasted his life, and we hear this throughout the play. There is a running battle throughout with himself and Alexander Serebryakov, a former professor. From very early in the play it is clear Vanya dislikes the man: A retired professor-an old fossil, if you see what I mean, a sort of academic stuffed trout. he suffers from gout, rheumatism, migraine and liver trouble, and he’s almost bursting with envy and jealousy. The old fossil lives on his first wife’s estate. Not that he wants to live here, but he can’t afford to live in town...for precisely twenty-five years the man’s been lecturing and writing about art. And what does he understand about art? Nothing. For twenty-five years he’s been chewing over kinds of tomfoolery. For twenty-five years he’s been lecturing and writing about things which every intelligent person has known all along, and which don’t interest fools anyway. In other words he’s spent twenty-five years chasing his own shadow. And all the time ghastly conceit. What presumption. Now he’s retired and not a single person knows who he is. He is totally obscure. In other words, for twenty-five years he’s been in the wrong job. But you just watch him strut about as if he was God almighty! Later in the play, Vanya shoots the old professor (twice) and misses. He says, after the incident, why don’t people call the police and so on. Then he refers to himself, jokingly we suspect, as a madman. However, of course nobody does call the police. He is clearly resentful, not only of Alexander but of others too. Is he unstable? Certainly he is. No question. After the shooting incident, Vanya says: ‘I’m mad, aren’t I? I’m not responsible for my actions, so I have the right to say stupid things.’ We have certain warmth towards Vanya, just as we do towards Astrov. Nevertheless, his behaviour is disturbing, and it increases as the play continues. He is extremely negative about the past, present and future. He feels he is a failure; disillusioned with his own achievements to say the least; he has little hope or energy to do or accomplish anything worthwhile. He believes he is old and past it, and finally he has turned into a pathetic figure of a man, and his suffering continues: Day and night my thoughts choke me, haunt me with a spectre of a life hopeless, wasted. I’ve never lived. My past has been thrown away on stupid frivolities and the present is so futile, it appalls me. My life and my love-well, there you have it. What can I do with them? What can I make of them? My feelings are wasted like a ray of sunlight falling in a well, and I’m running to waste too. It is as if he is describing a fictional account of a character from Kafka, which is that one’s nightmare is too awful to even contemplate. He, though, lays blame on himself in this instance. He says, for example, his life has been ‘hopelessly wasted’ and ‘my past has been thrown away on stupid frivolities.’ And now at forty-seven he feels he cannot go on any longer. The theme of wasted lives is clear here, as is lost loves. For Vanya represents the true Chekhovian existentialism. There is nothing. Just a black hole. However, the man, has, or rather had, ambition, a wonderful future, he still wants it of course but life has sapped all the energy out of him, which, of course is awful. In a famous speech, he compares himself to Schopenhauer and Dostoevsky. ‘My life’s ruined. I’m gifted, intelligent, courageous. If I’d had a normal life I might have been a Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky. But I’m talking nonsense.’ Schopenhauer was a nineteenth century German philosopher, and Dostoevsky, of course, already mentioned in this essay, was a nineteenth century Russian novelist, thought to be as good as anyone. Nevertheless, it is clear Vanya will not achieve what Dostoevsky did. Everybody knows that much. However, Vanya is just forty-seven, and he believes that is too old. There appears to be no hope for him because he has not only made his mind up concerning this matter but also he is in immense pain, not physical of course, but mental anguish. He is, to use Irina’s phrase in The Three Sistersat a ‘bottomless pit.’ But Vanya is different, we ponder to ourselves that if things had turned out rather differently he could have been somebody of great intellectual or cultural importance. Indeed, he may well have been another Balzac or Marx, but of course, nothing of the sort shall materialise. In the final piece in the play and the essay, Vanya looks towards the future; it does not start terribly optimistic:
Oh my God, I’m forty-seven. Suppose I live to be sixty, that means I still have thirteen years to go. How am I to get through those thirteen years? What am I to do? How do I fill the time? Oh, can you think -? Can you think what it would be like to live the rest of your life a new way? Oh, to wake up some fine, clear morning feeling as you’d started living all over again, as if the past was all forgotten, gone like a puff of smoke. To begin a new life. Tell me, how should I begin? When we see or hear these lines spoken, we think ‘hope!’ There is hope for Vanya yet, but in all reality, there never was any hope. There is little doubt this tragic figure of the play suffered the agonies of failure, he, like all great Chekhov characters.