Sunday, October 7, 2012

Tragedy and Comedy in Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya"

 This is the draft of what I'm going to be editing and handing in tomorrow for my Intro to Drama class.  Again, this is my intellectual property, and you have no right to claim it as your own, especially if you're attempting to steal this and hand it in for a grade.  I am posting this so that I may add my own voice to the discussion about this play.  Also, it is a draft at this stage, and has all of the faults and rough edges associated with drafts.

There are two different plays inside Uncle Vanya—one that is utterly frustrating and tragic, and one that is sarcastic and bitterly funny.  The difference between tragedy and comedy comes from how the audience members react to the impotence of the characters.

For example, Yelena is married to a sickly, repulsive and obnoxious old man, and will not find a lover that is more suitable for her.  She is described as being incredibly beautiful and also young—that is, she has her whole life ahead of her.  Of her marriage, Yelena confesses to Sonya, “I married him for love.  I was drawn to him.  A famous man.  A man of learning.  I was captivated by it.  And it was not real.  The love was not real.”  She knows that she is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a man she does not love.  Both Vanya and Astrov recognize the jarring difference between husband and wife, and cannot fathom why Yelena won’t have an affair with someone closer to her own age, or someone that she actually likes.  Vanya makes abundantly clear his strong affections for her, and she rejects his every advance.  Yelena thinks that she is ‘noble’ for staying with the Professor, which indeed is admirable.  Yelena also confesses to Sonya that she loves Astrov, and, after Vanya begs her to take action in her life, she decides that she will make advances on Astrov.  She seems to have fallen from her nobility in that she wants to be disloyal to her husband.  But when Astrov responds enthusiastically and rather inelegantly to her advances, she hurriedly rejects him.  It’s like she thinks she wants to take a swim, and then as soon as she puts a toe in the water, she hates swimming. 

            Yelena can be seen as a tragic figure because she is wasting herself by being with the Professor.  She’s a young and beautiful woman, whose life ended on her wedding day.  She has the means to escape from her situation, but because of either cowardice or nobility—or both—she stays in the trap she’s made for herself.  Vanya calls it ‘a tomb’.  She has been foolish, and will pay for that mistake for the rest of her life.  Or, one can interpret Yelena as a very strong woman who is devoted to the commitment that is marriage, even though she does not love her husband.  She values the wedding vows she’s taken and, no matter what, will not turn from them.  She is sacrificing her personal happiness in order to remain true to the oaths that she has taken.

            You may pity Yelena’s situation and admire her strength for staying with an old man she doesn’t love.  You may see her as brave and her moment with Astrov as a moment of weakness that she overcomes.  Or you may view her as a fool who ought to do what will make her happy, and is simply too much of a coward to do otherwise.  You can look at her rejection of Astrov as a moment of cowardice and as something contemptible.  You may see her as stricken with impotence in regards to her own life.  She is unable to do anything, and that is why she can be both a tragic and comic figure.

            Another element of the play that can be either tragic or comic is the monologue that Sonya has at the close of the play.  All the family is settling back into their old routines after the departure of the Professor and Yelena.  The ripples that the couple has caused are subsiding, and they are all going back to their work.  The central theme of her monologue is that, because of all that they have suffered in life, when they die and go to Heaven, they will be rewarded there.  This, depending on your view of the afterlife can be beautiful and comforting, or utterly absurd.

            The idea that people can’t do anything to improve their lot in life, and will simply have to wait until they die to find happiness was popular before the Renaissance and the rise of humanism.  It’s very medieval, and so it seems a bit strange that anyone at the close of the 1800s would believe so strongly in it.  It seems a bit backwards.  This would be the view and support for one who finds this comedic.  It’s a dark humor though, and you’d laugh because Sonya is such a fool for believing this.  If you would chose to see the closing monologue as a beautiful thing, you would notice that it is said by the only person who cannot really do anything about her life.  Sonya is kind-hearted and would make a wonderful wife for someone—but she is ugly.  Her physical appearance cannot be changed and thus, the girl is doomed.  But by delivering such an uplifting and hopeful speech, especially because it’s the last thing that is said, it places heavy emphasis on her ‘inner beauty’.  She is tragic because she won’t be loved as she ought to be, and she sounds something like a martyr at the end. 

Sonya and her family seem to define themselves by the work that they do, because it’s the only thing they do.  Vanya says “back to work” and it feels like everything is going back to the way it should be.  Also, the characters are miserable when they aren’t at work—when the Professor and his wife disturb things with their visit.  Defining oneself by the boring, rather meaningless work that you do is a tragedy.  The drudgery they define themselves by is a waste of human vitality and spirit.  But at the same time their conviction to it is admirable—and thus a bit tragic—it’s all they’ve ever known, and that’s sad.

            The overall effect of this blending and blurring between tragic and comic is that it forces the audience to think about the play as they’re experiencing it.  As some audience members around them begin to laugh, they have to think about their feelings for the characters.  It makes the audience think more about how they feel about what they’re seeing.  They have to analyze what their reactions to the characters are and figure out which emotion—pity or contempt—dominates their view of the characters.  Is Yelena noble, or just weak?  What keeps Vanya from finishing off the Professor?  Is it cowardice? Or is it the realization that he can’t change the past, and cannot take back all those years that he slaved for the ungrateful old man—that killing him now won’t do any good?  Is Sonya a fool for accepting her lot in life, or brave for it?  Questions like this, which Chekhov leaves unanswered, are what the audience has to figure out for themselves in order to know how they should react to the play.  They’re going to wind up with a confused tangle of feelings that they have to sort out before they know whether to roll their eyes or to fight back tears. 

            Chekhov, however, intended the play to be a comedy, and so he worked to create situations that would jar the connections and sympathy that the audience wants to have with the characters.  He does this through a basic understanding of how humans feel about each other.  If one sees a character he likes in an unhappy situation, he will root for the character to get out of it and to become happy—it’s our social instinct.  He is almost expecting to see Yelena have an affair with Vanya or Astrov, and when Yelena backs away, he has been disappointed by her.  Through her own doing, Yelena has robbed the audience member of the happiness he would get by watching her be romantically involved with a man she loves.  This makes him less likely to feel sympathetic with her in the future.  The connection between Yelena and the audience member has changed.  Obviously, she is not the woman he thought she was—it’s mistrust.  Now the audience member has to rework his understanding of her.

            The best example of this connection-change is when Vanya shoots at the Professor.  The moment feels like it’s going to be a great triumph—the energy in the play is at its peak—and Vanya gives up.  It’s an enormous anti-climax.  It’s a disappointment, and it’s Vanya’s fault.  This failure to take action, to once and for all get rid of the Professor, is where Vanya’s deepest colors show through—he is no more than an empty pistol—outwardly threatening, but ineffective and harmless. 

            So, the point of making it hard to differentiate between what is sad and what is funny is to force the audience to think, and also to lend a dark humor to Uncle Vanya.