Understanding Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by Shaping Text

Uncle Vanya is a play written by Anton Chekhov that premiered in Moscow in 1899. It is a play heavy with emotion. Each character has their own simple objective that is as important as any other character. Personally, I found the play difficult to follow at first because the principal characters are almost constantly competing for attention. In trying to understand the play, I wanted to reinterpret the words by experimenting with their form. I first created the following text in an attempt to summarize and find a way to relate to Uncle Vanya.

Watching scenes from Vanya on 42nd Street, the 1994 film by Louis Malle and Andre Gregory, certainly helped to visualize the characters and see the complexities behind the relationships. Based on an adaptation by David Mamet, the film presents Uncle Vanya in the form of the actual play being performed and witnessed by an audience. Actors are playing actors who are playing the characters, creating a structure of a play within a film. Periodically the small audience is shown as they walk through different rooms and witness a scene. Elements of the film reminded me of Birdman (2014), written and directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Both Vanya on 42nd Street and Birdman begin by blurring the lines between reality and theatricality. They are both portrayals of plays within a film. Iñárritu also wrote his film as a tragicomedy, and similarly to Uncle Vanya the characters are seen as pathetic, hopeless, but also fearless.

In trying to portray reality and convey emotion, Chekhov’s work is so quintessentially honest. His characters spill on the page. In fact they are not simply characters but rather, people on a page. They talk with their hearts on their sleeve; they are fearless and open about what they are feeling. The words are not disguised and yet there is still that Chekhovian inclusion of subtext. For instance when Telegin says he is happy and that is the last thing he is feeling, or the moments of kindness Sonya expresses for Astrov because she wants to be more than a friend.

In revisiting the play, I pulled out a couple of quotes and represented them as typed text against a white background, experimenting with line spacing and font colours. There were certain colours I saw or emotions I felt that I wanted to express by repurposing the text.


-Vanya, page 18

-Vanya, page 18

I realized I was initially very taken by the relationship between Vanya and Yelena. Chekhov does not aim to glorify the characters or drive the audience towards a content resolution. His work is about the close portrayal of reality. In combining elements tragedy and comedy, Chekhov does not believe that they exist separate from each other but that they are mutually inclusive. Comedy can happen in moments of tragedy, and vice versa. It is not uncommon for people to resort to telling jokes in a time of grief in order to feel comforted or reflect pain. In exploring the nature of relationships in the play, I thought about translating some parts of the text into a digital form by turning them into a series of Whatsapp messages. We often resort to conversing by typing text instead of verbally communicating. Sometimes the process of typing the words, hitting send, and the waiting that follows, has more meaning than what can be conveyed in speech.

Astrov to Vanya, pages 4-5

Astrov to Vanya, pages 4-5

Astrov to Vanya, pages 4-5

Yelena to Serebryakov, page 14

Sonya to Astrov, pages 24-25

Sonya to Astrov, pages 24-25

Works Cited:
Uncle Vanya. Trans. Michael Frayn. London: Methuen, 1987. Print.

Vanya on 42nd Street. Dir. Louis Malle and Andre Gregory. Adapt. David Mamet. By Anton Chekhov. Perf. Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn, and Larry Pine. Sony Pictures Classics, 1994. DVD.


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