Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya holds an unwavering place in the theatrical canon. But like other genre-defining plays, its playwright and his creative partners had no idea at the time that they were making history. An intimate play about relationships in pre-revolutionary Russia, replete with subtext that lays bare the characters’ frailties and longings, Uncle Vanya’s creators simply hoped their ideas had merit, and their production would earn modest success. Since its 1899 premiere at Moscow Art Theatre, the play has enjoyed countless productions worldwide—and along with Chekhov’s other work, and that of Henrik Ibsen, laid a foundation for realism in theater, and later in film. Initial audience response, however, gave Chekhov little reason to think he had created an enduring classic.
A year earlier, Chekhov and his collaborators, Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich- Danchenko, achieved popular and artistic success with their production of The Seagull. The creators defied what was the accepted convention of a director simply telling actors where to stand, to memorize lines, and hope for the best on opening night; this production was directed with careful precision. Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko held 26 rehearsals (fewer than today’s standard, but far more than the 19th century standard), and detailed each moment of the play. Years later, one of the actors in The Seagull, Vsevolod Meyerhold, recalled, “Probably there were individual elements of naturalism, but that’s not important. The important thing is that it contained the poetic nerve-center, the hidden poetry of Chekhov’s prose which was there because of Stanislavsky’s genius as a director. Until Stanislavsky, people had only played the theme in Chekhov and forgot that in his plays, the sound of the rain outside his windows…early morning light through the shutters, mist on the lake, were indissolubly linked…with people’s actions.”
Fresh off this triumph, Chekhov, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko endeavored to replicate their success with another play. They aimed to produce Uncle Vanya, a comprehensive rewrite of an earlier Chekhov play titled The Wood Demon, which had flopped in its 1889 premiere. Immediately, this proved complicated: Chekhov had already promised Uncle Vanya to the Maly Theatre, a state-supported organization whose name means “small theater.” (Moscow’s historic Bolshoi Theatre, by contrast, means “big theater” and presents operas and ballets). The Moscow Art Theatre production of The Seagull gave Chekhov a newfound understanding of the importance of working with expert, trusted collaborators, and he was loath to return to old production strategies. Fortunately, the problem solved itself: a committee at the Maly objected to the title character firing a gun at a professor, interpreting this action as an affront to intellectuals. They demanded revisions, which Chekhov refused to deliver. He cheerfully wriggled out of his commitment, allowing Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko to produce the play and cement their reputation as the only adept interpreters of Chekhov’s work.
All through the summer of 1899, Stanislavsky pored over Uncle Vanya, creating a production score with meticulous specifications for each moment of the play—how an actor would gesture, when to cross the stage, where to stand in relation to other actors. In addition to co-directing with Nemirovich-Danchenko, he also intended to play the title role. But Uncle Vanya being an ineffectual, not necessarily handsome man, Nemirovich-Danchenko objected to the tall, striking Stanislavsky playing the role. Instead, he played Astrov, an attractive doctor. If Chekhov had had his way, Stanislavsky would not have trod the boards at all. “He’s an artist [when he directs] but when he acts he’s just a rich young merchant who wants to dabble in art,” he said. To appease his collaborators, the playwright allowed Stanislavsky to act, but remained concerned about his performance throughout the process. Chekhov’s apprehension proved prescient when Stanislavsky neglected for weeks to memorize his lines. He slowed rehearsals by frequently turning to the prompter (in European theater, a prompter is commonly used to feed forgetful actors their lines throughout rehearsals and performances). Nemirovich-Danchenko pleaded with him to memorize; meanwhile an anxious Chekhov was ordered by doctors to Yalta, a seaside town on the Crimean Peninsula, to soothe his worsening tuberculosis with the salt air.
Surprisingly, by opening night Stanislavsky was off book, and reportedly gave an excellent performance. Other individual actors were praised for their work, but critical reviews were mixed, and Leo Tolstoy, upon seeing the play, reportedly shouted, “Where is the drama? What does it consist of?” Nemirovich-Danchenko fretted that the play’s pace was too slow. Local professors shared the Maly’s concern about insulting intellectuals and boycotted the play. After the spectacular success of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya seemed unexciting. Nonetheless, audiences kept coming, and the play entered the Moscow Art Theatre’s burgeoning repertoire, performing in rotation with other plays. And Chekhov, always philosophical, felt that an average success was the best kind. “After a triumph a reaction always sets in, expressing itself in heightened expectation, followed eventually by certain disappointment and cooling,” he said.
It wasn’t until the spring of 1900 that Chekhov saw the play when it toured to Yalta. By then, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko clamored for Chekhov to write another script. At 40 years old, Chekhov was perpetually ill and only four years away from death; though he couldn’t have predicted the date of his own demise, his day job as a doctor meant he knew that tuberculosis would cut his life short. But before succumbing to his illness in 1904, Chekhov wrote Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. Together with The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, those plays comprise his four masterpieces, each written during the final decade of his short life.