Louis Malle and Andre Gregory’s brilliant adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Vanya on 42nd Street, begins on the street. A group of actors converge early in the morning, sip coffee from styrofoam cups, and make their way to rehearsal in a dim theater. Once inside, a groggy Wallace Shawn reclines on a bench and closes his eyes for a nap. Around him, Shawn’s fellow actors chatter nonchalantly, their backstage voices easing into Chekhov’s words. The film moves from observing ordinary offstage moments in the lives of these actors to the performance of Chekhov’s subtle, warm realism.
“Here, dear. Have some tea,” actor Phoebe Brand says, in the midst of other desultory conversations.
“How long have we known each other?” Larry Pines replies. The actor pauses, ostensibly considering the question he has just raised. Phoebe Brand mutters a guess before her voice trails off into another pause. Inside of those pauses the actors transform, and begin breathing as Astrov, the country doctor, and as Marina, the old nurse; already the first act is underway. Wallace Shawn, now Vanya, wakes up and rubs his eyes.
Ordinary, this movement from life into theatre. The narrative frame falls away gently in Malle and Gregory’s film. In his autobiography, My Life in Art, actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski recalls a visit to Chekhov’s room in The Pushkin House, in which he noticed the student drawings that Chekhov had pinned to the walls. Stanislavski, who favored a more ornate aesthetic, explains the simplicity of Chekhov’s wall adornments with a wink: “Chekhov did not like frames.” Rather, Chekhov maintained, often to the puzzlement of those actors and directors who mounted his plays, that his art’s aim was “to show life and men as they are, not to put them on stilts.” The subjects of the pictures pinned to Chekhov’s walls, like the subjects of his plays, which he considered comedies, were “in most cases ordinary–Russian landscapes after Levitan, birch trees, rivers, fields, country house.” The scale of human drama too, is rendered in Malle and Gregory’s film with the proportions of daily life to which Chekhov adhered: the actors are subdued, humorous without an excess of volume or movement, often still, frequently silent.
In Chekhov’s expressed understanding, interstitial moments also, should be played in silence. Music in between scenes represented excess to the playwright, and worse, possible confusion. In Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, Stella Adler writes, “His great objection to having music between the curtain was that it didn’t make the play clearer.” Instead of manipulating the audience with music, Chekhov advocated the use of silence to set the image of the onstage scene into the minds of his audience. Adler writes of the beauty of these deliberate silences in terms that expand beyond the realm of theater arts:
Chekhov is an artist you understand if you think of him as a man whose art is expressed best with no words, like painting or music…It is not the words, it is something without words that comes through to us, because it is on a human level.
These moments of stillness and silence, marked by ellipses in player’s lines or pauses noted in stage directions, might be compared to the musical notations of fermata or hold. A surprising humor quietly enters these quiet moments, not melodrama, nor the underscoring of tragic portent. Chekhov’s deliberate silences introduce unexpected levity, the silliness of coincidence, the subtle strangeness of the real. These tableaus display several different realities simultaneously. Chekhov’s scenes change shape quickly, moving like clouds into new forms. One scene jumps into the next, leaving in the mind of the audience a series of stills. Adler writes about the shape and progression of Chekhov’s scenes:
People live life, not a play… We don’t live a play, we live a scene at a time. So Chekhov doesn’t write a play where this scene connects with that one, and that scene connects with the next. He writes this scene and it is perfectly disconnected from the next scene. If you can understand that, you can understand Chekhov.
As in life, Chekhov’s characters talk past each other, ignoring or misinterpreting each others’ words. As quickly as anguish is acknowledged, humor intrudes. Stanislavski and Chekhov may have disagreed in terms of aesthetic scale, but Stella Adler credits the former for the warmth and vibrancy of his interpretations of Chekhov: “What a shmuck you will be if you only play the lines,” she writes. All the same, Chekhov’s is not a showy humor; we observe a winking pause instead of stilts. Nor do these characters linger upon the ridiculous–almost immediately, life (boredom, flirtation, disgust, ennui, another character) intrudes on the space again, the tableau vivant is ruptured, and noise and movement return to the scene, balancing the heaviness of human drama with an abundance of light.
Julianne Moore plays a seductive Yelena, all soft red hair falling in her face, a smile as flirtatious as it is an expert tic expressing her character’s anxious indecision. Yelena rebuffs Vanya’s earnest advances with both scorn (“You bore me!” “You disgust me!”) and intimate hesitations (“You know why we’re such good friends, Vanya, you and I?”). Meanwhile, the ardent Vanya suffers Yelena’s companionship.
In his personal letters, Chekhov listed what he knew about Yelena:
“1.) Adultery is a celebration of her beauty, which she knows she is losing—she tells her husband she will join him in old age in just a few years;
“2. Adultery is vanity—she loves flattery, and to know she is desirable;
“3.) Adultery is freedom from boredom, it is the spice of vice, it is Augustine’s stealing the pomegranates only to throw them away, for the sheer joy of sin.”
Chekhov is equally unfussy about Vanya’s adulterous desires, writing, “Yelena is beautiful—for Vanya, she is an unapproachable beauty: at one point she all but offers him a kiss, leaning against him when she should pull away, and he turns away himself, afraid to take what he wants.”
At the end of Act One, Julianne Moore’s Yelena betrays a warm smile to Vanya, which, while perhaps borne of her characters’ nerves or boredom, in the quiet, in the candlelight, is positively inviting. Lovely, yes. But also, ordinary, quiet, and of the moment: non-committal. In this moment, Yelena may not be certain what it is that she wants–thus, the relief of her boredom is only temporary; she won’t have happiness. Nor is Vanya bold enough to embrace Yelena.
Each character sees in the other’s face a deep misunderstanding. As Stella Adler writes: “I am trying to tell you that from the beginning in every relationship there is a superficial misunderstanding as well as a misunderstanding in great depth. Never do two people understand each other on the same plane.”
Yelena’s is a sad beauty, her laugh uncertain, though warm. Adler again, on Yelena: “She is like another Helen–Helen of Troy–who also returns to a husband she despises. But this Helen has no adventure. It is not funny, but a little comic. Her misfortune is her beauty, but it entangles people in a terrible way.” Just as quickly as Yelena’s smile appears, it leaves her face, and, nearby, Telegin strums a clunky polka on his guitar; Yelena reminds Vanya that he is drunk and urges him to be quiet, and the scene ends.
Vanya on 42nd Street. Dir. Louis Malle, André Gregory. Perf. Wallace Shawn, Phoebe Brand, Larry Pine, Julianne Moore. Channel 4 Films, 1994. DVD.
Paris, Barry, Editor. Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, Vintage Books, New York, 1999 by the Estate of Stella Adler.
Rayfield, Donald. Chekhov: A Life. Henry Holt, New York, 1997.
Stanislavski, Konstantin. My Life In Art. Routledge, New York, 2008.