Friday, November 4, 2011

Are you happy? No. - acting in Uncle Vanya

Does this look like much?  It’s from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1897), and is part of a reconciliation scene between Sonya and her young step-mother Elena:

SONYA:  Come, peace, peace!  Let’s forget it.

ELENA:  You mustn’t look like that – it’s not becoming.  You must believe in everyone, otherwise it’s impossible to live. (Pause)

SONYA:  Tell me honestly, as a friend – are you happy?


SONYA:  I knew that.

The question is: what to do with that “No”?  Is Elena earnest, sad, defeated, defensive?  How about Sonya, in her answer?

I have seen two stage productions of Uncle Vanya,  a flawless actor’s holiday at the Steppenwolf Theatre (2001), the other a cluttered and mis-paced 2007 Court Theatre version (no complaints about the acting, though).  In both productions, the actresses played this scene in exactly the same way.  They replicated what Julianne Moore and Brooke Smith did in Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which can be seen here at about 2:40, although the whole seven minutes is choice.  Excuse me – I am going to watch it again.

For most of the above dialogue the camera is over Sonya’s shoulder, so we only see Elena’s face, and her reaction to Sonya’s fumbling question, her genuine curiosity.  “Are you happy?” – and Moore breaks into an enormous smile.  She might even be about to laugh, but exercises restraint.  Sonya – now the camera moves to her face – also smiles, broadly, happily.  “I knew you weren’t,” matter of fact.  Both actresses laugh, shaking their shoulders.

Sonya was genuinely anxious that her step-mother was happy, and is genuinely relieved that she is not.  Elena has already moved beyond happiness.  Her admission is old news, perhaps upsetting at some point in the past, but now something that can be treated ironically.  Now the two women can be unhappy together, which makes them happy.  Happier.

Vanya on 42nd Street is a showcase of interpretation via acting, full of actorly surprises, but for some reason this one stands out as a favorite, perhaps just because I have now seen live actors duplicate it twice, as if it is the standard interpretation of the lines, as if there is no other real choice.  Or perhaps I am just enjoyably amazed at seeing how much an actress can do with the word "No."

Sometime I would like to write about Sonya’s monologue at the end of Uncle Vanya, the “We shall rest” speech, with its “life that is bright, beautiful, and fine.”  It looks like it should ruin the play, just upend everything.  I think of it as an Alpine challenge for the actress, but every time I have seen the play it turns out to be a triumph.  Brooke Smith’s version is on Youtube here.

When reading a play, I have the book and my imagination, but I also have a lot of other people helping me out.

The translation is by Ann Dunnigan, found in an old Signet Classics paperback titled Chekhov: The Major Plays.  The Vanya on 42nd Street version is by David Mamet.


  1. There are a number of ways that scene can be played, but whatever choice the actresses make, it is inescapable that they're both deeply unhappy. Even if Elena makes light of the question, there's a good reason why she does so.

    Chekhov once objected that if a gun is mentioned within the first two acts, it is bound to go off by the fourth. A gun does go off in " Uncle Vanya" but it misses. It is only in "The Cherry Orchard" that a gun is produced at the start of Act 2 , but isn't even referred to afterwards.

  2. Oh yes, the laughing response is evensadder than if the characters moped around.

    Too much is made of that gun going off business, as you point out. Perhaps he was commenting on clichés, not on good practice.