Updated: Apr 3, 2018
Chekhov Season is Underway at Arunachala, beginning with the immortal classic, Uncle Vanya.
This evening we are privileged to attend a splendid filming of classical theatre at its finest. Beginning with one of the great plays from the canon of modern world drama, performed by an incomparable ensemble of great actors, led by Laurence Olivier, at the height of their powers, beautifully translated, directed, and presented as a stage play, rather than cinema, we have the opportunity to come to understand the allure of the theatrical production as an unparalleled form of art, retrieving for us the essence of culture and the divine spark that still glows visibly in such a magical moment as has been immortalized in this portrayal of the communal soul of Great Russia encountering the trauma of modernity and the irrecuperable loss of the divinely ordained system of harmonious hierarchy and noblesse oblige, the loss of virility and manhood, the loss of the purity of womanhood, the contagion of hysteria and split subjectivity, the masterpiece of dramatic art: Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov.
A clip from the filmed version of the 1962 Chichester Festival production, directed by (and starring) Laurence Olivier as Astrov, and also starring Michael Redgrave as Vanya and Joan Plowright as Sonya.
There is no culture on Earth with the richness of that of Mother Russia, who sits as the crown of Eurasia, and integrates the Tao from her Eastern steppes that lead from China and Mongolia to her Siberian tundra, and the input of Sufi and Shiite mystics who have always migrated from Central Asia, and the mystic Jews, the Hasidim, whose sects flourished throughout her villages; and the most profound form of Christianity, the mystical monastic Russian Orthodoxy; the fluidity and grace of her athletic traditions and her martial arts, and her traumatic experimentation with Marxism, following Lenin and Stalin into a bureaucratic gulag archipelago, the massive suffering through the war defeating Hitler in the dead of winter; and the cold war and the closing in of the West determined to destroy her….There is no end to the greatness of Russian culture and its uniqueness of expressive styles. Think of Russian classical music, of her great operatic singers and styles. Russian art—from ancient to postmodern; her classic architecture, cooking; and of course the Russian dance, especially ballet; all the arts, with such long histories and movements and nuanced creativity. And let us include Russian film, from Eisenstein to Tarkovsky—a unique approach to cinema has developed in Russia. And let us not forget her greatness in the field of chess. No country has produced so many brilliant grandmasters as Russia. And now there is greatness in her technological achievements, her military precision, and the unrivalled statesmanship of her current leaders on the stage of global politics.
But above all, in the field of writing, there is no national literature that compares in epic sensitivity and exalted human courage combined with naive idiocy and compassion with that of Russia, with its long list of profound poetic and novelistic storytelling geniuses, including such well known names as Dostoevsky, Turgenyev, Pushkin, Gogol, Bunin, and Tolstoy up to Solzhenitsyn—and too many more lesser known stars in her galaxies of great writers to list without seeming to go on forever.
But in the field of drama, Chekhov stands alone. And without Chekhov there could have been no Stanislavsky, who required such a dramatic challenge to expression in order to elaborate his system as an approach to developing the dramatic persona, and without Stanislavsky, there could have been no adequate way to interpret theatrically the multidimensional inwardness of the characters immortalized by Chekhov. His plays are the essence of meaningmoreness.
The cast with Checkhov seated center, Stanislavsky seated beside him
In Uncle Vanya, we see with crystal clarity how an ego cannot cope with the Real of existence and flees, when possible, into the Imaginary. Those who are able to command the desire of the Other may be able to face the barren truth of “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel” but generally not without agony and alcohol, and in the best of cases through a symbolic sublimation and secession from the sensuous realm into ethical or religious catharsis, and accession to the higher Real of divine presence and love.
In great theatre, such as this dramatic work, an actor can express the longings of the soul in the elocution of soliloquy. Even when the longing for the peace of posthumous rest or the ecstasies of spiritual beatitude are limited to conventional credo or an un-internalized aspiration or idealization not fully believed, the compensations offered by the very act of self-reflection, magnified onstage by the actor’s gaze into infinity while speaking of the ungraspable sublime of God’s embrace, offers the intense otherworldliness of even the most mundane ego in its moments of withdrawal into its yet unbroken soul—a species of moment no longer known to the postmodern ego whose deficit of attention can no longer sustain such moments of interior focus long enough to reach the stillness that enables life to endure the vacillations and vapidity of boredom in a dying culture with no remaining resources of fidelity from which to drink.
In the dying embers of a great culture, entombed in the once-lively country estate of a clan now in ruins, whose own patriarch is nothing but a disturbance to the remnants of a once-flourishing clan, and to himself, whose intellectuality is mere vanity, and whose wife has no love to offer, and whose beauty is for naught; courted by a doctor whose abilities are in grave doubt; shadowed by a spinster whose goodness is unrequited; and all helplessly witnessed by the hysteric Vanya, who cannot shoot straight when he finally decides to act, and cannot even carry through a successful suicide.
Chekhov reveals the ego to itself, in all the glory of its ineptitude, its ironic and clownish innocence, its lack of any capacity to see beyond its illusory consciousness and perceive God’s sense of humor and the kingdom of heaven still shimmering for those with third eye open enough to see, and audible in the pitch of sound that opens and closes this dreamworld reminiscent of the olden days, still kept barely alive by the aging servants, the strumming of a guitar which triggers the memory of the cossack dancing of real men to the quivering strings and the eternal music of the Tatar balalaika.