ARTicles Online
vol. 1 no. 1
November 2002

Welcome to 2002-03
from Robert Woodruff
and Gideon Lester
and see: season lineup

The first Uncle Vanya
at the Moscow Art Theatre

Opinion: Phillip Freeman
When Father Comes Home

Stalker Inspires Vanya
Russian cinema masterpiece
inspires set design

online / exclusive

ARTifact: Vanya
multimedia production preview

Femme Fatale
Vanya Program Notes

Converting the Demon
Vanya Program Notes

Boston Phoenix
Vodka Tonic: A searing
Vanya on Brattle St.

Boston Phoenix
Cry Uncle: János Szász
is friends with Chekhov

ARTicles Archive

Checkhov and the Moscow Art Theatre
by Ryan McKittrick

Konstantin Stanislavsky
as Dr. Astrov

In 1899, Anton Chekhov found himself in an awkward situation. The previous year, the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre (MXAT) had staged a tremendously successful production Chekhov's The Seagull. After its triumph, MXAT expected to receive the rights to the Moscow premiere of Uncle Vanya. Chekhov, however, had already promised the play to the state-supported Maly Theatre.

The playwright owed MXAT a great deal. Prior to its production of The Seagull, Chekhov had endured three humiliating premieres in Moscow and St. Petersburg. On the opening night of Ivanov in 1887, only two of the leading actors knew their lines, and other cast members were drunk. The Wood Demon, an early draft of Uncle Vanya, fared no better two years later. Half the cast forgot their lines, the actresses were dreadful, and the audience booed. If the disastrous premieres of Ivanov and The Wood Demon weren't enough to dissuade Chekhov from writing again for the theatre, the calamitous 1896 premiere of The Seagull in St. Petersburg was. The ruthless Petersburg audience howled at Chekhov's play, taking special delight in a character's wheelchair that kept losing its grip on the raked stage.

This series of debacles finally came to an end in 1898. After the Petersburg flop, Chekhov was hesitant to grant anyone permission to produce his seagull, but he eventually agreed to let Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the co-founders of MXAT, stage the Moscow premiere. The production was revolutionary. Stanislavsky and Nemirovich, who co-directed the production as part of their first season, held twenty-six rehearsals – a significant improvement from the paltry ten rehearsals in St. Petersburg. MXAT's detailed mise-en-scène and nuanced acting captivated Russian audiences accustomed to melodramatic clichés. Stanislavsky's promptbook reveals the elaborate preparation that went into the production. With its careful orchestration of sounds and silences, the book reads more like a score than a script.

Chekhov's Seagull took flight, and Nemirovich quickly requested the rights to Uncle Vanya. The playwright knew he had finally found a truly talented company to stage his works, but he was bound by his former commitment to the Maly Theatre. If not for an attempted bowdlerization, MXAT would probably have lost the premiere of Vanya and its growing reputation as Chekhov's principal interpreter. A committee at the Maly objected to the scene in which Vanya fires a gun at the Professor, criticizing the gesture as an insult to intellectuals. The Maly demanded cuts. Chekhov refused and promptly delivered the play to the Moscow Art Theatre.

Stanislavsky spent the summer of 1899 creating his promptbook for Vanya, envisioning himself in the title role. Nemirovich, however, didn't see his tall, handsome co-director as the avuncular type, and he soon persuaded Stanislavsky to play the doctor, Astrov. Chekhov, who had loathed Stanislavsky's performance as Trigorin in The Seagull, wanted to remove Stanislavsky from the cast altogether. In a letter to the actress Olga Knipper, who played Yelena, Chekhov offered the following assessment: "[Stanislavsky] shouldn't be playing [Vanya]. That's not his métier. When he directs then he's an artist but when he acts he's just a rich young merchant who wants to dabble in art." The playwright finally accepted MXAT's casting, but expressed a concern that the puritanical Stanislavsky wouldn't exude Astrov's sexual energy. "Inject some testosterone into him," Chekhov quipped to Nemirovich as the company began rehearsals.

At first everything ran smoothly, but tension quickly mounted between the co-directors. Nemirovich, who saw himself as Chekhov's representative in rehearsals, was always more focused on the text. Stanislavsky, in contrast, was more concerned with the visual, physical, and aural life of the production. As opening night approached, Nemirovich wrote to Stanislavsky: "We are both aware that it is awkward to disagree during rehearsals. It is embarrassing in front of the actors, don't you think? ... I feel obliged to ask you for a few concessions. Obliged by my conscience as a writer ... I don't want a handkerchief on your head to keep off mosquitoes, it's a detail I simply cannot take. And I can tell you for certain that Chekhov won't like it. . . . Further. You must learn your text rock-solid. ... Not knowing [your lines] causes you to take a slow tempo when it is not needed and to make pauses (turning to the prompter and then seeking the mood) when they merely deaden the role. Your second fault - the brutal way you treat props and furniture. ... The less you move furniture around, the less often you bang perfectly beautiful chairs, (now all our actors do it) the more attractively and appealing your real qualities come through."

Stanislavsky did finally memorize his lines, and MXAT's production of Uncle Vanya opened in October of 1899. By all accounts, including Nemirovich's, Stanislavsky was magnificent as Astrov. Aleksandr Artiom, who played the acne-ridden neighbor, Waffles, was so successful in his role that he played it until his death in 1914. And Stanislavsky's wife, Lilina, earned praise as Vanya's niece, Sonya.

Olga Knipper, however, expressed serious misgivings immediately after the opening. In a letter to Chekhov, she confessed to playing Yelena "appallingly," placing part of the blame on Stanislavsky for making her act with too much sexual aggression. Chekhov responded to his soon-to-be-wife sarcastically: "Yes, dear actress, ordinary, medium success in not enough now for all you artistic players: you want an uproar, big guns, dynamite. You have been spoiled at last, deafened by constant talk about successes, crowded and empty houses: you are already poisoned with that drug, and in another two or three years you will be good for nothing!"

Though some of the stars were praised for their performances, few considered Vanya an unqualified, immediate success. Nemirovich complained of a languid pace on opening night - even after the troupe had cut forty of the fifty pauses indicated in the script. The audience's initial reaction to the production was not overly enthusiastic, and the newspapers didn't give rave reviews. Professors from Moscow University, echoing the complaints of the Maly Theatre, boycotted the production. Tolstoy, after seeing the production, was rumored to have shouted, "Where is the drama? What does it consist of?"

A scene from Act I of the premiere production,
with Olga Knipper as Yelena (with umbrella).

Chekhov, however, wasn't dismayed by Knipper's whining or the lukewarm reviews. In a letter to a friend he reflected: "[The MXAT Company] expected a furor, and after all there is only an ordinary success, and this irritates the young artists. I have worked for twenty-one years, and I know that an average success is, for the writer and the actor, the best kind of success. After a triumph a reaction always sets in, expressing itself in heightened expectation, followed eventually by certain disappointment and cooling . . ." Chekhov was right: MXAT's Uncle Vanya played 323 times over the first quarter of the twentieth century.

During the rehearsals and premiere, Chekhov was stuck in Yalta, where the doctors had exiled him in an effort to spare his tubercular lungs. He didn't see MXAT's Uncle Vanya until the spring of 1900, when the Theatre went on tour to Sevastopol and Yalta. Despite the positive notices Stanislavsky had received, Chekhov remained skeptical about his portrayal of Astrov. Before the tour, he warned Nemirovich, "Remembering [Stanislavsky's] acting for me is so depressing I can't shake it off, and in no way can believe that he is good in Uncle Vanya although everyone writes to me with one voice that he is nonetheless good and even very good."

Chekhov was pleased with MXAT's work when he finally saw the production. He even complimented Stanislavsky and offered him a suggestion for Astrov's departure at the end of the play: "[Astrov] whistles. Listen, he whistles! Uncle Vanya is crying, but Astrov whistles!" Stanislavsky got no further explanation from Chekhov, but he immediately integrated the new stage direction into his performance, interpreting it, or perhaps misinterpreting it, as Astrov's loss of faith in humanity.

By the time MXAT reached Chekhov in Yalta, the troupe was imploring the playwright for a new script. Debilitated by a tubercular infection that would take his life in four years and distracted by his romance with Olga Knipper, Chekhov didn't have a completed play to open MXAT's next season. But that fall, he brought the troupe Three Sisters - a play tailored for the MXAT company.

Ryan McKittrick is A.R.T.'s
Associate Dramaturg.

Quotations from The Moscow Art Theatre Letters, by Jean Benedetti; and Letters on the Short Story, The Drama, and Other Literary Topics by Anton Chekhov, edited by Louis S. Friedland.
Anton Chekhov reading The Seagull
to the MXAT Company in 1899.

This page updated November 27, 2002
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