Chekov, as timeless as is endless life’s coil of mortality

This brings me to Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” (1897), a singularly psychologically destabilizing piece of theater that’s now being seen anew as a study of post-Covid paralysis, not to mention the existential dread of watching your life slip away by the spoonful. Although first produced in Moscow in 1899, it feels just like our present American age, when nobody hears anybody else because listening hurts too much; when the most comforting activity imaginable is a long, solitary walk followed by an even longer interlude of silence. This is a drama about being driven insane by the sound of other people’s desires, complaints and aspirations when you’re already being tortured by your own. The pandemic and the boorish political and public discourse that followed drove us inward, unable to fight back, going nuts like poor Vanya.

Why ‘Uncle Vanya’ Is the Play for Our Anxious Era, The New York Times Style Magazine, March 21, 2024

This is an interesting take on the play, one hard to dispute since, you know, one’s take or opinion or impression of a work of any art is completely subjective and just as valid as anyone else’s.

Especially with Chekov’s work, which is just about as timeless and universal as anything written, and which is hard for me to see it anew as a post-Covid paralysis, or anew as post anything.

“Uncle Vanya,” to me, just like all of the Chekov I have had the pleasure to read, which, unfortunately, is not yet all that he has gifted us, is simply about our fear of death, the fear of our suddenly being planted into the soil to become nothing more than worm dirt without ever having done anything of lasting value, of becoming, in a sense, immortal.

Both images from “The Scream” Wikipedia page

Again, just my subjective take but, as Chekov was a man of medicine not unfamiliar with the attack of mortality we all are certain to become inflicted with, it’s no wonder it made such easy and often literary fodder for him.

And of course, related to our fear of death, there is the persisten nag of FOMO, the fear of missing out. While we are fretting incessently over leaving behind nothing of lasting value when we die, we fret almost as much during our short time we do actually have alive on this pretty yet petulant planet of ours of missing out on all the fun and excitement that everyone else seems to be enjoying with such ease.

Anyway, “Uncle Vanya” is chock full of such fear, longing, and regret. To wit, Serebrakoff (Uncle Vanya’s nemisis and whose young wife Helena he longs for) to Helena:

I want to live; I long for success and fame and the stir of the world, and here I am in exile! Oh, it is dreadful to spend every moment grieving for the lost past, to see the success of others and sit here with nothing to do but to fear death. I cannot stand it! It is more than I can bear. And you will not even forgive me for being old!

Uncle Vanya, Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts, Act II, Project Gutneberg

Of course Vanya rants and raves about pretty much the same thing, but it’s a bit more ironic showing Serebrakoff’s angst since it is he who Uncle Vanya idolizes and envies and, ultimately, despairs over.

So yeah, Uncle Vanya could easily be read anew as a study of our post-Covid paralysis, I guess, just as it could easily be a study of our post-yesterday or post-tomorrow paralysis, as well.

But, you know, that is just my subjectively humble take on the timeless tale…

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