Russian author Anton Chekhov wrote the play Uncle Vanya
in 1897; it premiered in Moscow two years later. The four-act play features an urban couple, a professor and his wife, coming to a rural village to observe the estate that they own and to inform the inhabitants that they will soon be selling the property in order to make a larger investment. It is performed by theaters around the world.
The play opens to an elderly nurse, Marina Timofeevna, and Michael Lvovich Astrov, a provincial doctor, discussing their relationship. They have known each other since the old professor’s first wife died, eleven years ago. Astrov bemoans the fact that his demanding job has made him older than he should be; he is middle-aged.
“Uncle” Vanya (Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky) joins them. He is 47 and, with the help of Sonya, the professor’s daughter by his first wife, has been managing the estate that feeds the old professor’s urban lifestyle. He complains over the fuss everyone has made since the professor and his much younger and very pretty wife, Yelena, arrived yesterday.
In the middle of its complaints, the trio sees that another group is approaching: the old professor (Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov), Yelena, Sonya, and Telegin (a poor landowner who depends on the state for his livelihood). Vanya ridicules Serebryakov when he knows his insults can’t be heard. Vanya’s mother, Maria (Maria VasilyevnaVoynitskya) tells him to quit it, and to be thankful that the professor lets them work his lands. Maria adores the professor, and she is smitten with the beauty of Yelena.
Astrov gives a soliloquy on the importance of preserving Russia’s forests, and Vanya, without much warning, tells Yelena that he’s in love with her.
Act Two begins a few days later. Right before bed, Serebryakov is complaining to Yelena about old age. Sonya sends for the doctor, Astrov, but the old professor refuses to see him.
Once Serebryakov falls asleep, Yelena and Uncle Vanya talk: she about the unhappy domestic life she has with the old professor; he about his misspent youth. Uncle Vanya wishes he had spoken with Yelena a decade earlier, when their love would have been possible. He also wishes he hadn’t idolized the professor as much as he had, because doing so has made his own life seem lackluster. When Vanya starts talking about how he desires Yelena, she finally leaves.
Astrov, with no patient to help, has gotten slightly drunk; he enters and talks to Vanya. Sonya walks by and says the two of them should focus on honest work – that this is the only way to have a truly satisfying life.
A storm seems to be starting, and Astrov talks to Sonya about his unhappiness. It is clear, but only to the audience, that Sonya loves Astrov.
Astrov goes home, and Yelena enters to talk with Sonya. The two haven’t been very fond of one another in the past few days; Sonya thinks Yelena is a gold-digger and Yelena thinks Sonya is a self-righteous bore. But once they start talking honestly, they unburden their secrets to each other. Yelena admits that when she first married the professor, she loved him, but that overtime, their love has faltered. Sonya in turn admits that she’s in love with the doctor. Yelena encourages this possible relationship, which fills Sonya with joy.
In the third act, Serebryakov has called Vanya, Sonya, and Yelena into the living room. Vanya hits on Yelena; she ignores him. Sonya talks about having been in love with the doctor for six years and how he has never noticed her ardor. Yelena offers to talk to him about it, but Sonya isn’t certain: if he says no, she will be crushed, whereas if they continue the ambiguous state they’re in, she can live each day filled with hope.
Yelena asks Astrov about his feelings, and he says no, he doesn’t love Sonya. But, he claims, Yelena asked him this because she really wants to know if Astrov loves her
, in which case the answer is definitely yes. He suddenly kisses her. Vanya happens to see the kiss. Yelena is furious with the course of events and wants to leave immediately. She doesn’t care that the professor has yet to make his announcement. Bluntly, she tells Sonya that Astrov doesn’t love her.
Before anyone leaves, Serebryakov announces he’s selling the estate to settle all of the family’s debts; if they invest the money in various stocks and bonds, he believes that the family could buy a vacation home in Finland. It’s implied that this home would only be available to Yelena and himself.
Vanya is furious. He tells Serebryakov that he’s being selfish, pushing Vanya, Sonya and Maria out of their home; he also accuses the professor for being ungrateful for all the sacrifices Vanya has made to maintain the estate. Serebryakov insults him. Maria tells her son to settle down. Instead, Vanya retreats off stage. Serebryakov persues him to finish the argument. A gun is shot offstage.
The old professor returns, running onstage. He is being chased by Vanya, who is running with a loaded revolver. He shoots at the professor but misses. Emotionally exhausted and disgusted at his own capriciousness, Uncle Vanya falls into a chair.
The final act, Act IV, begins a few hours after the shooting. The old nurse Marina and the peasant Telegin complete their chores and talk about the old professor and Yelena leaving the country estate.
Astrov, talking to Vanya, claims that the two of them are essentially upstanding men whose minds have been vulgarized by living in the country for the past decade. Depressed, Vanya has secretly taken a vial of morphine from Astrov’s pharmacy, contemplating suicide. With help from Sonya, Astrov eventually convinces him to hand it back and continue living.
When Yelena says goodbye to Astrov, she admits that their kiss was somewhat pleasant for her. They embrace once more, and he hands her a pencil of his to remember him by. Miraculously, the old professor and Vanya make up, saying that they both will forget the fight between them.
Vanya, Sonya, and Maria continue with their provincial life. The play ends with a famous soliloquy by Sonya, in which she claims that they will find peace in the afterlife.