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Nathan Thomas


Uncle Vanya is a funny show.


And, by that, I don’t mean to instantly re-awaken the old canard about Chekhov thinking they were funny and Stanislavsky didn’t.  I mean it’s a funny/clever, funny/interesting, and funny/slightly-odd as well as funny/ha-ha show.  And, it’s also true that Chekhov gave Vanya the sub-title – Scenes from Country Life – like A Month in the Country by Turgenev.


In his letters Chekhov noted that the playwright who could come up with a new ending to a play would have something.  Either the hero has to die, or the hero gets married.  Chekhov was looking for something new.


The character of Vanya winds up at the end of the play neither dead nor married, rather in an odd place that’s not much changed from where he began the play.  He goes on a journey that ends him up at home where he started.  [Oops, spoiler alert – yeah, and the Titanic sinks in the end. . . .]


I had the opportunity to translate/adapt Chekhov’s Dyadya Vanya into English, and then played the old Professor in a solid run of the show.  As I worked on the text, I tried to give the actors footnotes to indicate why I made the language choices I did.


I say translation/adaptation because I don’t know that any translation is anything but an adaptation.  In my case, I read and re-read the Chekhov letters, several biographies, and remembrances by people who new Chekhov.


Chekhov was a very amiable companion to have.  He’s someone you want to hang out with.  Like most people who make their money by being funny, Chekhov’s home life wasn’t a bed of roses.  He commented on the beatings he received from his father throughout his life.  He was enormously popular with women.  But he had an odd trait of experiencing less ardor for women the closer he got to them.


He read some of a German translation of one of his plays and was dismayed that the translator had used varying German words at different times in the text to translate one Russian word.  Like most people who make their living by being funny, Chekhov had a precise conception of language.  The rhythm of a joke is mostly the rhythm of language, particularly for the writer of short comic pieces, which is how Chekhov came to fame.


I endeavored to keep this in mind as I worked on the text.  I saw my task to bring Chekhov’s text to life in American English.  I mean no offense to our British cousins, but often we think of Chekhov’s characters living in a BBC studio rather than out in the country in 19th century Russia.  And the Russians of the late 19th century were many things, but they were not Victorian English folks.


One of the first things I tried to think through was the issue with names.  My experience with teaching The Seagull over the past several years is that Russian names are often puzzling to American university students.  With my guidance they can navigate somewhat through the practice of gender-ending patronymics and endless etc.  But they have to keep looking to see who is who.  In English we have the experience of having a parent call a child by all of their names, and we have nicknames for family members.  But  somehow the relationship of Vanya to Ivan is not instantaneous for American ears.


The other thing that Chekhov used was a slight amount of punning in the construction of some character names.  So the Russian word for ‘silver’ is serebro.  Thus Professor Serebriakov is essentially Professor Silver – a name befitting his old age. And the title character’s family name might have a double pun to it. Voyn can indicate ‘warrior’ in Russian and ‘live/habitat/place where I live’ in Yiddish – a language that Chekhov knew somewhat from his childhood. And the title character certainly puts up a fight for what he considers his home.


Finally, there’s the emotional notion of how people use names in a relationship.  We can hear ‘Vanya’ and think, “Oh, yes.  That’s a Russian name.  Right, he’s the guy who the play is about.”  But Vanya is a diminutive form of Ivan – a Russian form of the name ‘John.’ So, he’s Uncle Johnny or Uncle Jack. There’s something Willy Loman-ish about calling a man in his late 40’s Uncle Johnny.


And since you know you’re going to lose the lovely not-quite-rhyme, but very lyrical Dyadya Vanya – why not call him Uncle Johnny?  Thus, the characters became in short order:

    Silver, Alexander – A retired professor

    Helen – His wife

    Sophia (Sophie) – his daughter by his first wife

    Battles, Maria – widow of counsellor (second highest civilian rank) and mother of the professor’s first wife

    Battles, John Peterson – her son

    Astrov, Michael Leonardson – a physician

    Cartwright, Elijah Elijahson – impoverished landed nobleman


Some folks missed the Russian names, but it made keeping track of characters easier for many audience members too.


The very first challenge of the work comes very quickly and the rendering of the Russian word ‘chudaki/chudak.’  The word can mean ‘eccentric’ and ‘crank’ in English.  But English – particularly American English – provides a wealth of possibilities for that concept.  ‘Crank’ is good in that it also includes the notion of being ‘cranky,’ which is certainly appropriate for the doctor.


The problem with the doctor’s character is that he’s right. His long speeches about the environment turned out to be spot on.  Particularly for us theatre folk, we tend toward the liberal on environmental concerns. And most of us know vegans, if we aren’t vegans ourselves.  But these concerns of the doctor in 19th century Russia would have put him more in the place of an old coot.  And given the nature of romance in the play, ‘coot’ also has the advantage of including the concept of ‘cooties.’  Also, a coot is a bird, which is how the doctor describes himself to Helen.  Thus, ‘coot’ it was --


    Astrov:  Yes. . . . In the last ten years I’ve become another man. And what’s the reason?  Overwork, Nanny.  I’m on my feet from morning to night, and never any rest.  At night I lie under my covers with fear of being dragged off to visit some patient.[1]  Since we’ve known each other, I’ve not had a day off.  How could I not grow old? And one’s life, of its own nature, is tedious, senseless, stinky . . .It drags you down, this life.  You have an endless parade of one coot after one more coot; and spend two to three years with them, and – little by little – you find yourself becoming a coot.  Inevitable. (Twists his long moustache.)  See the long moustache I’ve grown. . . .  silly moustache.  I’ve become a coot, Nanny. . . .I haven’t grown stupid, yet, thank God, my brain still works, but my feelings have grown numb.  Nothing do I want, nothing do I need.  No one do I love. . . . . Well, you’re the one I love.  (Kisses the top of her head.)  When I was a boy I had a nanny just like you, Nanny.

                  Beginning of Act I.


At the end of Act I, we see a conversation between Uncle Johnny and the professor’s wife, Helen.  As a precise writer, Chekhov utilizes language to keep the audience’s ear attuned to the actors – interior rhyme, not-quite-rhyme and assonance, alliteration – all are used in an off-hand way.  The characters don’t appear to be attempting verbal cleverness, but they are clever:


    Helen:  Ah, it is lazy and tedious!  Everyone abuses my husband, and everyone looks at me with compassion: poor woman, she’s married to an old man!  This sympathy for me – Oh, how well I understand that!  As the doctor said just now: you all thoughtlessly destroy the forests so that there will soon be no one left on Earth.  And so you thoughtlessly destroy people, and soon, thanks to you, there won’t be any fidelity or purity or capacity for self-sacrifice on Earth.    Why can’t you look with detachment at a woman if she isn’t yours?  Because – the doctor speaks true – you are possessed of some demon that needs to make a shambles of everything.


    Battles:  Not loving this philosophy!


    Helen:  That doctor has a weary, sensitive face.  An interesting face.  Sophie appears to like him, maybe she loves him, and I understand that. It’s the third time he’s been here since I’ve come, but I’m shy and I haven’t had a real talk with him yet, I haven’t been kind to him.  He thinks I’m bad tempered.  Mr. John, you and I are probably such friends[2] because we’re both degraded, faded jades.[3]  Boring! Do not look at me, not that way, I don’t like it.


At the beginning of Act II, Professor Silver and his wife are having another awful, sleepless night that includes a fair amount of belly-aching on the part of an old man complaining of his aches and pains.  The scene concludes with Nanny coming on to the stage to take the old man away.  What’s interesting is how the Nanny speaks of the professor’s first (now dead) wife. She doesn’t appear to be intentionally cruel.  But yet there’s an edge to what she says:


    Nanny:  (Goes to Serebryakov, tenderly): What’s wrong, dearie?  Pains?  And my legs are aching too, oh, very badly.  (Arranges his blanket.)  And you have had this pain such a long time. Vera, Sophie’s late mother, so very often spends sleepless nights[4], used to kill her to see you like this . . . .She loved you so very much . . . .


    Old people are such children.[5]  They want to be pitied like children, but nobody pities the old people.  (Kisses Silver’s shoulder.) Come, my Little Lamb, to bed . . . .Come, my sweet . . . I will bring you some linden teaand warm your feet . . .I shall pray to God for you . . .


Then we get to see another conversation between Uncle Johnny and Helen, the professor’s wife.  This is where Chekhov’s own admonition to maintain a translation across several lines and not to change horses, so to speak.


This is the section in Russian:

Елена Андреевна (пристально смотрит на него). Иван Петрович, вы пьяны!

Войницкий. Может быть, может быть...

Елена Андреевна. Где доктор?

Войницкий. Он там... у меня ночует. Может быть, может быть... Все может быть!


Even allowing for the strangeness of seeing Cyrillic, note the multiple times of this figure:   Может быть. 


I have a dual language Russian/English reader of Chekhov’s plays right here.  And they translate this passage as:


    Elena:  Ivan Petrovich, you are drunk!

    Voynitsky:  Perhaps, perhaps. . . .

    Elena: Where is the doctor?

    Voynitsky:  He’s in there. . . .spending the night with me.  Perhaps, perhaps. . . . Anything is possible!


Now there’s no particular problem in realizing the conditional nature of “Может быть.” But there is Chekhov’s own idea that he used the same word multiple times, he wanted the audience to hear it.  Thus my rendering of the same passage uses the word “maybe” for the conditional concept that will appear several times again in the act:


    Helen:  (Looks at him intently.)  Mr. Battles, you are drunk!


    Battles:  Maybe, maybe . . . .


    Helen:  Where’s the doctor?


    Battles:  In there . . . spending the night here tonight.  Maybe, maybe . . . the world is full of maybe!


Then we have in Act II possible the hardest joke to translate.  In doing some investigation, I saw that the way some translators got past this problem was to cut the joke entirely.  The doctor comes in and finds Uncle Johnny alone after Johnny’s conversation with Helen. The doctor is drunk.  And he makes a joke about his medical assistant and how he talks.  The problem is that the words in Russian suggest agreement and insult simultaneously, and it’s accomplished by the slight change of a consonant sound.  This is very efficient comedy writing on Chekhov’s part.  My answer to this challenge was to use the sound relationship between ‘jump’ and ‘chump.’


    Astrov:  Play! (Cartwright plays softly.)  We need to drink.  Go, there, it seems we still have some cognac remaining to be drunk.  And at sunrise, we’ll go to my place.  Chump?  I have a medical assistant who agrees with you, and wants to say, “I’ll jump to it.” But he never says, “Jump,” when he agrees with you, but, “Chump.”  A terrible rascal.  So, Chump?[6]

    (Sees SOPHIE enter.) Beg pardon, I don’t have a tie on. (He beats an exit, CARTWRIGHT follows after.)


Again, the Russian word that’s used to set up the joke also appears more times in the act.  It’s a verbal set-up for more fun later.


Sophie has a brief soliloquy in which she ends by describing her looks. One of the main questions for actors playing these characters is understanding how much they may be lying. For example, when Professor Silver comes on in his first entrance he talks about the superb views.  Well, what does he see?  If we take Nanny’s brief line later in Act I in which the peasants come to talk about the wasteland, and we take to heart the doctor’s description of the growing decrepitude of the district; then we have to call the professor’s observation into question. 


Likewise, Sophie describes her looks in Act II.  Other characters often comment on how Sophie resembles her dead mother – whom everyone agrees was a great beauty.  Also, Russian adjectives can often work by negation – that is, a prefix that simply indicates not something.  Thus, ‘красива’ is ‘beautiful.’  And thus, by putting a negative prefix in front of the word, Sophie describes herself as ‘not beautiful.’  Simple enough.


But American English doesn’t always work by the process of negation. And the task is to find a way to help the actor make a visceral connection with the language so the audience can have a visceral experience of the character.  Consequently, I used the word ‘ugly.’  This is where my experience came in to play.  I’ve known many women over the course of my life who were very lovely and beautiful, but saw themselves as ugly.  There’s rarely a rational thought process behind how we think of our looks.  And it seems to me that Sophie is terribly mis-guided in how she thinks of her looks. 


Also, in character terms, it seemed to provide a means to explain why the doctor was never attracted to Sophie.  He’s a lonely man in the middle of nowhere being actively pursued by a 19-year-old woman.  The thing that repels him, it seems to me, is her lack of confidence in herself.  She is beautiful, but she doesn’t behave like it. And it’s a confidence that Helen has in abundance, which attracts the doctor no end.  Thus:


    Sophie: (Alone.)  He said nothing to me. . . .His soul and heart remain hidden from me, so why do I feel so happy?  (Laughs with happiness.)  I told him:  you’re elegant, fine, your voice is so gentle . . .Did that come out wrong?[7]   His voice trembles, caresses . . .I can feel in the atmosphere.  And when I told him about a younger sister, he didn’t get it. (Wrings her hands.)  Oh, how terrible it is that I’m ugly!  How terrible! And I know I’m ugly, I know, I know . . .  Last Sunday, coming out of church, I heard people talking about me, and one woman said, “She’s kind and generous, but sorry to say, she’s ugly . . .”  Ugly . . .


Later in Act II we see a conversation between Helen and her step-daughter, Sophie.  This is one place where I didn’t comprehend the work of other translators.  The women who are caught in a tangle of love and lust with Uncle Johnny, the doctor, and Professor Silver finally have a face-to-face chat.  And they have a drink together.  And they have a drink, quite clearly, to the bruderschaft.  It’s the German word spelled in Cyrillic in the Russian text.  So, yes, the women are drinking to their companionship, but they are doing it in the context of knowing about the complications of the poopy-headed men.  Oddly, to my way of thinking, most translators don’t indicate this idea.


This section also relies upon the use of a variant on the use of ‘you.’ In English, we’ve lost the distinction between ‘you-as-part-of-a-formal-relationship’ and ‘you-as-part-of-a-close-relationship.’ For example, the difference between the German ‘sie’ and ‘du.’  So, we had to knock down several pins with one ball:


    Helen:  No, he’s sitting in the parlor . . .We don’t have a friendly chat for weeks at a time and God knows why . . . . (See the open sideboard.)  What’s this?


    Sophie:  The doctor’s supper.


     Helen: And some wine is here . . . .Let’s drink to our “brotherhood . . .”


    Sophie:  Let’s.


    Helen:  Out of one glass . . . .(Pours.) That’s better.  So, first name basis – you[8]?


    Sophie:  First name basis.[9]


Another place where biography helped was with certain phrases. Chekhov lost the church-going faith of his father.  Nevertheless, throughout his life he loved the sound of church bells and enjoyed walking through a town on Easter to hear the bells.  Likewise, being a boy who went to church services regularly as a boy, he knew the texts of the Bible well.  It seemed to me that those verses that he knew and expected an audience to know informed his phrasing.   Thus, when Helen and Sophie talk about love, he gives a small hint of a quote from the passage about love from I Corinthians 13.


    Helen:  Now, there, there. . . .(Cries.) Silly, and I’m crying...


    You’re certainly angry because I appear to have married your father for money . . .If you believe oaths, I swear to you – I married him for love.  I was fascinated by his learning and fame.  The love wasn’t real, though – artificial, but it seemed real enough at the time.  I’m not at fault.  And you’ve been punishing me continuously since the wedding with your clever, suspicious eyes.


    Sophie:  Now, peace, peace!  Let’s forget it.


    Helen:  Not necessary to look like that, lack of agreeableness makes folks jumpy. It’s necessary to “believe all things,” otherwise life mustn’t be possible.


Jumping over Act III and most of IV, the final challenge of the play is Sophie’s final speech.  This is a justly famous speech from the Chekhov plays.  How to translate it and adapt it?


Part of the speech to me is its rhythm.  Many commentators have noted Chekhov’s musical sense.  And the music of the end of Uncle Vanya is quite clear.  I probably should have gone for a formulation of “We’ll rest,” but I wanted a cleaner sound for the actor to be heard in a quiet place.  And I wanted to provide some possibility of the refreshment of rest coming sooner than a hereafter after death.  So:


    Sophie:  What can we do, it’s necessary to live!


    We, Uncle Johnny, will live. 

    Will live long, long processions of days, with lingering evenings;

    will abide and endure the tests, which fate will give us;

    will work for our friends[10] without rest, both now and when we grow old;

    and when our last hour comes we shall die humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we suffered, that we wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us, and we, Uncle, dear Uncle, shall see a life that is bright, beautiful, refined, we shall rejoice and look back upon our present misfortunes with tenderness, with a smile – and rest.  I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. . . .(Kneels down before him and lays her head in his hands; in a weary voice.)  We rest!


    (CARTWRIGHT plays softly on the guitar.) 


    We rest!  We hear angels, we see the whole sky studded with diamonds, we see all earthly pain, all our suffering sink away in compassion that will fill the world, and our life will become peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress.  I have faith, faith. . . .(Wipes away his tears with a handkerchief.)  Poor, poor Uncle Johnny, you’re crying . . . (Through tears.)  You have known no joy in your lie, but wait, Uncle Johnny, wait . . . We rest. . . .(Embraces him.)  We rest!


    (The watchman’s rattle is heard.  Cartwright plays softly; Maria writes on the margins of her brochure; Nanny knits a stocking.)


    Sophie: (Continues.)  We rest!


    The curtain slowly falls.


In the end it was a wonderful time working with Chekhov. He’s a rewarding friend in a tight place.  And Uncle Vanya was a great pleasure to do. 


Someday, I’ll tell you about the production.




[1] He’s likely telling the truth.  While he appears to be cooling his heels at the moment, before the act is over, we’ll see him get dragged off on a case.


[2] Close friends.


[3] In the text, these three words are two syllables each and largely rhyme:  nyudnyi skyuchnyi lyudye.  Probably unintentional, but it’s that kind of cleverness that helps make her attractive.


[4] This passage is a little unclear.  The old woman clearly uses present tense about Vera’s sleeplessness.  This is followed by one word that seems to mean “killed” (yoobyevahyetsaya) in the past tense.  Most translators interpret Marina’s remark as a comment on the old days when Vera would be up with the Professor.  But it’s not clear to me that he was ill back then as he is now.  Why does Nanny bring up the dead Vera at this moment?  Does she know this will hurt Silver?  And does she want to hurt him intentionally?  Or, is she mindlessly cruel to bring this up in front of the family? I don’t think she’s suggesting that Silver murdered his wife.  But she probably is suggesting that that life killed her.


[5] This is also said about Sorin in Act IV of The Seagull.


[6] This is a piece of wonderful wordplay on Chekhov’s part.  The overall speech is a continuance of Astrov’s desire – “Let’s go get more to drink.”  So, Chekhov plays on a word that means “go,” but also colloquially means “all right” as an interjection, but with a little sound change of the final consonant also matches with “idiot” as pronounced in Russian.  So, the thought process might be in the neighborhood of, “Let’s go drink like idiots, all right?”, along with, “I have a medical assistant who’s a rogue who calls everyone an idiot when he agrees with them.”


[7] The Russian suggests a phrase that means ‘mal apropos.’  But I don’t want to have Sonia ask if she was inappropriate, because that has a slightly different shading than what I think Chekhov wants for her here.


[8] Close.  Elena is purposefully working to persuade Sonia to be very close to her – best friends.


[9] Actually, Sonia simply says, “ты” – the intimate form of the pronoun ‘you.’  By saying this form of ‘you’ back to Elena, she’s saying “yes.”  But simply replying “you” in English doesn’t do the trick.


[10] Others, but with a Golden Rule sense of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  They will work for their “neighbors”.

June 2015

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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