Opposition or Identification: Chekhov's Plays on Screen

By Olshankskay, Natalia L. | West Virginia University Philological Papers, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Opposition or Identification: Chekhov's Plays on Screen


Olshankskay, Natalia L., West Virginia University Philological Papers


In the dramatic literature of the last hundred years, the major four plays of Chekhov, The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), often have been considered difficult to interpret. They have presented a challenge for directors, designers, actors, and viewers, as it has always been a demanding task to communicate their subtle details in a suitable visual form for the stage or the screen. (1)

Chekhov's innovative dramaturgical method is based on an interesting combination of impressionist art and psychologism: registering the immediate external experiences of characters, his plots describe indirectly the deep psychological drama which can be discovered behind these experiences. His characters are not to be judged by their words or actions, but to be understood through a complex combination of untold stories, hidden symbols, and artistic details. Describing the elusive nature of the themes in Chekhov's plays Maurice Valency writes:

It is this imprecision, this unstudied reluctance to assign precise motives for the actions of his characters, that characterizes Chekhov's style as a dramatist, As an impressionist he was chiefly concerned with the surface, and he made no obvious inference as to what, if anything, lay beneath it. His plays represent behavior in meticulous detail, the thing done, and the thing said; the rest is left to the spectator. (2)

This technique of implication affects the entire structure of Chekhov's plays, and probably helps to explain the controversy which has always existed around the attempts to define their genre. For example, Chekhov himself insisted that The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were comedies and was unhappy when Stanislavsky staged them as tragedy. (3) Throughout the century, there have developed two diametrically opposed interpretations of Chekhov: the first and dominant one in which, following the Stanislavsky tradition, Chekhov was proclaimed the master of the theater of mood and melancholy; and the other which stressed the comic fabric of his plays, trying to make them conform to the most simplistic definition of comedy with elements of vaudeville humor. (4)

The bibliography of books on Chekhov and his dramaturgy is immense, (5) but film adaptations of his works have hardly ever been discussed by literary or cinema critics. Meanwhile, there have been a number of attempts to bring Chekhov's plays to the screen that indicate certain cross-cultural tendencies and trends in filming Chekhov. For example, several screen adaptations made in the sixties were merely filming famous theatrical performances without much genre adjustment. Uncle Vanya (1963) is the filming of the 1962 Chichester Drama Festival theater production directed by Lawrence Olivier and starring Michael Redgrave and Lawrence Olivier. The Three Sisters (1966) is the filming of the Actor's Studio 1965 stage performance with Sandy Dennis, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Shelly Winters, Luther Adler, and Kevin McCarthy. Another version of The Three Sisters, produced in 1970 and directed by Lawrence Olivier, was described by Halliwell's Film Guide as "better than most but still lacking cinematic vigor." (6) E ach of these performances has quite impressive casts; each follows the Stanislavsky tradition in interpreting Chekhov, presenting a complex emotional psychological drama; each was a remarkable theater production but insignificant as film art.

Uncle Vanya (1963), directed for the screen by Stuart Burge, does not even attempt to hide its status as filmed theater. The camera moves slowly from the foyer up the staircase on to the stage as if following the eyes of the invisible spectator, the lights are dimmed, and the play starts. The lights go out to mark the end of each act, and the space is conventionally theatrical, being limited to a single room with a single setting for each of the four acts. It is filmed almost entirely in medium-shot with occasional close-ups and very traditional cutting: in the dialogues, the camera moves rhythmically from one speaker to another. …

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