Originally written as The Wood Demon in 1889, Uncle Vanya underwent heavy revisions in the summer of 1896, as The Seagull was opening in St. Petersburg. Chekhov reduced the length of the play by almost one-third, cut the cast down from thirteen to eight, brought a much fuller ensemble balance to the piece, and most notedly changing the suicide of Uncle George to the erratic shooting of the third act. This changed the piece significantly, from what was considered Chekhov’s “romantic comedy” to one of the masterpieces of tragicomedy.
Set on the Voynitsky family estate, Uncle Vanya follows the lives of the family and friends over a three month period one summer. Vanya, has spent his adult life managing the family estate with his niece Sonya, supporting his aging mother, and dutifully copying the manuscripts of his brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov, whose first wife was Vanya’s late sister and Sonya’s mother. The professor arrives for a visit with his new wife, Yelena. Vanya, who despises his brother-in-law, falls irrationally in love with her. During the course of the play a series of love entanglements develop involving Vanya, Yelena, Sonya, and Astrov; a country doctor and Vanya’s closest friend, whom Sonya loves deeply. When the professor suddenly announces his intentions to sell the estate, a horrified Vanya is finally provoked into action. He attempts to shoot the Professor twice, and misses both times. He then attempts to overdose and fails at that too. In the end, the Professor and his wife leave, and Vanya and Sonya are left, as before, to live out the rest of their days.
The play, like Chekhov’s other mature dramas, functions without any kind of typical Aristotelian plot, instead Chekhov dramatizes his deep perception of human behavior. “Characters don’t shoot themselves on stage, like Ivanov. Instead they endure, as Nina says, or work, Sonya says. Vanya alive, facing the truth of his wasted life day after day is more truthful and more tragic, in Chekhov’s view, then Vanya dead. There is no major theme, but rather a focus on love, country, life, nature, power, displacement, and the passage of time” (Rocamora).
The play first toured the provinces in 1898, before being offered to be produced by the Maly, which was the most prestigious theatre in all of Russia. However, due to a series of miscommunications and desired cuts by a government literary and censorship committee, Chekhov decided to go with the Moscow Art Theatre, which was not an imperial theatre, and therefore not liable to censors. Uncle Vanya opened on October 26th, 1899, to initially mixed reviews due to the pacing, but found critical success in the nights to come.