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Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, 1896


The dining-room of SEREBRYAKOV'S house. It is night. The tapping of the WATCHMAN'S rattle is heard in the garden. SEREBRYAKOV is dozing in an arm-chair by an open window and HELENA is sitting beside him, also half asleep.

SEREBRYAKOV. [Rousing himself] Who is here? Is it you, Sonya?

HELENA. It's me.

SEREBRYAKOV. Oh, it is you, Nelly. This pain is intolerable.

HELENA. Your shawl has slipped down. [She wraps up his legs in the shawl] Let me shut the window, Alexander.

SEREBRYAKOV. No, leave it open; I am suffocating. I dreamt just now that my left leg belonged to some one else, and it hurt so that I woke. I don't believe this is gout, it is more like rheumatism. What time is it?

HELENA. Half past twelve. [A pause.]

SEREBRYAKOV. I want you to look for Batyushkov's works in the library tomorrow. I think we have him.


SEREBRYAKOV. Look for Batyushkov tomorrow morning; we used to have him, I remember. Why do I find it so hard to breathe?

HELENA. You're tired; this is the second night you've had no sleep.

SEREBRYAKOV. They say that Turgenev got angina of the heart from gout. I am afraid I am getting angina too. Oh, damn this horrible, accursed old age! Ever since I have been old I have been hateful to myself, and I am sure, hateful to you all as well.

HELENA. You speak as if we were to blame for your being old.

SEREBRYAKOV. I am more hateful to you than to any one.

HELENA gets up and walks away from him, sitting down at a distance.

SEREBRYAKOV. You are quite right, of course. I am not an idiot; I can understand you. You are young and healthy and beautiful, and longing for life, and I am an old man, almost a corpse already. Don't I know it? Of course I see that it is foolish for me to live so long, but wait! I shall soon set you all free. My life cannot drag on much longer.

HELENA. You're overtaxing my powers of endurance. Be quiet, for God's sake!

SEREBRYAKOV. It appears that, thanks to me, everybody's power of endurance is being overtaxed; everybody is miserable, only I am blissfully triumphant. Oh, yes, isn't it obvious?

HELENA. Be quiet! You're torturing me.

SEREBRYAKOV. I torture everybody. Obviously.

HELENA. [Weeping] This is unbearable! Tell me, what is it you want from me?


HELENA. Then be quiet, please.

SEREBRYAKOV. It is funny that everybody listens to Ivan and his old idiot of a mother, but the moment I open my lips you all begin to feel ill-treated. You can't even stand the sound of my voice. Even if I am hateful, even if I am a selfish tyrant, haven't I the right to be one at my age? Haven't I earned it? Haven't I, I ask you, the right to be respected, now that I am old?

HELENA. No one is disputing your rights. [The window slams in the wind] The wind's rising, I'd better shut the window. [She shuts it] We'll have rain in a moment. Your rights have never been questioned by anybody. [Pause]

The WATCHMAN in the garden sounds his rattle and sings a song.

SEREBRYAKOV. I have spent my life working in the interests of learning. I am used to my library and the lecture hall and to the esteem and admiration of my colleagues. Now I suddenly find myself plunged in this wilderness, condemned to see the same stupid people from morning till night and listen to their futile conversation. 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 can't stand it! I don't have the strength. And they will not even forgive me for being old!

HELENA. Wait, have patience; I'll be old myself in four or five years.

SONYA comes in.

SONYA. Father, you sent for Dr. Astrov, and now when he comes you refuse to see him. It's inconsiderate to give a man so much trouble for nothing.

SEREBRYAKOV. What do I care about your Astrov? He understands medicine about as well as I understand astronomy.

SONYA. We can't send for the whole medical faculty, can we, to treat your gout?

SEREBRYAKOV. I won't talk to that madman!

SONYA. Do as you please. [She sits down.] It's all the same to me.

SEREBRYAKOV. What time is it?

HELENA. After midnight.

SEREBRYAKOV. It is stifling in here. Sonya, hand me that bottle on the table.

SONYA. Here it is. [She hands him a bottle of medicine.]

SEREBRYAKOV. [Crossly] No, not that one! Can't you understand me? Can't I ask you to do a thing?

SONYA. Will you stop throwing tantrums? Some people may like it, but you can please leave me out of it. I don't like it. Besides, I haven't the time; we're cutting the hay tomorrow and I must get up early.

VOYNITSKY comes in wearing a dressing gown and carrying a candle.

VOYNITSKY. A thunderstorm is coming up. [The lightning flashes] There it is! Go to bed, Helena and Sonya. I've come to take your place.

SEREBRYAKOV. [Frightened] No, no, no! Don't leave me alone with him! Oh, don't. He will talk me to death.

VOYNITSKY. But you must give them a little rest. They have not slept for two nights.

SEREBRYAKOV. Then let them go to bed, but you go away too! Thank you. I implore you to go. For the sake of our former friendship do not protest against going. We will talk some other time ---

VOYNITSKY. [Smiles ironically] Our former friendship! Our former ---

SONYA. Hush, Uncle Vanya!

SEREBRYAKOV. [To his wife] My darling, don't leave me alone with him. He will talk me to death.

VOYNITSKY. This is ridiculous.

MARINA comes in carrying a candle.

SONYA. You must go to bed, Nanny, it's late.

MARINA. I haven't cleared away the tea things. Can't go to bed yet.

SEREBRYAKOV. No one can go to bed. They are all worn out, only I enjoy perfect happiness.

MARINA. [Goes up to SEREBRYAKOV and speaks tenderly] What's the matter, master? Does it hurt? My own legs are aching too, oh, so badly. [Arranges his shawl about his legs] You've had this illness such a long time. Sonya's poor mother used to stay awake with you too, and wear herself out for you. She loved you dearly. [A pause] Old people want to be pitied as much as young ones, but nobody cares about them somehow. [She kisses SEREBRYAKOV'S shoulder] Come, master, let me give you some lime-flower tea and warm your poor feet for you. I shall pray to God for you.

SEREBRYAKOV. [Deeply touched] Let us go, Marina.

MARINA. My own feet are aching so badly, oh, so badly! [She and SONYA lead SEREBRYAKOV out] Sonya's mother used to wear herself out with sorrow and weeping. You were still little and silly then, Sonya. Come, come, master.


HELENA. I'm absolutely exhausted by him, and can hardly stand.

VOYNITSKY. You're exhausted by him, and I'm exhausted by my own self. I haven't slept for three nights.

HELENA. Something is wrong in this house. Your mother hates everything but her pamphlets and the professor; the professor is irritable, he won't trust me, and fears you; Sonya is angry with her father, and with me, and hasn't spoken to me for two weeks; you hate my husband and openly sneer at your mother; I'm at the end of my strength, and have come near bursting into tears at least twenty times today. Something is wrong in this house.

VOYNITSKY. Leave philosophy alone, please.

HELENA. You are cultured and intelligent, Ivan, and you surely understand that the world is not destroyed by villains and conflagrations, but by hate and malice and all these petty squabbles. It's your duty to make peace, and not to growl at everything.

VOYNITSKY. Help me first to make peace with myself. My darling! [Seizes her hand and kisses it.]

HELENA. Let go! [She drags her hand away] Go away!

VOYNITSKY. Soon the rain will be over, and all nature will sigh and awake refreshed. Only I'm not refreshed by the storm. Day and night the thought haunts me like a fiend, that my life is lost for ever. My past does not count, because I frittered it away on trifles, and the present has so terribly miscarried! What shall I do with my life and my love? What can I do with them? This wonderful feeling of mine will be wasted and lost as a ray of sunlight is lost that falls into a dark chasm, and my life will go with it.

HELENA. I somehow can't think or feel when you speak to me of your love, and I don't know how to answer you. Forgive me, I have nothing to say to you. [She tries to go out] Good-night!

VOYNITSKY. [Barring the way] If you only knew how I'm tortured by the thought that beside me in this house is another life that's being lost forever -- it's yours! What are you waiting for? What damned philosophy stands in your way? Oh, understand, understand ---

HELENA. [Looking at him intently] Ivan, you're drunk!

VOYNITSKY. Perhaps. Perhaps.

HELENA. Where's the doctor?

VOYNITSKY. In there, spending the night in my room. Perhaps I'm drunk, perhaps I am; nothing is impossible.

HELENA. Have you been drinking today? Why do you do that?

VOYNITSKY. Because in that way I get a taste of being alive. Don't try to stop me, Helena!

HELENA. You never used to drink, and you never used to talk so much. Go to bed, I'm tired of you.

VOYNITSKY. [Bending down to kiss her hand] My sweetheart, my beautiful one ---

HELENA. [Angrily] Leave me alone! Really, this has become too disagreeable.

HELENA goes out.

VOYNITSKY [Alone] She's gone! [A pause] I met her first ten years ago, at my sister's house, when she was seventeen and I was thirty-seven. Why didn't I fall in love with her then and propose to her? It would've been so easy! And now she would have been my wife. Yes, we would both have been waked tonight by the thunderstorm, and she would've been frightened, but I would have held her in my arms and whispered: "Don't be afraid! I'm here." Oh, enchanting dream, so sweet that I laugh to think of it. [He laughs] But my God! My head reels! Why am I so old? Why won't she understand me? I hate all that rhetoric of hers, that morality of indolence, that absurd talk about the destruction of the world -- I hate it all -- [A pause] Oh, how I've been deceived! For years I've worshipped that miserable gout-ridden professor -- worked like an ox for him. Sonya and I have squeezed this estate dry for his sake. We've bartered our butter and curds and peas like misers, and have never kept a morsel for ourselves, so that we could scrape enough money together to send to him. I was proud of him and of his learning; I received all his words and writings as inspired, and, dear God, now? Now he's retired, and what's the total of his life? Not a page of his work will survive! He's absolutely unknown, and his fame has burst like a soap-bubble. I've been deceived; I see that now, foolishly deceived.

ASTROV comes in. He has his coat on, but is without his waistcoat or tie, and is slightly drunk. TELEGIN follows him, carrying a guitar.


TELEGIN. But every one is asleep.


TELEGIN begins to play softly.

ASTROV. [To VOYNITSKY] Are you alone here? No ladies about? [Sings softly with his arms akimbo.]

"The hut is cold, the fire is dead;
Where shall the master lay his head?"

The thunderstorm woke me. It was a heavy shower. What time is it?

VOYNITSKY. The devil only knows.

ASTROV. I thought I heard Helena's voice.

VOYNITSKY. She was here a moment ago.

ASTROV. What a beautiful woman! [Looking at the medicine bottles on the table] Medicine, is it? What a variety we have; prescriptions from Moscow, from Kharkov, from Tula! Why, he's been pestering all the towns of Russia with his gout! Is he ill, or simply pretending?

VOYNITSKY. He's really ill. [A pause]

ASTROV. What's the matter with you tonight? You seem sad. Is it because you're sorry for the professor?

VOYNITSKY. Leave me alone.

ASTROV. Or in love with the professor's wife?

VOYNITSKY. She's my friend.

ASTROV. Already?

VOYNITSKY. What do you mean by "already"?

ASTROV. A woman can only become a man's friend after having first been his acquaintance and then his mistress -- then she becomes his friend.

VOYNITSKY. What vulgar philosophy!

ASTROV. What do you mean? Yes, I must confess I'm getting vulgar, but then, you see, I'm drunk. I usually only drink like this once a month. At such times my audacity and impertinence know no bounds. I feel capable of anything. I attempt the most difficult operations and do them magnificently. The most brilliant plans for the future take shape in my head. I'm no longer a poor fool of a doctor, but mankind's greatest benefactor. Greatest! I evolve my own system of philosophy and all of you seem to crawl at my feet like so many insects or microbes. [To TELEGIN] Play, Waffles!

TELEGIN. My dear boy, I would with all my heart, but do listen to reason; everybody in the house is asleep.


TELEGIN plays softly.

ASTROV. I want a drink. Come, we still have some brandy left. And then, as soon as it's day, you will come home with me. O-Key? I have an assistant who can't say "OK," always says "O-Key." Awful rascal. So, O-Key? [He sees SONYA, who comes in at that moment.]

ASTROV. I beg your pardon, I have no tie on. [He goes out quickly, followed by TELEGIN.]

SONYA. Uncle Vanya, you and the doctor have been drinking again! The old boys have been getting together! It's all very well for him, he's always done it, but why do you follow his example? It looks bad at your age.

VOYNITSKY. Age has nothing to do with it. When real life is missing, one must create an illusion. It is better than nothing.

SONYA. Our hay is all cut and rotting in these daily rains, and here you are busy creating illusions! You've given up the farm altogether. I've done all the work alone until I'm at the end of my strength -- [Frightened] Uncle! Your eyes are full of tears!

VOYNITSKY. Tears? Nonsense, there are no tears in my eyes. You looked at me then just as your dead mother used to, my darling -- [He eagerly kisses her face and hands] My sister, my dearest sister, where are you now? Ah, if you only knew, if you only knew!

SONYA. If she only knew what, Uncle?

VOYNITSKY. My heart is bursting. It's awful. No matter, though. I must go. [He goes out.]

SONYA. [Knocks at the door] Dr. Astrov! Are you awake? Please come here for a minute.

ASTROV. [Behind the door] In a moment.

He appears after a short delay. He has put on his tie and waistcoat.

ASTROV. What do you want?

SONYA. Drink as much as you want to, if you don't find it revolting, but I implore you not to let my uncle do it. It's bad for him.

ASTROV. Very well; we won't drink any more. [A pause] I'm going home at once. It's all settled. It'll be dawn by the time the horses are harnessed.

SONYA. It's still raining; wait till morning.

ASTROV. The storm's blowing over. This is only the edge of it. I must go. And please don't ask me to come and see your father any more. I tell him he has gout, and he says it is rheumatism. I tell him to lie down, and he sits up. Today he refused to see me at all.

SONYA. He has been spoilt. [She looks in the sideboard] Won't you have a bite to eat?

ASTROV. Yes, please. I believe I will.

SONYA. I love to eat at night. I'm sure we shall find something in here. They say that he has made a great many conquests in his life, and that the women have spoiled him. Here's some cheese for you.

[They stand eating by the sideboard.]

ASTROV. I haven't eaten anything today. I've just been drinking. Your father has a very difficult nature. [He takes a bottle out of the sideboard] May I? [He pours himself a glass of vodka and drinks] We're alone here, and I can speak frankly. Do you know, I couldn't stand living in this house for even a month? This atmosphere would stifle me. There's your father, entirely absorbed in his books, and his gout; there's your Uncle Vanya with his depression, your grandmother, and finally, your step-mother --

SONYA. What about her?

ASTROV. A human being should be beautiful in every way: the face, the clothes, the mind, the thoughts. Your step-mother is, of course, beautiful to look at, but don't you see? She does nothing but sleep and eat and walk and bewitch us, and that's all. She has no responsibilities, everything is done for her -- am I not right? There's no integrity in an idle life. [A pause] However, I may be judging her too severely. Like your Uncle Vanya, I'm discontented, and so we're both grumblers.

SONYA. Aren't you satisfied with life, then?

ASTROV. I like life in general, but I hate and despise it in a little Russian country village, and as far as my own personal life goes, by heaven! there's absolutely no redeeming feature about it. Haven't you noticed if you are riding through a dark wood at night and see a little light shining ahead, how you forget your fatigue and the darkness and the sharp twigs that whip your face? I work, you well know, as no one else in the district works. Fate beats me on without rest; at times I suffer unendurably and I see no light ahead. I have no hope; I don't like people. It's a long time since I've loved any one.

SONYA. You love no one?

ASTROV. Not a soul. I only feel a sort of tenderness for your old nanny for old-times' sake. The peasants are all alike; they're stupid and live in dirt, and the educated people are hard to get along with. One gets tired of them. All our good friends are petty and shallow and see no farther than their own noses; in one word, they're stupid. Those that have brains and more to offer are hysterical, devoured with a mania for self-analysis. They whine, they hate, they pick faults everywhere with unhealthy sharpness. They sneak up to me sideways, look at me out of a corner of the eye, and say: "That man is a lunatic," "That man is a wind-bag." Or, if they don't know what else to label me with, they say I am strange, odd. I like forests, so that's strange. I don't eat meat; that's strange, too. Simple, natural relations between man and man, or man and nature, don't exist. [He tries to take a drink; SONYA prevents him.]

SONYA. I beg you, I implore you, don't drink any more!

ASTROV. Why not?

SONYA. It's so unworthy of you. You're well-bred, your voice is sweet, you're so different from everyone else I know -- you're a fine, good man. Why do you want to be like the common people that drink and play cards? Oh, don't, I beg you! You always say that people don't create anything, but only destroy what heaven has given them. Why, oh, why, do you destroy yourself? Oh, don't, I implore you not to! I entreat you!

ASTROV. [Gives her his hand] I won't drink any more.

SONYA. Promise me.

ASTROV. I give you my word of honour.

SONYA. [Squeezing his hand] Thank you.

ASTROV. I've done with it. You see, I'm perfectly sober again, and so I shall stay till the end of my life. [He looks his watch] But, as I was saying, life holds nothing for me; my race is run. I'm old, I'm tired, I'm mediocre; my sensibilities are dead. I could never attach myself to any one again. I love no one, and never shall! Beauty alone has the power to touch me still. I am deeply moved by it. Helena could turn my head in a day if she wanted to, but that's not love, that's not affection --

[He shudders and covers his face with his hands.]

SONYA. What is it?

ASTROV. Nothing. During Lent one of my patients died under chloroform.

SONYA. It's time to forget that. [A pause] Tell me, doctor, if I had a friend or a younger sister, and if you knew that she, well -- loved you, what would you do?

ASTROV. [Shrugging his shoulders] I don't know. I don't think I should do anything. I should make her understand that I couldn't return her love -- after all, I've got other things on my mind. I must start at once -- it's time for me to go. Good-bye, my dear girl. At this rate we'll stand here talking till morning. [He shakes hands with her] I'll go out through the sitting-room, because I'm afraid your uncle might detain me. [He goes out.]

SONYA. [Alone] Not a word from him! His heart and soul are still hidden from me, and yet for some reason I'm strangely happy. I wonder why? [She laughs with pleasure] I told him that he was a good man and that his voice was sweet. Was that the proper thing to do? I can still feel his voice vibrating in the air; it caresses me. [Wringing her hands] Oh! how terrible it is that I'm not pretty! I'm plain, I know it. As I came out of church last Sunday I heard people talking about me and I overheard a woman say, "She's a nice, kind girl, but what a pity she's so ugly!" So ugly!

HELENA comes in and throws open the window.

HELENA. The storm is over. What delicious air! [A pause] Where's the doctor?

SONYA. He's gone. [A pause.]

HELENA. Sonya!


HELENA. How much longer are you going to sulk at me? We haven't hurt each other. Why not be friends? It's time we ended this.

SONYA. I've wanted to -- [She embraces HELENA] Let's make peace.

HELENA. Oh, that's splendid. [They are both moved.]

SONYA. Has papa gone to bed?

HELENA. No, he is sitting up in the drawing-room. Heaven knows what reason you and I had for not speaking to each other for weeks. [Sees the open sideboard] What's this?

SONYA. Dr. Astrov has just had supper.

HELENA. There's some wine. Let's seal our friendship.

SONYA. Yes, let's.

HELENA. Out of one glass. [She fills a wine-glass] It's better like this. So, we're friends, are we?

SONYA. Yes. [They drink and kiss each other] I've long wanted to make friends, but somehow, I was ashamed to. [She weeps.]

HELENA. Why are you crying?

SONYA. I don't know. It's nothing.

HELENA. There, there, don't cry. [She weeps] Silly! Now I'm crying too. [A pause] You're angry with me because I seem to have married your father for selfish reasons. I swear to you, if that means anything to you, that I married him for love. I was fascinated by his fame and learning. I know now that it was not real love, but it seemed real at the time. I'm innocent, and yet your clever, suspicious eyes have been punishing me for an imaginary crime ever since my marriage.

SONYA. Peace, peace! Let us forget the past.

HELENA. You must not look at people that way. It's not becoming to you. You must trust people, or life becomes impossible. [A pause]

SONYA. Tell me truly, as a friend, are you happy?

HELENA. Truly, no.

SONYA. I knew it. One more question, tell me frankly, do you wish your husband were young?

HELENA. What a child you are! Of course I do. [Laughs] Go on, ask me something else.

SONYA. Do you like the doctor?

HELENA. Yes, very much indeed.

SONYA. [Laughing] I have a stupid look on my face, haven't I? He's just gone out, and his voice is still in my ears; I hear his step; I see his face in the dark window. Let me say all I have in my heart! But no, I can't speak of it so loudly. I'm ashamed. Come to my room and let me tell you there. I seem foolish to you, don't I? Talk to me about him.

HELENA. What can I say?

SONYA. He is intelligent. He can do everything. He can cure the sick, and plant forests.

HELENA. It is not a question of medicine and forests, my dear, he is a man of genius. Do you know what that means? It means he is brave, profound, and has great vision. He plants a tree and his mind travels a thousand years into the future, and he sees visions of the happiness of the human race. People like him are rare and should be cherished. What if he does drink and act roughly at times? A man of genius cannot be a saint in Russia. There he lives, cut off from the world by cold and storm and endless roads of bottomless mud, surrounded by a rough people who are crushed by poverty and disease, his life one continuous struggle, with never a day's respite; how can a man live like that for forty years and keep himself sober and unspotted? [Kissing SONYA] I wish you happiness with all my heart; you deserve it. [She gets up] As for me, I'm a tiresome, unimportant person. In music, in romance, in my husband's house -- everywhere, in fact, I've always been an unimportant person. When you come to think of it, Sonya, the truth is -- I'm really very, very unhappy. [Walks excitedly up and down] Happiness can never exist for me in this world. Never. Why do you laugh?

SONYA. [Laughing and covering her face with her hands] I am so happy, so happy!

HELENA. I want to play the piano now. I might play a little something now.

SONYA. Oh, do, do! [She embraces her] I couldn't possibly go to sleep now. Do play!

HELENA. In a minute. Your father is still awake. Music irritates him when he's ill, but if he says I may, then I'll play a little. Go, Sonya, and ask him.

SONYA. Very well.

[She goes out. The WATCHMAN'S rattle is heard in the garden.]

HELENA. It's a long time since I've played anything. And now, I'll sit and play, and cry like a silly girl. [Speaking out of the window] Is that you rattling out there, Yefim?


HELENA. Don't make such a noise. Your master is ill.

VOICE: OF THE WATCHMAN. I'm going away this minute. [Whistles a tune.] Hey you dogs, Zhuckha, Malchik!

SONYA. [Comes back] He says, no.

The curtain falls.



Watchman's rattle: Russian estates often had night watchmen. They tapped both to warn possible trespassers and to let their employer know they were awake. Typically, the tapping consisted of two strokes in two seconds, a five second pause, and then the sequence was repeated.

Nelly: lit., Lenochka, a pet name for Yelena (Helena)

Batyushkov's works: K. N. Batyushkov (1787-1855), Russian poet

Turgenev: I. S. Turgenev (1818-1883), famous Russian novelist

lime-flower tea: a Russian folk remedy

I can't think or feel: modern audiences, with a modern view of adultery, may consider Helena insincere here and thus disregard what she is saying, but it is more complex than that. Although she is falling in love, she cannot say it openly, since she is married to another. That is not to say that adultery was less common then, but it was not openly approved.

Barring the way: The doctor's crude persistence might not seem in character to modern audiences, but evidently this is exactly how Russian men behaved.

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