Based on the copy-text Plays by Anton Tchekoff, translated from the Russian by Marian Fell, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916. Scanned by James Rusk. Translation revised and notes added 1998 by James Rusk and A. S. Man for this e-text. Any stage production or adaptation, amateur or professional, is hereby licensed free without special permission.
The play is also available here in a single large file, vanya.htm, as well as in a compressed file, vanya.zip. Please see the original text in Russian at the excellent pages of C. S. Kuhn. You may need to follow the hints on our Russian fonts page to display the correct Cyrillic fonts for that page.
By Anton Chekhov
Scenes from Country Life
in Four Acts
- ALEXANDER SEREBRYAKOV, a retired professor
- HELENA, his wife, twenty-seven years old
- SONYA, his daughter by a former marriage
- MME. VOYNITSKAYA, widow of a privy councilor, and mother of Serebryakov's first wife
- IVAN (VANYA) VOYNITSKY, her son
- MICHAEL ASTROV, a doctor
- ILYA (WAFFLES) TELEGIN, an impoverished landowner
- MARINA, an old nanny
- A WORKMAN
The scene is laid on SEREBRYAKOV'S country estate
A country house on a terrace. In front of it a garden. In an avenue of trees, under an old poplar, stands a table set for tea, with a samovar, etc. Some benches and chairs stand near the table. On one of them is lying a guitar. Near the table is a swing. It is three o'clock in the afternoon of a cloudy day.
MARINA, a stout, slow old woman, is sitting at the table knitting a stocking.
ASTROV is walking up and down near her.
MARINA. [Pouring some tea into a glass] Take a little tea, my son.
ASTROV. [Takes the glass from her unwillingly] Somehow, I don't seem to want any.
MARINA. Then will you have a little vodka instead?
ASTROV. No, I don't drink vodka every day, and besides, it's too hot now. [A pause] Tell me, Nanny, how long have we known each other?
MARINA. [Thoughtfully] Let me see, how long is it? Lord -- help me to remember. You first came here, into these parts -- let me think -- when was it? Sonya's mother was still alive -- it was two winters before she died; that was eleven years ago -- [thoughtfully] perhaps more.
ASTROV. Have I changed much since then?
MARINA. Oh, yes. You were handsome and young then, and now you're an old man and not handsome any more. You drink now, too.
ASTROV. Yes, ten years have made me another man. And why? Because I'm overworked. Nanny, I'm on my feet from dawn till dusk. I know no rest; at night I tremble under my blankets for fear of being dragged out to visit some one who is sick; I've toiled without repose or a day's freedom since I've known you; could I help growing old? And then, existence here is tedious, anyway; it's a senseless, dirty business, this life, and gets you down. Everyone about here is eccentric, and after living with them for two or three years one grows eccentric oneself. It's inevitable. [Twisting his moustache] See what a long moustache I've grown. A foolish, long moustache. Yes, I'm as eccentric as the rest, Nanny, but not as stupid; no, I haven't grown stupid. Thank God, my brain isn't addled yet, though my feelings have grown numb. I want nothing, I need nothing, I love no one, unless it is yourself alone. [He kisses her head] I had a nanny just like you when I was a child.
MARINA. Don't you want a bite of something to eat?
ASTROV. No. During the third week of Lent I went to the epidemic at Malitskoe. It was an outbreak of typhoid fever. The peasants were all lying side by side in their huts, and the calves and pigs were running about the floor among the sick. Such dirt there was, and smoke! Unspeakable! I slaved among those people all day, not a crumb passed my lips, but when I got home there was still no rest for me; a switchman was carried in from the railroad; I laid him on the operating table and he went and died in my arms under chloroform, and then my feelings that should've been deadened awoke again, my conscience tortured me as if I had killed the man. I sat down and closed my eyes -- like this -- and thought: will our descendants one or two hundred years from now, for whom we're clearing the way, remember to give us a kind word? No, Nanny, they'll forget us.
MARINA. Man is forgetful, but God remembers.
ASTROV. Thank you for that. You've spoken the truth.
Enter VOYNITSKY from the house. He has been asleep after dinner and looks rather dishevelled. He sits down on the bench and straightens his fancy tie.
VOYNITSKY. H'm. Yes. [A pause] Yes.
ASTROV. Have you been asleep?
VOYNITSKY. Yes, very much so. [He yawns] Ever since the Professor and his wife have come, our daily life seems to have jumped the track. I sleep at the wrong time, drink wine, and eat all sorts of fancy cooking for luncheon and dinner. It isn't wholesome. Sonya and I used to work together and never had an idle moment, but now Sonya works alone and I only eat and drink and sleep. Something is wrong.
MARINA. [Shaking her head] This house is topsy-turvy! The Professor gets up at noon, the samovar is kept boiling all the morning, and everything has to wait for him. Before they came we used to have dinner at one o'clock, like everybody else, but now we have it at seven. The Professor sits up all night writing and reading, and suddenly, at two o'clock, there goes the bell! Heavens, what's that? The Professor wants some tea! Wake the servants, light the samovar! Lord, how topsy-turvy!
ASTROV. Will they be here much longer?
VOYNITSKY. [Whistles] A hundred years! The Professor has decided to make his home here.
MARINA. Look at this now! The samovar has been on the table for two hours, and they're all out walking!
VOYNITSKY. All right, don't get excited; here they come.
Voices are heard approaching. SEREBRYAKOV, HELENA, SONYA, and TELEGIN come in from the depths of the garden, returning from their walk.
SEREBRYAKOV. Superb! Superb! What beautiful scenery!
TELEGIN. They are wonderful, your Excellency.
SONYA. Tomorrow we're going into the forest preserve. Want to come, papa?
VOYNITSKY. Ladies and gentlemen, tea is ready.
SEREBRYAKOV. Won't you please be good enough to send my tea into the study? I still have some work to finish.
SONYA. I am sure you'll love the forest preserve.
HELENA, SEREBRYAKOV, and SONYA go into the house. TELEGIN sits down at the table beside MARINA.
VOYNITSKY. There goes our "learned scholar" on a hot, sultry day like this, in his overcoat, galoshes, carrying an umbrella and wearing gloves!
ASTROV. He's trying to take good care of his health.
VOYNITSKY. How lovely Helena is! How lovely! I have never in my life seen a more beautiful woman.
TELEGIN. Do you know, Marina, that as I walk in the fields or in the shady garden, as I look at this table here, my heart swells with unbounded happiness. The weather is enchanting, the birds are singing, we are all living in peace and contentment -- what more could the soul desire? [Takes a glass of tea.] Much obliged to you -- much obliged.
VOYNITSKY. [Dreamily] Such eyes -- a glorious woman!
ASTROV. Come, Ivan, tell us something.
VOYNITSKY. [Indolently] What do you want me to say?
ASTROV. Haven't you any news for us?
VOYNITSKY. No, it is all stale. I am just the same as usual, or perhaps worse, because I've become lazy. I don't do anything now but croak like an old raven. My mother, the old magpie, is still chattering about the emancipation of women, with one eye on her grave and the other on her learned books, in which she's always looking for the dawn of a new life.
ASTROV. And the Professor?
VOYNITSKY. The Professor sits in his study from morning till night, as usual and writes, as the poet says --
"Straining the mind, wrinkling the brow,
We write, write, write,
Or hope of praise in the future or now."
Poor paper! He ought to write his autobiography; he would make a really splendid subject for a book! Imagine it, the life of a retired professor, as stale as a piece of hardtack, tortured by gout, headaches, and rheumatism, his liver bursting with jealousy and envy, living on the estate of his first wife, although he hates it, because he can't afford to live in town. He is everlastingly whining about his hard lot, though, as a matter of fact, he is extraordinarily lucky. [Agitated] Only think what luck he's had! He's the son of a common deacon and has attained the professor's chair, become the son-in-law of a senator, is called "your Excellency," and so on. But I'll tell you something; the man has been writing on art for twenty-five years, and he doesn't know the very first thing about it. For twenty-five years he has been chewing on other men's thoughts about realism, naturalism, and all such foolishness; for twenty-five years he has been reading and writing things that clever men have long known and stupid ones are not interested in; for twenty-five years he has been making his imaginary mountains out of molehills. And just think of the man's self-conceit and presumption all this time! For twenty-five years he has been masquerading in false clothes and has now retired absolutely unknown to any living soul; and yet see him! stalking across the earth like a demi-god!
ASTROV. I believe you envy him.
VOYNITSKY. Yes, I do. Look at the success he's had with women! Don Juan himself wasn't more favoured. His first wife, who was my sister, was a beautiful, gentle being, as pure as the blue heaven there above us, noble, great-hearted, with more admirers than he has pupils, and she loved him as only beings of angelic purity can love those who are as pure and beautiful as themselves. His mother-in-law, my mother, adores him to this day, and he still inspires a sort of worshipful awe in her. His second wife is, as you see, a beautiful, intelligent woman; she married him in his old age and has surrendered all the glory of her beauty and freedom and youth to him. Why? What for?
ASTROV. Is she faithful to him?
VOYNITSKY. Yes, unfortunately she is.
ASTROV. Why unfortunately?
VOYNITSKY. Because such fidelity is false and unnatural, root and branch. It sounds well, but there's no logic in it. It's thought immoral for a woman to deceive an old husband whom she hates, but quite moral for her to strangle her poor youth in her breast and banish every spark of life from her heart.
TELEGIN. [In a tearful voice] Vanya, I don't like to hear you talk so. Listen, Vanya; every one who betrays husband or wife is an unfaithful person, and could also betray his country.
VOYNITSKY. [Crossly] Turn off the tap, Waffles.
TELEGIN. No, allow me, Vanya. My wife ran away with a lover on the day after our wedding, because my face was unattractive. I have never failed in my duty since then. I love her and am true to her to this day. I help her all I can and have given my fortune to educate the children of herself and her lover. I have forfeited my happiness, but I have kept my pride. And she? Her youth has fled, her beauty has faded according to the laws of nature, and her lover is dead. What has she kept?
HELENA and SONYA come in; after them comes MME. VOYNITSKAYA carrying a book. She sits down and begins to read. Some one hands her a glass of tea which she drinks without looking up.
SONYA. [Hurriedly, to MARINA] Nanny, dear, there are some peasants waiting out there. Go and see what they want. I'll pour the tea. [Pours out some glasses of tea.]
MARINA goes out. HELENA takes a glass and sits drinking in the swing.
ASTROV. [To HELENA] I've come to see your husband. You wrote me that he had rheumatism and I don't know what else, and that he was very ill, but he appears to be as lively as a cricket.
HELENA. He had a fit of the blues yesterday evening and complained of pains in his legs, but he seems all right again today.
ASTROV. And I galloped over here twenty miles at break-neck speed! No matter, though, it's not the first time. Once here, however, I'm going to stay until tomorrow, and at any rate sleep well -- quantum satis.
SONYA. Oh, splendid! You so seldom spend the night with us. Have you had dinner yet?
ASTROV. No, I haven't.
SONYA. Good. So you will have it with us. We dine at seven now. [Drinks her tea] This tea is cold!
TELEGIN. Yes, the temperature in the samovar has indeed considerably diminished.
HELENA. Don't mind, Monsieur Ivan, we will drink cold tea, then.
TELEGIN. I beg your pardon, my name is not Ivan, but Ilya, ma'am -- Ilya Telegin, or Waffles, as I am sometimes called on account of my pock-marked face. I am Sonya's godfather, and his Excellency, your husband, knows me very well. I now live with you, ma'am, on this estate, and perhaps you will be so good as to notice that I dine with you every day.
SONYA. He's our great help, our right-hand man. [Tenderly] Dear godfather, let me pour you some tea.
MME. VOYNITSKAYA. Oh! Oh!
SONYA. What is it, grandmother?
MME. VOYNITSKAYA. I forgot to tell Alexander -- it slipped my mind -- I received a letter today from Paul Alexevitch in Kharkov. He has sent me a new pamphlet.
ASTROV. Is it interesting?
MME. VOYNITSKAYA. Yes, but strange. He refutes the very theories which he defended seven years ago. It is appalling!
VOYNITSKY. There's nothing appalling about it. Drink your tea, mamma.
MME. VOYNITSKAYA. But I want to talk.
VOYNITSKY. For fifty years we've talked and talked and read pamphlets. It's about time we stopped.
MME. VOYNITSKAYA. It seems you never want to listen to what I have to say. Pardon me, Jean, but you have changed so in the last year that I hardly know you. You used to be a man of settled convictions and had an illuminating personality ---
VOYNITSKY. Oh, yes. I had an illuminating personality, which illuminated no one. [A pause] I had an illuminating personality! You couldn't have made a more bitter joke. I'm forty-seven years old. Until last year I endeavoured, as you do now, to blind my eyes by your pedantry to the truths of life. But now -- Oh, if you only knew! If you knew how I lie awake at night, heartsick and angry, to think how stupidly I've wasted my time when I might have been winning from life everything -- but now I'm too old.
SONYA. Uncle Vanya, how boring!
MME. VOYNITSKAYA. [To her son] You speak as if your former convictions were somehow to blame, but you yourself, not they, are at fault. You have forgotten that a conviction, in itself, is nothing but a dead letter. You should have done something.
VOYNITSKY. Done something! Not every man is capable of being a writer perpetuum mobile like your Herr Professor.
MME. VOYNITSKAYA. What do you mean by that?
SONYA. [Imploringly] Grandmother! Uncle Vanya! Please stop it!
VOYNITSKY. I am silent. I apologise and am silent. [A pause.]
HELENA. What a fine day! Not too hot. [A pause.]
VOYNITSKY. A fine day to hang oneself.
TELEGIN tunes the guitar. MARINA appears near the house, calling the chickens.
MARINA. Chick, chick, chick!
SONYA. What did the peasants want, Nanny?
MARINA. The same old thing, the same old nonsense about the waste land. Chick, chick, chick!
SONYA. Why are you calling the chickens?
MARINA. The speckled hen has disappeared with her chicks. I'm afraid the crows have got them. [Walks away]
TELEGIN plays a polka. All listen in silence. Enter WORKMAN.
WORKMAN. Is the doctor here? [To ASTROV] Excuse me, sir, but I've been sent to fetch you.
ASTROV. Where are you from?
WORKMAN. The factory.
ASTROV. [Annoyed] Thank you. There is no way out, I've got to go. [Looking around him for his cap] Damn it, this is annoying!
SONYA. Yes, it's too bad, really. You must come back to dinner when you're finished at the factory.
ASTROV. No, I won't be able to do that. It'll be too late. Now where, where -- [To the WORKMAN] Look here, my man, get me a glass of vodka, will you? [The WORKMAN goes out] Where -- where -- [Finds his cap] One of the characters in Ostrovsky's plays is a man with a long moustache and thin wits, like me. However, let me bid you good-bye, ladies and gentlemen. [To HELENA] I should be really delighted if you would come to see me some day with Miss Sonya. My estate is small, a little more than eighty acres, but if you are interested in such things I should like to show you a nursery and seed bed whose like you will not find within a thousand miles of here. My place is surrounded by government forests. The forester is old and always ailing, so I superintend almost all the work myself.
HELENA. I have always heard that you were very fond of the woods. Of course one can do a great deal of good by helping to preserve them, but does not that work interfere with your real occupation? You are a doctor, after all.
ASTROV. God alone knows what a man's real occupation is.
HELENA. And do you find it interesting?
ASTROV. Yes, very.
VOYNITSKY. [Sarcastically] Oh, extremely!
HELENA. You're still young, not over thirty-six or seven, I should say, and I suspect that the woods don't interest you as much as you say they do. Nothing but tree after tree -- I should think you would find them monotonous.
SONYA. No, the work is very interesting. Dr. Astrov watches over the old woods and sets out new forests every year, and he has already received a diploma and a bronze medal. If you'll listen to what he can tell you, you'll agree with him entirely. He says that forests are the ornaments of the earth, that they teach mankind to understand beauty and attune his mind to lofty sentiments. Forests temper a stern climate, and in countries where the climate is milder, less strength is wasted in the battle with nature, and the people are kind and gentle. The inhabitants of such countries are handsome, tractable, sensitive, graceful in speech and gesture. Their philosophy is joyous, art and science blossom among them, their treatment of women is full of exquisite nobility ---
VOYNITSKY. [Laughing] Bravo! Bravo! All that's very pretty, but it's also unconvincing. So, my friend [To ASTROV] you must let me go on burning firewood in my stoves and building my sheds of planks.
ASTROV. You can burn peat in your stoves and build your sheds of stone. Oh, I don't object, of course, to cutting wood from necessity, but why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever. And why? Because men are too lazy and stupid to stoop down and pick up their fuel from the ground. [To HELENA] Am I not right, Madame? Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove and destroy that which he cannot make? Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the wild life is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day. [To VOYNITSKY] I see irony in your look; you don't take what I am saying seriously, and -- and -- after all, it may very well be nonsense. But when I pass village forests that I have preserved from the axe, or hear the rustling of the young trees set out with my own hands, I feel as if I had had some small share in improving the climate, and that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I'll have been a little bit responsible for their happiness. When I plant a little birch tree and then see it budding into young green and swaying in the wind, my heart swells with pride and I -- [Sees the WORKMAN, who is bringing him a glass of vodka on a tray] however -- [He drinks] I must be off. Probably it's all nonsense, anyway. Good-bye.
He goes toward the house. SONYA takes his arm and goes with him.
SONYA. When are you coming to see us again?
ASTROV. I can't say.
SONYA. Not for a month again?
ASTROV and SONYA go into the house. MME. VOYNITSKAYA and TELEGIN remain near the table. HELENA and VOYNITSKY walk over to the terrace.
HELENA. You have behaved shockingly again. Ivan, what sense was there in teasing your mother and talking about perpetuum mobile? And at lunch you quarreled with Alexander again. Really, your behaviour is too petty.
VOYNITSKY. But what if I hate him?
HELENA. You hate Alexander without reason; he's like every one else, and no worse than you are.
VOYNITSKY. If you could only see your face, the way you move! Oh, how tedious your life must be, absolutely tedious.
HELENA. It is tedious, yes, and boring! You all abuse my husband and look on me with compassion; you think, "Poor woman, she's married to an old man." How well I understand your compassion! As Astrov said just now, see how you thoughtlessly destroy the forests, so that there will soon be none left. So you also destroy mankind, and soon loyalty and purity and self-sacrifice will have vanished with the woods. Why cannot you look calmly at a woman unless she is yours? Because, the doctor was right, you are all possessed by a devil of destruction; you have no mercy on the woods or the birds or on women or on one another.
VOYNITSKY. I don't like your philosophy.
HELENA. That doctor has a sensitive, weary face -- an interesting face. Sonya evidently likes him, and she's in love with him, and I can understand it. This is the third time he's been here since I have come, and I haven't had a real talk with him yet or made much of him. He thinks I'm disagreeable. Do you know, Ivan, the reason you and I are such friends? I think it's because we are both boring and tedious. Yes, tedious. Don't look at me in that way, I don't like it.
VOYNITSKY. How can I look at you otherwise when I love you? You are my joy, my life, and my youth. I know that my chances of being loved in return are infinitely small, don't exist, but I ask nothing of you. Only let me look at you, listen to your voice --
HELENA. Hush, some one will overhear you.
[They go toward the house.]
VOYNITSKY. [Following her] Let me speak to you of my love, don't drive me away, and this alone will be my greatest happiness!
HELENA. Ah! This is agony! [Both go into the house.]
TELEGIN strikes the strings of his guitar and plays a polka. MME. VOYNITSKAYA writes something on the margins of her pamphlet.
The curtain falls.
Following notes are by James Rusk and A. S. Man, 1998:
Vanya is a familiar diminutive of the Russian name Ivan -- the title's English equivalent would be "Uncle Johnny."
privy councilor: a high rank in the Russian civil service
Nanny, nurse: nyanka, a pet name for a female nurse or nanny
Sonya's mother: lit. Sonechka, a pet name for Sonya; her mother's name was Vera Petrovna, but modern English adaptations of the play don't need to use the name and patronymic as in Russian.
typhoid: Fell uses "eruptive typhoid", while some other translators have "typhus" here. They are two different diseases, but both epidemic. It makes no difference to the play which it really was.
Straining the mind...: From the poem "Other People's Views" (1794) by I. I. Dmitriyev (1760-1837)
I've come to see your husband. It was very impolite of the family to ignore the doctor's presence for so long, a point not lost on a Russian audience.
quantum satis: As much as needed (prescription terminology); still used today but more likely abbreviated as "q.s." or replaced by the similar Latin "p.r.n."
Pardon me, Jean...: "Jean" is the French version of "Ivan." The Russian upper class spoke French among themselves extensively in the early 19th century, but by the time of this play (1896) using French was considered pretentious.
perpetuum mobile: non-stop