“We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.” -Anton Chekhov
This summer marks the 110th anniversary of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s death (he died July 15, 1904), and the 115th anniversary of the debut of the play Uncle Vanya, one of his most popular works.
One of the greatest authors and dramatists, Chekhov loathed despotism and liars. His traumas arose from a materially deprived and stern youth rife with paternal abuse and financial misfortune through which he witnessed first-hand how random vicissitudes could so suddenly finish someone’s life. This became an obsession that would characterize Chekhov’s search for purpose through literature. “Medicine is my lawful wife,” he once said, “and literature is my mistress.”
Uncle Vanya, which premiered by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, was first adapted for the screen in an American translation in 1957 by a bravely committed Franchot Tone, whose fourth wife Dolores Dorn played Elena Andreevna in the film. Tone invested his savings, $250,000, in this complicated production which he co-directed with John Goetz. Tone’s aim was to replicate his Obie-winning 1956 Off-Broadway performance of Uncle Vanya, bringing the same cast to the screen (except for Signe Hasso who had played Elena on stage).
Sadly, the film disappeared for 53 years, finally released on DVD in June 2011. Despite Tone’s disappointment over the lukewarm reception of Uncle Vanya when the film opened at the Baronet Theater in New York, his fascination with Chekhov’s classic drama about a country doctor’s unrequited love would make a notable difference in his career. Variety magazine qualified it “probably the best work Tone has ever done.” The Village Voice in 1958 termed Tone’s performance “highly intelligent and sympathetic, maybe the best thing he’s ever done,” and The Age newspaper affirmed that Tone’s film represented a “painstakingly accurate translation,” “a literal photograph of a stage play,” and “undistilled Chekhov.”
Ironically, Chekhov (unlike Dostoyevsky) considered most of his plays disguised comedies, and Tone’s character Dr. Mikhail Lvovich Astroff was actually the playwright himself. Tone thought of Uncle Vanya as “Chekhov’s best comedy.”
However, The Age‘s critic Nigel Jackson called Chekhov “the supreme master of disappointment in European literature.” That special blend of failed dreams, ordinary sadness, and comedic stoicism defined Chekhov’s fulminant vision: “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?” Dr. Astroff asks Sofia (Peggy McCay) hopefully. That final impulse to accept bitter truths and simply to keep going is displayed in the last Act by the splendid Peggy McCay. Her character has been in love with Dr. Astroff for a long time and she learns she’s not his ideal woman.
George Voskovec in the title role (Voinitsky/Uncle Vanya) is equally excellent, particularly in his most desperate moments. This central character has served Professor Serebriakoff (Clarence Derwent) all his life and now feels emotionally drained and betrayed, his spirit devastated in the face of his impossible love for Serebriakoff’s wife Elena.
Having said that, this is Franchot Tone’s film, especially because Tone connects to Chekhov’s and Astroff’s high level, not only in his astounding characterization, but also in a deeper personal sense. Although Laurence Olivier famously played Dr. Astroff (along with Michael Redgrave as Vanya) in a later film version (1963) and Olivier was beyond brilliant, Tone’s heartfelt rendition hits harder and more lastingly.
What lay behind Tone’s long-standing infatuation with Uncle Vanya?
Chekhov’s outlook on relationships and Tone’s crumbled marriages share a nexus through the character of Dr. Astroff, who, as the play’s philosopher, observes in Act I that new generations of people forget the great achievements of the past, and that life is “a senseless, dirty business, and goes heavily.” Yet he also remarks in a contradictory speech that “I feel that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I will have been a little bit responsible for their happiness.”
Similarly, Franchot Tone expressed in 1936: “I’m optimistic enough to believe the perfect state actually exists somewhere. We’ll have universal plenty in a few hundred years, only I won’t be here to see it… You can’t tell me that sometime I won’t find a Pitcairn’s Island. No taxes, no money, no politics. I’ve dreamed about a place like that since I was old enough to read Sir Thomas More.”
A similar wounded idealism is reflected in Astroff’s tirade of disenchantment:
“Everyone about here is silly, and after living with them for two or three years one grows silly oneself. It is inevitable. Yes, I am as silly as the rest, nurse, but not as stupid. Thank God, my brain is not addled yet, though my feelings have grown numb.”
Franchot Tone often felt the same alienation in Hollywood’s star factory. In Act III Astroff deplores the increasing destruction of wildlife, “an unmistakable picture of gradual decay,” as a metaphor for an untenable future in store for a neglectful mankind. Astroff relates how his sentiments have become dead to the world, how he no longer loves anyone. This numbness is tantamount to a kind of anesthesia, and he gets his “feelings back again” only when one of his patients dies. Astroff confesses: “I was tortured so much by my conscience I felt that I’d deliberately killed him.”
We could argue that Astroff, at the instant of “killing” (accidentally) an anesthetized patient, is trying to eliminate his own anesthetized self in order to feel something again, albeit a feeling of guilt. The occasionally destructive fights between Tone and his wives (starting with his physical and verbal abuse of Joan Crawford) indicate how the actor may have seen himself reflected in Astroff’s (and by extention Chekhov’s) anguished soliloquies. Uncle Vanya‘s characters are trapped in their insufficient existences and harbor permanent resentment towards those around them, blaming each other for their shortcomings, at some moments utterly drowned in their narcissisms. Tone was frequently resentful during his seven years as a contract player at MGM, usually pigeonholed as blasé gentleman.
In Act III Sofia says that her father’s provincial state is going to “rack and ruin” and describes Elena’s idleness as “infectious.” More ominously, in Act IV Astroff casts Elena as a harbinger of disaster, precipitating the ruin of both the household and the forests.
In addition, Astroff is stubbornly convinced of Elena’s desire for him, although she appears terribly bored by his oratory. Astroff passionately kisses Elena and she momentarily relents, but untimely Vanya catches them in the act. This scene is profoundly erotic in the film because of the natural chemistry between Tone and his then wife Dolores Dorn who, despite lacking Signe Hasso’s gravity, is very effective in her role, so much so that she was to win “Best Actress” at the San Francisco Film Festival).
Chekhov had been a bit of a philanderer and was labeled “Russia’s most elusive literary bachelor” from his favoring of liaisons with prostitutes. In 1901 he had married Olga Knipper, a young actress whom he had first met at rehearsals for The Seagull and who would act in his plays regularly. During the winters Olga stayed in Moscow alone.
Anton Chekhov died in 1904 of tuberculosis. Franchot Tone would die of lung cancer in 1968. Astroff’s fixation on beautiful women (“I am not capable of loving any one, I only love beauty”) mirrors exactly Chekhov’s, and, by the same token, Tone loved feminine beauty in almost a purist way, pursuing Barbara Payton despite her mental instability. Likewise, in the film Astroff ignores his responsibilities towards his sick patients and his duty to replant trees. Instead, he begins to drink heavily as he plans to seduce Elena.
Dolores Dorn reminisces in her autobiographical Letter from a Hollywood Starlet (2013) how in Tone’s pronounced alcoholism (exacerbated by his incapability of finding a distributor for Uncle Vanya in Europe) he succumbed to enraged reproaches and accusations of infidelity against her, almost veering into a Jekyll/ Hyde duality.
When not affected by ebriety, Tone was an impeccably charming partner and friend, and what struck me the most about Dolores’ memoirs was the depiction of Tone’s nervous breakdown when he didn’t manage to find any alternative to overcome his art’s helplessness. Vanya talks about art too, corrosively denouncing Professor Serebriakoff’s hypocrisy: “You write about art, but you don’t understand the first thing about art. All those works of yours which I once loved so much are not worth a penny.”
In America, Chekhov’s importance increased with the implantation of Stanislavski’s system of acting and its notion of subtext: “Chekhov often expressed his thought not in speeches but in pauses,” wrote Stanislavski. The Group Theatre (co-founded by Franchot Tone) developed specifically the subtextual approach to drama, influencing generations of American actors and playwrights such as Stella Adler and Clifford Odets, and among them Franchot Tone’s lifelong friends the theater pioneers Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg.
Uncle Vanya takes place during a vatic and memorable autumn day. The malaise and the purity of our dreams are both all there, conjured by Chekhov, Vanya, and Franchot Tone. Summer will pass and we won’t escape the arrival of autumn.