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Realism or Vanya

(For the purposes of this discussion we would like to use a narrow definition of the term
realism as: 1) A practical understanding and acceptance of the actual nature of the world, rather
than an idealized or romantic view of it. 2) In artistic and literary works, lifelike representation
of people and the world without any idealization.)
The center of this long-term project is the question of realism as style and its long and lasting
influence on the theatre of our time. Using the play Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov as the basic
material for this discussion, we would like to explore the topic of realistic representation on
stage and how it controlled and blocked the many other possibilities that the stage had to offer.
It is a mistake to assume that realism as a style is over and that many other styles and
techniques took its place. A quick look at our theatre stages will prove that realism is alive and
kicking and its influence is very much still visible. That influence is not limited to the text but it
can be seen in the style of acting, the directing and the sets. In Realism or Vanya we will use
therefore not only the text by Chekhov but in addition text by: Stanislavski, Ibsen, Strasberg,
Peter Brook, Brecht, Grotowski, Gertrude Stein, Artaud, Duchamp, Meyerhold and more. The
idea, in essence, is to juxtapose the theory with the practice, to put the play in the context of
theatre and performance in the late 20th and early 21st century.
Chekhov wrote: All I wanted was to say honestly to people: Have a look at yourselves and see
how bad and dreary your lives are! The important thing is that people should realize that, for
when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not
live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long
as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again: Please,
understand that your life is bad and dreary! Chekhovs reputation rests on his realism. Except
for the climactic ending of each act in Ivanov, (especially the last one), the plays gain their
tension and drama from the subtexts of people dispossessed of home, ideals, vigor and love.
His realism derives from his portraits of his characters lives in their entire daily minutia.
Shortly after Chekhovs death, in 1904, Tolstoy voiced a common feeling that plays like Uncle
Vanya and The Three Sisters werent quite dramas. To evoke a mood, he said in an interview,
you want a lyrical poem. Dramatic forms serve, and ought to serve, quite different aims. In a
dramatic work the author ought to deal with some problem that has yet to be solved and every
character in the play ought to solve it according to the idiosyncrasies of his own character.
But you wont find anything of the kind in Chekhov. In this criticism Tolstoy hit on exactly
those features that have made Chekhovs plays the fundamental works of modern drama. Like
lyric poems, they favor mood over plot; there is no overriding problem, and when problems
do appear, the playwright never seems to endorse any solutions. Chekhovs dramatic form
allowed him to present things on the stage just as complicated and just as simple as in real
life, as he famously wrote. People are sitting at a table having dinner, thats all, but at the
same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.

People are sitting at the table talking, doesnt it sound familiar? (Again, look at the theatre
around us). Like in real life is this the purpose of art/theatre to portray life in real and to
avoid any ornamentation; and if yes, how? Here we are arriving at the practice. How to make
the real real. The relationship between Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, co-founded by
Konstantin Stanislavsky and Chekhovs old friend Vladimar Nemirovich-Danchenko was to
prove hugely significant for both parties. For the author, it regenerated his interest in theatre
and his role in it. For the theater, not only did the success of their revival of The Seagull save
them from ruin but also Stanislavsky believed that Chekhovs work symbolized his ambitions
towards naturalism in the theatre. As the famous Russian actor-director Meyerhold points out,
this was not Chekhovs sole purpose.
Chekhov had come to visit a rehearsal of The Seagull (September 11, 1989) in the Moscow Art
Theatre. One of the actors told him that during the play frogs croaked backstage, dragonflies
hummed and dogs howled. What for? asked Anton. [Chekhov] sounding dissatisfied. Its
realistic, said the actor. Realistic, A.P. [Chekhov] repeated with a laugh. And then after a brief
pause, he remarked, the stage is art. In one of Kramskoys genre paintings he has some
magnificently drawn faces. What if we cut out the painted noses from one of these faces and
substituted a live one? The new nose would be real but the painting would be ruined.
So what is realism? Is it a minimal style clean of any effect, is it about people talking and we the
audience listen to their story, is it about mirroring the reality outside the performance space?
Because if it is, then the reality is far denser, it is so complex and intricate that it is difficult to
assimilate and understand. It is the question of density that is in opposition to Chekhov remarks
about people understanding their life. Dogs howl in real life, but in theatre it is too dense or in
other words unrealistic, or is it?
The Russian Formalists considered density (faktura) as one of the most important qualities in
their world of deliberately fabricated objects. The appropriately (i.e. creatively) deformed work
of art was supposed to reawaken the perceptual power of the audience and remind them of the
density present in the world around them. To help the audience, Victor Shklovskij, one of the
leading figures in this literary movement, proposed the strategy of making strange: the poetic
image was always to be put into a new and unexpected context where it might be seen as if for
the first time. Making strange is quite the opposite of like in real life but it is also a shift in
importance from people talking to people being/behaving. Density requires, first of all, the
leveling of all theatre elements. Each given sequence is the construction of a kind of art-object in
which all the elements performers, machines, words, space, time, noise, things serve as
variables, and stress is placed on the formal relationship of these variables. As a result, theatre
experience no longer depends upon the intellectual super-structures that we normally rely upon
to form our ideas and experience of the world and to match our experience with our
perceptions of reality. Our perception of the reality is what this long-term project is about.
Process structure

First installment Realism


All the elements of the play (characters, sets, props, moods, text) will be viewed form the point
of view of realism. They will be put in front of the audience and examined in accordance to their
similarity to real life. The presentation style will move from an installation, where the different
costumes and props will be presented and played with, to documentary style movies where the
life like reality will be shown. The acting style will follow the realistic tradition character
acting with attention to details and a full psychological motivation. The history of the play and
the different landmark productions of it will be discussed as well, in an effort to show how the
notion of realism changed over time.
Second installment Making strange
All the elements of the play will be put into a new and unexpected context and as far as
possible from realism. The acting area should be open to all the ambiguities, to all the multiple
impulses present in a given situation. The realistic theater is not designed to engage directly in
the basic self-contradictory nature of the human psyche. It can suggest it through a characters
behavior, but cannot play with it as a concrete motif in and of itself. In this installment the
contradictory will be center stage. Via the text the question of language and why it never
adequately expresses the true and complex quality of an internal impulse will be asked. The
staging will allow for a multitude of things to happen onstage which will recast the language of
the text, displace and expand it, and give it new meanings.
Third installment Making strange realism
The finding of parts one and two will come together in this installment to be presented as the
final piece.