Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov

Act 2

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

Serebrakoff. [Rousing himself] Who is here? Is it you, Sonia?

Helena. It is I.

Serebrakoff. 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.

Serebrakoff. 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.]

Serebrakoff. I want you to look for Batushka’s works in the library to-morrow. I think we have him.

Helena. What is that?

Serebrakoff. Look for Batushka to-morrow morning; we used to have him, I remember. Why do I find it so hard to breathe?

Helena. You are tired; this is the second night you have had no sleep.

Serebrakoff. They say that Turgenieff 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.

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

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

Serebrakoff. 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 dotard, almost a dead man 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 are overtaxing my powers of endurance. Be quiet, for God’s sake!

Serebrakoff. It appears that, thanks to me, everybody’s power of endurance is being overtaxed; everybody is miserable, only I am blissfully triumphant. Oh, yes, of course!

Helena. Be quiet! You are torturing me.

Serebrakoff. I torture everybody. Of course.

Helena. [Weeping] This is unbearable! Tell me, what is it you want me to do?

Serebrakoff. Nothing.

Helena. Then be quiet, please.

Serebrakoff. 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 deserved 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 is rising, I must shut the window. [She shuts it] We shall have rain in a moment. Your rights have never been questioned by anybody.

The WATCHMAN in the garden sounds his rattle.

Serebrakoff. 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 cannot stand it! It is more than I can bear. And you will not even forgive me for being old!

Helena. Wait, have patience; I shall he old myself in four or five years.

Sonia comes in.

Sonia. Father, you sent for Dr. Astroff, and now when he comes you refuse to see him. It is not nice to give a man so much trouble for nothing.

Serebrakoff. What do I care about your Astroff? He understands medicine about as well as I understand astronomy.

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

Serebrakoff. I won’t talk to that madman!

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

Serebrakoff. What time is it?

Helena. One o’clock.

Serebrakoff. It is stifling in here. Sonia, hand me that bottle on the table.

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

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

Sonia. Please don’t be captious with me. Some people may like it, but you must spare me, if you please, because I don’t. Besides, I haven’t the time; we are cutting the hay to-morrow and I must get up early.

Voitski comes in dressed in a long gown and carrying a candle.

Voitski. A thunderstorm is coming up. [The lightning flashes] There it is! Go to bed, Helena and Sonia. I have come to take your place.

Serebrakoff. [Frightened] No, no, no! Don’t leave me alone with him! Oh, don’t. He will begin to lecture me.

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

Serebrakoff. 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 —-

Voitski. Our former friendship! Our former —-

Sonia. Hush, Uncle Vanya!

Serebrakoff. [To his wife] My darling, don’t leave me alone with him. He will begin to lecture me.

Voitski. This is ridiculous.

Marina comes in carrying a candle.

Sonia. You must go to bed, nurse, it is late.

Marina. I haven’t cleared away the tea things. Can’t go to bed yet.

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

Marina. [Goes up to Serebrakoff 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 have had this illness such a long time. Sonia’s dead 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 Serebrakoff’S shoulder] Come, master, let me give you some linden-tea and warm your poor feet for you. I shall pray to God for you.

Serebrakoff. [Touched] Let us go, Marina.

Marina. My own feet are aching so badly, oh, so badly! [She and Sonia lead Serebrakoff out] Sonia’ s mother used to wear herself out with sorrow and weeping. You were still little and foolish then, Sonia. Come, come, master.

Serebrakoff, Sonia and Marina go out.

Helena. I am absolutely exhausted by him, and can hardly stand.

Voitski. You are exhausted by him, and I am exhausted by my own self. I have not slept for three nights.

Helena. Something is wrong in this house. Your mother hates everything but her pamphlets and the professor; the professor is vexed, he won’t trust me, and fears you; Sonia is angry with her father, and with me, and hasn’t spoken to me for two weeks; I am at the end of my strength, and have come near bursting into tears at least twenty times to-day. Something is wrong in this house.

Voitski. Leave speculating alone.

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 this spiteful tattling. It is your duty to make peace, and not to growl at everything.

Voitski. Help me first to make peace with myself. My darling! [Seizes her hand.]

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

Voitski. Soon the rain will be over, and all nature will sigh and awake refreshed. Only I am 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 is to become of 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 am as it were benumbed 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!

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

Helena. [Looking at him intently] Ivan, you are drunk!

Voitski. Perhaps. Perhaps.

Helena. Where is the doctor?

Voitski. In there, spending the night with me. Perhaps I am drunk, perhaps I am; nothing is impossible.

Helena. Have you just been drinking together? Why do you do that?

Voitski. Because in that way I get a taste of life. Let me do it, Helena!

Helena. You never used to drink, and you never used to talk so much. Go to bed, I am tired of you.

Voitski. [Falling on his knees before her] My sweetheart. my beautiful one —-

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

Helena goes out. A pause.

Voitski. [Alone] She is gone! I met her first ten years ago, at her sister’s house, when she was seventeen and I was thirty-seven. Why did I not fall in love with her then and propose to her? It would have been so easy! And now she would have been my wife. Yes, we would both have been waked to-night by the thunderstorm, and she would have been frightened, but I would have held her in my arms and whispered: “Don’t be afraid! I am 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 —— [A pause] Oh, how I have been deceived! For years I have worshipped that miserable gout-ridden professor. Sonia and I have squeezed this estate dry for his sake. We have bartered our butter and curds and peas like misers, and have never kept a morsel for ourselves, so that we could scrape enough pennies together to send to him. I was proud of him and of his learning; I received all his words and writings as inspired, and now? Now he has retired, and what is the total of his life? A blank! He is absolutely unknown, and his fame has burst like a soap-bubble. I have been deceived; I see that now, basely deceived.

Astroff comes in. He has his coat on, but is without his waistcoat or collar, and is slightly drunk. Telegin follows him, carrying a guitar.

Astroff. Play!

Telegin. But every one is asleep.

Astroff. Play!

Telegin begins to play softly.

Astroff. Are you alone here? No women about? [Sings 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?

Voitski. The devil only knows.

Astroff. I thought I heard Helena’s voice.

Voitski. She was here a moment ago.

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

Voitski. He is really ill.

Astroff. What is the matter with you to-night? You seem sad. Is it because you are sorry for the professor?

Voitski. Leave me alone.

Astroff. Or in love with the professor’s wife?

Voitski. She is my friend.

Astroff. Already?

Voitski. What do you mean by “already”?

Astroff. A woman can only become a man’s friend after having first been his acquaintance and then his beloved — then she becomes his friend.

Voitski. What vulgar philosophy!

Astroff. What do you mean? Yes, I must confess I am getting vulgar, but then, you see, I am drunk. I usually only drink like this once a month. At such times my audacity and temerity 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 am no longer a poor fool of a doctor, but mankind’s greatest benefactor. 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.

Astroff. Play!

Telegin plays softly.

Astroff. I want a drink. Come, we still have some brandy left. And then, as soon as it is day, you will come home with me. [He sees Sonia, who comes in at that moment.]

Astroff. I beg your pardon, I have no collar on.

[He goes out quickly, followed by Telegin.]

Sonia. Uncle Vanya, you and the doctor have been drinking! The good fellows have been getting together! It is all very well for him, he has always done it, but why do you follow his example? It looks dreadfully at your age.

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

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

Voitski. 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!

Sonia. If she only knew what, Uncle?

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

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

Astroff. [Behind the door] In a moment.

He appears in a few seconds. He has put on his collar and waistcoat.

Astroff. What do you want?

Sonia. Drink as much as you please yourself if you don’t find it revolting, but I implore you not to let my uncle do it. It is bad for him.

Astroff. Very well; we won’t drink any more. I am going home at once. That is settled. It will be dawn by the time the horses are harnessed.

Sonia. It is still raining; wait till morning.

Astroff. The storm is 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. To-day he refused to see me at all.

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

Astroff. Yes, please. I believe I will.

Sonia. I love to eat at night. I am 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 is some cheese for you.

[They stand eating by the sideboard.]

Astroff. I haven’t eaten anything to-day. Your father has a very difficult nature. [He takes a bottle out of the sideboard] May I? [He pours himself a glass of vodka] We are alone here, and I can speak frankly. Do you know, I could not stand living in this house for even a month? This atmosphere would stifle me. There is your father, entirely absorbed in his books, and his gout; there is your Uncle Vanya with his hypochondria, your grandmother, and finally, your step-mother —

Sonia. What about her?

Astroff. A human being should be entirely beautiful: 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 is all. She has no responsibilities, everything is done for her — am I not right? And an idle life can never be a pure one. [A pause] However, I may be judging her too severely. Like your Uncle Vanya, I am discontented, and so we are both grumblers.

Sonia. Aren’t you satisfied with life?

Astroff. I like life as life, but I hate and despise it in a little Russian country village, and as far as my own personal life goes, by heaven! there is 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, that you know — as no one else in the country works. Fate beats me on without rest; at times I suffer unendurably and I see no light ahead. I have no hope; I do not like people. It is long since I have loved any one.

Sonia. You love no one?

Astroff. Not a soul. I only feel a sort of tenderness for your old nurse for old-times’ sake. The peasants are all alike; they are 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 are dull. Those that have brains 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. I like the woods; that is strange. I don’t eat meat; that is strange, too. Simple, natural relations between man and man or man and nature do not exist. [He tries to go out; Sonia prevents him.]

Sonia. I beg you, I implore you, not to drink any more!

Astroff. Why not?

Sonia. It is so unworthy of you. You are well-bred, your voice is sweet, you are even — more than any one I know — handsome. Why do you want to resemble the common people that drink and play cards? Oh, don’t, I beg you! You always say that people do not 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!

Astroff. [Gives her his hand] I won’t drink any more.

Sonia. Promise me.

Astroff. I give you my word of honour.

Sonia. [Squeezing his hand] Thank you.

Astroff. I have done with it. You see, I am 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 am old, I am tired, I am trivial; 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 is not love, that is not affection —

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

Sonia. What is it?

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

Sonia. It is 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?

Astroff. [Shrugging his shoulders] I don’t know. I don’t think I should do anything. I should make her understand that I could not return her love — however, my mind is not bothered about those things now. I must start at once if I am ever to get off. Good-bye, my dear girl. At this rate we shall stand here talking till morning. [He shakes hands with her] I shall go out through the sitting-room, because I am afraid your uncle might detain me. [He goes out.]

Sonia. [Alone] Not a word! His heart and soul are still locked from me, and yet for some reason I am strangely happy. I wonder why? [She laughs with pleasure] I told him that he was well-bred and handsome and that his voice was sweet. Was that a mistake? I can still feel his voice vibrating in the air; it caresses me. [Wringing her hands] Oh! how terrible it is to be plain! I am plain, I know it. As I came out of church last Sunday I overheard a woman say, “She is a dear, noble girl, but what a pity she is so ugly!” So ugly!

Helena comes in and throws open the window.

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

Sonia. He has gone. [A pause.]

Helena. Sonia!

Sonia. Yes?

Helena. How much longer are you going to sulk at me? We have not hurt each other. Why not be friends? We have had enough of this.

Sonia. I myself — [She embraces Helena] Let us make peace.

Helena. With all my heart. [They are both moved.]

Sonia. 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] Who left the sideboard open?

Sonia. Dr. Astroff has just had supper.

Helena. There is some wine. Let us seal our friendship.

Sonia. Yes, let us.

Helena. Out of one glass. [She fills a wine-glass] So, we are friends, are we?

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

Helena. Why are you crying?

Sonia. I don’t know. It is nothing.

Helena. There, there, don’t cry. [She weeps] Silly! Now I am crying too. [A pause] You are angry with me because I seem to have married your father for his money, but don’t believe the gossip you hear. I swear to you 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 am innocent, and yet your clever, suspicious eyes have been punishing me for an imaginary crime ever since my marriage.

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

Helena. You must not look so at people. It is not becoming to you. You must trust people, or life becomes impossible.

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

Helena. Truly, no.

Sonia. I knew it. One more question: do you wish your husband were young?

Helena. What a child you are! Of course I do. Go on, ask something else.

Sonia. Do you like the doctor?

Helena. Yes, very much indeed.

Sonia. [Laughing] I have a stupid face, haven’t I? He has 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 cannot speak of it so loudly. I am ashamed. Come to my room and let me tell you there. I seem foolish to you, don’t I? Talk to me of him.

Helena. What can I say?

Sonia. He is clever. He can do everything. He can cure the sick, and plant woods.

Helena. It is not a question of medicine and woods, my dear, he is a man of genius. Do you know what that means? It means he is brave, profound, and of clear insight. 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 loved. 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 Sonia] I wish you happiness with all my heart; you deserve it. [She gets up] As for me, I am a worthless, futile woman. I have always been futile; in music, in love, in my husband’s house — in a word, in everything. When you come to think of it, Sonia, I am really very, very unhappy. [Walks excitedly up and down] Happiness can never exist for me in this world. Never. Why do you laugh?

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

Helena. I want to hear music. I might play a little.

Sonia. Oh, do, do! [She embraces her] I could not possibly go to sleep now. Do play!

Helena. Yes, I will. Your father is still awake. Music irritates him when he is ill, but if he says I may, then I shall play a little. Go, Sonia, and ask him.

Sonia. Very well.

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

Helena. It is long since I have heard music. And now, I shall sit and play, and weep like a fool. [Speaking out of the window] Is that you rattling out there, Ephim?

Voice of the Watchman. It is I.

Helena. Don’t make such a noise. Your master is ill.

Voice of the Watchman. I am going away this minute. [Whistles a tune.]

Sonia. [Comes back] He says, no.

The curtain falls.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06