Adaptations for the Stage

I would like to especially thank Cori Hundt (Middlebury College, ’11), whose thesis on this subject was incredibly useful in providing me with both a starting point for research and fresh ideas about the adaptations themselves.

David Mamet’s Uncle Vanya

American playwright David Mamet was commissioned to create an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 1988 after his successful recreation of Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. Mamet cites Chekhov as one of the major influences on his theatrical ideas, and he viewed his work in Chekhovian adaptation as “the practical approach to grasping Chekhov’s technique.”[1] Considering that Mamet was not a Russian speaker, he modified the original from Vlada Chernomordik’s unpublished, direct translation of the text. In general, Mamet was truthful to the original plot, but “enlivened the language and situations” within his adaptation.[2] The diction and syntax were reworked from Chekhov’s play to more reflect Mamet’s own writing style, with instances of repetition and pause that were not present in the original.[3] The playwright’s noted love for contradiction is evident in the interaction between the characters of the new Uncle Vanya, who challenge each other more harshly and openly. In creating a new Uncle Vanya, Mamet modernized the old Russian text to be more suitable for modern American audiences. [4]

The play opened on April 13th, 1988 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[5] Mamet’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya also made it to the screen; it was the basis for Mamet’s screenplay for the film Vanya on 42nd Street, directed by Louis Malle and produced in 1994.

[1] Nadel, Ira Bruce. David Mamet: a Life in the Theatre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print: 143

[2] Ibid: 166-167

[3] Hundt, Corinne. “Understanding the Purpose of Modern Adaptations of Classic Works of Dramatic Literature: A Case Study of Anton Chekhov.” Thesis. Middlebury College, 2011. Print: 53

[4] Ibid: 60

[5] Plotkins, Marilyn. The American Repertory Theatre Reference Book: the Brustein Years. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print: 77

Howard Barker’s (Uncle) Vanya

I remade Vanya because I loved his anger, which Chekhov allows to dissipate in toxic resentment. In doing this I denied the misery of the Chekhovian world, where love falters in self-loathing and desire is petulance.” (Barker) [1]

Howard Barker, a British dramatist and poet, was inspired to rework Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 1996 when he read a letter written by the playwright to an old friend, in which he describes the melodramatic use of the gun in the play.[2] From such aggressive inspiration, it is no surprise that Barker’s adaptation takes the passionate violence of the original to its extreme. The play begins at the climax of the Chekhovian version, where Vanya and Serebryakov are quarrelling with each other and, in the heat of the arguement, Vanya stumbles into the drawing room with the gun. Vanya’s shot does not miss in this version: Vanya kills Serebryakov. After her old husband’s death, Helena engages in a fiery affair with Vanya.[3] Later in the play, Sonya strangles Astrov to death. Both Astrov and Serebryakov come back later in the play as ghosts, and are joined by another ghost: Chekhov himself.[4] Through melodrama, Barker’s tragicomic (Uncle) Vanya primarily comments upon the effects of the assertion of individuality, instinct, and the will to live. [5]

[1] “Uncle Vanya.” The Wrestling School. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. <;.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shuttleworth, Ian. “Review of (Uncle) Vanya.” Review. Financial TimesTheater Things. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. <;.

[4] Hundt, Corinne. “Understanding the Purpose of Modern Adaptations of Classic Works of Dramatic Literature: A Case Study of Anton Chekhov.” Thesis. Middlebury College, 2011. Print.

[5] “Uncle Vanya.” The Wrestling School.

Sam Holcroft’s Vanya

Sam Holcroft, a dramatist educated in Edinburg and the recent winner of the Tom Erhardt Award for up-and-coming writers, brings both a streamlined and universal perspective to the most recent adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.[1] She strips her play of all but the four main characters in Uncle Vanya: Vanya, Sonya, Yelena, and Astrov. With the absence of a supporting cast, the plot is frighteningly simple: two men love the same woman, and two women love the same man.[2] As a result, the play centers on the sentiment of unrequited love, and the evocation of this familiar and heart-wrenching emotion is clear in every action of each of the characters. The universality of Vanya’s central theme causes the play to diverge from the realism within the seminal text in all but the interaction between the characters: “Holcroft has created a play that is aware that it is a piece of theatre, whereas Chekhov created slice of life works where he institutes a fourth wall in which the audience members are witnesses to the lives of those on the other side of the stage.” [3] Vanya’s departure from realism can also be attested to the new structure of Holcroft’s version. Instead of maintaining the Chekhov’s organization of Uncle Vanya into four, compartmentalized acts, Holcroft divides her play into 15 scenes. As a result, the time sequence in Vanya is blurred. [4]

Holcroft’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya is certainly not a complete deviation from the original; the playwright manages to modernize Uncle Vanya yet still retain elements from Chekhov’s text. In essence, Holcroft manages to blend the modern with the traditional Russian both in the text and in the story. For example, Holcroft’s stylistic choices specifically recall as well as update Chekhov’s version. She particularly employs the use of 21st-cenutry humor—biting, witty, sarcastic remarks—to renew the tragicomedy present in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.[5] The characters mostly remain faithful to the original with the exception of Astrov, whom Holcroft revises to better fit the contemporary train of thought. Astrov still assumes the role of an “eco-campaigner”, though while the original character talks on end about the effects of deforestation in the Russian countryside, Holcroft’s Astrov epitomizes the ant colony: his desired model for human social structure.[6] He changes from an environmentalist to a sort of social anthropologist, though his commentary on the state of the natural world, evident in both the seminal and the adapted texts, still forms the heart of the doctor’s intellectual charm in the play.[7]

Sam Holcroft’s Vanya premiered at the Gate Theatre in London in August of 2009. The play was scheduled to run from August 26th to September 26th, but due to popular demand was extended to include shows until October 3rd. The production was directed by Natalie Abrahami at its world premiere, and lasted around 90 minutes.[8]

Production Trailer for the World Premier:

[1] “Sam Holcroft.” Doollee. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <;.

[2] “About Vanya.” Off West End. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <;.

[3] Hundt, Corinne. “Understanding the Purpose of Modern Adaptations of Classic Works of Dramatic Literature: A Case Study of Anton Chekhov.” Thesis. Middlebury College, 2011. Print: 18

[4] Haydon, Andrew. “Tragic Trajectories: Vanya, the Gate, London.” Culture Wars. 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <;.

[5] Hundt: 19

[6] Haydon

[7] Billington, Michael. “Vanya.” The Guardian. 2 Sept. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <;.

[8] “Vanya.” Gate Theatre. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <;.


One response to “Adaptations for the Stage

  1. Pingback: Response to the responders (Ideal Bread) - Josh Sinton

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