on the visionary radicalism of Robert Borgmann’s dystopian UNCLE VANYA

“People who blindly subordinate themselves to collectives already turn themselves into something like material, annihilate themselves as self-determined beings. This meshes with the willingness to treat others like amorphous mass … A democracy that does not merely function, but holds itself to the standard of its actual definition, requires critical, reflective, self-determined people. One can only imagine actualized democracy as a society of self-determined people … The realization of self-determination lies therein that those few people, who are disposed to it, are working with vehemence so that education is an education of objection and opposition.” – Theodor W. Adorno

I’ve been wondering what role the theatre plays in our world today and what place it may occupy in the world of tomorrow. What societal function does the theatre have in an increasingly “amorphous,” media-saturated world — a Western world whose inhabitants are becoming increasingly less self-determined and politically inclined? What is the theatre’s significance, its mandate, and its sphere of influence in such a world? It seems to me that Robert Borgmann’s Uncle Vanya offers some possible answers to these questions. That Chekhov’s plays portray states of stagnation and waiting, of decay and impending transformation, isn’t new. But the way in which Borgmann appropriates these themes narratively, and then transforms them formally — on a theatrical level — is indeed remarkable.

Anton Chekhov’s life was framed by two major political events in Russian history. He was born one year before the 1861 Russian emancipation, which implied the abolishment of serfdom and thus laid the groundwork for the Russian industrialization, and he died a few months before the Bloody Sunday event of 1905, which was to be the main catalyst for the Russian revolution. The time in between — Chekhov’s lifetime and key to Borgmann’s Uncle Vanya — saw the reign of three different tsars. It was politically difficult and cumbersome, characterized by constant tensions around questions of civil liberty, defined by a constant push-and-pull — a kind of back-and-forth — between civil agency and unagency, and thus marked by a sense of palatable stagnation.* In my reading of the production, Robert Borgmann establishes a complex analogy between Chekhov’s people and a generalized “Western lower class milieu” of the not-too-distant future — of the present, in some ways — examining the effects of living in a centralized globalized stagnation, in a state of civil passivity and paralysis, of suffocating unagency, in unconscious anticipation of something new… of something like a revolution. The result of his explorations is not only an incredibly current, visionary Uncle Vanya, but also a theatrical radicalism that transforms passivity and unagency by simultaneously borrowing from the past and looking to the future.


Psychological realism takes a backseat in Borgmann’s production, giving way to an illustration of emotional “states.” Rather than painting unique individuals, Borgmann turns Chekhov’s characters into hollowed-out allegorical representatives of a generalized Western society. This is perhaps best exemplified in Yelena, America personified, who opens the evening with a badminton game with a spectator. She is America, young, athletic, extroverted, easy-going — “fun” and sexy — wearing only a sheer, flowing American flag as a dress. America is at once an object of desire — a temptress of sorts — and a kind of fatal addiction, a devastator, for Vanya and Astrov, and ultimately for the world of the play. Yelena — America — is the catalyst for the End, and thus the reason for the need for a new beginning. But America herself, too, is both used up and stuck in the past as becomes clear in Act II of the evening: she still wears that bronze prom dress from a different time and should just “get changed” already, so to speak.

There is also a somewhat beaten up Volvo circling the stage — a family car — that doesn’t ever stop going, but also isn’t going anywhere. Ironically, the family vehicle only serves to keep the family in place, along with its morals, or its moral decay, rather. There is no way out of this situation, our addiction to America, our family values; the path is too beaten to turn around on it. The situation has to burn itself out before anything new can happen. As the car circles, its headlights intermittently point in the direction of the audience; just for a moment, every single spectator stares like a deer into headlights, becoming both subject to, and of, the blindness and disorientation on stage. Both as individuals and as a collective, we do not and cannot see.

But how long do we have to wait? How long until the path is too beaten to go on? It’s unclear. However, waiting — inaction — is somehow against our nature. Letting life happen to us, rather than actively constructing it, is just inherently un-human, indeed inhumane. And so aggression builds — auto-aggression, to be precise. Astrov drinks to the point of throwing up (on America’s bronze dress); Vanya repeatedly hits his head against the wall in outbursts of self-harm. This type of self-destruction has obviously hollowed out any possibility of functioning interpersonal relationships; community has turned into a burden, a kind of co-dependence, and love has become impossible. People don’t talk to each other here; instead they scream past each other. Unending self-debasement has taken the place of self-regard and mutual respect. Sonya, the counterpoint to America, in her men’s pants and baggy shirt, is the only one who seems to be holding out any kind of perverted hope, and demonstrates (somewhat clumsily) an ability to “make the best of the situation” — even if it’s just through mourning (as opposed to regretting) the distant past, or through arbitrary tasks, such as cutting Vanya’s nails. She just can’t seem to learn how to walk in America’s shoes — red high heels — but that also marginalizes her, and ultimately makes her undesirable. So although (or precisely because) she demonstrates a sense of self-direction, she’s “ugly.”

That this Western lower class milieu is not just paralyzed for no reason, but also factually unfree, and therefore unable to act upon its own fate, becomes fully clear when, in act two, Serebryakov suggests that the estate — Vanya and Sonya’s home and their very reason for being — be sold to invest the proceeds in stocks. Dressed in an expensive, brown (!) leather suit, Elmar Roloff’s Serebryakov is a disingenuous, paternalistic member of the upper class — not to mention America’s husband — the 1% personified. That Vanya blames the professor for his life, for how he has become, and for robbing him of his place to live, seems like an understatement.


But how does one break through these hegemonic structures portrayed here? How can one find agency in this rigid, seemingly hopeless social fabric? On the level of plot, Uncle Vanya doesn’t offer any solutions: the play ends with Sonya and Vanya in a prisonesque situation, under a low-hanging ceiling with a single neon-light. But on a formal, structural, and aesthetic level, Borgmann has achieved a kind of radicalism — an allegorical, and even factual, decentralization of sorts. To begin, he appropriates a historical document and remixes it. He re-writes history for the future, so to speak, deforming and re-forming the familiar. Moreover, he actively deconstructs, ruptures, and disjoints the play’s central structure; he decentralizes its narrative, creating a kind of theatrical collage. This type of structure demands constant autonomous, intellectual input from his spectator; it prompts the viewer into action by requiring a persistent effort to decode the unfamiliar onstage. In other words, it decentralizes the story-building and meaning-making process by delegating parts of it to the audience. By way of deciphering the pictures and events onstage, the spectator is allowed to create her own version of the story, thus acquiring the ability to move herself. There’s no dogma or melodrama here; instead, this type of autonomous input by the spectator opens up the possibility of associative, imaginative thinking, and thus creates an opportunity for affective response and learning. This in itself is already an active (as opposed to passive) process, but can also potentially result in transformation and political action. As such, this type of theatre subtly defies the passivity we’ve become so used to — at the hands of the media, and in our relationship to politics.

Borgmann also appropriates tropes from the entertainment industry, recontextualizing and thus decentralizing them to produce new meaning. To defy their boredom, Vanya and Astrov mime spectacular car crashes as we know them from TV and film. This is the world they know, and ironically, it’s also the world that bores them — that has hollowed out their agency. At the top of act two, Sonya sings parts of Florence and the Machine’s song Cosmic Love: “The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out/You left me in the dark/No dawn, no day/I’m always in this twilight/In the shadow of your heart.” These lines now act as an allegory for the situation onstage — and they are borrowed from the music of and for the masses.**

It is interesting to consider how this Uncle Vanya relates to Gotscheff’s Zement. If we believe my reading of Vanya, both productions examine questions of “possible revolution,” and do so in a similar theatrical manner: they both operate without a clear message, without Truth — without propaganda for or against revolution — but with a clear focus on struggle, dialectics, hopelessness, desperation, and a total devotion to the theatrical moment, to immediacy, to fleetingness. Zement, structurally, as well as on the level of plot and character, never rests; the play is one constant dialectical struggle. In Vanya, too, a coherent narrative arc gives way to problems, questions, and allegories piling up in the form of images and poetry, intertwining and stacking up on top of each other. Nothing and no one ever rests in Uncle Vanya. No one sleeps at night, or rests during the day — paralysis is tiring, but not restful.

Most importantly, however, both Zement and Uncle Vanya offer inherently democratic theatrical experiences. They both rely on the agency of the individual as an inherent part of the collective moment; they require and thus produce autonomous intellectual and emotional input in the construction of the story. As such, these types of plays are not only inherently political, but also create formal counterpoints to the entertainment industry, which capitalizes on passivity, produces inagency, and thus perpetuates hegemonic structures. Returning to both Adorno and my questions at the beginning of this post: might this theatricality possibly be a taste of the future? To what extent does the theatre have an explicitly democratic mandate? In what relationship does it stand to its audience? “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Percy Shelley wrote. Maybe he is right?



* Frustrated with slow acting social reforms under Alexander II, grassroots radical groups began to form in Russia, and ultimately killed the tsar in a terror act in 1881. His son Alexander III subsequently took the throne, whose primary objective was “Russification” — to re-strengthen Russia’s national identity, which he felt had suffered under his father’s more liberal politics. As such, Alexander III reversed his father’s reforms as far as possible, weakening the power of the local councils and thus re-centralizing the power of the monarchy. This also included the systematic repression of his opponents through police and civil service. It furthermore implied the reformation of the education system by limiting access to history classes and restricting universities’ agency in determining class content and the appointment of professors. After Alexander’s sudden death in 1894, his son Nicholas II took the throne, who, like his father, was a convinced autocrat. What followed was a period of largely reactionary, short-sighted politics, during which Nicholas limited the agency of his ministers considerably, thus further centralizing his own power. He was also extremely resistant to social reforms demanded by the new middle class, which had emerged in Russia as a result of the progressing industrialization, leading to tensions all over the country. Nicholas rejected and actively fought the modernization of his country, instead working towards reinstating a more feudal order. After the defeat of the Russian army in the Russian-Japanese war, protests and strikes broke out all over the country. On January 22nd 1905, a peaceful protest in St. Petersburg ended in a bloodbath after a protestors collided with the Russian police. This event came to be known as Bloody Sunday and expanded into a nation-wide revolution.

** It is worth noting that the fatalistic doom and gloom of Uncle Vanya is reminiscent of some recent works in pop art. A sense of American Sundown pervades the sad core of Lana del Rey, for example. Hypothetical revolution or anarchy, interspersed with classical motives, is the subject of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s No Church in the Wild. As such, Borgmann’s Vanya fits into an emerging artistic and aesthetic landscape.

PHOTO CREDIT: Schauspiel Stuttgart


One comment

  1. Pingback: in search of theatrical radicalism: Theatre Junction’s EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE | FANNINA WAUBERT DE PUISEAU

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