Though the term "tragicomedy" was not coined specifically to designate the plays of Anton Chekhov, he is nonetheless considered the father of that particular 20th century genre. Chekhov meant his three masterpieces - "Uncle Vanya," " The Three Sisters," and "The Cherry Orchard" - to be primarily farces; and had he been a lesser artist he would have succeeded. But, being one of the greatest playwrights of all time, he endowed his characters with such a depth and range of emotion that their plight could not help but be seen as the very stuff of tragedy; for even though they were largely responsible for their own plight, they were so inextricably caught up in a certain way of life that they lacked the psychological means of holding back its dissolution. And this sense of inevitable loss and failure, even of doom, is exquisitely captured in the adaptations presented in this boxset of DVD's.
Both "Uncle Vanya" and "The Cherry Orchard" are rendered in two separate versions; and in each the later version seems to better portray the illusions, deceptions and manipulations essential to the characters' lives. There is more of the farcical in the two earlier versions - particularly evident in the John Gielgud adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard": it's even called "A Comedy by Anton Chekhov." Judi Dench appears in both versions of "The Cherry Orchard"; in the earlier version as the daughter of the leading character, and in the later version as the mother herself. And as great as she is as Madame Ranevsky. - even greater than Peggy Ashcroft; she pales as Anya, the daughter, next to Suzanne Burden's Anya in the later version. Even John Gielgud's Leonid takes a back seat to Frederic Treves'. Similarly, Paul Hardwick's Lopahin in the earlier version pales beside Bill Paterson's Lopahin of the later version; as does Anthony Hopkins' Astrov beside Ian Holm's Astrov.
But while Anthony Hopkins falls short of realizing Dr Astrov as fully as Ian Holm, he's absolutely magnificent as Andrei, the gambling-addicted brother of Masha, Olga and Irina in "The Three Sisters." It's Janet Suzman, though, who steals the show with her portrayal of Masha, married since age 18 to a man she found "clever" at the time but has come to dislike, even despise, since meeting and falling madly in love with a military officer who, as it turns out, is not only married already but, because of his regiment's new orders, almost literally just passing through the area. One of Chekhov's greatest themes - almost an obsession - is the peculiar notion entertained by virtually all his characters that, though no one living in the present is truly happy or ever will be, everyone in the future will be; and that it's the highest mission of those alive today to make sure this future happiness of the human race comes to fruition. Chekhov is, of course, poking fun at the absurdity of people doing absolutely nothing to bring happiness into their own lives while imagining that they're somehow paving the way for those who will come after them. Ironically, this "happiness" the main characters despair of never obtaining comes easily and simply to the "lesser" characters, as evidenced by "The Three Sisters'" old Nanny, whose new found residence - a rent-free room with her own bed - has made her the happiest person who ever lived, although, equally ironically, it is only Olga's generosity that enables Nanny's happiness. In fact, it is a sense of "noblesse oblige" among the central characters of all three plays that helps bring about their downfall. In "The Three Sisters," especially the first act, Chekhov comes closest to truly creating a farce; but, again, the genuine pathos of the Sisters' lives soon elevates the play to a much higher level. Besides which, though the characters in "The Three Sisters" endlessly ramble on philosophically about work and happiness and the future, they are far more the victims of circumstances beyond their control than those of either of the other two major plays.
And just as "The Three Sisters" have the least control over their own lives and least responsibility for their plight, the characters of "The Cherry Orchard" have the greatest control and, therefore, the greatest responsibility. They simply cannot bear to look full face at the catastrophe barreling down upon them. The wealthy son of a former serf, Lopahin, offers them over and over a way out of their dilemma; but, over and over, they refuse even to discuss it. And so, they end up losing their home, their land and their cherished Orchard - the great irony being that the only way they could have saved their inheritance would have been to lease everything for summer cottages; so, no matter what, their Orchard was destined for destruction, though not necessarily so their personal fortunes.
Destruction of woodlands is also featured prominently in "Uncle Vanya," though not in the same dire manner as in "The Cherry Orchard." Dr Astrov's great passion in life is documenting the growing deforestation of the area of Russia they live in; he even shows a series of charts he's drawn to Yelena, the young wife of the scholar Serabryakov. Both Astrov and Vanya have fallen in love with Yelena; and while she would return Astrov's affections if she could, she ultimately doesn't. Vanya has come to loathe Serabryakov as the root of all his life's misery, having struggled and nearly exhausted his own inheritance in order to help prop up the self-important scholar. David Warner is superb as Vanya - though Freddie Jones in the earlier version is equally superb. As already mentioned, Ian Holm is superb as Astrov; and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is truly magnificent as Yelena. "Uncle Vanya" is, by far, the most focused of the three major plays; and, as such, comes off as the greatest of the three. In truth, though I probably stand alone on this, I consider "Uncle Vanya" to be second only to Shakespeare's "King Lear" as the greatest play ever written.