Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sonya's Last Speech

The very last speech by Sonya presents all sorts of problems: even if the director accepts that it is serious, that she is really embracing a simplistic Christianity, its reception by an audience will be determined by their spiritual beliefs. It's a brilliant example of Chekhov's 'negative capability,' the ability to contain multiple interpretations without resolving into a single definitive explanation.
Aside from elegantly concluding Act IV and encapsulating the various resolutions it enacts, it is doubly ironic: Chekhov is writing at the time that the doubt expressed by Matthew Arnold in Sea of Faith was beginning to grow, and Russia would soon become an officially atheistic state. 

Furthermore, had Vanya and Sonya accepted this pious fatalism in Act I, the narrative would not have happened.

The decision to focus purely on her words for Act IV is an attempt
to bring out their beauty, and ponder the influence of faith on art. The selections - with one crucial exception - are all religious compositions (even the drone is made by a Christian artist), and lean towards the mystical expression of spiritual belief. The citation index is less important than in Act III, since many of the pieces are based on Biblical texts. While the faith of Moby and Bach is invoked, the music is generally explicit in its religiosity.

Like Sonya's speech, the music resists earlier parts of Vanya. Whereas Act III climaxed in Dionysian chaos - the ferocious rattle of jungle filled with gunshots and street noises - the music here is gentle and contemplative. While Charles Shaar Murray notes that much of the supposed opposition of Apollonian and Dionysian is the product of over-heated German romanticism, Act IV hints at the more Apollonian mode, of order.

It can be seen as part of Act III's examination of club culture: if that was the dance-floor, this is the chill-out room. Yet the final track loops back to the beginning - Chris Hughes' Slow Motion Blackbird, which has bubbled beneath the sturm und drang of Acts I to III, is finally revealed in full. Based on instructions by Steve Reich, it represents a commingling of the natural (the blackbird's song) and the mechanical (the technology used to treat the song).

I choose to regard Sonya's speech as sincere, that Chekhov was offering his characters peace and divine consolation. A more bitter reading would see the speech as one more joke, a retreat into delusion when all else fails - simultaneously satirical and tragic. But Sonya has been the most blameless character throughout Uncle Vanya and the moral ambiguity of Chekhov's characterisation - Vanya acts out of love but cause suffering - make the Christianity expressed in these words, one of hope and desperation, suffering and consolation, fatalistic and redemptive reflect the playwright's complex vision of human existence.

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