More often than not, families are at the centre of American plays: from the playwrights of the modern canon such as Miller, Odets, Williams and O’Neill all the way through to contemporary playwrights like Tracy Letts. For instance, you can interpret that the Loman family in Death of a Salesman act as a microcosm for the inequity of capitalism in America. Not dissimilar are the plays of Anton Chekhov: although the great themes of his plays such as Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard are change in Russia and the decay of the aristocratic classes, families are a microcosm for Chekhov’s Russia. The sale of the cherry orchard, for example, parallels the dispersal of the family. It’s interesting that the similarities in American and Russian theatre can be seen in recent American plays August: Osage County, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and The Country House, all of them having drawn upon Chekhov’s work. Here’s a whistle-stop tour to those plays:
Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (2007) echoes Three Sisters with its feuding siblings Barbara, Ivy and Karen. The play is a stonking family drama seeing three generations of a family brought together by an offstage tragedy (again, Chekhovian) and then contemplate their pasts, presents and futures, and those of America too. It draws upon a great history of American drama but also transcends it by linking back to the roots of the country. Some might say that there’s also a link with the three story house (windows covered in bin liners and in a state of disarray) which dominates the stage and the abandoned house in The Cherry Orchard. Letts also translated Three Sisters for a new production in 2009.
Christopher Durang’s surreal comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2012) takes four of Chekov’s characters and brings them to a contemporary setting in his reworking of Chekhov. Ben Brantley for the New York Times said that it ‘tempers both Chekhovian ennui and Durangian angst with the calming spirit of acceptance that antidepressants are supposed to instil’. There are echoes of The Seagull with its ambitious young actor Nina, three siblings in a state of ennui typical of that Russian nastroenie, and a house which has its own demising cherry orchard. It had mixed reviews but transferred to Broadway from the Lincoln Centre in 2013 and there were plans for it to come to London this Autumn with David Hyde Pierce but they don’t seem to have come to fruition. The play is currently the most performed play in American theatres according to the Theatre Communications Group (TCG). Perhaps Durang’s most famous play is Beyond Therapy (1981). Interestingly, and maybe anticipating Vanya and Sonia over thirty years later, this other surreal play features a lengthy speech about Chekhov’s characters and relates them back to the present.
Donald Margulies’ The Country House (2014), starring Blythe Danner, is a new play which reimagines The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Like August: Osage County, the Patterson family are brought together by a family tragedy at the same time as actress Anna is learning her lines for a play. The family is made up of sell-out Hollywood directors, failed playwrights and TV actors, and comedy and tragedy thus ensues. Or so it should. The play has been given far from glowing reviews, even if the performances are pleasing. It features some nods to Chekhov’s characters, is set in a country house like the aforementioned plays, and includes a general sense of malaise. It is currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York until 9th November.
Exploring and reimagining Chekhov’s characters and themes may work better in some cases than others, but there’s no denying Vanya and Sonia’s popularity and August: Osage County’s layered tragicomic genius.