Uncle Vanya Midlife Transition & the Second Half of Life
Recently, I saw an excellent production of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, presented by Toronto’s dynamic Soulpepper Theatre, which opens up powerfully issues at midlife and in the second half of life. Soulpepper opened up this play in a particularly insightful, poignant and empathic way. Their interpretation reveals the importance of this play and its connection with the experience of modern people in the second half of life.
As we watch the struggles of Uncle Vanya and virtually all of the other characters, we conclude that the characters of Chekhov’s play are in despair about their lives. Past midlife, they almost all feel that they haven’t lived, that there has been nothing but regret for them. And yet, it is not so much the past that keeps them from living, as present attitudes about the past. In the second half of life, they are tied to the past, chained to it, in such a way that they can’t live in the present.
It seems to me that particularly in the characters of Vanya and Astrov, we meet individuals who are undergoing something that has many of the characteristics of the “middle passage”, the not-uncommon experience in the middle years of life that things which were meaningful for us, vital, full of energy in earlier years, are now drained of any feeling of meaning or value. Vanya castigates the Professor, whom he once revered and lived to serve. Astrov is clearly simply going through the motions of life as a medical doctor, and, at midlife, has even lost his taste for the conservation of the forest in the district, which had once been so compelling for him.
This is one of the great mysteries for many people at mid-life. It is also one of the great sources of suffering. People ask themselves, how can it be that things that were once so meaningful to me — career, idealism, commitments to people — now seem so hollow or colourless? In Chekhov’s portrayal of Uncle Vanya, we feel the full impact of the bitterness of this, and of Vanya’s crushing sense that he has both betrayed and been betrayed by his life. At the end of the play, he takes the only refuge he can in soulless, joyless work, unending until death.
From the perspective of the fate of Uncle Vanya, in particular, the play has an almost nightmarish aspect. Is this the sum total of what we can expect from life — meaningless drudgery, overhung by the feeling that we have failed life and that it has failed us?
There is no question that, unless we are prepared to live merely in an artificial fool’s paradise, we have to somehow come to terms with our failures, and the ways in which life has disappointed us. I would not ever want to minimize how difficult a task that can sometimes be. But the second half of life can also be filled with the discovery or re-discovery of values and symbols and experiences that are uniquely ours, and that are filled with meaning and value. To get to this uniquely personal place, we are often forced to look at the things in our lives that have not yielded the joy that we hoped that they would, or to look at the accomplishments or successes that we had hoped for that have not come about. And yet, to see in them something different, something that is trying to emerge in the midst of all of our struggle and disappointment: the appearance of our own unique, sometimes barely recognized Self, that has been drawing us closer through the entirety of our lives.