For the love of drama

For the love of drama

For the love of drama

At last, one of my ‘when will this movie come out in a Criterion edition?’ wish has been granted: Vanya on 42nd Street is now finally part of the Criterion Collection. (The Criterion edition, as I have noted before, is the definitive edition of a movie on video).

I can’t think of another modern film masterpiece that deserved the Criterion treatment: a print cleaned and restored with highly desirable extras. Not many people, including cinephiles, have seen this unique adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, and now finally in a documentary extra on the disc, we find out from the cast and crew how this modern miracle occurred. Before I get into what we learn from behind the scenes, let me quote here how Criterion itself describes the movie.

“In the early 90s, theatre director André Gregory mounted a series of spare, private performances of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a crumbling Manhattan playhouse. This experiment in pure theatre — featuring a remarkable cast of actors, including Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, and George Gaynes — would have been lost to time, had it not been captured on film, with subtle cinematic brilliance, by Louis Malle.”

As conceived by Gregory and filmed by Malle, the movie obliterates the distinctions between the artifice of theatre and life — the actors perform in their street clothes, with the audience a few feet from them. As the film opens, the actors drift in chitchatting and before we realise it, the chitchat has turned into Chekhov. Though the actors make it all look seamless and spontaneous, they spent several years rehearsing.

The best (and most remarkable) part about all this was that they spent years rehearsing it with no intention of ever performing it for an audience. Not for a single other soul than themselves, the players.

That’s how director Andre Gregory got them intrigued: he approached these actors (and Julianne Moore was yet to be a big star then) and asked them how they’d like to spend a few years of their lives trying to understand (and live) Chekov. Wallace Shawn, who plays Vanya, says he accepted to do it after Gregory asked him to look at the whole thing as a piece of writing they wanted to explore, not as putting up a play. It was meant solely, Gregory tells us, and purely for the sake of understanding a piece of text!

In the extras, Andre Gregory says what Chekov’s plays are all about, especially Uncle Vanya: “The nature of quality of passing your life; what it is like to be here as you travel through your own life.” (I think I’m quoting him right from the notes I made). After a while, the actors got so used to performing it for themselves, Julianne Moore says she resented anyone else turning up on the set.

Of course, there was no ‘set’ to speak of, or a ‘performance’. What they did, according to Gregory’s direction, was to simply say the lines out to each other. Gregory asked them to come each time doing something actors in rehearsal usually don’t do: learn the lines beforehand. Actors apparently read the lines for a long time before they begin memorising and internalising the dialogue. Here they would come knowing their lines (and the lines of others).

They used lofts to read out Chekov, and finally settled into this derelict, movie theatre whose ceiling was netted to keep parts of it from cracking and falling down. The actors knew beforehand that they would not be paid for it. It was done for the love of it. And then they came up with the notion of inviting just a few of their loved ones to come watch. Each actor could bring two people they cared for very much.

(When it was finally filmed, Wally Shawn brought Madhur Jaffrey). Susan Sontag came once, says Brooke Smith (who plays Vanya’s niece, Sonya, who is in love with Dr Astrov, and is heartbroken when she learns he does not share her feelings) and after the rehearsal, Sontag pulled her aside and said, “You are a smart, strong woman, that’s why he didn’t take to you.”

Many famous people came to see the performances (which varied from day to day because Gregory allowed them to do it as they will) and at the end, they would be so shaken, so moved, that they would simply keep sitting there even though the last lines had been spoken and the invisible curtain drawn. The cast would whisper to each other or to Gregory, “What should we do? No one is leaving.” Gregory himself did not know what to do. And the cast would remain still. People began asking them to consider filming it for an audience, for posterity. Gregory and Shawn and the others slowly came to like the idea and since Shawn and Gregory had worked with filmmaker Malle on My Dinner With Andre, they invited him to see it.

Malle was profoundly moved and inspired. And wanted to make it a film. Malle said he would not just film the performance — as in filmed theatre — but make a film of it. And the stunning result is there for all to see in Vanya on 42nd Street. To think now that this precious, amazing thing would have been lost to time, never captured for us to see if not for Malle’s film! It was filmed in two weeks, and the final shot was finished at 5 am. As they left the theatre, not bleary-eyed but wide awake, Malle said to them all, “Let’s take a moment because this moment is gone,” and they stood and looked at the makeshift stage for the last time. Brooke breaks into tears as she remembers. And though Malle himself was not to know it, Vanya on 42nd Street would be his last film.

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