Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle, 1994) could be defined as a theatre within the cinema, since it is a performance of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya (Дядя Ваня, Anton Chekhov 1899), carried out as if it were a theatrical rehearsal. Through a documentary like opening, its director, Louis Malle, introduces the spectator to what the performance itself will be. It works from the cinematographic language with camera turns and actors who represent their characters according to this technique.
Before explaining what this study will consist of and the objectives we set ourselves, we will talk about the work itself and how the idea of filming Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) came about in order to provide a contextualisation.
André Gregory, the theatre director of Uncle Vanya in Malle’s film, at a time of crisis of financing and audience attendance, decided to risk an alternative performance in an abandoned theatre in the New Amsterdam district for a small group of spectators.
The old theatre had already witnessed the peculiar theatrical experience promoted by the avant-garde director André Gregory: as it was impossible to use the stage on which part of the roof had fallen down, the play was performed in different parts of the theatre, to which audience members were guided between acts. (Ayala, 1996, p. 135).
This crisis was partly fuelled by the ideas and the critical tone with which it dealt with the American dream, very much in line with the ideas of Mamet, screenwriter of Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). In any case, Gregory, in order to avoid demotivating the cast, did not want to stop rehearsals of the play. In this way, his project became increasingly popular, with the addition of audience members such as Robert Altman and Woody Allen, among others.
It was an invitation to attend an unusual performance: two hours of “live” theatre, without costumes or artifice, with many breaks and snacks between acts, the small audience (among others, names such as Susan Sontag, Robert Altman, Richard Avedon or Woody Allen were exceptional spectators) shared the entrails of a theatrical production surrounded by superb performances and a magical atmosphere. (García Cívico, 2018, p. 18).
With no costumes, no publicity and no props, but with some experienced actors, he created this different show aimed at theatre lovers, even introducing changes to Chekhov’s play until he managed to create a careful but original atmosphere. “The bare scenography and staging of Vanya on 42nd Street manages to combine theatre and cinema in a unique experience, drawing on the strength of the text and the faces of the actors” (Balagué, 1996, p. 27).
Louis Malle, Gregory’s friend, was amazed by the project and decided to embark on the filming of Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). With hardly any resources, and returning to the origins of the Nouvelle Vague, he would make his homage to the theatre in a totally casual but no less risky way. “Vanya on 42nd Street, on the other hand, emerges as one of the most solid films of the nineties, a decade where navigation against the tide is much more difficult than in the sixties” (Riambau, 1996, p. 21).
The purpose of our study is to analyse the actors’ construction of the characters in the play and to observe which parts of the Stanislavski system are fulfilled, given its links with Chekhov’s theatre. His system enters the USA through the Moscow Art Theatre, which will later evolve into the Method; from this encounter there are great similarities and important approximations between the two techniques. In order to observe analogies and differences between working the play for the theatre or for the camera, we have resorted to the study of its authors (director and scriptwriter), to the narrative of the film and to the analysis of the interpretation of the protagonists according to the main points of the Stanislavski system, which we will refer to by observing their respective work in front of the camera.