Uncle Vanya 1930 – 1973; Milestones Marking a Legendary Stageography

Uncle Vanya 1930

The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love,the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade.  What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition.

Lillian Gish turns to the footlights – (Uncle Vanya 1930)

Lillian Gish Turns to the Footlights

“Years ago, when David Belasco starred Mary Pickford in the fanciful “A Good Little Devil,” Lillian Gish appeared in the minor role of a good fairy. The other day, however, Miss Gish returned to the speaking stage in New York. Her reception was remarkable.

Miss Gish came back in “Uncle Vanya,” a comedy by the Russian Chekhov. She had the role of Helena. Of her, Robert Litell said in The New York World: “She is not quite like any other actress I have ever seen, with a lovely repose and certainty, a combination of delicate shades and pastel dignity which make us realize how great the screen’s gain has been all these years, to our loss.”

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

Jed Harris had selected a well-nigh perfect cast. With Walter Connolly in the title role, the tired, tearful, disillusioned Vanya; with Osgood Perkins, as Astroff, the hard-riding, hard-drinking, disillusioned doctor; with Eugene Powers, as Serebrakoff, the ailing, fat-headed, city professor; with Lillian, as Helena, his young, beautiful, disillusioned wife; with Joanna Roos, as Sonia, his unhappy, love-lorn daughter; with Kate Mayhew, as Nurse Marina; with Isabel Irving, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Harold Johnsrud—one must travel far to find a group of players better suited to a Chekhov play, or one more congenial to work with. Ruth Gordon was not in the cast, but she came to Lillian’s apartment and worked with her. So did Mr. Harris. They believed in her, and encouraged her to believe in herself. Going back to the stage had its difficulties.

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

LILLIAN GISH returns to the stage in the Chekhov comedy after an absence of 17 years. She last appeared on a prosceniumed platform in New York in 1913, along with Ernest Truex and Mary Pickford, in “A Good Little Devil” at the Republic. Since “The Birth of a Nation” her fame in pictures has been secure. Among the notable films which she has illumined, are “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” “The White Sister,” “Hearts of the World,” “Romola” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Miss Gish made her stage debut at the age of six in a melodrama, “In Convict’s Stripes,” in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, and has never married. Miss Gish is a rarely fascinating personality in the theater, moving consciously about; falling into unconsciously graceful poses; speaking in a gentle voice with modest expression; suggesting a little girl playing most intelligently at acting, but still a little girl.

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya – Steichen Santa Monica – Vanity Fair May 1930

Miss Gish has made an extremely happy return to the stage. Her sisters of the films who are now planning to descend upon the drama in swarms – Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and all the others who have issued their challenges to the playwrights – may well envy her. She is a perfect type for Checkhoff’s fragile, evasive Helena; she has had the coaching of Jed Harris, a master of stage direction; and she has made this new debut not as a star but as one of a group of cooperative artists. The production of “Uncle Vanya” was not a ballyhoo for Lillian Gish, but it has refreshed and renewed her reputation in a distinguished manner. She proves herself, by her admirable realization of Checkhoff’s heroine, a highly accomplished actress.

Lillian Gish and Mike NicholsUncle Vanya – 1973

Uncle Vanya – 1973

“Having been lucky enough to return to the stage from films in the thirties under the unique genius of Jed Harris in “Uncle Vanya”, a second blessing came when I was asked to play Marina, the Nurse, under the direction of the brilliant Mike Nichols.” – Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish, adapting a delightful part for the occasion, is charming as a nurse prepared to set everything right with tea, vodka, God, and a smile. (Walter Kerr – NY Times)

Uncle Vanya – 1973

There are many splendid aspects of this production, which is probably the closest we have reached in years to a classic staging of national theater dimensions. Obviously the most important is this opportunity to compare, contrast and enjoy two major actors going about their business with such successfully differing skills. But Mr. Nichols has also done a good job with a somewhat unequal cast.

The translation, by Albert Todd and Mr. Nichols himself, is fresh and idiomatic. Some people may, in places, find it too idiomatic. I do not. To me it seems to be the privilege of the translator to update, subtly but seriously, a translation to make it more immediate to its audience. And Mr. Nichols’s staging has the same quality of slippered ease and well‐worn informality.

Lillian Gish in the dressing room – Uncle Vanya – 1973

And so, at last, the plowman, turning the furrows of life, comes to the boundary that divides the known from the unknown—the wilderness from the sown field. Whatever we may one day find beyond, is already there in every detail—only, I lack the clairvoyant gift, and turn for a brief backward glimpse. It is no vision of artistic triumph that comes to me tonight . . . not the memory of Chekhov’s radiant heroine . . . not the triste picture of that broken flower of the Limehouse . . . something even more real than these: a real child, trouping with wandering players, away from a mother’s care … a slim-legged little girl, who slept on station benches and telegraph tables, who running across a foot-bridge lost her poor possessions in the swift black water, who from a train or hotel window stared silently into the night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?”

“Nothing, Aunt Alice, just looking.”

(Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

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