Writer and Director Mallory Catlett’s “This was the End,” is a play based on Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and is a heavy, heady work. This production put on by the Mabou Mines Theater Company and is taking place at the Mabou Mines Theater, at 150 First Ave in Manhattan.
This play concerns two couples and it’s not entirely clear what the plot is, because the events concern an old lady and her uncle recounting events in their lives, and the deaths of three of these characters. In this way, Catlett and Chekhov are similar to the Bible, because certain psalms and proverbs in the Bible read like a list of quotations and hopes, like very strong poetry. Proverbs is a book of quotations and reading Proverbs is akin to opening a fortune cookie. All of this is to say death is metaphoric, like an idiom. The nature of human life is to an extent individual and subjective. This individuality means a person cannot communicate her own death, because by definition her life ends with her. She can only understand her own death metaphorically, and communicate it metaphorically. Once the student is that far into metaphor, death is that much more symbolic, and that much less real. When someone dies, it’s a loss, and yet loss isn’t food, water, shelter, clothing, or anything recognizable in direct consciousness. Loss simply means someone is missing.
Catlett’s four characters chase each other by running across the stage, and they chase projections from a video projector. These projections might be ghosts, stories, or memories, and it’s not made clear to the audience what they represent. In an opening diatribe, Uncle Vanya complains about his rivals, and Catlett paired his recitation with an audio recording of the actor saying the exact monologue. Vanya’s words thus echo, as if his niece, Sonya, who is also an elderly woman, is working hard to remember what Vanya said, or maybe she is listening to a tape recording of what he said. In the background of the set, a door opens to reveal a 30-something sound engineer playing with tape cassettes, and sometimes during the play, characters would interact with him to grab a tape and play it. These tapes have symbolic significance as perhaps Sonya is listening to them in hindsight of her life, or maybe a writer – the sound engineer -- is contemplating these recordings as he collates and organizes these lives he is studying. Vanya’s lament here was another man was living larger and better than he is, but a curious thing in this speech is Vanya wasn’t complaining about being old or the problems of getting old, because he doesn’t say that his rival is so much younger. This ambiguity acts as a proxy for the audience and people of any age, who don’t realize their own mortality, because they’re concerned with someone else’s vitality.
There’s a lot people in the United States aren’t saying about old age and death, especially considering everyone will go through these changes. Public discourse in the media often use a limited set of tools in order to talk about these changes, and it’s hard to read between the lines of another article about how millennials aren’t paying enough into Social Security, or how millennials aren’t saving enough for retirement, or how millennials aren’t having enough children in order to keep the population up. These articles don’t say getting older and dying is a scandal, because getting older isn’t a scandal. There is no enemy, and there is no direct conflict about getting older, except nobody can afford the money it’s going to cost. So, “This Was the End,” is absolutely a huge contribution and a better, more honest perspective on these problems.
All this metaphor can be hard to keep track of, which is why it’s exciting and helpful, Toward the later part of this play, that Catlett has a beautiful and immersive light show. The philosopher Nietzsche wrote, the more conceptual the truth one wants to communicate, the more one has to seduce the senses about the truth one is working to communicate. Catlett’s production is an expansion and amplification of Chekhov’s themes, because her use of technology augments Chekhov’s literature, and seduces the senses for these tough themes.
Catlett’s work resonates with me personally, as I’m sure it does with most viewers. In 2015, my grandmother Ruth Goldbas died peacefully of the consequences of old age. I was heartbroken for a long time. During the Thanksgiving before she passed away, my father took my sisters and me to the nursing home. I brought my guitar and we sang songs for her. She smiled at my father in order to tell him and all of us that she loved us and she was thankful.
Catlett and Checkov rightly see that Vanya’s complaints are too little, too late. So, the theme of this play is to seize the day because everyone dies, and everything is vanity because everyone dies, but also that there are consequences to the actions we take. In Catlett’s telling it’s not clear if Vanya and Sonya are trying to prevent the deaths of all four characters. The play is a telling about the regrets that people have at the end of their lives, but regret means acknowledging possibilities. If it was total nihilism, there wouldn’t be a play, and there wouldn’t be any regret. It may very well be a dramatic irony for the audience to figure out as they follow Sonya when the play ends and the character leaves the set.