To share … or not

Vanya on 42nd Street

It’s a remarkable idea and a remarkable film. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for weeks.

Vanya on 42nd Street is by Louis Malle and stars Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. They’re the same dynamic trio who conceived My Dinner With Andre, one of the most audacious films ever made.

Vanya on 42nd Street started when theater director Andre Gregory decided he wanted to rehearsal a recently-translated version of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Rehearse it. He didn’t want to do anything else. There was to be no performance. The whole idea was the rehearsal.

They started in a loft, but quickly moved to an abandoned theater on 42nd Street. And I mean abandoned. It was a crumbling shell, with rats scurrying about. I understand the stench of urine was fairly intense.

This was their workspace. I doubt OSHA would approve.

They rehearsed Chekhov’s play just to get familiar with it. To become truly intimate. A few cast members, such as Julianne Moore, whose star was just starting to rise at the time, said they resented all this work at first for something that would not be put on. Later they said they resented it when Gregory decided to in fact let some people in.

Just a few.

Vanya on 42nd Street


Each cast member could bring “two loved ones” per show. That amounted to about 20 people, give or take. Still, for the next three and a half years, on and off but mostly on, they rehearsed this work—to what end?

To no end. Or rather, that was the end. It became a massed catharsis for the actors, who did it differently each time, exploring new possibilities. There was no blocking. Few props. They wore their street clothes. One of Gregory’s points with the experiment was that with great literature, props and sets and effects are almost unnecessary.

Finally Louis Malle, the great French filmmaker, decided he wanted to record these rehearsals for posterity. This presented some problems, in that for the purpose of the film the play had to be staged exactly the same way each time for cutting purposes. So in a way we’re not seeing a filmed rehearsal. We’re seeing a simulation of a filmed rehearsal, which itself isn’t the play but an imagining of the play. So it’s a simulation of a conception of one potential actuality. Head spinning yet?



Malle shot the film in two weeks, and that the was the end of Vanya. They all left their smelly theater with heavy hearts. (And probably headed straight to the dry cleaners.)

The film is remarkable in that, like My Dinner With Andre, it can spark so much imagery in the head of the viewer even while it itself just points a camera at actors talking to one another against generally uninteresting backgrounds.

But were it not for the film, almost no one would know this little experiment had ever happened. And as I said, since they constantly kept changing things, only one conception was immortalized on celluloid.

It got me thinking, though, about whether it’s okay to just do art for yourself and not share it. I’ve been considering an urge lately not to publish—through a publisher or on my own—Entertaining Welsey Shaw. I wrote it for specific reasons, those reasons have been realized, and maybe I should just move on.

Did I write it for you or me?

No easy answer.

But what made it more interesting was that a few days later, I watched another film, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue, the first part of his so-called Three Colors trilogy.



In this film a woman who has suffered a terrible loss decides to cut herself off from the world and live without any emotional engagement.

And the film argues that ultimately you can’t. You have to interact. You have to dance with them that brung you. Julie, played with amazing reserve and pin-point precision by Juliette Binoche, realizes this in the end, even though no words are spoken.

Both these films have been in my mind a lot since I saw them.

To share or not.

Kieślowski seems to think you have to. (And he says it in the most gorgeously poetic way imaginable.)

Gregory comes down on the side of isolation.

No easy answer.

A while ago I started submitting Welsey Shaw to agents. Not surprisingly it’s a tough haul.

I was thinking of just forgetting the whole thing. Even going through the trouble of self-pub and the related promotion seems like too much work. What does that have to do with writing? Or why I wanted to write Welsey Shaw in the first place?

But then there’s another part of me that is also at work on a sequel.



It takes place five years later. A lot of things have changed for both major characters. It reexamines many of the same themes from sort of a reverse point of view. (Believe me, I’m not one for sequels normally, but this one jumped up and kissed me on the lips and I couldn’t resist.)

So part of me wants to continue with a “franchise” that nobody wants so far in the first place, and another part of me wants to just tuck it all away like Andre Gregory did with Uncle Vanya.

As I said, no easy answer.

What to do?

Maybe I’ll watch both movies again… That’s it.

Maybe that’ll work.


2 responses

  1. I loved the movie, Blue, (actually the whole trilogy) and thought Juliette Binoche was exquisite in it.

    You are grappling with some big issues, John. Issues I’ve thought about, too. I see my artistic life as one big experiment. But I don’t think it has to be either/or. If you can’t stomach doing the agent thing, you could always do an indie thing of your own design (kind of like the actors did with Vanya on 42nd Street. You could offer a beautiful hardback book of your novel and do a print run of 100 copies. Perhaps you sell them like signed prints. They could go to only those people you respect or want to gift one to, or whatever. With only 100 in print, you could create something in great demand. Who knows…


    May 1, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    • I’m flattered that you think 100 autographed copies of my novel would be of value…to anybody. It’s interesting, however, to note—not that I’m comparing anything I’ve written to hers—that the first editions of Virginia Woolf’s books numbered only in the hundreds, and were published by the “small press” her husband had set up. The world at large hardly took notice. Of course today those first editions are worth a pretty penny…Wish I had one.


      May 2, 2015 at 6:38 pm

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