So Vanya on 42nd Street — the film I mentioned much earlier in these meditations — begins outdoors, amidst the weary buildings of midtown Manhattan, as the camera picks up the actors making their way to the old theatre. By ones and twos they arrive, deposit their jackets and bags, pour themselves cups of coffee or tea, sit and chat. The camera settles for a few moments on a middle-aged man speaking with an older woman. Only after they’ve exchanged a several banal pleasantries does the viewer realize that the play has begun.
But the events of this play, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, occur not in a city but on a Russian country estate. It had been owned by a woman now dead; on her death it passed to her daughter Sonya, but her husband, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov, assumes control of the property as his natural right. Serebryakov prefers to live in the city with his young, beautiful second wife. Sonya and her uncle Vanya manage the estate: they ensure that the crops and land generate the income that Serebryakov needs to live in proper urban style. Sonya and Vanya keep little for themselves, and clearly there is nothing elegant about the old estate itself, for which the dark and decrepit interior of the New Amsterdam Theatre makes a fitting image.
The estate is of value to Serebryakov only insofar as it provides income, and he has come to think that he can do better by selling the estate and making more adventurous investments. What this might mean to Sonya and Vanya he does not consider. It is this situation from which the tensions of the play arise.
But also embedded in this situation is a good deal of the history between the countryside and the city. Elsewhere in this series I’ve explored the highly traditional idea that the city is the place of corruption, a predatory realm where the ignorant or unwary are quickly victimized; but of course that’s how city-dwellers can imagine the countryside as well: not only according to the in-the-cabin-in-the-woods-nobody-can-hear-you-scream trope of horror, or the why-can’t-I-get-Thai-food-out-here trope of comedy, but according to a more serious fear that the countryside is functionally lawless. In the history of television and movies there have been countless stories of innocent and law-abiding urbanites caught helplessly in the sinister webs of Machiavellian rubes.
But more substantively, we might reflect that much of what people love most about big cities — especially the range of eating options — is possible only because people in the countryside grow or make what the city consumes. The story of Uncle Vanya is a familiar one in this respect: city residents as thoughtless and mere consumers of the real goods that the countryside produces. The city as vampire, the country as its innocent victim whose lifeblood drains away.
Some people are working hard to make cities more agriculturally self-sustaining, but they can never be completely so, and in any case leather for your boots won’t come from city cows nor linen for your suit from rooftop flax farms. But without the city how many buyers would there be for the flax and leather and cheese and arugula?
In Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — and thanks to my friend Noah Toly for pointing me to this remarkable book — William Cronon writes,
Americans [and I would argue not just Americans] have long tended to see city and country as separate places, more isolated from each other than connected. We carefully partition our national landscape into urban places, rural places, and wilderness.
(This, by the way, is why we have so few narratives focused on the suburbs: they don’t fit our categories.)
Although we often cross the symbolic boundaries between them — seeking escape or excitement, recreation or renewal — we rarely reflect on how tightly bound together they really are…. As a result, there are few models for a book like this one, which tries to tell the city-country story as a unified narrative…. Still, throughout it all I have held fast to one central belief: city and country have a common history, so their stories are best told together.
Emphasis mine. Country and city have always been and will always be interdependent. What a shame, then, that so many of our cultural narratives insist on setting them in opposition to one another so that one way of life may seem more authentic or exciting or fulfilling than the other.