Like steam, life can be compressed into a narrow little container, but, also like steam, it will endure pressure only to a certain point. And in Three Sisters, this pressure is brought to the limit, beyond which it will explode—and don’t you actually hear how life is seething, doesn’t its angrily protesting voice reach your ears?
—Leonid Andreev, “Three Sisters,” in The Complete Collected Works
Regarded by many as the playwright’s masterwork, Three Sisters—the third of Anton Chekhov’s four major full-length dramas—is his longest and most complex play. Chekhov’s contemporary Maxim Gorky memorably praised its initial production in 1901 as “music, not acting,” and considered Three Sisters the most profound and effective of Chekhov’s plays. It is in many ways the archetypal modern drama that pioneered a new dramatic vision and method for the stage. Contemporary audiences and readers now familiar with the dramatic lessons of futility and frustrated expectations by such playwrights as Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter may overlook just how radical and trail-blazing Three Sisters was. Half a century before Waiting for Godot, Chekhov based his play on waiting for something that never happens, in which decisive actions and resolvable conflicts—essential ingredients of conventional drama—are replaced by paralysis, ennui, and the inconsequential. Almost a century before Jerry Seinfeld promoted a situation comedy in which “nothing happens,” Chekhov offered a tragicomedy on the same terms: keeping the expected dramatic climaxes offstage, concentrating instead on the interior drama just below the surface of the routine and ordinary. By doing so Three Sisters fundamentally challenged the accepted stage assumptions of its day, while establishing a new dramatic logic and procedure that have influenced and shaped the drama that followed it.
The Russian stage that Chekhov would transform was derivative, stultifying, and moribund in the 1880s and 1890s when he began as a dramatist. Censorship was more severe for the stage than for print, and consequently the Russian theater was dominated by the innocuous, by irreproachable patriotic spectacles, by well-worn melodramas, diverting musical plays, and safe imports. Moreover, the playwright’s financial reward for a successful play was much less than for fiction. This was a key factor why Chekhov, who had a lifelong interest in the theater, supported his family in Moscow in the 1880s as he studied medicine mainly by writing short stories and comic sketches. The Russian stage could neither sustain nor accommodate serious writers, and Russian drama fell far short of the achievement of Russian poetry and fiction during the 19th century. Feodor Dostoevsky, that most dramatic of all novelists, did not compose a single play, while Ivan Turgenev, whose atmospheric and nuanced slice-of-life dramas, particularly A Month in the Country (1850), anticipated Chekhov’s works, abandoned the theater early in his career. The gradual movement toward an indigenous drama and stage realism in Russia, initiated by Nikolai Gogol in The Inspector General, was sustained by the era’s most popular dramatist, Aleksandr Ostrovsky (1823–86), the first Russian writer to devote himself exclusively to the theater. Ostrovsky helped popularize the appearance of ordinary Russian characters and recognizable situations on stage in his nearly 50 plays that depicted scenes from Moscow life. Chek-hov, who would build on the foundations that Gogol and Ostrovsky had laid, began his dramatic career composing vaudeville sketches and short comic curtain-raisers, many adapted from his short fiction and sketches. His first full-length play, Ivanov (1887), is mainly conventional in its dramatic structure but contains traces of the innovations of psychological realism, atmosphere, and indirect action that would define the masterpieces to come. “I wanted to create something original,” Chekhov commented. “I did not portray a single villain or angel . . . did not indict anyone or acquit anyone. . . . Whether I succeeded in this, I do not know.” His second full-length play, The Wood Goblin, appeared in 1889 to poor reviews in which the playwright was taken to task for “blindly copying everyday life and paying no attention to the requirements of the stage.” Despite such censure Chekhov stood firm on the side of innovation, advising his brother in his own theatrical aspirations to “try to be original and as intelligent as possible, but don’t be afraid to look like a fool. . . . Don’t lick everything clean, don’t polish it up, but be clumsy and audacious. . . . Remember, by the way, that love scenes, wives and husbands cheating on one another, widows, orphans, and all the rest of the tear jerking have long since been described. The topic has to be a new one, but a plot is not necessary.”
It would finally take the conjunction of a unique play, a playwright of genius, and an independent and innovative theatrical company to bring Chekhov’s dramatic vision to fruition and public acceptance. The end of the monopoly of the imperial theaters in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the 1880s that had contributed to a conservative and staid Russian dramatic tradition provided an opening for inventive and original private theaters. The most famous of these was the Moscow Art Theater, founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938) and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943). Their company would emphasize ensemble acting and a scrupulous attention to stagecraft in which every aspect of a production—music, scenery, costumes, lighting, and especially acting styles—was joined into a unified dramatic whole. Stanislavsky, who would become one of the most important modern stage theorists, encouraged his acting troupe to replace the fashionable declamatory acting style with a psychological and emotional authenticity. These innovations perfectly suited Chekhov’s drama of subtext and atmosphere. The Moscow Art Theater’s second production was a revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull, his most innovative drama yet, written in Chekhov’s words, “contrary to all the rules of dramatic art.” Initially performed in St. Petersburg in 1896, its premiere was a disaster with actors who neither understood their roles nor their lines. Chekhov fled the theater during the second act, and critics blasted the play as inept and ridiculous. Nemirovich-Danchenko, however, was in attendance and convinced his partner, Stanislavsky, that the play had great potential. They managed to persuade Chekhov to let them take it on, and the Moscow Art Theater mounted it to great acclaim in 1898. The seagull would become the identifying logo of the Moscow Art Theater, which would go on to premiere Chekhov’s subsequent dramas and came to be called “the house of Chekhov.” The Seagull is a nuanced study of the nature of art and love in which conventional stage action takes place offstage. Traditional dramatic confl ict between characters is replaced by inner conflict within characters. Meaning is generated by counterpoint and juxtaposition of ideas and images, a dramatic method perfectly suited to the rich interplay of text, subtle stagecraft, and the psychological penetration pioneered by Stanislavsky and his company. Chekhov’s next play, Uncle Vanya (1899), a reworking of The Wood Goblin, continued the innovations of The Seagull; external action is minimal, dramatic interest is extended to several characters who refuse to conform to conventional categories of heroes and villains, and the overall force of the play depends on the unspoken and on its atmosphere and mood, as in a lyrical poem.
Three Sisters, which followed next, was the first of Chekhov’s plays to be written specifically for the Moscow Art Theater, drawing intentionally on the company’s strengths and production possibilities. At the outset Chekhov realized that his conception would prove “more difficult than the earlier plays.” As he observed, “I am writing not a play but some kind of maze. Lots of characters—it may be that I lose my way and give up writing.” Begun around November 1899, Three Sisters would not be completed until January 1901. Interweaving the complex relationships of multiple characters over a number of years, the play is possibly the closest Chekhov ever came to writing with the scope and texture of a novel. Three Sisters is Chekhov’s version of the fall of the house of Atreus in which a family implodes, not as in Aeschylus’s tragedy from overt crimes and betrayals, but from the covert, from the subtle collusion of time, place, and human nature. Set in a provincial backwater, the play focuses on the Prozorov family—sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina and their brother, Andrei—who have settled there from Moscow when their widowed father, a Russian general, was put in charge of the local regiment 11 years before. In act 1 it is the name day of the youngest of the three, 20-year-old Irina, as well as the first anniversary of their father’s death. A trivial series of external activities—the arrival of celebrating guests, small talk, a family dinner—eventually expose a complex inner conflict in which oppressiveness and aimlessness overwhelm the family. Beneath the placid surface of respectability and cultured chatter the Prozorovs and their guests feel stifled “as weeds do grass,” with signs of decay everywhere around them. Andrei, the family’s great hope to become a professor in Moscow and rescue them all from the provinces, has grown fat and lazy in the year since his father’s death; Olga, bitterly unmarried and longing for domestic tranquillity, suffers from headaches and continual exhaustion as a schoolteacher, while Masha, miserable in her marriage to a pompous schoolmaster, indulges in poetic melancholy. Only Irina remains hopeful and committed to achieving a new purposeful life while holding true to the dream that has sustained them all for more than a decade: getting back to Moscow. The act reveals, indirectly by innuendo and symbol (such as constant reference to time), a spent family group in which the old values and prospects no longer sustain them. The sisters and their brother have been raised to a level of cultural refinement that their tawdry provincial environment neither values nor shares. The Prozorovs are shown to be incapable of adapting to their altered circumstances. The new order that will vanquish the old is represented by a local girl—Natasha—who, despite her vulgarity and awkwardness among the sisters and their circle of fashionable officers, succeeds in captivating Andrei, and the act ends with his marriage proposal.
Act 2 takes place at least a year later in the same setting, but with the focus on the changes that have occurred: Andrei has lost all ambitions to become a Moscow professor and spends much of his time gambling and trying to forget how ill-bred and selfish the woman he has married is; Olga is exhausted by her teaching and has largely given over the running of their house to Natasha, who demands more and more deference from the sisters. Irina has taken a job she despises in the telegraph office, while Masha is the object of affection of Vershinin, the battery commander, who is seeking relief from his neurotic, suicidal wife. Such exposition, as well as evidence of the further erosion of the family, emerge only gradually from snatches of dialogue and details that break through from another sequence of ostensibly trivial external activities. Natasha overrules the family tradition of entertaining the Carnival mummers on behalf of her baby son, who “is not at all well,” and later quietly intimidates Irina to give up her room: “My dear, my own, move in with Olga for a while! . . . You and Olga will be in one room, for this little while, and your room will be for Bobik.” Breaking through the placid domestic routine is the unmistakable signs of the dispossession of the Prozorovs by Natasha and the new order that she represents. Using her son as a weapon against the sisters, Natasha dominates the sisters and their brother, and the Prozorovs have neither the spirit nor the will to resist this ambitious arriviste.
In act 3, a few more years have passed. The action takes place in Olga and Irina’s cramped upstairs bedroom as a fire rages in the town. As he had done in The Seagull and would repeat in The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov irradiates his naturalistic details with symbols that comment on and clarify the dramatic action. Here the fire serves to underline the crisis that threatens to destroy the Prozorovs as their collective and individual dreams are consumed and extinguished. Natasha has grown mercilessly and rudely imperious; Masha seeks relief in a doomed affair with Vershinin, while Irina reluctantly agrees to marry her persistent suitor, Baron Tusenbach, whom she does not love, resigned to her fate that she will never get back to Moscow and that she is drying up into “nothing—no satisfaction of any kind.” For the sisters all their dreams of a useful and emotionally satisfying life in Moscow are abandoned, leaving them, like the town around them, in ruin.
The play that had begun in the spring with the exuberant dreams of youth at Irina’s name day concludes symbolically in autumn with the news that the last bulwark for the Prozorovs to support their claim to culture and distinction and ward off terminal boredom—their relationship with the officers of their father’s former regiment—is ending with the unit’s transfer to Poland. Set in the barren garden of the Prozorovs’ home, the act is a series of crushing leave-takings and reassessments, each more painful than the last, underscoring the completion of the Prozorovs’ dispossession. Olga, now schoolmistress, is departing to live in meagre quarters in the school. Irina and Tusenbach are to be married the next day, and then they will leave for a proposed new, active life. The Baron is to manage a brickyard, while Irina will teach school. However, the Baron’s rival for Irina, the bully Solyony, has picked a fight and challenged Tusenbach to a duel. As the marching music of the departing regiment is heard, the news arrives that the Baron has been killed. The play closes with the three sisters supporting one another, sustained by an uncertain future consolation, much as they had been by their dream of returning to Moscow. Olga remarks:
The music is playing so gaily, cheerfully, and I feel like living! Oh, dear Lord! Time will pass, and we’ll be gone forever, people will forget us, they’ll forget our faces, voices, and how many of us there were, but our suffering will turn to joy for those who live after us, happiness and peace will come into being on this earth, and those who live now will be remembered with a kind word and a blessing. Oh, dear sisters, this life of ours is not over yet. Let’s go on living! The music plays so gaily, so cheerfully, and it looks like just a little while longer and we shall learn why we’re alive, why we suffer . . . If only we knew, if only we knew!
Facing the reality of their suffering and its causes while persisting in the business of living are the best that Olga can offer her family and what Chekhov offers his audience. In Three Sisters Chekhov, through his group protagonist and integration of surface detail and symbol, has discovered a powerful means of dramatizing the often unconscious and mainly hidden sources of human passion, dreams, and delusions. By restricting the conventional dramatic conflicts and climaxes offstage, Chekhov brings to center stage a drama of every-day life that is simultaneously utterly convincing in its specificity and profound in its universal significance.