The Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov
The Three Sisters Anton Chekhov
The following entry presents criticism on Chekhov's Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters). See also Anton Chekhov Short Story Criticism, Anton Chekhov Drama Criticism, Gooseberries Criticism, and The Seagull Criticism.
Considered to be one of Chekhov's most moving and sensitive dramas, The Three Sisters reflects the pervasive pessimism of its era. The play tells the story of the three Prozorov sisters who despise their small-town life in Russia. Though the women pine for the glamour of Moscow where they previously lived, they refuse to do anything to change their unhappy lives. Chekhov used the Prozorov family as an analogy for the futility and despair experienced by Russians of that era. Since its initial production, The Three Sisters has been widely acclaimed for its subtle artistry and insight.
Plot and Major Characters
The Three Sisters examines the lives of the Prozorovs, a Russian family who live in a provincial garrison town far from Moscow. The three sisters, Masha, Olga, and Irina, all long to return to Moscow and spend their time bemoaning their humdrum lives. As the male head of the family after their father dies, their brother Andrey is thought to be their only hope for a secure future. But he spoils both his future and his sisters' by marrying Natasha, a greedy and vulgar woman who eventually forces the sisters to leave their own home. Rather than studying, Andrey spends his time gambling, while Masha, Irina, and Olga fail at jobs, marriage, and romance. At the end, as dreams are uniformly shattered, each sister ponders why life has brought them so much pain.
The Three Sisters, like Chekhov's plays of his later period, intertwines the mundane and the tragic. Chekhov focuses on the women's inability to be happy and their brother's staunch rejection of any promise in his life. But Chekhov is not above the use of humor to poke fun at the stubborn backwardness of his characters. The Three Sisters uses a subtle form of indirect action that, for Chekhov, mirrored real life. If reality is paced in a certain fashion, Chekhov reasoned, his plays should reflect that reality.
In 1901 the Moscow Art Theater presented The Three Sisters. Early critics, especially Russian commentators, interpreted the play as yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of Russian landowners' demise. Other criticism focused on a perceived lack of storyline and dramatic conflict in the work. Scholars have consistently pointed to the careful construction of the play. While The Three Sisters may appear static in print, it is complicated to perform. Because The Three Sisters, like Chekhov's other dramas, called for a performance style that was less grandiose and more given to inflection and allusion, a flamboyant production could easily obscure the intention of Chekhov's work. Fortunately, the noted director Konstantin Stanislavski, who directed Three Sisters at the Moscow Art Theater, developed a psychological, introspective dramatic style appropriate to Chekhov's plays. In later years The Three Sister's depiction of futility has caused Chekhov to be considered a precursor to dramatists of the Theater of the Absurd.
Ivanov (drama) 1887
Leshy [The Wood Demon] (drama) 1889
Chayka [The Seagull] (drama) 1896
*Dyadya Vanya [Uncle Vanya] (drama) 1899
Tri sestry [The Three Sisters] (drama) 1901
Vishnevy sad [The Cherry Orchard] (drama) 1904
**Pyesa bez nazvaniya [That Worthless Fellow Platonov] (drama) 1923
Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem A. P. Chekhova (dramas, short stories, notebooks, diaries, and letters) 1944-1951
The Oxford Chekhov. 9 vols. (dramas and short stories) 1964-1980
*This work is a revision of the earlier drama Leshy.
**This work was written in 1881.
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SOURCE: A review of The Three Sisters, in The New Statesman, Vol. 14, March 13, 1920, pp. 676-77.
[MacCarthy compares the characters and plot of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House to The Three Sisters and reviews an early production of The Three Sisters.]
“What does Bernard Shaw know about ‘heartbreak’—gay, courageous, resilient, handy, pugnacious, indispensable man that he is?” I reflected as I walked slowly away from the Court Theatre, where the Art Theatre Company had been acting Tchekhov's play The Three Sisters. For I had been sitting three hours (or was it months?) in real “Heartbreak House”; not in a “Heartbreak House,” of which the roof, as in the case of one London music-hall, was sometimes rolled back, releasing all the stuffy used-up air, leaving the antics of humanity bare to the speculation of the stars; not in a house of which at least half the inmates were crackling and sparking with vitality like the most electric of cats, but in one where they were more like dying flies in a glue-pot. It was a queer notion Mr. Shaw had of his own work when he thought he was writing in the spirit of Tchekhov; though we need not regret that he found as usual his inspiration in himself and created something individual and new. Indeed, that public criticism did not recognize a sharp discernment of actualities everywhere present in the fantastic...
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SOURCE: “To Moscow Again,” in The King of the Cats and Other Remarks on Writers and Writing, Second Edition, The University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 84-90.
[In the following essay, Dupee examines the stylistic and thematic limitations of Chekhov's work and the special demands that The Three Sisters places upon the performers.]
“The profundity of Chekhov's works is inexhaustible to the actor,” Stanislavsky said. But under present theater conditions, Chekhov's profundity, like Shakespeare's, can involve liabilities, for audience and actors alike. Perhaps it was so even in the patriarchal days of the archetypal Moscow Art Theater, Chekhov's shrine. There is evidence that things did not always go well there, although the playwright himself was at hand, or at least in Yalta, for consultation. He once complained that the officers' uniforms in The Three Sisters were too smart. The Russian military, he said, had ceased to be a glittering elite, had grown more cultured and shabbier. (The officers in The Three Sisters seem to have submitted wholly to the general bourgeoisifying trend, and the duel fought at the play's end, though fatal to one participant, is a travesty.)
But if the trouble was partly in the limitations to be found in any theater group, it was—and still is—largely in the profundity of Chekhov's art itself. While his plays were in rehearsal he...
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SOURCE: “Dreaming the Music,” in Fields of Play in Modern Drama, Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 79-101.
[In the following essay, Whitaker compares the musical elements of The Three Sisters with George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House and Paul Claudel's Break of Noon. ]
You seem wide awake tonight as you settle into your seats and begin to scan the program, but you must be dreaming—for what director in his right mind would dare to run these three talky plays together in repertory? Yet there they are, spelled out in black on green: Three Sisters, Heartbreak House, and Break of Noon. And your ticket-stubs—M 12 and 13, just left of center—are matched by two untorn pairs in your pocket.
“Why?” you ask her. “What can be on his mind?”
“Maybe the music,” she says, without looking up. But what music could link the wistful stammering of Chekhov's military and provincial gentry, the paradoxical rhetoric of those Shavian puppets who converge upon Shotover's landlocked ship, and the lyric tirades of Claudel's impassioned souls somewhere in the Far East? In your memory these scripts are separate worlds—tacitly acknowledging each other's greatness, perhaps, across thousands of miles of emptiness.
Not that Three Sisters hasn't seemed disturbingly close to your own life. A painfully amusing...
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SOURCE: A review of Three Sisters, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Winter, 1977-78, pp. 525-43.
[In the following essay, Moss examines the subtle elements of Chekhov's character and thematic development.]
In Three Sisters, the inability to act becomes the action of the play. How to make stasis dramatic is its problem and Chekhov solves it by a gradual deepening of insight rather than by the play of event. The grandeur of great gestures and magnificent speeches remains a Shakespearian possibility—a diminishing one. Most often, we get to know people through the accretion of small details—minute responses, tiny actions, little gauze screens being lifted in the day-to-day pressure of relationships. In most plays, action builds toward a major crisis. In Three Sisters, it might be compared to the drip of a faucet in a water basin; a continuous process wears away the enamel of facade.
Many stories are being told simultaneously: the stories of the four Prozorov orphans—three girls, one boy, grown up in varying degrees—living in one of those Chekhovian provincial towns that have the literal detail of a newspaper story but keep drifting off into song. There is the old drunken doctor, Chebutykin, once in love with the Prozorovs' mother, there is a slew of battery officers stationed in the town—one of them, Vershinin, a married man, falls in love with the...
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SOURCE: “Chekhov and the Contemporary Theatre,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, September, 1981, pp. 357-66.
[In the following essay, Hubbs discusses the various dimensions of themes and characterization in The Three Sisters.]
In recent years we have seen a new appreciation of Chekhov's plays on the part of general audiences as well as students of drama. Directors have emphasized Chekhov's contemporary quality, and critics have attempted to define elements in his dramatic techniques that link him with Beckett, Pinter, and other contemporary playwrights. In this updating of Chekhov, the nature of his dramatic realism has been a subject of increasingly enlightened debate. Bernard Beckerman, in a recent article in Modern Drama on “The Artifice of ‘Reality’ in Chekhov and Pinter,” begins with a summary of the two main sources of “reality” in the drama as a starting point for a discussion of Chekhov's contemporaneity. The first is “the impress of reality which comes from our habit of relating a play or a scene to some broader context.” The second source of “reality,” which Beckerman identifies with the theatre of Chekhov and Pinter, is the presentation itself, “the structure of the action scene by scene”—the reality which the character on the stage projects in “recurrent activities,” fixed routines.1 Until recently, as Beckerman points out, the audiences...
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SOURCE: “Three Sisters; Or, Taking a Chance on Love,” in Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 61-75.
[In the following essay, Kramer examines the role of love in The Three Sisters and the characters' reactions to their romantic entanglements.]
For all the talk about Three Sisters, it is still extraordinarily difficult to determine exactly what the play is about. One prominent school places the emphasis on the sisters as inevitably ruined creatures. Beverly Hahn, for instance, speaks of the “inbuilt momentum towards destruction” in the sisters' world.1 Another commentator claims that we cannot avoid contrasting the success of Natasha and Protopopov with the failures of the sisters.2 We might do well to examine just what the first two do achieve: a house, an affair, and a businesslike manipulation of the professional positions of the others. It would, of course, be absurd to suggest that the sisters have in some way failed because they do not aspire to such heights of crass avarice as Natasha and Protopopov. But there is still the claim that the sisters continually yearn for a quality of life that they do not possess, and yet do very little, if anything, to make their dreams come true. Chekhov invited this response by initiating the to Moscow line. That goal remains unattained,...
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SOURCE: “Huntsmen, Birds, Forests, and Three Sisters,” in Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, New York University Press, 1981, pp. 144-60.
[In the following essay, Karlinsky discusses the images of hunting and the forest throughout Chekhov's work and points to its significance in The Three Sisters.]
In describing the domestic arrangements of her parents at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's daughter Aleksandra emphasized the major role that dogs and horses played in their day-to-day existence.1 Few people who live in the twentieth century find themselves in such close proximity to such large numbers of these two domesticated species of animals. Those who have read Pushkin's “Count Nulin,” Gogol's Dead Souls, Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches, Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and almost anything by Aksakov will know that the pursuit on horseback of foxes, wolves, and hares, with the aid of large packs of hunting hounds, was the favorite pastime of nineteenth-century Russian gentry. The hunting of small game with a dog and rifle was widely practiced by all strata of the Russian population. On the staff of most rural estates were kennel masters, kennel hands, and special professional huntsmen (yegerya), whose job it was to keep the estate kitchens supplied with edible game of every imaginable sort....
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SOURCE: “The Three Sisters,” in Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 75-116.
[In the following essay, Peace discusses the creative genesis of The Three Sisters. ]
Chekhov began work on The Three Sisters in August 1900. It was the first play he wrote specifically for the Moscow Arts Theatre after their earlier successes with The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. The play received its premiere on 27 January 1901, with Olga Knipper, soon to be Chekhov's wife, playing the role of Masha. The Three Sisters is described as a ‘drama in four acts’.
In Act I of Uncle Vanya Chekhov exploits the banal pattern of tea-drinking both to introduce his characters and to suggest a psychological dimension to a domestic situation. The central event in the first act of The Three Sisters is the name-day celebration of Irina, and we shall see later that the ritual of this occasion, the giving of presents, provides a similar framework for the illumination of situation as well as for the presentation of character.1 As with Uncle Vanya, Act II is built around frustrated merry-making but the passions which erupt in Act III of Uncle Vanya are presented more obliquely in the third act of The Three Sisters, allegorically reflected in the all-consuming fire outside. The symbolic heat of elsewhere (as...
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SOURCE: “Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Lear's Daughters, and the Weird Sisters: The Arcana of Archetypal Influence,” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Fall, 1984, pp. 18-27.
[In the following essay, Rzepka points out the similarities between The Three Sisters and several of the plays of William Shakespeare as well as Chekhov's preoccupation with the classical and Shakespearean archetype of three sisters.]
The paths of literary influence are often obscure. In a letter written from Nice, January 2, 1901, Chekhov warned Stanislavsky, who was already directing rehearsals of The Three Sisters back in Moscow,
I've introduced many changes. You write that when Natasha is making the rounds of the house at night in Act Three she puts out the lights and looks under the furniture for burglars. It seems to me, though, that it would be better to have her walk across the stage in a straight line without a glance at anyone or anything a la Lady Macbeth, with a candle—that way it would be much briefer and more frightening.1
Natasha's entrance “a la Lady Macbeth, with a candle” appears not only in the long night of Act Three (p. 199)2 but also at the beginning and in the middle of Act Two (pp. 163, 183), at dusk. Whether or not Chekhov had conceived his character with Lady Macbeth in mind,...
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SOURCE: “Prisoners of Their Plots: Literary Allusion and the Satiric Drama of Self-Consciousness in Chekhov's Three Sisters,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, December, 1989, pp. 485-501.
[In the following essay, Tufts praises the satirical elements of The Three Sisters.]
Chekhov signals his audience from the very beginning. As the curtain rises on a set divided into a “drawing room with columns, behind which is seen a ballroom,”1 a set which is itself a stage within a stage, we see the Prozorov sisters, each dressed in a costume that is emblematic of her situation in life and her view of herself, and each fixed in the posture that will characterize her throughout the play: “OLGA, wearing the dark-blue uniform dress of a teacher in the girls' high school, is correcting student exercise books the whole time, either standing or walking to and fro. MASHA, in a black dress, sits with her hat on her knees and reads a little book. IRINA, in a white dress, stands lost in thought” (I, p. 103). In the ballroom behind the columns, Chebutykin, an army doctor, and Tuzenbakh and Solyony, two officers of the brigade stationed in the sisters' provincial town, carry on a conversation which the audience cannot yet hear. The occasion for this gathering is the celebration of Irina's name day, and the date reminds Olga that:
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SOURCE: “The Ghosts of Chekhov's Three Sisters Haunt Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart,” in Modern American Drama, edited by June Schulueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, pp. 229-45.
[In the following essay, Karpinski notes the similarities between The Three Sisters and Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, which include a trio of females, the domestic setting, and humorous elements.]
In Mississippi Writers Talking, Beth Henley identifies herself more with an older tradition of playwrights than with her contemporaries (in a prose style that may cause the gentle reader to doubt the assertion):
I mainly read old things. I missed a lot of reading when I was young, so I like to read more classical stuff … They told me, “They're not doing three-act plays anymore,” and I went “They're not? Wow! Back when I was reading plays they were doing them.”1
The name of Anton Chekhov is prominent in her discussion:
I had read Tennessee Williams and Chekhov, and I think they're great … Chekhov and Shakespeare, of course, are my favorite playwrights. Chekhov, I feel he influenced me more than anyone else … 2
Henley doesn't mention Three Sisters specifically, although in a telephone conversation...
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Brahms, Caryl. “The Three Sisters.” In Reflections in a Lake: A Study of Chekhov's Four Greatest Plays, pp. 79-107. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.
Traces the critical reception of The Three Sisters.
Bristow, Eugene K. “Circles, Triads, and Parity in The Three Sisters.” In Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, pp. 76-95. New York: New York University Press, 1981.
An examination of the groupings of threes in The Three Sisters.
Emeljanov, Victor. “Komisarjevsky Directs Chekhov in London.” Theatre Notebook 37, No. 2 (1983): 66-67.
Discusses a production of The Three Sisters by a noted Russian director.
Gagen, Jean. “‘Most Resembling Unlikeness, and Most Unlike Resemblance’: Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Chekhov's Three Sisters.” Studies in American Drama 1945-Present, No. 4 (1989): 119-28.
Compares Crimes of the Heartand The Three Sisters.
Hahn, Beverly. “Chekhov: The Three Sisters.” The Critical Review No. 15 (1972): 3-22.
Characterizes Chekhov's drama as emotionally spare and artistically intense.
Lucas, F. L. “The Three Sisters.” In The Drama of Chekhov,...
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