(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Nowhere in modern drama is there greater majesty or fuller substance than in The Three Sisters. These qualities issue from Chekhov’s incomparable ability to make physical data yield moral truth, domestic irritation dilate into the great cage of cosmic suffering, and a single moment beat with the immeasurability of all time. Almost nothing “happens” in the play: His characters transmit no urgency, create no suspense, feel little tension. Yet The Three Sisters offers a psychic and spiritual eventfulness so dense, yet also so delicately organized, as to make the work one of the miracles of drama and certainly Chekhov’s masterpiece. No play has ever conveyed more subtly the transitory beauty and sadness of the passing moment. None has ever expressed more shatteringly the defeat of sensitive minds and generous hearts, the pathos of frustrated personal aspirations.

The play’s structure is woven of several separate strands of narrative, resulting in a complex dramatic texture. A highly educated Moscow family, the Prozorovs, were geographically transplanted eleven years earlier than the beginning action when the father, a brigadier general, took command of an artillery unit in a provincial town. The first scene opens on the first anniversary of his death, with the three daughters and one son living in their inherited house but wishing they were in Moscow. That city is seen by them through a haze of delusions as a center of sunshine, refinement, and sensibility, in contrast to the banality, stupidity, and dreariness of their town. This vision of Moscow is, of course, a mythical opiate. The Prozorovs never move there, preparing the reader/spectator for the play’s principal motifs of nonattainment and nonfulfillment.

Olga, the eldest sister, teaches school; Masha has married a dull local teacher, Kulygin; Irina, the youngest, has a position in the telegraph office; Andrey, the family’s pride, is expected to continue his studies at Moscow University and become a professor. All four are wonderfully reared, highly educated, sensitive, and unhappily stranded in a mediocre small town where only the officers of the garrison are of their class. Chekhov concentrates on the wasting away of this superior family in a coarse and sordid environment.

This milieu is personified by Natasha, a local girl whom Andrey...

(The entire section is 963 words.)