Lionel Trilling (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "The Three Sisters," in Prefaces to the Experience of Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967, pp. 28-36.
[In the following essay, Trilling ruminates on Chekhov's insistence that Three Sisters is a comedy, speculating that when Chekhov maintained "that Three Sisters was a comedy, even a farce, he was not talking to critics or theorists of literature but to actors, and he was trying to suggest what should be brought to the text by those who put it on the stage, a complexity of meaning which the text might not at first reveal."]
Three Sisters is surely one of the saddest works in all literature. It is also one of the most saddening. As it draws to a close, and for some time after Olga has uttered her hopeless desire to know whether life and its suffering have any meaning, we must make a conscious effort if we are not to be overcome by the depression that threatens our spirits. The frustration and hopelessness to which the persons of the drama fall prey seems to be not only their doom but ours as well. For between ourselves and those persons in Three Sisters with whom we sympathize there is remarkably little distance, certainly as compared, say, with the distance that separates us from Lear. Apart from the difference in nationality, nothing stands in the way of our saying that they are much like ourselves and our friends. They are decent, well-intentioned people, not extraordinary in their gifts but above the general run of mankind in intelligence and sensitivity, well enough educated to take pleasure in the arts and to aspire to freedom, the enjoyment of beauty, and the natural development of their personalities, all the benefits to which we give the name of "the good life."
And in fact, apart from their recognizability, these people are made especially easy for us to come close to because Chekhov, in representing them, takes full account of an element of human life that the tragic dramatists were not concerned with. Sophocles and Shakespeare represented life in terms of character and fate. Chekhov proposes the part that is played in our existence by environment. There is nothing that more readily fosters our intimacy with other people than an awareness of the actual and particular conditions in which they live their lives from day to day.Character, in the sense in which we use it of the creations of the great tragic dramatists, means the way in which a person confronts the things that happen to him, a number of which may come about as a consequence of his characteristic behavior. Fate is the sum of the decisive things that happen to a person, whether as the result of his characteristic behavior, or fortuitously, or at the behest of some transcendent power. Environment signifies those material and social circumstances in which an individual leads his existence, in particular those that make for his well-being or lack of it and that seem to condition his character and fate.
Since all events take place under nameable conditions, environment is an integral element of all dramatic genres, including tragedy. In the story of Oedipus, for example, it is clearly of consequence that Oedipus is king of Thebes, not of Athens, and that he lives as befits a king and not, say, a merchant. But we are not asked to be aware of these circumstances except in a general way. Our imagination of Oedipus in his regal life does not include particularities such as the boring ceremonial a king must endure, the strain of being always in the public eye, his exasperated sense of the frivolity of the innumerable palace servants, whose gossip and petty intrigue are a perpetual nuisance … and so on.
The modern literary imagination almost always conceives environment as adverse, as comprising those material and social conditions of life which constrain and hamper the protagonist and thwart his ideal development and which, more than anything that might happen to him in a sudden dramatic way, make his destiny. The habit of thinking about a human life in relation to its environment is of relatively recent growth. It began, roughly speaking, in the eighteenth century. Since then it has achieved an importance that can scarcely be overestimated.
This sense of the influence of environment on character and fate has deeply changed the traditional way of thinking about morality and politics. It enables us to believe in an essential quality of humanity, about which predications can be made, usually to the effect that it is by nature good, and then to go on to judge whether a particular circumstance in which an individual is placed is appropriate or inappropriate to his essential humanity. It thus serves as a principle of explanation in the personal life, and as a ground of social action. Few people can hear the contemporary phrase "juvenile delinquent" without immediately thinking of the family and neighborhood circumstances—the environment—that fostered the undesirable behavior of the young person. And in our view of ourselves we have learned to give great significance to the conditions of our lives, those that made us what we are and those that keep us from being what we might wish to be.
The awareness of environment is, as I have said, salient in our response to Three Sisters. We are never permitted to forget that the people in Chekhov's play are required to live in a certain way—far from the metropolis, Moscow, in a dreary provincial city; possessing the tastes and desires of a certain social class yet lacking the money to fulfil their expectations of life; bored by and disaffected from their professions. Their desperate unhappiness is not the result of an event, of some catastrophic shock, but, rather, a condition of life itself, the slow relentless withdrawal of all that had once been promised of delight and satisfaction. To catastrophe we can sometimes respond by mustering up our energies of resistance or fortitude, but the unhappiness that Chekhov represents is that of people who, as the environment takes its toll of them, have fewer and fewer energies of resistance or endurance, let alone renovation. It is a state that few of us can fail in at least some degree to know from experience, and our knowledge of it makes us peculiarly responsive to the pathos of Three Sisters. We are not surprised to hear that when the manuscript of the play was read to the members of the Moscow Art Theatre who were to perform it, the company was so deeply moved that many wept as they listened.
Chekhov did not take their tears as a tribute. He told them that they had quite misconceived the nature of Three Sisters, which was, he said, a "gay comedy, almost a farce." This may well be the strangest comment on his own work that a writer ever made. And Chekhov did not make it casually or playfully, as a provocative paradox. He insisted on it. The famous head of the Moscow Theatre, Constantin Stanislavsky, who directed and championed Chekhov's plays, says in his memoirs that he can remember no opinion ever expressed by Chekhov that the author defended so passionately; he held it, Stanislavsky says, "until his dying day" and believed that his play had failed if it was understood otherwise. Yet he was never able to make clear what he meant by this strange idea. Another theatrical colleague, Vladimir Nemirovich Danchenko, who was even closer to Chekhov than Stanislavsky was, tells us that when the actors asked him for an explanation of such a view, he never could advance reasons to substantiate it. To his friends in the theatre it was plain that Chekhov was not being perverse, that he truly believed that this saddest of plays was a comedy. But why he believed this they did not know.
And perhaps we cannot...
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