The Three Sisters, which premiered in January, 1901, is the first play Anton Chekhov wrote specifically for the Moscow Art Theatre. The play was directed by cofounder Konstantin Stanislavsky, the great teacher and originator of a technique of acting, and the cast included Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s future wife, in the role of Masha. Although it was not immediately successful with the critics, The Three Sisters has become the most frequently performed of the Chekhov canon.
Ill with tuberculosis and therefore forced to remain in the warm climate of Yalta, Chekhov instilled much of his own frustration and longing for culture and civilization into the sisters’ dream of returning to Moscow. Olga, Masha, and Irina feel overwhelmed and smothered by the banality of their provincial backwater town. They were educated for a society in which people have an appreciation of language and conversation and perfected a graceful style of living, but that society is fast becoming obsolete. Confused and lacking resources, the sisters search for a fulfilling existence, represented by the dream of returning to Moscow. There, they believe, they can be engaged in activities commensurate with their talents, and life will be meaningful.
The Moscow existence is no more than an idealization of the past, however. Vershinin’s entrance in the first act revivifies the time and environment of their Moscow girlhood, but, as a friend of the sisters’ father, he is a remnant of a past time. The sisters must somehow learn to exist in the changing world of the present. That present is represented by Natasha, who comes from a new middle class and is less educated, less sensitive, and less humane. In fact, she is downright greedy and grasping, one of the few unpleasant characters that Chekhov ever created.
As the skeptical doctor Tchebutykin says, “life is ugly and petty, happiness an illusion, and the only cure for despair is work.” The ideal of work, which in the eyes of Tusenbach and Irina, is the means to fulfillment and the solution to boredom, replaces the dream of Moscow. Irina’s position in the telegraph office is not satisfying, however, and Tusenbach’s management of the brick factory never reaches fruition. The others encounter equal disillusion: Olga’s elevation to headmistress only represents more work, Masha’s love relationship is doomed, and Andrey’s ambitions to become a professor are fantasy. Vershinin’s optimistic claim that life will be better in the future suggests a present of compromise and resignation. Throughout the play, the tension increases between the hope of fulfillment and the disappointment of reality, underscoring Chekhov’s themes of the absurdity of the human condition and the futility of the quest for meaning in life.
The external action of the play concerns the Prozorov sisters’ gradual physical dispossession at the hands of Natasha. Chekhov’s descriptions of the settings, the seasons of the year, and the times of day contribute to this development. Irina’s pleasant name-day party of the first act occurs on the fifth of May; spring and hope are in the atmosphere, although, as Olga remarks, the birches are not yet budding. It is a bright, sunny noontime, and the clock is striking twelve. The action sprawls through the living and dining rooms. The second act occurs on a winter evening. The same setting is now darkened and constricted by the presence of Natasha and her vulgar taste. It is Shrovetide, but the carnival maskers are not permitted in the house. In the third act, Natasha successfully usurps even more space and consigns Olga and Irina to a small bedroom. The time is even later, between two and three in the morning,...
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and outside a fire rages in the town.
In the fourth act, autumn arrives, the cranes are migrating, and the leaves falling, creating a sense of farewell and resignation. Although it is noon again, Chekhov ironically contrasts the scene with the first act by setting it outside, visually conveying that the sisters have been ousted from their home by Natasha and her progeny.
Chekhov’s use of sound effects is particularly notable. Seemingly insignificant by themselves, various mundane sounds echo through the play, not only creating an atmosphere but also commenting ironically on the characters and their situation. In the first production, Chekhov strenuously objected to Stanislavsky’s attempts to add to the effects that were so carefully inserted in the text. There are bells—sleighbells on Protopopov’s troika, chiming bells on the clock, and the anxious alarm bell of the fire—footsteps, tappings, and musical instruments. among them, piano, violin, accordion, and a band. In the first moments of the play, Olga remembers how the band played at their father’s funeral. In the final moments, the band plays more and more softly, as the brigade leaves town and the Prozorovs’ new lives begin. The clock strikes twelve as Olga speaks in the first act, Tchebutykin breaks the clock in the third act just as the dream of Moscow shatters. Masha whistles somberly before meeting Vershinin; afterward they communicate their love through musical phrases. Tusenbach plays the piano in the first scene, and offstage Andrey plays the violin. In the last act, someone plays “The Maiden’s Prayer” on the piano as the hope of Irina’s marriage dies.
Some critics view the sisters as passive victims of social conditions, who lack the aggression and the ingenuity necessary to realize their dreams and to better their lives. Others claim that the sisters strive to resist banality and consider that Masha’s great love, Irina’s decision to marry the baron, and Olga’s acceptance of the headmistress position represent that active resistance.
The Three Sisters is a cleverly crafted, realistic play with neither heroes nor villains and without startling theatrical effects (both the fire and the duel occur offstage). Chekhov creates a group of ordinary people, existing in a particular time and place, whose dreams of a better life are shared by all in any time and place.