Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

The Three Sisters was written late in Chekhov's life, staged just three years before he died. At the time, he had a solid reputation for his short fiction, and his previous play, Uncle Vanya, had been a critical and popular success for the Moscow Arts Theatre. Chekhov's fame as a playwright during his lifetime was neither widespread nor universally positive. Today he is considered a primary figure in the Realist movement that swept Russian drama in the beginning of the century, and, like a forerunner in any movement, his work was sometimes misunderstood. One of the most painful criticisms must have been the rejection of Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy author of War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilych. Early in his career, Chekhov idolized Tolstoy's writing, but when he went to see him in the winter that The Three Sisters was first performed Tolstoy kissed him but then whispered in his ear, ‘‘But I still can't stand your plays. Shakespeare's are terrible, but yours are even worse!’’ (qtd. in Kirk, pg. 145).

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According to his biographer Henri Troyat, early audiences for The Three Sisters misunderstood the play, criticizing it as ‘‘slow and colorless’’ because they were unfamiliar with his style. To some early audiences and especially to critics, Chekhov's stage work seem casual, rambling, as if he had no design but just wrote off the top of his head. Modern audiences are familiar with dramas using ordinary people behaving as they would in real life, but audiences expected more artifice on the stage a century ago. As Soviet critic A. Shaftymov pointed out more than a half century later, "theater critics reproved Chekhov most of all for introducing into his plays superfluous details from everyday life, and thus violating the laws of stage action. The presence of such details was put down to his ineptitude, to the habits of the writer of tales and short stories, and to his inability or unwillingness to master the requirements of the dramatic genre." Audiences began to appreciate Chekhov's modern style before critics: while critical discussions continued about whether The Three Sisters violated tradition out of defiance or ignorance of the rules, audiences grew larger and larger throughout the play's run.

Outside of Russia, the world was slow to appreciate Chekhov as a playwright. His plays were performed occasionally in Munich and Berlin and London, but with no great lasting effect. After World War I ended in 1918 the Moscow Art Theatre toured the world, with stops in Germany France and the United States, which helped bring Chekhov's plays to the world. The turning point came in the mid-1920s, when the London theater world embraced Chekhov. Martin Esslin, one of the foremost theater critics of the twentieth century, considered the acceptance of Chekhov's plays in London to be a natural pairing. England was a great empire that was near its end, just as Russia had been at the turn of the century, so that the themes that Chekhov dealt with, especially the downturn of fortune that had the social elite losing their traditional privileges, would have been familiar. Another important aspect was that London in the 1920s had a wealth of young, talented actors who were eager to put on shows that challenged traditional ideas about art. According to Esslin, such actors as John Gielguld, Peggy Ashcroft, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Michael Redgrave ‘‘made Chekhov their own, and... he has remained one of the most performed standard authors for over fifty years.’’

In Russia, the vast political changes that redefined the country helped to elevate Chekhov's reputation. After the Russian Revolution, the Moscow Art Theatre was designated the official model for "proper" Soviet theater, and Chekhov, because of those same "realistic" elements that earned him the resentment of his early critics, was presented as the model dramatist. Most of the highly propagandistic plays that came out of the Soviet Union, with its tight political controls on all aspects of life and art, showed little resemblance to Chekhov in any matters other than portraying ordinary citizens in their unglamorous lives. Still, the state's official approval helped to make the author known by school children across the land. Today, Chekhov is one of the most-performed playwrights in English, and The Three Sisters is considered one of his four great plays (along with The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard).

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