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The Three Sisters

by Anton Chekhov

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Soyony's Love for Irina

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The characters in Anton Chekhov's drama The Three Sisters present various emotional conflicts, but one generalization that can be made about all of them is that they all hope that love will provide release. The sisters of the title feel themselves being dragged down by boredom, and two of them turn to love affairs to do for them what circumstances haven't. It might at first seem that "boredom" is the wrong word, because we tend to think of boredom as slight, as an inconvenience that will pass, but it is clear that Olga, Masha, and Irina are suffering acutely from a lack of intellectual stimulation, that the small town cannot keep up with their trained minds. What is not so clear is whether Chekhov wants us to believe that love really is itself a value that can stop lives from going to waste, or if it is just an illusion that these characters fool themselves with to make their situations bearable.

Masha loves Vershinin, even though they have opposite interests—she dreams of the city and he, bored with the city, values the country. Nor does the fact that he has nothing in common with her stop Andrei from falling in love with Natasha. Chebutykin promises at the end to return to Irina, the daughter of the woman he once loved, as "a sober, G- G- Godfearing, respectable man." Irina is not in love with Tuzenbach, but she does believe that there is someone in Moscow who is destined to be her true lover. All of these attempts at romance, from halfheartedly to perpetual, seem motivated by the characters' attempt to inject some reality back into their otherwise controlled, colorless lives. It makes perfect sense that people finding themselves confined should look to love for escape. Whether what they are feeling is "true" love is a broad philosophical question that Chekhov just does not provide enough information to answer.

Strangely, the one character whose motives for love are most clearly presented is Solyony, the boorish, angry staff captain. By all indications, Solyony should be incapable of love. He is a cretin, a braggart, and a bully, an insecure man who mocks intelligent conversation when he is unable to understand it and who kills men he feels threatened by. Soon before the end of Act II, this obnoxious man declares his deep love for Irina, using vocabulary that is strange for him. For one thing, his speech is more straightforward than it has ever been, not hidden behind a joke or a snarl as it is everywhere else in the play. For another, it is here that he uses graceful, colorful language, such as adjectives ("exalted," "pure," "marvelous," "glorious," "incredible") and similes for comparison. He seems earnest about his emotions and about his wish to express them.

It would be easy to make light of Solyony's declaration of love as a weak attempt to take advantage of Irina, which would fit with his cynical personality. It is also tempting to see his clumsy attempt to romance her as his bid to take place in the carnival of romance that is going on around him. It's most unlikely that Solyony might really be in love, but that is a possibility that has to be considered also.

To me, it seems that Solyony is sincere in his claim to love Irina, but that his sincerity is not, as he seems to hope, enough to free him from his dark personality. Considered this way, Solyony can be seen as more than merely a plot device to sprinkle comic or tragic relief onto an otherwise uneventful,...

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talky play. Taking him seriously as a lover proves him to be a key player near the intellectual and emotional center ofThe Three Sisters.

Solyony's function throughout much of the play is to disrupt the flow of the conversations going on around him. Conversations in polite society, even those concerned with meaning, tend to fall into patterns and lose their sense of urgency without someone like Solyony to challenge the speakers. When his method works as he presumably intends, he ends up, like the fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, exposing the shallowness of the culture that surrounds him. For instance, in the first act, with Masha turning nearly hysterical over the prospect of having to go and send a boring evening with her husband's boss, Solyony cuts into a serious conversation with, "Here, chicky, chicky, chicky!" It is somewhat cruel to mock Masha for following along like a mindless animal, pointing out the dreariness in her life that she is already fretting over, but it is a welcome change from the polite supporters who surround her and give her encouragement.

Clearly, Solyony sees his apparent senselessness as the brave stance of one man willing to cut through the pretense of polite society, brave enough to show polite company the nonsense at its core. Often, though, his non sequiturs fail to unmask hypocrisy, and instead they just leave listeners shaking their heads, as when he explains that the train station is far away "[b]ecause if the station was here it wouldn' t be way off there; and if it's way off there, then of course it can't be there." Solyony draws attention to himself before this pronouncement, obviously expecting it to either pass for intelligence or to parody conventional logic, but it's met with embarrassed, awkward silence.

Thinking of himself as the one honest person in the middle of hypocritical society, Solyony cannot tell when his peers are embarrassed because he has shown them the truth, from when they are embarrassed on his behalf, when they feel he has acted like a fool. His goal is often to shock and cause discomfort. When someone asks what the liquor they are drinking is made of, he responds, "Cockroaches," which might have a deep meaning about the evils of liquor but is more likely meant to make someone say, "How disgusting," which Irina does. Solyony cannot grasp the difference between an unusual statement that provokes thought and one that is just odd, or one that gets a reaction more like annoyance than enlightenment. He is too comfortable with being an outsider, which he equates with being a romantic figure, because romantic figures are usually outside of the mainstream.

Accustomed to being considered odd, but certain of his offbeat moral superiority, Solyony has an inverted sense of social status. For him, it is social success when people cringe, whereas smiles and laughter are signs that one is playing society's game, acting as its pawn. With this sense of values, it is hardly likely that he could be romantically successful. There are slim odds that he can find a woman who thinks of romance in the same way that he does, especially not in a small provincial town. If he found one, it would be unlikely that he could make his desires known to her. And yet, he knows that his sort of life has been romantically successful before. The poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) was a romantic figure who told the truth, who looked at life from his own unique angle and who stood up to the drones of society, and he earned the country's respect for it.

It is not surprising as it might seem at first to find a tough, offensive character like Solyony modeling himself after a poet, not if the poet is an outlaw who died young and his admirer is uncomfortable with himself for accepting the confines of society, following army regulations, and eating cake at birthday parties in the homes of the socially prominent. Surrounded by the mainstream culture, Solyony would naturally need an alternative culture to call his own. It is his belief that he is following different rules that no one but he and Lermontov would understand that makes him want to be dangerous, but also to be loved for it.

His role in the play is bracketed between the threat to someday put a bullet through Baron Tuzenbach's head and his murder of the Baron at the end. He has already killed two people in duels. Some critics define him as a killer, as if he just happened into the Prozorov sisters' social circle by chance or their bad luck, but that view of him comes from looking at him with his own eyes, taking him for what he wants to think he is. But he is not an out-and-out murderer, he is a dueler. In dueling there is an element of risk and courage, but there is also a strict social code that is missing from ruthless killing. For all of his mockery of it, Solyony wants social acceptance. This much is clear from the fact that he tries to cover up the scent of past killings at his hands, a smell that no one else would detect, with perfume.

The question about the love that he declares for Irina hinges on whether it is, as Solyony himself seems to believe, the great secret tenderness that his gruff exterior is defending, or whether, like the perfume on his fingertips and chest, it is an attempt to rise above his crudeness and fit in with cultivated society. Unlike the other characters, who seem ready to fall in love at the earliest opportunity, Solyony seems to be dragged into love against his will. But the fact that he believes that he does not want love is no proof that love has taken control of him. There is no evidence that Solyony really has a soft, romantic self hidden deep within his hardened shell, and plenty of reason to doubt that he does.

In Act II, he tells Tuzenbach that he is really shy and depressed when other people are around, talking nonsense in his discomfort: "But just the same, I'm more honest and sincere than lots of people—lots and lots of people." This confession is touching, until it is put into the context of his threat to kill Tuzenbach in the beginning of the play and the actual killing at the end. Solyony may be so insecure that he could only let down his thorny facade to someone who he knows will die, but it is just as likely that the sensitive Solyony is just an act, a nervous defense against Tuzenbach's direct question about why they do not get along better.

It is only a few minutes later that Solyony declares his love for Irina, calling her "the only one there is that can understand me." Why Irina? She is a sad young woman, but she does not seem any sadder than either of her sisters—Olga, by comparison, seems flat-out miserable, if neediness is what he identifies with, while Masha seems more in his league in terms of bitterness. Solyony's passion for Irina seems to last for just a few lines, racing quickly through her purity and incredible eyes before he settles on more familiar ground, male aggression, and decides to concern himself with how to deal with rival suitors rather than with her.

Does he believe he loves her? Of course. Does he actually love her? If he were more honest about his antisocial tendencies, if he really were a truth-teller and not just truthful by chance sometimes in his senseless babbling, then it would be easier to believe that he actually understands himself. As it is, too much of Solyony's self-concept is tied up in his image of himself as a troublemaker, a voice of truth in the social wilderness, and especially his identification with Lermontov. Lermontov dueled with his friend Lensky over Lensky's fiancée, and Lermontov won. He only stayed with the fiancée for a few weeks, though, before her abandoned her. In the same way, Solyony seems to honestly want to be in love, but it is hardly likely that he would know what to do with it if he got it.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.

Kelly is a teacher of Drama and Creative Writing at Oakton Community College in Illinois and the author of a full-length drama.

The Three Sisters, a review

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Sad evenings by the samovar, birch trees, an inexplicably breaking string and three young women moaning about their provincial lives. Few things are duller than bad Chekhov. The boredom can be as painful for theatregoers as the stifled hopes and unrealised dreams are for his characters.

If moroseness is one way to kill Chekhov, another method, favoured outside Russia, is to turn his plays into stiff drawing-room comedies. In his homeland Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) has tended, by contrast, to have the life revered out of him as Russia's "national playwright." This was especially true in Soviet times. Apart from a courageous burst of experiment in the 1960s, Chekhov on stage was reduced in the Stalin period and after to a thumping message about the decay of the past and the promise of the future.

Things, happily, have changed, and Moscow's autumn theatre season is full of productions which put the life back into Chekhov. The revival is most striking at the Moscow Arts Theatre, where his plays all had their premieres at the turn of the century, but where the weight of tradition has hung since like an old curtain. Oleg Yefremov's production of Three Sisters is only the third at the theatre this century and it took him a year and a half of rehearsals to cut loose from the past.

The Moscow Arts Theatre's 1940 production of the play had a set designed by Vladimir Dmitriyev in which a line of birch trees stretched into the far distance. The vista symbolised the Soviet interpretation of the play: when the visiting colonel, Vershinin, dreams of a future that is "unimaginably beautiful, astonishing," he is predicting the achievements of communism. So strong was this orthodoxy that a more adventurous staging of Three Sisters in 1967, directed by Anatoly Efros, in which Vershinin spoke ironically, had to be closed down. Several actors from the Moscow Arts Theatre wrote an open letter to the press, complaining that the production had travestied Chekhov.

Mr. Yefremov frees Three Sisters. His set is a long portico of the Prozorovs' house surrounded by a grove of tall birch trees in which the changing light of the seasons is reflected. At the end, when the sisters deliver their final speech the house disappears and they are hemmed in by trees, searching for a way out, lost. The birch alley has become a forest.

The delicacy of the acting reinforces the sense of hopelessness. Viktor Gvozditsky, who plays the luckless lover Tuzenbakh, speaks for many when he says he was bored in childhood with "school-primer Chekhov," and could never see the point of all those pauses and repetitions. Working with Mr Yefremov, he discovered the emotional power of the playwright. His Tuzenbakh is a poignantly vulnerable character, nervously optimistic but fatally passive as he agrees to a pointless duel.

Mr. Yefremov works up perhaps too powerful a mood of gloom. Even in the first two acts, when they should radiate some illusory optimism, the three Prozorov sisters seem almost paralysed as their nouvelle riche sister-in-law Natasha slowly takes over their house and their lives.

Judging by the keen response to the new production, Chekhov is striking a chord with audiences. One reason perhaps is that contemporary Moscow society has a little more time for reflection. The pace of change has slackened and Russians are preoccupied less with the threat of civil war than with bewildering economic transformation, much like their bourgeois great-grandparents in the 1890s. "The main mood in Chekhov is one of longing and apprehension. People look around them and wonder about their lives. When everything is falling apart it's more difficult to stage him," says Anatoly Smelyansky, associate artistic director of the Moscow Arts Theatre. During the short burst of artistic experiment before and after the Russian revolution, he points out, Chekhov was more or less ignored.

The novelist Andrei Bitov goes one step further, musing that Russian audiences are only now starting to appreciate Chekhov. His characters come from a property-owning class whose identity is bound up with a conception of money and ownership that for most modern Russians is still distant. "Why is Chekhov so popular in the West?" Mr Bitov asks. "Because western people still know about what it is to own property and go bankrupt, these problems are close to them."

It is appropriate that the most popular play of the moment is Chekhov's last, The Cherry Orchard. In a new production at the Sovremmenik Theatre, directed by Galina Volchek, an appreciatory murmur goes through the smart audience as the debt-plagued landowner Ranevskaya and the serf-turned-millionaire Lopakhin argue over the future of the orchard, which Lopakhin wants to chop down and turn into dacha plots. But that is so vulgar, complains Ranevskaya, expressing the distaste of the old intelligentsia for the brash new business class.

Ms. Volchek's production crackles with sexual comedy and class conflict as the household falls apart and finally disperses. It is full of that Russian social interaction that is always close to anarchy and veering madly between laughter and tears. At the heart of the play is a grand performance by Marina Neyolova, playing the mistress of the house Ranevskaya as a wayward prima donna. Like Ranevskaya, Ms. Neyolova lives most of the time in Paris, which adds an edge to her depiction of a character torn between the Russian provinces and France.

The production, which has just set off to the United States on tour, restores the social contours to the play, the only one in which Chekhov gives the servants a say and lets them openly mock their masters. The upstart Yasha is played a touch too overtly as a "new Russian" wearing a yellow suit and lime waistcoat, while Lopakhin, hard-working and dressed in black, is more inclined to win people's sympathy. At the curtain call the four non-aristocrats take their bow separately.

Both these productions stay within the naturalist tradition started by Chekhov and pursued by his first director, Konstantin Stanislavsky. The playwright himself left very precise instructions on how his characters should look and be played. He gave them exact ages and left instructions that Uncle Vanya, for example, should have smart, but crumpled clothes. These new stagings suggest that faithfulness to this tradition does pay off. The plays are made up of a thousand nuances and abrupt changes of mood that give them their coherence and their emotional strength. They also show that it takes top-class acting to restore the immediacy to Chekhov. For many the lines are so familiar that even Mr. Yefremov sometimes drowns them out with music in a way a western director would never do, as though assuming his audience knows them anyway.

Another production directed by Yury Pogrebnichko, a pared down Cherry Orchard at a little over two hours, is witty and discursive—Chekhov for those who already know him by heart. There is no decoration, just a white brick wall with a single railway line running in front of it. It is not only the railway mentioned in the play, but symbolises its themes of industrialisation and the coming new life. In the final act the servant Firs undoes his shoelaces as he lumbers on stage as though he has arrived in a prison camp. The servants, who are dressed in orange smocks—Soviet railway workers or Buddhist monks—scatter white cherry petals over the departing characters. This ritual promising rebirth nicely captures the ambiguity of the play's ending.

Mr Pogrebnichko's production is more a brilliant raid on Chekhov and his themes, than a full staging of The Cherry Orchard, but it shows that Chekhov in 1997 is open to new possibilities. By the centenary of the playwright's death in 2004, Russia may even have caught up with him.

Source: "Three Sisters," (review) in The Economist, Vol. 344, no. 8041, November 1, 1997, p. 89.

Three Sisters (review) in Commonweal

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The Prozorov sisters' much desired and eternally thwarted journey to Moscow gleams through Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters like Zeno's arrow in reverse: as time goes by, the distance between the sisters and their dream city increases, though in Act 1 they appear to be on the verge of arriving, and though they would arrive if it were possible to dose a gap with pure longing.

Even if they did get to Moscow, though, chances are that Olga, Masha, and Irina would still be thinking too much. Thinking too much causes much unhappiness in this play, which Chekhov wrote in 1901. In a moment of inspiration, early in Act 1, Irina's suitor, Baron Tuzenbach, rebukes the sisters' bad habit of asking what it all means: "What does it mean?.... It's snowing outside—what does that mean?" By the end of the play, though, he is as bad as all the rest. Everyone is thinking—about the purpose of life, about ambitions and careers, about society's future, about why birds fly south—and because they think, they feel perpetually unsatisfied.

Thought may also be getting in the way of the Roundabout Theater's production of Three Sisters, which despite several winning performances and numerous comic moments seems a little un-rooted, as if everyone had thought a great deal about the nuances of Chekhov without ever feeling at ease with his characters. Using an unobtrusive translation by the gifted playwright Lanford Wilson director Scott Elliott has adopted a straightforward, naturalistic approach that takes advantage of the script's comic potential. Overall, his distinguished actors execute their roles with grace, but the energy level never feels terribly high—something of a problem in a play that is three-and-a-half-hours long.

Though the directorial touches are more subtle here than in director Elliott's other current Broadway production, Present Laughter, there are some discreetly inspired moments, such as when the bizarre, ill-tempered Captain Solyony (Billy Crudup), seated at the back of the stage, rudely polishes his silverware on his dinner napkin while his hostess looks on. And if the comings and goings of the characters, the confessions and the non sequiturs, have a hint of staginess, that is certainly a problem that could seem almost inherent to Chekhov.

A handsome but not extravagant set designed by Derek McLane succeeds in emphasizing the scenes and personalities that Chekhov keeps off the stage. For example, the row of French windows in the Prozorovs' dining room, in Acts I and II, gives a nice symmetry to the production's beginning and end. In Act II a frosty moonlight slants through the panes, and when Irina stands looking out at the carnival revelers who have been turned away from the house, she really does seem separated from the gaiety of life.

By contrast, Act IV is set in the garden just outside these same windows. We can see through them to the dining room where Andrei Prozorov's shrewish wife Natalya (Calista Flockhart) is crowing over her children. The windows' transparency makes it all the more noticeable at this point that we do not see Natalya's visiting lover Protopopov, whom Chekhov chose to make an invisible, though sinister, presence throughout the play.

More practically, McLane's set gives the characters room to pace about as they ponder the meaning of existence. After all, this production's greatest claim to fame is its cast of eminent actors, including several refugees from Hollywood. Unfortunately, some of the performances are a little disappointing. Amy Irving creates a measured and dignified portrait of Olga, her acceptance of suffering seeming to improve her immaculate posture. Jeanne Tripplehorn has seductive moments as the flaky Masha. But Lili Taylor is nothing short of disastrous as the youngest sister, Irina: Taylor delivers all her lines in the same breathy tone, leaning forward from the waist in a way that makes her delivery even more strained and unbelievable.

Among the supporting characters, Jerry Stiller is hilariously deadpan as the decaying doctor Chebutykin. Eric Stoltz and David Marshall Grant give amusing but curiously superficial depictions of the Baron and of Masha's pompous schoolmaster husband Kulygin.

Two of the best performances extend the play's atmosphere of sadness and disillusionment beyond the eponymous sisters. Paul Giamatti's excellent comic timing in the role of Andrei complements the character's more reflective moments, such as when he sits in his darkened living room passing his finger through a candle flame.

And David Strathairn is truly moving as the disappointed dreamer Vershinin, the Battery Commander whose love for Masha cannot tarnish his gallant behavior toward his family. Strathairn has perfect stage presence, and his smallest movements—his cautious, restless glances, his soldierly carriage, his slightly uneasy workings of the hands—suggest great passion and pain held in check by impeccable manners.

In a way, Vershinin becomes the play's saddest figure because he is such an idealist, and has such naive faith in an idea of mystical progress. As he says in Act 4 (according to an older translation than Wilson's): "Life is hard. It seems to many of us blank and hopeless; but yet we must admit that it goes on getting clearer and easier, and it looks as though the time were not far off when it will be full of happiness."

It was probably this kind of philosophical strain, running through the play, that gave another New York director, Richard Schechner, the idea for a recent experimental version that situated each act at a different point in Russian history, with matching performance style (Act I set in 1901 a la Stanislavsky, Act II in the first years of the Communist state with the mannerisms of biomechanics, Act III as a political critique set in a 1950s labor camp, and Act IV as a postmodern meditation on the end of the Soviet Union). As this intriguing concept suggests, visions of a perfect society and a better future haunt Three Sisters, a little as the specter of Moscow does.

Fortunately, Chekhov never reduces his characters to spokespersons for ideas. Olga, Masha, Irina, and friends are more than the sum of their circumstances. That is why if, one day, the Act IV curtain rose on a domicile miraculously transferred to Moscow, the members of the Prozorov household would still be themselves. And they would still be thinking.

Source: Celia Wren, "Three Sisters," (review) in Commonweal, Vol. 124, no. 5, March 14, 1997, p. 15.

Circles, Triads, and Parity in The Three Sisters

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Even a casual reading ofThe Three Sisters reveals that the concept of three is somehow intertwined in the fabric of the play. And so it is. No matter what is seen or what is heard, the answer is usually three— or its multiple. Let's begin with, say, the number of characters. Fourteen characters are named in the dramatis personae; there is, however, a fifteenth character—Protopopov, the chairman of the District Council—who never sets foot onstage, but his presence offstage touches or ensnares all members of the Prozorov family, including the three sisters, their brother Andrei, and his wife (after the first act) Natasha. Five of the fifteen are female; the remaining two thirds, male. If Protopopov, his old watchman Ferapont, and the old Prozorov nurse Anfisa are set aside momentarily, the remaining twelve characters divide evenly into soldiers and civilians.

The concept of three shows up in the ages of the characters. For example, at the beginning, Irina, the youngest of the three sisters, is in her twenty-first year. Baron Tuzenbakh is almost thirty; Vershinin is forty-two; Chebutykin is almost sixty; Anfisa is seventy-eight and has been with the family twenty-seven years. All are multiples of three. The calendar time—from the beginning to the end—is three and a half years. The second act takes place twenty-one months after the first; the third, eighteen months later; the last, three months later. The time of day follows a similar pattern. At the beginning, the clock strikes twelve—it is noon. During the second act, the hour of nine in the evening rolls by; during the third, three in the morning; and the last act takes place at twelve noon. Not only is the time of each act three or its multiple, but also the diurnal/nocturnal time span could conceivably total twenty-four hours—again, a multiple of three. Moreover, even though four acts divide the play, only three settings define the locale: drawing room/ballroom; bedroom; garden.

The basic architecture of the play is apparently constructed in terms of three; that is, three characters, three parts of a triangle, three time orientations (past, present, future), and so on. As the first act begins, so does the last act end. At the beginning, for example, three female characters are downstage, and three male characters are upstage. At the close of the play, three female characters are downstage, and three male characters are upstage. The close of the play is arranged like the beginning, not only to illustrate the circular effect, but also to emphasize the precise balance, or parity, of a six-part conclusion on the meaning of existence. Both concepts of the circle and parity are closely associated with the concept of three in the play.

The effect of Chekhov's opening and closing in The Three Sisters is similar to that of the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy; that is, two groups, separated in space, sing and dance their choral odes; the first is called a strophe; the second, antistrophe. At the beginning, the answering group upstage consists of three military officers, Tuzenbakh, Soleny, and Chebutykin, who are talking together. What is heard by the audience, however, is an ironic comment on what the downstage group (the sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina) is doing and saying. That Chekhov deliberately arranged this opening in terms of the Greek chorus is verified by a comparison of the Yalta manuscript (an early version) with the Moscow manuscript (a late version). The three verbal combinations of the upstage group have been added, including Tuzenbakh's apparent comment to Soleny (in reality, a summary conclusion on the optimistic dreams of the sisters): "You're talking so much nonsense I'm sick of listening to you." It should be noted that not one character in either group is aware of the chorus device. The aspirations expressed in the downstage odes are consistently denied by the negative comments in the upstage odes. The result is an appropriate stalemate in which the downstage three sisters are perfectly balanced by the upstage three military officers.

The grouping of characters in threes occurs throughout; moreover, membership in one group does not exclude membership in another, since both members and groups are constantly in flux. The Prozorov family is a good example.

Olga Irina Masha Andrei

The family quartet is viewed as a foursome only for a few moments in the first act, when Andrei is called in to meet Vershinin, and for a single moment in the third act, just before Masha leaves to meet Vershinin. Combinations of these four Prozorovs into threesomes, however, take place on six or perhaps seven occasions. For example, in addition to the opening and close, the sisters share important scenes with Vershinin in Act I and Natasha in Act IV and develop one of their own in Act III. Andrei, Masha, and Irina are together for the party in Act II, and Olga and Irina behind their screens apparently listen to Andrei's confession near the end of Act III. It might be argued that this last scene—the seventh—is not really a threesome, since Andrei is the only visible character onstage, and neither sister acknowledges his presence or his words once they have escaped behind the screens.

The concept of three pervades the stories, particularly the love stories, in the play. Love triangles, with varying combinations, complicate the action, adding interest and suspense. Three triangles are apparently the most important. Baron Tuzenbakh loves Irina, as does Soleny who tells Irina his feelings in Act II. ...

Irina, however, does not love either one, but is persuaded by Olga in Act III to become the fiancée of Tuzenbakh. In the first act, Kulygin loves his wife Masha, who, in turn, is falling in love with Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin. Vershinin declares his love in Act II, and in the following act, Masha tells her sisters that she has fallen in love with Vershinin. Masha does not love her husband, nor does Vershinin love his wife. At the end of Act I, Andrei declares his love to Natasha, and between Acts I and II they marry and Natasha births a son, whom she calls Bobik. Her affair with Protopopov is discussed later in this essay. Andrei, who is very much aware of Natasha's adultery, inexplicably still loves her, as he tells the doctor in Act IV.

Three subsidiary love triangles exist; one seems more important than the others; and, in terms of parenting, the result is probably conjecture, perhaps even surmise. For example, the old doctor Chebutykin could easily be seen as the surrogate father to the Prozorov children, and perhaps in his special relationship with Irina as her biological father. Both the mother and her husband the general are dead by the time the play begins, and thus their relationship depends solely on Chebutykin's memory. Chebutykin professes his love for their mother on three separate occasions. As to evidence pertaining to biological parenting, however, whatever conclusion is reached can only be the result of guesswork. In the last act, when Masha asks Chebutykin if their mother loved him, he confesses, after a pause, "That I don't remember anymore." The other two love triangles are Tuzenbakh-Irina-the man of her dreams and Vershinin-Masha-Vershinin's wife. In terms of the six love triangles, if the Chebutykin-Mother-General triangle of the past is excluded, three characters participate in adulterous affairs (Natasha, Masha, Vershinin), and, if Irina's dream man and Vershinin's wife are included, a total of seven characters experience unrequited love (Irina, Tuzenbakh, Soleny, Andrei, Kulygin are the five seen onstage).

Trios abound throughout, and in keeping with Chekhov's striking a balance, parity is consistently observed. In the first act, for example, Vershinin waxes eloquently on the loss of personal identity, the mutability of human mores, and the essence of culture and education. The three sisters are enchanted, but three other characters are not. Soleny snarls insults at Tuzenbakh for joining in the philosophical discussion; Chebutykin tries to turn it all into a joke; and Andrei wanders off to his room to play the violin.

Linking characters in groups of three is a common technique in The Three Sisters. For example, three characters thoroughly enjoy mulling over metaphysical matters, as is evidenced in Act II, when Vershinin, Masha, and Tuzenbakh perform a musical trio on the meaning of life. Olga, Kulygin, and Irina are linked by their occupation of teachers and potential teacher. Natasha, Soleny, together with Protopopov, form another group of three who have been characterized as "the forces of darkness," in opposition to "the forces of life and culture," such as the sisters, Andrei, Tuzenbakh, and Vershinin. Although three characters play the paino, only Tuzenbakh and Natasha are heard. In Act III, Tuzenbakh claims that Masha is an exceptional pianist, which is denied by Irina's assertion that Masha has forgotten how to play, since she "hasn't played in three years ... or four." To illustrate the superiority of Tuzenbakh over Natasha in terms of talent and training, their playing (in performance) reveals a significant contrast between Tuzenbakh's better-than-average rendition of his waltz and Natasha's inept thwacking of "A Maiden's Prayer."

In the language itself, Chekhov constructed sets of three. That is, three subjects, verbs, predicates, attributes, and so on, have been carefully threaded into a multitude of words, phrases, clauses, sentences. Indeed, the opening line of dialogue illustrates the basic ternary formula:

Father died exactly one year ago, on this very day, the fifth of May, on your saint's day, Irina.

The three adverbial modifiers stress in rhythm (accent marks) and sounds (assonance italicized) the ternary construction. What Chekhov begins at the very opening is consistently practiced, with variations, throughout. At times, a word is simply repeated, and a new word added to conclude the threesome.

Vprochem, byl dozhd' togda. Sil'nyy dozhad' i sneg....

Or perhaps two verbs have been chosen, and one of the two is repeated to make three.

Segodnya utrom prosnulas', uvidela massu sveta, uvidela vesnu....

Sometimes a word or phrase is said and then twice repeated by a character, as in the following famous exchange in Act III.

KULYGIN: Ya dovólen, ya dovólen, ya dovólen!

MASHA: Nadoyélo, nadoyélo, nadoyélo....

Kulygin's "I am satisfied" is musically matched by his wife's "[I am] bored." The sense in the exchange (Kulygin's contentment versus Masha's ennui) vies with rhythm (anapests) and sound (Kulygin' s yada rhymes with Masha's nada) to gain control, and the result is a perfect balance at this moment between husband and wife.

Recurring phrases between two characters occur here and there. For example, in the opening moments Olga begins a thought, Irina continues it, and Olga finally concludes it.

Olga: I tol'ko rastet i krepnet odna mechta...

IRINA: Uyekhat' v Moskvu. Prodat' dom, pokonchit' vse zdes' i v Moskvu ...

Olga: Da! Skoreye v Moskvu. ...

It is also apparent that, besides the three instances of v Moskvu, Irina's second sentence incorporates three action verbs (the last is missing but is understood as the first word in her speech). As the example illustrates, the unity of the three sisters as a family group is explained in part by Chekhov's subtle use of ternary construction in the dialogue.

Chekhov's preoccupation with trinominal combination in language was not restricted to The Three Sisters. In examining the syntax of his stories, both Derman and Yefimov verify the ternary formula and note that it occurs regularly enough in prose written early as well as late in his career to pass muster as a consistent feature of Chekhov's writing style. Moreover, it seems that Chekhov frequently chose this device, according to Derman, "especially in dramatic, lyric, and generally 'touching' places'" in the stories. A great share of the lyric and compassionate moments assigned to The Three Sisters by critic after critic may be attributed to the trinominal combinations in the dialogue.

Tuzenbakh's farewell scene with Irina in the last act is a good example. In the space of less than a page and a half of printed text, almost a dozen separate sets of trinominal combinations develop contrapuntally elaborations (in rhythms and sounds) on the theme of unrequited love. The scene begins appropriately with Tuzenbakh and Irina commenting on Kulygin, who crosses the stage calling for his wife Masha. Both understand that Kulygin is happy at seeing the soldiers leave, since his wife's lover, Vershinin, is marching away, too.

Tuzenbakh, like Kulygin, is experiencing unrequited love. Tuzenbakh's chief rival in his love triangle, however, is not Soleny, who is waiting across the river for their forthcoming duel; instead, his chief rival is the unknown man in Irina's dreams. Although Irina and Tuzenbakh plan marriage the next day, she does not love him and tells him so, explaining that her soul "is like a beautiful piano that has been locked up and the key is lost". This is the second time in the play that a key is mentioned; the first "lost" key apparently prompts Andrei at the end of the third act to seek out Olga and ask for a replacement....

It is apparent that Irina, like Tuzenbakh, is experiencing unrequited love, in that she has not yet met in actuality the man of her dreams. What Tuzenbakh desperately seeks is "only that lost key" (the third and last time a "lost" key is mentioned) that torments his soul and gives him no sleep. He continues:

TUZENBAKH: Tell me something. Pause. Tell me something ...

IRINA: What? What (can I) say? What?

TUZENBAKH: Something.

IRINA: Enough! Enough! Pause.

Occurring as it does in the central moments of their final duo, the sextet of chtos—evenly divided between the pair—aptly illustrates their inability to assuage the other's pain. Tuzenbakh's threefold request for "something," or "anything," is crisply denied by Irina's impersonal "what." Even their choice of rhythms is appropriate. Tuzenbakh's dactylic chtónibud' is countered by Irina's trochaic chtó skãzát'and, subsequently, Pólno! Pólno!

In Tuzenbakh's long speech following this exchange, he at first tries to explain the events and attitudes leading to the duel. Irina apparently does not understand what he is saying, since he couches his remarks in Aesopian language. Tuzenbakh then turns to the here and now. And to the ternary formula, as well. "As if [it's] the first time in [my] life I [actually] see these firs, maples, birches, and everything is looking at me, questioning, and waiting." His plea that a beautiful life should go hand in hand with the beautiful trees is punctuated by Skvortsov's shout, "Au! Gop-gop!"—a signal reminding Tuzenbakh of the impending duel. Before he goes, however, he sees the dried-up (dead) tree swaying in the wind with the live trees and concludes that he, if he should die, will participate in life (like the dead tree), "in one way or another". Kissing Irina's hand, he speaks in threes once more.

Your papers, that you gave me, are lying on my table, under a calendar.

Their scene breaks off abruptly when Tuzenbakh "quickly leaves." His departure follows his piddling request that coffee be prepared since, "not knowing what to say," he lamely explains that he had not "drunk coffee today." Tuzenbakh knows, as does the reader, that he will probably die in the duel. It is, after all, Soleny's "third duel", and Soleny himself predicted three years earlier that Tuzenbakh "will die of a stroke" or Soleny would lose his temper "and plant a bullet" in his forehead "in about two or three years." Irina's inability to respond to Tuzenbakh's request that coffee be prepared perhaps only clarifies their understanding that the coffee is simply a substitute for her declaration of love. In short, the two end their final scene in the same way that Tuzenbakh begins his long speech in it—with Aesopian dialogue.

As the example of the final duo scene between Irina and Tuzenbakh illustrates, the trinominal combinations in the language itself contribute to an understanding of structure, character, and thought. In fact, the duo scenes of Irina and Tuzenbakh in the remainder of the play reveal that the uses of three are subtle, consistent, and—above all—numerous.

Irina and Tuzenbakh have three duo scenes where the two are alone; their duo scene in Act III is monitored by Masha, although Tuzenbakh—in the beginning—believes that he and Irina are alone and thus speaks to Irina "tenderly." Their duo scene in Act II is confined to Irina's complaint of being tired and to Tuzenbakh's ternary statements about his three surnames, the dominance of his Russian qualities over the German, and his persistent attention to Irina's welfare. Their next-to-the-longest duo scene alone, lasting about a half page of printed text, takes place near the end of Act I, when the other characters are upstage in the ballroom. Their conversation is limited to three topics: Soleny, love/life, and work. Their duo scene in Act III, although Masha keeps telling Tuzenbakh to leave the bedroom, is also focused on three topics: work, love/life, and erosion by time....

Not only are trinominal combinations interlaced in the Russian language, but they are also apparent in the other two languages, Latin and French. In keeping with Chekhov's addiction to the concept of three, The Three Sisters is indeed trilingual. Latin is spoken by Kulygin who teaches that language in the school; French, by Natasha who is apparently trying to "better" herself. How ironic that the Prozorov family admit their knowledge of three languages and in reality know twice that number but speak only Russian, whereas Natasha whose origins are socially inferior to the Prozorovs, coming as she does out of the mesh-chane (an estate next to the peasantry in Old Russia), persists in speaking French. She speaks it badly, of course, enough so that Tuzenbakh must suppress his laughter, but she speaks it only two times—once in the second act, and once in the fourth act. French is, however, spoken a third time in the play—by Chebutykin in the second act when he asks Irina to come into the ballroom.

Kulygin's Latin phrases and sentences (two in every act except the second when only one is spoken) can be viewed as annotations, injunctions, or even Chekhovian signatures as to action and character. Two examples may suffice to illustrate the device. In the first act, Kulygin presents Irina with a copy of his book on the history of the school and concludes his presentation speech with a Latin injunction, which reads (in translation): "Do what you can, let those who are able to do it better". Apparently, he is referring to the result (his book) of his own efforts as historian. When Irina points out that she had already received a copy from Kulygin last Easter, Kulygin then makes a gift of the book to Vershinin—an ironic action, since the book still carries with it the Latin injunction. In a short while, Vershinin and Masha fall in love, and it is apparent that Masha considers Vershinin far superior to Kulygin. Moreover, the Latin injunction pervades other stories in the play, as well as the Kulygin-Masha-Vershinin love triangle. For example, Natasha apparently believes her lover Protopopov abler than her husband Andrei. Irina picks the man of her dreams over both Tuzenbakh and Soleny. Vershinin prefers Masha to his own wife. And so on throughout the play. In terms of control of the house, for example, both Natasha and Protopopov are superior to the Prozorov family by the end of the play. So is Soleny topmost when it comes down to dueling.

A second example of Kulygin's Latin takes place in the third act. Chebutykin is drunk and, in a touching speech, excoriates himself and others for their hypocrisy, ignorance, and philistinism. Shortly thereafter, Kulygin slaps Chebutykin on the shoulder, thereby appointing to the doctor Cassandra's gift for prophetic truths as he announces, "In vino veritas," or "In wine there is truth." Whatever the doctor says and does in this third act may be considered the truth, or close to the truth, and like Cassandra, the doctor is scarcely listened to. For example, he drops mama's clock, smashing it to pieces—an appropriate action that depicts time itself as going to pieces, or the Prozorov family's dream of Moscow as falling apart, or the very house in which they live as no longer belonging to them. The doctor repeats his nihilistic avowal of nonexist-ence. And he reports that Natasha is having an affair with Protopopov. Since the rules of linear time no longer apply (mama's clock is smashed to pieces), the doctor's statement about the affair is not only current, but travels back into the past and forward into the future, as well. In fact, Natasha's sexual affair with Protopopov ostensibly begins with their sleigh ride at the end of Act II, since Natasha's new child, Sofochka, announced at the beginning of Act III, is probably Protopopov's. It is possible, of course, that the affair began much earlier; for example, Masha—at the beginning of the play—reports the rumor of their forthcoming "marriage." Thus, the "truthful" messages—blessed with Kulygin's Latin—that Chebutykin drunkenly brings into the third act reveal incontinence, putridity, even manslaughter.

In addition to the trilingual explorations in sound and sense, three instances of nonsense sounds have been selected, since they permeate certain characters and their actions: Soleny's barnyard irritant; the love duet between Masha and Vershinin; and the doctor's nihilistic song. Soleny comes up with the nonsense sound tsip three times on each occasion, and since there are five occasions (four in Act I, one in Act III), the sound is heard fifteen times—a multiple of Chekhov's three. It is an irritating sound—high pitched, piercing, grating— and designed by Soleny to needle his rival Tuzenbakh. Not until act III, when Soleny quotes from Krylov' s "The Geese," is the sound clarified, its origin discovered, and the threat to Tuzenbakh's welfare intensified.

The famous love duet in nonsense sounds occurs in three separate instances in the third act. The first comes after Vershinin sings a line or two from Pushkin's Yevgeniy Onegin (the music is probably Chaykovskiy's).

MASHA: Tram-tam-tam ...

VERSHININ: Tam-tam ...

MASHA: Tra-ra-ra?

VERSHININ: Tra-ta-ta. Laughs.

The three-syllable exchange of vows is undoubtedly their mutual declaration of love, and Masha's agreement to a consummation of their affair probably takes place in their second interaction a few moments later as Vershinin prepares to leave.

VERSHININ: Tram-tam-tam.

MASHA: Tram-tam.... And their final exchange is heard near the close of Act III.

VOICE OF VERSHININ offstage: Tram-tam-tam!

MASHA Rises, loudly: Tra-ta-ta!

This last three-syllable interaction is an appropriate culmination of the previous scene between Masha and her two sisters, during which Masha describes her profound, abiding, inexplicable love for Vershinin. When he finally calls her from offstage, she answers boldly and then leaves, knowing full well that she is replacing her reputable marriage state with the life of an adulteress. Her farewell moments with her sisters and brother are impeccable Chekhovian signatures as to the end of one role and the beginning of the next.

The doctor's nihilistic song occurs only in the last act (twice in the early part, twice at the end). It consists of twelve syllables (a multiple of Chekhov's three); the first six are nonsense sounds; the last six essentially mean "Sitting on a curbstone am I." The entire line, composed in almost perfect dactyls and aptly punctuated with Chekhov's trinary series of three dots, runs: Tarara ... bumiya ... sizhu na tumbe ya ... Its apparent purpose is chiefly to help balance the six-part ending of the play.

Another word that seems to be a nonsense sound is the interjection gop that appears only in the last act. In Chekhov's day, the sound was used to spur animals into jumping or leaping, and its choice is effective. It is first used at the beginning by Rode.

Takes in the garden at a glance. Farewell, trees! Shouts. Gop-gop! Pause. Farewell, echo!...

As produced at the Moscow Art Theater, there is a third gop, that is, the echo itself that is heard in place of the pause, and thus Rode's youthful, lyric, compassionate moment of farewell is carefully constructed in threes. A few moments later, Rode repeats his farewell gop-gop upstage and in production the third gop is heard. The same interjection, combined with another sound for attracting attention—"Au! Gop, gop!"—occurs three times in the act. In place of the touching effect witnessed with Rode, this phrase is designed to sound a note of impending doom. When it is first heard, for example, Irina "shudders," explaining that "Everything somehow frightens me today." When it is repeated, it follows Chebutykin's comment on the baron's chances in the duel: "The Baron is a fine person, but one Baron more, one Baron less—what does it matter, anyway! Let them! It doesn't matter!" After the sounds are heard, Chebutykin explains, "That's Skvortsov shouting, he's the second. He's sitting in a boat." And the last time the phrase occurs, it signals Tuzenbakh to the duel.

Musical instruments and their sounds apparently go in threes, too. In Act I, three instruments are heard: onstage piano (Tuzenbakh); offstage violin (twice played by Andrei); onstage humming top (Fedotik's gift to Irina). In Act II, three instruments: offstage accordion (heard at the beginning and end of the act); onstage guitar(s) played by Fedotik and/or Rode; onstage piano (waltz by Tuzenbakh). In Act III, the only "musical" instrument is the fire alarm bell that is struck three times (beginning, middle, end). In Act IV, however, a piano and two groups of instruments are heard: offstage piano (Natasha playing "The Maiden's Prayer"); offstage and onstage violin and harp; offstage military band.

Embedded firmly in the play are numerous threads of folksong, poems, folklore, literary allusions and names, and rituals that stitch point to patterns of meaning that are easily understood or felt only by audiences familiar with the Russian language and environment. A partial listing includes writers such as Dobrolyubov, Gogol', Griboyedov, Lermontov; poems such as Krylov's "The Geese" or Pushkin's "Gypsies"; literary concepts like superfluous (lishniy), freeloader (prizhival), or the universal concept of poshlost. The daily rituals of eating, drinking, and interacting combine with the larger rituals associated with individual rites of passage: celebration of a saint's day in Act I; births (Bobik and Sofochka); and death (Tuzenbakh in Act IV). Group rituals occur throughout, including a rite of intensification in Act II (Carnival Week), as well as that of fighting the town fire in Act III, and the arrival (Act I) and departure (Act IV) of the soldiers. In most of these instances, the concepts of the circle, triads, and parity clarify the patterns and complicate the action of the play. Two examples should illustrate Chekhov's technique.

Early in Act I, the first words spoken by Masha are the opening lines of the prologue to Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820) by Aleksandr Pushkin.

By the curved seashore stands an oak tree green; A golden chain to that oak is bound....

Masha then repeats the second line. These lines are appropriate in all aspects: structure, character; thought; diction; music; spectacle. They introduce a long fairy tale that, in turn, is based on seventeenth-century popular narrative, and thus in The Three Sisters clarify the beginning of the Vershinin-Masha-Kulygin triangle in terms of awe, mystery, ecstasy of new love. Having introduced Pushkin's poetic image, Masha returns to that image twice. At the end of Act I, these same two lines are repeated by Masha, who then adds, "Now, why on earth do I keep saying this? Those lines have been bothering me since early morning . . . ." What is not said, but is well known to all educated Russians, are the third and fourth lines.

And linked to the chain with a scholarly mien A tomcat is seen going round and round and....

The poetic image of the tomcat chained to, and circling round, the oak tree underscores both the repetition (Act I) and the final effect (Act IV) of Masha's two loves: first, for her husband Kulygin (about four years before the play begins); second, for Vershinin during the course of the play. The cyclical effect of Masha's love is stressed at the end of the first act when Fedotik gives a spinning (and humming) top to Irina, and thus the images of the cat circling the tree, as well as that of Masha and the love cycle, are reinforced both visually and aurally. At this point in Russian productions, all the actors onstage (except Masha) usually "freeze" into a tableau, and only the humming sound of the top and Pushkin's lines, reinforced by the sight of the spinning top and the slight movement of Masha, are heard and seen. Masha's third and last reference to Pushkin's poem occurs immediately following the farewell scene with Vershinin in Act IV. There, of course, she is so distraught, she scrambles the poem and refers to "A tomcat green . . . ." At no point in the play is Masha ever consciously aware of the subtle connections between Pushkin's poem and the complex of emotions, meanings, and action.

A second example of Chekhov's craftsmanship occurs shortly after the introduction of the Pushkin poem in Act I, and like the earlier image, the second is twice repeated; unlike the first, however, the second image exemplifies the action of several characters. Soleny overhears the sisters in conversation, makes a stupid remark, and is quickly ripped apart by Masha. "What is it you wanted to say, you loathsome, terrible person?" Masha asks, and Soleny replies, "Nothing at all." He then adds two lines.

Before he had time to let out a yell, The bear was squeezing him to hell.

The lines are from The Peasant and the Workman (1815), a well-known fable by Ivan Krylov. By quoting these lines, Soleny refers to the suddenness of Masha's attack; the he in the fable is Soleny himself; and the bear is Masha. In the last act, Soleny arrives to take Chebutykin to the duel and repeats the Krylov lines. Then Chebutykin repeats the same lines, and it is clear that Chekhov has linked Soleny and his action to the action of the bear. The he in the fable is associated with Tuzenbakh. Both the fable and the Pushkin poem meld in the last act. At the very moment Kulygin forgives Masha for her love affair with Vershinin, the gunshot that kills Tuzenbakh is heard.

KULYGIN: She's stopped crying ... she is a good woman ...

There is heard a faint shot, far off.

MASHA: By the curved seashore stands an oak tree green; A golden chain to that oak is bound ... A tomcat green ... an oak tree green ...

I'm getting it all mixed up....

Not only does Chekhov link the fable and its bear to Soleny and his action, but he also links it to Protopopov and his. In Act I, immediately after Soleny quotes from Krylov, the nurse Anfisa and Ferapont enter with a cake—a gift to Irina on her saint's day. Anfisa says, "From the District Council, from Protopopov, Mikhail Ivanych ... A cake." It is tempting to associate Protopopov with the two lines in the fable, particularly with the bear in the fable. The common nicknames of Mikhail (Protopopov’s first name) are Misha and Mishka, which are also common nicknames for the Russian bear (‘medved’). The action of Protopopov from beginning to end, as David Magarshack points out, resembles the swift action of the bear in the fable. The he, in this instance, is associated with the three sisters, who have been forced out of their home by Act IV, whereas Protopopov is comfortably seated inside—a guest of his paramour Natasha. The last verbal reference to the image of the bear occurs in French, when Natasha at the window shouts at Andrei: "It’s you, Andryusha? You’ll wake up Sofochka. Il ne faut pas faire dú bruit, la Sophie est dormée déjà. Vous êtes un ours". In translation, ‘‘Don’t make a noise, Sophie is already asleep. You are a bear.’’ The baby Sofochka at this moment is in the carriage Andrei has been wheeling outdoors. Natasha then orders Ferapont to take the carriage from Andrei. Natasha’s accusation and decision are—unwittingly for her—ironic comments on the condition of Andrei. He, too, resembles the bear in Krylov’s fable. His marriage to Natasha is the beginning of a downward glide that ends in cuckoldry and alienation from his sisters. On the way he mortgages the house to pay his gambling debts, and Natasha holds the money. Andrei is as much the bear as is his rival Protopopov. Moreover, when Natasha shouts, "You are a bear," the you can refer not only to Andrei outside but also—unwittingly for Natasha—to Protopopov sitting next to her inside. It may be that the removal of Sofochka from Andrei is perhaps a symbolic gesture of emasculation—as much as it is symbolic of Natasha’s drive for order. That is, at the end of the play, Andrei is outside, wheeling his son Bobik, while Protopopov is inside, holding his daughter Sofochka—an effective ironic conclusion, in keeping with Natasha’s manipulation of persons. To each child, her or his own father. Both actions are the result of Natasha’s own decision. . . .

All these moments grow—not only linearly but also geometrically—into clusters of ideas, feelings, and images that recur, multiply, and strike consistent balances. The Three Sisters, perhaps more than any other Chekhovian play, is centrally concerned with the meaning of existence. What goes into the making of happiness? How should we live out our lives? Why do people suffer? "Nothing happens," Olga concludes in Act IV, "the way we want it to". . . .

Chekhov’s questions that he raises throughout the play come together at the very end. Just as the seasons change (each of the four acts takes place during one of the four seasons), the life cycle starts over again at the end. And the ending resembles the beginning. Only a strophe and a half, separated by an antistrophe, conclude the play. It begins with the three sisters downstage, "pressing next to one another," and each sings and dances her own song. Masha begins, and borrowing from Tuzenbakh’s ideas, she stresses the necessity of simply to keep on living. Repeating Vershinin’s faith in the future, Irina returns to her own beliefs (first expressed in Act I) that personal salvation can be realized only through work. Olga, cribbing too from Vershinin’s ideas pertaining to the loss of personal identity and optimism in the future, searches for the raison d’être: "The band plays so joyfully, so happily, and it seems that in a little while we shall know the reason we live, the reason we suffer . . .". And then Olga adds her famous dactyl plea, "Yesli by znat’," which is repeated. The statement, usually translated "If only we knew," is a hypothetical conditional statement, so constructed without a stated subject but with an infinitive. Any subject could be added— I, you, he, she, one, they, in place of we, or, more to the point—all subjects could be added, thus encompassing everyone in listening range. And so ends the first ode, a three-part harmony on existence.

The antistrophe, consisting of two mute male characters (Kulygin and Andrey) and the speaking doctor, is a three-part answer to the sisters’ ode. Kulygin, carrying Masha’s hat and cape, is "happy, smiling," apparently convinced that everything will return to the way it was before Masha’s affair with Vershinin. The Latin teacher had previously expressed his belief that life is very real, by no means an illusion, and like the Romans, a person’s life style must be ordered, following its routine, regimen, rules. Andrey, emasculated by his wife and neglected by his sisters, wheels the carriage, in which Bobik is sitting, a consistent reminder of his vanished dreams. Earlier in the act, he condemns the town (audience) for their indifference, deceit, and philistinism, charges that could perhaps be leveled at the speaker himself. The third member of the upstage chorus, Chebutykin, sits on a bench and denies the optimism expressed by the sisters. He "sings quietly."

"Tara . . . ra . . . boom-di-yah . . . sitting on a curb today . . ." Reads newspaper. It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter!

The antistrophe ends, and Olga begins the second strophe: "If only we knew, if only we knew! . . . ."

And the curtain falls on two choruses. In each chorus are embodied three characters, each singing and dancing her and his viewpoint on the nature of existence. The play has come full circle, in keeping with the persistent cyclical patterns. Moreover, it has consistently followed the ternary construction from beginning to close. And the characters, usually cast in groups of threes, together with their ideas, emotions, and images, have been carefully balanced to reveal an equivalence rarely seen in the drama since the Renaissance.

Source: Eugene K. Bristow, "Circles, Triads, and Parity in The Three Sisters," in Chekhov’s Great Plays, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, New York University Press, 1981, p. 76.


Critical Overview


The Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov