Illustration of the profiles of three women

The Three Sisters

by Anton Chekhov

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How should an actor approach the character Olga from The Three Sisters?

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Actors can begin this role by studying some of the other characters and how they interact with Olga. They should pay attention to how the other characters react when Olga enters the scene; specifically, they need to note whether she has any effect on them. An actor playing her must rely on subtext, because her dialogue is almost entirely interior monologue, and even that may not be credible given her outlook.

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In this ensemble work, the relationships among the sisters shape the characterization of each of them. One feature that makes the play convincing is that Anton Chekhov shows how each sister influences the other two while at the same time providing her with specific characteristics that distinguish her from the...

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other two. As the oldest of the three sisters, Olga tries to dominate them, which she sees as offering guidance in a quasi-parental role. However, her personality is not necessarily conducive to successful domination; she “loses heart,” suffers from headaches, and often withdraws into her room.

One crucial fact is that Olga’s experience growing up was very different from that of her sisters. Although she sees her Moscow-centric orientation as evidence of her superiority, she does not always convince the others that they really lost out. Rather, her constant nostalgic reflections come across as regret or even whining. She even has nostalgia for things entirely out of her experience; she often comments on how she would have behaved if she had ever been married. Her brother accuses her of acting as if she is not “properly alive,” and her dialogue often shows her flagging spirits.

Moscow is a symbol of the whole family’s loss, so its appeal must come through; the job of depicting Moscow as more than an abstraction largely falls to Olga. She sees it in spring, with the flowering trees. The paradox of looking forward, or retaining hope, while also looking back, respecting tradition, is key to her character. In act 1, she states, “only one yearning grows stronger and stronger.” The challenge for an actor taking on this character, therefore, is how to make her sympathetic while still conveying that she has inner strength.

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Olga, the oldest sister, is usually played as a dried up spinster, a sort of “worst-case scenario” for Irina if she doesn’t get back to Moscow.  A better character choice might as be the now-head of the household, feeling the burden of her sisters’ frustration.  She can be in dark clothing if the director sees the General’s death as recent, but drabness should be avoided.  Her attitude toward he sisters should not be imperial or scornful, but tolerant, understanding, and motherly (but not supportive of Irina’s tendency to romanticism).  Try to give the character a sense of wisdom (in contrast to school-teacherly like the middle sister, Masha), intelligence, and compassion.  Vershinin’s visit (in contrast to the others, who are “hangers-on” and leeches) should bring out Olga’s inherent classiness and high-society upbringing (before their father was transferred out of Moscow).  If you can show her humor within the sensitivity to the faux-pas gift of the samovar, you will be well on your way to playing the subtle balance in this character between grace and despair.  Chekhov wrote three distinct characters here, and a good cast will accentuate the psychologically deep personality differences of the sisters, not just their age and marital status.

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