‘Three Sisters’ by Anton Chekhov – “How strangely life changes and deceives one!”

‘Three Sisters’, a play by Anton Chekhov   (1901)  –  64 pages

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There are two sides to Anton Chekhov for me.  First there are the short stories which are simple, direct, and easy to understand and love.  But then there are the plays which are a much more complex situation.  There are four major Chekhov plays:  ‘The Seagull’, ‘Uncle Vanya’, ‘Three Sisters’, and ‘The Cherry Orchard’.

I have attended a fair number of performances of Chekhov.  They always teem with Russian village life, contain a variety of colorful characters, and are loaded with poignant stories, but they often leave me wondering, “What’s the point?”  However I know Chekhov is a major playwright so I keep coming back to the plays.

‘Three Sisters’ is, as its name indicates, the story of three sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina.  They are living in a Russian village, but they long to get back to their old home of Moscow which they had to leave after their father died.  As the play starts, Olga is 28, a school teacher, and she realizes she probably will never marry.  Masha is 24 and married, but her husband bores her.  Irina is 20 and pursued by the persistent Baron who is not very good looking and whom Irina does not take seriously as a suitor.   There is also a brother, Andrei, who is prone to gamble away large amounts of money and who winds up marrying the harridan Natasha.  This woman makes the sisters’ lives a living hell, and she is probably the villain of the play.

Life in this Russian village is dull, and the Russian army unit stationed in the village is the only thing that brings excitement and color, and when the army leaves in the fourth act, the villagers lament that the town will become insufferably dull.  Masha, the married sister, has fallen in love with one of the soldiers.

There are four acts to the play.  The acts are separated in time by months or a couple of years, all occurring in the 1890s.  This is a time in Russia when the people realize that Russian life is changing momentously but they still don’t fully realize what the changes will bring.

“Perhaps our age will be called a great one and remembered with respect. Now we have no torture chamber, no executions, no invasions, but at the same time how much unhappiness there is!”

‘Three Sisters’ was written in 1901 and this was the time when Stanislavski was a powerful force in Russian theatre.  Stanislavski took a special interest in Chekhov’s plays and directed all of them.  The Stanislavski method of using an acting ensemble and his concepts of naturalistic acting and psychological realism are evident throughout the play, even though Stanislavski and Chekhov were often at odds.

o_three-sisters-chekhov-kristin-scott-thomas-kate-burton-9d37Despite some comedy, there is a sadness that permeates ‘Three Sisters’ of loveless marriages, of empty days and nights, of being dissatisfied with one’s current life and wishing for something else.

Originally I was going to listen to the audio book of the play which has worked well for me on several plays before.  However I quickly found that there are just too many characters in ‘Three Sisters’ to separate them all by voice only.  Fortunately there was a good version of the play on YouTube starring Kristin Scott Thomas as Masha.

I would really like to find out about your own reactions to Chekhov’s plays.

 

Grade:   A-   

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on September 24, 2015 at 11:03 AM

    I don’t think I’ve ever read one of his plays, despite having loved his short stories, although I think I may have seen adaptations of them back in the mists of time. I recall a sense of ennui among the characters and a desire for escape which is never fulfilled. Time to read some plays, maybe! 🙂

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    • Hi kaggsy,
      Yes, a sense of ennui and a desire for escape. Both of these are very prevalent in ‘Three Sisters’. Ennui is defined as ‘a lack of spirit, enthusiasm or interest, weariness’. One would think these qualities would be difficult to portray in a dramatic play, but somehow Chekhov manages to do it. You might want to try a Chekhov play just to contrast it with his stories. He only took up play writing in his last ten years.

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  2. I do love The Three Sisters: “If only we could get to Moscow” (or something like that)! I was introduced to his plays years ago in a drama history class and loved the. I recently started reading his stories in Ronald Hingden’s translation and prefer them to the Constance Garnetts I read before. I do prefer his plays, though. I like the nothing and the frustration with it!

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    • Hi Kat,
      Ronald Hingden is an unfamiliar Russian translator’s name to me. I used to be very conversant on Russian translators: Constance Bennett, Aylmer and Louise Maude, David Magarshak, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
      I must still say I prefer Chekhov’s stories to his plays for the same reasons you prefer the plays. 🙂

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