Monday, 18 January 1999
Anton Chekhov: Three Sisters (1900)
Review number: 189
Chekhov's mature plays are famous for the way that nothing happens. This generalisation is not, of course, totally accurate, but it is certainly the case that what plot there is (here such incidents as an unsuitable marriage, a fire, a duel, the removal of the town's army contingent) take place off stage, and are there principally to point something out in the personalities of Chekhov's characters. To use the word "plot" to describe the incidents in The Three Sisters is really a bit of an overstatement; while it is clear that each event is carefully planned by Chekhov, they have a random, disconnected air - just like incidents in real life.
The three Prozorov sisters live in a small town with their brother, Andrei. After the death of their father, one of them has married a schoolteacher, the youngest two are still unmarried. They are bored with provincial life, and look forward to the day when they will move to Moscow (which is the place where all their unattainable dreams take place). But Andrei marries a local girl, and she gradually takes over the Prozorov house and the sisters' illusory hopes fade away.
The three sisters, Irina, Olga and Masha, are very different women (respectively, archetypically innocent, home-making and sensual), and it has been suggested that they represent the different sides to the nature of any real woman. Because of the way they grow up together, though, siblings are often very different - complementary, even - in temperament, so it is not necessary to put such a symbolic interpretation on what is surely intended to be a strongly realist play.
Chekhov's great plays all deal with a family's decline in fortune; the Prozorovs are not so high in the social scale as the aristocratic families of Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard, but they are clearly gradually losing social status.
It is Chekhov's examination of character that makes this a great play; he took the ideas of the late nineteenth century Russian novel and applied them to the stage. That medium, with its association with melodrama and its exaggerated plots and one dimensional characters must have seemed the last place where an emphasis on character rather than action would work; yet, in the hands of Chekhov and Ibsen, it does.