Opened at MkhAT on January 31, 1901
Andrey Sergeyevitch Prosorov -- The main character. Once aspired to have a distinguished professional career, he has now resigned to mediocrity in his professional and personal lives. His entire education has been reduced to his position at the district council, which was not his goal. He claims that he "considers [his] service as worthy and as high as the service of science"; however, he is in reality dissatisfied with his present life and dreams of escaping it to go to Moscow. His personal life is also in disarray: Andrey's marital relationship with Natasha is strained, he has lost a lot of money through gambling, and he has mortgaged the Prosorov house without the consent of his sisters, thus creating tension.
Natalia Ivanova (Natasha) -- Andrey's fiancée and then wife, she struggles with being accepted by his sisters. At first the Prosorov sisters ridicule her for her tastelessness in fashion; then, they resent her for taking over the household. Natasha is very protective of her son. She challenges her relationship with Andrey and the Prosorov sisters as she gradually takes more and more steps to assert her authority in the household domain, while everyone else works. Her dominance is symbolized by the lighted candle which she holds as she enters the dark room in Act II, when she has by then overrun the Prosorov house.
Olga --; The oldest sister, she is a high school teacher. She attempts to maintain her mental health, as she feels that she has aged significantly since she has been working so hard. She dreams of selling the Prosorov house and going to Moscow to seek happiness.
Masha -- The middle sister, Masha struggles with her unhappy marriage to Kuligin and her misery in work. She married Kuligin when she was 18, but her opinion and respect of him has since changed. She finds love in Vershinin, but must part with him in the end when he is called to duty. She eventually comes to terms with the idea of working, but is not happy with it.
Irina -- The youngest sister, who dreams of escaping the harsh reality of their working lives and going to Moscow. She first works at the telegraph office, then at the town council office. Once she does decide to marry the baron out of sheer pragmatism, he is killed in a duel.
Feodor Ilitch Kuligin -- Married to Masha, he is a high school teacher.
Alexander Ignateyevitch Vershinin -- A lieutenant-colonel in charge of a battery. He is acquainted with the Prosorovs because he used to be an officer in the same brigade as their father in Moscow. From the outset, Vershinin has a less dismal outlook on life that of the three sisters.
He has hope in the future of Russia; he believes that even if one's daily life is full of drudgery, one can rest assured that his toil is only for the benefit of future generations. Vershinin is married and has a family (with a wife who keeps attempting to commit suicide), although he openly declares his love for Masha.
Nicolai Lvovitch Tuzenbach -- A baron and lieutenant in the army, he attempts to woo Irina, but to no avail. He is more willing to work than most of the other characters, who complain about it. He is killed in a duel with Soleni.
Vassili Vassilevitch Soleni -- Captain. He also attempts to woo Irina. His selfishness compels him to destroy anyone else who loves Irina; since he cannot have her, he does not want anyone else to. He challenges Tuzenbach to the fateful duel.
Ivan Romanovitch Chebutikin -- The army doctor who is often drunk. His alcoholism is his mechanism to escape reality. He is often self-absorbed: he is drunk during the fire so he cannot provide any medical help, and he is often mires himself in meaningless quarrels. He mulls over the degradation of his personal and professional life. By the end of the play, he has been reduced to "an idiot to whom nothing matters and who keeps his good humor irrespective of what calamites may be happening around him."
Alexey Petrovitch Fedotik -- sub-lieutenant
Vladimir Carlovitch Rode --sub-lieutenant
Ferapont-- The old door-keeper. He is hard of hearing.
Anfisa -- The Prosorov's 81 year-old nurse who Natasha threatens to fire because she thinks she is useless. Anfisa pleads with Olga in Act III to save her job because she is old and working hard and has nowhere else to go. Anfisa represents the past lives of the Prosorovs, when their father was alive and he focused them on learning, rather than working.
It should be noted that Chekhov's literary style does not include a central plot which drives the play; rather, Chekhov intended to create something out of the banalities and insignificant "in-between" times in life. Thus, most of the action in The Three Sisters is more a development of the different characters' emotional states and outlooks on life. Here is a summary of the emotional development of the play.
This act takes place at the Prosorov house during Irina's birthday party, and on the one-year anniversary of their father's death. Here we see the aspirations of each of the characters. Olga expresses her mental distress from working so much at the High School. Irina dreams of selling the house and going to Moscow; she does not readily concede to the idea of working. Vershinin proposes that the daily drudgery of work is acceptable because it is simply effort which works towards the establishment of the good life in the future. One senses tension between Masha and Kuligin, as Masha refuses to obey her husband and wallows in self-misery. Irina explains that Masha married when she was 18 and thought that Kuligin was wise; now, Masha thinks that he is kind, but not wise. Tuzenbach attempts to woo Irina, but she is too obsessed with her own unhappiness in life because she has to work. Masha sporadically cites a poem familiar to Russains: "There stands a green oak by the sea, and a chain of bright gold is around it and a chain of bright gold is around it."
This act takes place at the Prosorov house in the evening, almost one year later. We hear Natasha and Andrey converse alone for the first time. Natasha exhibits her dominating power over the household, as she decides to cancel the entertainers the sisters have ordered because Bobby, their son, is ill. Andrey reminds her that they all share the house. Andrey confides in Ferapont that he is afraid of his sisters and his wife does not understand him. Andrey also dreams of Moscow where he claims even if he didn't know anybody, he would not feel like a lonely stranger. Vershinin declares his love for Masha. Masha skirts the issue and they keep their feelings for each other secret for the time being. Irina complains of working at the telegraph office. The sisters discuss Andrey's gambling problem. Tuzenbach calls life "laborious, mysterious, and happy." Vershinin reaffirms his belief that he must work and even suffer to ensure a new and happy age in the future. Masha states that she thinks one must have faith to have meaning in one's life. Vershinin's wife poisons herself again. Soleni attempts to woo Irina, but she dismisses him.
This act begins in Olga and Irina's bedroom around 2 a.m. A wailing fire alarm signals the dire that is ravaging the street. Anfisa, Olga and Natasha debate the necessity of employing Anfisa. The situation remains unresolved when Chebutkin enters, crying and very drunk. He is depressed because he has recently killed a woman by prescribing the wrong amount of medicine. He questions his loss of memory and his own existence: "I used to know a certain amount five-and-twenty years ago, but I don't remember anything now. Nothing. Perhaps I'm not really a man, and an only pretending that I've got arms and legs and a head; perhaps I don't exist at all, and only imagine that I walk, and eat, and sleep." He then smashes a clock in an attempt to prove that what people see in reality may not be real at all, that is, it may have only appeared that he broke the clock. He states: "Perhaps we only think that we exist, when really we won't. I don't know anything, noboby knows anything." In contrast, Vershinin professes his philosophy on life: his prediction that people's lives in the future will be wonderful and that knowing this end, he is in the present "devilishly keen on living." Masha expresses her disapproval of Andrey's mortgaging the house and letting Natasha hold the finances, because the house belongs to the four siblings and not just him. Irina laments her life. She says, "I have already been at work for a long while, and my brain has dried up, and I've grown thinner, plainer, older, and there is no relief of any sort, and time goes an it seems all the while as if I am going away from the real, the beautiful life, father and farther away, down some precipice. I'm in despair and I can't understand how it is that I am still alive, that I haven't killed myself." Olga advises Irina to marry the baron: "It is true that he is not handsome, but he is so honorable and clean people don't marry from love, but in order to do one's duty." Masha confesses to her sisters that she loves Vershinin. She wonders what to do about the situation and realizes that there are no easy or obvious answers in life. Andrey confronts his sisters about their attitude towards Natashsa, his work, the Prosorov house, and his gambling habits. He offers apologies for the latter two.
The last act takes place at the Prosorov's garden, at midday, almost four years since the beginning of the play. The scene is a farewell gathering for all of the soldiers. Chebutkin, Irina, Kuligin, and Tuzenbach see off Fedotik and Rode. All of the characters contemplate life in their small hometown once the soldiers have left. Irina and Tuzenbach agree to get married. Andrey has a mid-life crisis. He asks, :Why do we, almost before we have begun to live, become dull, grey, uninteresting, lazy, apathetic, useless, unhappy . . . [men] only eat, drink, sleep, and then they die [and] they try to make life many-sided with their beastly backbiting, vodka, cards, and litigation." Vershinin and Masha part; Kuligin does not reproach his wife for loving another man. Chebutkin delivers the news that the baron has been killed in the duel. The play ends with the three sisters embracing, once everyone has gone. Music serenades them. Masha reaffirms the sisters independence: "we remain along, to begin our life over again. We must live we must live " Irina says," there will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live, we must work, just work!" Olga concludes, " Time will pass on, and we shall depart for ever, we shall be forgotten [but] our life is not yet at an end. Let us live. The music is so gay, so joyful, and, it seems that in a little while we shall know why we are living, why we are suffering If we could only know, if we could only know!" Thus, the sisters each acknowledge that they must make the best of their current situation in life, whether or not they know the answers. It is ironic that once the soldiers in their lives have gone, they stop complaining, affirm their self-reliance, and accept their misery.
The importance of themes in Chekhov's writing style is so high that the theme in the play essentially replaces the plot as the driving force of momentum. Nicholas Moravcevich pointedly states in a critical essay, "Scène-à-faire and the Chekhovian Dramatic Structure":
Instead of encumbering his plays with an elaborate progression of events and piling up of external intrigue, Chekhov concentrates on revealing to the spectator the effect of a single theme upon the thoughts and emotions of a group of characters finely drawn and tightly inter-related. This theme or idea he usually introduces early in the play and then keeps it alive through the subtle utilization of a particular symbolizing device which, interwoven into the general stream of the everyday conversation, manages through association to imbue even the most trivial bit of dialogue with a deep and significant dimension far beyond its ordinary meaning.
Some critics would go so far as to say Chekhov avoided any plot momentum, intentionally keeping certain tensions between characters indiscreet. Moravcevich notes that Chekhov commonly keeps a scene "completely aloof from the plane of the direct conflict that colors the relations between Natasha and the sisters . . . most of the direct manifestations of this conflict are deliberately suppressed by the author." Did Chekhov have a "serious discontent with the principles of direct plotting?" Perhaps. One can take the example of the conflict between Natasha and the Prosorov sisters. Although tensions between the characters exist due to Natasha's dominant and aggressive personality, open conflict and challenges are suppressed. In this way, Chekhov does not let an overt plot run the play. Rather, he illuminates the developing emotions and outlooks of the characters. To the reader, this strategy may translate into a seemingly static plot consisting of characters mulling upon the mundane. However, it should be noted that Chekhov's intentions are to capture the in-between moments in life. Chekhov "perceived the human animals in its various Russian disguises and he saw life as it was, sometimes madly hilarious, sometimes poetic but very often dismal, monotonous and without hope."
Theme #1: The Human Condition
Chekhov's primary concern in The Three Sisters is to examine the human condition in the face of rural poverty and hardship. The development of the characters' emotional states - the sisters coming to terms with the idea of working and the complications of love, Vershinin's outlook on the glorious lives of future generations, Andrey's attempt to defend his professional mediocrity - all point to the real, emotional side of life. Chekhov suggests that what drives us in life is rooted in our emotions, rather than our behavior, and that life may pass us by while we are simply sitting around the kitchen table talking to family. Chekhov's "probing of contemporary Russian life has been called 'clinical' and his presentation 'objective,' an analysis, in other words, which reflects the physician-author's assimilation of the natural sciences and scientific method." Chekhov's inquiry into reality of Russian rural life around the turn of the century, from the medical standpoint, reflects his keen interest in human emotions and perspectives. Chekhov himself once said, "I do not doubt that my involvement in medical science had a serious influence on my literary activity; it expanded significantly the sphere of my observation and enriched my knowledge."
Theme #2: Moscow
The city of Moscow represents to the Prosorov sisters the life they do not have. Moscow is a "dream which becomes more remote and intense with each act." Established at the very opening of the play as their goal, Moscow remains a beacon of light amidst the daily drudgery of life in rural Russia. The sisters, particularly Irina, yearn to abandon their house, poverty and work in their small town and move back to Moscow where they used to live with their father in the better days when they did not have to work and simply focused on their educations. While the play opens "on the note, 'To Moscow, To Moscow' as, on Irina's nameday, the protagonists reminisce about the father's brigade that had left Moscow," the play similarly closes on the same note. By the end of the play, "all dreams for happiness are shattered, another brigade departs Irina repeats the vacuous generalities about toil which had marked the celebration of her nameday in the opening scene" The theme of Moscow runs deep throughout the play, and the city as the utopia form reality remains intact, although "partially transformed by realism and disillusionment." People have entered and departed from the sisters lives, yet they remain unchanged in their position: they simply recognize that their dream of fleeing to Moscow is escapism and they are undoubtedly mired in the reality of life.
Theme #3: Work
The theme of work is related to the future of mankind. A character's outlook on the condition of future life greatly affects his attitude towards working in his present life. That is, if there is hope, one will work. Irina is the character most opposed to work. She dreams of escaping to Moscow so that she does not have to work. She despairs for the future of mankind. In contrast, Vershinin has an upbeat perspective.
Theme #4: Music
The role of music in Chekhov's works, including The Three Sisters, is particularly distinctive. Music, including "meaningful noises, the sounds of birds and bells, or the strains of song and music heard from a distance" often reflects upon a character's state of mind. In The Three Sisters, these musical motifs are manifested in several ways, contributing to the overall musical undertones of the play: Chebutykin's repetition of the phrase "Tararabumbiia, sizhiuna tumbe ya" which translates into "tararaboombeyaye, let's have a tune today"; Andrey's violin playing, Fedotik and Rodes' guitar playing; and the "wordless love duet" between Masha andVershinin (Vershinin: "tam-tam," Masha: "Tra-ra-ra," Verhsinin: "tra-ta-ta"). The powerful exchange between Masha and Vershinin indicate the spiritual intimacy the two have achieved, and represents "the most original love declaration in the whole literature of the stage!" Furthermore, Chekhov's plays have been compared to "musical structures, since they are charachterized by an inner rhythm" The Three Sisters is "built around a repetition of motifs suggest a musical 'dialogue' between instruments" In Act II, Chebutykin reads aloud a newspaper account of Balzac's marriage:
Chebutykin: (reading from paper) Balzac was married in Berdichev
Irina (hums quietly)
Chebutykin: I'll even enter it in my notebook. (Writes.) Balzac was married in Berdichev (reads the paper).
Irina: (Laying patience, thoughtfully) Balzac was married in Berdichev.
*The original Russian version of the play is available at: http://pages.prodigy.net/claims_adjuster/3act1_win.html
Duncan, Phillip. "Chekhov's 'An Attack of Nerves' as 'experimental' Narrative." Chekhov's Art of Writing: A Collection of Critical Essays. eds. Paul Debreczeny and Thomas Eekman. Ohio: Slavica Publishers, Inc, 1977.
Magarshack, David. Chekhov The Dramatist. London: John Lehmann Ltd, 1952.
Moravcevich, Nicholas. "Scène-à-faire and the Chekhovian Dramatic Structure." Chekhov's Art of Writing: A Collection of Critical Essays.eds. Paul Debreczeny and Thomas Eekman. Ohio: Slavica Publishers, Inc, 1977.
Rayfield, Donald. Chekhov: The Evolution of his Art. London: Elek Books Limited, 1975.
Winner, Thomas. "Syncretism in Chekhov's Art: A Study of Polystructured Texts." Chekhov's Art of Writing: A Collection of Critical Essays. eds. Paul Debreczeny and Thomas Eekman. Ohio: Slavica Publishers, Inc, 1977.