The Three Sisters

Citation metadata

Editor: Michael L. LaBlanc
Date: 2001
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 10. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 34
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Three Sisters


Chekhov referred to The Three Sisters as a “drama,” preferring to avoid the more confining labels of either “comedy” or “tragedy,” although later critics have argued for both of those labels. It is one of the four major plays that he wrote at the end of his life. Chekhov was an accomplished fiction writer, one of the one of the most influential short story writers of all time. At the time that his plays were being produced there was some criticism that his dramas too closely resembled the style of fiction. Traditionalists found the action too cramped and the characters too inexpressive, noting that there were too many people on the stage at any one time, doing nothing, for audiences to be able to register the significance of it all. Contrary to expectations, though, Chekhov’s plays were very popular in Moscow, where they were staged by the famous Moscow Art Theatre under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky.

The Three Sisters was the first play that Chekhov wrote specifically for the Moscow Art Theatre, having experienced commercial success in his previous collaborations with the company, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Like many of Chekhov’s works, it is about the decay of the privileged class in Russia and the search for meaning in the modern world. In the play, Olga, Masha, and Irina are refined and cultured young women in their twenties who were raised in urban Moscow but have been living in a small, colorless provincial town for eleven years. With their father dead, their anticipated return to Page 248  |  Top of ArticleMoscow comes to represent their hopes for living a good life, while the ordinariness of day-to-day living tightens its hold. First performed in 1901, The Three Sisters is a perennial favorite of actors and audiences.


Although Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was trained as a physician and practiced as one, he came to dominate not just one field of literature, but two: plays and short stories. He was born in 1860 in Taganrog, a provincial town in the Ukraine area of Russia that was similar to the one described in The Three Sisters. His family had a small grocery business that went bankrupt, forcing them to move to Moscow in 1876, although Chekhov stayed behind in Taganrog to finish his education. With a scholarship to Moscow University, he studied to be a doctor of medicine, going into practice in 1884. At that time he started publishing short humorous sketches in the Moscow newspapers, though he had no serious artistic aspirations. His writing career became earnest when he moved to St. Petersburg in 1885 and befriended the editor of a literary journal, who recognized his talent and encouraged him. He did write plays, and some of these were produced, but his most memorable work from that period were his short stories, and by late 1880s, he was one of the world’s great masters of short story writing.

It was in the late 1890s, when Chekhov became associated with the Moscow Art Theatre, that he reached full maturity as a playwright. The theater, under director Constantin Stanislavsky (whose theories about acting method are standard texts for theater students today), produced The Seagull in 1896, followed by Uncle Vanya(1899), The Three Sisters(1901) and The Cherry Orchard(1904). Chekhov was very involved in the Moscow Art Theatre’s productions of his plays, offering suggestions for the actors and constantly rewriting passages. He courted an actress from the company, Olga Knipper, who played Masha in the original production of The Three Sisters(he wrote the part with her in mind); they were married in 1901, just four months after the play opened. During much of their marriage, they were apart, because Chekhov, suffering from tuberculosis since 1884, often went to country retreats for medical treatment. He died of tuberculosis in Yalta in 1904, when he was forty-four years old.


Act I

Act I takes place on May 5th of an unspecified year, in an unspecified provincial town in Russia. It is the twentieth birthday of Irina, the youngest of the sisters mentioned in the play’s title. It is also the one year anniversary of the death of their father, Colonel Prozorov, who moved his family there from Moscow eleven years earlier. Irina and her older sisters, Olga and Masha, receive visitors, members of the military battery that is assigned to the town. The sisters discuss how bored they are with the town, how they long to move back to Moscow, and their brother Andrei, who will probably become a university professor. Olga, who is twenty-eight and the oldest sister, expresses interest in the new lieutenant colonel who has been assigned to the town, Vershinin, but is told that he is married, with two children. Chebutykin, the drunken old doctor who had been in love with the girls mother, gives Irina a silver samovar for her birthday, which is considered an inappropriate gift.

Vershinin arrives, explaining that he knew the sisters’ father back in Moscow, and that he remembers them from when they were girls. When he talks philosophically about how time makes all their lives insignificant, Solyony, a rough staff captain, mocks him by spouting gibberish. The sisters explain that they have been teasing their brother Andrei for being in love with a local girl, Natasha, who is married to the chairman of the county board, Protopopov. Masha’s husband, Kulygin, arrives to take Masha to a school function, but she angrily refuses to go. Tuzenbach, an army lieutenant, expresses his love for Natasha, but she expresses her disinterest in him. When Natasha enters, Olga feels sorry for her poor fashion sense and suggests that her belt does not match the rest of her clothes. When everyone else leaves for the dining room for the celebration, Andrei tells Natasha of his love for her and asks her to marry him.

Act II

Almost a year later, in mid-February, Andrei and Natasha are married and living in the family house. The sisters have invited their friends and some performers from the carnival that is in town over to the house, but Natasha tells Andrei that she objects to letting them in because she is worried about the health of their baby, Bobik. Ferapont, an old servant, enters with paperwork for Andrei, who is the secretary of the county board. When they Page 249  |  Top of Articleleave the room, Masha and Vershinin enter and discuss their love for each other. Irina and Tuzenbach enter; he still is in love with her, and she is still uninterested. They discuss the great gambling losses that Andrei has incurred. Vershinin is called away by a letter from his daughter, saying that his wife has attempted suicide once again. Solyony arrives, is rude to Natasha, and is threatening to Tuzenbach, the reason for which becomes clear later in the scene, when he expresses his love for Irina and vows to kill any rivals. Natasha has the carnival performers sent away when they show up at the door, and, while Irina is upset about Solyony’s threatening words, asks her to move out of her bedroom and into Olga’s so that the baby can have her room. She goes to the door when she hears a sleigh bell and comes back acting surprised that it is Protopopov, come to take her for a ride, explaining that she feels that she has to accept. Kulygin and Vershinin enter the scene again—the former’s meeting is over and the latter’s wife is all right—to find that everyone has gone. The scene ends with Olga complaining of her terrible headaches and Irina repeating her wish to return to Moscow.


Act III takes place nearly four years after the opening of the play; Irina, who was twenty then, tells Olga that she is “almost twenty-four” while explaining how washed up she feels. This act takes place in the bedroom Olga and Irina share, while a fire is spreading across the neighborhood outside. Olga is choosing clothes from her closet to give to the fire victims, who have lost all of their belongings. She has invited people who have been made homeless by the fire, particularly Vershinin and his family, to spend the night there, but when she enters Natasha objects, saying that she doesn’t want her son and new daughter to be exposed to the flu. Natasha discussing firing Anfisa, the old nurse who, as Olga explains, has been with the family for thirty years. Kulygin enters, again unable to find Masha, and brings the news that the doctor, Chebutykin, is drunk. When he enters, feeling guilty about a patient that has died, Chebutykin picks up a clock that once belonged to the girls’ mother and breaks it: in his embarrassment, while everyone is staring at him disapprovingly, he blurts out that Natasha and Protopopov are having an affair. When Masha arrives, she and Vershinin communicate to each other in code, with musical notes. Kulygin tells Masha how much he loves her, how important she is to him, but she asks him to leave her alone to rest for a short while. When everyone is gone, the sisters talk about

Anton Chekhov Anton Chekhov

how difficult their lives are and about how difficult Natasha has made Andrei’s life. Olga’s advice to Irina, who hates her job, is to marry Tuzenbach, whether she loves him or not. After Natasha passes through the room with a candle, Masha confesses to her sisters that she is in love with Vershinin. Andrei enters and tells them that he has mortgaged the house to pay his gambling debts and given control of his money to Natasha. Irina announces that she will marry Tuzenbach.

Act IV

About a year after the previous act, in the garden outside of the house. The soldiers have been assigned to a new post and are stopping by throughout this scene to say goodbye. There is gossip about a fight that took place the previous day outside of the theater, during which Solyony challenged Tuzenbach to a duel. Olga is living at the school where she teaches, and Irina is planning on leaving with Tuzenbach later that day for Moscow. Chebutykin leaves to be a witness to the duel, and Andrei enters, pestered by his assistant to sign more and more paperwork for the county board. As Masha cries over being left by Vershinin, her husband, Kulygin, tries to comfort her, not admitting that he knows what she is upset about. Natasha already has plans for the rooms of the house being Page 250  |  Top of Articlevacated: she is moving Andrei down to Irina’s room, ever further from her own, so that her baby Irina can have his room. Word comes that Tuzenbach has been killed in the duel, and at the play’s end Irina, Olga, and Masha think about the future, hoping that they may one day understand the meaning of it all.



The old governess who has been with the Prozorov family for thirty years, Anfisa is worried that she will be turned out on her own in her old age. Her concerns are justified—while the Prozorov sisters care enough about tradition and sentiment to laugh at the idea of abandoning Anfisa, Natasha is adamant that the old woman is a drain on the household funds, and it is Natasha who is taking over the running the house. In the end, when everyone is going their separate ways, it is only Anfisa who seems happy about the future—she is to live in a government apartment with one of her girls, Olga, and she asks nothing more of life.

Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin

An old friend of the sisters, a military doctor, a failure, an alcoholic who laments the patients of his who have died. He lives in the basement of the house. In the first scene, he brings a silver samovar to Irina’s birthday party: the silver samovar is traditionally a wedding present, indicating that Chebutykin is either confused or trying to send a signal. His most important scene occurs when he drops he clock in Act III, smashing it. The sisters are horrified because the clock had belonged to their mother, the woman Chebutykin loved, but he tries to cover up his mistake by turning philosophical, discussing whether the clock actually existed or not, and when that doesn’t work he blurts out the commonly-known secret of Natasha’s affair with Protopopov before storming out of the room. In the last scene, as he is preparing to leave, Chebutykin gives Andrei some friendly advice about his marriage to Natasha: leave, go far away, “keep going, don’t ever look back.”

Alexei Petrovich Fedotik

A second lieutenant in the army, Fedotik is seldom on stage. When he does show up, he usually has something to give to somebody—a musical top for Irina, or a toy for the baby. He also takes photographs of people whenever he is on stage.


Ferapont is an old man who works for the county board. He is sometimes confused and sometimes has trouble hearing, but in general he is levelheaded, taking care of required business. While the sisters and Andrei dream of Moscow as a place where life will finally be good, Ferapont associates Moscow with bizarre stories that he thinks he has heard, about a man eating forty or fifty pancakes and dying, or of a rope stretched across the city. In the middle of the play, Andrei, feeling the pressure of life with Natasha, takes his trouble out on Ferapont, insisting that the old man address him as “your honor,” while in the last act, when Natasha has taken over the house, the two of them are left together on fairly equal footing as her servants.

Fyodor Ilich Kulygin

Kulygin is Masha’s husband, a disappointment to her. Recalling when she was married, Masha explains, “He seemed terribly learned to me then, intelligent, and important. It’s different now, unfortunately.” He is an assistant principal, and is willing to play the role of the underling, shaving off his moustache because the principal shaved his off and struggling to convince himself that he does not mind having his actions thus controlled: “Nobody likes it, but it doesn’t make any difference to me. I am satisfied. With a moustache or without a moustache, I am satisfied.” At the end of the play, when his wife is upset because her lover is leaving, Kulygin tries to cheer her up, echoing the loss of his facial hair by pulling out a false beard and moustache that he has confiscated from a student and putting them on. During that scene, he is aware of why Masha is grieving, and he offers her support while struggling to avoid the subject of her grief. “You’re my wife, and I’m happy, no matter what happens. .. I don’t complain. I don’t reproach you for a single thing.” It is an attitude is not based on sharing her suffering, but on weakness and a wish to avoid unpleasantness.


See Natasha Ivanovna Prozorov

Irina Prozorov

Irina is the youngest sister, not just in age but in her vibrant personality. Act I starts with Irina’s Page 251  |  Top of Articletwentieth birthday, with her feeling girlish and happy with the world. Having been raised in an aristocratic family, she idealizes work as the solution to all of life’s problems, knowing that work can solve the great problem faced by characters in this play, that of living life with meaning. When Tuzenbach proposes to her in Act I, Irina changes the subject to work. A year later, in the Act II, Irina is exhausted from her work at the telegraph office, which is ruining her personality: she recalls an incident when she was impatient with a woman who was upset her son’s death. Solyony professes his love to her, and threatens that no one else will have her, but she does not take him seriously. Like Olga, Irina longs to live in Moscow, but she is too young to remember what life was like there: instead, she dreams of it as an enchanted, magical place. Irina accepts Tuzenbach’s proposal of marriage out of a sense of duty to her family. In the final act, she says a touching farewell to him, knowing that he will not survive the duel (“I knew, I knew. ..” is her response later when the doctor brings news that he is dead). She still plans to go to Moscow, alone, and still dreams that work will set all of her troubles straight.

Masha Prozorov

Masha’s marriage to Kulygin was not a joyful one from the beginning—“They married me when I was eighteen, and I was afraid of my husband because he was a teacher and I was barely out of school,” she later explains. Masha is a talented pianist, but she does not play any more because she is bored and disappointed with her life. That changes when she meets Vershinin and begins an affair with him. As she later explains it to her sisters, “At first he seemed strange to me, then I felt sorry for him.. . then I fell in love with him.” Masha is happy during her affair with Vershinin, laughing openly and frequently, even though she is frightened when he expresses his love. She is the most forthright and honest of the sisters, sometimes harshly so, lashing out angrily at others—the stage directions (angrily) and (sternly) appear often with Masha’s lines. Her most moving speech comes in the third act when, having watched Natasha walk past with a candle and noted to her sisters “She walks like the one that started the fire,” she quietly confesses her affair to Olga and Irina, as if, having seen Natasha take on the role of anger and suppression that she used to play, Masha wishes to talk about her new life and remind herself about being in love. In the end, when Vershinin leaves, Masha has a hard time, crying

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Members of New York’s Actor’s Studio, including Shelley Winters, Sandy Dennis, and Geraldine Page, are in a video edition of the play, filmed in 1965. Directed by Paul Bogart. Released by Hen’s Tooth Video in 1998.

until she is able to raise her anger, refusing to go into the family house, which Natasha has taken over and spoiled.

Natasha Ivanovna Prozorov

During the first act, the sisters look down on Natasha’s (also known as Natalya) way of dress and her coarse manners. By the time the second act begins Natasha is married to Andrei, and they have one son, Bobik, whom she dotes on, repeating every little thing that he says or does with complete fascination. She leaves the house at the end of Act II to go for a ride with Andrei’s superior, Protopokov, in his sleigh, pretending that it is a chore that she must put up with. By Act III, her affair with Protopokov is openly known. As time passes, Natasha comes to increasingly dominate the household. She hates eighty-year-old Anfisa, who was the Prozorov sisters’ maid when they were children, planning to dismiss her, with no concern for the sentiment that her husband’s family might feel for the old woman. She arranges to move Irina into Olga’s room, claiming that the baby’s health is at risk. Her maneuvers for control are undertaken with the pretense of acting for the well-being of her children. Andrei is aware of this and tells Chebutykin confidentially, “She’s honest, sincere—well, kind, but at the same time there’s something in her that makes her a kind of blind, petty, hairy animal.” At the end the play she has Protopokov inside the house with her and her husband outside—“Protopokov’s going to sit with Baby Sophie, and Andrei Sergeevich can take Bobik for a ride”—indicating to some reviewers that she has taken over the Prozorov family’s house with Protopokov, and that the younger child, Sophie, is actually Protopokov’s.

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Olga Prozorov

Olga is the oldest sister and the voice of rationality among the three of them. She is struggling to live up to the code of nobility that the family has traditionally followed and, therefore, struggling with life’s changes. As a result, she is constantly weary. Unlike her sisters’ sense of anticipation, Olga’s dream of Moscow is nostalgic, looking back to when they lived there, not forward with anticipation. She thinks of their coming trip to Moscow, which the family left eleven years ago, as “going home.” As the trip is delayed by uncertainty, Olga finds herself steeped in a sense of purposelessness. Throughout much of Act II she is offstage, in bed with headaches that appear closely related to her inability to cope with her life. In Act III, when resentments and desires are being discussed, Olga’s dialog is marked by her efforts to avoid thinking. “How terrible it all is!” she says about the fire, “And how sick of it I am!” Her greatest emotion shows when Natasha is rude to Anfisa, the family’s old servant: Natasha tries to win her favor by assuring her that she will one day be the school’s headmistress, but Olga, says that she would not accept such a position: “I’m not strong enough... . You were so rude to nurse just now. Forgive me, I just haven’t the strength to bear it... It’s all getting black before my eyes.. .” By the end of the play, though, Olga has gathered her strength. She expresses hope in the play’s last speech: “Oh, dear sisters, our life isn’t over yet. We shall live! The music is playing so gaily, so joyfully, and it seems as though a little more and we shall know why we live, why we suffer. .. If only we knew, if only we knew.”

Andrei Sergeevich Prozorov

The sisters’ brother is a teacher who aspires to be a great scholar in Moscow. Two problems arise to thwart Andrei’s plans. The first is Natasha. Andrei proposes marriage to Natasha at the end of the first act. By the time of the second act, a year later, he is a henpecked husband, annoyed that Natasha is overly worried about the health of their baby, Bobik. He is somewhat resistant to Natasha’s schemes, such as canceling the carnival dancers or moving Irina into Olga’s room, but he retreats before an argument starts, letting her have his way. He attends business meetings because he is bored at home, and he regrets that the opportunity to become a great scholar has slipped away. Although he has an active home life, he also is, as he explains to Ferapont, lonely. He seems aware that Natasha is having an affair with his supervisor, but he cannot do anything about it because he cannot afford to be fired. Andrei’s second problem is that he loses money gambling. This forces him to mortgage the house, which leaves his sisters and him at the mercy of Natasha. In the final act, Andrei is pushing a baby carriage around. He has a speech about how the town is full of ignorant, slow-witted people—“the divine spark within them dies, and they become the same pitiful, absolutely identical corpses that their mothers and fathers were before them.” He recognizes that this is the fate that has come to him too, but he also has hopes for freedom for himself and his children in the future.

Vladimir Karlovich Rode

Rode always appears with Fedotik, but he is more loud and boisterous. He teaches a gym class at the high school.

Vasili Vasilevich Solony

Solony is a hard, angry character who mocks the social conventions of polite society with his seemingly nonsensical statements. He is aware of his own crudeness, though, and regrets it, as evinced by the fact that he is constantly sprinkling perfume over his fingers because they “smell like a corpse.” He has fought and presumably won two duels already. He models his life after Lermontov, the nineteenth-century Russian poet who killed a rival in a duel, and believes himself to be so in love with Irina that he is willing to kill any other man that she would choose over him.

Nikolai Lvovich Tuzenbach

Tuzenbach is a Baron of German descent, although, as he is emphatic about pointing out, he is not German. He is somewhat disgusted with himself for the easy life he has lived, noting that he has never worked a day in his life but anticipating a time in the near future when everyone will work. His belief in the redemptive powers of work resembles that of Irina, with whom he is in love. In the fourth act, Tuzenbach is happy and excited about the life to come—“Tomorrow I’ll take you away,” he tells Irina, “we’ll work, we’ll be rich, my dreams will come true.” His excitement extends to an appreciation of the little town he is leaving, in all that surrounds him, even though he knows that he might die in the duel with Solyony. “See that tree, it’s dried up, but the wind moves it with the others just Page 253  |  Top of Articlethe same,” he explains before going off to the duel. “So it seems to me that if I die in some way or other I’ll have a share in life.”

Alexander Ignatyevich Vershinin

When Vershinin is first discussed early in the play, the sisters are uninterested in him, until they hear that he is from Moscow. He was in the same brigade as their father eleven years ago, and when he arrives he is able to recognize them all. Vershinin has two daughters and a wife who is mentally ill, trying to commit suicide often—at one point he receives a note that she has tried suicide again and he leaves, annoyed, only to return later with the news that it was a false alarm. His attitude toward life in a provincial town is the opposite of Andrei’s: while Andrei is lonely and longs for the cultural life of Moscow, Vershinin recalls being lonely in Moscow and appreciates the things the small town has to offer. His affair with Masha offers them both a chance for excitement in their deadening marriages.


Alienation and Loneliness

Despite the fact that they have been there for over ten years and that their house is full of visitors, the Prozorov sisters feel lonely in the town where they live. For one thing, they are better educated than the people around them, which isolates them intellectually. Even though Vershinin tells them that he doubts there could even be a town “so boring and so dismal that it doesn’t need intelligent, cultivated people,” it is clear that they do not share his optimistic viewpoint and his ability to look to the future. Their friends in town are, for the most part, from the military, who are posted there temporarily and are inevitably going to move on, as they actually do in the end. Andrei shuts himself in his room with his violin and Olga removes herself from company, complaining that she has headaches. Even the engagement between Irina and Tuzenbach, which she enters into with reluctance because she feels the need to be more involved, ends with abrupt violence, ruining her chance to break through the wall of alienation that has surrounded her family since their father’s death. Their hope that life in Moscow would make much difference by putting them among their own type of people is cast into doubt by Vershinin, who has just come from Moscow and recalls being lonely there.

Love and Passion

This play is a net of interwoven romances, all of them presenting differing degrees of sincerity and passion. Each character gives readers a different view of love. Andrei’s love is that of the hopelessly exploited, while Natasha acts as the exploiter to him and as a martyr to her children. Masha and Vershinin are sincerely happy with each other, escaping confining marriages, while Kulygin, though unimaginative, displays a pure and selfless love by comforting his wife when she is upset over losing her lover. He confides also to Olga that he should have married her, not Masha, indicating that he is bound to Masha by devotion. Irina has an open and jocular relationship with Chebutykin, who dotes on her, even though a relationship between them is out of the question because of their age difference; Chebutykin also keeps alive his memory of their mother. Tuzenbach is content with his own love for Irina, even though he knows that she does not love him, while Solyony, who is perhaps incapable of love, patterns his life on the romantic figure of a poet. None of these relationships ends up happily, although there is an admirable nobility to the way that all of these characters hop on to their elusive passions.

Meaning of Life

There is a lack of meaning in their lives at the core of the misery felt by these three sisters. And the other characters in this play reflect the various attitudes that the sisters attach to the meaning of life. Olga spends her time trying to recapture the past through memory, especially by recalling her mother and father in detail—it is not surprising that she ends up as a teacher, dealing in established ideas and living in an apartment with Anfisa, who functions as a living relic of her childhood. Masha, who once was artistic, has fallen into despair and claims to have forgotten her piano skills. As she explains it, there is no point to being cultured in a provincial town: “We know a lot that isn’t any use.” Her affair with Vershinin reawakens her talent, though, and she uses music to communicate nonverbally with him in public. Irina is full of hope for the future, but her conception of the future—of what exactly it is that she is looking forward to—is vague, so she can hardly do anything to make it become real. She is willing to marry Tuzenbach if that will enable her to

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • In his letters, Chekhov said that he had the city of Perm in mind as a model for the type of provincial city where this drama takes place. Research what life would have been like in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the century, and compare it to what Moscow would have been like.
  • Research the role that servants would have played in a Russian household at the turn of the century, between the emancipation of the serfs in 1858 and the Russian Revolution in 1917, and explain what the social customs tell about the roles of Ferapont and Aneisa in The Three Sisters.
  • Read some of the poetry of Russian writer Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov, as well as some biographical information about him. Use this to explain the significance of Solyony’s observations that “I have a disposition like Lermontov’s. .. I even look a little like Lermontov. .. so I’m told.”
  • What would these characters do if the play were set in modern America? Since the army is not quartered with civilians here, the characters in the army would have to be given different occupations. Would Protopopov still be the chairman of the county board? Where would Irina work? Try to give them occupations that you are familiar with in daily life.
  • Explain how you think each of these characters would have fared under communism in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, and why.
  • Read one of Chekhov’s short stories, such as “The Gooseberries” or “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and show the similarities between the story and this play, focusing on characterization and themes.

go to Moscow, where she hopes to find true love. The contradiction in her plan is apparent, but she is unable to come up with anything less self-defeating. She ends up dedicating herself to the equally vague idea that work will bring meaning to her life, although she does not know exactly how.

The people who come to the Prozorov house toss around ideas about what gives life meaning, discussing the mysteries of existence as of they were involved in a game, as when Vershinin says, “Well, if they won’t give us any tea, at least let’s philosophize,” and Tuzenbach responds, “Yes, let’s.” Vershinin supports the idea that work gives life meaning, even of no results are visible. Solyony represents an absurdist view that discussion is just meaningless chatter, which he mocks with the purposely meaningless comments he utters. Chebutykin echoes this idea of meaninglessness when he drops the clock that belonged to the woman he loved and argues that what seems to be reality might not be. Tuzenbach learns to appreciate the world around him only when he is faced with death in a dual.



The setting of this play is given as “a provincial city.” Describing it this way, Chekhov takes the middle ground between those stories that are unrelated to the towns where they occur and those that could only occur in particular locations. It is important, of course, that The Three Sisters takes place in a province, because the emotion that occurs on stage is centered around what the main characters think of where they live. Olga, Masha, Irina, and Andrei all feel that their lives would be much better if they were living in Moscow; Vershinin arrives from Moscow, and extols the charm of life in a small country town; Natasha is able to consolidate her power through her allegiance with a local politician, making her the proverbial big fish in a small pond.

More specifically, all of the action takes place at the Prozorovs’ house, which is a sort of meeting place for an assortment of local characters. The Page 255  |  Top of Articlesoldiers assigned to the town are comfortable there because of their affiliation with the sisters’ father, Colonel Prozorov. Aside from the connection to the military, though, the house is presented as a sort of center of culture for the town—certainly, its inhabitants are more refined in their manners and better educated than most of their fellow citizens. It is a grand house, likely the finest structure in the neighborhood, as indicated by the fact that it is not even evacuated when the wooden houses surrounding it are burning down.


All dramas rely upon conflict between opposing forces, in order to keep readers interested in seeing which side will overcome. In The Three Sisters, the conflict in implied, not stated, and this accounts for the feeling that some audiences get that “nothing happens.” From the very beginning, the sisters focus their concern on getting out of this small town and returning to Moscow, and the play follows a series of events that place obstacles in the path to that goal. There is no clear-cut conflict with any one obvious force interfering with their plans, but everything that happens in the play, from the fire to the feud to Natasha’s dominance of the household, all serve to raise questions about whether Olga, Masha, and Irina will be able to find their happiness by returning to Moscow. The play’s ending provides no clear-cut conclusion to this conflict. Only one of the sisters is going to Moscow, and none of them has been able to hold onto happiness, but they have hope that the future will be better and that they might be able to understand the significance of their lives sometime, so all is not lost.


At the end of the nineteenth century Realism became a major movement in the arts. The best way to understand Realism is to see it in terms of what it is not. It does not require its audience to know artistic traditions in order to understand what is being presented to them. It does not use educated language or complex plot structures that play well on the stage but that do not reflect the ways that people in life actually speak and act. Chekhov is often associated with Realism, especially in his short stories. Early audiences found this degree of reality to be confusing, because it meant that the characters in his plays seemed to just stand around and talk about whatever came to mind. The structure and language of his work is less obviously “artistic” than it is in traditional drama, providing audiences with fewer clues but leaving a stronger impression on those who figure out the play’s meaning for themselves.


The issues that the sisters are concerned with in this play are not clear-cut but abstract philosophical issues that affect every moment of life equally. In order to define these issues more clearly for readers and audiences, Chekhov has provided an antagonist for the Prozorov family. An antagonist is a force in a play that acts in opposition to the protagonist, or main character, in this case three main characters (or four if you count Andrei). In addition to the many moral issues that the Prozorovs struggle with, their lives are also met with direct opposition from Natasha. She represents what they are not: she is ill-mannered, with no fashion sense, and sentimental and greedy and aggressive and manipulative. The fact that she is able to move Irina out of her own room in the second act and then move her husband out of his room in the end can be read as Chekhov’s commentary that rudeness triumphs over refinement, although critics have pointed out that she is victorious in areas that the three sisters had already rejected—she becomes a powerful figure in a town that they had already rejected and she takes over a house that they had hoped to leave from the very start.


Social Order

Traditionally, Russia had been a society with a rigid class system. From the seventeenth century through the middle of the nineteenth, this included a system under which most of the people were serfs, which meant that they were practically slaves of the people who owned the land on which they lived, and were at their mercy. Growing pressure throughout the first half of the 1800s, brought on by the international movement toward freedom that had already caused the American Revolution and the French Revolution, led to government reform, giving the serfs their freedom in 1861, soon before slavery was abolished in America. Not much changed when the serfs were freed. The arrangement was for them to inherit control of the land they worked, but they had to pay back the aristocrats that they received it from, and so they ended up working the same jobs under the same bosses. As the twentieth Century began, 81.6 percent of Russian citizens

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  • 1901: The first trans-Atlantic telegraph message was sent from England to Newfoundland, where Guglielmo Marconi received it. It was the letter “s,” sent in telegraph code across radio waves.

    1917: The idea of the American Marconi Company’s system of broadcasting sounds through the airwaves was adapted to music and entertainment broadcasts.

    Today: Wireless technology broadcasts millions of voices across the world at any given moment, more and more radio broadcasts are being taken off of the airwaves and transmitted across cable wires for better clarity, and it is possible to experience fine art and music just about anywhere.

  • 1901: The oppressive policies of Russia’s Czar Nicholas II pushed the country toward the revolution after the First World War that left the country as the cornerstone of the communist superpower, the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic.

    Today: After the USSR disbanded in 1991, many of its former constituent countries, including Russia, have struggled with establishing political democracies with capitalist economies.

  • 1901: Tuberculosis, from which Chekhov suffered for twenty years and which eventually killed him, was untreatable, and killed approximately 188 people per 100,000 in America.

    Today: Vaccines have reduced the danger of tuberculosis to less than one in 100,000, although outbreaks still arise in impoverished nations that cannot afford vaccine programs.

were classified as peasants, although this name covered a broad category, from poor people in the cities to wealthy farm owners; 9.3 percent were merchants and what we might today consider the middle class; 6.1 percent were in the military; 0.9 percent were clergy; and 1.3 percent were the gentry, or the ruling class. Most of these class distinctions were inherited, so that the children of former serf-owners still lived luxurious lives, as the Prozorovs do in this play. As Tuzenbach explains it, he was “born into a family that never knew what work or worry meant,” although he expects that in his lifetime, everybody will work. Only the military was not a hereditary class, so that many young men became soldiers in order to improve their status in the world. The Russian social order was not equipped to accommodate people who did not follow their inherited place—for instance, a son of merchants who did not become a merchant was categorized on his passport as “raznochintsy,” which meant “of no particular class.” There was nonetheless much social change, especially in the huge government bureaucracy. Even in the late 1800s, before the rise of communism, Russian society was run by a huge, centralized bureaucracy that approved all local changes, all construction of government projects, from the center of government in St. Petersburg. In a country of over six and a half million square miles (twice that of the United States) before modern means of communications, including telephones, it was impossible to really control all local decisions from the capital. This left the opportunity for local government officials, like the play’s chairman of the county board, Protopopov, to wield control. The Russian bureaucracy had fourteen ranks that an individual could rise through with careful political manipulation, which is a central reason why Andrei does not want to raise trouble with the superior who is having an affair with his wife.

The Revolution

At the turn of the century, Russia was ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs that had ruled Russia since 1613. Russian society was falling apart, mainly because of a failing economy that could not even provide enough food for its citizens, and as a result the public sentiment was against the royal family. The huge centralized bureaucracy Page 257  |  Top of Articlemade it difficult to change production practices, and the ruling family did not show any indication of caring about the suffering of the people. In 1904 the Tsar committed the country to war against Japan. The Russo-Japan War was one that the country was unprepared for, and the cost of fighting the war further strained the economy and food resources. After Russia lost the war in 1905, general strikes broke out in St. Petersburg, and soldiers fired into the crowd, killing striking peasants. The 1905 revolution was suppressed, and the Tsar and his wife withdrew even further from the concerns of the citizens. They began relying on advice from Rasputin, a mystic, and eventually let him make decisions about who should be appointed to government positions. Most of his appointees turned out to be incompetent. When World War I broke out in 1914, Russia was involved, but performed badly: Nicholas took personal control of the military, and the country’s defeats were blamed on him. In 1917, after the war, the Russian Revolution changed history by establishing a communist government based on principles that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had proposed in The Communist Manifesto in 1847. Nicholas and all of his family were executed.


The Three Sisters was written late in Chekhov’s life, staged just three years before he died. At the time, he had a solid reputation for his short fiction, and his previous play, Uncle Vanya, had been a critical and popular success for the Moscow Arts Theatre. Chekhov’s fame as a playwright during his lifetime was neither widespread nor universally positive. Today he is considered a primary figure in the Realist movement that swept Russian drama in the beginning of the century, and, like a forerunner in any movement, his work was sometimes misunderstood. One of the most painful criticisms must have been the rejection of Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Early in his career, Chekhov idolized Tolstoy’s writing, but when he went to see him in the winter that The Three Sisters was first performed Tolstoy kissed him but then whispered in his ear, “But I still can’t stand your plays. Shakespeare’s are terrible, but yours are even worse!” (qtd. in Kirk, pg. 145).

According to his biographer Henri Troyat, early audiences for The Three Sisters misunderstood the play, criticizing it as “slow and colorless” because they were unfamiliar with his style. To some early audiences and especially to critics, Chekhov’s stage work seem casual, rambling, as if he had no design but just wrote off the top of his head. Modern audiences are familiar with dramas using ordinary people behaving as they would in real life, but audiences expected more artifice on the stage a century ago. As Soviet critic A. Shaftymov pointed out more than a half century later, “theater critics reproved Chekhov most of all for introducing into his plays superfluous details from everyday life, and thus violating the laws of stage action. The presence of such details was put down to his ineptitude, to the habits of the writer of tales and short stories, and to his inability or unwillingness to master the requirements of the dramatic genre.” Audiences began to appreciate Chekhov’s modern style before critics: while critical discussions continued about whether The Three Sisters violated tradition out of defiance or ignorance of the rules, audiences grew larger and larger throughout the play’s run.

Outside of Russia, the world was slow to appreciate Chekhov as a playwright. His plays were performed occasionally in Munich and Berlin and London, but with no great lasting effect. After World War I ended in 1918, the Moscow Art Theatre toured the world, with stops in Germany, France, and the United States, which helped bring Chekhov’s plays to the world. The turning point came in the mid-1920s, when the London theater world embraced Chekhov. Martin Esslin, one of the foremost theater critics of the twentieth century, considered the acceptance of Chekhov’s plays in London to be a natural pairing. England was a great empire that was near its end, just as Russia had been at the turn of the century, so that the themes that Chekhov dealt with, especially the downturn of fortune that had the social elite losing their traditional privileges, would have been familiar. Another important aspect was that London in the 1920s had a wealth of young, talented actors who were eager to put on shows that challenged traditional ideas about art. According to Esslin, such actors as John Gielguld, Peggy Ashcroft, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Michael Redgrave “made Chekhov their own, and. .. he has remained one of the most performed standard authors for over fifty years.”

In Russia, the vast political changes that redefined the country helped to elevate Chekhov’s reputation. After the Russian Revolution, the Moscow Art Theatre was designated the official model for

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A scene from the 1970 film adaptation of The Three Sisters. A scene from the 1970 film adaptation of The Three Sisters.

“proper” Soviet theater, and Chekhov, because of those same “realistic” elements that earned him the resentment of his early critics, was presented as the model dramatist. Most of the highly propagandistic plays that came out of the Soviet Union, with its tight political controls on all aspects of life and art, showed little resemblance to Chekhov in any matters other than portraying ordinary citizens in their unglamorous lives. Still, the state’s official approval helped to make the author known by school children across the land. Today, Chekhov is one of the most-performed playwrights in English, and The Three Sisters is considered one of his four great plays (along with The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard).


David Kelly

Kelly is a teacher of Drama and Creative Writing at Oakton Community College in Illinois and the author of a full-length drama. In the following essay he examines whether Soyony really loves Irina, as he claims, and the significance of this to the play overall.

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 some-one

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  • Chekhov’s thoughts as he was writing this play, and the considerations that came up while it was in production, are discussed in his letters. Long out of print, there is a new edition of Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary available from Northwestern University Press. There is also much about The Three Sisters in Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, translated by Jean Benedetti.
  • The actors who presented this play during Chekhov’s time for the Moscow Art Theatre were under the direction of the legendary director Constantin Stanislavsky. Readers can find out more about the acting method these performers followed in Stanislavsky’s three books, An Actor Prepares, Building a Character and Creating a Role. All three are available in reprint editions from Theatre Arts Books.
  • In addition to his fame as a playwright, Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short stories ever. His stories are collected in Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories, published by W. W. Norton Company.
  • One of Chekhov’s closest friends and confidants was the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who was more popular than Chekhov at the turn of the century. His best-known play is The Lower Depths, first performed in 1902 and available in a Yale University Press collection The Lower Depths and Other Plays.
  • The Three Sisters was Chekhov’s second-to-last play, and, according to some critics, was surpassed only by his last play, The Cherry Orchard.
  • Comparisons have been made between this play and Hedda Gabler, by Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s play, first produced in 1890, concerns a strong-willed newlywed aristocrat who takes her frustrations and disappointments out on those around her.
  • “Errend,” a short story by American author Raymond Carver, captures the feel of Chekhov’s writing while presenting a fictionalized version of the playwright’s last hours before death. It is available in Carver’s collection Where I’m Calling From, published in 1988.

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

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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, talky play. Taking him seriously as a lover proves him to be a key player near the intellectual and emotional center of The 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, Page 261  |  Top of Articlefollowing 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 fiancee, and Lermontov won. He only stayed with the fiancé 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.

The Economist

The following review discusses the new possibilities that director Yefremon provides to Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”

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

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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 Page 263  |  Top of Articleapart 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.

Celia Wren

In the following review, Wren summarizes “Three Sisters” through the character’s unique personalities.

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 I 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

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A scene from John Gielguds production of The Three Sisters, performed at Londons Queens Theatre. A scene from John Gielgud’s production of The Three Sisters, performed at London’s Queen’s Theatre.

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 Page 265  |  Top of ArticleYork 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: CeliaWren, “Three Sisters,” (review) in Commonweal, Vol. 124, no. 5, March 14, 1997, p. 15.

Karl D. Kramer

In the following essay, Kramer argues that the three sisters are symbolic of faith by examining the meaning behind the play.

For all the talk about Three Sisters, it is still extraordinarily difficult to determine exactly what the play is about. One prominent school places the emphasis on the sisters as inevitably ruined creatures. Beverly Hahn, for instance, speaks of the “inbuilt momentum towards destruction” in the sisters’ world. Another commentator claims that we cannot avoid contrasting the success of Natasha and Protopopov with the failures of the sisters. We might do well to examine just what the first two do achieve: a house, an affair, and a businesslike manipulation of the professional positions of the others. It would, of course, be absurd to suggest that the sisters have in some way failed because they do not aspire to such heights of crass avarice as Natasha and Protopopov. But there is still the claim that the sisters continually yearn for a quality of life that they do not possess, and yet do very little, if anything, to make their dreams come true. Chekhov invited this response by initiating the to Moscow line. That goal remains unattained, while the desires of Natasha and Protopopov are richly fulfilled. This seems to present an opposition between those who get what they want and those who don’t, as if the goals were equivalent, but abilities not. Natasha wants the big house on the hill and a union with the man who runs

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things in town—the boss. These may be attainable prizes, and certainly Natasha does wrestle their house away from the sisters, but the sisters never really enter into combat with her over such issues. If they did, they would themselves be transformed into first-class Natashas, an extremely dubious achievement at best. Natasha sees living in the big house at the top of the hill as an end in itself. The sisters’ aspirations go considerably beyond this. Moscow as destination is equally illusory. Natasha, incidentally, isn’t even up to that aspiration on the fanciful scale; she’s quite content with a good view in a city much like Perm. The questions the sisters seek answers to are considerably more basic: how to seize and properly evaluate one’s own experience, how to cope with experience, and when all one’s delusions have been cast aside how to go on somehow from there. The particular area of experience around which the majority of the action in the play revolves is the question of love. The stance of nearly every character is determined by his ability to establish a close relationship with another. Love gone awry is in most instances the pattern. Olga seems to have the least chance of finding a mate—a situation to which she has become largely reconciled, though in Act I she chides Masha for failing to value the man she does have. Kulygin himself—aware of the failure of his own marriage—pathetically suggests to Olga in the third act that if he hadn’t married Masha, he would have married her. Irina ultimately admits that her desire to reach Moscow is directly connected with her desire to find her true love. Masha is the only one of the sisters who does at least temporarily find real love, and in this sense her experience is the standard against which the experience of nearly all the other characters is to be measured. Chebutykin once loved their mother but has long since lost that love, and with it his involvement in actual experience. Soleny, on the Page 266  |  Top of Articleother hand, capitalizes on his inability to inspire love by deliberately creating hostile relationships. But to determine the structure of the play as a whole and the way in which the experience depicted adds up to a statement about human capabilities, we must look in considerably more detail at the variety of responses to love among the main characters.

It is Andrei’s fate to make the most ghastly miscalculation of them all in believing he loves Natasha. How could he, an educated man, brought up in the same environment as his sisters, believe he has fallen in love with her? Masha in the first act discounts the possibility that he could be serious about her. The answer seems to lie in a recognition that he has been constantly living under pressures he can’t bear. “Father. . . oppressed us with education.. .. I grew fat in one year after he died, as if my body were liberated from his oppression,” he tells Vershinin. He has been preparing for a university career, bowing to his father’s wishes—a course he abandons immediately after his marriage. Since the father’s death, Andrei has been under constant pressure from his sisters to deliver them from this provincial town. His love for Natasha is simply a means of escaping these various responsibilities, which have been thrust upon him. But a relationship based on such motivation becomes a trap from which Andrei desperately wishes to escape. In some dialogue that Chekhov eventually deleted from the play, Andrei dreams of losing all his money, being deserted by his wife, running back to his sisters, crying, “I’m saved! I’m saved!” In the finished play, Andrei and Chebutykin argue about the efficacy of marriage, Andrei maintaining it is to be avoided, Chebutykin asserting loneliness is worse. But by the end of the play, even Chebutykin admits that the best course for Andrei is to leave, “leave and keep going, don’t ever look back”. This is, indeed, the course Chebutykin himself adopts at the end of the play. Andrei’s escape from responsibility through love thus seems to lead only to an entrapment from which he would be only too happy to flee by the end of the play. His predicament stems not so much from Natasha’s nature as from his own desire to avoid experience by hiding behind a very illusory kind of love.

Chebutykin’s problems turn equally on love. He had at one time known a real love for the sisters’ mother. That has long been in the past, but the only vaguely positive way he can deal with immediate experience is by the illusion that this love can be sustained through his relationship with the sisters, particularly Irina. His other protective screen is his growing insistence that nothing and nobody really exists and that therefore nothing matters. In his first appearance at stage center, he is talking sheer nonsense about a remedy for baldness and duly noting down this trivia. Shortly thereafter in Act I he displays his tender—almost sentimental—affection for Irina by presenting her with a silver samovar on her name day. The fact that the silver samovar is the traditional gift on the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary surely suggests that he is honoring the memory of the woman he loved and is exploiting the occasion of Irina’s name day for this purpose. During the first two acts he alternates between these two poles—the attempt to sustain a lost love and an abiding interest in trivia. The chief sign of the latter is his constant reading of old newspapers, a device for distracting himself from the actuality of the present moment.

In Act III his failure to handle his experience reaches a crisis when, drunk, realizing he is responsible for the death of a woman who was under his care, he retreats into a pretense that nothing and nobody exists. It may be a measure of his feeling that he so retreats, but I would suggest that he associates this recent death with that death in the past of the woman he loved. Death has denied him his love, and the recent event vividly reminds him of his own earlier loss. Within moments of this breakdown he smashes the clock which had belonged to the sisters’ mother. This may of course suggest that he is trying to destroy time itself, which separates him from his love, but he is also deliberately destroying a material object that belonged to her; it may also be a gesture of denial—a denial that his love ever existed. He tries to cover this by suggesting that perhaps there was no clock to break, and he accuses the others of refusing to see that Natasha and Protopopov are having an affair. The assumption is that if others don’t see what’s right before their eyes, why shouldn’t Chebutykin refuse to recognize anything in the world that may hurt him? In any case, what comes out of this episode is our discovery that Chebutykin cannot deal with a death that takes away his love. His final stance in the play—“The baron is a fine fellow, but one baron more or less, what difference does it make?”—is a pathetic indication of the lengths he is driven to in trying to cope with a love long since lost.

Soleny is the only character in the play who turns away from love—turns away so completely that he commits himself to murder instead. He has an uncanny knack for turning a situation that is initially friendly into one of enmity. In Act II Page 267  |  Top of ArticleTuzenbakh attempts to bury the hatchet with Soleny, who immediately denies that there is any animus between them, thus provoking an argument and indirectly testifying to the correctness of Tuzenbakh’s view of their relationship. Their discussion ends with Soleny’s “Do not be angry, Alexei,” which distorts Tuzenbakh’s friendly overtures into a rivalry, presumably over Irina. Dissatisfied in his exchange with Tuzenbakh, Soleny seizes upon the first opportunity for further quarrel. Chebutykin enters, regaling Irina with an account of a dinner given in his honor. He is particularly pleased with the chekhartma(lamb). Soleny insists that cheremsha(an onion) is totally disagreeable. This pointless argument ends with a victory on Chebutykin’s side when he says: “You’ve never been to the Caucasus and have never eaten chekhartma.” Chebutykin is the clear victor here, because Soleny prides himself on being a reincarnation of Lermontov, the nineteenth-century Russian romantic poet whose setting is regularly the Caucasus Mountains. To suggest that Soleny has never been there totally undercuts his stance as a hero in the Lermontov mold. Having lost the argument with Chebutykin, Soleny immediately proceeds to avenge himself in the best Lermontov tradition by picking a quarrel with Andrei over the number of universities in Moscow.

It is true that he declares his love for Irina toward the close of Act II, but one senses that he had expected a cool reception from her. In any case, the scene ends with what seems to be Soleny’s real message—that he will brook no rivals. To put it another way, Soleny employs his declaration of love to establish a hostile relation with Tuzenbakh. We might also view the episode as a parody of the opening scene in Act II, where Vershinin declares his very real love to Masha. The initial exchange between Masha and Soleny in the first act suggests that we are to view them as polar extremes in some sense. Soleny’s first speech implies a 1 + 1 = 3 equation: “With one hand I can lift only fifty-five pounds, but with two hands I can lift a hundred and eighty—two hundred, even. From that I deduce that two men aren’t twice as strong, they’re three times as strong as one man. .. or even stronger. . . “. Masha’s opening speech implies a retort to Soleny: “In the old days, when Father was alive, there’d be thirty or forty officers here on our name days, there was lots of noise, but today there’s a man and a half. . . “. In view of the fact that the only officers present are Soleny, Tuzenbakh, and Chebutykin, Masha’s equation is apparently 3 = 1.5. Soleny immediately picks up on this banter, if that’s what it

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is, and compares one man philosophizing with two women trying to philosophize, the latter being equal to sucking one’s thumb. Masha thereupon cuts him off: “And what is that supposed to mean, you terribly dreadful man?.” This exchange between Masha and Soleny in the opening moments of Three Sisters is a vitally important one because, on the question of love, they represent polar extremes within the play: Masha is willing to take a chance on love; Soleny can only capitalize on love as a pretense for a duel.

The wooing scenes between Vershinin and Masha are masterpieces in Chekhov’s whimsical art. The process is initiated in the first act as Olga and Irina laugh together over recollections of Moscow. It is Masha who suddenly pins down a real moment of connection in their lives when she recalls that they used to tease Vershinin as the lovesick major. In the first of his rather protracted philosophical speeches, Vershinin offers a justification for existence in response to Masha’s statement that the sisters’ lives will go unnoticed. She immediately responds to his attention by announcing she’ll stay to lunch after all. This exchange initiates that special relationship between them. Shortly after this, Vershinin offers Masha another view with which she must be wholly in sympathy: “... if I were to begin life over again, I wouldn’t get married.. .. No! No!.” This is the precise moment Chekhov chooses for Kulygin’s entrance.

In Act II, Vershinin’s speech on what life will be like in two or three hundred years is clearly directed toward Masha; indeed, his philosophical ramblings are primarily a way of wooing her. She understands this and laughs softly during his speech. Tuzenbakh is clearly not privy to this particular form of lovemaking. He believes he is engaged Page 268  |  Top of Articlein a serious discussion with Vershinin and cannot understand why Masha is laughing. Vershinin, of course, has no reason to ask. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that in his musings about the future Vershinin almost never responds to Tuzenbakh’s attempts to join in the discussion. Indeed, Chekhov revised the text of Three Sisters at a number of points to eliminate Vershinin’s responses to Tuzenbakh’s remarks. In the first act Tuzenbakh announces Vershinin’s arrival to the assembled company; Vershinin ignores the introduction and proceeds to identify himself by name. In his first monologue on the future, Vershinin dismisses Tuzenbakh’s attempt to enter the discussion with a curt “Yes, yes, of course.” In the musings about life in two or three hundred years in Act II, Vershinin suggests the theme and Tuzenbakh offers his opinion about the future. Vershinin is apparently ruminating on his own views as Tuzenbakh speaks—the stage direction reads: “Aftera moment’s thought.” His subsequent remarks bear no relation to Tuzenbakh’s; we get the distinct impression that Vershinin has not the slightest interest in a debate, thus emphasizing the real motive for his musings, to converse indirectly with Masha. The ostensible discussion continues with Masha’s observations on the necessity for meaning in life:

It seems to me a man must believe, or search for some belief, or else his life is empty, empty.... To live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why there are stars in the sky.. .. Either you know what you’re living for, or else it’s all nonsense, hocus-pocus... .

In effect, her words confirm her need for the kind of reassurance Vershinin has been offering her, that what man is presently doing is creating the possibility for future happiness and understanding. Vershinin’s next line—“Still it’s a pity our youth has passed”—is almost a reproach to Masha: since youth has passed and each of them is set in his respective relationship, their mutual happiness is impossible for any protracted period of time. Masha greets his reproval with the famous line from Gogol: “It’s dull in this world, gentlemen.” Tuzenbakh, not comprehending the private dialogue, answers with a paraphrase of Masha’s reference to Gogol, expressing his frustration over a conversation he was never meant to follow. Chebutykin does apparently follow at least the drift of the conversation—love—as he notes that Balzac was married in Berdichev. Irina, either consciously or unconsciously, picks up on this drift as she repeats Chebutykin’s observation. Tuzenbakh, now attentive to one strand in the discussion—what can we do with our lives?—announces he’s leaving the service. Having argued that life will always be pretty much the same, he now asserts that he will change the direction of his own. This is an important aspect of that contradiction of position so characteristic of Tuzenbakh and Vershinin. It is highly ironic that Vershinin consistently denies there is any happiness for us now, while achieving at least a momentary happiness with Masha. Tuzenbakh, on the other hand, argues that he is happy right now, in his love for Irina, while he is denied any return of that love. Masha, characteristically, disapproves of his determination to change, feeling herself denied any such opportunity.

In the third act, Vershinin’s musings on life in the future are a direct response to Masha’s arrival on the scene. After Chebutykin’s rather shocking references to Natasha having an affair, perhaps partly to distract everyone’s attention from the assumption that he and Masha are, too, Vershinin launches into a peroration on what his daughters have yet to go through in their lives. When Masha enters, he almost immediately shifts theme from daughters to life in the future, as though the topic has already become a secret code between them. His musings are intermixed with his laughter and expressions of happiness. Everybody has fallen asleep except Masha and Vershinin, making clear that his philosophizing is a way of talking about love. The episode ends with their strange love duet from Chaykovskiy’s Yevgeniy Onegin.

Near the end of the third act Masha has her frank talk with her sisters. Olga refuses to listen; Irina listens most attentively, as she presumably longs for a love of her own. Despite Olga’s disclaimers, Masha’s confession of love brings the sisters closer together than they have been at any point in the play thus far and prepares the way for their final scene of coming together in the finale.

In the fourth act Masha speaks to Chebutykin of her love, implicitly comparing her own position with his at an earlier time:

MASHA:. . . Did you love my mother?
CHEBUTYKIN: Very much.
MASHA: Did she love you?
CHEBUTYKIN after a pause: That I don’t remember anymore.
MASHA: Is mine here? That’s the way our cook Marfa used to speak of her policeman: mine. Is mine here?

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MASHA: When you take happiness in snatches, in little pieces, and then lose it as I am, little by little you get coarse, you become furious....

The ambiguity in Chebutykin’s reply to Masha’s question about her mother is remarkable. Is he trying to protect the honor of the woman he loved? Did she perhaps not return his love? Or is his reply part of his attempt to deny the past experience itself? We have no way of knowing. Masha’s use of “mine” must refer to Vershinin, and Chebutykin so understands it. If he thought she were speaking of her husband, he could not reply “Not yet,” for he has just seen Kulygin go in the house. Masha’s remarks on happiness contain little joy, and yet she is admitting she has now known love, and the indications are that it will not turn her away from experience as it has Chebutykin. We shall see more of this in the finale.

As far as love is concerned, Irina would seem to be in the best position of the three sisters. She is unattached; two suitors pursue her; and yet she is unhappy because there is an imaginary third lover, whom she associates with Moscow. It is the dream of going to Moscow that animates her in the first act, and, although it is not clear why Moscow is so important to her at this point, it does become clear by the end of Act III. Still, there are hints, even in the opening scene, that it is love Irina seeks. When Tuzenbakh reports the arrival of the new battery commander, it is Irina who pricks up her ears, inquiring, “Is he old?. .. Is he interesting?.” Her desire to work looks like a second choice, and Tuzenbakh is at his most pathetic as he tries to ingratiate himself with her by sharing her desire for work: “That longing for work, Oh Lord, how well I understand it!”. Tuzenbakh seems to use the work theme to promote his standing with Irina in very much the way Vershinin talks of the future to woo Masha. Irina’s cry at the end of Act II—“To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!”—suggests that it is an appeal to love, if we look at the context out of which it arises. Soleny has just made his rather ridiculous and thoroughly repulsive declaration of love to her; Vershinin has just returned bearing the news that his wife didn’t poison herself after all; Kulygin is unable to find his wife; Natasha has just left with Protopopov; Olga makes her first appearance in the act, complaining of professional responsibilities and of Andrei’s gambling losses. Each situation suggests an abortive love relationship, including the absence of a love for Olga. If all this is what provokes Irina’s cry, it may well mean she is looking to Moscow for the kind of love that is simply unavailable to her here.

Her association of Moscow with love becomes explicit in the third act when she says: “I always expected we would move to Moscow, and there I would meet my real one, I’ve dreamed of him, I’ve loved him.. .. But it seems it was all nonsense, all nonsense. . . .” In the final lines of Act III she agrees to marry the baron, but still wants to go to Moscow: “... only let’s go to Moscow! I beg you, let’s go! There’s nothing on earth better than Moscow! Let’s go, Olga! Let’s go!.” These words come after Masha’s declaration that she loves Vershinin and would seem to suggest that though Irina has agreed to marry Tuzenbakh, she looks forward to finding her real love elsewhere, as Masha has.

Olga has had the least opportunity to find happiness through love, and yet Olga seems to cope with her situation better than the other two. She has very nearly reconciled herself to a single life even at the opening of the play, and during the course of it she expresses her love in an entirely different fashion. We see her love in her readiness to help with both clothing and lodging for those who have been left homeless by the fire; we see it in her comforting Irina in the third act and in the way she silently acquiesces to Masha’s love for Vershinin, as she steps aside to allow them their last moment alone together.

Finally, we must compare the situations at the opening of the play and at its end to gather some measure of just what the intervening experience has meant for the sisters, how it has altered their conceptions of human possibility. Harvey Pitcher has observed that the fourth act is very nearly an “inversion” of the first. He lists any number of actions and situations that occur in Act I and again in altered form in the fourth. He makes a convincing argument for seeing the finale as a negation of most of the positive elements that appeared in the opening, but I think that in addition to such negations, we see a number of positive elements in the finale that invert the hopeless and desperate attitudes of the opening. In one sense, the play moves from both naive faith and despair to a heightened awareness of possibilities in life and a more solidly rooted ability to endure. At the opening, the sisters are both physically and temporally separated; Olga is primarily oriented to the past as she recollects the death of their father a year ago and comments on how the last four years at the high school have aged her. Irina disclaims any interest in this past, as she remarks to Page 270  |  Top of ArticleOlga: “Why talk about it?.” She also shares some of Irina’s naive faith in a future in Moscow, but even Moscow is in part a past orientation; certainly for Olga it must be, since she is the eldest and would have the clearest memory of what their life had been like there. Irina’s Moscow, on the other hand, is the land of the future; she can look only forward to Moscow and to going to work. Masha restricts her observations to an occasional whistle, is not particularly interested in either Olga’s sense of the past or Irina’s hopes for the future; she is, as she sees it, buried in a present without hope. When Olga suggests that Masha can come up to Moscow every summer to visit them, Masha’s only comment is to whistle, as if, knowing her own present, she recognizes Olga’s wishful thinking as a mere whistling in the wind. Perhaps Masha’s only departure from a present orientation is her remark about her mother: “Just imagine, I’ve already begun to forget her face. Just as they won’t remember us. They’ll forget.” But even here she seems to exploit both past and future to affirm the worthlessness of present existence. Thus, at the opening the sisters are totally at odds, as they contemplate three different perceptions of reality. Perhaps the only common strain here is their shared dissatisfaction with the present. Spatially, there is some sense of their occupying a restricted area, particularly with Olga, who either sits at her desk correcting papers or walks to and fro about the room. Even Masha seems initially restricted to her couch. Temperamentally, they are also separated from one another here, each involved in her own activity—Olga correcting, Masha reading, Irina lost in thought, their dresses dark blue, black, and white.

Olga’s opening speech is full of strands connecting past, present, and future:

Father died exactly a year ago on this very day, the fifth of May, your name day, Irina. It was very cold then, snow was falling. I thought I couldn’t bear it, you lay in a dead faint. But a year has passed and we remember it easily; you’re wearing a white dress now, your face is radiant. The clock strikes twelve. And the clock was striking then. Pause. I remember, when they were carrying Father, there was music playing and they fired a volley at the cemetery.

The play opens with the recollection of a death, just as it will end with the news of a death at the present moment. At the same time, Olga’s recollection of death is associated with birth; it is also Irina’s name day. Olga’s reflections next focus on the difficulty of facing the loss of a father whom both Olga and Irina presumably loved, but, as if in anticipation of their stance at the end of the play, Olga notes that they did survive the calamity. In short, Olga’s speech is a kind of summary of their reactions to calamitous experience: it is both unendurable and endurable, and calamity itself is mixed with elements of joy. The contrast between the weather a year ago and the weather today (“sunny and bright”) underscores a recurrent cycle of anguish and joy. The funeral music of the military band of a year ago will be transformed at the end of the play into music that is played “so gaily, so eagerly, and one so wants to live”....

The process of redressing natural relationships which were at the very least strained in Act I gets under way near the end of Act III. First, there is Masha, who refused to join in the sisters’ conversation at the opening. In Act III she draws the sisters together, although against Olga’s better judgment, in her frank discussion of her love for Vershinin. This is followed shortly by Andrei’s confession to at least two of his sisters that he is desperately unhappy, which constitutes a considerably more honest response to the family than his rapid departure from the scene as early as possible in Act I. The setting in Act IV is the garden attached to the house. On the one hand, it is true that Natasha dominates the house, but at the same time, if we recall that sense of the sisters’ confinement in the living room of Act I, there is a compensatory feeling of openness in Act IV. The garden is unquestionably preferable to the living room now, and one is uncertain whether the sisters have been evicted or liberated—perhaps a combination of the two. The final tableau certainly contrasts the separation the sisters felt in the opening scene with their physical closeness at the end—“The three sisters stand nestled up to one another.” But the physical closeness reflects a far more basic sense of unity. Harvey Pitcher has quite justly commented on this scene: “The sisters feel perhaps closer to one another now than they have ever done before.” In the departure of the regiment and the death of Tuzenbakh, they give themselves to one another as they have not done earlier. They give themselves to their love for one another and discover a strength in this to endure.

Masha has the first of the sisters’ final speeches, and I would like to look at her words, not as they are printed in texts today, but as they appear in Chekhov’s original version of the speech, which, unfortunately in my view, has never been restored to the play. The speech was cut at the request of Olga Knipper, who found the lines difficult to speak. It would appear that Chekhov silently acquiesced. I’ve indicated the deleted lines by brackets:

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Oh, how the music is playing! They are leaving us, one has really gone, really and forever; and we’ll stay here alone to begin our lives anew. I shall live, sisters! We must live.. . . [Looks upward. There are migratory birds above us; they have flown every spring and autumn for thousands of years now, and they don’t know why, but they fly and will fly for a long, long time yet, for many thousands of years—until at last God reveals to them his mystery.. . . ]

The reference to migratory birds connects a series of images that run through the play and that have two reference points for their meaning. The first is the rather familiar metaphor of birds’ flight as man’s passage through life. Irina is the first to use the image in Act I: “It’s as if I were sailing with the wide blue sky over me and great white birds floating along.” Chebutykin picks up on this metaphor in Act IV when he tells Irina: “You have gone on far ahead, I’ll never catch up with you. I’m left behind like a migratory bird which has grown old and can’t fly. Fly on, my dears, fly on and God be with you”. Chebutykin makes the metaphorical meaning clear here: he may be too old a bird to continue the flight himself, but Irina must of necessity be engaged in her passage through life. Shortly after this Masha refers to the birds, apparently with reference to Vershinin: “When Vershinin comes, let me know.. . . Walks away. Migratory birds are leaving already.. . . Looks upward. Swans, or geese.. . . My dear ones, my happy ones. ..”. Like Chebutykin, Masha here refers to others whose lives go on, but in her final speech her “we must live” is connected with the bird imagery so that it becomes a positive image for her as well; her life—the life of all the sisters—will go on.

There is a second reference point for her speech, however, and that occurs in Act II when Tuzenbakh, as well, invokes the image. It comes in the midst of that scene in which Vershinin muses about the future, as a way of wooing Masha—a scene in which Tuzenbakh is largely left out of the proceedings. He says: “Migratory birds, cranes, for instance, fly and fly and whatever great thoughts or small may wander through their heads, they’ll go on flying, knowing neither where nor why. They fly and will fly whatever philosophers may appear among them; and let them philosophize as much as they like, so long as they go on flying...” Masha’s last speech is equally a tribute to Tuzenbakh. In paraphrasing his lines she both acknowledges his conception of experience and reconciles it with her own point of view, that eventually we must have some understanding of why we do what we do. Irina’s betrothed—whatever the degree of affection she may have had for him—has just died. Masha has just parted with the man she loves, but she transforms their shared sorrow into a virtual panegyric to Tuzenbakh and finds in it a reason why the sisters must go on living. In any case, the sisters have clearly come a long way from that point a year before the play began when death seemed unendurable.

In Olga’s final speech she answers that remark of Masha’s in Act I—“they’ll forget us too”—when she says: “... They’ll forget us, forget our faces, our voices, and how many of us there were, but our sufferings will be transformed into joy for those who live after us, happiness and peace will reign on the earth and they will remember with a kind word and bless those who are living now.” Essentially, she is reiterating Masha’s appeal that we must go on living because the experience is worth the effort, and reaffirming that the purpose will be revealed in the future. But whether it is or not, the continuation of living is essential.

The sisters’ final speeches are interspersed with Chebutykin’s nihilistic observations on the total indifference of the universe to anything that happens. The interchange may be read as an ultimately ambivalent attitude toward the nature of experience, or it may be read as a final tribute to the sisters’ faith. They have not retreated to Chebutykin’s fatalism, though their experience of love has been no more encouraging. The final interchange between Chebutykin and the sisters may suggest not an either/or response to life, but a measure of their capacity for endurance. After all, love is largely a matter of faith.

Source: Karl D. Kramer, “Three Sisters, or Taking a Chance on Love,” in Chekhov’s Great Plays, edited by Jean-Pierre Barricelli, New York University Press, 1981, p. 61.

Eugene K. Bristow

In the following essay, Bristow illustrates the theory of how the number three is a key factor within Chekhov’s play.

Even a casual reading of The 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 Page 272  |  Top of Articlepresence 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.

Irina Masha

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... .

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Irina, however, does not love either one, but is persuaded by Olga in Act III to become the fiancé 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.

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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,
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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 (Kuly gin’s ya da 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 skázát’ 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 Page 275  |  Top of Articlehis 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 Page 276  |  Top of Articlethe 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 nonexistence. 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... sizhuna 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.

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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 Page 278  |  Top of Articlesubtle 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 dúbruit, la Sophie est dormée deájá. Vous eêtes 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 Page 279  |  Top of Articleideas, 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—l, 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.


Bruford, W. H., Chekhov and His Russia: A Sociological Study, Archon Books, 1971.

Esslin, Martin, “Chekhov and the Modern Drama,” in Anton Chekhov, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1999, pp. 139-50.

Kirk, Irina, Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981. pp. 144-45.

Shaftymov, A., “Principles of Structure in Chekhov’s Plays,” in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967. p. 72.

Troyat, Henri, Chekhov, E. P. Dutton, 1984.


Hahn, Beverly, “Three Sisters,” in her Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 284-309.

Hahn’s study, often cited by other critics, examines the interplay between sadness and hope in the play.

Gerhardie, William, Anton Chekhov: A Critical Study, St. Martin’s Press, 1974.

This book is a reprint of the 1923 edition, one of the first critical studies of Chekhov before his genius was widely recognized throughout the world. It is considered the one book that any serious student of Chekhov must read.

Karlinsky, Simon, “Chekhov: The Gentle Subversive,” introduction to The Letters of Anton Chekhov, Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 1-32.

A political analysis of Chekhov, who is usually treated by critics as an artist who was removed from politics. Russia at the turn of the century had a delicate political balance, and Karlinsky examines how Chekhov reflected that balance and toyed with it.

Peace, Richard, “The Three Sisters,” in his Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 74-116.

This short analysis of the play is mostly useful for its wealth of background information clarifying references that the play mentions quickly without explanation.

Page 280  |  Top of Article

Pritchett, V. S., Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, Random House, 1988.

Pritchett, one of the great novelists and short story writers of the twentieth century, produced this wise critical biography when he was in his eighties, and the feeling of one master story teller’s appreciation of another helps readers understand why Chekhov is so universally admired.

Stroeva, M. N., “The Three Sisters in the Production of the Moscow Art Theater,” translated by Robert Lewis Jackson, in Jackson’s Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1967.

Stroeva’s essay, originally printed in Moscow in 1955, is a meticulously researched piece giving a theatrical background to the act of bringing this play to life.

Szondi, Peter, “The Drama in Crisis: Chekhov,” in his Theory of the Modern Drama, University of Minnesota, 1987.

This essay emphasizes the dramatic device of the monologue, and Chekhov’s unique deployment of that device.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693500022