|Written by||Anton Chekhov|
|Setting||A provincial Russian garrison town|
Three Sisters (Russian: Три сeстры́, romanized: Tri sestry) is a play by the Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov. It was written in 1900 and first performed in 1901 at the Moscow Art Theatre. The play is sometimes included on the short list of Chekhov's outstanding plays, along with The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya.
The play has several important characters who are talked about frequently, but never seen onstage. These include Protopopov, head of the local Council and Natasha's lover; Vershinin's suicidal wife and two daughters; Kulygin's beloved superior the headmaster of the high school, and Natasha's children (Bobik and Sofia). JL Styan contends in his The Elements of Drama that in the last act Chekhov revised the text to show that Protopopov is the real father of Sofia: "The children are to be tended by their respective fathers" — Andrey pushes Bobik in his pram, and Protopopov sits with Sofia.
Act one begins with Olga (the eldest sister) working as a schoolteacher but at the end of the play she is made headmistress, a position she had said she did not want. Masha, the middle sister and the artist of the family (she was trained as a concert pianist), is married to Feodor Ilyich Kulygin, a schoolteacher. At the time of their marriage, Masha, younger than he, was enchanted by what she took to be wisdom, but seven years later, she sees through his pedantry and his clownish attempts to compensate for the emptiness between them. Irina, the youngest sister, is still full of expectation. She speaks of her dream of going to Moscow and meeting her true love. It was in Moscow that the sisters grew up, and they all long to return to the sophistication and happiness of that time. Andrei is the only boy in the family and his sisters adore him. He falls in love with Natalia Ivanovna ("Natasha"), who is somewhat common in relation to the sisters and initially suffers under their glance. The play begins on the first anniversary of the death of their father, Sergei Prozorov. It is also Irina's name-day, and everyone, including the soldiers (led by the gallant Vershinin) bringing with them a sense of noble idealism, comes together to celebrate it. At the very close of the act, Andrei exultantly confesses his feelings to Natasha in private and fatefully asks her to marry him.
Act two begins almost a year later with Andrei and Natasha married with their first child (offstage), a baby boy named Bobik. Natasha is having an affair with Protopopov, Andrei's superior, a character who is mentioned but never seen onstage. Masha comes home flushed from a night out, and it is clear that she and her companion, Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, are giddy with the secret of their mutual love for one another. Natasha manipulatively quashes the plans for a party in the home; the resultant quiet suggests that all happiness is being quashed as well. Tuzenbach and Solyony both declare their love for Irina.
Act three takes place about a year later in Olga and Irina's room, a clear sign that Natasha is taking over the household as she asked them to share rooms so that her child could have a different room. There has been a fire in the town, and, in the crisis, people are passing in and out of the room, carrying blankets and clothes to give aid. Olga, Masha and Irina are angry with their brother, Andrei, for mortgaging their home without their knowledge or consent, keeping the money to pay off his gambling debts and ceding all power over the household to his wife. However, when faced with Natasha's cruelty to their aged family retainer, Anfisa, Olga's own best efforts to stand up to Natasha come to naught. Masha, alone with her sisters, confides in them her romance with Vershinin ("I love, love, love that man."). At one point, Kulygin (Masha's husband) blunders into the room, doting ever more foolishly on her, and she stalks out. Irina despairs at the common turn her life has taken, the life of a municipal worker, even as she rails at the folly of her aspirations and her education. ("I can't remember the Italian for 'window'".) Out of her resignation, supported in this by Olga's realistic outlook, Irina decides to accept Tuzenbach's offer of marriage even though she does not love him. Chebutykin drunkenly stumbles and smashes a clock which had belonged to the Prozorov siblings' late mother, whom he loved. Andrei then vents his self-hatred, acknowledges his own awareness of life's folly and his disappointment in Natasha, and begs his sisters' forgiveness for everything.
In the fourth and final act, outdoors behind the home, the soldiers are preparing to leave the area. A flash-photograph is taken. There is an undercurrent of tension because Solyony has challenged the Baron (Tuzenbach) to a duel over a flimsy pretext. Solyony had told Irina that he would kill any successful suitor for her hand but she still agreed to marry Tuzenbach, notwithstanding which she confesses that she cannot love him, likening her heart to a piano whose key has been lost. (Tuzenbach, having left the Army was under no obligation to agree to the duel but did so, anyway, losing his life for what would have been a loveless marriage.) As the soldiers are leaving, a shot is heard, and Tuzenbach's death in the duel is announced shortly before the end of the play.
Masha has to be pulled, sobbing, from Vershinin's arms, but her husband willingly, compassionately, asks that they start again. Olga has reluctantly accepted the position of permanent headmistress of the school where she teaches and is moving out. She is taking Anfisa with her, thus rescuing the elderly woman from Natasha.
Irina's fate is uncertain but, even in her grief at Tuzenbach's death, she wants to persevere in her work as a teacher. Natasha remains as the chatelaine, in charge and in control of everything. Andrei is stuck in his marriage with two children, unwilling and unable to do anything for his wife or himself. As the play closes, the three sisters stand in a desperate embrace, gazing off as the soldiers depart to the sound of a band's gay march. As Chebutykin sings Ta-ra-ra-boom-di-ay to himself,[nb 1] Olga's final lines call for an end to the confusion all three feel at life's sufferings and joy: "If we only knew... If we only knew."
The play was written for the Moscow Art Theatre and it opened on 31 January 1901, under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Stanislavski played Vershinin and the sisters were Olga Knipper (for whom Chekhov wrote the part of Masha), Margarita Savitskaya as Olga and Maria Andreyeva as Irina. Maria Lilina (Stanislavski's wife) was Natasha, Vsevolod Meyerhold appeared as Tusenbach, Mikhail Gromov as Solyony,[nb 2] Alexander Artyom as Artem Chebutykin, Ioasaf Tikhomirov as Fedotik, Ivan Moskvin as Rode, Vladimir Gribunin as Ferapont, and Maria Samarova as Anfisa.
Reception was mixed. Chekhov felt that Stanislavski's "exuberant" direction had masked the subtleties of the work and that only Knipper had shown her character developing in the manner the playwright had intended. In the directors' view, the point was to show the hopes, aspirations and dreams of the characters, but audiences were affected by the pathos of the sisters' loneliness and desperation and by their eventual, uncomplaining acceptance of their situation. Nonetheless the piece proved popular and soon it became established in the company's repertoire.
|24 May 1965||BBC Home Service||John Tydeman||English translation by Elisaveta Fen; adapted for radio by Peter Watts; cast included Paul Scofield, Lynn Redgrave, Ian McKellen, Jill Bennett, among others|
|29 September 1979||The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon||Trevor Nunn||Version by Richard Cottrell|
|28 March 1990||Gate Theatre, Dublin and Royal Court Theatre, London||Adrian Noble||Version by Frank McGuinness with real-life sisters in the title roles: Sinéad Cusack as Masha, Sorcha Cusack as Olga and Niamh Cusack as Irina. Their father, Cyril Cusack played Chebutykin.|
|30 August – 13 October 2007||Soulpepper Theatre, Toronto||László Marton||Version by Nicolas Billon|
|November 2008||Regent's Canal, Camden, London.||Tanya Roberts||An adaptation by the Metra Theatre|
|29 July – 3 August 2008||Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane||Declan Donnellan||Chekhov International Theatre Festival (Moscow), part of Brisbane Festival 2008|
|5 May 2009 – 14 June 2009||Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland||Jon Kretzu||Adapted by Tracy Letts|
|12 January – 6 March 2011||Classic Stage Company, NYC||Austin Pendleton||Real-life husband and wife actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard starred.|
|14 February – 8 March 2020||The Bindery, San Francisco||Angie Higgins||Starring Marcia Aguilar|
This adaptation of the Russian masterpiece was commissioned by Artists Rep as part three of its four-part Chekhov project. Letts gives us a fresh, new look at the decay of the privileged class and the search for meaning in the modern world, through the eyes of three dissatisfied sisters who desperately long for their treasured past.
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