Sunday 14 May 2023

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

1/ This is the first Chekhov play I’ve read, and it’s harder to read than Shakespeare or Ibsen—there are too many characters to keep track of, and too many things going on at the same time.

Here are my first impressions of Chekhov’s drama: 

- Chekhov’s characters frequently talk past each other, so there are always multiple threads in the same conversation. 

- As in his short stories, Chekhov writes about people suffering and feeling that they have wasted their lives, wasted their potential. However, in his short stories and novellas, he focuses on one thing (very often it’s a man and a woman and a reason for them to be unhappy) whereas in the play, there are many stories going on at the same time. 

- As in his short stories, he avoids overt drama. He and Ibsen are perhaps opposite—Ibsen is intense and depicts everything in a cold, brutal, uncompromising way, Chekhov leaves conflict and incident off-stage and depicts what appears to be ordinary life, suggesting a lot more underneath. 

In a way, Chekhov seems to write about “the moments between life”, or perhaps it’s better to say that life happens between the scenes that he depicts—for example, between Act 1 and Act 2, Andrey and Natasha have got married and had a baby, Andrey has got more debts and now works for the Council, Natasha has changed and slowly taken over the house, something has developed between Masha and Vershinin, Tuzenbakh has fallen for Irina—Chekhov throws us into a middle of a scene, then withholds all the changes and developments, and throws us into the middle of another scene some time later, forcing us to piece together the story. 

Later on, he doesn’t depict the two affairs, doesn’t depict the fire, doesn’t depict the quarrel, and doesn’t depict the duel. He leaves all the dramatic incidents off-stage. 

2/ I’ve noticed that many people, when praising Chekhov, talk about the range of his characters. It is true that he writes about different groups, different classes of people, but there are certain types that keep popping up in his works—such as the weak, ineffectual, spineless type, unable to stand up for himself or for anything, and Andrey in Three Sisters is that type. 

The scene of Andrey talking to Ferapont is so moving: 

“ANDREY: […] To be a member of the local District Council, when every night I dream that I am a professor of Moscow University, a famous scholar who is Russia’s pride! 

FERAPONT: I don’t really know… I don’t hear very well. 

ANDREY: If your hearing was all right, then perhaps I wouldn’t be talking to you. I need to talk to someone but my wife doesn’t understand me, and for some reason I’m afraid of my sisters, I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me or make me feel ashamed…” 

(Act 2) 

(translated by Peter Carson) 

Andrey and his sisters are all unhappy, all having wasted their potential, and they suffer in different ways. 

3/ I have said that people in Chekhov’s play talk past each other and don’t really listen, but it’s curious that in Act 2, Vershinin says several times that he hasn’t eaten since morning, but nobody cares. Even Masha doesn’t seem to notice. 

I read Three Sisters, then after a quick break with Chekhov’s letters, read the play again. Between the two readings, I talked to Himadri and he said this about Vershinin:  

“It would appear his wife (whom we never see) has some kind of mental condition. But the question remains unanswered: is his neglect of his family due to his wife making the home life so difficult? Or has she come to this state *because* he has neglected her?

He says he feels sorry for his daughters. So why isn’t he with them?” 

Masha gets bored with her simple, ridiculous husband and falls for a more intelligent man, but the one she’s in love with is probably a selfish, terrible man who neglects his own family. 

As I reread the play, I noticed Kulygin walking around looking for Masha and realising what’s going on, and it’s heartbreaking. Kulygin makes me think of Charles Bovary: both are boring, mediocre men, not particularly clever; both are betrayed, and suffer; and both don’t deserve to suffer that way.  

“KULYGIN […] Today the Army is leaving and everything will go back to what it was. Whatever they say there, Masha is a fine, honest woman, I love her very much, and I thank my destiny…” 

(Act 4) 

That is terribly sad. Kulygin is dim-witted, but he’s depicted with compassion and one can’t help feeling sorry for him. I especially love the scene where Masha breaks down, when saying farewell to Vershinin, and Kulygin, the kind Kulygin tries to distract the moment by putting on the moustache and beard he has confiscated from a boy at the school. 

4/ Instead of writing about Natasha, the villain of the play who slowly takes revenge on the family and ousts the sisters from their own house, I want to draw attention to a little moment when she shouts at Anfisa, the nyanya, and Olga does nothing. This kind of thing is depicted a few times in Chekhov—in “At Home”, for example—a good-natured but unhappy person is so wrapped up in her own problems that she does nothing when an injustice, a cruel act takes place before her eyes. 

In Three Sisters, a more cruel passivity is in the final Act, when Irina knows that there’s going to be a duel, that Tuzenbakh wants her to say something to him in the last moment, but she doesn’t—it’s heartbreaking. 

But it’s not just her or Masha: in the final Act, we see that Chebutykin, the army doctor, has also become cynical and indifferent. 

“MASHA: Everything has become muddled in my head… Anyway, I say they shouldn’t allow them. He could wound the Baron or even kill him. 

CHEBUTYKIN: The Baron is a good man, but one baron more or one baron less—what can it matter? Let it be! What can it matter!” 


Chekhov shows what suffering and failure do to a person. 

This is a great play, but a depressing play.  

Sunday 7 May 2023

On the 1983 King Lear, starring Laurence Olivier

Yesterday I was feeling down all day, so I thought I might as well tear my heart to pieces watching King Lear, having for some time felt an overwhelming urge to revisit the play. I went for the 1983 version, directed by Michael Elliott and starring Laurence Olivier. 

It didn’t tear my heart to pieces. 

But let’s talk about the good things first. In many ways, it is good, and it’s got a brilliant cast, especially Robert Lindsay as Edmund and Diana Rigg as Regan. Not counting Ran and the Kozintsev film, I have hitherto seen three versions of King Lear onscreen, and Robert Lindsay is my favourite Edmund. In the 2016 version directed by Michael Buffong, which otherwise would be perfect, Fraser Ayres lacks the attractiveness of Edmund and terribly overacts. In the 1982 BBC version directed by Jonathan Miller, Michael Kitchen delivers a bland performance, overshadowed by Anton Lesser’s Edgar (which also says something about Anton Lesser’s brilliance, considering that there isn’t a lot to the role of Edgar). Robert Lindsay is just right—Machiavellian; attractive and magnetic despite his spiteful and treacherous nature; but also pathetic in the final scene. The final moment makes one realise that Edmund sets a trap against his brother and turns against his father not only because he, as a bastard, is legally entitled to nothing, but also because he’s never been loved. 

Diana Rigg is also great as Regan. Debbie Korley and Penelope Wilton are also excellent in the role, especially the latter’s girlish smile as she says “One side will mock the other; th’ other too”, which is unnerving, but in the 1983 version, Diana Rigg steals the scene whenever she appears. She is cold and cruel and mesmerising as Regan.

The rest of the cast are John Hurt as the Fool, Dorothy Tutin as Goneril, Anna Calder-Marshall as Cordelia…

There are many brilliant scenes, and with such a cast, this should be a great production of King Lear, but something is missing—and that I think is in the performance of Laurence Olivier. I’m not quite sure how to explain, as I’m not sure myself what is lacking. 

In the first half of the play, he’s quite good, and the scene in the storm is also good. But from the scene in the hovel with Edgar, till the end of the play, I think his performance lacks power. The scene of Lear putting his daughters on trial, in this production, leaves no impression—perhaps Laurence Olivier isn’t very good at playing madness. The scene of mad Lear meeting blind Gloucester also doesn’t work quite well—King Lear is a bleak, devastating play but there is comedy in it, and there are comic elements, albeit dark and twisted, in that scene—Don Warrington in the 2016 version and Michael Horden in the 1982 BBC version both capture well the funny aspect of the scene, I don’t think Laurence Olivier does. 

More importantly, there are two key moments in King Lear that always make me cry—Lear’s reunion with Cordelia and the final scene—but I didn’t cry watching the 1983 production, I wasn’t strongly moved. In the reunion scene, I think the problem is in the way Laurence Olivier says the line “If you have poison for me, I will drink it”—the scene is devastating because of that line, but his delivery for some reason doesn’t quite work. In the final scene, it should break your heart, it should rip you apart, it should leave you shattered—“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life/ And thou no breath at all?”—but the 1983 production doesn’t quite do so, and I think it’s partly because of Laurence Olivier’s acting and partly because of the music playing over the scene. 

With such a brilliant cast, it’s disappointing. 

Do I think you should watch it? Yes, for Diana Rigg and Robert Lindsay. It is currently available and free on youtube. But I would recommend Don Warrington and Michael Hordern for Lear.