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.  


  1. When I first read Chekhov's plays, I really didn't get them. Then I saw a great stage production of Uncle Vanya, and suddenly it made sense. They're depressing, but they are also funny.

    I saw a production of the Seagull a few weeks ago, and i've been meaning to reread the play.

    1. Yeah, I'm gonna have to find something good to watch.
      The trouble is that many of the classic plays in London are not performed as they are, but they're "a version by...". If I watch Chekhov, I wanna watch Chekhov, you know.

    2. Toronto has a theatre group (Soulpepper) formed about 25 years ago that took as its mission productions of classic plays, and that was great. Then a few years ago they decided to become more modern, alas.

      It was their production of The Seagull, and while it was pretty good, the problem was the text. They did things to it...

    3. It took me a while to appreciate Chekhov as well. That's until I watched film/Russian adaptations of his plays, i.e. the Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Only then I realized how 'funny' Chekhov really was...

    4. Yeah, I'm reading The Cherry Orchard at the moment and not really laughing much.


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