It’s in the media, mainstream and otherwise: Russia. More than a hint that they might have lost the war (Cold) but won the battle (the latest), and picked the President of the United States. Hum. My recent reading has had a noticeable Russian bent, but I’d like to think my interest in that grand country, and its writers, has deeper roots that the current topical interest. I’ve been reading about the relatively current travels of two Frenchmen (Tesson and Gras) in Russia, a novella of Tolstoy, and much of Anton Chekhov. I was deeply impressed with his Sakhalin Island (Alma Classics)). I’ve also read all his other major plays, The Cherry Orchard,Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts), and The Seagull. “Three Sisters” now completes my reading of his major dramatic works.
Chekhov would die of tuberculosis in 1904, at the age of 44. “Three Sisters” was his final major work, first being performed in Moscow, three years before his death, in 1901. Chekhov was a physician, trained to carefully observe the human body. Another physician-writer that I admire, Abraham Verghese, states that he has difficulty turning off that observation-training in social settings. Chekhov seems to have been the same way. He often places a doctor in his plays; in this one it is Chebutykin, age almost 60, a standard country doctor for the era.
As the title indicates, the core characters in the play are three sisters, Olga, 28, Masha, 23 (she was married at 18 to the school teacher, Kulygin) and Irina, 20. They all live in the house of their brother, Prozorov, who is a bit of a wastrel, and will marry Natasha. The setting is an estate in the Russian countryside. An artillery unit is stationed nearby. During peacetime, as this is, the military really does not have much to do, save for the all-too-often busywork of “training,” and much more pleasantly, courting the young women in the environs. Tuzenbakh is a Baron, and a lieutenant, and is attracted to the youngest, Irina. Meanwhile, Vershinin, 42, a colonel who knew Prozorov’s father, senses the dissatisfaction Masha has with her husband, who was once “learned” when she was 18, but at 23, he is merely pedantic. And makes his move.
Chekhov observes the prospects and aspirations of these three women, faithfully depicting the life of many European women of the late 19th century. His work called to mind Ibsen’s A Doll's House (Dover Thrift Editions) as well as his fellow Russian, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata (Modern Library Classics). One of their chief aspirations is to leave the boredom of rural life, and its very limited society, and relocate to the glitz and glitter of Moscow. Each must make that frank evaluation of their “prospects” in a society where one’s relationship with a man largely determines one’s fate in life.
It is a good representative mix of characters, and Chekhov handles the material well. Chekhov predicted that his plays would be relevant for seven years. More than a century later they are still worthwhile, though not exceptional. Overall, for this play, as well as two of his others, 4-stars.