Three Sisters (1901)
by Anton Chekhov
Like the samovar used in the household, this play is intricate and rich on the outside, boiling on the inside. The three sisters are Olga, Masha and Irina, the children of the late General Prozorov stationed in a provincial town. Each sister is complex with unique longing and limitation. They all meet in their vain wish to return to Moscow.
Here is the most serious of Chekhov’s plays with lots of unhappy people bouncing off a few happy, if delusional, ones — the more substantial characters being the unhappy. Those who once loved are now miserable as if love and marriage were a trap. Those who now love have no way to fulfill their longings. Violence brews in a bipolar household. A bleak end. The shot may take place well offstage, but the result is devastating.
Still there is light here, and delight. We become so entangled in the household. The good-intentions of the characters mixed with their love for each other and their gawky vulnerabilities endear them to us, while we are ensnared by their angry outbursts, their delusional speeches and quiet betrayals.
I don’t know if these women are spiritual sisters of Hedda Gabler as Laurence Senelick discusses in his introduction to the play. I see the argument, but Hedda’s daemonic nature is not present in the sisters except if seen in collective with their sister-in-law Natasha, who is deeply irritating and selfish. She is one of Chekhov’s most broken and callous dramatic characters, and together with the mercurial Solyony, the source of much grief. And yet, they are still not the villains, and the world would really not be much different without them.
This play, like Vanya, is a predecessor to Beckett. We see the goodness of the people, but the impossibility of the struggle. There seems to be no solution. A masterpiece of characterization, subtle plotting, and thematic richness.