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Welcome to Three Sisters
2011-2012, Volume 7
by Artistic Director Martha Lavey
I have found it very difficult to write about this play. What is it, exactly, that happens in Three Sisters? How does it work? What is it, in the alchemy of the play, that is so deeply affecting but is so elusive in its method? As I puzzled over the play, I began to feel that this sense of the slippery, elusive pursuit of meaning is the struggle of the characters themselves: meaning is just beyond the reach of each of them and produces the longing that is the heartbeat of the play.
The situation of the play: three sisters, living in the provinces for eleven years, longing for a life that they once felt was theirs, the great emblem of which is Moscow. They are surrounded by military men who bring to their lives a sense of a bigger world, a sphere of activity and movement that contrasts their own feelings of stasis. The men in their own home—a schoolteacher; an aging doctor; a cherished brother who, once a prodigy, seems to have failed on that promise—pale in comparison to the excitements of Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin, commander of the artillery battery, whom they remember as their father's friend in Moscow. He is a philosopher as he contemplates the future: "I think I figured out one thing, the most important thing. The real thing. And you should know it too. There is no happiness. Not now, not ever. And that's okay, that's the way it is. All we have to do is work. And then work some more. And happiness is for those who come after us."
Outside of their home are: the military encampment; a carnival whose performers are invited into the home but never arrive; a fire in the town; Natasha's lover in his carriage; a duel. All of the movement, the excitement, the drama of the world is outside of them and is reported back to them. They can't touch it, they can't see it directly, just as they cannot return to their past, the Moscow of their childhood.
The passage of time in the play reinforces the sense of stasis in the house. Between Chekhov's first and second acts, some 21 months transpire; between acts 2 and 3, another year passes; more time passes before Chekhov's 4th and final act. Years go by during the course of the play and the sisters remain in their home, still longing for Moscow, still unable to return. Instead, life happens to them: their brother's fortune declines; their abrasive sister-in-law gains footage in running the house; Olga accepts the job she did not want as headmistress of her school; Irina accepts a proposal of marriage to a man she does not love; Masha continues in a marriage she no longer respects. Disappointment permeates the play. Director Anna Shapiro has talked about the play as one in which the characters cannot feel their own lives. They are full of feeling but it is the feeling of longing, of desire without satisfaction, of time slipping away from them.
It is illuminating to see these personal struggles in the context of their historical moment. The three sisters are remnants of a privileged class in Russia in confrontation with the modern world. The surround of the military battery signals the changing world happening around them. The introduction of Natasha into their own home makes that societal change personal and immediate: Natasha is the representative of a new class. She "marries up" and the pragmatic, self-preserving imperative of her behavior make her a survivor. She bears no sentimental attachment to Anifisa, the aged caretaker of the sisters' childhood—Anfisa is no longer effective as a housekeeper and so must go. Likewise, her husband no longer pleases her so she openly pursues a lover. She is the one, within the household, who is actively seeking and making her future (and, not incidentally, the one who during the course of the play, gives birth to two children, the living embodiment of her future—the comfort of whom becomes the pretext for moving the sisters out of their rooms and, ultimately, the household).
In Sventlana Boym's exploration of the nostalgic impulse, The Future of Nostalgia, she describes nostalgia as "a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one's own fantasy." It is a "double image, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life." Boym's description of nostalgia perfectly captures the condition of the sisters who constant invocation of Moscow is both a fantasy of their past and a dream for their future—a future that never arrives.
She goes on the say that nostalgia goes beyond individual psychology: "at first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time... In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress." And that "outbreaks of nostalgia often follow revolutions."
I think that Boym's descriptions of nostalgia—both in individual psychology and as a collective impulse—perfectly capture the situation of Three Sisters and do much to explain the experience of an elusive and slippery meaning in our reception of the play. The meaning and motives of the play are very difficult to hold on to because at its heart is a longing for something that never was, that can never be again. The yearning in the play is profound—and profoundly human. I believe we return to Chekhov time and again because he so movingly portrays the human comedy in our struggle with our own mortality, with the life we dream and the life we live.