In 1898, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) moved from the outskirts of Moscow to Yalta; his doctors had exiled him to this temperate southern city as treatment for his tuberculosis. Not long after, he fell deeply in love with Olga Knipper, a leading actress at the Moscow Art Theatre who, at her insistence, was to become his wife the following year. From the beginning, their remarkable relationship was one that seemed impossible: Chekhov did not have long to live; he was confined to what he bitterly called “my Yalta prison;” and Knipper remained in Moscow performing at the Moscow Art Theatre, with visits to Yalta when she could get away. Their letters to one another have a constant refrain of “come to Moscow” and “I long for Moscow.” And yet, despite the palpable yearning that characterized their relationship, Chekhov’s letters to Knipper were an epistolary flood of uncharacteristically unguarded love and joy.
Chekhov had already experienced life’s many seemingly impassible barriers to living fully. He was the son of a slave; his grandfather had bought the family’s freedom before the serfs were emancipated in 1861, the year after Chekhov was born. As a boy, he was brutally beaten by his father, taught to yield unquestioningly to authority, and forced from the age of eight to fawn over customers in the family shop in Taganrog. When he was in his teens, his father went bankrupt and lost their home. Upon graduating from secondary school, Chekhov rescued his family from the squalor in which they lived and supported them for the remainder of his life, both with the income he eventually earned as a medical doctor, and by embarking upon what began as a side career writing short stories for five kopecks a line. As a doctor, he witnessed the unfathomable cruelties that diseases wreak upon the body and humans wreak upon one another. But most significantly, he lived with the knowledge that he was dying for nearly half his life; he had his first lung hemorrhage in 1893, but hid his tuberculosis for a decade and habitually denied the seriousness of his condition, even on the day he died.
Chekhov’s awareness of life’s inflexible, crushing constraints paired with an insatiable desire to seek joy and beauty manifested itself in his writings in a humorous, compassionate, ironic portrayal of human shortcomings, but also in scant tolerance for self-deception and complacency. He believed that the greatest deadening force is not death, but philistinism, stagnation, and willingness to accept mediocrity. According to one of Chekhov’s letters, much of the story of his life was that of how he “squeez[ed] the slave out of himself drop by drop.” By this, Chekhov meant combating his internal serf remnants, but also finding a way to live vividly, to push “through tears,” as his stage directions often read. In the fall of 1900, in between falling in love and marrying, Chekhov composed a play about three sisters who long to go to Moscow, but do not. Their story explores how one reconciles oneself to the discovery that space can be manipulated, but the unrelenting forward trajectory of time cannot. This realization provokes an acute sense of toska, a Russian word sometimes translated as nostalgia, yearning, heartsickness, or, in Nabokov’s words, “a gnawing mental ache,” that manifests itself in Three Sisters in its characters’ attempts to consume, fill, or traverse the void around them. As in life, their barriers to happiness are a tangled jumble of self-constructed and socially imposed obligations, fears, inertia, personal limitations– and hope. Their struggle through this barrage of conflicting obstacles and desires forces them to be deeply, irrepressibly alive.
Chekhov wrote Three Sisters specifically for the actors at the Moscow Art Theatre; the role of Masha was his gift to Knipper. Even so, he and director Konstantin Stanislavsky never fully saw eye to eye; Chekhov often complained that Stanislavsky’s productions were too cluttered and realistic. Stanislavsky was initially mystified by what, to him, seemed a melancholy play; the first rehearsals were hence arduous and gloomy. But, as Stanislavsky relates in his memoirs, during one rehearsal, he heard the quiet scratching of a mouse. He suddenly realized that this tiny, absolutely insignificant creature was struggling with all its might to live. In this, he realized, lay the key to the play. Perhaps one’s significance is measured not by one’s importance in the world, but by the strength of one’s will to live. He wrote: “They do not bathe in their own sorrow. On the contrary, they seek joy, laughter and cheerfulness. They want to live…”
In 1904, the year Chekhov died, he wrote to Knipper, “You ask me what life is? It is like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot, and nothing more is known.” Similarly, in Three Sisters, Tusenbach asks Masha, “Look, it’s snowing. What does that mean?” Yet there is no doubt that Chekhov felt that one must fully experience life, even if one cannot define its meaning. Chekhov’s characters yearn, ache, are wistful and cruel, but they also laugh, sing, love, and hope. Chekhov’s mosaic of life fills us with toska, but also drenches us with an unreasonable happiness, prompting us to exclaim, against all evidence to the contrary, as one spectator did after seeing the inaugural production, “To Moscow! To the light! To life- freedom, and happiness!”
Dassia N. Posner, Production Dramaturg Assistant Professor, Northwestern University Sources: Benedetti, Dear Writer, Dear Actress; Boym, The Future of Nostalgia; Magarshack, Chekhov: A Life; Chekhov, Tri Sestry, Nabokov, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse; Worrall, “Stanislavsky’s Production of Three Sisters.”