Anton Chekhov’s "Three Sisters" is the first production of the FSU/Asolo Acting Conservatory’s 2023-24 season. It’s a play about the collateral damage of exile. Before it starts, General Prozorov was exiled to Siberia with his family. His son and three daughters grew up in the cultural center of Moscow. Now they’re stuck in a cultural swamp. After the general’s death, Olga, Masha and Irina consider their future. Andrei Malaev-Babel will be directing this lesser-known play. As he sees it, “Three Sisters” is revolutionary in more ways than one. And also very, very funny.
How would you describe the play? Is it a tragedy? A comedy? Both?
When Chekhov wrote “Three Sisters,” he described it as a comedy, but Moscow Art Theater tried to convince him otherwise. Despite Chekhov’s protests, the original production of his play, directed by Stanislavsky, had a very serious, sentimental tone. But Chekhov still believed it was a comedy — and there's definitely a lot of humor in his play.
Nothing much … mostly talking. (Laughs) That’s what typically happens in a Chekhov play, isn’t it? In a way, “Three Sisters” is an exception. When Chekhov offered a formula for his plays, he said, “People just sit around the table having tea and conversing, while their destinies are being made or ruined.” Irina, Masha and Olga, however, are not just having conversations – they fight, they oppose their destinies, and even if they are not victorious in the end, the moral victory in the play is theirs.
What do they talk about?
Love, war and peace, money. Mostly love! Chekhov said that “The Seagull” had 100 pounds of love in it. But it's also true of “Three Sisters.” It has much to do with us recognizing our own inertia and inability to act when we could have acted. And yet, it is not a private play; it is a social play.
What’s your take on Irina, Masha and Olga?
They’re all members of the so-called Russian intelligentsia. And it’s a very particular breed, right? Their thinking goes back to the Decembrist uprising of 1825. It was the first time that members of the Russian aristocracy fought for the rights of Russian peasants, who were enslaved then. They didn’t succeed, obviously. But it was the beginning of the Russian intelligentsia movement with prepared the Russian revolution. By the time that Chekhov writes about the Russian intelligentsia, it is less aristocratic. There are more military people, teachers, doctors and engineers among the intelligentsias than aristocrats. They are situated right in between; they are the so-called “stratum.” They’re not workers or peasants. They're not aristocracy, either. Which is why they are going to perish first when the very revolution they’ve prepared takes place. This is because they are not protected by either of the fighting classes. Like most members of the Russian intelligentsia, the sisters want to help bring about a better world. But their resources are limited.
So, the three sisters have idealistic values, but not much power or money.
That’s true. But they are rich in culture. Culture is the most important inheritance they’ve received from their father — and they must fight to preserve it the provincial world of the Ural Mountains. Exile from art, civilization and culture is one of the driving forces in this play — that separation sets everything into motion. To explain that, I have to go back in time — to the events that have happened before the play. Sometime in the 1880s, the three sisters’ father, General Prozorov, was exiled from Moscow to the Urals with his family and his troops.
Why was he exiled?
Chekhov doesn’t say. But when people in Russia are exiled, it's usually because they aren’t seeing politics the same way the government sees it. Before their exile, General Prozorov’s family lived in Moscow — a home city to the best theaters, art galleries, universities, writers and composers. With very little warning, the general winds up in the Urals (practically in Siberia) with his officers and soldiers, as well as his children. The Prozorov family is suddenly plunged into a provincial swamp where people chiefly don’t care about culture and education. Despite all of that, the general educates his children as if they’d kept living in Moscow. He teaches them several foreign languages and musical instruments. He sends his son to the University of Moscow. And, needless to say, nobody loves him in this provincial city for sticking his head out of the swamp. And when General Prozorov dies, one year before the start of the play, nobody attends his funeral.
Now the family patriarch is gone — and the three sisters have lost their support system. The obvious question is: What do they do next?
It’s a good question. One year after the funeral, the general’s children have to start life anew without their father. What do they do next? For the first three acts, the sisters still dream of returning to Moscow. Some of them also have a possibility of getting married or starting a career. Although they don't need to work for money; all of the Prozorov children have inherited the estate their father has left them, and the sisters receive his military pension. Although, this is not going to last long – the Russian revolution is already in the air.
Ah. So it’s a question of timing.
Exactly! Chekhov completes his play during the last year of the 19th century. In 1905, already, the first Russian revolution breaks out. The First World War follows in 1914. But there is also a revolution in Chekhov’s writing and his thinking about these characters. “Three Sisters” is particularly revolutionary.
In what way?
Chekhov’s characters aren’t so passive in this play. They’re transitioning from regret to action. There’s not just sulking, not just whining, as “Uncle Vanya” characters do. Instead of merely lamenting their destiny, the sisters and those around them are trying to do something about it. They’re trying to make a difference in the world — and they’re very hopeful about the future. Their undying optimism is astonishing! Their sense of humor is revolutionary for a Chekhovian play. So if people are worried about sitting through a lot of sulking and complaining, that does not apply to this play. It’s quite active and very funny in numerous ways.
Did Chekhov base Irina, Masha and Olga on people he actually knew? Or were they totally products of his imagination?
Both. Every character that Chekhov ever wrote is himself; every character that Chekhov ever wrote is also based on someone he met.
What’s the source of the three sisters’ optimism?
They are looking at both their personal hardships and social injustice as temporary. These things will pass — but they can speed up the process. So they decide to work to bring about positive change.
Revolutionary change obviously came to Russia in 1917. But it wasn’t positive.
No. And the Russian intelligentsia will be the first to perish in the class warfare. They selflessly worked to emancipate peasants and workers and to create progress and equality. They wanted a revolution. And they got it …
But it wasn’t the revolution they wanted.
No, it wasn’t. Instead, the revolution laid the foundation for a corrupt regime. And that regime targeted the few members of the intelligentsia who survived the battles in the streets.
History has a cruel sense of humor.
Yes — particularly Russian history. But Chekhov was a great writer, and a prophetic writer. He had no false hope. “Three Sisters” takes place in a rare window of peace in Russian history. Within this peacetime, the progressive people Chekhov depicts in “Three Sisters” are trying to bring change to Russian society. They know it won’t be easy. All they can do is to dream of their descendants being happy in a better world 200 years in the future. If Chekhov’s prophecy is correct, it’s going to take another 200 years.
But that’s Chekhov’s diagnosis. As a playwright, he was never sentimental. He was also a physician by training. A good doctor cannot be sentimental. To treat illness and disease, you have to see reality clearly — even ugly reality. Chekhov brings that clarity of vision to his writing.