Posts Tagged ‘Three Sisters’

Anton Chekhov: Three Sisters

November 12, 2014

41y5IgRroHL._AA160_It’s that time again: reading for the Russian literature group. I taught this play to drama students a number of times, and it was a challenge, because it’s so boring. Today I had a (small) revelation: it’s a nineteenth century version of Waiting for Godot. Once I had it in that viewfinder, it began to be rather more approachable.

There is something about a lot of mid to late nineteenth century Russian literature: it’s full of people with money and nothing to do, no skills or purpose or meaning in life. They literally don’t know what to do with themselves and they are bored to death. And there’s a sense that things cannot go on like this, something has to change. Sometimes there’s even a scent or a foreshadowing of revolution in the air…

The sisters in this play are stuck in the middle of nowhere – there’s a hell of a lot of middle of nowhere or back of beyond in Russia – if they work, their jobs are drudgery, and they have set their hopes of a new and more fulfilling life on getting back to Moscow, which they left thirteen years previously. In the same way, Vladimir and Estragon expect the arrival of Godot to change their lives, to bring some kind of meaning. The male characters in Three Sisters are utter wasters: a drunken doctor, a military man who resigns, threatens to go and do meaningful work eventually, and then is killed in a pointless duel the day before he is due to marry one of the sisters and start work. Another soldier ‘philosophises’ all the time (rambles pointlessly about inconsequential ideas) whilst conducting an affair with the married sister. Eventually the troops leave… and nobody goes to Moscow.

It seems an allegorical play – if there is any fathomable meaning to it – Russia is stuck in a time-warp, its people lack purpose, meaning to their lives; those with brains and ideas are idle and unproductive. That’s not to say that Chekhov was a revolutionary or that he was prophesying events twenty or so years in the future. But I do get the sense of a world that has lost its way here. (No change there, then, said he cynically.) Nobody is happy, even when they say they are.

I think Beckett does it better: I think the absurdity comes over more clearly and powerfully. But the end result is the same. And I suppose both plays can be looked from the perspective of tragedy: we were challenged a number of times at university to discuss and imagine whether tragedy was possible in the twentieth century. I always felt that Beckett achieved that sense of tragic waste in Waiting for Godot, and now I think that perhaps Chekhov does, too. There’s certainly some of the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ in the plot, but I cannot really warm to any of the characters. To this outsider, there’s a powerful insight into the Russian soul.

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Turgenev: On The Eve

July 13, 2014

9780140440096Reading for the Russian literature group again; unusually, a short Russian novel! Apart from Fathers and Children, I’ve not really been terribly moved by the other Turgenev we’ve read (mainly short stories) but I have enjoyed and been surprisingly moved by this tragic tale, the ending of which remind me very much of Charlotte Bronte‘s Villette.

The plot is predictable – Russian bourgeoisie with no purpose or meaning to their lives, and someone trying to find one – but Turgenev excels in creating a sense of place at atmosphere: lazy, warm, idyllic Russian country summer. No-one has anything they need to do other than talk (echoes of Chekhov’s Three Sisters here). The characters are very skilfully outlined, sketched, and yet come fully to life as the story develops.

It’s a tale of love: two men both in love with the only available woman; she loves only one of them, then along comes someone who doesn’t want to be in love, and they fall in love… the twist is that he’s an outsider to Russian life, he has a ¬†purpose and meaning to his life which she comes to share, and they cause major upheavals in everyone’s cosy and comfortable lives. If I make it sound banal, it isn’t: Turgenev’s writing overleaps this, and achieves a well-rounded, minor tragedy.

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