Friday, December 30, 2016

Classics Club 40:Three Sisters

My overall impresssion of Chekhov's Three Sisters is one of unhappiness and depression. Admittedly the fact that I listened to most of this (via Librivox I think) would have contibuted to this impression. The voices of many of the actors  struck me as whiny - it certainly didn't endear them to me.

The three well-educated sisters and their brother are living in the country (which they clearly consider to be beneath them intellectually and culturally) but dreaming of returning to Moscow, where they are sure their lives will automatically be better. As the play progresses it becomes clear the return to Moscow will never eventuate and the sisters fortunes are declining in the interim. Motherly, oldest sister Olga ends up taking on a principal's role at the school where she teaches, even though she doesn't want the job, not least because of the workload it involves. Masha, the middle sister, is in an unhappy marriage and falls in love with Veshinin, a soldier, but he is transferred away. The youngest, Irina, is convinced she will only find true love in Moscow but ends up marrying Tuzenbach, whom she respects but does not love. He is killed in a duel, leaving her to devote her life to the service of others. Brother Andrei seems destined for a promising career but ends up marrying and becoming a shadow of his former self. While the Prozorov family is declining, Natasha (Andrei's wife) is the one character whose fortunes seem to be rising, in terms of power if not happiness. In the beginning she is mocked by the educated sisters for her poor choice of clothing. By the end she has taken control of the family home, telling Andrei exactly what to do and forcing the sisters to give up their rooms for her children. The parallels with changes in Russian society - the rise of the bourgeois and the decline of the educated, upper class - is unmistakeable.

There is definitely a lesson for the reader in all the depression. As Veshinin said "We're never happy. We can never be happy. We only want to be happy." The sisters were so busy pining for the Moscow of their past and dreaming about the Moscow of their future, that they didn't seem to have any interest in becoming happy in their provincial now. Interstingly they didn't seem to make any real attempts to actually move to Moscow either. How much happier would many of us, the readers, be, if we put our efforts into enjoying the life we had now and/or actively working towards the future we wanted, instead of simply complaining and wishing?

A key feature of the play is the lack of action. While much exciting action - affairs, fires, duels - is referred to in the play, all the action happens offstage. Onstage there is a lot of sitting around alternately complaining and wishing, or musing on the philosophy of life. Masha herself remarks that "You've got to know what you're living for or else it's all nonsense and waste." I was left with the impression that it was the inability to know what they were living for, rather than their inability to return to Moscow that was the root cause of the sisters' unhappiness.


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