The Fun of Dysfunction
Excavating Chekhov's Three Sisters
by Whit Hertford
Written at the age of 40 and in the midst of his fatal battle with tuberculosis, Anton Chekhov wrote his second to last full play, “Three Sisters” - a story of sibling rivalry, life, death, love, frailty, tragedy, and utter absurdity. Inventing what became “naturalism”, Chekhov was a radical mad scientist of a writer. His feeling was that theatre in the late nineteenth century had become so mannered and false and didn’t represent anything that resembled life... as Shakespeare saw during his time as well and brashly called out during the third Act of “Hamlet”:
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue... do not saw the air too much with your hand thus... For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
At the root of Chekhov’s works are plays about nothing and everything. At the same time. “What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.”
In his creation of the central characters - the Prozorov sisters - he built physical representations of the past, present and future. Each sister concerned with their own burdens: loss of plans, unfulfilled passion and unreached purpose. I consolidated the cast to eleven crucial and necessary pieces to this extended family. Each multi-faceted, complicated. And as found in many families (and every Chekhov play), where we tune each other out, every character is listening but rarely hearing each other... and when they do, that’s the explosion of truth. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes hysterical. But it’s never without history. If not played with the idea of finding out what lies behind the external reproduction of life, and of revealing what lies behind the words and daily trivia and verisimilitude, then the target will be wildly missed.
Prevalent in Chekhov’s play (which parallels much of our contemporary world) is that it is a study in the paralysis of hope - the sisters, stuck in their own personal exiles, unable to move forward. When we allow ourselves to become victims of fate rather than pushing through and creating our own circumstances, we become motionless, we corrode. The irony of “Three Sisters” is that it is a demonstration that we cannot live without these hopes that cut us off from life. We are both poisoned and nourished by the act of hope itself. And when all hopes for ourselves have been destroyed - as the sister’s journey is through the play - then we summon whatever dogged courage we can to confront the rest of our lives - and we start to tell the old consoling story once again; only not this time about ourselves, but about other people.
In most translations and productions the fourth act is presented with a message of resolved heartbreak. This continued to confuse me, because when digging through original sources, I found nothing that outlined such an interpretation. What I did find instead was a reverse-engineered piece of fierce, focused feminist theatre. But it had been awhile since the dust had been blown off. So, I took liberties in wildly adapting (or rather ambushing) the decades of performances to breathe new life into the fates of Olga, Masha, Irina and even their mostly forgotten brother, Andre. Not letting them merely sit in their agony, but to transform. A return to the likely original intended ending, an exhausting, cruel and beautiful celebration of time, evolution. Shattering the museum glass.
Chekhov is a study in subtext. It requires both director and actor to make a life that transcends between the lines. The silences and physical language telling more of the story than the actual dialogue. As director I’ve been honoured and overwhelmed to witness a room full of brave, rebellious and boundless actors bond as an impenetrable ensemble - a family - and create a lush history. Each actor was cast because they were fated to play these iconic literary characters. Sometimes to their horror, shock and embarrassment. Their skin and the character’s becoming one entity. A religious experience has occurred. And each day of rehearsal as been a holy cathedral.
When Stanislavski and his actors rehearsed Chekhov’s texts of “Three Sisters” for the first time, the director would ask Chekhov the meaning of this or that line, and the playwright would shrug his shoulders: “I don’t know.” “But what’s the message?” “There is no message.” Chekhov never gives us any messages, never tells us how to think. As a coolheaded doctor, he underlines the cruelty and the bitterness of our relationships, but he is also a compassionate doctor. Never judging, he feels for his characters. “There are no heroes or villains in any of my plays,” he said, seeing them with a mixture of irony and sympathy for their aspirations, which are never fulfilled, for the chaos and confusion in which they indulge, for the illusions they fabricate to avoid seeing the truth. He warns us that illusion is the veil over reality. To avoid suffering his characters invent beautiful lies, which they live feverishly and then, inevitably, it all comes to a stop. And in that pause lies the fleeting realization of the void. The famous Chekhovian pauses are not dreamy, nor romantic, but filled with uncomfortable noise. The big questions of life, of our reasons for being, inhabit these charged pauses.
Rehearsals becoming a task to find a sense of continuity in what seems always fragmented, discontinued, illogical. And isn’t that like life? Accepting and embracing the lightening bolts of day to day existence. Chekhov captured the boredom of the calendar, he gave a microscope to the fluidity of life, a route often jagged. Chekhov, more than any other playwright, gave us a glimpse of naked human contact, in the hope that a true vibration of real life will resonate. To find the richness in the mundane.