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Friday, September 2, 2011

Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ and Tennessee Williams


Tennessee Williams admired Anton Chekhov more than any other playwright, and when asked who were the three writers he admired most, he said “Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov”.  Williams is best known for his adaptation of THE SEAGULL (Notebook of Trigorin), but he also expressed admiration for Three Sisters, and I will therefore look at this play and the work of Williams, using the comments of three critics (especially Borny) as points of departure.

Juan Zhao gives a general summary of the influence of Chekhov on Williams:

Among his [Chekhov’s] innovations were his economical husbanding of narrative resources, his concentration on character as mood rather than action, his impressionistic adoption of particular points of view, his dispensing with traditional plot, and as Charles May declared in an essay collected in A Chekhov Companion, his use of atmosphere as “an ambiguous mixture of both external details and psychic projection.”

His elegant juxtaposition of the humorous and the tragic, his lonely characters,and his dark sensibilities, was a powerful inspiration for Williams. The newness of Chekhov was his portrayal of daily life and its encompassing crisis. He illustrated how the average person suffers, their imperfections, without making excuses for the characters.  ZHAO, Juan, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2010, pp. 35-38

I think that the ‘ambiguous mixture of both external details and psychic projection’ is of particular interest.  Glass Menagerie is a play in which the external details are very clear, but always indirect.  The threatening, dangerous world of the alley below the apartment and the world beyond is the environment from which Laura withdraws.  The world of Amanda’s idyllic past in Mississippi is frequently evoked and is the backdrop for the smaller world she has created and is trying to preserve in her home.  The psychic projection is related to this context – Amanda is as much in her past world as the present; and Laura with innocence and ignorance projects herself into an outside world of love and normality. 

Williams is a master of creating external, unseen, or past worlds which become part of his plays.  We do not know where Val comes from, or what Serafina’s husband’s life was really like, or the life at Belle Reve, or the real relationship between Brick and Skipper; but we feel we know.  Chekhov in Three Sisters is equally evocative about a life and a past that is largely unseen.  Moscow is like Belle Reve or the past of Amanda.  It is the symbol of culture, elegance, and dignity that the sisters feel they have lost in the provinces.  Taking place at the turn of the century, the play evokes the aristocratic past of the Czars, but also looks forward to the coming Socialist revolution – both are dealt with through the characters of Vershinin who is forward-looking and Tuzenbakh who feels that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Zhao comments on Chekhov’s portrayal of daily life and how the average person suffers. I don’t agree with this nor with any application to Williams.  The characters in Three Sisters are not ordinary – they are aristocrats or of the haute bourgeoisie and are dealing with very different issues than ‘average’ Russians; and in the cases of Tuzenbakh, Vershinin, and Chebutykin, dealing with philosophical dilemmas.  Williams’ characters are more ‘average’ in an American, practical sense – the families are working class even if some of the characters (Stella, Blanche, Amanda) have a more genteel past – but they are not at all average in their concerns. They are concerned with purity, honesty, integrity, love; and as such are more ‘down to earth’ than Chekhov’s characters; but they still reflect upon and speak about higher values than ordinary citizens.

Alison Christy offers more insight and detail about Chekhov and implicit reference to Williams’ Work:

In his case and that of the sisters, it is their refusal to accept modernity that leads to their suffering. By their resistance toward them, scientific advancements do have an effect on their lives.

Williams was very concerned about modernity and considered it a threat, and a factor in the degradation of life – at least the idyllic life he envisages in his plays, one reminiscent of his childhood in Mississippi before he moved to St. Louis.   However, Chekhov in Three Sisters, offers three different views of the issue.  Vershinin is the optimist, adopted by the Soviets as seeing the improvement if not perfectibility of man.  Tuzenbach is the realist/pessimist, believing that while there will be changes in the future, the basic unhappy lot of man will not change.  Chebutykin is the pessimist/defeatist/Existentialist believing that there is no meaning to life.  To quote Hobbes:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short Leviathan XIII "Chapter XIII.: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind As Concerning Their Felicity, and Misery."

It appears that Vershinin speaks for Chekhov in his optimism, but this interpretation is by no means clear, given the compelling passages of other characters. 

Christy comments that the characters in Three Sisters do not accept modernity, and this refusal results in inertia and ennui.  They are the practical counterpoints to the more philosophical men, described above.  The sisters have longings, frustrations, and dreams that are very much like Tennessee Williams’ women; but one cannot say that they reject modernity.  They simply have an idealized and idealistic view of the past.  It is the men who take philosophical sides on modernity.

In this sense, I do see a strong similarity between the women of Williams and Chekhov.  Again, Christy:

The characters [Three Sisters] also resist accepting the present. The play begins with Olga remarking, “It’s a year ago today that Father died” (259). She continues to detail the day of their father’s death. She remembers everything from the weather to what Irina was wearing. Olga and her sisters have fear of forgetting as time moves forward. When Tuzenbach arrives, he tells the sisters that he knew their mother. Masha replies, “I’m forgetting what she looked like. The same thing will happen to us. Nobody will remember us” (267). The sisters see time as a threat to their memory, the sacred place that holds their memories of Moscow and their parents. The looming threat of forgetting and being forgotten continues to the end of the play

The theme, in this case, is that refusal to accept modernity results in inertia and ennui. The Prozorov sisters often speak about returning to their beloved Moscow. They desire it and they have the means and social connections to do it, but they do not do it. The question is not what is keeping them in the provinces but, rather, what is keeping them from Moscow. The answer is to be found in the city itself, a place that the sisters left eleven years before. Three Sisters: Chekhov’s Warning
Alison Christy 2009

Geoffrey Borny echoes Christy in his observation about time, the wasting of time, and the resulting absurdity of the lives of Chekhov’s characters.  There is no such philosophical reflection on time in Tennessee Williams; and it is depicted principally as times past (Belle Reve and the loss of past idylls), time passing (the loss of youth and opportunity), and a looming sense of a threatening future.  Time provides an important context for the plays, but is not discussed per se as it is in Chekhov.

Chekhov’s world….is deeply embedded in chronological time. His audiences are shown characters who are quite literally ‘wasting their time’. As I argued earlier, Chekhov’s play does not depict a world in which there is nothing to be done, but one in which ‘no one is doing anything’. Through their own inertia and passivity, the characters in Three Sisters make their lives absurd. They may abdicate their responsibility for action and even see themselves as ‘Beckettian’ fated characters…

However, Borny goes on to note:

…but this is not what the overall action of Chekhov’s play depicts. Chekhov employs the idea of time passing as a warning and, in this, is closer to Andrew Marvell’s concept of time than Beckett’s. Marvell was acutely aware of how short a time human beings have on earth and so wished to avoid wasting it.

This is indeed what Williams was writing about.

Borny goes on to say:

The play [Three Sisters] discloses a world in which people are lost … The active theme of the play is how people cope with failure, either by constructing fantasies of a future happiness, or withdrawing into cynicism, or by trying to pretend that all is well … There needs to be in performance too, an emotional danger, and a sense of a desolate emotional landscape…..Mike Alfreds’ ‘reactionary’ interpretation of Three Sisters delivered the clear message to the audience that hopelessness was the core feature of the human condition and that, as one reviewer put it, ‘Chekhov is really writing about the illusion of happiness, the absurdity of our quest for it’

I think this is very telling and appropriate for an interpretation of Williams.  Many of his characters are indeed ‘lost’, and do ‘construct fantasies of future happiness’ and do ‘withdraw’ (although not in cynicism); and yes, Williams also writes about ‘the illusion of happiness’, but not, in my opinion ‘the absurdity of our quest for it’.  I think that the quest for happiness, often if not always thwarted, does not deny the value of the quest.  Laura is deceived, disappointed with the outside world, so her quest is denied; and she returns to her narrow fantasy world; but in a way this disappointment has simply reinforced the fantasy world in which she lives.  Was this a totally bad outcome?  I don’t think so.

Borny writes about the influence of outside factors and that ‘human beings are as chess pawns in the hands of invisible players’.  While there are chance happenings in Williams plays – Val comes on the scene, a gentleman caller finally shows up at Laura’s house, Alvaro appears to Serafina – these are the chance happenings that occur all the time.  There is no sense of predetermination or destiny in their appearances:

The events of the play crept along even as life itself during this epoch, in a tired sort of way, without any visible logic. Human beings acted under the influence of chance happenings; they did nothing to build their own lives. Here is the substance of his first act: a birthday party, the spring, gaiety, birds singing, bright sunshine. And of the second act: triviality gradually takes into its hands the power over the sensitive, nobly inclined human beings. Of the third act: a conflagration in the neighbourhood, the entire street is aflame; the power of triviality grows intenser, human beings somehow flounder in their experiences. The fourth act: autumn, the collapse of all hopes, the triumph of triviality. Human beings are as chess pawns in the hands of invisible players. The absurd and the pathetic, the noble and the worthless, the intelligent and the stupid, are all interwoven

Certainly, the play continues the exploration of life as a constant struggle between hope and despair that had been so movingly dramatised in Uncle Vanya. It is easy to see why the tragic theme of loss and waste can easily overwhelm the theme of faith in a better future and lead directors to interpret the play as a lament. It remains important however to constantly attempt to present a balance between the darker and brighter elements of the play.  INTERPRETING CHEKHOV, GEOFFREY BORNY 2006

1 comment:

  1. Hi! I am writing a university paper on this subject. Do you have the refrence for the Williams quote on Chekhov?

    Thank You!


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