"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 7, 2014

Nothing Ever Happens in Chekhov–Place And Time In ‘Three Sisters’

Three Sisters was written in 1901, a period of transition in Russian history.  The serfs had been freed in 1861 largely to provide labor for new factories in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and because of this influx of rural, unschooled peasants, areas of these cities became crime-ridden slums.  They were prime examples of Marxist theories of class struggle and capitalist exploitation of the working class.  In a more immediate and practical way, the in-migration of peasant labor changed Moscow forever.  Many privileged upper-class enclaves were forever changed as the influx of unskilled labor and the consequent demand for housing forced a reconfiguration of the city and a displacement of the wealthy.

The Prozorov sisters – Masha, Olga, and Irina – and their brother Andrew, left Moscow before these changes and in the eleven ensuing years never returned.  Their memory of the city and of their childhood home was alive, intact, but hopelessly outdated. The sisters want to return to the city and to the sophisticated, urbane life that they knew.  Life in the small provincial city to which their father, a military officer, had been transferred has become unbearable, for it has none of the intellectual salons, concert halls, and ballet stages of the capital.

Rather than adjust to their new life and change along with modernizing Russia, they refuse to adapt.  Theirs are lives of despair, disappointment, longing and regret, and inaction.  They have doomed themselves to a purgatory of listless survival but do nothing to find meaning and purpose to their existence.

Masha married a young man she thought was dashing and with promise; but Kulygin turns out to be a disappointment – a spiritless, uxorious schoolteacher who has accepted his modest position with resignation.  Olga is unhappy at her unrewarding work.  She, like her sisters, has been well educated; and the menial administrative jobs she holds are mind-numbing and repetitive.  Irina, the youngest, is a dreamer, hoping for love and a prince to sweep her off her feet and back to Moscow.  Andrew, the sisters’ brother, had a promising future as a university professor, but could only manage a bureaucratic position with the Town Council. He too longs for his bachelor days in Moscow, but instead marries a local but willful peasant girl who takes over his life and the Prozorov household while he falls deeply in debt from gambling.

Into this life come the soldiers – Vershinin, Tuzenbach, and others – transferred from Moscow to the barracks of the sisters’ small town.  They are officers from the old Russian tradition before Czar Alexander II introduced conscription in 1874 ‘democratized’ the military, and by adding mundane civilian duties, changed its culture and ethos.  Vershinin and his colleagues, however, are very much in the leisure class, aristocratic tradition, and inject civility, urbanity, and sophistication to the town.  For the brief time that they are there, they give the sisters a taste and feel of Moscow.

However, Vershinin and Tuzenbach are also caught between two worlds – the old aristocratic Russia and the new, modernizing, industrial, and democratic one; and like the sisters talk more than act.  Both are philosophers and debate the essential argument of the pre-Soviet era: Is the world changing for the better? Or regardless of change, will it never progress and be perennially characterized by the same human failings as the present time?  The one thing on which they agree is the value of work.  Vershinin believes that every generation must work and make incremental changes which over time will result in a new, improved, and better world.  Despite his pessimism, Tuzenbach also believes that work has intrinsic value.  It doesn’t contribute to or detract from anything, but is satisfying and essential.

The sisters, however, live a life of practical concerns tempered by the fantasy of a return to Moscow.  Olga and Irina work, but are unhappy.  They see neither intrinsic value nor work as a means to a promising end.  Work for them is simply  limiting, pointless, but necessary.

Three Sisters is a philosophical play which deals with questions of time, evolution, work, and class; but at the same time is a dramatic work in which the characters must deal with their frustrated hopes, disillusionment, and failure.

Chekhov’s plays have often been criticized as dramas without drama.  Nothing really happens in Three Sisters.  The sisters are bored and longing for Moscow.  The soldiers arrive and for a short time bring Moscow, ideas, and promise; but then they leave, and life returns to the predictably mundane world of ennui and permanent disappointment. Yet the play is a quiet tragedy because the very spirit that makes the sisters human– that of energy, optimism, enthusiasm, and enterprise – is gradually and progressively extinguished.  We become frustrated if not irritated with the sisters, grow impatient with their whining and idealistic and unrealistic fantasies, but know that change for them is difficult and almost impossible.  They have been uprooted from their past, deposited in a foreign, hostile environment, and asked to flourish with skills which no longer have any relevance.

This play, say many critics is Chekhov’s anti-Enlightenment statement and growing pro-socialist convictions.  Chekhov like Rousseau before him challenges the supposedly higher intellectual order of the Enlightenment and the belief that only through reason, analysis, and logic can human progress be assured.  Vershinin and Tuzenbach both are windbags, offering drawing room observations about philosophy and the nature of being while totally unconcerned with the concerns of the sisters whom the real, practical world has disoriented and disenfranchised.

While Vershinin speaks for Chekhov in his optimistic belief in progress, the playwright is far more sympathetic to the sisters than Vershinin who talks but never listens.  The forces of social change and the upheavals which they cause are almost impossible to resist or overcome; and adaptation is constrained by a very conservative human nature.

Chekhov was a committed Darwinist and perhaps one of the first ‘Social Darwinists’ who believed that societies evolved as do plants and animals.  Both Tuzenbach and Vershinin talk about social evolution, but have two different interpretations of it. Vershinin, like Chekhov, believes that evolution through concerted and purposeful work and action will lead to a qualitatively better world; while Tuzenbach says plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Chekhov may speak through Vershinin, but all the other characters in the play undermine and undercut him.  Their ennui and listless acceptance of their fate are a solid wall of indifference to his ideas.

Chebutykin offers a third philosophical perspective – an absurdist one.  Nothing matters, he says.  In the final scene of the play Chebutykin alone is gleeful:

OLGA [embraces both her sisters]. The music is so happy, so confident, and you long for life! O my God! Time will pass, and we shall go away for ever, and we shall be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, and how many there were of us; but our sufferings will pass into joy for those who will live after us, happiness and peace will be established upon earth, and they will remember kindly and bless those who have lived before. Oh, dear sisters, our life is not ended yet. We shall live! The music is so happy, so joyful, and it seems as though in a little while we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering. . . . If we only knew -- if we only knew!

[The music grows more and more subdued; KULYGIN, cheerful and smiling, brings the hat and cape; ANDREW pushes the baby carriage in which BOBIK is sitting.]

CHEBUTYKIN [humming softly]. "Tarara-boom-dee-ay!" [Reads his paper.] It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter.

It appears that Olga has finally accepted Vershinin’s optimistic vision of the future; but she is still trapped in her idealistic ways.  “If only we knew”, she says, “If only we knew”.  She has no conviction, and her hopeful statement is tempered by philosophical doubt.  Of all the characters, only Chebutykin can be happy, for he has nothing invested in either past or future.  Some critics have said that Three Sisters is a proto-Absurdist play because of this absurd ending.  That despite Vershinin’s eloquent defense of social and personal perfectibility, Chekhov doesn’t really believe it. Like Shakespeare, he believes only in the amoral and purposeless turning of the wheels of The Grand Mechanism of history.

The critic Richard Gilman is persuaded that the play is neither comedy (as Chekhov originally intended), nor tragedy (despite the unhappy fate of its characters) but absurdist drama:

We don’t see time’s effects as rational or even irrational consequences, not as consequences at all, but as an accumulation like the sand that more and more covers Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days.

Other critics disagree saying that time is important in the play, that consequences do matter; but the characters simply do nothing – can do nothing.  There is an emotional impotence that infects them all.

Since there is one character in the play who does act, and who in deed, not thought and reflection, represents the new Russia - Natasha, the peasant wife of Andrew – one is persuaded that Chekhov was by no means a nihilist, although he might have had some Absurdist sentiments.  Natasha has no patience with or any interest in questions of time, loss, or progress.  She, unlike the Prozorov family, is uneducated, unsophisticated; and ironically is the best equipped to survive in the new world.  She is an insensitive bully who gets what she wants – to be the undisputed mistress of the Prozorov household.  The sisters not surprisingly dislike her for her crudeness and ignorance; but do nothing to stop her.  They lose their bedrooms, their authority, and their position within the family.

She, again unlike the sisters, acts on her desires and impulses.  She betrays Andrew with his boss and never shows guilt, remorse, and apology.  She is purposeful and single-minded, and the outdated, ill-equipped Prozorovs are outgunned and outmaneuvered. We root for her because of her determination and action. She does not suffer from ennui.  She doesn’t even understand the term.  She is the hero of the new generation and takes no prisoners, the first of many revolutionary Russians to come.

When I told Colby Kullman, recently retired professor of English at Ole Miss and Tennessee Williams scholar, that I finally understood why Chekhov had been such an influence on Williams, he replied, somewhat dismissively, “Chekhov was an influence on everyone”.  It is not easy to see why, since Chekhov is a very subtle and intellectual playwright.  Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard have none of the bombast of Ibsen or O’Neill, nor any of the lyricism and romance of Tennessee. Yet his sympathy for characters struggling within social change was indeed insightful if not unique. Chekov wrote of the struggle of individuals for meaning, validation, and emotional stability within changing, often hostile worlds. So did Tennessee Williams.

When asked who were his three favorite playwrights, Tennessee Williams responded, “Chekhov, Chekhov, and Chekhov”, and it is easy to see why.  Williams also understood the disorienting and personally destructive power of modernization.  He was desperately unhappy when his father took the family away from their small town idyll in northern Mississippi and settled them in a tenement of St. Louis.  Characters like Blanche (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Amanda (The Glass Menagerie) long for a return to their gentile lives, and struggle to save themselves from the raw and brutal influences of the city.  They, like the Prozorov sisters fantasize the past and always want to return to it.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is a play which resembles Three Sisters in both tone and theme.  In both plays ‘nothing happens’; that is, there are no dramatic events which turn the course of events or change the characters.  Time simply rolls on in Grover’s Corners for the grocer, the pharmacist, the milkman.  It is an ordinary town with people who live ordinary lives; but as the play ends and the spirits of the dead reflect on how little they appreciated life while they were living it, Wilder’s vision of the passage of time becomes clear – no act is unimportant or insignificant; and anyone who could would willingly return from the dead to happily re-live a life of quiet routine. Wilder does not philosophize about time as Chekhov does through his characters Vershinin, Chebutykin, and Tuzenbach; but through a lamentation of its passing, does indeed validate the lives of the residents of Grover’s Corners and ennoble them.

Chekhov is not an easy playwright to love because ‘nothing happens’ in his plays.  We are eager to know whether Blanche will survive her encounter with Stanley, reject madness, and find kindness and fulfillment beyond the kindness of strangers.  We watch with fascination as Lavinia and Christine Mannon battle each other, and we want to know who wins. We cannot turn away from the carnage as George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf flay each other to the marrow.  We love the murders, wars, palace coups, plots, and deception depicted by Shakespeare.  We want Masha, Olga, and Irina to get on with it, do something, act! and in our impatience and frustration with them and the declamations of Vershinin and Tuzenbach lose sight of the playwrights intent and vision.  We are not comfortable with lassitude and ennui, especially in the theatre.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of Tennessee Williams’ best plays, but one quickly gets impatient with Brick. Yes, he is guilty of moral failing, but why cant he get over it?  Why does he sink farther and farther into a psychological torpor?  It is as hard to feel sorry for him or even empathize with him as it is with Masha, Olga, and Irina.  Yet both Williams and Chekhov are asking us to sympathize with these characters. Ennui or lassitude are understandable human responses, regardless of the cause.

Three Sisters is not my favorite Chekhov play – not because nothing happens, but because it so overtly philosophical.  It is talky if not preachy.  Chekov did this deliberately, of course, and set up a subtle conflict between Enlightenment reason and the very painful, real present; but the play still revolves more around ideas than character.  Nevertheless, after the grand guignol of O’Neill and the romantic despair of Williams, I always return to Chekhov….at least for a while.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    I'm doing a comparative essay on The Three Sisters and A Streetcar Named Desire, and I've been enjoying your blog on such topics and others! Do you have any more information on the interview with Tennessee Williams mentioned?
    It would be of great use.


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