Three Sisters (Russian: Три сeстры, translit. Tri sestry) is a play by the Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov, perhaps partially inspired by the situation of the three Brontë sisters. It was written in 1900 and first performed in 1901 at the Moscow Art Theatre. The play is often numbered on the short list of Chekhov's three or four outstanding plays along with The Seagull and Uncle Vanya.
Olga Sergeyevna Prozorova (Olya) – The eldest of the three sisters, she is the matriarchal figure of the Prozorov family though at the beginning of the play she is only 28 years old. Olga is a teacher at the high school, where she frequently fills in for the oft-absent headmistress. Olga is a spinster and at one point tells Irina that she would have married "any man, even an old man if he had asked" her. Olga is very motherly even to the elderly servants, keeping on the elderly nurse/retainer Anfisa, long after she has ceased to be useful. When Olga reluctantly takes the role of headmistress permanently, she takes Anfisa with her to escape the clutches of the heartless Natasha.
Maria Sergeyevna Kulygina (Masha) – The middle sister, she is 21 at the beginning of the play. She married her husband, Kulygin, when she was 18 and just out of school. When the play opens she has been disappointed in the marriage and falls completely in love with the idealistic Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin. They begin a clandestine affair. When he is transferred away, she is crushed, but returns to life with her husband, who accepts her back despite knowing what she has done. She has a short temper, which is seen frequently throughout the play, and is the sister who disapproves the most about Natasha. In performance, Masha's directness often acts as tonic to the suffering in the play, and her wit comes across as heroic. Her vitality provides most of the play's surprisingly plentiful humour. The artist in the play, Masha was trained as a concert pianist.
Irina Sergeyevna Prozorova – The youngest sister, she is 20 at the beginning of the play. It is her "name day" at the beginning of the play and though she insists she is grown-up she is still enchanted by things such as a spinning top brought to her by Fedotik. Her only desire is to go back to Moscow, which they left eleven years before the play begins. She believes she will find her true love in Moscow, but when it becomes clear that they are not going to Moscow, she agrees to marry the Baron Tuzenbach, whom she admires but does not love. She gets her teaching degree and plans to leave with the Baron, but he is shot by Solyony in a pointless duel. She decides to leave anyway and dedicate her life to work and service.
Andrei Sergeyevich Prozorov (Andrey) – The brother of the three sisters. In Act I, he is a young man on the fast track to being a Professor in Moscow. In Act II, Andrei still longs for his old days as a bachelor dreaming of life in Moscow but is now stuck in town with a baby and a job as secretary to the County Council. In Act III, Andrei's debts have grown to 35,000 roubles and he has been forced to mortgage the house, although he doesn't tell his sisters or give them any shares. Act IV finds Andrei a pathetic shell of his former self, now the father of two. He acknowledges that he is a failure and that he is laughed at in town because he is only a member of the village council, of which Protopopov, his wife's lover, is the president.
Natalia Ivanovna (Natasha) – Andrei's love interest at the start of the play, later his wife. She begins the play as an insecure, awkward young woman who dresses poorly. Much fun is made of her ill-becoming green sash by the sisters, and she bursts into tears. She apparently has no family of her own and the reader never learns her maiden name. Act II finds a very different Natasha. She has grown bossy and uses her relationship with Andrei as a way of manipulating the sisters into doing what she wants. She has begun an affair with Protopopov, the head of the local council (who is never seen), and cuckolds Andrei almost flagrantly. In Act III, she has become even more controlling, confronting Olga head on about keeping on Anfisa, the elderly, loyal retainer, whom she orders to stand in her presence, and throwing temper tantrums when she doesn't get her way. Act IV finds that she has inherited control of the house from her weak, vacillating husband, leaving the sisters dependent on her, and planning to radically change the grounds to her liking. It is arguably Natasha, vicious and insensitive of anyone besides her children, on whom she dotes fatuously, who ends the play the happiest, having achieved everything she wants. Natasha's malevolence could be traced, psychologically, to the way she is made fun of in Act One, but she may just be a bad lot. Her triumph can be taken to represent that of an intrinsically insensitive lower class over the refinement of aristocratic ideals (like Lopakin's triumph in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard) and so be interpreted politically.
Fyodor Ilyich Kulygin – Masha's older husband and the Latin teacher at the high school. Kulygin is a jovial, kindly man, who truly loves his wife, and her sisters, although he is very much aware of her infidelity. In the first act he seems almost foolish, giving Irina a gift he has already given her, and joking around with the doctor to make fun of Natasha, but begins to grow more and more sympathetic as Masha's affair progresses. During the fire in Act 3, he confesses to Olga that he might have married her – The fact that the two would probably be very happy together is hinted at many times throughout the show. Throughout the show, often at the most serious moments, he often tries to make the other characters laugh in order to relieve tension, and while that doesn't always work, he is able to give his wife comfort through humor in her darkest hour at the show's climax. At the end of the play, though knowing what his wife has been up to, he takes her back and accepts her failings.
Aleksandr Ignatyevich Vershinin – Lieutenant-colonel commanding the artillery battery, Vershinin is a true philosopher. He knew the girls' father in Moscow and they talk about how when they were little they called him the "Lovesick Major." In the course of the play, despite being married, he enters into an affair with Masha but must end it when the battery is transferred. He frequently mentions how his wife regularly attempts suicide (and he has two daughters), but he seems to have become inured to his domestic suffering. His first act speech about the hope he has for civilization speaks directly to Masha's melancholic heart, and, upon hearing it, she declares "I'm staying for lunch."
Baron Nikolaj Lvovich Tuzenbach – A lieutenant in the army and spoken of as not at all good-looking, Tuzenbach often philosophizes to be part of the group and impress Irina. He has loved Irina for five years and quits the Army to go to work in an attempt to impress her. He is repeatedly taunted by Solyony and between Acts III and IV, he retaliates and prompts Solyony to declare a duel. He is killed in the duel, and thereby his and Irina's decided union cannot come to full form.
Staff Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony – A captain in the army, Solyony is a social misfit and a rather modern type of anti-hero. He is in love with Irina and tries to put down the Baron to make himself look better, but Irina finds him crude and unappealing. He spends much of his time self-destructively mocking the Baron, who is the closest thing he has to a friend, and ends up killing him in a pointless duel. He is said to have a remarkable resemblance to the poet Lermontov in both face and personality, often quoting him. He always carries a small perfume bottle which he frequently (almost pathologically) sprinkles his hands and body with; it is later revealed that he does it to mask the smell of corpses on him.
Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin – Sixty years old and an army doctor, Chebutykin starts off as a fun, eccentric old man who exults in his place as family friend and lavishes upon Irina the expensive gift of a samovar. Later on in Act III, while drunk, he suffers an existential crisis and reveals to all about Natasha's and Protopopov's affair. In Act IV however, he seems to have come to terms with his crisis or perhaps been broken by it. Though he loved the mother of the sisters (whose name is never mentioned), she was married. (Some critics have suggested that Irina might be Chebutykin's daughter, with the girls' mother having entertained a Vershinin-like affair with Chebutykin, but there is no conclusive textual evidence for this.)
Aleksej Petrovich Fedotik – A sub-lieutenant, Fedotik hangs around the house and tries to express his love to Irina by buying her many gifts. He also is an amateur photographer, and takes photos of the group and Irina. In Act III, he loses all his belongings in the fire, but retains his cheerful nature.
Vladimir Karlovich Rode – Another sub-lieutenant, Rode is a drill coach at the high school.
Ferapont – Door-keeper at local council offices, Ferapont is an old man with a partial hearing loss. He repeatedly blurts out random facts, usually relating to Moscow.
Anfisa – A nurse in the family, Anfisa is 81 years old and has worked forever with the Prozorovs. Natasha begins to despise her for her feebleness and threatens to throw her out, but Olga takes her to live in her apartment. She is the one character in the play, apart from Natasha, who ends up content.
The Three Sisters has a great number of important characters that are talked about frequently, but never seen. These include Protopopov, head of the local Council and Natasha's lover; Vershinin's suicidal wife and two daughters; and Andrey and Natasha's children Bobik and Sofia. J. L. Styan contends in his The Elements of Drama that in the last act Chekhov revised the text to show that Protopopov is the real father of Sofia: "The children are to be tended by their respective fathers"—Andrey pushes Bobik in his pram, and Protopopov sits with Sofia.
Act one begins with Olga (the eldest of the sisters) working as a teacher in a school, but at the end of the play she is made Headmistress, a promotion she had no interest in. Masha, the middle sister and the artist of the family (she was trained as a concert pianist), is married to Feodor Ilyich Kulygin, a schoolteacher. At the time of their marriage, Masha, younger than he, was enchanted by what she took to be wisdom, but seven years later, she sees through his pedantry and his clownish attempts to compensate for the emptiness between them. Irina, the youngest sister, is still full of expectation. She speaks of her dream of going to Moscow and meeting her true love. It was in Moscow that the sisters grew up, and they all long to return to the sophistication and happiness of that time. Andrei is the only boy in the family and the sisters idolize him. He is in love with Natalia Ivanovna (Natasha), who is somewhat common in relation to the sisters and suffers under their glance. The play begins on the first anniversary of their father's death, but it is also Irina's name-day, and everyone, including the soldiers (led by the gallant Vershinin) bringing with them a sense of noble idealism, comes together to celebrate it. At the very close of the act, Andrei exultantly confesses his feelings to Natasha in private and asks her to marry him.
Act two begins about 21 months later with Andrei and Natasha married with their first child (offstage), a baby boy named Bóbik. Natasha is having an affair with Protopopov, Andrei's superior, a character who is mentioned but never seen onstage. Masha comes home flushed from a night out, and it is clear that she and her companion, Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, are giddy with the secret of their mutual love for one another. Little seems to happen but that Natasha manipulatively quashes the plans for a party in the home, but the resultant quiet suggests that all gaiety is being quashed as well. The play turns on such subtle, lifelike touches. Tuzenbach and Solyony declare their love for Irina.
Act three takes place about a year later in Olga and Irina's room (a clear sign that Natasha is taking over the household as she asked them to share rooms so that her child could have a different room). There has been a fire in the town, and, in the crisis, people are passing in and out of the room, carrying blankets and clothes to give aid. Olga, Masha and Irina are angry with their brother, Andrei, for mortgaging their home, keeping the money to pay off his gambling debts and conceding all his power to his wife. However, when faced with Natasha's cruelty to their aged family servant Anfisa, Olga's own best efforts to stand up to Natasha come to naught. Masha, alone with her sisters, confides in them her romance with Vershinin ("I love, love, love that man."). At one point, Kulygin (her husband) blunders into the room, doting ever more foolishly on her, and she stalks out. Irina despairs at the common turn her life has taken, the life of a municipal worker, even as she rails at the folly of her aspirations and her education ("I can't remember the Italian for 'window'.") Out of her resignation, supported in this by Olga's realistic outlook, Irina decides to accept Tuzenbach's offer of marriage even though she does not love him. Chebutykin drunkenly stumbles on and smashes a clock belonging to the sisters' and Andrei's mother, whom he loved. Andrei gives vent to his self-hatred, acknowledges his own awareness of life's folly and his disappointment in Natasha's character, and begs his sisters' forgiveness for everything.
In the fourth and final act, outdoors behind the home, the soldiers, who by now are friends of the family, are preparing to leave the area. A flash-photograph is taken. There is an undercurrent of tension because Solyony has challenged the Baron (Tuzenbach) to a duel, but Tuzenbach is intent on hiding it from Irina. He and Irina share a heartbreaking delicate scene in which she confesses that she cannot love him, likening her heart to a piano whose key has been lost. Just as the soldiers are leaving, a shot is heard, and Tuzenbach's death in the duel is announced shortly before the end of the play. Masha has to be pulled, sobbing, from Vershinin's arms, but her husband willingly, compassionately and all too generously accepts her back, no questions asked. Olga has reluctantly accepted the position of permanent headmistress of the school where she teaches and is moving out. She is taking Anfisa with her, thus rescuing the elderly woman from more of Natasha's blunt cruelties. Irina's fate is uncertain but, even in her grief at Tuzenbach's death, she wants to persevere in her work as a teacher. Natasha remains as the chatelaine, in charge and in control—of everything. ("What is this fork doing here?" Natasha hollers.). Andrei is stuck in his marriage with two children, the only people that Natasha truly dotes on. As the play closes, the three sisters stand in a desperate embrace, gazing off as the soldiers depart to the sound of a band's gay march. As Chebutykin sings "Ta-ra-ra-boom-di-ay" to himself, Olga's final lines call out for an end to the confusion all three feel at life's sufferings and joy: "If we only knew... If we only knew."
Three Sisters is a naturalistic play about the decay of the privileged class in Russia and the search for meaning in the modern world. It describes the lives and aspirations of the Prozorov family, the three sisters (Olga, Masha, and Irina) and their brother Andrei. They are a family dissatisfied and frustrated with their present existence. The sisters are refined and cultured young women who grew up in urban Moscow; however for the past eleven years they have been living in a provincial town.
Moscow is a major symbolic element: the sisters are always dreaming of it and constantly express their desire to return. They identify Moscow with their happiness, and thus to them it represents the perfect life. However as the play develops Moscow never materializes and they all see their dreams recede further and further. Meaning never presents itself and they are forced to seek it out for themselves.
The work was written for the Moscow Arts Theatre and it opened on 31 January 1901, under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Stanislavsky acted Vershinin and the sisters were Olga Knipper (for whom Chekhov wrote the part of Masha), Margarita Savetskaya as Olga and Maria Andreyeva as Irina. Maria Lilina (Stanislavsky's wife) was Natasha, Vsevolod Meyerhold appeared as Tusenbach, Leonid Leonidov was Solyony and Alexander was Artem Chebutykin. Reception was mixed: Chekhov felt that Stanislavsky's "exuberant" direction had masked the subtleties of the work, and only Knipper had shown her character developing in the manner the playwright had intended. In the director's view the point was to show the hopes, aspirations and dreams of the characters, but audiences were affected by the pathos of the sisters' loneliness and desperation and by their eventual, uncomplaining acceptance of their situation. Nonetheless the piece proved popular and soon it became established in the company's repertoire.
In 1942 Judith Anderson portrayed Olga, Katharine Cornell Masha and the young Ruth Gordon Natasha on Broadway. The production was significant enough to land the cast on the cover of Time on December 21, 1942, which proclaimed it "a dream production by anybody's reckoning – the most glittering cast the theatre has seen, commercially, in this generation."
There is a filmed record of a mid-1960s production by The Actors Studio (much criticized for self-indulgence but mesmerizing nonetheless) with legendary stage-actresses Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page as Masha and Olga, respectively, supported by Sandy Dennis's Irina and Shelley Winters's Natasha.
^Styan, John L. (1960). The Elements of Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 209. ISBN0-521-09201-9.
^Three Sisters Act 4, Julius West's translation: "NATASHA: Mihail Ivanitch Protopopov will sit with little Sophie, and Andrei Sergeyevitch can take little Bobby out. ... [Stage direction] ANDREY wheels out the perambulator in which BOBBY is sitting."
^Efros, Nikolai (2005). Gottlieb, Vera, ed. Anton Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre. London: Routledge. p. 15. ISBN978-0-4153-4440-1.
^"Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Tracy Letts". Artists Repertory Theatre. Retrieved October 26, 2009. This adaptation of the Russian masterpiece was commissioned by Artists Rep as part three of its four-part Chekhov project. Letts gives us a fresh, new look at the decay of the privileged class and the search for meaning in the modern world, through the eyes of three dissatisfied sisters who desperately long for their treasured past.