About the play
Written in 1900 and first produced in 1901, Three Sisters was Anton Chekhov's first specific commission for the Moscow Arts Theatre. His previous collaborations with the company (The Seagull and Uncle Vanya) were commercial successes in contrast to his initial playwrighting ventures with other companies which ended in critical derision and commercial failure. The play has often been described as "the decline of the aristocratic and artistic elite coupled with the search for meaning in a modern world." But simply, Chekhov offers us three Prozorov sisters - Olga, Masha, and Irina and their brother Andre - who are refined and cultured youth, raised in Moscow but living a small and "lifeless" provincial town for the past eleven years. With the recent death of their father Colonel Prozorov, they await a return to Moscow where the "good life" can begin again.
From its initial success to current productions, audiences have responded with enthusiasm to the collision of envisioned dreams and frustrated hopes as well as the vibrant characters of this family and their friends, lovers, and acquaintances that populate the stage. This is also a play were the "off stage: characters - a deceased father, a local politico and lover of Natasha - Protopopov, Vershinin,s suicidal wife and children, and the children of Andre and Natasha - are some of the most important instigators of action and reaction. And Moscow itself remains one of the greatest characters. Identified with the family's growth and happiness, and with the perfect life, it is the elusive and unattainable aspiration.
Three Sisters begins with a new era in Russian history; an era shaped by political upheaval and marked change in society. In 1855, the war-mongering Tsar Nicholas I died and left his bankrupt and defeated nation to his son Alexander II. Instead of continuing his father's brutality, the new tsar attempted "Great Reforms" including the emancipation of all the serfs in 1861. (Serfs were 23 million strong and a class of life-time indentured servants tied to the owners of the land they occupied.) While freedom from this indenture allowed some peasants to gain education and upward social mobility, many were still locked in a cycle of land abuse, debt, and servitude. Those who did rise through education, benefited from public assistance schemes and soon established an "intelligentsia" who believed, as the Prozorovs do, that "life was important, ideas were important, and that the world should and doubtless could be changed (historian Joel Carmichael)."
The "intelligentsia" could gain limited influence in the great cities of St.Petersburg and Moscow, but in the rural towns and provincial regions, little could or would change. And with the rise of slums and industrialization in the turn of the 20th century, much of the idealism was quashed by the drive for greater personal greed and international competition. This is the essence of this brilliant drama - a world somewhere between aspiration and rejection, between hope and despair; a modern world of Chekhov's unique understanding that reflected his sense of humanity where "he could never write villains, only buffoons."
About the production
For director Roger DeLaurier, Three Sisters is a homecoming of sorts. During his directorial MFA training at SMU, DeLaurier worked with Mesrop Kesdekian (previously with the Hedgerow Theatre) a director with lineage to MAT and the traditions of Chekhov and Stanislavsky. The three great plays of Chekhov (including Three Sisters) formed the centerpiece of the director's seminar and DeLaurier speaks with great enthusiasm of how this work taught him important lessons of stagecraft and what is required of, and for, complex characterization. Throughout his years in the Conservatory at PCPA, Chekhov's plays have served as the basis for the fall second year acting curriculum and with this production; he has an opportunity to share all he has learned as a student and teacher.
DeLaurier is especially excited by Chekhov's ability to reveal themes through relationships -- interactions among and between characters. And Three Sisters is a powerful example of how we activate our longing and our desperations and how we make the life that we dream of. DeLaurier believes that contemporary audiences can particularly relate to this play because we all share the collision between the dreams and ambitions of our youth that are tempered or constricted by the life as we end up living it. We all aspire to courage that can change our lives and allow us to pursue our dreams, but we often lead lives of quiet desperation.
Intrigued by the complexity and imperfections and humanity that Chekhov expresses in his personal letters and notebooks, DeLaurier is excited by the opportunity to revel in the intimate setting of an arena structured Severson Theatre. He believes that audiences will find that complete immersion in the world of the play will enhance the realism of the story and reveal the dimensionality and honesty of the acting. The amplification of a larger space can distort the subtlety of the moments of exquisite dissatisfaction that Chekhov creates.
In addition to spacial realism, DeLaurier and his design team are working on the costume design with details such as piping, pleating and construction of each garment that help us to envision ourselves in the turn of the century Russian world. Elisabeth Rebel, who serves as both sound designer and composer on this project, plans to support the variety and color of the acting company with composition for string quartet. This music choice of violin, cello and viola, mirrors and enhances the human voices of this drama.
And ultimately, it is this "human" factor that influences DeLaurier's choices. For the initial audiences, it was shocking to see such realism on a stage; this new style of acting and storytelling changed forever what audiences expect of theatrical performance. And as our own fascination with reality television or series such as Downton Abbey (what DeLaurier describes as Jane Austen meets Falcon Crest) grows, he hopes that the great acting of our theatre company can wet our appetites for more of these great plays.
About the authors
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born Jan.29, 1860 in Taganrog, southern Russia to the son of a former serf turned grocer, Pavel and a storytelling mother, Yevgeniya. Anton once observed that the six surviving children in the family "got their talents from their father, but their souls from their mother." His father was physically and verbally abusive and he plunged the family into bankruptcy. He fled debtor's prison by returning in secret to Moscow, and leaving his son, who had been attending the local gymnasium, behind to sell the family possession and complete his education. To pay for that education, Anton resorted to private tutoring, selling goldfinches, and writing short descriptive sketches for the local newspaper. By 1879, Chekhov had been admitted to medical school at Moscow University and joined his family in the city as he planned his advanced studies.
In addition to his school work in Moscow, Anton became the sole support for his family and took to writing vignettes of daily life and humorous tales for the leading contemporary periodicals. He was noted for his "stream of consciousness construction," a contemporary technique he often combined with conclusions devoid of conventional moral finality. In 1884, he qualified as a physician but most often treated his patients at no charge relying on his writing as his primary income source. Considered by many to be the best author of short stories in western literature, Chekhov's literary career also included documentary writing, short plays and full length dramas. By 1887, his story collection, In Twilight, won the Pushkin Prize for "the best literary production distinguished by high artistic worth." It was a much coveted honor.
He continued to practice medicine for much of his writing career asserting that "medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I tire of one, I go and sleep with the other." In the fall of 1887, Anton was commissioned by a theatre owner Korsh to write a play. Within a fortnight he had produced Ivanov. The production was a shambles. By 1890, Chekhov was journeying to far eastern Russian to interview thousands of convicts and settlers at Sakhalin Island (just north of Japan). His findings and letters from the period are provocative and some of his most powerful work.
By 1892, Chekhov purchased a small country estate, Melikhovo, about 40 miles south of Moscow where he resided until 1899. In a small lodge on the estate, he began writing The Seagull in 1894. But the first night at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg was a disaster. And with the failure of this first production in 1896, he swore off writing for the stage. When the Moscow Arts Theatre, under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky, revived the play in 1898 to great acclaim, Chekhov returned to dramatic creation and his Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard were all produced by the company with great success.
In March of 1897, Chekhov suffered a major lung hemorrhage as a result of his tuberculosis for which he had refused to seek treatment since 1884. With his father's death in 1989, Chekhov chose to "treat: his condition by seeking warmer climates and lighter workloads in semi-retirement. He bought land in Yalta and built a villa were he moved in 1899. In 1901 he married the actress Olga Knipper. While their letters reveal a passionate and loving relationship, they continued to spend much of their time apart - he writing in Yalta, she acting in Moscow. There is some suggestion that Olga's miscarriage in 1902 was the result of an extra-marital affair.
By May of 1904, Chekhov's TB was terminal and he traveled to the German spa of Badenweiler for some relief. Olga's account of her husband's final moments has become notable - after announcing in German that he was dying, the doctor injected him with camphor to calm him and ordered champagne. Anton drank a full glass saying how long it had been since he'd drunk champagne. He then reclined and quickly stopped breathing. He was returned to Moscow for a hero's funeral and buried next to his father in Novodevichy Cemetery.
Due to great translators, and the adulation of famous writers such as George Bernard Shaw, Katherine Mansfield and Raymond Carver, Chekhov has had an enthusiastic and widespread English language readership. The arrival in New York City of MAT in 1923-4 and their productions of his works also helped to transform the nature of American acting. The "method" style of Lee Strasberg, as well as the works of writers like Clifford Odets and directors like Elia Kazan, shaped many generations of America's premier performers (Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman among them). Ultimately, Chekhov's ideology, expressed in his vast canon, argues for a humanism composed of humanity, decency, compassion, education, personal accomplishment and will power.