By Greer Gerni
New to Chekhov? Avoided Chekhov’s work after hearing how boring it is? Maybe you’ve heard that nothing happens or maybe you’re wondering how a play written in Russia over one hundred years ago is worth your time.
I’ve heard it all. When I proudly proclaim that Chekhov is my favorite playwright I get plenty of stares and groans. Sometimes people are even shy to tell me that they don’t understand Chekhov for fear of offending me, or worse, sounding stupid.
Let me tell you a secret — I love Chekhov because I don’t understand his work entirely. For me, that’s thrilling. By now, one would think that I have him all figured out. I’ve read Three Sisters at least 100 times (I was recently asked to calculate the figure), I’ve seen at least 10 productions of the play, and have worked as an actor on every single one of the play’s female characters. On top of all of that, I’ve been working as the dramaturg for IU’s production of Three Sisters since Spring 2017. As a dramaturg, it is my job to research and contextualize everything within and around the play that may be useful to the production team. By this point, I am deeply saturated in the world of the play and probably know way too much about subjects such as the Russian educational system at the turn of the twentieth-century, the use of naphtha in early dry-cleaning and cloth preservation, and the distribution of military pensions in 1901. Even after all of this deep research, I still cry every time Tuzenbach tells Irina “I didn’t have any coffee this morning. Ask them to fix me some, will you?” (because I know what happens next and therefore what he may really want to say) and I still smile every time I make a new discovery about the world of the play (because after all this time there is still more to discover).
An Example of Subtextual Complexities
What happens on the surface of the play: Vershinin moves to town to work as the new Battery Commander. He visits the Prozorov house where three sisters (Olga, Masha, and Irina) and a brother (Andrey) live. The girls exclaim in their excitement that he comes from Moscow (their hometown).
Some meaningful context of that simple moment:Vershinin is replacing the position that Sergei Prozorov (the father of Olga, Masha, Irina, and Andrey) held until he died exactly one year ago. Vershinin arrives in town on this anniversary of the death of his predecessor and comes to the home of his children (by invitation of a colleague and friend of the family). He comes from Moscow, with his wife and children, just as Prozorov had years before. Ever since the Prozorov children left Moscow, they have always talked about returning one day. The Vershinin family is the continuation of the very same cycle that brought them out of Moscow. Vershinin is exciting to the sisters because he comes from Moscow, and yet, it would seem that it might be very painful for them to invite him, their father’s replacement, into their home on the anniversary of his death. So why do they do it? And why do they focus on Moscow? Is it an example of how it is easier for them to deal with the past than the present? I think so. But in Chekhov, everything is complex and multidimensional. There can’t be only one meaning to anything.
To add yet another layer of intrigue — Masha falls in love with Vershinin, a man who has replaced her father in their town.
Woah. Suddenly a light moment just became very complex and dramatic. Chekhov packs as much into four acts as is packed into four seasons of your favorite TV drama.
Still not convinced? See for yourself.
So, how might you jump in and fall in love without the decade of research that has brought me to this point? Easy– check it out — without any expectations or preconceived notions of what you think the play should be.
Look at the characters of the play beyond the setting of the play and the text that they say. Each character has a deep complex story to tell and their existence together and their relationships to each other create further complications.
Olga’s final line of the play “If only we knew” says it all — like life, Chekhov’s plays are complicated, but an adventure worth experiencing.