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Three Sisters | Context

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A New Russia

After brutal Tsar Nicholas I died in 1855 leaving control to his son, Alexander II, Russia experienced great change. Nicolas I had left the country ravaged by war and bankrupt. Hoping to restore economic strength through social change, Alexander II emancipated 23 million serfs (workers forced to toil their owners' land for no pay) from their lifelong contracts, theoretically freeing them to pursue education, earn a living, and take advantage of increased social mobility. However, many freed serfs were treated poorly in the new society, given few opportunities to advance, and often ended up living in worse circumstances than they had as serfs. The serfs' unhappiness led to multiple uprisings, so the government sent troops into small villages, like the one where the Prozorov family lives, to keep the peace. However, with the upheaval of a generations-old social structure, some lower-class populations were able to rise above their previous stations and enjoy the full rights of citizenship, marriage without having to gain consent, and the right to own properties or businesses. However, the serfs were also heavily burdened with a harsh redemption tax that benefited former landowners. This social shift is represented in Natasha's usurpation of power in the Prozorov house as the shy village girl ousts the educated, upper-class sisters from control.

At the same time, life for middle- and upper-class families was filled with art, culture, and unrivaled education. The Prozorov family, whose children speak multiple languages and play classical instruments, represent the bourgeois middle class whose livelihood and social prominence were threatened by the newly mobilized lower class. When education was no longer a sign of wealth, the upper and middle class became increasingly materialistic, which only added to their bourgeois appearance. Although Russia was changing rapidly, most of those changes took place in big cities. Villages remained filled with poor, uneducated farmers controlled by the church. Big cities like Moscow, however, boomed with culture. The Prozorov sisters, with their musical ability, multiple languages, and artistic appreciation, would have been far better suited for this setting.

Realism

Faced with such extreme social change, playwrights at the turn of the 20th century abandoned the popular melodramatic form, which featured heightened emotions and highly stylized scenes, in favor of realistic representations of life. Anton Chekhov's realism was manifested in characters who dealt with disillusionment, financial and social instability, and, at best, happiness that was unsatisfying, temporary, and incomplete. He was more interested in portraying conversation than actions.

While other popular realist playwrights pushed clear political agendas, like British playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), Chekhov shied away from overt political commentary and simply let art imitate life. By relying so heavily on subtext, Chekhov created space for audiences to interpret his works different ways. And by refusing to critique the present or create an idealized version of the future, Chekhov allowed the tension of everyday relationships to take center stage.

Moscow Art Theatre

Early audiences didn't understand Chekhov's new style of writing. His first play, The Seagull, was considered a complete failure after the audience practically booed the performers offstage. Chekhov vowed to never write plays again.

Two years later, a new theatre, the Moscow Art Theatre, opened and asked to revive Chekhov's failed play. The theatre company was as revolutionary as Chekhov's writing, with a structured rehearsal schedule, a revolving cast of actors, and an in-depth study of staged productions. In the hands of famed director Konstantin Stanislavsky—whose work would later revolutionize stage acting—The Seagull was a wild success. The Moscow Arts Theatre continued a relationship with Chekhov by commissioning two new plays, Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).

Initial Response

The original staging of Three Sisters at the Moscow Art Theatre was met with some confusion. Although audiences were thrilled to see a new Chekhov play, they didn't really understand what the play was about. Like much of Chekhov's work, themes and messages are found in the subtext—the things left unsaid.

Much of the play is dialogue, with very little action happening onstage. Such a play requires skilled directors and actors to reveal hidden desires. At the same time, Chekhov layers meaning, symbolism, and themes within the dialogue, meaning audiences have to analyze the work rather than simply experience it. Chekhov's play demands a relationship of trust between performers and audiences, creating a wholly different experience than simply reading a book. Although Chekhov knew Stanislavsky would be directing the Three Sisters debut, he ultimately felt the director relied on heavy-handed dramatics, such as extreme lighting and overacting. Chekhov wrote, "With the exception of a couple of performers, none of it's mine ... I write life ... This gray, everyday life ... But that does not mean annoying moaning and groaning ... It's starting to get on my nerves." Nevertheless, Three Sisters had a successful first run and continues to be the most widely studied and staged Chekhov play.

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