The Three Sisters
“The profundity of Chekhov’s works is inexhaustible to the actor,” Stanislavsky said. But under present theater conditions, Chekhov’s profundity, like Shakespeare’s, can involve liabilities, for audience and actors alike. Perhaps it was so even in the patriarchal days of the archetypal Moscow Art Theater, Chekhov’s shrine. There is evidence that things did not always go well there, although the playwright himself was at hand, or at least in Yalta, for consultation. He once complained that the officers’ uniforms in The Three Sisters were too smart. The Russian military has ceased to be a glittering elite, had grown more cultured and shabbier. (The officers in The Three Sisters seem to have submitted wholly to the general bourgeoisifying trend, and the duel fought at the play’s end, though fatal to one participant, is a travesty.)
But if the trouble was partly in the limitations to be found in any theater group, it was—and still is—largely in the profundity of Chekhov’s art itself. While his plays were in rehearsal he was often asked by actors how such and such a scene or character should be done. And Chekhov the kindliest of writers, would show a surprising impatience. “It’s all there,” he would reply. And no wonder. In his major plays, everything is there, in the text, from the state of people’s souls at a given moment to the state of the weather. His reputation for intimate, smallscale effects is quite unfounded. The opposite is true of his effects. A principle of discreet but forceful expansion is at work in his major plays. Each interior implies an exterior. Often the exterior is a garden, and beyond the garden are fields, or streets and street crowds, all Russia, birds in flight, the succession of day and night, the seasonal cycle, Time, the universe. Nor is this almost epic range conveyed with any help from lengthy stage directions, like O’Neill’s, or prefaces, like Shaw’s. It’s all there in the characters’ talk, that munificent display of verbalism for which the term “dialogue” is a vulgar misnomer.
In her recent quarrel with the “theter arts” Establishment, in The New York Review, Elizabeth Hardwick insisted upon the primacy of literary talent in the theatrical process. “Drama is, after all, literature written for the stage,” she said, and her claim seems to me incontrovertible. But if it needs any support it should find plenty in The Three Sisters, which is having a conscientious revival at the Morosco Theater in New York. The Actors Studio Theater is the producer of this revival; the director is Lee Strasberg; the cast includes Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, and Kevin McCarthy; and the text of the play, a modernized translation, fluent and precise, is the work of Randall Jarrell.* The Three Sisters, whether seen at the Morosco or read in a book, is eminently a case of “literature written for the stage.”
The usual Chekhovian profusion of detail swells into an immense opulence in this play. Farce and tragedy coalesce in an intricate, often…
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