“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 bewildering, pattern of tonalities. The number of characters, each with his peculiar destiny to make manifest, his string of solo numbers to get off from time to time as he wanders on and off stage, is large. It is large, at least, by the standards of economy prevailing in the New York theater, where a cast is rarely numerous enough to get entangled, one with another, or to collide with the furniture.
When the curtain goes up at the Morosco, the three sisters are all on stage, but only Olga, the eldest, and Irina, the youngest are conversing. Masha, the other, is more or less supine on her famous sofa, book in hand, silent except for an occasional mocking whistle. This is the privacy to which we are accustomed on the New York stage. But it doesn’t last. Masha’s body uncoils and her tongue loosens: she has some cutting observation to make. And pretty soon three officers appear at the back of the set, chatting casually beside a long table in what is the dining room. It is Irina’s birthday. A luncheon party is under way. And now, one by one, the others materialize: Colonel Vershinin, the new battery commander, with whom Masha will fall in love; Andrey, the morose brother of the three girls; Natasha, his brash upstart of a fiancée; the aged army doctor who has forgotten all his medical knowledge, who drinks, and who is the voice of despair, Chekhov’s gloomiest spokesman; and Solyony, a buffoon to end all Russian literary buffoons, who turns out to be a killer. Thus the stage is soon full, and it will only rarely return to the original state of comparative privacy. In this community of spiritual doom privacy is unwanted. For all their despair and their antagonisms, Chekhov’s characters are still Russians. As we know from their classic literature, Russians have a quality denied to other modern peoples: a certain gregariousness of the soul. Russions love Russians.
In this community, moreover, no one is fully capable of living in the present. No one, that is, who has any sensibility at all. The rest are clowns, buffoons, or bitches, all of them as self-deceived and self-destructive in their way as the sensitive people are in theirs. But if the latter are incapable of living in the present, they do live, with a dreamy, often mad, intensity, in the past or in the future. The sisters are always pining for Moscow, the lost Eden, once the family home, where the girls hope to live, really live, again. Vershinin perpetually conjures up the coming millenium, and his enthusiasm for it is matched by his reluctance to fix the date of its arrival. “And when more time has passed—another two or three hundred years…Oh, what a wonderful life that will be!”
Meanwhile there is much talk of salvation through work. The work idea is a kind of compromise between the nostalgia and the futurism. Some of the circle do have jobs. There are the schools to be staffed, and the army, the telegraph office, the administrative positions at the County Board. Between the jobs and the people who work at them, however, the disparity is in most cases total. So actual work doesn’t pay off either, spiritually speaking. And therefore they talk and talk, creating themselves in conversation—if conversation is the word for the wonderfully disjointed flow of remark that goes on in the play: the irrelevancies, the nonsequiturs, the garbled quotations, the bad French and juvenile Latin, the animal cries, and—as a last resort—the forays into plain nonsense. The verbalism of the play finds its ultimate form in nonsense. Solyony, the buffoon and future killer, torments his prospective victim with cries of “chook, chook, chook.” Masha and Vershinin like to communicate by means of a sort of Slavic love call: it goes “Tram-tamtam.” The old doctor voices his gentle despair in what seems to be a ballad or folksong refrain: “Tarara-boom-deay.” This phrase he hums softly to himself as the final curtain falls. Famous last words.
Thus the people seek salvation in talk, among other things. And thus The Three Sisters, considered as “literature written for the stage,” finds its special language in their fantastic style. Paradoxically, however, its structure is determined, not by what they do but, for the most part, by what they don’t do—by their habit of inaction or, at most, of action that is compulsive, unconsidered, blind.
At their level, in fact, the usual distinctions between action and inaction, conscious will and sentient passivity, disappear, as they do in dreams. And Chekhov, one of the chief progenitors of the modern tradition in drama, comes close to some of its most recent exponents, the Absurdists, as they may be called. Between the people who pine for Moscow and the people who wait for Godot, a family resemblance is detectable. In both groups there is a great urgency of salvation, and a professed belief that salvation is to be found, not really in work or talk, but in a sort of transcendence: the going to Moscow, the coming of Godot. In both, finally, there is a profound suspicion that this belief is illusory. Thus it might be said that Beckett’s people are merely Chekhov’s people dispossessed of their furniture and stripped down to their reflexes. The former are dehumanized, the latter over-humanized, but the essential predicament is the same. For Chekhov’s people, at any rate, the things that make up their humanity also constitute the symptoms of their failure. Their learning, their sensibility, their gentility, even their knowledge of the polite languages, are a burden to them. Their culture exists only that it may be forgotten, leaving them with the wistful pleasure of forever mourning its loss. “I’ve even forgotten the Italian for window, or ceiling,” Irina says, apropos of nothing in particular and everything in general.
Yet one must avoid seeing Chekhov’s work, and Beckett’s for that matter, too exclusively in the light of such affinities and continuities. The works of both are far from being mere versions of history, mere stages in the evolution or devolution of humanism. To speak only of Chekhov: his sofas are as essential to his conception of life as they are to his stage sets, and so are the other amenities implied by the sofas. It was as a realist, however visionary, that he conceived his characters and wrote his plays, while Beckett, as I understand him, is a pure visionary of the “Absurd.”
In its form and genre, too, The Three Sisters belongs to the end of the age of realism. It is a bourgeois melodrama manqué. The principals refuse to enact the roles assigned them by the original genre. Many of the original situations are present. The son of the family marries an ambitious village wench. He contracts gambling debts. The home is mortgaged. There are loveless marriages and adulterous goings-on. There is the duel. By degrees, the ambitious wench succeeds in largely dispossessing the family. The keys to the larder end by dangling from her belt rather than, as formerly, from that of Olga, the rightful chatelaine. In The Three Sisters, however, the family really dispossesses itself. The usual confrontations of melodrama fail to occur. What is lacking is not so much the will to resist aggression as the concentration of feeling needed to bring the will into play. Feeling is not absent, of course. It is all over the place. There are embraces, protestations, citations from the poets, flights of philosophy, and tears, tears, tears. But this tangle of emotions is unable to attach itself to any set of objects at all fitting. It thus fails to stimulate the will and to serve as a guide to conduct. The emotional confusion confuses the practical issues for the family members, even while investing those individuals with pathos and charm. In one of the few scenes that verge on a real confrontation, Olga is finally roused to anger against her brother’s wife, Natasha. But it is not for her machinations, or even her affair with a leading citizen, that Natasha is brought to book. It is because in a fit of temper she has spoken harshly to an old servant. “The very slightest rudeness, a tactless word, upsets me,” Olga cries. Her sensitivity to rudeness is admirable. One really loves her for it. But in the light of the whole family situation, it falls quite short of the mark. It reminds us, and Natasha, of Olga’s superior gentility but it doesn’t get the house back.
In the Actors Studio revival, Geraldine Page, as Olga, does her part of this scene perfectly. She stares at Natasha over the top of a screen behind which, her hands shaking, her hair wild, she has retreated, a creature who is as frightening as she is frightened. Olga is a faintly sinister figure. Miss Page could, I think, intimate this more consistently than she does. Similarly with the whole company. They all shrink a little from conveying the darker implications of The Three Sisters. It is as if Strasberg had heard of the new English production of King Lear, with its overtones of Beckett and its consequent distortions of the text, and had sought to avoid perpetrating a similar pastiche. As it is, he couldn’t have focused more sharply on the text as given, and the traditions of its performance, if he were Stanislavsky himself—which, I understand, some people almost believe he is. During the first two acts, which he has combined into a lengthy pair of consecutive scenes, he focuses too sharply on the details, and there is a lack of pace and flow and continuity.
No doubt Chekhov presents any director with a problem in the matter of mobility. This is one of the liabilities that go along with the assets of his intricate profundity. With so many characters to account for, each having his little solo to deliver the problem is how to keep them all together and in motion among the sofas and things. Then there is the further problem of how to relate the more or less serious moments to the more or less farcical ones. For example, when someone volunteers the quite gratuitous information that “Balzac was married at Berditchev,” are the others to laugh (as the audience does) or gape or just pretend not to hear? A faster, wilder, more “Gothic” performance of the whole play would, perhaps, have helped the company to get around these difficulties. Later on, the play gets up steam, and things connect and there are long stretches of exciting work. The entire bedroom scene, with the town burning down outside and the inmates of the house carrying on pretty much as usual, is a triumph. Meanwhile, still another problem has made itself felt. This one arises from the conditions of the American theater rather than from Chekhov. In a play in which the characters comprise so intimate a group, it is disturbing to hear so many different accents and watch so many different styles of acting. For one example: certain of the male actors seem to have strayed into The Three Sisters out of some work by, say, Clifford Odets, with the result that Masha is presented with a husband from the Bronx and all three girls with another Bronx man for a brother. I don’t know whether the effect of this invasion is bettered or worsened by the fact that all the male actors in question are very expert performers in their particular style. Most of the others do very well too, in styles and with accents that more or less harmonize. Appropriately, Kevin McCarthy is cheery and slightly phoney as the great futurist and lover, Vershinin; while Kim Stanley, impersonating his beloved, Masha, brings out the mocking as well as dreamy side of this delightful creature, a sort of Madame Bovary whom Chekhov had the grace to invest with wit and intelligence as well as foolishness. If the whole performance of The Three Sisters seems somewhat studied, as opposed to spontaneous, that is because Chekhov, at once subtle and broad, sour and sweet, despairing and hopeful, and supremely the literary man in the theater, demands a lot of studying if a company of actors is to do the whole man justice.
July 30, 1964
I have been unable to consult Jarrell’s text, to be published by Macmillan this fall, and so quote from the Constance Garnett translation. ↩