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About Three Sisters

“After all, in real life people don’t spend every minute shooting at each other, hanging themselves and making confessions of love. They don’t spend all the time saying clever things. They’re more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting and talking stupidities—and these are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is…Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives are being destroyed.”

              -Anton Chekhov

Background

Three Sisters is a four-act drama by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The play is one of his four major theatrical works, alongside The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. These plays all had major productions directed by Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre, at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. Chekhov’s work was hugely influential in the then-new forms of realism and naturalism. His attention to character psychology, avoidance of splashy dramatic events, and long stretches of mundane action continue to shape our concept of how we put “real life” onstage.

Who’s Who

The Prozorov sisters live in their family home in the countryside, a year after their father has died. Olga is the oldest, a schoolteacher. Masha is the middle sister, a moody woman trying to avoid her simple-minded husband Kulygin. Irina is the youngest, full of hope, longing for her family to move back to Moscow, and escape dull country living. Other characters include Andrei, their brother, Natasha, a local girl that Andrei is courting, Chebutykin, a 60-year-old doctor and sometimes-drunk, Tuzenbach, a baron who is in love with Irina, and Solyony, a soldier also in love with Irina.

Plot Summary*

Act One

Act One takes place on Irina’s name day. Irina expresses her hope for the family’s future, dreaming of their return to Moscow. Vershinin, a soldier who is prone to philosophizing, visits the house. He met the sisters once when they were much younger, and he is now burdened with a wife who often attempts suicide to win his attention. He and Masha strike up a relationship and begin an affair. Andrei brings Natasha to the celebration, but the Prozorov sisters feel is beneath their brother.

Act Two

In the second act, we move forward in time. Andrei has married Natasha. Natasha has begun to take up a lot of space, moving her baby into Irina’s room and ordering the longtime servants around ruthlessly. On this specific night, some carnival celebrators are planning to come to the house, and the various characters in the household begin to drink and have a little fun. Natasha sends the carnival people away, worried about her baby. After everyone has left, Solyony tells Irina that he loves her and that he will stop every rival. She dismisses him, distressed by his attitude. Meanwhile, Natasha goes out for a ride with Protopopov, a local man with whom she is having an affair.

Act Three

A great fire has burned down most of the town. The characters filter in and out of Olga and Irina’s shared room, talking about the fire. Chebutykin is drunk for the first time in two years, and he laments the fact that he is forgetting his medical training and that a woman died in his care that week. Irina grows distressed at how dull her mind has grown, noting she has forgotten the Italian word for window. She realizes they are stuck in the country, and will never return to Moscow. Masha confesses to her sisters that she is in love with Vershinin. Olga advises Irina to marry Tuzenbach, even though she does not love him.

Act Four

In the final act, the soldiers are about to leave the town. Olga has become the headmistress of the school, even though she didn’t want to be. Irina is engaged to Tuzenbach and they are planning to move and start a life of work. The other day, Solyony challenged Tuzenbach to a duel, but no one will mention this to Irina. When Tuzenbach is gone, Vershinin and Masha bid farewell, kissing in front of everyone. When he finally leaves, Masha is inconsolable, and Kulygin is embarrassed but promises not to talk about it. Chebutykin enters and tells the sisters that Tuzenbach has been killed in the duel. Irina vows to start working, and all the sisters consider all disappointments they have suffered.

*This plot summary was adapted from the  “Three Sisters Study Guide.”