Sunday, January 31, 2021

This Day in Theater History (Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ Gets Mixed Reception in Moscow Premiere)

Jan. 31, 1901—The three title characters at the heart of Anton Chekhov’s newest play may have yearned endlessly to go to Moscow, but the playwright himself might have been forgiven for wanting to stay as far away from the city as possible when news reached him while he was touring Italy of the dismaying reaction to The Three Sisters.

The audience’s wintry reaction may have been sparked to no small degree by the theater company tasked with giving life to the playwright’s words, the Moscow Art Theatre. The troupe had been instrumental in steering audiences to Chekhov’s attempts at a “new drama” with The Seagull and Uncle Vanya.

But this latest “drama in four acts”—even less dependent on plot and more reliant on character and atmosphere than his two recent successes—was proving harder for him to write, even though—perhaps even because—he had molded the character of the talented but moody middle sister, Masha, on an actress in the troupe with whom he was romantically involved, Olga Knipper (who eventually became his wife).

When the actors and producers gathered to read the just-finished play, then, they shook their heads. How were they going to work with this? This was unplayable, with “no roles, only hints.”

Once they swallowed their misgivings and sought to stage it, the results seemed to bear out their skepticism. At this first performance, there were 12 curtain calls after Act I but only a half-hearted one after Act IV. Critics expressed mysticism about the central dilemma of the play: Since the sisters were wealthy enough, why couldn’t they just buy tickets and go to Moscow instead of complaining about not doing so?

Chekhov had his own ideas of what the matter was with the play. Though it admittedly had a longer-than-usual gestation period, he attributed most of the production’s problems to the Art Theatre’s co-founder, K.S. Stanislavsky. While the playwright preferred that the poignancy of situations emerge from understated acting, Stanislavsky wanted those scenes overplayed.

It would help, Chekhov decided, if he were on hand to right the production. Returning from Italy, he revised where he thought it appropriate, but placed much of his effort on attending rehearsals, where he could explain his intention and conception of how the roles should be played. He took a particular hand in producing Act III.

That September, the revamped production of The Three Sisters opened to a far more enthusiastic reception, with Chekhov especially gratified for receiving two curtain calls right after the section he had handled, Act III. Twenty-two years later, the Moscow Art Theatre brought it to the United States in another ecstatically received production.

Since then, the play has joined The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard as his most performed—and most artistically successful—plays.

None of this is to say, however, that the problems inherent in staging The Three Sisters have been permanently solved. Much of this difficulty stems from the acute perception by Adam Versenyi, dramaturg of the PlayMakers Repertory Company of the University of North Carolina, that The Three Sisters “has its own geometry that uncovers its chain-of-events, its ideological orientation, its characters but does so beneath the surface by presenting us with the cycles of the seasons, and the continuous movement from day through night that defines our daily lives, not their exceptional moments.”

Not all productions have been unable to navigate that landscape. I found Laurence Olivier’s movie adaptation from the 1970s, for instance, to be inert. At the other end of the extreme was a performance I saw a decade ago at the Chautauqua Institution (reviewed here) that was filled with bizarre directorial encrustations.

Perhaps the happy medium was achieved in an all-star Roundabout Theatre Co. production from 1997 featuring Amy Irving, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Lily Taylor as the title characters, with other roles fully inhabited by Billy Crudup, Calista Flockhart, Paul Giamatti, Jerry Stiller, Eric Stoltz, and David Strathairn. In it, the dilemma of characters trying to break free of their enervating provincial lifestyle emerged in all its quiet but devastating melancholy.

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