Chekhov’s Three Sisters: On Production and Interpretation

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This blog was originally posted on February 7, 2013.

One of the issues I mull over in teaching and writing about drama is the effect of actual production on the interpretation of a dramatic text. Theater people are sometimes said to privilege performance over the text, while English teachers are sometimes said to privilege the text over the performance. Because there is plenty of wiggle room in any such question, I know the lines are not drawn hard and fast. But wherever one begins talking about a play, it is clear that every production, like every reading/discussion/analysis, is an interpretation of the text.

The recent Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which Sara Ruhl helped to translate with Elise Thoron and Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati, concentrates on the text. Ruhl’s decision to produce a translation as close as possible to the rhythms of Chekhov led her to make some choices that resulted in a few awkwardnesses in English. For example, she often left out pronouns supplied by earlier translators and left in literal translations that were peculiarly Russian and more oblique than English equivalents. And because of Ruhl’s interpretation of the sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina, she presents them much more as looking forward to their uncertain futures outside their home rather than looking backward to a time when their father provided security and an orderly life.

As a result, the play itself, with its frequent discussions of what “life would be like in two hundred years,” becomes in the Berkeley production very much about how the world will change, while asserting life for the individual might not change very much at all. When the Baron Tuzenbach is killed in a duel (clearly fought over Irina) at the end of the play, Chebutykin the doctor simply says, “There’s no difference. It’s all the same.” For him, all life is a dream.  For the rest, there is suffering.  The constant meditations on the meaning or lack of meaning of life are emphasized in the production and become central to its impact.

But even more central is the remarkable emphasis on work.  Tuzenbach, a Lieutenant, longs for the day he leaves the army and will go to work. The word “work” seems repeated more often in this production than it is in other translations. The family Prozorov is part of a class that avoids work, as we are told in the opening moments, but Chekhov knows in the future this class must work and his characters end the play with Olga as a headmistress; Tuzenbach in the brickworks (had he lived); Kulygin in his school; Andrei, the brother, in the Common Council; and Irina hoping to become a teacher. Masha, having lost Vershinin, looks forward to a life of boredom with Kulygin. Moscow, where the three sisters were born and raised, remains an ideal throughout the play, and at the end it is unrealizable.

One curious irony in this production is that with all the emphasis on work, the demand and need for work, all I could think is how many people in the audience and in the streets outside must also cry for work in an environment in which there are few jobs. This point alone helps to suggest an interpretation of the play that might have had nothing to do with Chekhov’s vision of Three Sisters.

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About the Author
Lee A. Jacobus is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and the author/editor of popular English and drama textbooks, among them The Bedford Introduction to Drama (Bedford/St. Martin’s) and The Longman Anthology of American Drama. He has written scholarly books on Paradise Lost, the works of John Cleveland, and the works of Shakespeare, including Shakespeare and the Dialectic of Certainty. Jacobus is a playwright, fiction author, and blogger. Two of his plays — Fair Warning and Long Division — were produced in New York by the American Theater of Actors, and Dance Therapy, three one-act plays, was produced in New York at Where Eagles Dare Theatre. His recent book of short stories, Volcanic Jesus, is set in Hawaii.