I don't remember the first time I read 

Three Sisters. 

College, I think. 2007, 2008? I mean, it must have been, because by the time I was a senior, the experimental theater company I was a part of decided to stage it in an off-campus house where one of our members lived. 67 Edgewood Avenue. I lived at 65. I loved that house, those houses. I remember being passionate about the project — and about the play. (Even though I'm pretty sure we used the David Mamet translation... Why?) But I don't really remember where that passion began... When did I first meet Olga, Masha, Irina? I keep forgetting things. Every day I forget more and more...

I played Kulygin. Oh, I have a soft spot for Chekhov's unloved, nattering try-hards. Someone should really write a play about schoolteachers! And what a hard life they lead. I remember "shaving my mustache" in the upstairs bathroom between Acts 3 and 4. The show was arranged like this: The audience would gather in the big (well, comparatively big; it was a tiny house) living/dining area for the group scene of each act. Then, when that was done, Anfisa or Ferapont would ring a bell — that would tell the audience they were free to disperse and wander around. In all the rooms of the house, the nooks and crannies, the other scenes from the act would be taking place on a loop — the duets, the trios, the solos. Or just strange little private, unwritten moments (e.g. the mustache). The audience could wander at will. Then the bell would ring again and bring them back together. The play gathered and scattered, gathered and scattered. The final act took place outside in the backyard. Rusted lawn furniture, overflowing trash bins, and dead Connecticut grass. Music coming from neighborhood balconies (I snuck next door to my own house to play the clarinet from the back fire escape). Brownies for the audience (Anfisa started baking them sometime during Act 1). One performance, it snowed. Look out the window — it's snowing. Is there any meaning in that?

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Georgia O'Keeffe
Ladder to the Moon
1958

Did Georgia know about William Blake's 1793 engraving?

Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay. What difference does it make?

After college, I was volunteering, and then working at, a theater in my home state, Virginia. I suggested Three Sisters for the upcoming season. A (very wealthy) season planning committee member objected: "Ugh. It's just about privileged people whining."

Chekhov gets that a lot, I think. Or the equally facile: "Nothing happens." Phew. Where does one begin?

At the time I had recently read Sarah Ruhl's translation (it was brand new then), and I was grateful for this paragraph from her introductory notes:

"After being in Los Angeles, I happened to be in Chicago, where I’m from, and where I talked at length with a teacher from childhood, Joyce Piven. I had adapted two Chekhov short stories with Joyce, and she’s directed and studied Chekhov all her life. We drank tea, and talked about The Three Sisters in her living room. Joyce studied acting in New York in the sixties with a woman named Mira Rostova, the great Russian teacher who taught the likes of Uta Hagen. Rostova divided speech into five melodies, called “the doings”. One was the “lament with humor”. Chekhov’s work is full of laments with humor — the philosophical shrug of the shoulders and sigh that the oppressed people of the world know so well — it is the “ah, well” in the bars in Ireland, it is the “So, Nu?” in Yiddish. It is the acceptance of fate, a beautiful forbearance with a touch of philosophical humor that seems so rare in America at times. It is ancient. Many Americans’ first impulse, I fear, when struck with bad luck, is to complain rather than to lament. The lament contains acceptance, a “what can you do but laugh”, whereas the complaint implies the measured control of the people who expanded westward: how dare life do this to me, feel sorry for me, no one should give me a raw deal, I’m an American, I can change my fate. The melody of complaint comes through the nasal passages, “I didn’t get what I wanted”. The complaint should, I feel, should be avoided at all costs in most theater but especially in Chekhov where there is such danger of it becoming the emotional vernacular of the play."

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There was no specific reason, culturally, for me to feel so attached to this "melody" — the so, nu, the ah, well, the what difference does it make? I'm not Russian, or Jewish, or Irish. But what of it? The melody felt personal to me — a song I knew somehow. Later, I would meet Russians, and spend time in Russia. "Americans are so enthusiastic whenever they meet somebody," one of them would say to me. "They're all smily and loud and 'OH IT'S SO NICE TO MEET YOU.' But over time all of that fades. The longer they know you, the colder they are, the less they care. But when Russians meet someone, we start cold and warm up. Why should we trust you right away? Who are you anyway? But the longer you know us, the harder we love."

I'm paraphrasing. It's true, though, that these plays are full of hard loving. And weirdness! So much uncelebrated weirdness! There's always at least one giant mess in a Chekhov play. At least one wild party, one absolutely punishing bender. These people are boiling over. (Aren't we all?) They're full of joy and suffering and uncertainty and absurdity and mad, hungry life life life.

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So then there was grad school. When I was at YSD, each of the three directors in any given year was assigned a Chekhov play — it made for little families among us. The Vanyas, the Seagulls, the Sisters. I was a Sister. Which meant that Three Sisters would be "My Play" for three years... I'd do all sorts of research, analysis, preparation, and speculation around it, and put it all together in a big "Tome" — a final project that represented the Director's in-depth pre-production work. I still have the Tome, and some of my thinking from that time (more than seven years ago now... it's as if I'd gotten old all of a sudden) still resonates. Some doesn't.

 

Here's a taste of who I was then... This is the "response" to the play that I wrote before it became "mine" — all three of us wrote responses to all three plays that we might end up working on before school began. A year later, on the final day of our first year of classes, our professor, David, returned them to us. A study in the passage of time...

Time is out of joint for the three sisters. In the Prozorov household everyone talks constantly about the past — back when father was alive, back on Old Basmany Street, back when I was young and in love — and about the future — tomorrow I will work, next June we will go to Moscow, someday mankind will know happiness. Years pass between acts, and onstage an unsettling paradox occurs: time seems to drag on unbearably and yet to slip away in an instant. “It’s as if I’d gotten old all of a sudden,” says Olga. Many characters repeat her sentiment, and almost everyone laments having forgotten something: how to play piano, how to speak Italian, what to take for pains in the chest, a mother’s face. In The Three Sisters each day seems infinite, but the years disappear with terrible speed, “and all of a sudden we’re old and boring and lazy and useless and unhappy.” 
 

I said that Uncle Vanya gives voice to Beckett’s existential cry, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” The Three Sisters does so as well, even prefiguring Beckett with its structure, its repetitions. It’s the most likely of Chekhov’s plays to inspire that simplistic (but not entirely baseless or useless) response: Nothing Happens! Olga, Masha, and Irina’s cries of “Moscow! Moscow!” are their waiting. Why don’t Didi and Gogo just go? Why don’t Olga, Masha, and Irina just go? You can’t give a simple answer, and you can’t dismiss their plight as mere self-indulgence. They are like Hamlet. They have lost the name of action.


These characters talk a lot—“too much, I know,” says Vershinin—and they do it because language is failing them. It’s insufficient to express their questions of the world, so everything must constantly be rephrased, repeated, asked again. Tuzenbach and Vershinin grapple with spiritual issues that can never be resolved: will life stay the same, will humans, despite our scientific advances, continue to fear death and suffer through life? Or is it possible to make a new and better life for our descendants — can we, through what we do during our own unhappy lifetimes, create a future happiness? Do we need for life to have a knowable meaning? Or can we live a good life without ever knowing why snow falls, why birds fly? “What difference does it make?” This question is repeated over and over again through Chekhov’s play. It’s more than a quip; it’s the question. Does our existence make a difference? Will we be remembered, and for what? What good are we capable of doing in this world?


Questions of work and class also loom large in The Three Sisters. For many of Chekhov’s characters, a good life, a moral life, seems to be connected to the idea of work, real hard work “in the sweat of your brow.” But hard work isn't necessarily spiritually fulfilling, as Irina imagines it to be. Sometimes it just makes you tired. While the old servant Anfisa is on her feet all day, the upper class members of her household talk a lot about work, rarely try it, and are disillusioned by its tediousness, its lack of “meaning.” The magic of Chekhov is that he makes us love them all. Olga, Masha, and Irina have prejudices and delusions that come from privilege, and yet they do struggle, and their questions, fears, and desires still affect us deeply.


This is why The Three Sisters needs to be staged. Because questions of class and the moral framework it prescribes (or questions) are still vitally urgent. Because seeing beyond class—and beyond all labels—to the struggles that we share, to the suffering that unites us, is paramount. I have had people tell me that The Three Sisters is just about whiny rich people, but if we are worthy of Chekhov it will never play like that. If we’re doing our jobs right it will show us flawed, admirable, annoying, loving, confused, searching human beings engaged in the biggest question of all: What difference does it make?

Maria Sergeyevna plays the piano beautifully.

Beautifully!

She forgot how long ago. She hasn't played in three years... maybe four.

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It seems I repeat myself. (And that I really took that lady at the theater in Virginia personally.) But I'm glad I still have this document. I agree with some of it — the passage of time, the search for purpose and meaning, the stuckness, the insufficiency of language. Some of it feels a little pat — the last paragraph? Well, it was sincere... but I wouldn't phrase it (force it?) that way now.

I think about another play I love, and its strange and brilliant playwright... the play is Red Noses and the playwright is Peter Barnes. He wrote it in 1978 and it took seven years (again, seven years...) before the RSC dared to stage it. When the script was published, he wrote this in the introduction:

...if Red Noses were written today—1985—it would be much less optimistic. The world has moved on in seven years, and not towards the light. Men and women can still be overcome by a sudden wave of compassion for the poor and sick but they quickly get over it, while the majority, it seems, find something deeply offensive about any transaction in which money does not change hands.

The world keeps moving on... And, in countless ways, not towards the light. But, as E. M. Forster reminds me constantly, "one can, at all events, show one's own little light here, one's own poor little trembling flame, with the knowledge that it is not the only light that is shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness does not comprehend."

There's been plenty of change in my own seven years. I'm married now. I have a cat. I'm angrier and more horrified than I've ever been. Somehow I'm also still hopeful. And calmer than I used to be? (Okay, not necessarily at parties or when talking about art after a couple of beers — but... when have we been able to do those thing recently?) I've ridden a bicycle 3,900 miles across this country with the human I love. I've been a theater critic in a massive, complicated, exhilarating and self-regarding city. I've left that job to return fully to directing — the place where my heart lives, the thing I'm built for. I've almost finished War and Peace (oh gosh y'all, I am so close).**

 

I've also—outside of the public sphere—written this. And, more recently, this. The latter is long, and personal, and very much a work in progress. But it might tell you something about where my mind tends to be most of the time. It might tell you something about how I approach Making Stuff.

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Edward Gorey, "A dull afternoon", 1974

Here's a beautiful thing. It's something that James Baldwin wrote about Shakespeare — but/and, I think it holds true of Chekhov, too...

...he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection.... And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the
human riddle...

Here's another beautiful thing — an essay by Siddhartha Mukherjee, published in 2017 in The New Yorker. Chekhov, he writes,

invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness...

And the worlds of his plays are

arbitrary and strange, not unjust but simply lacking justice, without moral or spiritual tidiness, with no simple harmonies, no hum-along tunes...

— but not, crucially, without compassion:

The dissecting lamps must be turned on and left on, he realizes, but the patient cannot be left to wither under the mercury bulbs. She must be tended and resuscitated, made whole again. It is easy for the doctor to express moral outrage or indignation at the patient’s illness, but there is narcissism in that revulsion. It is easy, too, to concoct a moral fable out of sickness—“this is a punishment that the patient brought on himself”—but there is sadism in that confabulation. It is vastly more difficult, and more courageous, to observe, describe, diagnose, empathize, and heal. 

So, where does that leave us?

Well, with a play, I think. A play that's stuck around for seven years. No, truly, more like fourteen at this point. And has only gotten bigger, wilder, weirder, funnier, sadder, more alive for me in all that time. A play that—after a year of stuckness, stagnancy, mourning, philosophizing, flailing—feels like the only friend I want to hang out with. The one that just fucking gets it. We've all been indoor cats for a year. And all cats believe in their hearts that they're actually tigers — that one day, finally, a morning will dawn that will see them restored to their true size, and from then on, glorious chaos will reign.

I think Chekhov sees the tigers in us. And the cats that we're stuck inside. And also that we're all such sad, silly creatures. Who learn so slowly and love so messily. We're on a road to nowhere, come on inside...

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Wherever you are, I hope that you're hanging in there, and that you and yours are well, and that you're finding some joy and hope in the springtime. And, hey, that you may be interested in playing around in this world with me.

 

If you want to talk—about Three Sisters, or Chekhov, or just all-things-theater-and-more—I'm here:

swholdren@gmail.com

Also. I can't let you go without this... So, on this note, обнимаю!*

*"Hugs!" or "I embrace you!" — a sweet Russian farewell 🖤

**I FINISHED IT. OKAY. YES. I'VE GOT... SOME NOTES.