Study Guide

The Three Sisters

By Anton Chekhov

The Three Sisters Introduction

Three Sisters is a naturalistic (aka, believable, as far as twentieth-century Russia goes, anyway) portrait of the Prozorov sisters—Olga, Masha, and Irina—along with their brother Andrey. In the nutshelliest of nutshells, life kind of sucks for them right now. They are educated and cultured, but living in a podunk town in the Russian countryside; all of their romances are disasters; and, by the end of the play, they've lost their money and their house.

The play, written in 1900, includes most of Anton Chekhov's greatest thematic hits. You've got your privileged class on the way down and bourgeois class on the way up. You've got human resistance to the passing of time and the search for meaning in existence. And, yep, you've got unrequited love. Not to mention some good ol' Russian suffering.

Three Sisters also makes use of Chekhov's patented nothing-too-exciting-happens-onstage technique. All of the flashy plot points are described, but happen offstage: a fire, multiple extramarital affairs, gambling, and the baron's death in a duel. Chekhov didn't believe in suspenseful, action-movie playwriting.

Case in point: he once wrote "What happens on stage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart" (source: Schmidt, intro to The Plays of Anton Chekhov). That is pretty realistic, we guess. But wouldn't it be nice to at least see the baron dying onstage? Come on, Anton.

What is The Three Sisters About and Why Should I Care?

What's your "Moscow?" No, not the coldest place you've ever been. In other words, what is the time, place, or condition you need to reach before your life can really begin? Is it losing thirty pounds? Moving out of your boring hometown? Finally getting the fly lady or fella in the back row to notice you? Graduating?

Moscow is the carrot on the stick. It's the shining light in the future that keeps these sisters—and by extension, humanity—from being satisfied with the present. Three Sisters is all about our brief time on Earth and how we use that time. In the play it may not be used in the most thrilling of ways, but hey, maybe that'll inspire an audience member or two to go follow their dreams.

Surrounding this theme, Chekhov shows us some alternative perspectives: characters who live in the past and regard the future with fear and despair; characters who make rash decisions for their own immediate pleasure, hurting those around them; and characters who can never be happy because something better is always out there. There are characters glad to suffer if future generations can benefit. And characters—existentialist, Buddhist, nihilist, what have you—who don't give a damn, who respond to every tragic or joyous turn of events with "What difference does it make?"

Chekhov sprinkles his compassion and understanding throughout all of these people. Sure, some more than others, but you can see that there's a depth and a perspective to pretty much everything. This playwright probably thought long and hard about all of his characters' philosophies. Biographical note: Chekhov was already dying of tuberculosis when this play was written, and he had four more years to live.

The Three Sisters Resources

Websites

Chekhov Short Stories
Chekhov wrote 201 short stories. Nothing like a good, not-quite-round number. Plus, many scholars think that his stories are better than his plays. Don't believe us? Read them all at this site.

Chekhov Geek-a-thon
Scroll around for links to biographies, quotes, and full texts—basically everything you wanted to know about Mr. C and more.

Three Sisters in Harlem
Classical Theater of Harlem and Harlem Stage did a mostly African-American production of Three Sisters in 2009. The New York Times reviews it here.

Movie or TV Productions

Three Sisters, 1970
This film adaptation features Joan Plowright as Masha and Laurence Olivier as Chebutykin.

Video

Three Sisters
An excerpt from a 1970 Russian film adaptation.

Anton Chekhov: A Slideshow
A really interesting Russian montage of quotes, photos, and film clips giving a picture of Chekhov's life.

Chekhov 101
Writers from the event magazine Time Out New York give a humorous primer on Chekhov's themes.

Audio

Chekhov Mania!
BBC radio aired lots of Chekhov-related pieces to celebrate his 150th birthday, as of January 2010.

Chekhov Opera
Listen to samples of the Peter Eotvos opera Three Sisters.

Images

Chekhov and His Wife
Chekhov and his wife, the actress Olga Knipper. No, Chekhov didn't name the oldest sister after her—in fact, they met when she played Masha in a production of Three Sisters.

The Playwright
A number of good photos of Chekhov—some with his signature—are on this site. Not a bad-lookin' dude!

Production Photos
Some photos from a 2008 production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Production Photos
Photos from a crazy German production using masks. Yeah, and you thought Russian drama couldn't get any weirder.