Tag Archives: Three Sisters

It’s complicated.

Last Tuesday, Jeff and I drew a set of through-lines between Chekhov’s biography, his evolving dramaturgy in major and minor works, and Stanislavski’s emerging actor training system and vocabulary some of you know well or not very well that will be relevant as we go forward, building into/onto the movement language we’re developing with Kali.

In reading David Allen’s  book Performing Chekhov (Routledge, 2000), I found some more connections among the topics of discussion last Tuesday as well as the overall approach we’re taking with this production. Just as with Boyd’s “Chekhov lexicon,” these quotes are mere snippets of a complex and lengthy studies, but it’s my hope that they continue to add to the given circumstances of historiography, biography and dramaturgy we are exploring this semester.

In 1899, [Chekhov] told Ilya Gurlyand: ‘Let everything on stage be just as complicated and just as simple as in life. People eat, just eat, and at the same time their happiness is being decided or their lives ruined.’ This implies a rejection of ‘extraordinary events’ in drama. Rather, the emphasis is on apparently minor or incidental events — ‘people come and go, eat, talk about the weather and play cards’. At the same time the aim is not simply to reproduce the ‘naturalistic’ surface of life. On the surface, little may appear to be happening; but there is a tension and dichotomy between this lack of ‘external’ drama, and the significant changes, the inner drama, that may be occurring just beneath the surface. (4)

‘Chekhov’s art demands a theater of mood’, Meyerhold declared. The premiere of [The Seagull] at the Aleksandrinski [in 1898] failed, he argued, because it did not capture ‘the mood the author demands.’ Now only two years later the play was a triumph; and the difference was attributed, in part, to Stanislavski’s creation of an emotionally absorbing ‘atmosphere’. […] The [Moscow] Art Theatre production, sometimes seen as the acme of stage naturalism, was in fact a highly poetic rendering of the play. The use of lighting, sound, and setting was intended less to reproduce the naturalistic surface of life, than to soak the play in an overwhelming ‘atmosphere’. (13)

Although we are taking a very different approach than Stanislavski — who was more focused on making external details, particularly those of the environment, present via sound effects especially — I would argue that we are in search of that same poetic rendering that evokes a mood or feeling in the audience about the world and mood of the characters. And perhaps, just perhaps, we might find a happier marriage between text and performance than Chekhov himself found with Stanislavski’s early approaches:

On one famous occasion [Chekhov] declared: “You say you have cried at my plays. And you are not the only ones. But that is not why I wrote them, it was Alekseev [Stanislavski] who turned them into cry-babies. I wanted something else. I simply wanted to say to people honestly: “Look at yourselves, look at how bad and boring your lives are!” The important thing is, that people should understand this, and when they understand it, they will, without fail, create for themselves another and better life. I will not see it, but I know — it will be completely different and nothing like this life. And until it arrives, I will say to people again and again: “Understand how bad and boring your lives are!” What is there in this to cry about?” (23)

Allen observes how the notion of life itself “being stupid, boring” could be seen as a leitmotif for Uncle Vanya.

[Aleksandr] Kugel observed: ‘All the acts begin with a pause. The pauses act like an introduction to the inner world of this stagnant life’ (qtd in Allen 23)

Stanislavski used sound very specifically to emphasize the inner lives of the characters. He was particularly focused on the final moments of Act 4 when first the Professor & Yelena depart and then Astrov. From an interview for a 1924 book, he describes the process:

We were rehearsing … the fourth Act ofUncle Vanya. All its meaning lies in the phrase, ‘They’ve gone.’ The director had to ensure that the spectator really felt they had gone — and everything in the house had become empty, as if the lid has been nailed down on the coffin, as if everything has died forever. Without this, there is no Act, without this the play has no ending. […] During a tedious break in rehearsal we were trying to think of an answer, one of the crew who was tinkering with the set started banging with a stick. And we … suddenly sensed in this tapping the clatter of horses’ hoofs on a bridge. Why no use it, if it conveys the author’s meaning truthfully and expressively, and gives us what we need, and helps to solve the problem. (qtd. in Allen 25)

This put me in mind of the sleigh/harness bells as they are used in Vanya on 42nd Street in just an ever so slight but powerfully suggestive way.

Stanislavski was developing a whole new approach to directing (which would greatly influence his system of acting) and as these productions became popular, he drove ahead with his ideas about what the play could do in ways that would influence other emerging companies who had neither the resources nor the time to achieve the same effects. This proliferation of mood-heavy, sound drenched, actor emotive performances displeased Chekhov greatly, partly because he wasn’t quite so sold on Stanislaviski’s own approaches (you can read some of the novelizations that are the director’s production notes in Allen’s book).

We can get a sense of Chekhov’s frustration from an account by Evtikhi Karpov who met Chekhov after a production of The Cherry Orchard in Yalta by a company from Sevastapol who promised their production would be “in the style of the [Moscow] Art Theatre production”:

‘They tell me you saw The Cherry Orchard?’ Anton Pavlovich asked, not looking at me.


‘How they’ve ruined it! It’s an outrage! It still says on the poster that they are acting under my supervision. And I’ve never set eyes on them. It’s scandalous! They all want to ape the Art Theatre. And all in vain. There, the whole complex production is achieved by incredible work, by the expenditure of a colossal amount of time, by loving attention to every detail. They can do it … This lot have put in so many noises, they say, that the whole text disappeared. Half of the words were inaudible … And in the Art Theatre, all these theatrical details distract the spectator, stop him listening, overshadow the author. And here … I can imagine what it was like… You know, I would like them to perform my work quite simply, primitively. As in the old days — a room; on the forestage, a sofa, chairs … And with good actors. And that’s all. No birds, no theatrical mood. I would really like to see my play performed like that. I’d like to know, would my play collapse? That is very interesting! Perhaps it would collapse. And perhaps not. (qtd in Allen 45-46)

Stanislavski’s insistence on mood was for the audience but almost more for the actors, to help them access the “inner truth” that would suture the stage space to the play’s reality. Viktor Simov designed the sets for The Seagull and these were a great departure from what had been the convention of late nineteenth-century scenography. As Allen describes,

Simov’s settings created a ‘real’ environment in which the actors could ‘move, live, and act.’ In Stanislavski’s production plan, at the start of the play, Masha and Medvedenko walked through trees and bushes. The audience heard a snatch of their conversation, and then they disappeared into the tress. They crossed and exited once more, on the different topic of conversation. This was a bold device, breaking up the formality of conventional stage dualogues (where actors stood and spouted at each other, or even stood facing the audience). The staging created a sense of natural conversation. For the actors, too, this must have fostered a sense of simply strolling through a park, rather than being ‘on stage’. (49)

In this production we’re striving to find again the way to make our audiences see Uncle Vanya with the same kind of new, fresh eyes as those who saw these productions originally. So while the turn was away from a consciousness of stage-ness in Stanislavski’s production and an immersion in an on-stage environment that was pulled from real life, we are flipping the script so to speak. Making the stage-ness present, facing the audience (possibly for direct address moments), disregarding conventional architecture, double-casting … all while respecting the text and the inner truth of character … these are our bold devices to break up what has become the formality of convention.

I love that both Meyerhold and Stanislavski worked together and with Chekhov, especially given the very divergent paths they took in developing their own systems of acting and directing. I thought you might be interested in this story Meyerhold told about working with Stanislavski on Three Sisters as it illustrates a connection between Chekhov’s refusal to explain his characters to the actors and instead direct them to a character’s environment, way of doing things. The first story is from Meyerhold, the second is from an actor working in the [Moscow] Art Theatre interacting with Chekhov.on a production of The Seagull:

Another time this happened. I wanted to make the words sound anxious, but I didn’t feel the slightest bit anxious. It wasn’t working. Then he [Stanislavski] gave me a bottle of wine and a corkscrew and said: ‘Do your speech, and at the same time open the bottle.’ And really, when I started doing it, I found that what little anxiety I did feel began to grow. And I got it from the difficulty I was having opening the bottle of wine. I did it rather expertly, after all I know how to open a bottle (laughter). I hated Stanislavski, hated the bottle, hated everything — obstacle arose in my path, and then in my speech I found the intonation of truth. (qtd in Allen 53)

…when members of the Art Theater asked Chekhov for pointer on how to play his characters, he always answered them, not with an explanation of motivation or psychology, but in terms of minute details of behavior, and physical actions. For example, when Kachalov was rehearsing the role of Trigorin, Chekhov advised him that the character’s fishing rods should be ‘home-made’ — ‘he makes them himself with a pen-knife’ — and he smokes a good cigar — ‘perhaps not very good, but certainly wrapped in silver paper.’  […] But Kachalov was dissatisfied and persisted with questions So, Chekhov added:

‘You know when he, Trigorin, drinks vodka with Masha, I would certainly do this, certainly’ And at this he got up, adjusted his waistcoat, and cleared his throat awkwardly a couple of times. ‘You know, I would certainly do that. When you’ve been sitting for a long time, you always want to do that …’

‘But how can you play such a difficult role,’ I continued. Then he even got a little angry.

‘There’s nothing more, it is all written down,’ he said.


Women who don’t traffic in realism.

I take the title of this post from Ben Gassman’s January 2013 article in American Theatre titled “Knocking Chekhov for a Loop,” in which he examines the resurgence of Chekhovian tones, themes and characters in new work from American women playwrights who, as he quotes Kristen Kosmas, “don’t traffic in realism.” I’ve put the full article on the course materials page, but I wanted to draw your attention to two quotes as we look ahead to tonight’s discussion of Chekhov in the late 20th/early 21st centuries and we consider the workshop process with Kali and how to carry that work further into the next stages of blocking and text-centric rehearsal.

Chekhov’s characters don’t respond to each other–they struggle to say what they mean and aren’t quite able to. Nor do they listen. They reach for each other or verbally push each other away. They trip over their words. They get stuck between themselves and the possibilities beyond themselves. The conversational veritas and communicative disintegration that Baker emphasizes with her students [at NYU] is essential to her own Vanya and also galvanizes the current new works by Satter [Seagull (Thinking of you) with Half Straddle Theater] and Kosmas [There there].


Because Kosmas is fearlessly intuitive as a writer, and lullingly defiant as a performer, we are never quite sure where Karen’s [the protagonist of There there] mind will lead us. She says things we can’t allow ourselves to say. [Suzie] Sokol‘s Arkadina from Seagull (Thinking of You) puts this sense of indirection and equivocation another way: “I just don’t know what I actually want, or, I’m not going to admit it in a super real way.” Which is the kind of double-speak that could use an irreverent translator. My attempt: ‘I think I might want this, and I’m trying as hard as I can to be clear about it.’ What’s more Chekhovian than that?


Chekhov, Vanya, and Tragicomedy.

Is Uncle Vanya a comedy or tragedy? A melodrama or new realism? Realism or absurdism?

Short answer: Yes.

For evidence to support this claim, I turn to Verna Foster’s 2004 book The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. I was reading her discussion of Chekhov and tragicomedy as you all were in warm-ups for Kali’s workshop on Friday and given how much duality we’ve discovered and are actively courting with this production, Foster’s arguments seemed all the more compelling. I’m going to offer some of her observations about Chekhov as part of a first wave of tragicomedies in the 20th century sprinkled with some observations you all have been making in workshop, posts, and resonances from text we read aloud last Tuesday.

Please to enjoy.


[I]n each [play from Ibsen, Chekhov, O’Casey and Synge that she analyzes] the tragicomic arises from the gap between illusion and reality. Generally the major characters are comic in their fantasies, tragic in the realities of their lives. In Renaissance tragicomedy, by contrast, it is illusion that is tragic (the apparent danger of death), but the true state of things is comic. […] In modern tragicomedy it is the characters, not the audience, who may sometimes be spared the full consciousness of the tragedy of their existence. Hjalmar Ekdal in The Wild Duck, for example, may think himself tragic, but his tragic self-image is actually part of his comic fantasy, and he remains unaware of the real tragic contours of his life to which the audience bears witness. (119)

Foster argues that Vanya is a central comic character who perceives himself as tragic. (Thomas, this is part of what I was thinking of on Friday when we talked about whether Vanya really believes he could have been in the ranks of Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky.)

For Vanya, his pain is real, but his grandiloquent sense of what – “normally” —he might have been is ludicrous, as he himself immediately realizes: “But I’m talking nonsense.” […] Chekhov …transforms the melodramatic gunplay in Uncle Vanya into comedy that underscores both Vanya’s ineptitude and his painful awareness of his own insufficiency. (127-8)

I was particularly taken by Foster’s attention to how Chekhov pays attention to natural and social environments in building the tragicomic tension and its expression. (The notion of dependency that can have sour undertones also reminded me of Jamie’s cabin fever post.)

Chekhov’s tragicomic vision of life is grounded in his dramatization of realistic social communities comprising person of varying personality, age, and social status brought together (usually on an estate) by ties of family, friendship, and dependency. […] [In the Act 3 shooting scene of Vanya] Chekhov underscores the complex emotional effect he creates through his use of an ensemble of voices: Serebryakov’s pompous selfishness, [Yelena’s] desperation, Telegin’s comic irrelevance, Sonia’s quiet unhappiness, and the old nurse Marina’s wise belittlement of the behavior of her employers: ‘The geese will cackle for a while and then they’ll stop. (128)

And, back to my first post about how much I think Beckett echoes Chekhov just in a different register:

Anticipating Beckett, Chekhov expressed the classic tragicomic insight of modern drama that our awareness of time passing is tragic but the way we pass time is often farcical. (130)

That perspective on time and (dis)satisfaction reminded me of a monologue from Andrey we did not read last Tuesday from Three Sisters. It follows immediately on the heels of the scene between Irina and Tuzenbach that we did read. Here it is:

ANDREY: Oh, whatever happened to the past, when I was young and happy and intelligent, when I dreamed wonderful dreams and thought great thoughts, when my life and my future were shining with hope? What happened to it? We barely begin to live, and all of a sudden we’re old and boring and lazy and useless and unhappy. This town has a hundred thousand people in it, and not one of them has ever amounted to a thing. Each one is just like all the others: they eat, drink, sleep, and then they die …. more of them are born, and they eat, drink, and sleep too, and then because they’re bored, they gossip, they drink, they gamble, they sue each other, the wives cheat on the husbands and the husbands lie, they pretend they don’t see anything or hear anything, and the children end up just as aimless and dead as their parents. (313, Schmidt translation)

But for Foster, Chekhov’s characters lack of/inability to communicate is the result of self-absorption not the result of the kind of turn inward that is required of characters who inhabit a laid-waste Beckettian landscape. In both circumstances, it is the disconnect between what is said vs. what is meant or what is not said, we get tragicomic tension where “the text is funny but the subtext is not” (Foster, 134).

Chekhov writes tragicomedy at its most realistically subtle, achieving his effects through subject, telling juxtapositions, and the orchestration of an ensemble of voices recognizable to his middle-class audience. At times the tragic seems barely perceptible, but it is always just below the surface of the ordinariness of the lives Chekhov depicts, providing in Andrei Bely’s word an ‘aperture into Eternity.’ (135)

Picking up on the Bely connection, I found an abstract from a UNC-Chapel Hill slavic scholar, Jenya Spallino-Mironava, for a 2011 conference paper “Less is More: Tracing the Development of Chekhov’s Art of the Unspoken” in which she looks at the differences between Uncle Vanya and The Wood Demon in terms of their very different use of pause and silence. Spallino-Mironava writes:

[The contrast in the scripts] suggests that pauses in Chekhov evolve from serving mainly to create the impression of “life as it is,” in the realist tradition [The Wood Demon], to bringing what Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko termed the lyrical “undercurrent” (“podvodnoe techenie”) to the fore and becoming “apertures into Eternity,” in the words of Andrei Bely [in Uncle Vanya]. While realistic in their very nature, pauses in mature Chekhov can be seen as holes in the lattice of life, as breaks in the fabric of the text, which allow the transcendent undercurrents of human existence to come forth from just below the surface of the ordinariness of life portrayed.

More on “ordinary” action and character development in upcoming post.