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A Note from Three Sisters’ Artistic Director Brian Kulick
What Difference Does it Make?
Many years ago, as I was walking out of the theatre after a performance of Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS, I overheard a gentleman turn to his wife and moan, “Two and a half hours, and they didn’t get to Moscow!” The wife turned to her husband, shot him a withering look and said in the driest of tones, “Murray, if they got to Moscow, it would have been a musical!” I remember thinking that Murray’s wife would make a fine dramaturg and then began to wonder just what Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS actually is. A tragedy? Comedy? Some combination of the two? Chekhov himself was convinced that he had written an out-and-out comedy, but when the Moscow Art Theatre gathered to read it for the first time, the entire troupe was reduced to tears. Chekhov finally relented and titled the piece “a drama in four acts,” the only time he ever gave that designation to any of his plays. However one tries to categorize this extraordinary play, one must begin by acknowledging its profound difference from THE SEAGULL and UNCLE VANYA. Chekhov himself noted to a friend that “writing THREE SISTERS was terribly hard. There are three heroines after all, and each one has to be cut according to her own pattern.” This long gestation period led to a text that is more symphonic in nature, with actions that are indirect and events that are virtually buried. The result is an intriguing dramatic paradox: it seems ever more lifelike yet surreal at the very same time. (continued on page 2)
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One constant remains, which runs through each play and could be articulated in the following fashion: “How do we go on?” It is a question that Treplev and Nína ask at the end of THE SEAGULL, and the question that Vanya and Sonya return to at the end of UNCLE VANYA. In THE SEAGULL, Chekhov’s answer seems to be cautiously optimistic. Nína’s message to a despairing Treplev is that she and Treplev may not be great artists yet, but if they continue working and slaving away at their craft then perhaps not tomorrow, but some day soon they will indeed become the artists that they long to be. The key is to continue striving no matter what. At the end of UNCLE VANYA, Sonya also returns to the concept of striving through work, but that work is now acknowledged merely as something with which to occupy oneself until they reach heaven. It is only there that they will find meaning and happiness. This time the message seems desperate and, as a result, ultimately suspect. We are left wondering whether there is or is not hope in Chekhov’s universe.
Like one of his favorite metaphors, the migrating bird, Chekhov circles back to this essential question in THREE SISTERS. One suspects he is trying to answer it once and for all. “There must be meaning!” Másha, the middle sister, insists. “Look outside the window,” Túzenbach counters, “It’s snowing. Is there meaning in that?” This is shocking to Másha who responds, “Just to live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why there are stars in the sky… Either you know the reason why you’re alive, or nothing makes any difference.” This last sentence is a cousin to another important phrase that runs throughout the play and is introduced by the cynical doctor Chebutýkin who states throughout the play, “What difference does it make?” This simple, seemingly innocuous phrase infects everyone and pretty soon we find one character after another repeating, “What difference does it make?” The phrase becomes a leitmotif of sorts, being uttered some twenty-two times throughout THREE SISTERS, becoming the second-to-last line in the play. It’s as though all choices made by the three sisters are judged by this confounding question. Will Irína find happiness marrying the Baron? Will Másha, through an affair with Vershinin? And what about Ólga, who has no one? Do any choices these sisters make actually make a difference or lead to contentment? Even though each sister’s choice is radically opposite from the others’, each seems to end in a tragedy.
And while we are stranded in the land of questions, what about Moscow? Would anything be different it they did indeed get to Moscow? And perhaps most mysteriously, why can’t they get to Moscow? And why can’t they halt the gradual overtaking of their home by their sister-in-law Natásha? Their collective ousting takes on an almost parable-like intensity. Is this social Darwinism at work? Or is there something more portentous in the sisters’ collective expulsion? Returning to the image of migrating birds, is there, to paraphrase Shakespeare, some divine provenance in the fall of these sparrow/sisters? Or is Túzenbach speaking for Chekhov when he says, “Birds that migrate–cranes for instance–just fly and fly, and no matter what thoughts they may be thinking, great thoughts or small thoughts, they keep flying without knowing where or why… They fly and will always fly no matter what great philosophers may arise among them, they can talk philosophy all they want, but they can’t stop flying….”
In an early draft of THREE SISTERS, Másha was supposed to repeat these exact sentiments at the very end of the play, comparing herself to those migrating birds flying above. This was cut at the request of Olga Knipper, the actress playing Másha who also happened to be Chekhov’s wife. She wrote to Chekhov, “Does it matter if I make a cut in my last speech? I find it difficult to say.” Chekhov, being an understanding playwright and husband, consented and removed this passage. Around this same time, the director Constantin Stanislavski complained to Chekhov that the end of THREE SISTERS reminded people too much of UNCLE VANYA. Chekhov replied: “It doesn’t matter very much. After all, UNCLE VANYA is my play and not someone else’s, and it’s thought to be a good thing to remind people of oneself in one’s works.” And so what are we to make of Chekhov’s ending for THREE SISTERS? Has he forsaken Nína’s hard-earned optimism in THE SEAGULL for the more severe resolution of UNCLE VANYA? Or has a new, proto-existential awareness emerged, as though Chekhov had anticipated Beckett’s famous epigraph, “Can’t go on, must go on”? For me, it is not Beckett but Brecht that comes to mind at the end of THREE SISTERS–the Brecht who wrote, “Sometimes a play has to present a very loud ‘NO’ so that the audience will find themselves shouting ‘YES’ to the stage!” In this respect we are dealing with the dramaturgy of via negativa, where the question “What difference does it make” must be answered with “all the difference in the world!” Or, circling back to Murray, our perplexed theatregoer who asked, “Two and half hours and they didn’t get to Moscow?” Perhaps we should answer, “They didn’t, but we should.”