What gives a work of art the status of a “classic”? The word is frequently used as if it’s some metaphysical principle, some decree from an omniscient panel of judges who at some point decided that a play has withstood the “test of time” and been performed frequently enough to be awarded the golden seal of approval. But the curious thing is that the critical assessment of any given play varies wildly from individual to individual, from generation to generation, and from culture to culture. When you begin to probe below the surface, when you study the historical record of how a piece of art has been received, or if you simply ask the opinions of people you know, what you find is intense disagreement.
So what, then, are the qualities of a classic? Is it the universality of themes? Is it the precise way it captures a particular moment in history that still seems relevant? Is it the portrayal of the characters, whose vibrancy and familiarity still have something to say to us? Or the sheer ability of the writer to craft a world so fully imagined that it never ceases to transport us? Perhaps it’s simply the fact that the play is familiar to a large group of people and that the repeated experience of seeing it provides some sense of comfort to the viewer. Over the years, audience members have mentioned all of these factors when talking to me about the classics (usually to berate me about why we don’t produce more of them).
Honestly, I don’t entirely know. I do feel strongly, however, that Three Sisters has all of the qualities described above. Why else would so many theatre artists have tackled this play? Why would every generation of directors and actors from the early part of the 20th century to the present try to match its interpretive skills with the singular imagination of Mr. Chekhov? It’s because the play still resonates, still poses questions that consume us, still delivers enough emotional impact to draw us closer to ourselves. We happily still find ourselves under its spell.
So it was no surprise that the brilliant team of Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters wanted to apply their talents to Three Sisters. Their interpretation will undoubtedly reflect on our current experience, shed some refracted new light on Chekhov’s world that will spill onto our own. And, at the end of the evening, the question of whether or not the play is a classic will have become a moot point. Because it’s my firm belief that people don’t really care about that. They ultimately don’t care how many classics Berkeley Rep does or doesn’t produce. What they care about is whether or not they were engaged, touched, provoked or thrilled—that maybe they were even surprised, found themselves thinking or feeling or enjoying something they didn’t expect.
I truly hope that is your experience here tonight. Because, my friends, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The process of selecting a season, from deciding on plays to setting a schedule, and even adjusting the schedule, may seem quite mysterious. I’ve just returned from two thrilling trips that highlighted the “why” behind our decisionmaking at Berkeley Rep.
My first stop was Washington, DC, where our nation’s military leadership had requested a special performance of The Great Game: Afghanistan for top representatives from the Pentagon and the State Department. It was a truly remarkable experience. I had seen the entire marathon here with an audience that brought open minds and intelligence. In Washington, though, surrounded by an audience that has lived and breathed this conflict, with people who have served in Afghanistan as well as in other wars, I marveled at the way the story resonated in that room. It was a great reminder to me of why we upended our season and jumped through hoops to bring The Great Game to Berkeley Rep. We love work that is urgent and meaningful and will do what it takes to bring that work to you.
A week later, I attended the opening of Compulsion at The Public Theater in New York. The play itself has evolved greatly since its production here last September. Mandy Patinkin’s larger-than-life performance was as electrifying in this latest incarnation as it had been on the Thrust Stage. After the opening, he rhapsodized about the experience of revisiting a role in a play that is so meaningful for him. Again, I was reminded why we changed our performance schedule to accommodate Mandy’s previous obligations. I made a mental note, “It pays to be flexible. Great performances make for great theatre.”
Now it appears that Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead will tour the country in 2012. We are absolutely thrilled that our colleagues who saw The Composer are so enthusiastic about introducing a new generation of children to the world of music, puppetry and theatre, and I’m sure the creative team will refine the show based on what they learned during our run. Finally, Mike Daisey is taking The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to DC, Seattle and most likely New York as well. The time he had here in Berkeley to hone the story and to refine the narrative has paid off. Now theatres across the country are eager to make a place for this story in their seasons.
I’m proud that Berkeley Rep, with our amazing audience, has been able to welcome work that resonates with audiences across America. But all these plays, along with this production of Three Sisters, are really meant for you, our audience here at our home by the Bay. We thank you for helping us originate so much theatre that is meaningful here in our own community. When you read about our new season, I hope you’ll decide to join us for all seven shows. Your loyalty and your appetite for adventure is what allows us to create work that enlightens this community and the country.
by Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl’s version of Three Sisters was originally commissioned by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. She credits Elise Thoron, Natasha Paramonova, Kristin Johnsen-Neshati and Joyce Piven for their indispensable help in realizing her text. What follows is excerpted from Sarah’s introduction to her script.
I came to this translation with no agenda, no desire to bend Chekhov to my will in any way, but instead, to learn from him. It is, then, a very faithful translation, phrase by phrase, stage direction by stage direction, comma by comma. I tried to cleave to Chekhov’s original rhythms as far as I was able to. Sometimes that involved leaving out pronouns in the English where you might normally see them. For example, in one of Irina’s speeches, many translations use “I am crying” rather than, as in the literal Russian, “tears are flowing.” “I am crying” implies bodily agency, self-pity, and self-awareness; whereas “tears are flowing” is a sudden discovery of a condition. I think much of the humor of the play comes from the moment-to-moment discovery of emotional states, though the play is often understood in terms of the lyricism of looking backwards. Instead, the sisters are constantly discovering in the moment that they will not go to Moscow. They never know it ahead of time. And they keep forgetting, over and over, only to discover the same reality in the next act. The emphasis in the Russian is on the noun “tears,” or “Moscow,” on the event, the discovery, rather than on the subject “I,” the self-reflexive emotion. People watching themselves emote and describing their own emoting with an “I” or a “my” seems more culturally American, and more contemporary. The flipside of the lack of solipsism in the Russian language is the possible abdication of responsibility, emotionally or otherwise, when one omits the “I.” In terms of articles absconding…when Olga describes her headache, she is often translated as saying “my head, my head” when in the literal Russian her language is more fragmented, without an article, as in “head, head.” One can imagine having a terrible headache and omitting articles. Rather than smoothing out or trying to make the language more logical, I tried to respect the breakages, disjunctions, oddness, and fragmentation that I think Chekhov was purposely working towards, as an expression of character, event, or life view.
In this draft, I occasionally included words in the original Russian, to give the actors the flavor of the words inside their mouths, which I think would possibly make their faces move more, which would make their inner lives more suitable for Chekhov; and also because I think English is a terrible jackhammer for terms of endearment. Why say “dear Masha” when you could say “Milya Masha.” Why say “my little dove” when you could say “galupchik moi.” Poor English. Poor sad impoverished English with our lack of “ushas” and “itas” to endear ourselves to, to play with, the names of our beloveds.
One final note on Russian indifference and the phrase “vsyo ravno” (it’s all the same, it’s all equal, what’s the difference, who cares), which appears dozens and dozens of times in the text. I feel that the phrase is intensely Russian and almost impossible to translate, I think the best cultural equivalent is perhaps Janis Joplin on “Ball and Chain” when she croons, “it’s all the same fucking day, man.” “Who cares” is too casual, “what’s the difference” is too caustic and oddly engaged in its disengagement, and “it’s all the same” seemed about right in terms of a mathematical equivalence, but I am quite sure it sounds different on the streets of Moscow. I was tempted to leave it in the original Russian every time but didn’t want the audience to be entirely left out of Chekhov’s struggle with the indifferent stance, which was philosophical, literary, and of the street, all at once. I tried my best. Or, to be more in keeping with the defy and present-tense of the three sisters, “I try!”
The year after my father died, when I was on the strange boundary between childhood and adulthood, I lived in a house with my sister, in a province, you might say, of Chicago, longing to move to New York. I don’t mean to say that I can fully understand what it was to live in provincial Russia; all I know is, at the time, I dreamed of birch trees. I don’t pretend to be anything in this translation but Chekhov’s student, and Chekhov’s ridiculously English-speaking student. I am sorry, Anton, for any havoc I have wreaked, and I thank you, your plays, your life, for, without intending to, giving me the gift of sitting in my apartment, while it snowed, trying to translate the line: “Look: it’s snowing. What is the meaning of snow?”
—Sarah Ruhl, July 2009
When Les directs a show, his preparation process is always extensive. He let us borrow his little black Moleskine notebook where he wrote down ideas, questions, quotes, inspirations and resources as he prepared to put this show on its feet. Here are some highlights…
What do people do on the 1st anniversary of a parent’s death? What did I do on the day? All I remember on the approach is not knowing how to honor the day. Frantic. Did I throw flowers in the ocean at Solana Beach? I know I did that for Uncle Bill’s funeral.
Wearing a parent’s clothes. Masha, father’s overcoat.
Why do I think Act 3 is in a nursery? Stuffed toys?
A man really crying. Really panicked crying. Ugly, unstoppable crying.
My mum’s TB cough.
Andrei not leaving the stage at the end of Act 3.
People standing way off balance.
How ugly is the Irina/Solyony scene?
What other things would “useless” girls have learned to do? Ballet classes?
Moscow being both past and future. Does Natasha’s “danger” come from living in the present?
The “real” knowledge of knowing one is trapped/never going to get out/buried alive. The physicality of that sudden knowledge. Or is it acknowledged knowledge? Panic. Sheer fucking panic.
Chekhov: a biography by Ernest J. Simmons
Mrs. Vershinin, a play by Helen Cooper
Reading Chekhov by Janet Malcolm
Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag
The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis by Thomas Dormandy
Anton Chekhov: A Brother’s Memoir by Mikhail Chekhov
Barn by Fi McGhee and John Pawson
“Huntsmen, Birds, Forests, and Three Sisters,” an essay by Simon Karlinsky
Bright, Bright Day by Andrey Tarkovsky
“In the Ravine”
“An Anonymous Story”
“Because of Little Apples”
“The Name-Day Party”
“Ward No. 6”
“The New Villa”
“A Boring Story”
“The Two Volodyas”
“A Woman’s Kingdom”
Unfinished Piece for Player Piano—Nikita Mikhalkov
Old Believers—Jana Sevcikova
Busk—Aszure Barton (YouTube)
Cries and Whispers—Ingmar Bergman
To his brother Andre: “Abridge, brother, abridge! Begin on the second page.”
To his wife Olga: “What torture it is to cut the nails on your right hand!”
“I’m torn up by the roots, I’m not living a full life, I don’t drink although I like to drink, I love excitement and have none of it, in brief, I’m now in the state of a transplanted tree, uncertain whether to take root or begin to wither.”
“You ask: what is life? That is just the same as asking: what is a carrot? A carrot is a carrot and nothing more is known about it.”
To his sister Maria: “The lack of taste makes one depressed.”
To writer Ivan Shcheglov: “Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.”
“Brevity is the sister of talent.”
“Originality is the defeat of habit.”
Ceo—“Oh God, Oh Dear” from White Magic
Gorillaz—“Clint Eastwood” from Gorillaz (“The future is coming on”)
“Originality is merely lack of research.”
—Romanian theatre director Liviu Ciulei
“The poem is meant to be a network rather than a single rope of thought.”
—Poet Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said Esber)
“He hides the traces of his surrealism.”
“You utter the name ‘Chekhov,’ and people arrange their features as if a baby deer had come into the room.”
“Chekhov’s stance of insistent uncertainty.”
“According to Bunin, his mother and sister claimed that Chekhov never wept.”
“He is our poet of the provisional and fragmentary. When a story or play ends, nothing seems to be settled.”
—Biographer Janet Malcolm
“No swords flashed.”
—Poet Anna Akhmatova
“I live with your photo.”
“What I find utterly terrifying is mourning’s discontinuous character.”
—Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary
“Only the hand that erases writes the true thing.”
“There is gold paint, but Rembrandt didn’t use it to paint a golden helmet.”
—Wittgenstein from “Remarks on Colour”
“Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from Castiglione’s The Courtier, where it is defined as ‘a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.’ It is the ability of the courtier to display ‘an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.’”
“Anyhow in a corner…”
By the jasmine lies a stone,
Beneath the stone lies treasure
On the path stands father
It is a bright, bright day
The silver poplars flowering
And the centifolia roses
Beyond grow curling ramblers
And tender, milky grass
Never again have I been
As happy as then
Never again have I been
As happy as then
by Rachel Steinberg
The White Dacha is an asymmetrical three-story structure set against the cliffs of Yalta, a seaside town in southern Ukraine. The White Dacha was constructed by Leo Schapovalov but was mutually imagined: its owner, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, had equal input in the design of the house he would live in for the five years prior to his death from tuberculosis. Even prior to Anton’s death, Maria Chekhova, his sister, welcomed a steady stream of uninvited guests through the front doors. The curious visitors had come to the White Dacha eager to take a peek behind the curtain and into the life of one of Russia’s most prominent, prolific and philanthropic icons.
It might have been difficult for Chekhov’s grandfather, Egor, to believe that his grandson would end up in Yalta, or Moscow, let alone achieve such iconic status. Egor Chekhov was a serf who worked in beet and cattle farming. His master controlled every aspect of his life, from his marriage to his trips into town. In 1841, some 20 years before Alexander II would grant liberty to millions of serfs, Egor offered his master his savings in exchange for liberty; his master, in a rare act of generosity, agreed. Egor Chekhov’s arrangement also freed his daughter and sons. His second-oldest, Pavel, relocated to the town of Taganrog, where his son, Anton, was born in 1860.
Pavel, a merchant, was unkind to his six children and beat them frequently. Anton found solace at school, where beating students was forbidden. When Anton was 14, his father, after a number of unwise business decisions, fled to Moscow to escape his creditors and pursue work. With his two elder brothers already away at university, the teenaged Anton was left to care for his family and complete his education. The future literary star wasn’t always an exemplary student: he was once held back after failing to achieve an acceptable level of Greek. Chekhov’s rebellious teacher of religion, straying from the curriculum of classics, often decided to forego his religious lectures, preferring to teach the class about Pushkin as well as western European writers such as Shakespeare.
Upon graduation, Chekhov enrolled in medical school at Moscow University. To support his family, he began writing short comic pieces for lowbrow weekly magazines, assuming the pseudonym Antosha Chekhonte. The stories proved the young medical student to be a talented writer, and by 1882 he was invited to write for Oskolki, a top weekly in St. Petersburg. The publisher had strong restrictions about the length of pieces appearing in the publication; they were to be short and comic. At Oskolki Chekhov mastered his art of sharp, ironic storytelling that was to keep him afloat financially throughout the rest of the decade. The objective author’s economical use of language, ironic humor and anticlimactic conclusions were part of a style of short-story writing that was uniquely his own. Many still consider Chekhov to be the master of the short story, and certainly one of the form’s most revolutionary figures. It was during the 1880s that Chekhov cemented his reputation among the St. Petersburg literary community and also found venues for his more serious writing as well as his theatrical pursuits: his first produced play, Ivanov, premiered in 1887 to mixed reviews.
By 1884, at the age of 24, Chekhov had started his own medical practice. It was not fruitful in a monetary sense: the young doctor mostly treated the poor or friends for free or a nominal charge. Medicine, however, provided Chekhov much fodder for his writing. For example, his short story “A Name Day Party” was praised for its accurate descriptions of a woman in labor. Among the characters in Chekhov’s short stories, one can count about 30 doctors. It is often reported that Chekhov likened medicine to a wife and writing to a mistress; in other words, in the mid-1880s, he still considered medicine his primary occupation. The middle of the decade, however, also saw the doctor’s life take an ironic turn befitting one of his stories: he began to experience symptoms of his own. He had been suffering migraine headaches and constipation but had attributed them to minor illness. One can only imagine that, upon coughing up blood in 1884, Chekhov must have begun to compare his symptoms to those of his older brother Nicholas, who had contracted tuberculosis some years prior and was in an advanced stage of the disease. A pulmonary hemorrhage during dinner with his publisher in 1887 led to a hospital visit during which a doctor made the official diagnosis: tuberculosis.
Nonetheless, Chekhov remained firmly invested in medicine and the plight of the poor and destitute. In 1890, despite his health, he embarked on a journey to Sakhalin, a remote island penal colony in Siberia—a two-month voyage from Moscow. There, he would take a census, assess hospitals and note the widespread disease on the island. Once back in Moscow, Chekhov campaigned for prison reform and published a nonfiction study, The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin, analyzing the data he gathered on his trip. It would later be part of his unsuccessful application for a faculty position at Moscow University. The next year, during a cholera epidemic, Chekhov briefly abandoned writing to treat victims in Moscow.
In 1892, Chekhov moved to an estate at Melikhovo in the Moscow countryside. Accompanying him were his mother, Yevgenia, and his sister, Maria. The three were very close throughout the author’s life: it was his mother who comforted the young Chekhov after his father’s beatings. Yevgenia, kind and quiet, also stood up to Pavel when he threatened to pull his boys from school. Maria, who never married, was Chekhov’s confidante and devoted her life to maintaining her brother’s house and the legacy of his work.
At Melikhovo, Chekhov continued to write short stories and also penned The Seagull, which began to experiment with the restrained, subtle form entirely devoid of melodrama that would later become his signature style. The play premiered to disastrous reviews but caught the interest of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, founders of the Moscow Art Theatre, who decided they wanted to produce it. The realist aesthetic championed by the Moscow Art Theatre suited Chekhov: the production was a huge success. Not only did it establish Chekhov as a dramatist, it also set the foundation for a partnership that would, as the familiar legend goes, be the catalyst for a paradigm shift in sensibility and practice that would shape the theatrical landscape of the new century.
The same year The Seagull premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre, its ailing playwright, at the recommendation of his doctors, relocated to Yalta. In the spring of 1900, eager to convince Chekhov to write a new piece to follow successful runs of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, the entire company of the Moscow Art Theatre traveled to the Crimea to visit Chekhov at the White Dacha. The company included Olga Knipper, whom Chekhov would marry a year later. In Yalta they played a number of special performances. Chekhov was convinced: he began to pen Three Sisters at Yalta that summer, a piece rumored to have been inspired in part by the lives of the Brontë sisters in England. Chekhov traveled to Moscow in the fall to work on the play with the company before quitting Russia for Nice prior to the premiere in February of 1901, supposedly to escape the ire of critics. Chekhov didn’t always agree with Stanislavsky, and the two often quarreled over directorial choices. Regardless, Stanislavsky did seem to be the best available man for the job and was able to guide his actors into bringing out the nuance of Chekhov’s carefully crafted characters. Though Three Sisters opened to lukewarm reviews, the playwright made revisions and the play gradually picked up critical steam and popularity with audiences, particularly after a successful St. Petersburg run in 1902.
Throughout his life, Chekhov remained actively involved in philanthropic pursuits, building schools and hospitals, donating money and books to schools and treating poor patients. By 1904, though Chekhov’s health was in a dire state, he continued to assist other Yalta residents suffering from tuberculosis. Despite his deteriorating condition, Chekhov was also determined to complete The Cherry Orchard, which had its premiere in the winter of 1904. The play received mixed critical response, but was a huge success with its audiences. Shortly after the premiere of the play that would become his opus, Chekhov and Olga left for the Sommer Hotel at the German resort of Badenweiler.
He would not return to Russia. On July 14, 1904, his doctor ordered a bottle of champagne sent to Chekhov’s room, where the 44-year-old was experiencing great difficulty breathing. Glass in hand, he uttered his last words: “It’s been a long time since I’ve drunk champagne.” Shortly after downing the drink in a single swig, Anton Chekhov was dead. The next night, according to one witness, the resort staff moved the body to a local chapel. For reasons not known, a laundry basket was brought to transport the body. Chekhov was too tall to lie flat in the laundry basket so he was seated upright. As the witness described, the scene felt, well, Chekhovian: “At times it seemed to me as if Chekhov was scarcely perceptibly smiling at the fact that, by decreeing that his body should be carried in a laundry basket, Fate had linked him with humor even in death.”
Six months later, Russian peasants and workers much like the ones depicted in the author’s short stories decided to write their own chapter of Russian history: the first Russian Revolution in 1905 resulted in the establishment of constitutional monarchy, the State Duma and a new constitution. The new century would see the Moscow Art Theatre tour Chekhov’s plays throughout western Europe and then America. His work would be translated into and performed in languages from Japanese to Swahili, and an international Chekhov festival would be held in Moscow. Though most renowned for the four plays written in the last decade of his life, Chekhov also left a catalog of about 600 short stories penned since his youth including In the Gloaming, a collection for which he won the coveted Pushkin Prize for Literature in 1888.
The year 2010 marked the ninth year of the international festival and the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth. It also marked an historic victory for the White Dacha, which had been slowly falling into a state of poverty and ill structural health. As a testament to Chekhov’s worldwide legacy, the international community, including theatrical icons Tom Stoppard and Kenneth Branagh, rallied together to raise the capital to bring the house back to life. It was a philanthropic effort in the spirit of the house’s first inhabitant, a man who quietly worked to improve the lives of Russia’s people while he boldly shaped its artistic future.
by Rachel Steinberg
For a long time in the Russian town of Perm stood a house known as “The House of Three Sisters.” Perm is an 800-mile journey from Moscow en route to Siberia. In the late 19th century, Perm emerged as an industrial center with an economy centered around metallurgy and salt mining, and was a gateway or stopover for anyone heading north. Ever since Chekhov, in a letter to Maxim Gorky describing his 1900 play, suggested that Three Sisters “takes place in a provincial town such as Perm,” the town has embraced the Prozorov sisters as honorary Permians. Chekhov might have been amused by the town’s enthusiasm for his characters. After all, the Prozorov sisters—Olga, Irina and Masha—want nothing to do with the provincial town where, at the play’s beginning, they have been living for 11 years.
Three Sisters begins at the dawn of a new era following half a century of Russian history marked by upheaval and change. In 1855, in the middle of a Crimean War stalemate that was draining Russia’s troops and economy, Nicholas I died, leaving his son in power. Alexander II soon admitted defeat in the war, losing land, rights and, as many thought, the nation’s dignity. After the treaty was signed, Alexander II set out to quash a rumored peasant uprising and to quell fury in the city over the high price of goods due to his father’s wartime taxes. These Great Reforms were intended, most of all, to restore Russia’s reputation as a great and powerful empire.
Perhaps none of these reforms was to shape the course of the century (and the fate of his Romanov descendants) more than the 1861 emancipation of the serfs. Prior to emancipation, the 23 million serfs, who made up a third of the population and half of the peasantry, were bound to serve the owners of the land they occupied. Landowners had a variety of significant powers. For instance, they could restrict a serf’s movement or forbid his marriage. If a serf had a child, that child was to obey the same restrictions and share the same loyalties as his or her father.
Theoretically, the emancipation was a landmark ruling. In practice, however, the former serfs experienced anything but freedom. They inherited the least fertile of the land—and that’s only when they could afford it. Having no savings of their own, the peasants were forced to accept mortgages to be repaid over a period of 49 years. Furthermore, land was sold not to individual peasants but to communities that would then distribute the land to their inhabitants based on household size. Because of this distribution policy, the peasant population grew tremendously, from 50 to 79 million between 1861 and 1897. Freed from their landlords, the peasant class was instead similarly indebted and tied, only this time to a community rather than to an individual.
Regardless, after 1861 there was, to a degree, an extended level of freedom. Released from their feudal obligations, more peasants were able to attend school, some even boarding with families in town throughout their education. Boys and girls were divided into separate schooling systems. Secondary education for boys prepared graduates to enter universities or public service. Alexander II also created a system of secondary schools for girls in 1858, 14 years before England had established a public school system of any kind. The girls’ schools were divided into two orders: the gymnasia and the progymnasia. Both schools offered classes in language, math, needlework and penmanship; the gymnasia also taught some science. The progymnasia was a three-year program, whereas the gymnasia lasted seven years with the possibility of an eighth year during which a young woman would become a certified teacher. This is the sort of institution Olga might have attended in Moscow.
Though the schools were open to all, their existence depended on public financing. As a result, better education was to be found in the city or in wealthier towns. Increased access to education resulted in more upward mobility in the social strata. For instance, the son of a peasant might become a lawyer, thus propelling him into the intelligentsia, a group made up of a growing middle class of professionals and people stationed between the peasant class and the nobility. The Prozorovs, certainly, would have been considered members of this group. While the word “intelligentsia” simply derives from the Greek for “educated,” it also described an attitude that historian Joel Carmichael expertly describes as “rooted essentially in the notion that life was important, that ideas were important, and that the world should and doubtless could be changed.”
The intelligentsia favored the cities Moscow and St. Petersburg, which became hubs for art and discourse as well as places to find like minds and community. With the relaxation of censorship laws and increased literacy among the rising middle class, written discourse became more prolific and more varied. Meanwhile, the commercial class was becoming increasingly invested in the arts. One merchant, Pavel Tretyakov, had amassed a large collection of Russian art that he presented to the public for the first time in 1892. In 1902, he built a permanent home for his collection, the State Tretyakov Gallery, today a world-renowned museum. Mir iskusstva (“world of art”), a magazine and art movement established in 1898 in St. Petersburg, promoted individualism and art nouveau. At the turn of the century, one could catch a performance of a Tchaikovsky opera or a ballet at the now-famed Bolshoi. To experience something more daring, one might stop by the Moscow Art-Public Theatre where future literary sensation Maxim Gorky was known to visit his friend Anton Chekhov. A variety of political affiliations were available: if you were among the majority of Russian students who had read Das Kapital, you might join one of the 20-odd Marxist literary discussion groups in St. Petersburg or a similar one in Moscow. For those inclined to act rather than discuss, the Socialist Revolution Party, committed to acts of political terrorism and peasant revolt, might be a better fit. As always, there were also conservative voices opposed to the growing liberalism and calls for change in the country. Among these was the last tsar, Nicholas II, who reluctantly ascended to the throne in May 1896 at the age of 26.
No wonder, then, that the educated Prozorovs dream of Moscow from their small provincial town, entirely devoid of culture. If their town is, indeed, modeled after Perm, it might house a single opera house similar to the one erected there in 1870. Instead of attending Marxist salons or student protests, Andrei serves on the zemstvo (local council), a municipal organization handling the town’s dull day-to-day bureaucratic affairs—a council that, in Three Sisters, is led by his wife’s lover. The only stimulating company for the Prozorovs are the members of the military stationed at a garrison in their town. Not only were military men well-traveled and worldly, they were also often well-educated as a result of a policy implemented by Peter the Great in the 18th century, which called for even common soldiers to attend special cadet schools. Chekhov himself admired the army; one scholar’s account notes that during Moscow Art Theatre’s rehearsals for Three Sisters, Chekhov sent a military representative to meet the company.
In the country, longing for the city, the Prozorovs can only picture the idyllic Moscow of their youth. At the dawn of the 20th century, Moscow was for many an unhappy place to live. The overpopulation in the country led to a mass migration of peasants into the city, first as migrant workers and then as permanent residents. Living conditions for workers during the 1890s, during Moscow’s most rapid period of industrialization, led to a proliferation of crowded and dirty slums. Though at first the slums existed primarily outside of the city, they quickly expanded. The burst of industrialization and enterprise also led to an influx of foreign investment and business, as well as more international residents. In comparison to western European industrialization standards, Russia remained behind. Still, in the 11 years of the sisters’ absence, much of Moscow had quickly become a changed city, one the Prozorovs might have struggled to recognize. Nonetheless, the sisters are products of their unique age, and Moscow is the center of their community. Though stifled by the ambivalence of country life, the Prozorovs are still intelligentsia: they continue to value life, they continue to value ideas and they continue to hope that their world, somehow, should and will be changed for the better.