Theater

In Search of the Superfluous Woman: The Three Sisters

Photo by Chris Bennion.
Photo by Chris Bennion.

The figure of the superfluous man in 19th Century Russian literature takes many forms. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin are bored military officers who go about ruining the lives of others because there is no other call for their talents in Czar Nicholas the First’s reactionary Russia with its absurd ideas of “Official Nationality.” Turgenev’s Rudin and Goncharov’s Oblomov are threadbare noblemen, incapable of making decisions about anything, even whether or not to get out of bed. Each of them is Hamlet without so much as an Act III: all talk, all rumination; no purpose, no action.

Every Russian author after Turgenev had to respond to the stereotype character of the superfluous man at some point. Chekhov did so multiple times, with venom. He hated the superfluous man, considering the character not a “tragic hero” derived from the almighty Lord Byron, but rather a ridiculous cliché of Romanticism. In his story, “The Duel” he applies nails to the coffin of that stereotypical character in a particularly brilliant passage:

Why he lived beyond his means and ran up debts, why he did nothing and read nothing, why he had so little culture and so little knowledge, and in answer to all my questions, he would smile bitterly, sigh, and say: “I’m a luckless fellow, a superfluous man,” or “What do you want, old boy, from us remnants of serfdom,” or “We’re degenerating…” Or he would start pouring out some lengthy drivel about Onegin, Pechorin, Byron’s Cain, or Bazarov of whom he said: “They are our fathers in flesh and spirit.” Meaning he is not to blame that official packets lie unopened for weeks and that he drinks and gets others to drink, but the blame goes to Onegin, Pechorin, and Turgenev, who invented the luckless fellow and the superfluous man. The cause of extreme licentiousness and outrageousness, as you see, lies not in him but somewhere outside, in space.

Even after that acerbic destruction of the superfluous man mythos, Chekhov was not done. Similar characterizations appear in many more of his short stories and all his major plays. Among those works, The Three Sisters is a fascinating oddity. Here Chekhov deals with “the superfluous woman,” not just in character but also in number. Though the play is named for the three Prozorov sisters, Chekhov always stated that the play had four heroines, not three. In a rather harsh appraisal of his play he wrote:

The play has turned out dull, protracted and awkward; I say awkward, because, for instance, it has four heroines and a mood, as they say, gloomier than gloom itself…

The difficulty of producing the play, then, is to balance all four heroines and maintain the mood. This is no short order. Of the many Chekhov productions I’ve seen in different countries, the American and British productions of The Three Sisters are consistently the weakest, likely because the play itself is the most Russian. Even more than the British drama, American drama tends to insist on a few characters at most, and that the entire “action” of the drama hinge almost completely upon the deeds of one character. This long-standing trope of Western liberalism with its emphasis upon individualism leads American dramatists, not to mention actors and directors, to accept the hero story as a default. Examine the narrative structure of Hollywood screenplays and you will find this tendency at its most naked, but the American stage, too, is guilty. By contrast, Russian drama, and Russian film even more, holds no such inviolable tenet. The Russian approach is more apt to treat narrative as a product of social interaction, with no one character particularly more important than another. Watch any Eisenstein film and you will see what I mean.

Photo by Chris Bennion.
Photo by Chris Bennion.

The Three Sisters requires that Russian approach. Anything else is likely to be fatal.

The Seagull Project‘s production struggles for this reason. The interplay between the four heroines lacks a real balance. The fourth heroine — Natasha — is largely absent from the overall direction. This absence is more than a pity. It’s a massive failing.

Natasha is a cliché of the Russian bourgeoisie that one can find anywhere in Russian literature from Lermontov all the way down to Bely. She speaks bad French. She dresses awkwardly with Western fashions. She is petulant, temperamental, uncouth, and absurdly Romantic. Yet for all of Natasha’s crudity, Chekhov shows clearly that she is the future of the petite-bourgeoisie in Russia–Masha even calls her such in the play–just as surely as Irina is the end of the landed gentry, and that contrast is the essence of the conflict. This dynamic between the toxic sisters and Natasha–the four heroines–is the point of the play. As Natasha rises, the sisters fall.

Her story is inseparable from Irina’s. Even as the play opens, Olga and Maria are already incapable and unwilling to change anything or themselves. Irina, however, can go any way she chooses. She could become the hard-working, married and loving woman she talks about at the beginning. She could become like Olga, hard-working but unmarried and unloved. Or she could become like Maria, married but without love or hard work. What Irina can never be is Natasha, who, unlike the three sisters, she knows exactly what she wants at any given moment and acts upon it. She wants Andrei, she wants children, she wants a house, she wants a torrid affair, she wants status, she wants control–and she gets them all.

The play depends on the double meaning of superfluous. It’s obvious by Act II that either the three sisters are superfluous or Natasha is–which is to say, someone has to go. Because the three sisters believe they are “superfluous” in their mental habits and physical inaction, they actually become superfluous to the running of the house. They won’t take control of how things are managed, so Natasha does. Here again, Irina’s through-line complements Natasha’s. Through her own inaction — she can, after all, afford a ticket to Moscow at any time — Irina loses everything she wants just as surely as Natasha gains everything she wants. By the time the Baron is shot, it hardly matters in one sense. The dreadful, as Heidegger put it, has already happened. Just like Olga and Maria before her, Irina has already given up. The Baron’s death simply seals the deal, ensuring that Irina will live with the consequences of her ineptitude.

None of this is particularly clear in this production. Some of this I pin on Hanna Victoria Franklin’s performance as Natasha, which is way too formless, but she isn’t the only one more than a bit lost. Alexandra Tavares is beautiful enough and capable enough to convince me as Masha, but she hasn’t distinguished clearly enough between playing with restraint, which she does expertly, and playing with resignation, which she does not. Her moments with David Quicksall’s Vershinin on stage lack an overall feeling of exaggerated doom. That doom should not come from the relationship itself which is, I think, more silly than tragic; rather, it ought to come from Maria herself. This is, after all, a woman who begins the play by whistling over a novel and singing the lyrics to Pushkin’s fairy tale Ruslan and Ludmila. She begs for a heightened treatment, yet Ms. Tavares plays her coolly. As a result her performance unbalances Julie Briskman’s Olga, who is supposed to be the representative of cool, sober acumen.

Photo by Chris Bennion.
Photo by Chris Bennion.

With this many talented actors all seeming to have gone astray, I have to think a lot of this lies squarely at the feet of director John Langs. The mood he sets is also far too light. There is much laughter in the production, essential to any acceptable production of Chekhov. But in Chekhov, laughter has to hurt. In The Seagull he and his ensemble seemed to establish this tone almost perfectly. But that play also has a much more obvious structure based on melodrama and farce. The Three Sisters is not melodramatic. It is complex and subtle. It is also the only major play of Chekhov’s that he entitled a drama. This doesn’t mean one ought to turn it into an oppressive, wrist-slitting affair that is every American’s cliché image of Russian literature. It means that the recurring theme of all of Chekhov’s work — Так жить нельзя (You cannot live this way) — cannot be treated as absurd; it is, here, as serious as life.

Part of the problem, too, is that I suspect Mr. Langs agrees with the play’s translator Carol Rocamora. Ms. Rocamora once told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she doesn’t believe Chekhov benefits from the star treatment or from a strong directorial imprint. “I believe to do Chekhov properly,” she said, “you need an ensemble and you have to do it straight. The beauty of the play, the language and the production elements will make the statement.”

But there is no such thing as doing a play straight. In the first place, one has to decide exactly what “straight” means, and in this production I don’t sense that decision has been made. Only a delusional fool or an outright liar thinks that “the language” need not be interpreted. Interpretation is precisely the point of language, otherwise humans would not need to speak or write at all. On top of that, I would argue that a strong directorial imprint is one of those essential “production elements” of which Ms. Rocamora speaks. The word strong need not imply that a director has to go all Ariane Mnouchkine or Wooster Group on a text. It need only mean that the director has bothered to force an acceptable interpretation of the play and seen to it that it comes across in the action. Here the director has seen fit to hang out and let the actors play.

That’s not enough. With its American approach to the script and its emphasis upon actors, the Seagull Project created something quite lovely with their first production. But The Seagull allows, indeed invites such a treatment. The Three Sisters does not. The strengths of that production are the weaknesses of their current production. Chekhov himself referred to it as a play “as complex as a novel.” And a novel has to be read.

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net