Saturday, November 21, 2015

Anton in Show Business: The Three Sisters

Sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave with their niece Jemma
Redgrave in a 1991 production of The Three Sisters
Anton in Show Business is a play about a play about three actresses cast in a provincial production of The Three Sisters by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

His plays, first produced in the late 19th and early 20th century, soon revolutionized not only Russian drama but theatre in England (where Bernard Shaw was one of the first to praise him), western Europe, America and now the world.

There are many references to The Three Sisters in Anton... and views on how Chekhov is performed today.  The following elements of Chekhov’s play suggests some themes of idealism, disappointment and courage that are echoed to some extent in Anton in Show Business.

By 1900, playwright Anton Chekhov had two hits—The Seagull and Uncle Vanya—produced by the Moscow Art Theatre, directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. The theatre wanted a new Chekhov play for their next season, and Chekhov obliged with The Three Sisters, the first play he wrote expressly for the Moscow Art Theatre.

 Chekhov did something different in this play—he showed how his main characters changed over time, especially as their lives were shaped by their surroundings and other characters.

 The three sisters—Olga, Masha and Irina—are the young adult daughters of a recently deceased army general. They remember their earlier years in the great city of Moscow as glittering and free, but they are now living in a provincial town where their father had been posted. Their dreams of getting back to Moscow are the focus of their yearnings for a better, larger life.

 The play begins with their restlessness and idealistic hopes, and that of their younger brother Andrei. But the rest of the play shows an encroaching banality taking over their lives, as they get older and the dreams fade from possibility.

 Irina, the youngest sister, finally seeks to break away from an increasingly stifled life, although at the cost of an unsatisfying marriage. But even that liberation is thwarted.  Without great or terrible events, their lives have escaped them.

 Throughout the play, several characters—but especially the three sisters—exhibit vitality and courage even as their lives diminish without their dreams fulfilled. In some ways the sisters don't fully understand the forces that have shaped their lives.

The play ends with music and resolution from the three sisters: "We must go on." "There is work to be done...I shall devote my whole life where it's needed." "Listen to the music...Oh, my dear sisters, life is not over for us yet.  Let us live."

Within a realistic framework, The Three Sisters expresses aspects of tragedy and of comedy, even clownish physical comedy.  (But then, so do Shakespeare's tragedies.)  Its ultimate nature is elusive.  Productions often treat it as a kind of tragedy, and the final affirmations as ironic.  Chekhov himself insisted it's a comedy.

Anton in Show Business is the second recently produced play locally to refer extensively to Chekhov and themes of his plays, the other being Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, at Redwood Curtain last year.  But there hasn't been a local production of an actual Chekhov play in several decades. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival however has produced several.

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