*. I love Russian literature of the golden age (the “long” nineteenth century), but I often find myself wondering why it remains so popular. The social order seems so alien not just to how we live today, but to how pretty much anyone outside of Russia ever lived. And yet its portrayals of a dying world, or one on the edge of revolution, still resonate, and its characters seem our contemporaries, even if we don’t have peasants or serfs anymore.
*. In the case of Chekhov’s plays I find this really comes out in production. Reading the plays I’m usually left underwhelmed, but any good production reveals more. What seem like stereotypes on the page become figures of enormous complexity. And this in turn is often the point: that people are always being underestimated in some natural but lazy way. Meanwhile, nobody is who they present as, and they know they’re not fooling anyone. It’s that dramatization of the self that really comes through in production and that I don’t pick up on while reading.
*. The set-up in Three Sisters is typical. The initial outline is a cynical one. The basically good, decent people are wimps and losers, while the coming generation are callous and crude but possessed of a certain energy. At least they aren’t sickened by aristo torpor or blinded by romantic ideals. Like the absent Protopopov, they represent ineluctable forces of history. They are the inheritors.
*. It makes sense that the three sister are childless and that Natalya’s kids might not be Andrei’s. The family is a dying bloodline. And with no kids everyone is left wondering what the point of life is and how they will be remembered. In the meantime, all they can do is dream of going to Moscow, because nothing ever happens in their provincial town. But Moscow is just a dream of redemption, like Godot coming to the rescue. They anticipate a great change that is coming but they’re not willing to work for it. As much as they like to talk about working, this is all a sham, like Tolstoy becoming a farmer. But life, or history, isn’t going to just pass them by. It’s going to crush them under its wheels.
*. This production may be best known today as Laurence Olivier’s last turn directing. He’s fine, but it’s really a staged play (and was in fact based on a theatre production Olivier had directed a few years earlier). The outdoor diorama of a birch forest is an enchanting set but it’s obvious everything is taking place on a stage and even the way the scenes are blocked out feels very theatrical. For example, in the use of depth of field to recreate that sense of something always going on somewhere, which is what you experience in a live performance. Take Masha (Joan Plowright, married to Olivier at the time) looking up from her book to listen in on the conversation about Vershinin. She’s often put in this position.
*. It’s a good cast. Jeanne Watts is the earnest Olga. Louise Purnell is impossibly thin as Irina. Sheila Reid sells us on Natasha not really changing that much but just fulfilling her destiny in a very common way.
*. Among the men, Olivier still has the most searching eyes in the business. Derek Jacobi is suitably wimpy as the disappointing brother Andrei (a generic figure that I don’t think has been examined critically in any great depth, though he’s a common type in modern literature). Alan Bates though is perhaps the most impressive as Vershinin. I still don’t know what to make of this character, and that’s a good thing.
*. At 160 minutes they were obviously in no rush, but I think the pace adds to the sense of this being a genuine Russian epic, a work that contains an entire social history. My main objection in the version I was watching is that the sound was so poor I had trouble making out some of the dialogue, which is rarely a problem with a film like this.
*. Obviously not a movie for anyone uninterested in Chekhov, but it’s a solid production and interpretation of the play that we can be thankful for. The idea that we can never have happiness but only wish for it (for ourselves or for others) is downbeat, but that’s Russian literature for you. Suffering will either be your salvation or your destruction. And most likely, just destruction.