As with most of Anton Chekov's plays, The Three Sisters is deceptively simple with no heroic deeds or grand tragedies, however some critics consider it as the best drama of the 20th century. The Three Sisters explores a range of universal themes and issues (for example; where is it best to live, what is happiness, is education better than ignorance?) that, if properly staged, can still move a contemporary audience. Chekov strikes a balance between the ‘subjectively painful' and ‘objectively comedic' perspectives on life to link the catastrophic with the trivial in this play of character, relationship and motivation. He has blurred the boundary between comedy and drama to forge the tragi-farcical approach which has often confounded audiences and critics. Unfortunately a lot of the play's subtlety is lost when it is translated out of the native Russian it was written in, along with Chekov's grammar, original phrasing, poetic nuances and cultural meaning. Stanislavsky originally staged The Three Sisters at the Moscow Art Theatre using a sentimental and naturalistic technique.
The play is a four-act examination of the unrequited hopes of the Prozorov sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina and their brother Andrei who live in the small provincial garrison town of their late father. The events of the play take place over a period of several years. Born of the upper class the sisters and their brother dream of happiness, escaping the military outpost and returning to Moscow. Olga, the oldest, is a schoolteacher at the local school and fears the onset of spinsterhood. Masha, is married to Kulygin who is also a teacher at the school, but she becomes bored with him and falls in love with Vershinin, a dashing army commander, who is also married. Irina works at the telegraph office but aspires to a life of substance. She is the object of devotion both from Solyony, an army captain, and lieutenant Baron Tuzenbach. Unable to fulfil his dream of becoming a philosophy professor, Andrei is married to a dominating overbearing woman, Natalya Ivanova, who commits adultery with the school administrator. The characters have many flaws, as well as strengths, but all of these are on a very human scale.
As the play progresses the audience witnesses the wearing down of the sisters' dreams through the lack of opportunity and cultural deprivation of provincial life. In the final act Colonel Vershinin is transferred to Poland leaving the Prozorov family stranded in the town. Baron Tusenbach, who gives up his army commission to manage a brick factory, finally wins Irina's hand but is killed in a duel engineered by Solyony who can't bear to see Irina marry anyone but himself. Only the sisters' love for each other gives them the strength to hope.
The Three Sisters could almost be considered a precursor of Beckett's Waiting for Godot as the title characters are trapped in a pointless, absurd existence, marking time as their dreams dim, their memories fade, and even their physical space shrinks around them. However Chekhov's message is fundamentally different from the absurdist's sparse analogy, in that he gives his characters has more hope for the future if only they can wake up and save themselves rather than succumb to a meaningless existence and/or death. Through his characters, Chekov warns the audience that they must also make the same choice.