- Chekhov's Three SistersA Proto-Poststructuralist Experiment
In Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters (1900), the domestic scene may appear estranged, both static and understated, but it becomes increasingly familiar the longer one looks. Characters, like well-tuned instruments, echo, harmonize, and clash as they seek meaning in each other's words and gestures. In an impressionistic polyphony of voices, one hears soundings of desire, outrage, and self-revelation above a basso continuo of longing, loss, and regret.1 Borrowing terms from painting and music, critics have called this play both impressionistic and symphonic, descriptors that point to how Chekhov's writing works in a new way or changes the structures of dramatic storytelling. Indeed, more than realism or formalism, Chekhov's mosaic approach, an experiment in representation, ushers in stylistic techniques that enable the technical innovation of artists to follow and project well beyond his own moment. Considered radical in its day for its true-to-life effects, Chekhovian drama continues to engage contemporary theatre publics due to the freshness of its approach to writing the human condition and to staging the problem of representation itself.
Raymond Williams indicates that with Chekhov one witnesses "a writer of genius beginning to create a new dramatic form, but in ways so original and so tentative that it is in constant danger of breaking down."2 Like a painting whose array of brushstrokes merge into meaning when beheld from a distance, Chekhov creates a play whose intricate system of verbal and visual signifiers requires a particular perspective. The work captures ordinary life as it is lived, the ostensibly real, in a manner revolutionary for its time. As a theatrical work, Three Sisters marks a new kind of verisimilitude that is, paradoxically, realistic in its [End Page 183] estrangement.3 Chekhov's four major plays remain relevant to discussions of new works for theatre because they self-reflexively engage hermeneutical questions of meaning-making even as they conjure convincing illusions of the real. Furthermore, their dialectical approach to complex questions sets similarity and difference against each other in ways that destabilize easy, normative thinking. Chekhov's plays testify to art's relevance as an arbiter of culture, as demonstrated by their astonishing popularity and many contemporary adaptations.4
As visual/verbal/aural performance, Three Sisters engages an array of touchstones that will come to describe the trope of early-twentieth-century modernism. Although various scholars have noted Chekhov's attention to formal structures and his convincing characterization, they have not recognized the way the playwright's approach to rhetorical choices prefigures poststructuralist concerns. I will examine Chekhov's self-reflexive attention to aspects of dramatic writing, to human being, and to discursive effects as perceived by those who people his plays. He plays with dialectics of real and virtual time as he foregrounds and defamiliarizes the dramatic genre and affective experience. Both thematically and structurally, Chekhov's new writing, metadiscursively concerned with its own meaning-making, goes beyond the cohesive systems described by formalism and structuralism to approach questions now considered the purview of poststructuralism and even postmodernism.
Chekhov's approach to playwriting epitomizes Fredric Jameson's celebrated notion of multiple narratives of modernism that have dominated critical theory from the mid-nineteenth century until today. The critic identifies modernism itself as a representation, a signifier whose referent is so multivalent as to be nearly untenable. For Jameson, modernism escapes representation, and only situations of modernity, those that Chekhov captures eloquently onstage, can be narrated. Chekhov's work weaves many of the strands Jameson includes in his definition of modernity as trope: the fetish of the new; a self-reflexive reification of language such that it operates beyond its communicative function; a dissociation from the present (due to an emphasis on past and future); a celebration of chance; a critique of progress and causality; the (illusory) autonomy of the aesthetic system, still lodged firmly in culture; the self grasped as a construction knowable only through inadequate representations; and the emergence of formal abstraction.5 Through its participation in this conceptual aesthetic arena, one whose grip on critical theory remains strong today, Chekhov's new writing ensures its cultural foothold as...