- Crossing the Century
The recent production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters reminded me of a game I play with my students when we discuss The Cherry Orchard. We raise some disquieting problems: What is bound to happen to the merchant Lopahin, a self-made Russian capitalist whose forefathers were serfs, following his purchase at an auction of Ranevskaya’s famous cherry orchard and estate where he, “ignorant, beaten Yermolay,” ran barefoot in the winter? Already on the evening following the purchase, Lopahin realizes that his sense of triumph is hollow. He will never be the owner of this renowned orchard, mentioned in the Encyclopaedia, since business sense commands that he chop down the unproductive trees to erect summer villas. After the Revolution, he would be caught in the Bolshevik class warfare against the villages, the division of the rural population into rich kulaks, middle peasants, and the poor. He would most probably have been arrested as an enemy of the people, or, at his advanced age, die in the cholera epidemic. Meanwhile, Ranevskaya would have presided over a Russian literary salon in Paris. As to Trofimov, the eternal student, he would doubtlessly have perished on the barricades, fighting for a classless society which never came into being.
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Schechner started playing a similar game in 1995 with his Fragments from Three Sisters, but instead of just talking and meditating on Russian history he crystallized these speculations on the stage. Without altering a single word of Chekhov’s text, he set each of the four acts in a different period of our century, using for each a different methodology. This approach was not without risks, but Schechner has always been a risk-taker. Although smoothness of style or form had to be sacrificed, there was the intense excitement of reviewing contemporary history and politics through the prism of methodology rather than content. In January 1997, when the finished version was presented by Schechner’s company, most of them recent graduates of the Tisch School of the Arts, at La MaMa, I went with a [End Page 72] Russian scholar who does not speak English. Deeply affected by the presentation, she stated: “I had the feeling I saw Russia’s twentieth century pass before my eyes. I relived the metamorphoses which we had to undergo through the Revolution, our early utopian dreams, then Stalin’s terror, and now the aftermath of perestroika. We can no longer feel there is unity of character, growth into maturity, and, if we are lucky, the reaching of a peaceful old age. In this fragmented epoch we lead fragmented lives. The amazing modernity of Chekhov lies in this apprehension.”
Act I takes place in 1901, remaining faithful to Stanislavsky’s naturalism colored by lingering romanticism. Act II takes us twenty years into the century, four years after the Bolshevik Revolution. The stylized staging reflects Meyerhold’s exploration of what he called “biomechanics.” In Act III, thirty years later, Chekhov’s characters find themselves in a Gulag camp, much like the one depicted by Solzhenitsyn in his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The final act is contemporary with us. It suggests what Schechner calls “the diaspora of Russian and Eastern European peoples and ideas.” Fragments of the first three acts reappear, elegiac echoes of a universe which is no more.
The Moscow Art Theatre, under the direction of Stanislavsky, opened Three Sisters ninety six years ago. Schechner’s first act is almost a museum piece, a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of Stanislavskian realism. At Irina Prozorov’s name-day party we are on familiar ground: it is the act of death and renewal, spring in some northern town, perhaps Perm, a long way from Moscow. A year earlier, Brigadier General Prozorov was buried on that very day. The period of mourning is now over. Wearing a white dress, her face radiant, the youngest of the three sisters (Shaula Chambliss...