- After Chekhov: The Three Sisters of Beth Henley, Wendy Wasserstein, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Blake Morrison
At the end of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters Olga says, “In time we shall pass on for ever and be forgotten. Our faces will be forgotten and our voices and how many of us there were.”1 This has not happened. So powerful are the shades of Olga, Masha, and Irina that, whatever their later names may be, theater audiences will always remember that there were three of them. In Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1979) their names are Lenny, Meg, and Babe; in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig (1992) they are Sara, Gorgeous, and Pfeni; while in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Break of Day (1995), April, Tess, and Nina are erstwhile sisters in feminism and longtime friends. In Yorkshire playwright Blake Morrison’s We Are Three Sisters (2011), more curiously, they are Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë.2 Henley’s, Wasserstein’s, and Wertenbaker’s plays transpose Chekhov’s characters and some of the motifs and themes associated with them to new times and places while ignoring the original dramatic situation and most of the Chekhovian dialogue. Morrison’s play, by contrast, despite depicting historical individuals who are well known in their own right, parallels Chekhov’s in considerable detail. Except for one brief additional act, Morrison uses the structure, character types, and themes of Chekhov’s play as well as numerous echoes of its dialogue and stage action to write a biographical drama about the Brontës.
The bulk of this essay will draw on contemporary theories of adaptation to explain why three important women dramatists have chosen to rewrite The Three Sisters and what we might learn about their plays—as well as Chekhov’s—from a comparative study of the ways in which they [End Page 451] respond to and exploit Chekhovian characters and themes. Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier argue that adaptation is not only a creative act but also “features a specific and explicit form of criticism.”3 Crimes of the Heart, The Sisters Rosensweig, and The Break of Day variously illuminate some of the ways in which adaptation operates creatively in producing new works and critically in offering new insights into the adapted work. Morrison’s We Are Three Sisters is a different case. As a double adaptation—of the historical lives of the Brontës and of Chekhov’s play—We Are Three Sisters provides an intriguing opportunity to enter from a new perspective and refine the current conversation about adaptation and adaptation theory. As a revision Morrison’s play offers an especially interesting take on its source because Morrison was not rewriting The Three Sisters in contemporary terms, as Henley, Wasserstein, and Wertenbaker did, so much as using Chekhov’s play to write one about the Brontës. The result—a consequence unaccounted for in current adaptation theory—is that any insights that Morrison’s play offers into Chekhov’s are incidental and the more intriguing because apparently undesigned.
In A Theory of Adaptation (2006) Linda Hutcheon defines adaptation as “an extended, deliberate, announced revisitation of a particular work of art.”4 All four dramatists have acknowledged their debt to Chekhov, but revisit The Three Sisters more or less extensively, in different ways, and for different purposes. The Break of Day talks back to Chekhov’s play; Crimes of the Heart refracts it in a new social environment; We Are Three Sisters cannibalizes it. The Sisters Rosensweig makes the least sustained use of it and is more simply allusive. Pfeni, for example, quotes Irina’s “I’ve forgotten the Italian for window” and “If I could only get to Moscow!”5 The terms used to describe kinds and degrees of adaptation have proliferated over the last few years: appropriation, revision, version, offshoot, and so on.6 “Appropriation,” which Julie Sanders distinguishes from “adaptation” as moving more emphatically “into a wholly new cultural product and domain,” perhaps best defines the relationship between Henley’s, Wasserstein’s, Wertenbaker’s, and Morrison’s plays and Chekhov’s, though I also like the term “revision” because, as Sharon Friedman notes, it emphasizes...