On not getting to Moscow

the play:

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

Transl Gerard R Ledger

Written 1900, first performed 1901

The action takes place in a provincial town.


Inside the Prozorov house. A sitting room with pillars, behind which is seen another large dining or reception room. It is midday; outside it is bright and sunny. In the dining room beyond the table is being laid for lunch. Olga in a blue dress, the official school dress for a teacher of the Girls' High School, is continually correcting exercise books as she stands or while she walks around. Masha in a black dress sits on a chair with her hat on her knees and reads a book. Irina in a white dress is standing deep in thought.

OLGA. Father died exactly a year ago, on this very same day, on the fifth of May, on your name day, Irina. It was very cold, and snow was falling. It seemed to me as if I would not live through it, you were lying in a faint, as if you were dead. But look, a year has gone by and we can remember it lightly, you are already wearing white, and your face is full of brightness…

(The clock strikes.)

And then also the clock struck in just the same way.


observations: Black dresses are obviously suited in Chekhov’s mind to women called Masha: In The Seagull, a completely different Masha is asked why she always wears black, and replies ‘I’m in mourning for my life’ – one of the great opening lines. He described this play as ‘more gloomy than gloom itself’ and indeed it is not cheerful. Apparently he was inspired by the story of the Bronte sisters, but at least there was some literary success to console them. These sisters are not happy, and matters will get worse as the play goes on, and they will not achieve their (symbolic-but-also-literal) ambition to return to Moscow. But it is somehow not as depressing as it should be – partly because of Chekhov’s ability to write very detailed stories, rooted in a real place, yet to make them seem applicable to the whole human race. The world of the play is very specific, but we can recognize characters and situations that we know.

Links up with: black dresses and white dresses feature in various entries – click on the labels below. WG Sebald’s visit to
sisters in Ireland surely contained a nod to Chekhov. A real Bronte here, and an inspirational one here.

The painting is the Three Sisters by Ilya Mashkov, which can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.