If you needed any more evidence that Chekov and Beckett are cousins, then simply look to The Three Sisters. It could just as easily have been titled Waiting for Moscow, which, like Godot, never materializes, and in the time spent waiting, nothing happens. Oh, of course, there are events, Andrei marries, Masha and Vershinin fall in love, Natasha has an affair, and Solyony kills Baron Tuzenbach in a duel. But old Dr. Chebutykin is there to remind us, “What happened? Nothing. Nothing much. It doesn’t matter!”
ESTRAGON:They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR:To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON:They have to talk about it.
ESTRAGON:I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR:That’s what you think.
VLADIMIR:Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON:Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
MASHA: … We’re left alone to begin our life over again, . . . We’ve got to live . . . we’ve got to live, . . .
IRINA: … Now it’s autumn; soon winter will come and cover us with snow, and I will work, I will work.
OLGA: … Time will pass, and we shall go away for ever, and we shall be forgotten ..we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering. . . . If we only knew — if we only knew!
The Three Sisters feels a bit ungainly to me, and of the three I’ve read so far (the other two being The Seagull and Uncle Vanya), it feels like it would be the most challenging to direct. People pop in and out with only a few lines, lines break off into (seemingly) pointless snippets of song, Masha has a sort of “mad scene” not unlike Nina’s last scene in The Seagull, where her words don’t have much meaning and she seems confused, and it seems to lack the empathy of Seagull and Vanya.
It seems quite modern in some ways, there’s a goofy exchange about garlic and mutton that could be straight out of Monty Python, and you could easily look at the character of Natasha as a satire of an Ayn Randian libertarian — she’d fit in quite well with the Tea Party crowd. Despite that, I have a little more trouble liking this play despite my fondness for Beckettian absurdism. the sisters feel a bit more brittle than do Vladimir and Estragon; I have no difficulty seeing the empathy in those two.
At the end of The Three Sisters, Olga looks to god for meaning, as did Sonya in Uncle Vanya. In neither case, however, does Chekhov tip his hand as to whether he thinks this is their salvation or a delusion, and this ambiguity is one of his great strengths. Even his favored doctors, which usually have some detachment even when they are participants in the action, aren’t always reliable or wise. He presents his characters as they are, with very little commentary or authorial point-of-view intruding.