“What is to be done?”: L. Andreev’s Anfisa in the Context of Čexov’s Three Sisters

Alice Harris, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Like Three Sisters (1900), Anfisa (1909) takes place in a single household of a Russian river town over the course of a year. Andreev clearly modeled his title heroine on Maša Kulygina (née Prozorova). Anfisa, the middle of three sisters, dresses in black, has musical talent and is rejected in her attempts to reach out to her sisters in a moment of crisis. Andreev even takes details from Three Sisters: Maša and Anfisa share a personal attachment to “justice” and eyes that shine in the dark. Most significantly, the central “action” of each play revolves around an adulterous liaison between the middle sister and a father-protector figure. However, significant plot differences have long repelled critical comparison of the two plays. Maša betrays her own husband, while Anfisa has an affair with her sister’s husband. Maša and Veršinin are forced by duty to part; Anfisa ends the play by poisoning Kostomarov, like his great-aunt, who joins her in the final scene, killed her own husband long ago.

To date only I. F. Annenskij, in his 1909 article “Teatr Leonida Andreeva,” has compared Anfisa and Three Sisters. The present paper takes an intertextual approach, analyzing Anfisa in conjunction with Three Sisters and Andreev’s own understanding of Čexov’s play as stated in his 1901 review. Such a reading reveals that behind the melodramatic shock value of Andreev’s plot, Anfisa grapples with the same questions upon which Three Sisters rests: “What is to be done?” “How are we to live?” “Whither Russia?”

By reworking Maša in Anfisa, Andreev indicates that his “answer” is a permutation of the hope expressed at the end of Three Sisters. Without the context of Čexov’s play, the Russia of Anfisa appears to have come to a dead end in the great-aunt’s closing line: “There’s nothing to be done, everything has been done. Be silent,” an echo of her advice in the opening act. But this overt cycle rouses in the reader a desire to escape, to seek the future upon which the Prozorov sisters pin their hopes.

Leonid Andreev’s dramas of everyday life have been neglected due to critical concentration on his more overtly symbolist plays. A contextualized reading, such as taken in this paper, could surely deepen our understanding of other “everyday” Andreev dramas, such as Ekaterina Ivanovna and Sobačij vals and their relations to nineteenth-century Russian literature.