Three Sisters: Comedy or Drama? Mystery of the Subtitle

Vera Zubarev, University of Pennsylvania

It is not a very well known fact that Chekhov, when talking about Three Sisters, insisted that he created comedy, even vaudeville. He seriously argued about it with Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko.

Despite Chekhov’s repeated statements that he had comedy in mind while working on Three Sisters, this play was, nevertheless, subtitled as drama. There is no explanation in criticism regarding when and how Chekhov changed his mind and re-subtitled this play widely known today as a drama.

At the same time, some English translations of Three Sisters reveal that Chekhov’s “strange” definition of his rather sad play was not a secret to the translators. Thus, Lanford Wilson subtitled his new translation of Three Sisters as “a comedy in fourth acts” (Wilson 1994). Though Wilson does not give any theoretical ground for such a “free” translation of the subtitle, his intention to follow Chekhov’s original definition of this play is apparent.

The goal of this presentation is to provide the audience with some documents that may shed light on the “mystery” of the subtitle and speculate about its change from “comedy” to “drama.” To this end, some excerpts from Chekhov’s letters, as well as various memoirs and newspapers will be discussed and analyzed.

In the end, some excerpts from my recent movie “Four Funny Families” (2004) will be shown in order to discuss the vaudevillian nature of some seemingly dramatic scenes.