Chekhov, Woody, and Their Three Sisters

by Max Carlson

Recently I went to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to see Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. According to Time magazine, the Guthrie Theater is one of the five best theaters in The United States! They are about to build a fancy one hundred million-dollar-plus theater near the Mississippi River. Three Sisters was one of my last chances to see a performance in the original theater, which has a forty-year history.

Artistic director, Joe Dowling, directed Three Sisters and did a fantastic job. I saw his directorial style flourish years ago in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and have come to the conclusion that he is a master of interpreting for the stage Chekhov’s style of dry, witty humor mixed with intense drama.

As I sat in the top row of the theater watching Chekhov’s masterpiece unfold, the thought passed through my mind that his writing style, technique, and unsurpassed talent is much like some of filmmaker Woody Allen’s work. Woody’s film, Hannah and Her Sisters, has some striking similarities to Chekhov’s play. Most obvious is that there are three sisters in each story. There is, thankfully, much more to look at than the comparison of numbers, otherwise this essay would be fairly stale.

An interesting way to begin a story is to start with a party or celebration of some kind. At this gathering, all the primary characters should be present and introduced to the audience at an almost frantic pace. It is a clever technique in that it keeps the story from dragging with one characterization after another. Chekhov and Woody have chosen this style beginning their stories with a family dinner. Hannah and Her Sisters opens with a warm celebration of Thanksgiving dinner, and Three Sisters with a light and cheerful springtime lunch. These family dinners are initiations or starting points of a garment that will soon weave its strings of yarn in many different directions.

There is not space to go into detail about individual sisters, but each sister is very different from the other two. They have different personalities, viewpoints, relation-ships, aspirations, and destinies. As the plots inter-mingle, each sister’s personality develops more and more. The audience begins to better understand what type of person she is and more of an idea of their destiny.

One noteworthy difference between the film and the play is that, though the beginnings are the same, the endings are entirely different. Woody chose to end Hannah and Her Sisters in a way very much like its beginning with another celebration of Thanksgiving. However, the characters have developed and changed, but as we see them in this party scene, we know that everything has resolved itself. All problems have been fixed, relationships either mended or changed completely. This film may be Woody Allen’s most optimistic vision of love. The story has neatly folded itself together ending very happily. Chekhov, on the other hand, did not neatly wrap up his story, but instead, decided to make it an open-faced sandwich, leaving his characters and their situations very much unresolved and exposed.

In an interview with Stig Bjorkman taken from his book, Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen mentioned his feelings towards Chekhov, “I certainly love Chekhov. No question about that. He’s one of my favorites, of course. I’m crazy about Chekhov. I never knew anybody that wasn’t! People may not like Tolstoy. There are some people I know that don’t like Dostoyevsky, don’t like Proust or Kafka or Joyce or T.S. Elliot. But I’ve never met anybody that didn’t adore Chekhov.” Because of his adoration of Chekhov, perhaps Woody wished he had ended Hanna in a less upbeat fashion. In a 1987 BBC Interview, he remarked that the film was “more ‘up’ and optimistic than I had intended, and consequently was very popular. It’s only optimistic in the sections I failed.”

Max Carlson studies music and cinema at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

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