Wednesday, January 04, 2012

We Are Three Sisters - A Review

Thanks to Nick Hern Books for providing us with a review copy of this book.

We Are Three Sisters
by Blake Morrison
Nick Hern Books
ISBN: 9781848422148

To review just the text of a theatre play is a tricky business. Theatre, like the cinema, is a multidisciplinar art and the text being a pivotal element is not the only element. The actors and the direction are as important as the words that the author had in mind. It is well known that a good text can be spoilt with a misguided direction or with the wrong cast and that a not-so-good text (a bad one has no salvation) can be inmensively improved by the right choices in the mise-en-scène or the appropriate cast.

Therefore, when we try to express our opinions about Blake Morrison's play We Are Three Sisters we must be cautious. We have not seen the performances of the play by the Northern Broadsides Company and we can only judge by the text published by Nick Hern Books.

The play is a transposition of Chekhov's The Three Sisters (1901) to the life and times of the Brontë sisters(1). The mechanism is clearly stated in the production notes:
In writing this play Blake Morrison has used an existing work as a kind of template – Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. The use of this template has meant that some aspects of the life of the Brontë family come into focus more than others.
It has also meant that events in the family’s real life have been condensed into a much shorter time frame and, in some instances, reordered; and some key events are omitted altogether. It is not the aim of this play to be a detailed biography of the Brontës. It’s simply one way of exploring dramatically what their lives might have been like.
Much of the original structure and dialogues are mirrored in Blake Morrison's play up to the point that he has consciously altered part of the chronology of real events and introduced new characters better suited the particular structure of Chekhov's play (others like Patrick Brontë have no match in The Three Sisters). The author is well aware of that and even writes an author's note listing all the changes and deviations from the real facts. Real facts that come from Gaskell's biography, Charlotte's letters(2) and, particularly, Juliet Barker's biography The Brontës (the biographer is also credited as advisor of the play) and plenty of dialogue is based on quotations from novels by the sisters. The introduction of a fourth short act which is not present in the original play is probably the major deviation from Chekhov's text but totally necessary as Charlotte and Emily did indeed travel to London unlike Chekhov's Prozorovs who spend most of the play dreaming of Moscow as the way out of the provincial life which they feel so hard to endure(3).

Blake Morrison's text respects the sad comedy feeling of Chekhov's play (it is not an oximoron, if you remember Uncle Vanya or The Seagull, which by the way is explicitly mentioned in We Are Three Sisters), but here the elements of melancholy are introduced from outside the text, because we know the fate and future events of the Brontës, as opposed to The Three Sisters where we are dynamically driven by the tone of Chekhov's writing.

The focus on the topics of artistic sublimation through literary creation, misused talents and the fact that the action is basically happening in a short period of time (six months or so) deeply alters some of the innermost elements in The Three Sisters. Chekhov's play spans a much longer time and allows the characters to develop their personalities. In Morrison's play the sisters are more or less the ones that the Brontë myth has created for us: Charlotte is stubborn and practical, Anne naive and an idealist and Emily being the Emily that Charlotte Brontë wrote for future generations in Shirley: fiery, independent, reserved.(4). The opposition between the old and the new which is a key element in Chekhov's play in We Are Three Sisters is not so central(5).

What we finally have is a strong piece which works better when its close links to The Three Sisters is forgotten and its own choices are assumed. Its main problem is regrettably its own origin. As much as the shadow text is a play about the absurdity of life and the end of an era, this new text lacks focus and only works when put in the context of the Brontës' backstory. But when this is done and Blake Morrison gives voice to the sisters' hopes he is able to match and even improve Chekhov. Or isn't the ending of We Are Three Sisters more moving than Chekhov's vain wish for the future: "Oh if we could only know!'"?
Charlotte: Soon the years will have passed and we'll be gone. Our faces will be forgotten, our voices will be forgotten, all that mattered to the three of us will be forgotten. But there'll be our books. And in the end, we will be remembered. 
Emily: Then we'll known what our purpose was.
Anne: What we were born for.
Charlotte: Yes, then we'll know. In the next life. Then we'll know.
Notes:
(1) It's not the first time that Blake Morrison carries out a similar task. He reworked Heinrich von Kleist’s Der Zerbrochne Krug as The Cracked Pot, Il Servitore di Due Patrone by Carlo Goldoni into The Servant of Two Masters and versions of Aristophanes or Sophocles.
(2) Charlotte Brontë to W.S. Williams, 31 July 1848
Permit me to caution you not to speak of my sisters when you write to me - I mean do not use the word in the plural. "Ellis Bell" will not endure to be alluded to under any other appellation than the 'nom de plume'. I committed a grand error in betraying 'his' identity to you and Mr. Smith - it was inadvertent - the words "we are three sisters" escaped me before I was aware - I regretted the avowal the moment I had made it; I regret it bitterly now, for I find it is against every feeling and intention of "Ellis Bell".
(3) Donald Rayfield in Understanding Chekhov: a critical study of Chekhov's prose and drama (1999) says:
In 1895, among the books Chekhov ordered and eventually despatched to the Taganrog Public library was a biography by an Olga Peterson of the Brontë sisters.
Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that probably the most important source of inspiration for the Prozorov sisters came from the Zimmermman sisters (Ottilia, Margaret and Evelyn), as several Russian scholars suggest.
(4) And sometimes too clichéd, reciting her own poetry now and then. Her soliloquy on being in love with her own Heathcliff sounds almost like a parody of Wuthering Heights.
(5) Another curious change is the transposition of the Natasha character (vulgar petit bourgeois who slowly works into a position of power inside the Prozorov family) into Lydia Robinson. Obviously the socioeconomical subtext of Chekhov's character is lost in favour of a lighter treatment not entirely consistent but quite fun.

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