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The Use of Sound in Chekhov’s Three Sisters

Somewhere at a distance, someone in the street is playing an accordion.

In Chekhov’s Three Sisters there are three types of sounds; those that take place onstage, those that take place offstage, and those that are heard by (some) characters but not by the audience. The first revealed to both the characters and the audience, the second is unseen but heard by all, but the third is unheard by the audience. These sounds are only revealed through the characters’ reactions.

Onstage noises are the strongest shared experiences. We can see as well as hear the source of the sound. These tend to punctuate the dialogue, serving as accents or emphasis to the scene, aiding in creating the overall mood. In Act Two, Fedótik plays the guitar and Túzenbach the piano. It is a festive occasion, as most of the characters are anticipating a visit by the carnival people, and the shared experience of the music-making adds to the ambiance.

Offstage noises, on the other hand, can be atmospheric or disruptive. They are at a remove, unanticipated by the audience. The accordion music that opens and closes Act Two, the nurse’s singing, and the fire alarms, serve as clues to the setting and mood of the scene. The doorbell, the knocking on the floor, and the sleigh-bells, on the other hand, interrupt the action, usually to announce the entry of another character to the scene.

Listen to that noise in the chimney. Right before Father died, the wind made a noise in the chimney. Just like that.

The third type of sound, referenced but unheard, reveals the internal atmosphere of the character who “hears” them. When Másha and Vershínin’s relationship is first revealed, the audience does not hear the wind. In fact, there is no acknowledgment that Vershínin hears it either. Only Másha, contemplating relieving the boredom of her life, of her marriage, with this man she remembers from her childhood in Moscow, hears this ghost of her father. The disturbance is intimate, personal.

...the water makes a noise underneath you. If you’re lonely, it makes you feel awful. (Vershínin)

But Vershínin does not question the wind in the chimney. He has already revealed to Másha in Act One that he too filters the sounds of nature through his mood. Five pages later, when they are surrounded by people playing cards, humming, and making music, Vershínin is the one to comment on the draft.

"Listen to that wind!" "Yes; winter’s a bore. I can’t even remember what summer is like." (Vershínin/Másha)

Ennui sets them apart from the crowd. Frustrated with her boring husband and his melodramatic wife, Másha and Vershínin seek each other out as kindred spirits, restless and moody. The weather is an abstraction upon which to project their inner tempests. It does not take place onstage or off; they call it into existence through their dialogue.

Ólga! Someone’s knocking. (Irína)

The only other time in Three Sisters that a sound is referred to but unheard is at the end of Act Three, when Irína and Ólga are hidden behind their sleeping screens and the stage is bare. An offstage knock would have precipitated an entrance onto the stage, but this silent knock does not. Másha and Natásha may each have a husband and a lover, but Irína and Ólga are left alone in their beds. The unheard sound of someone seeking entry to the empty stage serves to emphasize the isolation of the unmarried sisters.

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