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After Chekhov: The Three Sisters of Beth Henley, Wendy Wasserstein, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Blake Morrison


Verna A. Foster


Chekhov’s The Three Sisters is a much-adapted play. Among recent adaptations are Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1979), Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Break of Day (1995), and Blake Morrison’s We Are Three Sisters (2011). In this essay I draw on contemporary theories of adaptation to explain why three important women dramatists have chosen to rewrite The Three Sisters and what we might learn about their plays – as well as Chekhov’s – from a comparative study of the ways in which they respond to and exploit Chekhovian characters and themes. Crimes of the Heart, The Sisters Rosensweig, and The Break of Day variously illuminate some of the ways in which adaptation operates creatively in producing new works and critically in offering new insights into the adapted work. Then, for counterpoint, I examine We Are Three Sisters, in which Morrison uses the structure, character types, and themes of Chekhov’s play as well as numerous echoes of its dialogue and stage business to dramatize the lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë and their brother, Branwell. As an adaptation Morrison’s play provides an intriguing opportunity to refine the current conversation about adaptation and adaptation theory (as established by Linda Hutcheon, Julie Sanders, et al.) because Morrison is not rewriting The Three Sisters in contemporary terms, as Henley, Wasserstein, and Wertenbaker do, so much as using Chekhov’s play to write one about the Brontës. The result – a consequence unaccounted for in current adaptation theory – is that any insights that Morrison’s play offers into Chekhov’s are incidental and the more intriguing because, apparently, undesigned.

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