A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze. There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong.
One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Sisters - a Mohawk boy. He talked to the birds and other animals - this caught the attention of the three sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad. Again the Mohawk boy came to the field to gather reeds at the water's edge. The two sisters who were left watched his moccasin trail, and that night the second sister - the one in the yellow dress - disappeared as well.
Act one begins with Olga (the eldest sister) working as a schoolteacher but at the end of the play she is made headmistress, a position she had said she did not want. Masha, the middle sister and the artist of the family (she was trained as a concert pianist), is married to Feodor Ilyich Kulygin, a schoolteacher. At the time of their marriage, Masha, younger than he, was enchanted by what she took to be wisdom, but seven years later, she sees through his pedantry and his clownish attempts to compensate for the emptiness between them. Irina, the youngest sister, is still full of expectation. She speaks of her dream of going to Moscow and meeting her true love. It was in Moscow that the sisters grew up, and they all long to return to the sophistication and happiness of that time. Andrei is the only boy in the family and his sisters adore him. He falls in love with Natalia Ivanovna ("Natasha"), who is somewhat common in relation to the sisters and initially suffers under their glance. The play begins on the first anniversary of the death of their father, Sergei Prozorov. It is also Irina's name-day, and everyone, including the soldiers (led by the gallant Vershinin) bringing with them a sense of noble idealism, comes together to celebrate it. At the very close of the act, Andrei exultantly confesses his feelings to Natasha in private and fatefully asks her to marry him.
Act three takes place about a year later in Olga and Irina's room, a clear sign that Natasha is taking over the household as she asked them to share rooms so that her child could have a different room. There has been a fire in the town, and, in the crisis, people are passing in and out of the room, carrying blankets and clothes to give aid. Olga, Masha and Irina are angry with their brother, Andrei, for mortgaging their home without their knowledge or consent, keeping the money to pay off his gambling debts and ceding all power over the household to his wife. However, when faced with Natasha's cruelty to their aged family retainer, Anfisa, Olga's own best efforts to stand up to Natasha come to naught. Masha, alone with her sisters, confides in them her romance with Vershinin ("I love, love, love that man."). At one point, Kulygin (Masha's husband) blunders into the room, doting ever more foolishly on her, and she stalks out. Irina despairs at the common turn her life has taken, the life of a municipal worker, even as she rails at the folly of her aspirations and her education. ("I can't remember the Italian for 'window'".) Out of her resignation, supported in this by Olga's realistic outlook, Irina decides to accept Tuzenbach's offer of marriage even though she does not love him. Chebutykin drunkenly stumbles and smashes a clock which had belonged to the Prozorov siblings' late mother, whom he loved. Andrei then vents his self-hatred, acknowledges his own awareness of life's folly and his disappointment in Natasha, and begs his sisters' forgiveness for everything.
Irina's fate is uncertain but, even in her grief at Tuzenbach's death, she wants to persevere in her work as a teacher. Natasha remains as the chatelaine, in charge and in control of everything. Andrei is stuck in his marriage with two children, unwilling and unable to do anything for his wife or himself. As the play closes, the three sisters stand in a desperate embrace, gazing off as the soldiers depart to the sound of a band's gay march. As Chebutykin sings Ta-ra-ra-boom-di-ay to himself,[nb 1] Olga's final lines call for an end to the confusion all three feel at life's sufferings and joy: "If we only knew... If we only knew."
VERSHININ [with animation]. How glad Iam, how glad I am! But there are three of yousisters. I remember three little girls. I don'tremember your faces, but that your father, ColonelProzorov, had three little girls I rememberperfectly, and saw them with my own eyes. Howtime passes! Hey-ho, how it passes!
VERSHININ. Yes. I studied in Moscow. I beganmy service there, I served there for years, and atlast I've been given a battery here -- I havemoved here as you see. I don't remember youexactly, I only remember you were three sisters.I remember your father. If I shut my eyes, I cansee him as though he were living. I used to visityou in Moscow. . . .
IRINA. You say life is beautiful. . . .Yes, but what if it only seems so! Life for usthree sisters hasn't been beautiful yet, we'vebeen stifled by it as plants are choked by weeds.. . . I'm starting to cry. . . . I mustn'tdo that [hurriedly wipes her eyes andsmiles]. I must work, I must work. Thereason we are depressed and take such a gloomyview of life is that we know nothing of work. Wecome of people who despised work. . . .
VERSHININ. What else am I to say to you atparting? What am I to philosophise about? . .. [Laughs] Life is hard. It seems to manyof us dull and hopeless; but yet we must admitthat it goes on getting clearer and easier, and itlooks as though the time were not far off whenit'll be full of happiness [looks at hiswatch]. It's time for me to go! In old daysmen were absorbed in wars, filling all theirexistence with marches, raids, victories, but nowall that is a thing of the past, leaving behindit a great void which there is so far nothing tofill: humanity is searching for it passionately,and of course will find it. Ah, if only it couldbe quickly! [a pause] If, don't you know,hard work were united with education andeducation with hard work. . . [Looks at hiswatch] But, really, it's time for me to go. .. . 1e1e36bf2d