Poet, playwright and novelist Blake Morrison grew up in striking distance from Haworth, the village once home to the Brontë family, and describes his latest play for Northern Broadsides, We are Three Sisters, as ‘a kind of homecoming’. Here he explains the enjoyment of dramatising the Brontë’s lives, lifting the gloom and misery so often written about, and using Chekhov’s Three Sisters as a guiding inspiration.
Charlotte Brontë liked to give the impression nothing of interest ever happened to her and her sisters – Haworth being a remote spot, and life at the parsonage lacking in incident. And yet the lives of the Brontës have been retold – on stage, on ﬁlm, in ﬁction, even as ballet – as often as their novels have been adapted. That’s because they raise such fascinating questions. How did three sisters come to write such groundbreaking novels? What was the chemistry between them? Why did they adopt pseudonyms? What experience, if any, did they have of being in love? How did they cope with their wayward, drug- and booze-addicted brother Branwell? How congenial was the inﬂuence of their father Patrick, whose health they constantly worried about, but who outlived them all? How feminist were they? How political in their thinking? Far from being uneventful, the lives of the Brontës are so full of psychological interest and dramatic potential that it’s hard to know where to start.
For me the starting point was Chekhov, whose play Three Sisters explores many of the themes that preoccupied the Brontës: work, education, marriage, the role of women, the dangers of addiction, the risks of ﬂirtation, the rival claims of country and city, the stirrings of political unrest. The parallels are no mere coincidence. According to Chekhov’s biographer, Donald Rayﬁeld, one of the books he ordered for the library of his home town, Taganrog, and which he kept for nearly a month before sending it on, was an account of the Brontës by Olga Peterson (a Russian married to an Englishman). The fact that Chekhov’s dancing teacher at school was a Greek called Vrondi, and in demotic Greek (which Chekhov knew a little) Brontë and Vrondi are virtual homonyms, may have tickled his fancy still further…Wherever possible, I’ve tried to be true to the Brontës’ thoughts and feelings. As well as drawing on Juliet Barker’s biography, I’ve used words that appear in the novels, Charlotte’s letters, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography. Here, for example, is Gaskell’s account of Charlotte telling her father about Jane Eyre:
‘Papa, I’ve been writing a book.’
‘Have you, my dear?’
‘Yes, and I want you to read it.’
‘I’m afraid it will try my eyes too much.’
‘But it is not in manuscript: it is printed.’
‘My dear! You’ve never thought of the expense it will be!…’
The Brontë story is usually shrouded in darkness and misery. We are Three Sisters tries to disperse the gloom and to highlight resilience instead. Despite the tragic events of their childhood (the deaths of their mother and of two of their sisters), Charlotte, Emily and Anne were not pathetic victims of fate, but strong-minded, independent and resourceful women. Nor was Haworth a godforsaken spot in the back of beyond: as Juliet Barker shows in her marvellous biography of the Brontës, both the industry and the intellectual life of the region were thriving. Patrick Brontë has often been stereotyped as grim and reclusive. But he used his position to campaign ﬁercely for better education and sanitation for the people of Haworth. Another stereotype about the Brontës is their lack of humour. But there’s a playful air to some of Charlotte’s letters. I wouldn’t call We are Three Sisters a comedy, exactly, but with Chekhov’s encouragement I’ve tried to let in a little lightness.
This is an edited extract from the author’s Foreword to the published script. Blake Morrison’s new play – We are Three Sisters – is on tour throughout the UK with Northern Broadsides until 26th November 2011, click here for full tour details and to purchase tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript alongside the world premiere tour – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Click here to watch the production trailer.