The Cherry Orchard
ANTON CHEKHOV 1904
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Anton Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard during the last year of his life. Though Chekhov intended the play to be a comedy, when it was first produced by the Moscow Art Theater on January 17, 1904, producer Konstantin Stanislavsky insisted it should be played as a tragedy. Chekhov fought against this portrayal, but to this day, most productions emphasize the tragic elements of the piece.
The Cherry Orchard is a play about the passing of an era. Some critics have said that it is a play about nothing more than a wealthy family that loses its beloved cherry orchard and estate to a man of the rising middle class. The action is quiet in this tragicomedy. Chekhov’s family had lost its home to repossession in 1876, and this may have been an inspiration for the story. He also had inspiration for some of the characters while staying at the estate owned by Stanislavsky’s mother in 1902.
The Cherry Orchard portrays the social climate of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, when the aristocrats and land-owning gentry were losing their wealth and revealed themselves to be incapable of coping with their change in status. Many Socialist Soviet critics in Russia after the Revolution of 1917 tried to interpret this as an indictment of Russian society at the turn of the century; however, it is unlikely that Chekhov meant this play as an attack on the society of which he was so much a part. Though intended as a comedy, the tragedy of the situation in which Mrs. Ranevsky and her family Page 21 | Top of Articlefind themselves is derived primarily from their inability to adapt to their new social and personal responsibilities. No longer able to live on the labor provided by the serfs (slaves) who worked the land, many wealthy landowners, like Mrs. Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard, lost their fortunes and their estates.
Anton Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia, on January 16, 1860. His grandfather had been a serf who had been able to earn enough to buy his freedom and purchase a small home. In 1876, however, Chekhov’s father, a grocer, was forced to move the family to Moscow because of their many debts and the repossession of their home. Chekhov remained behind to finish his studies. His years in school at Taganrog were plagued by poverty, and he often agreed to complete other students’ school work for payment in order to support himself.
In 1880 Chekhov moved to Moscow and entered medical school at the University of Moscow. He graduated with an M.D. in 1884. Chekhov had written hundreds of short stories by the time of his graduation, but he did not consider writing as a career until he moved to St. Petersburg in 1885 and became friends with A. S. Suvorin, editor of the journal Novoe Vremja. By 1888 Chekhov was practicing medicine only during epidemics, focusing instead on his writing.
Though his one-act plays The Boor and The Marriage Proposal were successful, his first full-length plays Ivanov and The Wood Demon were great disappointments. He did not write another full-length play until The Seagull in 1896. Though The Seagull failed in its first production due to its intense psychological realism (very unlike the fashion of the time), the Moscow Art Theater’s production in 1898, which was staged under the supervision of noted producer and actor Konstantin Stanislavsky, was a great success.
This success was followed by Uncle Vanya in 1899, The Three Sisters in 1901, and ultimately The Cherry Orchard in 1904. Chekhov and Stanislavsky argued whether The Cherry Orchard was a comedy, as Chekhov maintained, or a tragedy, as Stanislavsky claimed. The play was finally produced as interpreted by Stanislavsky, and Chekhov was at first absent from the premiere on January 17, 1904, even
though his wife Olga Knipper (whom he married in 1901) was an actress in the Moscow Art Theater and a part of the production. He was finally persuaded to attend the premiere just after the second act.
Suffering from tuberculosis during the last years of his life, Chekhov spent much time abroad in European health resorts and was often separated from his wife and family. A few months after attending the premiere of his final play, he died in a Black Forest spa in July, 1904.
The Cherry Orchard opens in the nursery of Lyuba Andreyevna Ranevsky’s estate. Although it is only about 2:00 A.M., it is close to daybreak, for it is May, when northern Russian days are long and the sun rises very early. Lopakhin, a businessman, and Dunyasha, a maid, anticipate the arrival of Mrs. Ranevsky, who is returning home from a self-imposed, five-year exile with her daughter, Anya, and her governess, Charlotte Ivanovna. Lopakhin speaks of his peasant background and his admiration for Mrs. Ranevsky; then the pair are briefly Page 22 | Top of Articlejoined by the bumbling clerk, Yepikhodov, nicknamed “Twenty-two Calamities.”
After arriving, the travelers enter, preceded by Firs, a manservant. They are soon joined by Varya, Lyuba’s adopted daughter, Leonid Gayev, Lyuba’s brother, Simeonov-Pishchik, a neighboring landowner, and Lopakhin and Dunyasha.
The reunion is very tearful. Mrs. Ranevsky sweeps about the room, overcome with joy. The family members all display great emotion, weeping uncontrollably, not just over each other, but over the cherry orchard and house, even the nursery and its furniture.
Lyuba is a generous but impractical sentimentalist. She tears up two telegrams from France without reading them, because, as she says, “I’ve finished with Paris.” Yet she daydreams of her happy youth, and imagines, at one point, that she sees her mother wandering through the cherry orchard. Gayev, as sentimental as his sister, has a screw or two loose; he carries on a perpetual game of mental billiards and weeps fondly over the nursery’s bookcase. Pishchik, also eccentric, seems less senile than mad. When Mrs. Ranevsky starts to take some medicine, he grabs her pills and swallows the lot on impulse. Firs, the old family retainer, is simply feeble. He constantly trails off his mental path into inarticulate muttering.
As the dialogue’s comic shuffle continues, unpleasant truths intrude. Mrs. Ranevsky is broke, and in her absence, Varya has not made interest payments on the mortgage. The estate is to go on the auction block in August. Lopakhin proposes a practical solution. He advises Lyuba to divide the estate into lots and lease them out for vacation cottages, even though that will mean sacrificing the house and orchard. Gayev, who considers Lopakhin an upstart peasant, is incensed and dismissive, calling the businessman’s proposal “utter nonsense.” He, Lyuba, and Firs simply extol the virtues of the orchard, as impractical as it has become.
Pishchik, too, is facing the loss of his estate through his failure to pay mortgage interest. He tries to get a loan from Mrs. Ranevsky. Rebuffed, he consoles himself with the idea that “something’s bound to turn up.” The arrival of the “eternal student” Peter Trofimov, who has been expelled from a university for his radical politics, prompts a new round of weeping. The forgetful Pishchik repeats his request. Mrs. Ranevsky tells Gayev to lend him the money, but Gayev refuses.
After Mrs. Ranevsky goes off, Gayev, Varya, and Anya discuss possible solutions to her financial woes. Gayev doubts that their great-aunt, the Countess, will help because Lyuba had offended her relative by marrying beneath herself, but he buoys his nieces’ hopes by promising to borrow money on his own while encouraging Lyuba to ask Lopakhin for help. Then, completely exhausted, all the characters save Peter Trofimov leave the room and go to bed.
The scene shifts to outside a chapel near the orchard. Sunset approaches. Charlotte, Yasha (who is Firs’s ambitious grandson), and Dunyasha sit on a bench. Nearby, Yepikhodov plays a guitar. After Charlotte ponders her heritage, Yepikhodov stops playing to remark on fate and his uncertainty about shooting himself. When Charlotte and the clerk leave, Dunyasha confesses her love for Yasha, but she is overcome by the smoke of his cigar and also leaves the scene.
Mrs. Ranevsky, Gayev, and Lopakhin enter. Lyuba, distraught by her admitted extravagant lifestyle, drops her purse, scattering gold coins on the ground. Yasha picks them up while she voices regrets about wasting money on lunch. Lopakhin again presses her to agree to his plan, but she finds his proposal “vulgar,” making him momentarily furious. She speaks of the death of her son and her affair with the scoundrel who left her destitute, then tries to convince Lopakhin to marry Varya.
Firs enters with Gayev’s overcoat. He is followed by Trofimov, Anya, and Varya. Talking with Lopakhin, Peter voices his disgust for the Russian intelligentsia, while Lopakhin, the selfmade man, speaks of his great success at making money.
As the sun sets and the air grows still, they hear the melancholic sound of a breaking string. For a moment, they try to identify its source, but they are interrupted by a drifter asking for a handout. Lyuba, foolishly generous, gives him one of her gold coins.
After the rest leave for dinner, Anya and Peter talk. He identifies the orchard with the old, decadent Russia, and tells Anya that she must abandon it to Page 23 | Top of Articlefind true happiness. Then, as they are called by Varya, the pair exit towards the river to be alone.
It is night, the day of the auction, during a party at Mrs. Ranevsky’s estate. Couples enter the drawing room from the ballroom, where a band plays and guests dance. They await the return of Gayev, who, with money borrowed from the Countess, had gone to town to try to save the estate.
A forced gaiety keeps the mood superficially buoyant. Pishchik’s complaints about his debts are blunted by Charlotte’s clever ventriloquism and magic tricks, but Mrs. Ranevsky’s apprehension surfaces in her confession that she intends to return to the wretch of a man who had fleeced and deserted her. Later, Mrs. Ranevsky and Peter get into an argument over the heart versus the head. Trofimov claims that he is beyond love for Anya. Lyuba ridicules him for being a pseudo-intellectual. Angry, Peter storms from the room, promptly falling down a flight of stairs.
A spreading rumor of the estate’s sale momentarily upsets Mrs. Ranevsky, but she is soon dancing with Pishchik, who once more presses her for a loan. Thereafter, Yepikhodov, scorned by Dunyasha, gets into an argument with Varya, who attempts to beat him with a billiard cue but accidentally hits the arriving Lopakhin instead. However, the blow does nothing to dampen his spirits, for it is he who has bought the estate. Lopakhin gives a long, self-congratulatory and triumphant speech, leaving Mrs. Ranevsky in tears with only Anya to console her.
It is now October, and the setting is again the nursery. The room is bare except for some odd furniture. In the distance, an axe is heard; a woodsman has begun felling the cherry trees in the orchard.
The family members, getting ready to depart, have deposited their luggage near the front door. Lopakhin encourages everybody to share some champagne, but his enthusiasm only earns him bitter remarks from Trofimov. Anya enters, questioning whether the ailing Firs has been taken to the hospital. No one seems quite sure. Dunyasha then professes her love for the disdainful Yasha, who plans to return to Paris with Mrs. Ranevsky. Dunyasha will ultimately marry Yepikhodov instead.
Mrs. Ranevsky enters with Gayev, Anya, and Charlotte. She gives a tearful goodbye to the house, sadly reconciled to her fate. Gayev is more optimistic. He has secured ajob in a bank. Pishchik, too, has had some luck; he has managed to escape ruin through leasing some clay-rich property. Concerned about Varya, Mrs. Ranevsky pushes Lopakhin to propose to her step-daughter. The businessman seems willing enough, but when left alone with Varya, neither is able to broach the subject.
Near the end, after the others depart for the train station, Lyuba and Gayev embrace in a tearful farewell. They, too, leave, and for a moment the stage is bare; then Firs enters, forgotten and left behind. Dejected over his fate, he plops down on a sofa and lies motionless. The doleful sound of the breaking string is heard again, then, at the final curtain, only silence save the echoing axe.
See Anya Ranevsky
See Charlotte Ivanovna
Dunyasha is the maid in the Ranevsky household who dreams of being an aristocratic lady. She parodies the ladies of the household, and compares herself to them. She must give up her dreams of marrying Yasha (Mrs. Ranevsky’s manservant) when he returns to Paris with Mrs. Ranevsky. She agrees to marry Yepikhodov instead.
Firs is the Ranevsky family’s faithful servant who, because of his loyalty to the family, chose to stay after the serfs were freed. Sickly and somewhat senile, he marks the play’s most poignant moment when he is locked inside the estate and forgotten. He laments: “Life has slipped away as if I haven’t lived.”
See Leonid (lay-oh-NEED) Gayev
Leonid (lay-oh-NEED) Gayev (GUY-ev)
Gayev is Mrs. Ranevsky’s brother. He is an irresponsible, unkempt man who prefers to play or pretend to play billiards than to find a solution to his family’s problems. He is addicted to fruit candies, and talks a great deal—faults pointed out by his family several times in the play. Dreaming up several schemes to save the orchard, Guyev acts on none of them; instead he calls out billiard shots and believes someone will come forward to rescue the family. Like his sister, he imagines the cherry orchard as it was in his childhood, unable to accept that it will soon be sold.
The Hiker is a sickly homeless man who begs Mrs. Ranevsky for money. That she is in financial ruin herself and gives the hiker a gold piece emphasizes Page 25 | Top of ArticleMrs. Ranevsky’s generosity and her disregard for her own predicament.
Charlotte Ivanovna (ee-VAN-ov-na)
The governess to both Anya and Varya, Charlotte is a very thin woman whose magic tricks and uncertain parentage add comic elements to the play.
See Yermolay (yer-mo-LYE) Lopakhin
Peter Trofimov (trow-FEE-mov)
Trofimov is a shabbily dressed “eternal student.” He was a tutor for Mrs. Ranevsky’s son, and the sight of him when she first returns to the cherry orchard brings back terrible memories of her son’s death. She remarks that Trofimov has aged badly, which is a veiled reference to his time spent as an inmate in a labor camp for those found guilty of participating in subversive political activities. Trofimov’s actions sometimes do not match his words. Remarking that he and Anya are “above love,” he is criticized by Mrs. Ranevsky for his outspoken behavior. She ridicules his declaration, and as he storms out he falls down a flight of stairs. Chekhov tries to keep Trofimov from being too serious by injecting humor into both the dialogue and his actions. Though he can be outspoken and critical, he is tender and supportive of Anya. He is constantly emphasizing the value of work as the salvation of Russia, and convinces Anya that the whole of Russia is her orchard. Soviet critics after the Russian Revolution of 1917 latched onto the character of Trofimov as a literary hero who exemplifies the ideals of Socialism, often citing his speech describing the trees in the orchard as souls.
See Boris Simeonov-Pishchik
Post Office Clerk
The post office clerk appears as a guest at the ball.
Mrs. Ranevsky’s daughter, Anya, dresses all in white to signify her purity and innocence. Although she loves her home and the orchard that surrounds it, she realizes that all of Russia is her orchard. She looks to the future as an adventure. At seventeen, she is eager to go on with her life and to share it with Peter Trofimov, the eternal student. Anya is the opposite of her sister Varya, and is a youthful, sweet, energetic, young woman looking forward to the future. She attempts to get her aunt, the Countess, to help her family pay off the debt on the orchard, but is ready to face the future without wealth.
Lyuba Andreyevna Ranevsky
See Mrs. Ranevsky
Mrs. Ranevsky (ra-NEV-sky)
Mrs. Ranevsky is an aristocratic woman incapable of adapting to the changing social climate in Russia. When faced with the loss of her beloved orchard and estate, she is incapable of acting to save it. She is a kind and generous woman who is irresponsible when it comes to money and adult life. Though she knows that the orchard is up for auction in August, she continues to go out to lunch, throws a lavish party, and gives a gold piece to a homeless man. Her neighbor, Boris Simeonov-Pishchik, continues to borrow money from her, despite her desperate financial situation.
Having fled to Paris from Russia five years before to try to forget the deaths of her little boy and her husband, Mrs. Ranevsky has only succeeded in trading her problems at home for a new set of difficulties. She takes a villain for her lover, and is swindled out of most of her money and then is left by him for another woman. Once back in Russia, she receives telegrams from him begging her to return because he is ill. When the orchard and estate are lost to Lopakhin, she returns to her lover in Paris because she feels the need to take care of him.
Rather than living in the present, Mrs. Ranevsky pictures the orchard as it was in her childhood, with her mother walking through its aisles. She is crushed by the sale, but then freed from the worries associated with running such a large estate. Mrs. Ranevsky puts a face on the many wealthy landowners who lost their wealth and power in turn of the century Russia.
Varya Ranevsky is the adopted daughter of Mrs. Ranevsky. At twenty-four years of age, this daughter of a serf is allied with neither the aristocracy or the servants, but is in a world somewhere in between the two. She wears only black and is very Page 26 | Top of Articlededicated to her work and to religion. She runs the cherry orchard to the best of her ability while her mother is gone, but is seen as a miser by the servants.
Varya is in love with Yermolay Lopakhin, a wealthy merchant who is more concerned with business than with her. She is heartbroken by his passivity, and by her family’s inability to save their home. She openly criticizes her mother’s generosity and irresponsibility when it comes to money, yet she has no solution to the problem.
Dreaming of entering a convent, by the end of the play Varya has taken a job as a housekeeper at a nearby estate. She is a severe woman who feels ill—at-ease without a task to attend to. She is unable to fight for what she wants—Lopakhin—and instead passively accepts her fate.
Boris Simeonov-Pishchik (seem-YOH-nov-PEE-shik)
Simeonov-Pishchik is a landowner who is constantly in debt and asking to borrow money. He expects fate to solve his financial problems, and eventually allows the English to mine his estate in order to pay off his debts. Though he pays Mrs. Ranevsky the money he owes her in the end, it is too late to save the orchard. He does not consider her financial situation when he borrows the money from her, and she is too generous to deny his request.
The Stationmaster is a fun-loving guest at the ball who dances with the ladies.
See Peter Trofimov
See Simon Yepikhodov
See Varya Ranevsky
Yasha is Firs’s grandson, but is eager to become more than a manservant. Referred to as a scoundrel by Varya, he plays with Dunyasha’s emotions, and schemes to go back to Paris with Mrs. Ranevsky. He also ignores his mother every time she comes to see him, and leaves her waiting outside. He is a self-centered man who cares nothing for anyone but himself.
See Simon Yepikhodov
Simon Yepikhodov (yep-i-KHO-dov)
Yepikhodov is a financial clerk whose ineffectual management leads to the auction of the estate. Nicknamed Twenty-two Calamities, he is constantly plagued by problems (including squeaking boots) and crises. He is in love with the maid Dunyasha, who is in love with Mrs. Ranevsky’s manservant Yasha. This love triangle provides some of the comic moments in The Cherry Orchard.
Yermolay (yer-mo-LYE) Lopakhin (lo-PA-chin)
Lopakhin is a wealthy businessman whose grandfather was once a serf on the Ranevsky estate. Though sometimes seen as a calculating opportunist, he loves the Ranevsky family and tries to persuade Mrs. Ranevsky (who helped him as a child) to cut down the orchard to clear land for building country vacation cottages for the rising middle class. He grows increasingly impatient with her as she refuses to see the solution he suggests and does nothing to save the estate. Lopakhin eventually buys the estate at the auction, and in a vulgar display during the ball, he rejoices in owning the estate his family was once forced to serve. Much is made of the fact that Varya loves Lopakhin and that the two should marry, but he is too consumed with making money to propose to her. Lopakhin represents the triumph of vulgarity and ignorance of the middle class over the traditions of nobility and elegance of Czarist Russia.
The Cherry Orchard is about an aristocratic family that is unable to prevent its beloved estate from being auctioned off. More symbolically, it is about the growth of the middle class in Russia and the fall of the aristocracy. The once-wealthy family’s estate and beloved orchard is purchased by a man who once served as a serf on the estate. Though Chekhov
intended the play as a comedy, most productions emphasize the tragedy of the events. Mrs. Ranevsky and her family are unable to find a way to succeed within the new social order of Russia, while Lopakhin profits from the business opportunity and gains personal satisfaction in displacing those who once ruled over him.
Apathy and Passivity
For Mrs. Ranevsky, her daughters, and her brother Leonid Gayev, apathy and passivity have become a way of life, as Mrs. Ranevsky’s line “if only this heavy load could be lifted from my heart; if only I could forget my past!” reveals. Mrs. Ranevsky has given up trying to change her circumstances and is resigned to taking her life as it comes. She goes out to expensive lunches, buys a gift for Anya, lends her neighbor Pishchik money, and gives a gold piece to the homeless hiker in Act Two. Mrs. Ranevsky refuses to accept that she can change her circumstances by changing her behavior. She becomes passive and allows the auction to take place. Gayev, Anya, and Varya also become passive in the situation, and continue to believe that everything will work out. This apathy-combined with a fear of living below the standards to which they’ve become accustomed—is what keeps the family from saving its orchard.
The family ignores Lopakhin’s suggestion of breaking up the orchard into smaller plots for country cottages. Mrs. Ranevsky considers the suggestion vulgar, declaring that the orchard is famous for being the largest and most beautiful in Russia. She and her brother do almost nothing to avert the auction and remaining passive and hoping for a solution or a savior, such as their relative the Countess, seals their fate.
A good example of this passivity is this statement from Gayev: “I’ve been thinking, racking my brains; I’ve got all sorts of remedies, lots of them, which, of course, means I haven’t got one.” This lack of ability to adapt to the changing social conditions in Russia at the turn of the century was very common, as many wealthy landowners lost their estates to debt. Gayev would rather mime billiard shots than find a real solution to the financial situation in which his family finds itself.
Varya also remains passive, though she tries to save money where she can by feeding the servants only dried peas. It upsets her to stand by as her mother and uncle do nothing, but she is powerless to act without their support. Varya wishes to enter a convent but does not; she is even incapable of acting on her own behalf in this instance. Similarly, Varya’s passivity when it comes to her love for Yermolay Lopakhin (and his passivity toward it as well) leads to their inability to commit to one another in marriage. Both repeatedly say they have no objections to marriage, but neither proposes it, because Varya is held by social constraints and Lopakhin by his obsession with business. Mrs. Ranevsky tells Lopakhin to propose to Varya, but he fails to comply, even while he tells Mrs. Ranevsky: “I’m ready even now. . . . Let’s settle it at once and get it over. I don’t feel I’ll ever propose to her without you here.” When brought together, Varya and Lopakhin remain inactive, exchanging only small talk. Lopakhin is called away and the moment is lost. Their inability to act destroys any hope of marriage.
Appearances and Reality
Mrs. Ranevsky and her family appear to be a wealthy family living on their estate. They continue to live just as they have for generations, keeping servants, throwing parties, and lending money to neighbors—even though they are nearly destitute. Their need to keep up appearances threatens their very existence. Gayev speaks of getting a job in a bank only when it becomes obvious that his financial situation is dire—this would have been unheard of in earlier times. He speaks badly of his sister, because she has been an “immoral woman” while living in Paris and asserts that her impropriety is what led their aunt, the Countess, to refuse to help them. This emphasis on appearance is important to the aristocracy, but in the changing social climate in which the play takes place, these things become less and less important. Gayev maintains the appearance to his family that he has the auction of the orchard under control, but in reality he has almost no control over the situation.
Choices and Consequences
For all characters in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, choices have their consequences. Free will is a powerful thing, and the Ranevsky family chooses to remain passive and allow the auction to happen with little interference. It is only Lopakhin, who chooses to buy the orchard when his advice goes unheeded, who eventually benefits from the sale. Similarly, Pishchik takes the opportunity to allow mining on his estate and benefits from this choice by making enough money to pay off his debtors. Chekhov places much of the blame for the sale of the orchard on those characters who are unable to make choices and act to save themselves.
The class conflicts in this play are illustrated best through the servants. Yasha is Firs’s grandson, yet their wants and needs are far different. Yasha wishes to move up in the world, and this means taking the opportunity to return to Paris with Mrs. Ranevsky. Firs, on the other hand, wishes to return to the days before the liberation of the serfs. This difference is underscored by generational differences as well. Firs is more comfortable with the old social order, while Yasha yearns for a new one.
Dunyasha, Mrs. Ranevsky’s maid, wishes to be a lady and to marry a wealthy man. She is free to dream, unlike her predecessors, who were locked in servitude. There is a new hope among the servant class that they could make money like Lopakhin, or save enough to buy a small home. Peter Trofimov comments on the sociological changes in Russia when he says to Anya “all your ancestors owned serfs. They owned living beings. Can’t you see human beings looking at you from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every tree trunk? To own living souls—that’s what has changed you all so much. . . . That’s why your mother, you yourself, and your uncle no longer realize that you are living on borrowed capital, at other people’s expense, at the expense of those whom you don’t admit farther than your entrance hall.” This passage underscores and explains much of the class conflicts in the play. The aristocracy refuse to treat men like Lopakhin or Trofimov as social equals, despite their (the aristocracy’s) fall from power.
Lopakhin and Varya are in the middle of this class conflict. Lopakhin was born the child of serfs on the Ranevsky estate, and Varya’s father was a serf. Lopakhin is a wealthy man who is in a better financial situation than the Ranevskys, yet they will never accept him as a social equal. They consider him a vulgar man who has no appreciation for tradition or beauty (he suggested building “vulgar” cottages on the pristine orchard). Varya was adopted by Mrs. Ranevsky, so she too is caught in the Page 29 | Top of Articlemiddle of the struggle by virtue of not being entirely a part of the aristocracy nor of the servant class.
Comedy vs. Tragedy
Anton Chekhov wrote his last play, The Cherry Orchard, as a comedy about a wealthy family that loses its beloved home and orchard to a man who was born a serf on their estate. A comedy is one of the two kinds of drama (the other is tragedy), one that is meant to amuse and typically ends happily. Chekhov referred to The Cherry Orchard as a farce, which is a type of comedy characterized by broad humor, outlandish incidents, and often vulgar subject matter. When Konstantin Stanislavsky decided to produce the play at the Moscow Art Theater in 1904, however, he stated in a letter to Chekhov, as quoted in Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater: “It is not a comedy, not a farce, as you wrote—it is a tragedy no matter if you do indicate a way out into a better world in the last act. . . when I read it for the second time. . . I wept like a woman, I tried to control myself, but I could not. I can hear you say: ‘But please, this is a farce. . .’ No, for the ordinary person this is a tragedy.” This difference of opinion between Chekhov and Stanislavsky would lead to a great rift between the two friends. Like that first production, most contemporary productions of The Cherry Orchard still emphasize the play’s tragic elements, rather than choosing to present Chekhov’s vision of the play as a farce.
A tragedy, strictly defined, is a drama in prose or poetry about a noble, courageous hero of excellent character who, because of a tragic flaw, brings disaster upon himself. Tragedy treats its subjects in a dignified and serious manner, using poetic language to help evoke pity and fear and bring about catharsis, a spiritual awakening or renewal. The Cherry Orchard does not fit into the conventional definition of tragedy, but the inability of the main characters to act to save themselves or solve their own problems serves to evoke empathy in the reader/viewer. The play provokes a feeling that the circumstances depicted are tragic, despite the humorous passages.
There are many comic situations in the play. Leonid Gayev’s constant calling out of imaginary
billiard shots, and his chatter create some wonderful comic moments: his salute to the one-hundred-year-old bookcase (“Dear highly esteemed bookcase, I salute you”), and his addiction to hard candy are a few examples. Simon Yepikhodov, also known as Twenty-two Calamities, is a character included purely for comic effect. His boots squeak, and, as he states: “Everyday, sir, I’m overtaken by some calamity. Not that I mind. I’m used to it. I just smile.” Yepikhodov’s love triangle with Dunyasha and Yasha lends comic value as well.
The elderly servant Firs’s doddering ways and muttering-and the misunderstandings that result from his frailties—are also presented with comic intent. However, language is used to make Peter Trofimov comic in a much different way; his passion often gives way to comical rants. After he is chastised by Mrs. Ranevsky for his declaration that he is “above love” with Any a, he storms out and falls down a flight of stairs. This is played for comic effect in Chekhov’s stage directions, but could easily be portrayed in a serious manner. Yasha’s exchange with Dunyasha in the orchard is another comic moment. Calling Dunyasha his “little cucumber,” Yasha flirts with her and makes her love him, while fully intending to leave her. Again, the complexity of the characters that Chekhov has created leave room for interpretation by actors and directors.
Boris Simeonov-Pishchik is both tragic and comic at the same time. He is constantly seeking a loan from Mrs. Ranevsky to pay off his debts, though her financial situation is no better than his. Most of his pleas are comic, yet the entire situation is a dreadful one. Chekhov’s idea of finding the humor in tragic circumstances is an important part of his individuality as a playwright. Pishchik’s comments about his family pedigree lead to his admission that he has fallen on hard times: “My father, may he rest in peace, liked his little joke, and speaking about our family pedigree, he used to say that the ancient Simeonov-Pishchiks came from the horse that Caligula had made a senator. But you see, the trouble is that I have no money. A hungry dog Page 30 | Top of Articlebelieves only in meat. I’m just the same. All I can think of is money.” Although one can certainly find humor in Pishchik’s statement, anyone who has ever worried about his or her finances can sympathize with his preoccupation with money. In numerous situations, Chekhov manages to walk a fine line between comedy and pathos, one that could fall to either side depending upon interpretation. This is a contradiction present in the play, and it illustrates why some consider it a farce and others regard it as a tragedy.
Point of View and Empathy
The point of view in this play is third-person, allowing the audience to see the events in the story from outside any particular character but without any insights into their inner thoughts or motivations. The audience often experiences empathy for these characters. Empathy is a shared sense of experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself. When, at the end of the play, the axes begin the job of chopping the orchard down; the reader/viewer feels Mrs. Ranevsky’s pain. Upon learning of her young son’s death, which is followed shortly by her husband’s (events that take place prior to the play’s first act), the audience understands her need to run away to Paris. Similarly, when Lopakhin fails to propose to Varya, the audience can appreciate the heartbreak she experiences.
In 1904, the year The Cherry Orchard was first produced, Russia was in a state of upheaval. The Japanese declared war on Russia on February 10, 1904, following Russia’s failure to withdraw from Manchuria and its continuing penetration of Korea. The Japanese defeated Russia at the Yalu River on May 1, 1904; by October of that year the Japanese had forced Russia to pull back its forces. This war was the beginning of tensions in Asia and the establishment of Japan as a military force.
On the home front, Russia’s minister of the interior, Vyacheslav Plehve, exercised complete control over the public. He forbid any political assemblies, required written police permission for small social gatherings, and forbid students to walk together in the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital. On Easter Sunday of 1904, 45 Jews were killed, 600 houses were destroyed in Kishenev in Bessarabia on orders from Plehve, and the police were instructed to ignore rioting in the streets. These events culminated with Plehve’s assassination on July 28, 1904. This kind of civil unrest marked the beginning of a time of great conflict and transformation in Russia that ended with the Communist Revolution in 1917.
These tensions both in and outside Russia made life difficult for Russian citizens. The middle class began to assume an elevated position in society as many nobles lost their wealth and large, lavish estates. As the Ranevsky family discovers, Russia is changing and the climate is no longer hospitable to those who do not act in their own interests. Trofimov’s character alludes to the strict control of the public when he speaks of the “things he’s seen” that have caused him to age prematurely. When the serfs were freed, the landowners were forced to pay for labor, and as conditions in Russia worsened due to war and the totalitarian regime, revolution becomes imminent.
Transportation and Industry
The Trans-Siberian Railroad’s link from Moscow to Vladivostok opened in 1904. This is the longest line of track in the world, spanning 3,200 miles between the two cities. In the United States, the first New York City subway line of importance opened on October 27, with the Interborough Rapid Transit, known as the IRT, running from the Brooklyn Bridge to 145th Street with stops in between. This system would grow to become the world’s largest rapid transit system, covering more than 842 miles. These transportation systems are important because, as society became more urbanized around the world, it changed. Large plots of land, such as the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s play, were broken up into smaller plots for building and industry. The railroads allowed people of all economic backgrounds to travel and allowed goods to be shipped long distances using much less manpower.
Science and Technology
Marie Curie discovered radium and polonium in uranium ore in 1904; these two new radioactive elements helped to fuel the nuclear age in the decades to come. Also in 1904, German physicists Julius Elster and Hans Friedrich Geitel invented the first practical photoelectric cell, which led to the invention of radio. The first wireless radio distress
signal was sent the same year. Clearly, the time in which Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard—during 1903 and 1904—was a time of much change and scientific advancement. The simple way of life on the orchard was being phased out of existence; a different mindset was required for the dawning age of science and industry. The Ranevsky family is unable to adapt to this new, quickly evolving world in which discoveries are made almost weekly and change is imminent.
Literature and Drama
1904 saw the first publication of such works as Lincoln Steffens’s expose of urban squalor The Shame of the Cities, The Late Mattia Pascal, by Italian novelist Luigi Pirandello, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, and Reginald, by English writer Saki, also known as H. H. Munro. Plays which, like The Cherry Orchard, were first produced in 1904 include: Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge, Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box, George Bernard Shaw’s Candida and How He Lied to Her Husband, and Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, by James M. Barrie. Chekhov’s style was substantially different from his contemporaries’; his self-proclaimed “farce,” The Cherry Orchard, portrays psychology and human behavior far more realistically than many of his fellow playwrights. Unlike the other plays of its time, The Cherry Orchard focuses upon an historical era and examines the whole of society rather than just characters.
Anton Chekhov intended The Cherry Orchard as a farce, yet when Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater decided to produce the play, it was presented as a tragedy, according to Stanislavsky’s view of the play. Chekhov was so frustrated by the failure of Stanislavsky and other commentators to share his vision of the play as a farce that he burned all copies of the manuscript except for one that remained in Moscow. Chekhov was suffering in the last stages of tuberculosis, yet still managed to make the trip to Moscow to attend rehearsals almost daily. Despite his conflicts with Stanislavsky about how the play should be interpreted, he kept a close watch on the production by attending the rehearsals.
In his The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Maurice Valency asserted:
It is strangely ironical that Chekhov never saw his play produced as a comedy, as he intended, nor has anyone, apparently, ever ventured to produce it in this manner. The Cherry Orchard has many comic passages, some of them so broad as to approximate farce but, generally speaking, directors have been unable to fathom the author’s comedic intention. The reason is not far to seek. The play, on the whole, is not funny. The characters have their comic side, but the situation is sad. No rationalization has ever succeeded in giving it a comic bias.
Chekhov combined elements of both kinds of drama—comedy and tragedy—in The Cherry Orchard, but he used those elements to underscore each other. Some critics have maintained that it is precisely because The Cherry Orchard cannot be viewed as a comedy or even as a tragedy in the strictest sense that it is such a successful drama; the combination of both comic and tragic components, these critics maintain, generates the realism in and the emotional impact of The Cherry Orchard. The heartbreak that is felt as the characters lose what they want most is diminished by the sense that these characters have not lost their sense of humor; in addition, presenting both negative and positive emotions makes the characters, and their situations, much more accessible to the audience. Francis Fergusson, in an essay included in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, argued: “If Chekhov drastically reduced the dramatic art, he did so in full consciousness, and in obedience both to artistic scruples and to a stricter sense of reality. He reduced the dramatic art to its ancient root, from which new growths are possible”; Chekhov was very deliberate in the crafting of the play. Though most modern productions focus on the tragic in the play, there is no escaping the humor present in it. Chekhov honed this ability to capture the “real lives” of people and “real situations”—noting that in life there is always a mixture of the tragic and comic—and recreated it for the stage. In The Cherry Orchard, his last play, he combined the farcical elements of his earlier works—like The Marriage Proposal—with the anguish and misery found in his tragedy, The Seagull, and created a new type of drama.
When the play premiered on January 17, 1904, Chekhov sought to avoid it. It was only after a messenger was dispatched to report the audience had erupted in thunderous applause after the second act that he was persuaded to attend. To his horror, the play was stopped between the third and fourth acts as those present saluted the author on his twenty-five years as a writer. Weak from tuberculosis, Chekhov suffered through the evening watching what he viewed as his farce presented as what he called “a piece of sniveling sentimentality,” as quoted in Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. Stanislavsky would eventually modify his view of the play in the thirty years after the initial production, but he would never see the play in the manner Chekhov had intended.
The Cherry Orchard is still performed and taught today because the characters remain very real to audiences; they personify aspects of comedy and tragedy that are present in the everyday lives of viewers. The complexities of the situations that occur in the play mirror the complexities in life. Real life may not be as balanced as is life in the play, but Chekhov manages to make the play feel like reality. The actions, or failures to act, have consequences, and not all stories have a happy ending. Hope still exists, but it is the hope that the characters can create for themselves a future that is better than the present, rather than the hope that fate will bring that better future to the characters.
Soviet critics after the 1917 Communist Revolution seized upon the character of Peter Trofimov as a hero. He is a young political radical, whose ideas and political beliefs have caused his expulsion from school. He looks forward to a more equal society, and the views he espouses in the play—especially his speech to Anya in which he likens the trees in the orchard to human souls—made him a favorite of Communist critics and scholars. Many Western scholars, however, do not view Troflmov as a hero, largely because although he makes speeches he rarely acts, and even though he presents himself as being concerned with the fate of all humanity he Page 33 | Top of Articlecannot understand those around him. Furthermore, these critics argue, Trofimov refuses Anya’s love and affection and opts instead to “fall in love” with his theories about humanity. Despite such criticisms, scholars do agree that Trofimov is ardent in his beliefs and fully intends to work for better things in the future, and these personal characteristics are those which Chekhov intended to celebrate in The Cherry Orchard. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union (and Communist governments), Russian critics tend to emphasize the psychological significance of Trofimov rather than his political convictions.
Most scholars do agree that Chekhov’s last play is his triumph, and that its strengths lie in its combination of both tragic and comic elements. By creating this balance between the two genres he creates a world where every little action and decision (or lack thereof) has its consequences, and the action in the play is very real. These characters seem to live on after the final curtain. Despite the fact that this psychological realism caused the failure of the first production of The Seagull, the audience was ready by 1904 to embrace the reality of the characters and to both empathize with and understand their actions. The Cherry Orchard is an excellent example of how one literary work can generate a variety of interpretations. Though the play was intended as a farce by Chekhov, it generally is produced more in accordance with Stanislavsky’s view that it is a tragedy. It is important to note that this play is still produced and studied all over the world, because although Chekhov did not want the play to be translated due to his belief that people outside of Russia would not understand the issues it raises, The Cherry Orchard has proven successful largely because its themes are universal in scope.
Fiero is an accomplished actor as well as a noted collegiate educator. In this essay he discusses Chekhov’s skill as a writer of comedy and The Cherry Orchard’s status as a misperceived comedy masterpiece.
Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, theorized in the essay collection Comedy, that laughter springs from our perception of “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” The comic figure, Bergson maintained, is rigid or inflexible in circumstances that demand a resiliency of the mind or body. Moreover, laughter increases through a character’s repeated failures to alter a rigid behavior, for it is repetition that transforms mere rigidity into the semblance of something mechanical, like a jack-in-a-box.
If Bergson’s ideas have any validity, there is no writer who possessed a greater sense of the comic than Anton Chekhov. Nor is that sense more fully revealed than in his last play, The Cherry Orchard, generally considered his greatest work.
From the outset, Chekhov designed the play as comedy. In a letter to his wife, Olga, quoted in Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, he said that it was to “be funny, very funny, at least in conception.” Furthermore, as his later correspondence indicates, he was convinced he had done what he intended. Writing to Lilina, wife to the Moscow Art Theater’s great director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, he claimed that, “in places,” The Cherry Orchard was “even a farce.”
Stanislavsky and his co-director, Nemirovich-Danchenko, as they had with other Chekhov plays, chose to interpret the play as much more serious stuff than farce. On stage, they weighed it down as a serious drama, advertising it as such, much to Chekhov’s annoyance. The playwright had never felt that either man had fully understood his plays, and he often bristled at their interpretations—yet he could hardly argue with the acclaim their theater won him.
Chekhov’s adherence to realism, his objectivity, made it difficult for his contemporaries to see his characters in the kaleidoscopic light in which he cast them. In The Cherry Orchard, as in all his comedies, he created characters who confront serious, often insoluble problems. From one perspective, they do elicit sympathy, even pity, no matter how passive or inept they may also seem. If their suffering is the main element the audience perceives, the comic impulse is suppressed, for, as Bergson noted, laughter is really only possible when there is an “absence of feeling.”
Farce, most particularly, depends on a hardening of the heart, an emotional distance that allows uninhibited laughter, often at the expense of a character’s misfortune or suffering. Some great comic writers, including William Shakespeare, have used various methods to prevent an audience from feeling too much empathy—comic asides, for example,
or mistaken identities arising from the use of disguise. Chekhov, ever true to the limits of realism, uses no such devices. As a result, as J. L. Styan suggested in Chekhov in Performance, he risked misinterpretation:“Farce, which prohibits compassion for human weakness, and tragedy, which demands it, are close kin. The truth is that The Cherry Orchard is a play that treads the tightrope between them, and results in the ultimate form of the special dramatic balance we know as Chekhovian comedy.”
The Cherry Orchard, depicting the passing world of twilight Russia (before the country’s casualty-ridden involvement in both World Wars and its Communist Revolution), certainly has a tragic backdrop. Sometimes, when it cannot be repressed, an anxious awareness of that passing wells up in the characters, but it does not change them. Only Lopakhin really adapts, because to find his place in the new world, he must help destroy the old. He is not mercenary or callous, however, just practical. Although he has only a commercial interest in Mrs. Ranevsky’s property, he is genuinely respectful towards her, partly from habitual reverence that typified the Russian peasant class from which he springs. Initially, he even tries to help her, but her inability to take action finally forces him to buy her land himself. In doing so, he severs the last invisible strings of class deference, ties that bind another character, the old manservant, Firs, until death. The play confirms Lopakhin’s resourcefulness, his adaptability. He is, primarily, a flexible character, and is not, therefore, comical, except, perhaps, in his stillborn efforts at wooing Varya.
The central symbol of the old Russia is the cherry orchard. In his way, Peter Trofimov, the perennial student, perceives it as such, but he sees nothing of worth in the ways of the past. The orchard only reminds him of human misery. He speaks of the ghosts of the serfs to Anya:
Can’t you see human beings looking at you from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every tree trunk? Don’t you hear their voices?
His solution is not to cut the orchard down, but rather to run from it, into “ineffable visions of the Page 35 | Top of Articlefuture.” He is a Utopian dreamer, as impractical and inflexible as Mrs. Ranevsky and her brother; and, therefore, unlike Lopakhin, he is more than slightly ridiculous.
The cherry orchard is not simply an emblem of a Russia that has passed. As Styan suggested, “it represents an inextricable tangle of sentiments, which together comprise a way of life and an attitude to life.” Its white cherry blossoms remind Mrs. Ranevsky and her brother, Gayev, of their youthful purity and innocence. To them, the orchard is a thing of great and enduring beauty, and they find Lopakhin’s proposal to replace it with vacation cottages “vulgar.” For Firs, the orchard is “an inviolable aesthetic symbol of the traditional order.” Anya, on the other hand, drawn by her heart to Trofimov, accepts the student’s dream of a future happiness, despite Trofimov’s inconvenient belief that they must transcend love and practice celibacy to prepare for it.
On a more mundane level, the orchard is simply a white elephant. No one harvests its fruit, and, in fact, no one even enters it, except the anonymous, unseen woodsman who starts felling its trees in the last act. And while the orchard may be glimpsed through the windows of the house, it is the house itself that is the play’s true setting, “the centre and heart of the play,” as J. B. Priestley claimed in his text Anton Chekhov.
Three of The Cherry Orchard’s four acts take place inside the house, and two of them, the first and the last, occur in the same room—the nursery. It is the setting for both the arrival and departure of Mrs. Ranevsky and her entourage. The room at first vibrates with life, brimming with the excitement of the reunited family members, who animate the room with their memories and maudlin but joyous greetings to the furniture. In contrast, at the end, it is stripped of all its furnishings, all signs of life, except some odds and ends; the flotsam of the past, now abandoned, like Firs, who seems indistinguishable from the discarded sofa on which he lies immobilized at the final curtain. Staged, the room has a more immediate impact than the orchard, for it is actually present, unlike the cherry orchard, which remains indirectly experienced through words alone. The orchard’s presence is most keenly felt in the last act, in the sound of the axe that has begun its destruction.
The most poignant and haunting presence in the play is not even identified with a locale. It comes in the sound of the breaking string, heard first in the
second act, and then at the end of the play. Maurice Valency argued in The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, that the broken string is “the golden string that connected man with his father on earth and his father in heaven, the age-old bond that tied the present to the past.” In general terms, it represents the passing of a way of life, but it relates, too, to the play’s specific actions, especially Lopakhin’s purchase of Mrs. Ranevsky’s estate. The act gives him an overwhelming sense of emancipation, expressed in his triumphant monologue at the close of Act Three:
“I’ve bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed in the kitchen. I must be dreaming. I must be imagining it all. It can’t be true.”
Most of the other characters suffer some anxious and painful moments in their ritual passage into the changing but uncertain world that the play foreshadows. Some, like Yepikhodov and Charlotte, experience an identity crisis, while others, like Gayev and Firs, seem sadly disoriented and confused. Yet, as Francis Fergusson claimed in The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays, while The Cherry Orchard is “a theater poem of the suffering of change,” it is free “from the mechanical order of the thesis or intrigue” play. The tragic implications of the change drift through the comedy like the ghost of Mrs. Ranevsky’s mother in the orchard, but they are not shaped into a single catastrophe and momentous reversal of fortune. The tragic elements are simply too diffuse and, like the breaking string, too distant to be distinct or fully understood.
They are also muted and even subverted by the foreground elements that provide a comic counterpoint to the tragic backdrop. Much of the play’s action remains routine and mundane, even trivial.
Behind a facade of politeness, there is a quiet tension between those who fear change and those who welcome it, but when tension surfaces as anger or open aggression, Chekhov releases the pressure through some sort of comic safety valve. For example, in the third act, Trofimov, stung by Mrs. Ranevsky’s attack on his perceptions of man/woman relationships and his childish whining, exits with theatrical indignation, only to fall down some offstage stairs to a chorus of laughter. So, too, in the second act, when the frustrated Lopakhin calls Mrs. Ranevsky “a silly old woman” because she will not agree to his plans for the estate, Gayev defuses the situation with his billiard game prattle and non-sequitur confession to a fruit candy addiction.
Most of the play’s characters are idiosyncratic, and some, like Gayev and Pishchik, are wonderfully eccentric. Most, said Priestley, if “coldly considered,” are also at least slightly contemptible: “Madame Ranevsky is a foolish woman only too anxious to return to a worthless young lover; Gayev is an amiable ass who talks too much; Anya is a goose and her Trofimov a solemn windbag; Lopakhin, the practical self-made man, is confused and unhappy; Epihodov a clumsy idiot; Dunyasha a foolish girl; Yasha an insufferable jumped-up lad; and Firs far gone in senility.” However, Chekhov never leaves any one of them exposed to such a naked light for very long; he is too congenial for that, too, as Priestley stated, “tender and compassionate.”
Each character also seems to have a comic foil or nemesis, Firs and Kasha, for example, or Charlotte and Yepikhodov. All also ride some sort of mental hobby horse that sporadically sends them off the track of conversation onto private, incongruous pathways, i.e., amusing non-sequiturs. Most, at the point of self-awareness, behave exactly like a jack-in-the-box, never able to suppress their foolish impulse. For example, in Act Two, Mrs. Ranevsky, berates herself for her careless waste of money, then immediately drops her purse on the ground and a moment later bestows one of her last gold coins on a panhandler. Meanwhile, Yepikhodov, ever mindful of his role as an unfortunate clod, stumbles into furniture as if to prove he was not miscast for the part.
It is possible to probe such characters to reveal some darker or more sinister personality traits. Beverly Hahn, for one, argued in Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays that the weaknesses of Mrs. Ranevsky and Gayev, their lack of will, “amounts to a complex sense of guilt and self-degradation which is both personal and yet obscurely the product of their situation of privilege.” The Moscow Art Theatre audience of 1904 came from Page 37 | Top of Articleand returned to the world depicted in Chekhov’s plays, and they experienced such inner guilt first hand—plus all the pain, sorrow, and pathos that Stanislavsky felt was in The Cherry Orchard and that scholars can still expose. But a reader or viewer of the play need not be quite so myopic. There is sufficient distance from Chekhov’s world to free laughter from inhibition, restoring the comic balance that Chekhov felt was somehow missed in his own time.
Source: John Fiero, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following excerpt from his book, Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, Pritchett outlines the historical background of and Chekhov’s sources for The Cherry Orchard, characterizing the play as “Chekhov ‘s farewell to Russia and his genius.”
Pritchett is an English literary figure, and is considered a modern master of the short story and a preeminent literary critic. He writes in the conversational tone of the familiar essay, approaching literature from the viewpoint of a lettered but not overly scholarly reader.
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Source: V. S. Pritchett, in his Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, pp. 220-24.
In the following review, which originally appeared in the New York Times on January 23, 1923, Corbin praises The Cherry Orchard, calling it “the masterpiece of the man who . . . has touched the pinnacle of modern Russian comedy.”
The Moscow players proceeded last night from the lower depths of Gorky to the high comedy of Tchekhoff, revealing new artistic resources. Stanislavsky, Olga Knipper-Tchekhova, Moskvin, Leonidoff and half a dozen others entered with consummate ease into a rich variety of new characterizations. The stage management was less signal in its effects, but no less perfect. Yet for some reason The Cherry Orchard failed to stir the audience, Page 39 | Top of Articleeven the Russian portion of it, as did The Lower Depths and even Tsar Fyodor.
This is a play of comedy values both high and light. The milieu is that of the ancient landed aristocracy, beautifully symbolized by an orchard of cherry trees in full bloom which surrounds the crumbling manor house. Quite obviously, these amiable folk have fallen away from the pristine vigor of their race.
The middle-aged brother and sister who live together are unconscious, irreclaimable spendthrifts, both of their shrinking purses and of their waning lives. With a little effort, one is made to feel, even with a modicum of mental concentration, calamity could be averted. But that is utterly beyond their vacuous and futile amiability; so their estate is sold over their heads and the leagues of gay cherry trees are felled to make way for suburban villas.
Beneath the graceful, easy-going surface of the play one feels rather than perceives a criticism on the Russia of two decades ago. Here is a woman of truly Slavic instability, passing with a single gesture from heartbreak to the gayety of a moment, from acutely maternal grief for an only child long dead to weak doting on a Parisian lover who is faithless to her and yet has power to hold her and batten on her bounty. Here is a man whose sentiment for the home of his ancestors breaks forth in fluent declaiming, quasi-poetic and quasi-philosophic, yet who cannot lift a finger to avert financial disaster.
In the entire cast only one person has normal human sense. Lopakhin is the son of a serf who has prospered in freedom. He is loyal enough to the old masters, dogging their footsteps with good advice. But in the end it is he who buys the estate and fells the cherry trees for the villas of an industrial population. It is as if Tchekhoff saw in the new middle class the hope of a disenchanted yet sounder and more progressive Russia. The war has halted that movement, but indications are not lacking that it is already resuming.
With such a theme developed by the subtly masterful art of Tchekhoff there is scope for comedy acting of the highest quality. It is more than likely that the company seized every opportunity and improved upon it. But to any one who does not understand Russian, judgment in such a matter is quite impossible. Where effects are to be achieved only by the subtlest intonation, the most delicate phrasing, it fares ill with those whose entire vocabulary is da, da.
As an example of the art of the most distinguished company that has visited our shores in modern memory, this production of The Cherry Orchard is abundantly worth seeing. The play in itself is of interest as the masterpiece of the man who, with Gorky, has touched the pinnacle of modern Russian comedy. But if some Moscovite should rise up and tell us that in any season our own stage produces casts as perfect and ensembles as finely studied in detail, it would be quite possible to believe him.
Source: John Corbin, “Russian High Comedy” (1923) in Onstage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, p. 34.
Bergson, Henri. “Laughter,” in Comedy, edited by Wylie Sypher, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1956.
Bergson’s essay is included with George Meredith’s “An Essay on Comedy” and appendix essay, “The Meanings of Comedy,” by editor Sypher. The collection is an excellent source for ideas on the nature of the comic.
Bruford, W. H. Chekhov and His Russia: A Sociological Study, Archon Books (Hamden, CT), 1971.
Relates Chekhov’s work to Russia’s social structure, with a discussion of the various groups, including the merchants, landowners, intelligentsia, and the peasants; a very useful background study for The Cherry Orchard.
Fergusson, Francis. The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays, Princeton University Press, 1972.
A highly regarded and influential introduction to theater, this study relates the structure of The Cherry Orchard to classical tragedy.
Hahn, Beverly. Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Although a general study of both fiction and drama, work discusses The Cherry Orchard at length to answer critical assaults on Chekhov as “a melancholy and merely impressionistic dramatist.”
Kirk, Irina. Anton Chekhov, Twayne (Boston), 1981.
General introduction to Chekhov. Makes passing mention of Bergson as a relevant theorist for the comic in Chekhov.
Magarshack, David. Chekhov the Dramatist, Hill and Wang (New York), 1960.
Divides Chekhov’s plays into two categories: plays of direct and plays of indirect action (plays with significant offstage action), including The Cherry Orchard. Stresses comic structure of plays.
Priestley, J. B. Anton Chekhov, A. S. Barnes & Co. (Cranbury, NJ), 1970.
A critical biography in the “International Profiles” series, arguing that Chekhov was a better dramatist than fictionist. A good introduction to Chekhov, with illustrations.
Rayfield, Donald. Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art, Harper & Row (New York), 1975.
A critical biography that analyzes the relationship between Chekhov’s fiction and his plays, showing how each sheds light on the other.
Styan, J. L. Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1971.
An act by act interpretation of Chekhov’s four major plays, particularly useful for preparing the text for performance.
Valency, Maurice. The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Oxford University Press (New York), 1966.
Study focuses on Chekhov’s plays in the context of the development of modern drama in Europe and the relationship of his plays to his fiction.
Field, Bradford S., Jr., Gilbert, Miriam, and Klaus, Carl H. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater, Scott, Foresman, 1981.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692600011