Anton Chekhov originally intended that his play The Cherry Orchard, which he started in December 1902 was a four-act farce. It took almost a decade for Chekhov to send his play to Stanislavski of the Moscow Art Theatre. His illness was so severe that he couldn’t even write it. Stanislavski was, according to Chekhov, too ambitious. He had dashed off a telegram to Chekhov saying, “Just read play…shaken…cannot come to senses in unprecedented ecstasy…sincerely congratulate author genius.” This disgusted Chekhov – why should a farce evoke such a visceral reaction? It was soon clear what the answer was. Stanislavski had set out to make the play a tragic, realistic, and sad ode for the dying upper class. This was not what Chekhov intended.
The Cherry Orchard’s rehearsals were a turning point in their differences. Chekhov was unhappy about the play’s tragic overtones as it gained more publicity. He wrote to Olga asking why they kept calling his play a drama in a letter. Stanislavski as well as Nemirovich clearly did not see what I wrote in my play. He was shocked to find his play in such a state of despair and melancholy when Chekhov arrived. Stanislavski attempted fixing it. Stanislavski was more comfortable allowing Chekhov to speak for his side, in order not to disrupt rehearsals. Both were skeptical that the play could be successful. Chekhov wrote to an acquaintance, “I don’t expect any particular success…the situation is going poorly.” (Priestley 56) Chekhov later stated that although his irritation could be attributed partly to the impatience of a dying person, he still had grounds to his argument. Chekhov had a dispute with Stanislavski’s and Nemirovich Danchenko over the play’s interpretation. Nemirovich asked him why he said that there were so many weepy characters in his play. They are where? Varya is the one and only, because she is a crybaby. Her tears are not intended to make spectators feel depressed. In my stage directions, I use the phrase “through her tears”, but this is not a description of actual tears. (Karlinsky 456) Donald Rayfield mentions that Ranevsky’s, Varya’s, Gaev’s, and Pishtchik all weep, but they are crying “for the wrong reason, at the wrong moment.” The music in the play doesn’t harmonize with their tears. Act 3’s ball is a series quadrilles and comic irrelevances. (Evolution 220).
In light of Russian history from the 19th and 20th century, it is easy to see Madame Ranevsky, her family, as victims of the revolution of the industrial classes. In January 1904, Russia’s Socialist movement was already growing in strength. Lenin’s revolutionary pamphlet What Is To Be Done? had been published a whole year earlier. Lenin had also asked the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party for help in establishing a revolutionary democracy dictatorship for the working class. This context allows one to interpret the play either as a call to arms or as a touching tribute to a class that is headed for brutal extinction. However, Chekhov stated that the entire work should be viewed as a whole. Lopahin does not appear to be an evil landlord, but is instead a family member who is determined to evict them from their homes. Trofimov, while a revolutionary, can also be a disillusioned student, blinded from hopeless admiration. Ranevsky on the other hand is an elitist self-indulgent who participates fully, even passively, in her own demise.
Even the wreck that dominates this play is but one more step in the grand scheme historical. Chekhov’s play is set against the 1861 Tsar Alexander II serf emancipation, which was also seen as a potential disaster that would sweep away the nation. (Hirsch). Despite this, the play is about life. A barely understood, yet profoundly experienced pattern of happenings and hopes. Chekhov may have used the term “dark humor” or “problem plays” to describe The Cherry Orchard. (As Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is more recently noted.) (Moorty, par. 1)
The Cherry Orchard did not have comedies in the traditional sense. Chekhov was a comedian with his own style. The word comedy was originally used in Greek theatre to describe a daily life of ordinary people. Comedy was different from tragedy, which focused on tragic characters who have lost their entire lives to fate. Aristotle stated that comedy was “an imitation characters of a higher type who aren’t bad but whose faults contain something absurd in them.” (Magarshack Dramatist, 272). The Cherry Orchard certainly fits into this mode of thinking. However, they lost the orchard due to their own mistakes, not fate.
The Cherry Orchard crosses the line between comedy or pathos at times. The key factor is our ability to sympathize and relate to the characters’ problems. Madame Ranevsky’s character growth is an example of how pathos can be seen. Because she is sympathetic, this makes her a tragic hero. Our emotional involvement in the story is still different from that of tragedy. Partly, this is due to the impact that the characters’ actions have on society. Take Romeo & Juliet. The deaths and repercussions of their star-crossed romance shake Verona. It forces the Montagues, Capulets and others to reexamine their grudges. The society changes the course of their lives. The comedy’s protagonists do not have such power because they are dealing with everyday life. The Cherry Orchard was criticized by publications like The Daily Express for being a “silly and tiresome comedy…There’s no plot.” The cherry orchard’s for sale, and certain dull persons are upset that it must go.” Rayfield Cherry Orchard 23, 23
Chekhov is known for his humor, which can not be translated into English. This could be why foreign audiences find it difficult to see The Cherry Orchard in comedy form. Epihodov’s Act 1 line where he presents Dunyasha with a bouquet full of flowers has not been translated. The Russian word for “Allow” is “Allow me communication with you,” but it is actually prisovokupit. This word is a play with words with sovokupit and means “to co-create.” (Rayfield Cherry Orchard. 52-3)
Soviet audiences of 1930s Soviet Union found The Cherry Orchard’s trivial problems difficult to understand. Viacheslav Pitsukh’s satirist has one character who says, “Ditherers bastards they had a poor life.” I’ll bet they wore excellent overcoats, knocked back the Worontsoff vodka with caviar, mixed with lovely women…philosophiz[ing] from morning to night for want of anything to do – and then they say they have a bad life, you see? The Soviets have a point. Ranevsky remains healthy, even though it is not a happy ending. Ranevsky is most likely happier than ever, having the chance to make a fresh start with a Parisian love.
It’s possible to argue that Lopahin who is a descendant from a serf has it better. He says, at the end, “I bought the estate my grandfather and father had been slaves in, where they were not even permitted to enter the kitchen ….All should be as I want.” He is optimistic, and now he has confidence. Anya reminds Anya that “a new chapter is about to begin”; Gaev replies, “Everything is in order now. Even though we were all worried about the sale of the cherry trees, we soon felt calmer and more cheerful afterward.” This is also true for the many anxious people who came to the play to forget their sobering realities.
This is Chekhovian comedy at its best. Again, this ability to move forward can be seen in the Greeks. Chekhov thought comedy was about the possibility of finding a way to move forward, which tragedy (and particularly the Greek tragedies) could not. (Gilman 200) Stanislavski, however, disagreed. Stanislavski told Chekhov that The Cherry Orchard, in fact, was a tragedy. Chekhov didn’t arrive in Moscow until after rehearsals had begun; by then, he was too ill to fight. (Magarshack. Living a life can be a challenge, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. There is a great deal to learn from each experience, and it is important to be open to new opportunities and new perspectives. Despite the hardships, it is ultimately worth it to persevere and make the most of life.
The Cherry Orchard characters are comic-book characters. Stanislavski couldn’t grasp the meaning of “comic personality”. Stanislavski understood that comic characters are supposed to bring laughter to the audience. Falstaff’s fall in Henry IV, for example, is undoubtedly a comical character. The Cherry Orchard also shows the same thing – while we sympathize with Ranevsky (and others, to a lesser degree), we must not forget that they are comic characters. Except for Anya, all of the characters are comic characters.
These comic elements can be found in many characters. Gaev is Ravensky’s older brother. He sees life as as serious as the billiards matches he plays. (Even funnier is the fact Gaevs billiards-related games don’t make sense. Chekhov confessed that he did not know much about the game. Gaev’s tribute to the cupboard, Act 1, is one of most famous scenes in the play. It is so ridiculous that it makes you laugh. Gaev’s candies add to his comedy. Act 2 shows him remarking that he has consumed all his sugar-candies. This is an expression of his childish outlook on life. We wouldn’t see this in a tragedy. Ranevsky is clearly still a child. After the deaths of her husband, son and partner, she fled Russia to be with her lover. She left Charlotta (and Anya) behind. She goes back to her lover, who was unfaithful and had spent all her money. Her wistfulness, which she sees from her nursery window, is what controls her. She reminisces, nostalgically, that she used to sleep in this place when I was little …(cries. Chekhov clearly sees this as Chekhov’s point. The world has changed. Gaev and Ranevsky are not different. They are children in an adult world. Most of the time, they aren’t even aware that reality exists. And even when they do become more aware, they don’t have the ability to grasp the reality of their lives. You can debate whether lack of maturity or not. As I stated earlier, it isn’t. As an example, we can see that immaturity has less sympathy than other tragic flaws. These immature characteristics are not conveyed well by the English translation. Ranevsky’s opening line is “Detskaya!” (Golub, 18)
Charlotta’s comic side should also be shown to the audience. She says very little, but it isn’t often relevant to the actual subject. This is what we see at the play’s beginning when the travelers arrive. Charlotta looks at Pishtchik as Ranevsky reminisces about her childhood. Charlotta is also easy to sympathize with – she mentions that her parents have died and feels isolated in the world. Chekhov doesn’t really develop Charlotta’s character deep enough for her audience to be too attached. One scene features her performing a card trick. Later, she displays her ventriloquist abilities. Charlotta, as Chekhov claimed, is a comical character. He wrote Nemirovich that he was clear about this. This is Ms. Knipper’s job.” (Karlinsky 462)
Comedy can even be found in the smallest characters. Semyenov-Pishtchik can be described as a wide-ranging comic figure. Magarshack points out that his first name is “impressively wealthy and the second farcical” (Dramatist 284). He is a comic figure who is prone to forgetting jokes and laughing in the wrong places. Another comical character is Epihodov, which means “two and twenty misfortunes” in Russian. He is the classic Klutz. He wears squeaky boots and drops flowers on floor. He thinks he is being affectionate for these calamities. He is an egotistical and pedantic man. His physical awkwardness can be attributed to Gaev, his master, for not being disciplined. He is a microcosmof the whole family, with all its absurdities converged in him.
Firs, the elderly servant representing the old way to live, is the only discordant figure in The Cherry Orchard. After Firs’ death, the house residents have already changed their ways and are now living a more aristocratic life. Firs lying on the floor at his final moment is often thought to signify his death. David Magarshack quickly points out that Firs lying on the floor does not signify his death. Some productions portray him as a hopeful character, such as the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production. (Moorty, par. 3)
The Cherry Orchard doesn’t have comedy just because there are so many characters and scenes. John Reid observes that Chekhov’s attitude to the subject is what creates the comedy. He emphasizes survival and acceptance of change. Reid goes on to say that Chekhov’s comic detachment allows the audience recognize, for example the Ranevskayas infantilism or Trofimovs immature ideology – but the diagnosis does not allow the audience simplify the subtle juxtapositions of conflicting emotions and attitudes. 4) The point here is that Chekhov’s work is much more than the first glance or viewing would indicate. One production I found was highly praised for its comedy characters. This production was performed in 1964 by the Moscow Art Theatre’s touring company. They played a variety of Pogodin’s Kremlinchimes and Gogol’s Dead Souls. New York, London, Tulane University, and other venues were among the tour venues. Harold Hobson, London’s Sunday Times, wrote that “if there is inspiration in London Theatre,” and pointed out that “Cherry Orchard” was performed at Tulane University. The details of this play are brought out – the subtleties of emotion, bits of humor and clues to personality In this lively, thorough, and subtile one, all are highlighted. (Edwards 282-85)
The tragic translation is, however, a commonplace. This is one of the most concerning aspects about Stanislavski’s faulty interpretations Chekhov’s works (and especially The Cherry Orchard). George Bernard Shaw, a writer who referred to Heartbreak House, stated that Chekhov was more of a fatalist then Tolstoy and had no faith in charming people being able to free themselves. They would, they thought, be sold to the bailiffs and sent off by them; therefore, he didn’t hesitate in exploiting and flattering the charm of their characters.” (Magarshack. Dramatist. 387) This view, while not entirely true, most likely influenced England’s approach to the play more that any other critical study. Dorothy Sayers, author, defended Chekhov. She said that “the tragedy if futility does not succeed in creating tragedy.” The Cherry Orchard is almost universally recognized as a tragedy in its darkest moments. Its revival as comedy would be futile. We can’t make it a Chekhov play, but we won’t be able to do that.
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Golub, Spencer. The Recurrence of Fate – Theater & Memory: Twentieth-Century Russia. The University of Iowa Press, located in Iowa City, published the original version in 1994.
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