The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s best-known play, was published in 1904, the year Chekhov died. The author’s brief life had been a painful one. After an unhappy childhood he was forced, by his father’s bankruptcy, to assume the responsibility of supporting his family. This he did by writing at the same time that he pursued a medical degree. By the time he earned his doctorate in 1884, his health was impaired by tuberculosis, which was to cut his life short at the age of forty-four. One might expect the final product of such an existence to reveal bitterness and rage. Instead, like most of Chekhov’s work, The Cherry Orchard exemplifies his profound humanity.
The characters of The Cherry Orchard are not tragic in the usual sense of the word because they are incapable of any great heroic action. Chekhov shows them clearly in their frustrations, jealousies, and loves. Beyond his subtle characterizations, he catches in Madame Ranevskaya’s household a picture of the end of an era, the passing of the semifeudal existence of Russian landowners on their country estates. Chekhov’s fictional world is populated by persons who do not have the perception to understand their own lives, to communicate with those around them, or to bring their dreams to fruition. Most of the characters dream but only a few act. Madame Ranevskaya dreams that their estates will somehow be saved; her daughter, Anya, of a future without blemish; Fiers, the old valet, of the glories that used to be; Dunyasha, the maid, of becoming a fine lady; Trofimov, the student, of a magnificent new social order. Their predicament is summed up by Gaev, Madame Ranevskaya’s somewhat unstable brother: “I keep thinking and racking my brains; I have many schemes, a great many, and that really means none.” Only the merchant Lopakhin, the son of a serf, has the energy and will to make his dreams come true—but he does so with the single-mindedness of the ruthless manipulator he may well become.
The few characters who do not dream are perhaps even more pitiable than those who do. Yephodov, nicknamed two-and-twenty misfortunes because of his habitual bad luck, sees failure and despair everywhere. His only triumphant moments come when he fulfills his nickname. Charlotta, the governess, performs tricks to make others laugh because she herself is unable to laugh and views the future with empty eyes. Yasha, the young valet, a callous, self-centered cynic, is beyond dreams.
Only Varya, able to see her dreams for what they are, is realistic and fully human at the same time. Perhaps because she is the adopted daughter and unrelated to the ineffectual aristocrats, it is she who can look the future full in the face, who can see other characters—and accept them—for what they are. With the security of the estate crumbling, with prospects increasingly dim for her hoped-for marriage to Lopakhin, she finds salvation in work.
Madame Ranevskaya and her family have done nothing with their plot of land, which was once a grand and famous estate. Even the cherry orchard has become more dream than reality. Forty years before, the cherries made famous preserves, but the recipe has been forgotten. Lopakhin, the pragmatic merchant, points out, “The only thing remarkable about the orchard is that it’s a very large one. There’s a crop of cherries every alternate year, and then there’s nothing to be done with them, no one buys them.” Yet to the family the orchard continues to symbolize their former grandeur. When Lopakhin suggests that it should be cut down and the land developed into a summer resort, Gaev protests proudly, “This orchard is mentioned in the ’Encyclopaedia.’”
The Cherry Orchard, like Chekhov’s other plays, is objectively written and may vary greatly in different productions. Madame Ranevskaya can be played as a dignified if somewhat inept woman caught in the vise of changing times, or as a silly lovesick female refusing to face truth. Lopakhin can be portrayed sympathetically—it is certainly easy to applaud his rise from menial to master of the estate—or as a villain, pretending to warn the family while knowing full well that they are incapable of action, gloating over his triumph, and heartlessly rejecting Varya. Trofimov has been interpreted as the perpetual student, given to long intellectual rumination and little else; after the 1917 Revolution, he was frequently portrayed as the spokesman for the new social order, a partisan of the common people.
Ambiguity is consistent with Chekhov’s insistence that “to judge between good and bad, between successful and unsuccessful, would need the eye of God.” The author himself chose not to play God but to be the eye of the camera, letting selected details speak for themselves. Madame Ranevskaya, exhorted by Trofimov to “face the truth,” retorts, “What truth?” She and Chekhov are aware that there are many truths and that reality, like beauty, is frequently in the eye of the beholder.
Chekhov’s friend Maxim Gorky once commented that “No one ever understood the tragic nature of life’s trifles so clearly and intuitively as Chekhov did.” Yet if Chekhov saw tragedy, he was also capable of recognizing the comedy in human experiments in living. “This was often the way with him,” Gorky reported. “One moment he would be talking with warmth, gravity, and sincerity, and the next he would be laughing at himself and his own words”—as with himself, so with the remainder of humanity.
Chekhov saw life with double vision that encompassed the tragic and the comic almost simultaneously. It is accurate, therefore, that The Cherry Orchard is classified as tragicomedy. The comedy is evident in stretches of apparently meaningless dialogue (which makes The Cherry Orchard a precursor of the theater of the absurd much later in the century), and in the superficial behavior typical of a comedy of manners. The tragedy lies in the lack of communication—much is said, but little is heard, let alone understood—and in the blindness of the characters as they blunder through their lives, hardly ever fully aware of what is happening to them. In the final speech, Fiers, the ill, elderly valet, mutters words that echo as a coda to the entire play: “Life has slipped by as though I hadn’t lived.”