Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Ranevsky estate. Madame Ranevsky’s estate is located somewhere in the provinces of central Russia. Three acts of the play take place in her large house. Act 1 is set in what was once the nursery, a large, high-ceilinged room which has become an informal meeting place. The second act is set in a field not far from the house, near an old chapel. The third act reveals the true opulence of the house: Its drawing room with a chandelier is in the foreground, and dancing couples can be seen in the ballroom through arches at the rear. Act 4 returns to the nursery, now stripped of its decorations and ready to be vacated by Madame Ranevsky and her family. Madame Ranevsky’s world is doomed by economic and social forces usually identified with offstage places. A station is nearby, from which characters go to Russian cities like Kharkov and Moscow. Madame Ranevsky’s problems are made acute by her irresponsibilities with both men and money, both of which are associated with Paris.
Cherry orchard. The most important part of the setting of three of these acts is the visible symbol of the fragile and doomed beauty of Madame Ranevsky’s world, the cherry orchard itself. It is revealed in all its blooming spring beauty through the large, tall windows in act 1. In the next act, it is visible at the edge of the field. It can be seen again in the desolation of act 4, denuded now of its blossoms because...
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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...
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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...
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Compare and Contrast
1904: A Zemstvo congress meets in St. Petersburg, Russia, and demands that civil liberties are accorded to citizens and that an assembly of representatives of the people is convened.
Today: Russia still grapples with basic civil liberties and rights after the fall of the Soviet Empire. A coup is attempted by right-wing activists, but democratically-elected President Boris Yeltsin retains his power.
1904: The Trans-Siberian Railroad opens, linking Moscow to Vladivostok. The railroad's 3,200 miles of track makes it the longest line in the world.
Today: Citizens of Vladivostok take to the streets to protest the government's failure to deliver on financial reforms. The expansive distance between Moscow and Vladivostok, though linked by communications and public transportation, makes it difficult for the central government to control the city.
1904: French physicist Marie Curie discovers polonium and radium—two new radioactive elements. This discovery leads to the advent of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and space flight.
Today: Despite financial difficulties, the Russian space program continues to advance. The space station Mir, powered by nuclear means, continues to orbit the Earth manned by astronauts from both Russia and the United States.
1904: The National Tuberculosis Association in the United States is established to fight the disease, which...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the Russian class structure that evolved after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, during the reign of Tsar Alexander II, relating it to the gallery of characters in The Cherry Orchard.
Research the rise of the Moscow Art Theatre, its relationship to Anton Chekhov, and the influence of its great co-director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, on the "method" school of acting that was taught by Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg in America and popularized by such actors as Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, and Dennis Hopper.
Investigate the treatment of tuberculosis in Russia and Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century and relate your findings to Chekhov's life and role as physician.
Investigate the influence of Chekhov on modern American drama and such specific playwrights as David Mamet, Maria Irene Fornes, Spalding Gray, John Guare, Wendy Wasserstein, Neil Simon, and Lillian Hellman.
Research daily life on the provincial estate of late nineteenth-century Russia and relate your findings to The Cherry Orchard and other works by Chekhov.
Research penal conditions in Chekhov's Russia and the playwright's efforts to encourage reform in his nonfiction expose, Sakhalin Island (1893-94).
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The Cherry Orchard, Part I: Chekhov, Innovator of Modern Drama, an educational film includes select scenes and a discussion by Norris Houghton, 1968; available from Britannica Films.
The Cherry Orchard, Part II: Comedy or Tragedy? from the same series as the above; scenes with discussion by Houghton; focus on technique of dramatizing interior action and concept of subtext, 1967; available from Britannica Films.
Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, using the Stanislavsky method, director Yuri Zavadsky stages select scenes from The Cherry Orchard; available from IASTA.
The Cherry Orchard, on three audio cassettes, translated by Leonid Kipnis, actors include Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn; Caedmon/Harper Audio.
Anton Chekhov: A Writer's Life, a brief biographical study of the dramatist, 1974; available from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
Chekhov, Henry Troyat's biography of Chekhov on twelve audio cassettes, read by Wolfram Kandinsky, 1989; available from Books on Tape.
Chekhov: Humanity's Advocate, an audio cassette in the Classics of Russian Literature Series; Ernest Simmons discusses Chekhov's work and artistic principles, 1968; available from AudioForum.
The Seagull, another Chekhov classic adapted to film by Sidney Lumet, starring James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave, Simone Signoret, David Warner, Harry Andrews,...
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What Do I Read Next?
The Bear (1888) and The Marriage Proposal (1889), the best of Chekhov's early oneact farces or "curtain raisers," tap the purely comic and make an interesting contrast to his more complex and subtle comedies like The Cherry Orchard.
Miss Julie (1888), an early naturalistic drama by August Strindberg, investigates the tragic consequences of breaking class barriers in the sexual liaison of Miss Julie and her father's valet, Jean.
The Three Sisters, Chekhov's immediate predecessor to The Cherry Orchard, was first performed at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1901. Another play of minimal action, it introduces characters who, like those in the later play, suffer from an inertia of the will.
Heartbreak House (1916), George Bernard Shaw's iconoclastic comedy, shares Chekhov's thematic interest in the breakdown of social norms based on class distinctions. Hesione Hushabye's country house, the play's setting, is a place where artificial conventions and traditions are exposed to Shaw's sardonic wit.
The Autumn Garden (1951), by Lillian Hellman, reflects Chekhov's influence in its technique, structure and theme. Three generations of the Ellis family and their friends gather in the Ellis house to suffer through a shared ennui, atrophy of the will, and sense of loss.
The Good Doctor (1974) is Neil Simon's dramatic tribute to Chekhov, consisting of a collection of dramatized stories adapted from the Russian...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Field, Bradford S., Jr., Gilbert, Miriam, and Klaus, Carl H. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater, Scott, Foresman, 1981.
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."
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Barricelli, Jean Pierre, ed. Chekhov’s Great Plays: A Critical Anthology. New York: New York University Press, 1981. Seventeen essays that cover Chekhov’s dramatic art and the individual plays. The essays on The Cherry Orchard include the editor’s “Counterpoint of the Snapping String: Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard” and Francis Fergusson’s “The Cherry Orchard: A Theater-Poem of the Suffering of Change.”
Magarshak, David. Chekhov the Dramatist. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960. A thorough discussion of such topics as plays of direct action, transitions, and plays of indirect action, using Chekhov’s development as a dramatist as the context.
Peace, Richard. Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. A solid study of Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1901), The Seagull (1896), and The Cherry Orchard. Excellent for basic information and knowledge about the plays.
Pitcher, Harvey. The Chekhov Plays: A New Interpretation. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Offers bold new interpretations and nonstandard views, which make this study a valuable contribution to the understanding of Chekhov’s plays. The chapter on The Cherry Orchard is particularly illuminating....
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