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The Cherry Orchard

by Anton Chekhov

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The Cherry Orchard

Francis Fergusson (essay date 1949)

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SOURCE: "Ghosts and The Cherry Orchard: The Theater of Modern Realism," in The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective, Princeton University Press, 1949, pp. 146-77.

[In the excerpt below, Fergusson illuminates the carefully built structure underlying the seemingly plotless Cherry Orchard.]

The Plot of The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard is often accused of having no plot whatever, and it is true that the story gives little indication of the play's content or meaning; nothing happens, as the Broadway reviewers so often point out. Nor does it have a thesis, though many attempts have been made to attribute a thesis to it, to make it into a Marxian tract, or into a nostalgic defense of the old regime. The play does not have much of a plot in either of these accepted meanings of the word, for it is not addressed to the rationalizing mind but to the poetic and histrionic sensibility. It is an imitation of an action in the strictest sense, and it is plotted according to the first meaning of this word which I have distinguished in other contexts: the incidents are selected and arranged to define an action in a certain mode; a complete action, with a beginning, middle, and end in time. Its freedom from the mechanical order of the thesis or the intrigue is the sign of the perfection of Chekhov's realistic art. And its apparently casual incidents are actually composed with most elaborate and conscious skill to reveal the underlying life, and the natural, objective form of the play as a whole.…

[In Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts] the action is distorted by the stereotyped requirements of the thesis and the intrigue. That is partly a matter of the mode of action which Ibsen was trying to show; a quest "of ethical motivation" which requires some sort of intellectual framework, and yet can have no final meaning in the purely literal terms of Ibsen's theater. The Cherry Orchard, on the other hand, is a drama "of pathetic motivation," a theater-poem of the suffering of change; and this mode of action and awareness is much closer to the skeptical basis of modern realism, and to the histrionic basis of all realism. Direct perception before predication is always true, says Aristotle; and the extraordinary feat of Chekhov is to predicate nothing. This he achieves by means of his plot: he selects only those incidents, those moments in his characters' lives, between their rationalized efforts, when they sense their situation and destiny most directly. So he contrives to show the action of the play as a whole—the unsuccessful attempt to cling to the Cherry Orchard—in many diverse reflectors and without propounding any thesis about it.

The slight narrative thread which ties these incidents and characters together for the inquiring mind, is quickly recounted. The family that owns the old estate named after its famous orchard—Lyubov, her brother Gaev, and her daughters Varya and Anya—is all but bankrupt, and the question is how to prevent the bailiffs from selling the estate to pay their debts. Lopahin, whose family were formerly serfs on the estate, is now rapidly growing rich as a businessman, and he offers a very sensible plan: chop down the orchard, divide the property into small lots, and sell them off to make a residential suburb for the growing industrial town nearby. Thus the cash value of the estate could be not only preserved, but increased. But this would not save what Lyubov and her brother find valuable in the old estate;...

(This entire section contains 6094 words.)

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they cannot consent to the destruction of the orchard. But they cannot find, or earn, or borrow the money to pay their debts either; and in due course the estate is sold at auction to Lopahin himself, who will make a very good thing of it. His workmen are hacking at the old trees before the family is out of the house.

The play may be briefly described as a realistic ensemble pathos: the characters all suffer the passing of the estate in different ways, thus adumbrating this change at a deeper and more generally significant level than that of any individual's experience. The action which they all share by analogy, and which informs the suffering of the destined change of the Cherry Orchard, is "to save the Cherry Orchard": that is, each character sees some value in it—economic, sentimental, social, cultural—which he wishes to keep. By means of his plot, Chekhov always focuses attention on the general action: his crowded stage, full of the characters I have mentioned as well as half a dozen hangers-on, is like an implicit discussion of the fatality which concerns them all; but Chekhov does not believe in their ideas, and the interplay he shows among his dramatis personae is not so much the play of thought as the alternation of his characters' perceptions of their situation, as the moods shift and the time for decision comes and goes.

Though the action which Chekhov chooses to show on-stage is "pathetic," i.e., suffering and perception, it is complete: the Cherry Orchard is constituted before our eyes, and then dissolved. The first act is a prologue: it is the occasion of Lyubov's return from Paris to try to resume her old life. Through her eyes and those of her daughter Anya, as well as from the complementary perspectives of Lopahin and Trofimov, we see the estate as it were in the round, in its many possible meanings. The second act corresponds to the agon; it is in this act that we become aware of the conflicting values of all the characters, and of the efforts they make (off-stage) to save each one his Orchard. The third act corresponds to the pathos and peripety of the traditional tragic form. The occasion is a rather hysterical party which Lyubov gives while her estate is being sold at auction in the nearby town; it ends with Lopahin's announcement, in pride and the bitterness of guilt, that he was the purchaser. The last act is the epiphany: we see the action, now completed, in a new and ironic light. The occasion is the departure of the family: the windows are boarded up, the furniture piled in the corners, and the bags packed. All the characters feel, and the audience sees in a thousand ways, that the wish to save the Orchard has amounted in fact to destroying it; the gathering of its denizens to separation; the homecoming to departure. What this "means" we are not told. But the action is completed, and the poem of the suffering of change concludes in a new and final perception, and a rich chord of feeling.

The structure of each act is based upon a more or less ceremonious social occasion. In his use of the social ceremony—arrivals, departures, anniversaries, parties—Chekhov is akin to James. His purpose is the same: to focus attention on an action which all share by analogy, instead of upon the reasoned purpose of any individual, as Ibsen does in his drama of ethical motivation. Chekhov uses the social occasion also to reveal the individual at moments when he is least enclosed in his private rationalization and most open to disinterested insights. The Chekhovian ensembles may appear superficially to be mere pointless stalemates—too like family gatherings and arbitrary meetings which we know off-stage. So they are. But in his miraculous arrangement the very discomfort of many presences is made to reveal fundamental aspects of the human situation.

That Chekhov's art of plotting is extremely conscious and deliberate is clear the moment one considers the distinction between the stories of his characters as we learn about them, and the moments of their lives which he chose to show directly onstage. Lopahin, for example, is a man of action like one of the new capitalists in Gorki's plays. Chekhov knew all about him, and could have shown us an exciting episode from his career if he had not chosen to see him only when he was forced to pause and pathetically sense his own motives in a wider context which qualifies their importance. Lyubov has been dragged about Europe for years by her ne'er-do-well lover, and her life might have yielded several sure-fire erotic intrigues like those of the commercial theater. But Chekhov, like all the great artists of modern times, rejected these standard motivations as both stale and false. The actress Arkadina, in The Seagull, remarks, as she closes a novel of Maupassant's, "Well, among the French that may be, but here with us there's nothing of the kind, we've no set program." In the context the irony of her remark is deep: she is herself a purest product of the commercial theater, and at that very time she is engaged in a love affair of the kind she objects to in Maupassant. But Chekhov, with his subtle art of plotting, has caught her in a situation, and at a brief moment of clarity and pause, when the falsity of her career is clear to all, even herself.

Thus Chekhov, by his art of plot-making, defines an action in the opposite mode to that of Ghosts. Ibsen defines a desperate quest for reasons and for ultimate, intelligible moral values. This action falls naturally into the form of the agon, and at the end of the play Ibsen is at a loss to develop the final pathos, or bring it to an end with an accepted perception. But the pathetic is the very mode of action and awareness which seems to Chekhov closest to the reality of the human situation, and by means of his plot he shows, even in characters who are not in themselves unusually passive, the suffering and the perception of change. The "moment" of human experience which The Cherry Orchard presents thus corresponds to that of the Sophoclean chorus, and of the evenings in the Purgatorio. Ghosts is a fighting play, armed for its sharp encounter with the rationalizing mind, its poetry concealed by its reasons. Chekhov's poetry, like Ibsen's, is behind the naturalistic surfaces; but the form of the play as a whole is "nothing but" poetry in the widest sense: the coherence of the concrete elements of the composition. Hence the curious vulnerability of Chekhov on the contemporary stage: he does not argue, he merely presents; and though his audiences even on Broadway are touched by the time they reach the last act, they are at a loss to say what it is all about.

It is this reticent objectivity of Chekhov also which makes him so difficult to analyze in words: he appeals exclusively to the histrionic sensibility where the little poetry of modern realism is to be found. Nevertheless, the effort of analysis must be made if one is to understand this art at all; and if the reader will bear with me, he is asked to consider one element, that of the scene, in the composition of the second act.

Act II: The Scene as a Basic Element in the Composition

M. Cocteau writes, in his preface to Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel: "The action of my play is in images (imagée) while the text is not: I attempt to substitute a 'poetry of the theater' for 'poetry in the theater.' Poetry in the theater is a piece of lace which it is impossible to see at a distance. Poetry of the theater would be coarse lace; a lace of ropes, a ship at sea. Les Mariés should have the frightening look of a drop of poetry under the microscope. The scenes are integrated like the words of a poem."

This description applies very exactly to The Cherry Orchard: the larger elements of the composition—the scenes or episodes, the setting and the developing story—are composed in such a way as to make a poetry of the theater; but the "text" as we read it literally, is not. Chekhov's method, as Mr. Stark Young puts it in the preface to his translation of The Seagull, "is to take actual material such as we find in life and manage it in such a way that the inner meanings are made to appear. On the surface the life in his plays, is natural, possible, and at times in effect even casual."

Mr. Young's translations of Chekhov's plays, together with his beautifully accurate notes, explanations, and interpretations, have made the text of Chekhov at last available for the English-speaking stage, and for any reader who will bring to his reading a little patience and imagination. Mr. Young shows us what Chekhov means in detail: by the particular words his characters use; by their rhythms of speech; by their gestures, pauses, and bits of stage business. In short, he makes the text transparent, enabling us to see through it to the music of action, the underlying poetry of the composition as a whole—and this is as much as to say that any study of Chekhov (lacking as we do adequate and available productions) must be based upon Mr. Young's work. At this point I propose to take this work for granted; to assume the translucent text; and to consider the role of the setting in the poetic or musical order of Act II.

The second act, as I have said, corresponds to the agon of the traditional plot scheme: it is here that we see most clearly the divisive purposes of the characters, the contrasts between their views of the Cherry Orchard itself.

But the center of interest is not in these individual conflicts, nor in the contrasting visions for their own sake, but in the common fatality which they reveal: the passing of the old estate. The setting, as we come to know it behind the casual surfaces of the text, is one of the chief elements in this poem of change: if Act II were a lyric, instead of an act of a play, the setting would be a crucial word appearing in a succession of rich contexts which endow it with a developing meaning.

Chekhov describes the setting in the following realistic terms. "A field. An old chapel, long abandoned, with crooked walls, near it a well, big stones that apparently were once tombstones, and an old bench. A road to the estate of Gaev can be seen. On one side poplars rise, casting their shadows, the cherry orchard begins there. In the distance a row of telegraph poles; and far, far away, faintly traced on the horizon, is a large town, visible only in the clearest weather. The sun will soon be down."

To make this set out of a cyclorama, flats, cut-out silhouettes, and lighting-effects, would be difficult, without producing that unbelievable but literally intended—and in any case indigestible—scene which modern realism demands; and here Chekhov is uncomfortably bound by the convention of his time. The best strategy in production is that adopted by Robert Edmund Jones in his setting for The Seagull: to pay lip service only to the convention of photographic realism, and make the trees, the chapel and all the other elements as simple as possible. The less closely the setting is defined by the carpenter, the freer it is to play the role Chekhov wrote for it: a role which changes and develops in relation to the story. Shakespeare did not have this problem; he could present his setting in different ways at different moments in a few lines of verse:

Alack! the night comes on, and the bleak winds
Do sorely ruffle; for many miles about
There's scarce a bush.

Chekhov, as we shall see, gives his setting life and flexibility in spite of the visible elements on-stage, not by means of the poetry of words but by means of his characters' changing sense of it.

When the curtain rises we see the setting simply as the country at the sentimental hour of sunset. Epihodov is playing his guitar and other hangers-on of the estate are loafing, as is their habit, before supper. The dialogue which starts after a brief pause focuses attention upon individuals in the group: Charlotta, the governess, boasting of her culture and complaining that no one understands her; the silly maid Dunyasha, who is infatuated with Yasha, Lyubov's valet. The scene, as reflected by these characters, is a satirical period-piece like the "Stag at Eve" or "The Maiden's Prayer"; and when the group falls silent and begins to drift away (having heard Lyubov, Gaev, and Lopahin approaching along the path) Chekhov expects us to smile at the sentimental cliches which the place and the hour have produced.

But Lyubov's party brings with it a very different atmosphere: of irritation, frustration, and fear. It is here we learn that Lopahin cannot persuade Lyubov and Gaev to put their affairs in order; that Gaev has been making futile gestures toward getting a job and borrowing money; that Lyubov is worried about the estate, about her daughters, and about her lover, who has now fallen ill in Paris. Lopahin, in a huff, offers to leave; but Lyubov will not let him go—"It's more cheerful with you here," she says; and this group in its turn falls silent. In the distance we hear the music of the Jewish orchestra—when Chekhov wishes us to raise our eyes from the people in the foreground to their wider setting, he often uses music as a signal and an inducement. This time the musical entrance of the setting into our consciousness is more urgent and sinister than it was before: we see not so much the peace of evening as the silhouette of the dynamic industrial town on the horizon, and the approach of darkness. After a little more desultory conversation, there is another pause, this time without music, and the foreboding aspect of the scene in silence is more intense.

In this silence Firs, the ancient servant, hurries on with Gaev's coat, to protect him from the evening chill, and we briefly see the scene through Firs's eyes. He remembers the estate before the emancipation of the serfs, when it was the scene of a way of life which made sense to him; and now we become aware of the frail relics of this life: the old gravestones and the chapel "fallen out of the perpendicular."

In sharpest contrast with this vision come the young voices of Anya, Varya, and Trofimov who are approaching along the path. The middle-aged and the old in the foreground are pathetically grateful for this note of youth, of strength, and of hope; and presently they are listening happily (though without agreement or belief) to Trofimov's aspirations, his creed of social progress, and his conviction that their generation is no longer important to the life of Russia. When the group falls silent again, they are all disposed to contentment with the moment; and when Epihodov's guitar is heard, and we look up, we feel the country and the evening under the aspect of hope—as offering freedom from the responsibilities and conflicts of the estate itself:

(Epihodov passes by at the back, playing his guitar.)

Lyubov. (Lost in thought.) Epihodov is coming—

Anya. (Lost in though.) Epihodov is coming.

Gaev. The sun has set, ladies and gentlemen.

Trofimov. Yes.

Gaev. (Not loud and as if he were declaiming.) Oh, Nature, wonderful, you gleam with eternal radiance, beautiful and indifferent, you, whom we call Mother, combine in yourself both life and death, you give life and take it away.

Varya. (Beseechingly.) Uncle!

Gaev's false, rhetorical note ends the harmony, brings us back to the to the present and to the awareness of change on the horizon, and produces a sort of empty stalemate—a silent pause with worry and fear in it.

(All sit absorbed in their thoughts. There is only the silence. FIRS is heard muttering to himself softly. Suddenly a distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, like the sound of a snapped string, dying away, mournful.)

This mysterious sound is used like Epihodov's strumming to remind us of the wider scene, but (though distant) it is sharp, almost a warning signal, and all the characters listen and peer toward the dim edges of the horizon. In their attitudes and guesses Chekhov reflects, in rapid succession, the contradictory aspects of the scene which have been developed at more length before us:

Lyubov. What's that?

Lopahin. I don't know. Somewhere far off in a mine shaft a bucket fell. But somewhere very far off.

Gaev. And it may be some bird—like a heron.

Trofimov. Or an owl—

Lyubov. (Shivering.) It's unpleasant, somehow. (A pause.)

Firs. Before the disaster it was like that. The owl hooted and the samovar hummed without stopping, both.

Gaev. Before what disaster?

Firs. Before the emancipation.

(A pause.)

Lyubov. YOU know, my friends, let's go.…

Lyubov feels the need to retreat, but the retreat is turned into flight when "the wayfarer" suddenly appears on the path asking for money. Lyubov in her bewilderment, her sympathy, and her bad conscience, gives him gold. The party breaks up, each in his own way thwarted and demoralized.

Anya and Trofimov are left on-stage; and, to conclude his theatrical poem of the suffering of change, Chekhov reflects the setting in them:

Anya. (A pause.) It's wonderful here today!

Trofimov. Yes, the weather is marvelous.

Anya. What have you done to me, Petya, why don't I love the cherry orchard any longer the way I used to? I loved it too tenderly; it seemed to me there was not a better place on earth than our orchard.

Trofimov. All Russia is our garden. The earth is immense and beautiful.…

The sun has set, the moon is rising with its chill and its ancient animal excitement, and the estate is dissolved in the darkness as Nineveh is dissolved in a pile of rubble with vegetation creeping over it. Chekhov wishes to show the Cherry Orchard as "gone"; but for this purpose he employs not only the literal time-scheme (sunset to moon-rise) but, as reflectors, Anya and Trofimov, for whom the present in any form is already gone and only the bodiless future is real. Anya's young love for Trofimov's intellectual enthusiasm (like Juliet's "all as boundless as the sea") has freed her from her actual childhood home, made her feel "at home in the world" anywhere. Trofimov's abstract aspirations give him a chillier and more artificial, but equally complete, detachment not only from the estate itself (he disapproves of it on theoretical grounds) but from Anya (he thinks it would be vulgar to be in love with her). We hear the worried Varya calling for Anya in the distance; Anya and Trofimov run down to the river to discuss the socialistic Paradiso Terrestre; and with these complementary images of the human scene, and this subtle chord of feeling, Chekhov ends the act.

The "scene" is only one element in the composition of Act II, but it illustrates the nature of Chekhov's poetry of the theater. It is very clear, I think, that Chekhov is not trying to present us with a rationalization of social change à la Marx, or even with a subtler rationalization à la Shaw. On the other hand, he is not seeking, like Wagner, to seduce us into one passion. He shows us a moment of change in society, and he shows us a "pathos"; but the elements of his composition are always taken as objectively real. He offers us various rationalizations, various images and various feelings, which cannot be reduced either to one emotion or to one idea: they indicate an action and a scene which is "there" before the rational formulations, or the emotionally charged attitudes, of any of the characters.

The surrounding scene of The Cherry Orchard corresponds to the significant stage of human life which Sophocles' choruses reveal, and to the empty wilderness beyond Ibsen's little parlor. We miss, in Chekhov's scene, any fixed points of human significance, and that is why, compared with Sophocles, he seems limited and partial—a bit too pathetic even for our bewildered times. But, precisely because he subtly and elaborately develops the moments of pathos with their sad insights, he sees much more in the little scene of modern realism than Ibsen does. Ibsen's snowpeaks strike us as rather hysterical; but the "stage of Europe" which we divine behind the Cherry Orchard is confirmed by a thousand impressions derived from other sources. We may recognize its main elements in a cocktail party in Connecticut or Westchester: someone's lawn full of voluble people; a dry white clapboard church (instead of an Orthodox chapel) just visible across a field; time passing, and the muffled roar of a four-lane highway under the hill—or we may be reminded of it in the final section of The Wasteland, with its twittering voices, its old gravestones and deserted chapel, and its dim crowd on the horizon foreboding change. It is because Chekhov says so little that he reveals so much, providing a concrete basis for many conflicting rationalizations of contemporary social change: by accepting the immediacy and unintelligibility of modern realism so completely, he in some ways transcends its limitations, and prepares the way for subsequent developments in the modern theater.

Chekhov's Histrionic Art: An End and a Beginning

Era già l'ora che volge il disio
  ai naviganti, e intenercisce il core
  lo dì ch'han detto ai dolci amici addio;
e che lo nuovo peregrin d'amore
  punge, se ode squilla di lontano,
  che paia il giorno pianger che si more.

It was now the hour that turns back the desire of those who sail the seas and melts their heart, that day when they have said to their sweet friends adieu, and that pierces the new pilgrim with love, if from afar he hears the chimes which seem to mourn for the dying day.

Purgatorio, CANTO VIII

The poetry of modern realistic drama is to be found in those inarticulate moments when the human creature is shown responding directly to his immediate situation. Such are the many moments—composed, interrelated, echoing each other—when the waiting and loafing characters in Act II get a fresh sense (one after the other, and each in his own way) of their situation on the doomed estate. It is because of the exactitude with which Chekhov perceives and imitates these tiny responses, that he can make them echo each other, and convey, when taken together, a single action with the scope, the general significance or suggestiveness, of poetry. Chekhov, like other great dramatists, has what might be called an ear for action, comparable to the trained musician's ear for musical sound.

The action which Chekhov thus imitates in his second act (that of lending ear, in a moment of freedom from practical pressures, to impending change) echoes, in its turn, a number of other poets: Laforgue's "poetry of waiting-rooms" comes to mind, as well as other works stemming from the period of hush before the first World War. The poets are to some extent talking about the same thing, and their works, like voices in a continuing colloquy, help to explain each other: hence the justification and the purpose of seeking comparisons. The eighth canto of the Purgatorio is widely separated from The Cherry Orchard in space and time, but these two poems unmistakably echo and confirm each other. Thinking of them together, one can begin to place Chekhov's curiously non-verbal dramaturgy and understand the purpose and the value of his reduction of the art to histrionic terms, as well as the more obvious limitations which he thereby accepts. For Dante accepts similar limitations at this point but locates the mode of action he shows here at a certain point in his vast scheme.

The explicit co-ordinates whereby Dante places the action of Canto VIII might alone suffice to give one a clue to the comparison with The Cherry Orchard: we are in the Valley of Negligent Rulers who, lacking light, unwillingly suffer their irresponsibility, just as Lyubov and Gaev do. The ante-purgatorio is behind us, and purgatory proper, with its hoped-for work, thought, and moral effort, is somewhere ahead, beyond the night which is now approaching. It is the end of the day; and as we wait, watch, and listen, evening moves slowly over our heads, from sunset to darkness to moonrise. Looking more closely at this canto, one can see that Dante the Pilgrim, and the Negligent Rulers he meets, are listening and looking as Chekhov's characters are in Act II: the action is the same; in both a childish and uninstructed responsiveness, an unpremeditated obedience to what is actual, informs the suffering of change. Dante the author, for his elaborate and completely conscious reasons, works here with the primitive histrionic sensibility, he composes with elements sensuously or sympathetically, but not rationally or verbally, defined. The rhythms, the pauses, and the sound effects he employs are strikingly similar to Chekhov's. And so he shows himself—Dante "the new Pilgrim"—meeting this mode of awareness for the first time: as delicately and ignorantly as Gaev when he feels all of a sudden the extent of evening, and before he falsifies this perception with his embarrassing apostrophe to Nature.

If Dante allows himself as artist and as protagonist only the primitive sensibility of the child, the naif, the natural saint, at this point in the ascent, it is because, like Chekhov, he is presenting a threshold or moment of change in human experience. He wants to show the unbounded potentialities of the psyche before or between the moments when it is morally and intellectually realized. In Canto VIII the pilgrim is both a child, and a child who is changing; later moments of transition are different. Here he is virtually (but for the Grace of God) lost; all the dangers are present. Yet he remains uncommitted and therefore open to finding himself again and more truly. In all of this the parallel to Chekhov is close. But because Dante sees this moment as a moment only in the ascent, Canto VIII is also composed in ways in which Act II of The Cherry Orchard is not—ways which the reader of the Purgatorio will not understand until he looks back from the top of the mountain. Then he will see the homesickness which informs Canto VIII in a new light, and all of the concrete elements, the snake in the grass, the winged figures that roost at the edge of the valley like night-hawks, will be intelligible to the mind and, without losing their concreteness, take their places in a more general frame. Dante's fiction is laid in the scene beyond the grave, where every human action has its relation to ultimate reality, even though that relation becomes explicit only gradually. But Chekhov's characters are seen in the flesh and in their very secular emotional entanglements: in the contemporary world as anyone can see it—nothing visible beyond the earth's horizon, with its signs of social change. The fatality of the Zeitgeist is the ultimate reality in the theater of modern realism; the anagoge is lacking. And though Ibsen and Chekhov are aware of both history and moral effort, they do not know what to make of them—perhaps they reveal only illusory perspectives, "masquerades which time resumes." If Chekhov echoes Dante, it is not because of what he ultimately understood but because of the accuracy with which he saw and imitated that moment of action.

If one thinks of the generation to which Anya and Trofimov were supposed to belong, it is clear that the new motives and reasons which they were to find, after their inspired evening together, were not such as to turn all Russia, or all the world, into a garden. The potentialities which Chekhov presented at that movement of change were not to be realized in the wars and revolutions which followed: what actually followed was rather that separation and destruction, that scattering and destinationless trekking, which he also sensed as possible. But, in the cultivation of the dramatic art after Chekhov, renewals, the realization of hidden potentialities, did follow. In Chekhov's histrionic art, the "desire is turned back" to its very root, to the immediate response, to the movements of the psyche before they are limited, defined, and realized in reasoned purpose. Thus Chekhov revealed hidden potentialities, if not in the life of the time, at least in ways of seeing and showing human life; if not in society, at least in the dramatic art. The first and most generally recognized result of these labors was to bring modern realism to its final perfection in the productions of the Moscow Art Theater and in those who learned from it. But the end of modern realism was also a return to very ancient sources; and in our time the fertilizing effect of Chekhov's humble objectivity may be traced in a number of dramatic forms which cannot be called modern realism at all.

The acting technique of the Moscow Art Theater is so closely connected, in its final development, with Chekhov's dramaturgy, that it would be hard to say which gave the more important clues. Stanislavsky and Nemirovitch-Dantchenko from one point of view, and Chekhov from another, approached the same conception: both were searching for an attitude and a method that would be less hidebound, truer to experience, than the cliché-responses of the commercial theater. The Moscow Art Theater taught the performer to make that direct and total response which is the root of poetry in the widest sense: they cultivated the histrionic sensibility in order to free the actor to realize, in his art, the situations and actions which the playwright had imagined. Chekhov's plays demand this accuracy and imaginative freedom from the performer; and the Moscow Art Theater's productions of his works were a demonstration of the perfection, the reticent poetry, of modern realism. And modern realism of this kind is still alive in the work of many artists who have been more or less directly influenced either by Chekhov or by the Moscow Art Theater. In our country, for instance, there is Clifford Odets; in France, Vildrac and Bernard, and the realistic cinema, of which Symphonie Pastorale is a recent example.

But this cultivation of the histrionic sensibility, bringing modern realism to its end and its perfection, also provided fresh access to many other dramatic forms. The Moscow technique, when properly developed and critically understood, enables the producer and performer to find the life in any theatrical form; and before the revolution the Moscow Art Theater had thus revivified Hamlet, Carmen, the interludes of Cervantes, Neoclassic comedies of several kinds, and many other works which were not realistic in the modern sense at all. A closely related acting technique underlay Reinhardt's virtuosity; and Copeau, in the Vieux Colombier, used it to renew not only the art of acting but, by that means, the art of play-writing also.…

After periods when great drama is written, great performers usually appear to carry on the life of the theater for a few more generations. Such were the Siddonses and Macreadys who kept the great Shakespearian roles alive after Shakespeare's theater was gone, and such, at a further stage of degeneration, were the mimes of the Commedia dell' Arte, improvising on the themes of Terence and Plautus when the theater had lost most of its meaning. The progress of modern realism from Ibsen to Chekhov looks in some respects like a withering and degeneration of this kind: Chekhov does not demand the intellectual scope, the ultimate meanings, which Ibsen demanded, and to some critics Chekhov does not look like a real dramatist but merely an overdeveloped mime, a stage virtuoso. But the theater of modern realism did not afford what Ibsen demanded, and Chekhov is much the more perfect master of its little scene. If Chekhov drastically reduced the dramatic art, he did so in fall consciousness, and in obedience both to artistic scruples and to a strict sense of reality. He reduced the dramatic art to its ancient root, from which new growths are possible.

But the tradition of modern realism is not the only version of the theater in our time. The stage itself, belying the realistic pretense of artlessness and pseudo-scientific truth, is there. Most of the best contemporary play-writing accepts the stage "as stage," and by so doing tries to escape realistic limitations altogether.

Jacqueline E. M. Latham (essay date 1958)

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SOURCE: "The Cherry Orchard as Comedy," in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. X, No. 1, March 1958, pp. 21-9.

[In the following essay, Latham assembles evidence for her contention that The Cherry Orchard is not a tragedy, as it was commonly viewed, but rather a comedy, as Chekhov insisted. Latham states: "In his revelation of the ludicrous in human nature Chekhov successfully achieves a very rare blend of sympathetic and judicial comedy" in the play.]

Chekhov suffered during his lifetime from bad productions of his plays. Even Stanislavsky, the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, misunderstood the nature of his comedies, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, and after the production of the latter Chekhov wrote to his wife: "How awful it is! An act that ought to take twelve minutes at most lasts forty minutes. There is only one thing I can say: Stanislavsky has ruined my play for me."1 Stanislavsky and his fellow-director Nemirovich-Danchenko believed that Chekhov was wrong in thinking that he had written comedies; when Stanislavsky had read The Cherry Orchard he wrote to Chekhov informing him that it was, in fact, a tragedy. These Moscow productions, which were, of course, in many ways very fine, displeased Chekhov who was too ill to protest forcibly about them, and so they became the first of the line of melancholy productions which today we accept almost without question in England and the United States. Indeed, the pattern is so well established that it was brilliantly and easily parodied in Peter Ustinov's The Love of Four Colonels. Desmond MacCarthy (as did Shaw and many others) fully accepted Chekhov's plays as tragedies of frustration and in 1937, in The New Statesman and Nation, he reviewed a production of Uncle Vanya sharply criticizing the humor and comedy in the performance. However, his criticisms elicited a letter from Dorothy Sayers (whose first acquaintance with Chekhov this was) in defense of the production, saying "But the whole tragedy of futility is that it never succeeds in achieving tragedy. In its blackest moments it is inevitably doomed to the comic gesture."2 This, the central point of Chekhov's comedy, is what so many critics have missed. In the United States, too, Edmund Wilson writing in The New Yorker3 admits that in rereading Chekhov's plays he can find a broader humour than he remembers in stage productions. Indeed, the tradition is established and Chekhov has been accepted as a writer of gloomy tragedies of frustration; I doubt whether he can be reinstated as he would wish.

The Cherry Orchard,4 Chekhov's last play, was written slowly and painfully in 1903. It was produced in January, 1904, by Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Threatre only six months before the author's death. The subject of the play is the impoverishment of an aristocratic family who sell their house and orchard to one of their ex-serfs who wishes to build summer cottages. The passing of an era is a favourite subject for sentimentalists and it would have been easy for Chekhov to have shown aristocratic nobility and integrity at the mercy of an unscrupulous bourgeois. But he did not write that play, although many producers have wished that he had. He wrote instead a comedy. "The play has turned out not a drama, but a comedy, in parts even a farce."5 He did not see the passing of the old order as tragic, and, in emphasizing the social uselessness of the aristocratic family, he treats the subject from a comic viewpoint. He sees in them no love, no sense of responsibility; their deepest emotion is only sentiment.

Chekhov's father was of peasant stock, for the grandfather had purchased their freedom, although he was, said Chekhov, "a most rabid upholder of serfdom."6 Chekhov's love for humanity was universal; he neither idealized the serfs from whom he sprang nor did he fawn upon the rich who were now his friends. Lydia Avilov, in her memoir, Chekhov in my Life, quotes Chekhov as saying, "I will describe life to you truthfully, that is artistically, and you will see in it what you have not seen before, what you never noticed before: its divergence from the norms, its contradictions."7 It is exactly this that Chekhov achieves in The Cherry Orchard (although it was not, of course, of this play that he was speaking). All classes of men were for Chekhov possible subjects of comedy; his plays are about human nature and his sympathies did not lie exclusively with one class, nor did he wish to satirize the other. It is because he shows "divergence from the norms" that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy, and these anormalities he sees in the wealthy as well as in their servants. The play has, certainly, tragic overtones, as has Molière's Le Misanthrope, but the point of view of the author is definitely comic, and as if he wishes to emphasize this he introduces certain farcical incidents: squeaking boots, clumsiness, conjuring tricks, a governess dressed as a man jumping about in a ballroom, and an accidental blow with a stick struck by Varya on the man she loves.

Chekhov's purpose in writing The Cherry Orchard was to give a criticism of life by showing characters who deviate from the norm. The cherry orchard itself is not a constant symbol of beauty wantonly destroyed, but, as the centre of the play, it has a different significance for each character. There are twelve people who make up the comèdie humaine, all individuals, all more or less comic, some contributing to a central pattern of meaning, others merely performing peripherally their own comic dance and only occasionally impinging on the central pattern.

Although Chekhov considered the merchant Lopahin the central figure in the play,8 it is best for us to consider first the brother and sister, Gayeff and Madame Ranevskaya. They are middle-aged children. For Gayeff life is a game, no more serious than the game of billiards which cheers him when his estate is sold and which he plays in imagination (though with words and gestures) whenever the problems of the material world seem too much for him. He leaves his estate for a life as a bank official saying "I am a financier now—yellow ball into the side pocket."9 Even his tardily acquired career as a financier—for which his own financial failure has ill-prepared him—seems to be only a continuation of his life at the billiard table: trying to make a big break before he finally loses.

Gayeff's ridiculousness is accentuated by his continual eating of candies. "They say I've eaten my fortune up in hard candies" (II) he says laughing, but we know he doesn't believe it. This candy eating is a symbol of his childishness, of his unfitness for the adult world. Even old Fiers, the butler, treats him like a child, worrying whether he is dressed properly when he goes out and bringing him his coat when it is cold. His sister, too, has never matured. When her husband had died and her son had been drowned shortly afterwards, she left Russia with her lover, leaving her two daughters behind. Her lover has been unfaithful and has spent all her money, yet at the end of the play she returns to him. She has spent her life avoiding real sorrow, for she has not the depth of character to accept it and to be purified by it. She is a creature of moods and in Act I appears like a child in her unconscious self-consciousness: "Is it really me sitting here? (Laughing) I'd like to jump around and wave my arms. (Covering her face with her hands) But I may be dreaming." Soon she is tearful, then kissing Fiers and the bookcase too.10 For the brother and sister the orchard is a symbol of their youth, the youth they have never left. As Madame Ranevskaya looks out at it from their child-hood nursery, she imagines that one of the trees in blossom is their mother, dressed in white, walking through the orchard. "I slept in this nursery," she exclaims, "and looked out on the orchard from here, every morning happiness awoke with me, it was just as it is now, then, nothing has changed" (I). This is, of course, Chekhov's point. The brother and sister have not changed, yet the world has. They are children in an adult world, and for the most part they are unaware of reality; even in their rare moments of self-knowledge they lack the power of coming to grips with reality.

Madame Ranevskaya's embrace of the bookcase is matched by her brother's even more ludicrous piece of self-dramatization, also in Act I, when he salutes the bookcase (tearfully) as "sustaining through the generations of our family our courage and our faith in a better future and nurturing in us ideals of goodness and of a social consciousness." This comic gesture not only helps us to see Gayeff's essential ridiculousness, but serves as an ironic commentary on his sister's character. The generosity shown when Madame Ranevskaya gives the drunken stranger a gold piece despite their extreme poverty is ludicrous, not admirable, for it is not based upon altruism or love but is an automatic gesture paralleled by her extravagance at restaurants where they cannot pay the bills. There is no longer any ideal of "goodness and of a social consciousness" in the family; had there been, the play might have been a tragedy. Rather, there is continual self-deception, punctuated by mawkish moments of self-awareness, as when at the end of Act I Gayeff says "And today I made a speech to the bookcase—so silly! And it was only when I finished it that I could see it was silly," only to add shortly after "On my honour I'll swear, by anything you like, that the estate shall not be sold! By my happiness, I swear! Here's my hand, call me a worthless, dishonourable man, if I allow it to come up for auction! With all my soul I swear it!" Chekhov's stage directions indicate that before he says this he puts a candy in his mouth.

This brings us to the central dramatic action—whether the estate should be sold to raise the necessary money or whether Gayeff and his sister should be prepared to raise money by letting part or all of it for building summer cottages. This is their dilemma and this is the issue they steadfastly refuse to face. When Lopahin suggests that they let the land, they refuse to. Gayeff promises that the estate will not be auctioned, deceiving himself into confidence in uninterested generals and a parsimonious rich aunt. The estate, of course, is auctioned and while Gayeff bids 15,000 roubles (provided by the rich aunt and eventually spent in Paris by Madame Ranevskaya with her lover), his sister is giving a ball to which the stationmaster and post-office clerk are invited. With magnificent understatement she says "We planned the ball at an unfortunate moment—well, it doesn't matter" (HI). Their essential indifference to the fate of their estate is shown in the absence of practical measures to preserve it. They dramatize, pose, and make unreal gestures but they have protested too much; in the end they have forfeited their claim to our sympathy.

Lopahin, the ex-serf who has succeeded in life, is presented far more sympathetically by Chekhov. It is he who has the plan which will enable Gayeff and his sister to keep the estate, and even when eventually he buys it Chekhov is careful to point out that he bid for it only against an outsider and after Gayeff had withdrawn from the auction. In a letter to Stanislavsky, Chekhov writes:

Lopahin is a merchant, but he is a decent man in every sense; he has to behave with perfect manners, like an educated man … Varya, a serious and religious girl, loved Lopahin; she would not have fallen in love with a money-grubber.11

and later:

Dunya and Epihodoff stand in Lopahin's presence; they do not sit. Lopahin, in fact, maintains his position like a gentleman. He addresses the servants "thou" and they "you" him.12

Lopahin, then, is not a Dogberry, neither is he a Monsieur Jourdain. In his efforts to save their estate he is practical, though perhaps a little unfeeling, but Chekhov does not ask us to laugh at him for this. Indeed he embodies in many ways Chekhov's hopes for the future as expressed in Act II by the perennial student Trofimoff: the past can only be atoned for "through uncommon, incessant labor." Lopahin, though, is comic in another way; he who is successful in business matters is unsuccessful in his private life. Despite the fact that he is loved and respected by the family he is incapable of proposing marriage to Varya of whom he is fond and who loves him. As he has said in Act I to Dunyasha the maid, "You must know your place." He knows his too well, or rather, he is caught in his childhood sense of inferiority. He idealizes Madame Ranevskaya and is unable to marry her adopted daughter. She had said to him, when he had been hit by his father as a child, "Don't cry … little peasant" (I), and he still sees himself as a peasant and still worships Madame Ranevskaya. The stick, as David Magarshack noted,13 is a symbol of his servitude ("father … just beat me in his drunken fits and always with a stick" [II]) and it is ironical that when in Act I he mocks Anya and Varya, who are perturbed about the debts incurred by the family, Varya threatens "I'd land him one like that (shaking her fist)." In fact she does, accidentally, hit him with a stick when he returns from the auction to tell them that he has bought the estate; he may be master of the house, but he is not the master in his private life. For all his success as a businessman, for all his kindness and integrity, he yet remains the slave, unable to master his own happiness in his relationship with the family.

As if to emphasize this gulf between practical success and success in personal relationships. Chekhov has associated a second symbol with Lopahin: his watch. At the very beginning of the play Lopahin, who has come especially to meet Madame Ranevskaya at the station, wakes up to find that the train is in and that he has overslept. He never seems to overcome this initial setback; though he can be decisive about the remedy the family should take to save their estate, yet he cannot meet the people around him on equal terms. He seems to need the moral support of his watch—which is associated with the well-regulated business world of which he is master—when he is with Gayeff and his family. When he tries to tell them his idea for saving the estate and to take his departure, he four times refers to his watch as if for support. Finally, in Act IV, during his last talk with Varya, when he has already told Madame Ranevskaya that he will ask Varya to marry him, he is unable to broach the subject at all to her. When she enters, he is looking at his watch and the conversation ends when he calls to someone off-stage "This minute." The stick and watch are symbols of Lopahin's divided personality. He is still in subjection spiritually and he is unable to conquer time and circumstances in his private life and to impose his will upon them. We know from Chekhov's letters that he wished us to admire Lopahin, for in many ways he is the embodiment of Chekhov's ideal for society, practical hard work. Yet in his inability to bring his personal desires and relationships into his control in the same way that he has dominated the commercial world, he is anormal. It is thus that he is a comic figure, though he is far more sympathetically portrayed than Gayeff and his sister.

The action of the play revolves around the debts incurred by the family and the way they can raise money on the estate. The solution that Gayeff and his sister are forced to accept—in spite of their illusory belief that they deserve to be saved from their predicament—is not an ideal one. Neither is Lopahin's suggestion of letting the orchard for commercial building wholly satisfactory to us. However, Chekhov does imply a different course of action, though it is now too late to implement it. It is Fiers, the deaf butler to whom no-one listens, who in Act I indicates a positive solution:

Flers: There was a time forty-fifty years ago when the cherries were dried, soaked, pickled, cooked into jam and it used to be—

Gayeff: Keep quiet, Fiers.

Flers: And it used to be that the dried cherries were shipped by the wagon-load to Moscow and to Kharkov. And the money there was! And the dried cherries were soft then, juicy, sweet, fragrant—They had a way of treating them then—

Madame Ranevskaya: And where is that way now?

Fiers: They have forgotten it. Nobody remembers now.

Chekhov's criticism of this aristocratic family, then, goes deeper: they have not only lived in an imaginary world, avoiding responsibility like children, but they have lost the means by which a life like this can be made possible; they have lost the secret and they do not even realize what they have done.

Only Fiers realizes what has been lost and only he of the servants knows what it is to serve, to work, and to maintain order. Significantly enough, like Chekhov's grandfather, he refers to the emancipation of serfs as "the disaster" and says that he did not take his freedom but stayed instead with his master. Although his aim in life is to serve, the irony of his situation lies in the fact that those whom he serves are unworthy of this dedication. Madame Ranevskaya's affection for Fiers is merely sentimental. He is part of the world that is slipping from her; he does not exist as a human being worthy of love or of gratitude. His life-long devotion is not even rewarded by a warm farewell when she thinks he is going to the hospital. Instead she relies upon another servant to make certain that he is taken and cared for. His end, left behind in the doomed house, is the one discordant note in the comedy. His rejection is, of course, symbolic. The days of which he is a legacy are over, the days when, as he says, "there were generals, barons, admirals dancing at our parties" (III), and a new era has begun. Gayeff and his sister cannot even command respect from their other servants, and when at the end they lock the house with Fiers inside, it is their final gesture of irresponsibility; it is symbolically very effective. However, on the literal level it introduces an alien note into the play, though as David Magarshack points out14 there is no reason to suppose that Fiers dies, for Chekhov states clearly that Epihodoff, the clerk, is to remain behind. There is fine irony in Fiers' last speech in which he worries lest Gayeff may not have worn his topcoat and then, as if in final recognition, he applies to himself the epithet he has been applying to others, "good-for-nothing." He seems at this moment to realize that his life has passed in a cause which was not worthy of him. This, I believe, is Chekhov's only wholly tragic note. It becomes tragic because, although Fiers is self-deceived as the other characters are, we can admire him for his devotion and integrity.

Of Madame Ranevskaya's two daughters, Chekov told Nemirovich-Danchenko:

Anya can be acted by anyone, even by a quite unknown actress, provided she is young and looks like a girl, and speaks in a young ringing voice. This is riot one of the important parts … Varya's is a more serious part … she is a figure in a black dress, nun-like, a silly, a cry-baby etc. etc.15

Varya is a complementary character to Lopahin. She is unable to secure happiness because of her indecision yet in her management of the household she imposes a severe discipline. She loves Lopahin but "is quite incapable of disregarding the conventions which demand that the lady has to wait for the gentleman to propose to her."16 Varya, as Chekhov wrote to his wife, is "a foolish creature"17 and it is in her lack of purpose, her frequent weeping, and above all her inability to show any affection to the man she loves, that she is a comic character. Anya, too, is a feeble person but she resembles her mother, as Gayeff notices. She is as easily reassured as her mother is, and Gayeff's promises that the estate will be saved make her at once confident. Her joy in the cherry orchard is, like her mother's, a child's joy and she wishes to run out into the orchard in the early morning. For Varya, her proposed marriage is "like a dream" (I) and for Anya, too, reality hardly exists. When at the end of the play her mother leaves again for Paris and her lover, Anya promises her that she will work and pass examinations: "Then I'll work, I will help you. We'll read all sorts of books together. Mama isn't that so? We'll read in the autumn evenings, read lots of books and a new, wonderful world will open up before us."

In Anya's love affair with Trofimoff one can see another theme with which Chekhov is preoccupied. Trofimoff is a young intellectual—a student who has been sent down from his university for political reasons—and he becomes in some measure a spokesman for Chekhov and hence in this respect a normative character. He sees physical work as the key to social progress: "One must work and must help with all one's might those who see the truth. With us in Russia so far only a few work" (II).18 But, ironically he is not one of these few. He is as ineffectual as Gayeff and his sister, but whereas they will not act because they cannot see reality, he does not act although he can see the future plainly. He perceives the truth but does not act on it and he is in this a comic figure. His appearance reinforces his ineffectualness and he says that a peasant woman called him "a mangy-looking gentleman" (I). But it is in his affection for Anya that he is really made to look ludicrous. He believes that they are "above love" (II). It is Madame Ranevskaya who points out the absur dity of this pose saying that he is a "ridiculous crank, a freak" (III). However, Madame Ranevskaya, who has abandoned herself to an unworthy lover and whose love for her daughters is so sentimental, is not the norm but another extreme. The norm we must see to lie between these paths, yet not in the timidity of Varya and Lopahin. Different attitudes to love, one of Chekhov's main comic themes, are handled here far more simply than in The Seagull.

Madame Ranevskaya, Gayeff, Lopahin, Varya, Anya, Trofimoff, and Fiers are the central characters in The Cherry Orchard and in their divergence from the norms they illustrate most seriously and effectively Chekhov's main comic themes. However, around them are grouped less important characters who are perhaps more obviously comic in themselves though they have less bearing on the main comic purpose. David Magarshack points out that Semyonoff-Pischtchik's name is itself comic. "The first half of it is impressively aristocratic and the second farcical (its English euqivalent would be Squeaker)."19 He is the lucky fool, the third son of the fairy man who deserves nothing—he even asks Gayeff for money—yet who wins everything. He misses jokes and laughs in the wrong place; he is so absent minded that he even forgets that the house has been sold and promises to drop in on Thursday when they are just departing. Finally, with a reversal which Chekhov so loved, he gives back to Gayeff and his sister the money he owes them, for, extraordinarily, white clay has been found on his land. He is magnificently vague and inconsequential, talking about his daughter Dashenka who is of interest to no one in the self-centered family.

Charlotta, the governess, is another broadly comic character. She says very little but enlivens the untimely ball by a conjuring and ventriloquist display. She is com pletely alone in the world; she does not even know how old she is. In her loneliness she gains for herself a group of admirers by her conjuring. She, unlike Madame Ranevskaya, Varya, and Anya who love although they are not able to achieve happiness in their love, loves no one. She seems to thirst for affection and pathetically in her ventriloquist act she converses with herself thus: "'You are so nice, you're my ideal.' The Voice: 'Madame, you too please me greatly'" (III). Charlotta might easily have been a tragic figure except that Chekhov has not explored her character deeply. In a letter to his wife he insists that the actress "must be funny in Charlotta, that's the chief thing,"20 and later he adds that her dog "must be A well-cast long-haired, life in it, small with with eyes."21 A well-cast Charlotta well-cast dog an would amusing pair.

Finally, there are the younger servants. Epihodoff—or twenty-two misfortunes as he is called—is a man in squeky boots who drops flowers on the floor, falls over the chair, and puts a suitcase on top of a hat-box crushing it just as the family are about to leave with their luggage. He even welcomes misfortunes which help to justify the nickname which he thinks has been given to him in affection. He is pedantic and priggish, congratu lating himself on his culture and yet uncertain whether to live or to shoot himself. His lack of control, which manifests itself in his clumsiness, is a reflection of his master's lack of self-discipline, and in his self-conscious (and stupid) pedantry we can see something of Gayeff's eloquent dramatization. He is a microcosm of the family, the most ludicrous traits of which are brought together in him. He loves the foolish maid Dunyasha and sings sad songs celebrating his happiness, yet he has no sense of his position in the house as a clerk. Dunyasha, in her indecision over whether to marry the pompous Epihodoff or the good-for-nothing Yasha, both of whom consider themselves superior to her, reveals her essential triviality. One of the most telling indictments of the family is their inability to handle their insolent servants or to appreciate the devotion of Fiers. In Act II Yasha insults Gayeff with impunity, and Gayeff even turns to his sister saying "Either I or he—." Dunyasha, in her abandoned love for the pretentious Yasha, echoes Madame Ranevskaya's passion for her lover and this preserves the balance of morality between servants and masters.

The purpose of this article has been to show in what ways The Cherry Orchard is a comedy. It cannot be denied that there are occasional overtones of pathos and tragedy but these contribute to the depth and complexity of the comedy and provide the "contradictions" which, Chekhov said, "you never noticed before." As Dorothy Sayers says, the "tragedy of futility is that … it is inevitably doomed to the comic gesture," and if one wishes to see The Cherry Orchard as a tragedy of futility, one must grant that it is revealed in comedy. In his revelation of the ludicrous in human nature Chekhov successfully achieves a very rare blend of sympathetic and judicial comedy; although the audience are aware of the triviality and inadequacies of the comic characters yet they cannot completely dissociate themselves from them, to assume a superior position. The picture is complex: Chekhov criticizes his characters both in their relation to the material world and in their relation to each other; they are self-deceived, complacent, self-indulgent, ill-adjusted to the outside world, ill-adjusted to themselves, and often merely foolish. The pattern of this criticism is most easily discerned in the main characters, yet the minor characters perform small steps to the same tune, while retaining their sharp individuality. Chekhov wrote of a story "I have let the subject filter through my memory, so that only what is important or typical is left, as in a filter,"22 this is his method, too, in his very complex plays.


1 March 29, 1904. The Letters of Anton Pavlovitch Tchehov to Olga Leonardovna Knipper, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, n.d.), p. 374. The last sentence is omitted here. It is given in full by David Magarshack, in Chekhov a Life (London, 1952), footnote on p. 383.

2 Dorothy Sayers, The New Statesman and Nation, Feb. 27, 1937, p. 324.

3 Edmund Wilson, "Seeing Chekhov Plain," The New Yorker, Nov. 22, 1952, p. 180-194.

4 The text used is the translation by Stark Young in Best Plays by Chekhov (New York, 1956). All names will be given in his spelling.

5 Letter to Madame Stanislavsky, Sept. 15,1903. The Life and Letters of Anton Tchekhov, ed. and trans. S. S. Koteliansky & Philip Tomlinson (New York, n.d.), p. 290.

6 Quoted in Chekhov a Life, p. 18.

7Chekhov in my Life, trans. David Magarshack (London, 1950), p. 32.

8 Letter to Stanislavsky, Oct. 30, 1903. Life and Letters, p. 291.

9 Act IV. Subsequent quotations will be identified by act numbers in parentheses.

10 It is in character that the only books she mentions are fairy tales.

11" Oct. 30, 1903. Life and Letters, p. 291.

12 Nov. 10, 1903. Life and Letters, p. 293.

13Chekhov the Dramatist (London, 1952), p. 281.

14Chekhov the Dramatist, p. 285-6.

15 Nov. 2, 1903. Life and Letters, p. 292.

16Chekhov the Dramatist, p. 278.

17 Nov. 1, 1903. Letters to Olga Knipper, p. 336.

18 The orchard is for Trofimoff a symbol of tyranny. He says in Act II "All Russia is our orchard."

19Chekhov the Dramatist, p. 284.

20 Nov. 8, 1903. Letters to Olga Knipper, p. 341.

21 Nov. 27, 1903. Letters to Olga Knipper, p. 349.

22 Letter to F. D. Batyushkov, Dec. 15, 1897. Life and Letters, p. 252.

Ronald Gaskell (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: "Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard" in Drama and Reality: The European Theatre since Ibsen, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, pp. 94-8.

[In this essay, Gaskell examines Chekhov's "uniquely honest and sensitive vision of life" in The Cherry Orchard.]

Chekhov finished The Cherry Orchard in October 1903 and sent it immediately to the Moscow Art Theatre. Three weeks later, writing again from Yalta, he asked Vishnevsky, one of the actors with the company, to keep him a seat for Pillars of Society: 'I want to have a look at this amazing Norwegian play and will even pay for the privilege. Ibsen is my favourite author, you know.' If this was meant seriously, which seems unlikely, one would guess that it caused some surprise. Stanislavsky records that when they were acting Hedda Gabler Chekhov told him bluntly that Ibsen was not a playwright. On another occasion, at a rehearsal of The Wild Duck, he broke out: 'Look here, Ibsen does not know life. In life it does not happen like that.' Ibsen would have agreed that the theatre should present life as it happens. Life did not mean to him, however, what it meant to Chekhov. For Ibsen to live is to choose: to affirm an integrity assailed at once by others and by the trolls within the self. For Chekhov to live is to grow old; to recognize that we live alone, and that if life has any meaning we are not likely to discover it.

This may explain why his search for a dramatic form—a form that would reveal life as Chekhov saw it—proved so difficult. Ibsen, from Pillars of Society onwards, could explore his themes through a vigorous rehandling of conventions already available in the well-made play (the intrigue plot, the discovered secret, the effective confrontation). For the well-made play, from Scribe to Sartre, involves us in the life of moral action: a life, no doubt, more exciting than our own, but like our own in its commitment to desires and projects thwarted by other people. Ibsen sees this world more clearly, and presents it far more truthfully, than Scribe; his morality is not that of the Paris boulevards. But for Ibsen too, in his prose plays, this is the world we have to contend with.

Chekhov sees life less in terms of action than in terms of feeling. More exactly, perhaps, in terms of sensibility. (So in the first act of The Cherry Orchard it is partly the fatigue of the travellers, heightening their delight in the freshness of the trees, that makes the orchard real to our imagination.) The difference from an Ibsen play can be felt at once:

Mrs Ranevsky: How does it go now? Let me remember. 'Put the red in the corner. Double into the middle.'

Gaev: Screw shot into the corner. At one time, dear sister, we both used to sleep in this room. And now I'm fifty-one, unlikely as it may sound.

Lopakhin: Yes, time marches on.

Gaev: What's that?

Lopakhin: Time. It marches on, I was saying.

Gaev: This place smells of cheap scent.

Why do we recognize this instantly as Chekhov? Not just because Gaev starts reminiscing, doesn't at first hear Lopakhin, and then goes off at a tangent, but because the immediate sense impression ('This place smells of cheap scent') cuts across the track of thought and feeling. Chekhov's objection to The Wild Duck was that 'in life it does not happen like that'. Our response to The Cherry Orchard is surely that in life it happens very much like that: for Chekhov's apparently inconsequential dialogues, and monologues, trace out very precisely the actual movements of the psyche. In his letters Chekhov speaks of the writer's need to be 'as objective as a chemist'. But if he sees his people objectively, as he does—finite, vulnerable, comic and therefore sad—he feels them intuitively: as we feel ourselves, not as we observe others.

Chekhov's sympathy with men and women goes deep. It is more than a delight in traits of personality, more even than a delicate responsiveness to the play of feeling. It is the kind of awareness that we meet in Shakespeare in those phrases where, as Eric Bentley puts it, we move beyond a character's personality to his humanity. Hence, perhaps, those moments in The Cherry Orchard which make visible the intersection of two lives. As Lopakhin enters towards the end of the third act, the guests crowd into the drawing room and the band falls silent:

Mrs Ranevsky: Was the cherry orchard sold?

Lopakhin: It was.

Mrs Ravensky: Who bought it?

Lopakhin: I did.

Varya flings her housekeeping keys to the floor and runs out. Gaev has already gone to change. Mrs Ranevsky is alone, beside the guests who form an audience for Lopakhin. His speech, with its pride at having justified his life, is the most passionate in the play:

If my father and grandfather could only rise from their graves and see what happened, see how their Yermolay—Yermolay who was always being beaten, who could hardly write his name and ran round barefoot in winter—how this same Yermolay bought this estate, the most beautiful place in the world. I've bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren't even allowed inside the kitchen.

Mrs Ranevsky, a few minutes before, had told Trofimov: 'I was born here, my father and mother lived here, and my grandfather too. I love this house. Without the cherry orchard life has no meaning for me and if it really must be sold then you'd better sell me with it.' The ironic light that Lopakhin's words shed back on these does more than qualify our sympathy for Mrs Ranevsky; it reminds us, as Chekhov often reminds us, of the separate and equal reality of human lives.

Chekhov, we said, gives us little in the way of action. And because his people, in general, are withdrawn from action, they have time not only to reflect but to appreciate the world in which they live. In his stories Chekhov had trained himself to economy: no landscape painting but a single brushstroke—the smell of meadowsweet after rain, the dark blue of a wood below a stormy sky. In his plays, too, a few words are enough to suggest the heat of summer or the chill of an autumn evening. But a play, as Chekhov knew, is made with more than words. At the beginning of The Cherry Orchard the stage is growing light (Dunyasha almost at once blows out her candle). Somewhere outside a dog is howling: 'The dogs have been awake all night, they can tell the family are coming.' In a few minutes carriages are heard. The air is cold, birds are singing in the garden. Lopakhin explains his plan for saving the estate and at last takes himself off. The shutters are opened, the room fills with sunshine, Gaev and his sister look out at the branches whose shadows play against the wall.

Chekhov's feeling for sound, as for nuances of light, creates a sense of space, of the reality of the natural world, unusual in the theatre. At the same time he relates this world to human feeling. The setting for the second act is open country. As the sun drops Lopakhin is speaking of the plains and forests of Russia, of its vast horizons. Yepikhodov, romantic and absurd, crosses against the sky. We hear the plangent chords of his guitar, with a counterpoint of voices:

There goes Yepikhodov.
   —There goes Yepikhodov.
The sun has set, my friends.

It is the climax of the play. Gaev, eloquent as ever, transposes into comedy the sentiment gathering in the air. Silence. The distant sound, as if from the sky, of a breaking string; then the intrusion of a passer-by to disrupt the group so that Anya and Trofimov are alone. (The moon rises, the guitar is heard again quietly.)

To be aware of nature in this way is to be aware of time, as the process of change. Chekhov's plays are saturated in time, so that the scene gradually expands and deepens till beyond each phrase and gesture we are conscious of the events that have brought these people together. Lopakhin and Mrs Ranevsky have known each other since she was a girl, and the play is crowded with recollections of the past. These are not, as they would be in Ibsen, references to a crucial moment that has shaped the present; they are casual, often nostalgic allusions to events of childhood, of the last few years, or of long ago. The bookcase which Gaev addresses in the first act, and which stands in a corner when they leave at the end, goes back, to his delight, a hundred years. The first and last acts take place in the room where he and his sister slept as children—the room from which she would look out at the orchard and from which the boy Gaev saw his father setting off for church.

Chekhov's feeling for the reality of time gives his plays their typical curve of development. Each of his three finest plays starts with an arrival—with people recognizing each other, asking questions, recounting what has happened to them—and ends with the sadness of departure, with the breaking of relationships that have formed the emotional substance of the play. In The Cherry Orchard this design is strengthened by a second, taken from the natural world. The play begins in spring, moves through summer (the orchard is sold in August), and ends on a day—cold and sunny: an echo of the first act—in October. Characteristically, Chekhov looks ahead: to the return of spring, when the house will be pulled down. Meantime Gaev is taking a job at the bank, Varya going to keep house for the Ragulins, Lopakhin leaving for business affairs in Kharkov. Like a river seen through an open window, their lives have flowed through the play and flow beyond it.

The analogy is not exact, but it suggests the clarity and detachment of Chekhov's vision and the apparently casual movement of his plays. For most of us life has no more direction or unity than the paragraphs of a newspaper: a street burns down, a baron is killed in a duel, Balzac was married in Berdichev. No writer has caught this random quality of experience more exactly than Chekhov. Yet his characters do not just drift. Like the acrobats of Rilke's [fifth Duino Elegy], they travel from place to place, spending their skill and energy to group themselves in a pattern that holds for a moment and then collapses. The pattern has no significance, yet we feel it should have. For though this world may be all there is, we can never be content with it; beyond our migratory lives we look for something that would give them meaning 'if we could only know'.

There are writers, Eliot for example, who believe we can know. Chekhov records simply that we want to. Occasionally, as the light fails, we catch the sound of a breaking string, dying away sadly; an owl, perhaps, or a heron. Or we are reconciled for a moment to the world, seeing in the wind that sways the dead tree with the living an image of the life that we belong to.

Beyond the humour and humanity of The Cherry Orchard it is this that gives the play its depth. The selection and composition, the development of a theme through character, scene and speech, is the expression of a uniquely honest and sensitive vision of life. It is not a vision imposed on life, as one often feels that Eliot's or Ibsen's is, but an order discerned in life—an order that we glimpse ourselves faintly and imperfectly. In Chekhov we see, made coherent and intelligible, the interdependence of persons essentially solitary: changing in time, caring for each other, and at moments aware of the stillness at the centre of their lives.

Beverly Hahn (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: "Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard," in The Critical Review, No. 16, 1973, pp. 56-72.

[In the essay below, Hahn interprets The Cherry Orchard as a comedy in the classical sense, with social and cultural significance. Hahn asserts: "The often comic characters in the play inhabit a world that is nonetheless felt to be humanly and historically serious."]

The Cherry Orchard is the last of Chekhov's plays, one he always insisted was a comedy. The Three Sisters, he agreed, was a drama; but with his last play he had done something else:

What has emerged from me is not a drama but a comedy, sometimes even a farce … the last act is gay, the whole play is gay, light … why on the posters and in the advertisements is my play so persis tently called a drama? Nemirovich and Stanislavsky see in it a meaning different from what I intended. They never read it attentively, I am sure.

(Quoted from Raymond Williams, "Anton Chekhov," Drama from Ibsen to Eliot, Peregrine, 1964, p. 149)

The dialogue between Chekhov and Stanislavsky on the subject is a famous one; but since it raises at least Chekhov's intention to make The Cherry Orchard a comedy, it provides a good point of departure for another look at the play itself. In recent years there has, of course, been a reaction against the older view that took Stanislavsky's side in the debate. David Magarshack (Chekhov the Dramatist, London, 1952) stresses to the last inch its elements of farce; Maurice Valency discovers the play to be, of all things, "cosmic vaudeville" (The Breaking String, New York 1966); and Logan Speirs finds it "astonishingly light and fresh" (Tolstoy and Chekhov, Cambridge 1971). Clearly, something along these lines, if not so extreme, needed to be said. But it is surely time to challenge the narrow definition of "comedy" that seems implicit in all these accounts, in the hope that applying the term in a more classical sense will help break through the debate.

There is a certain amount of common ground with which one can start. The cherry orchard itself is generally agreed to be Chekhov's means of imaging a quality of aristocratic life to which the central characters, Gaev and Lyubov, at the beginning of the play now only superficially belong. It forms the centre of a balanced composition that begins immediately Lopahin first suggests his plan to cut the orchard down:

Lyubov. Cut down? My dear fellow, forgive me, but you don't know what you are talking about. If there is one thing interesting—remarkable indeed—in the whole province, it's just our cherry orchard.

Lopahin. 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.

Gaev. This orchard is mentioned in the "Encyclopaedia".

Lopahin (glancing at his watch). If we don't decide on something and don't take some steps, on the 22nd of August the cherry orchard and the whole estate too will be sold by auction. Make up your minds! There is no other way of saving it, I'll take my oath on that. No, no!

Firs. In old days, forty or fifty years ago, they used to dry the cherries, soak them, pickle them, make jam too, and they used—

Gaev. Be quiet, Firs.

Firs. And they used to send the preserved cherries to Moscow and to Harkov by the waggon-load. That brought the money in! And the preserved cherries in those days were soft and juicy, sweet and fragrant … They knew the way to do them then …

Lyubov. And where is the recipe now?

Firs. It's forgotten. Nobody remembers it.

[The Cherry Orchard and Other Plays, translated by Constance Garnett, London 1946, pp. 15-6]

The voices on the stage come from three directions in time. Firs's is from the past, when the orchard was abundant with life and work, beautiful but productive too. Lyubov and Gaev speak from the present of an orchard already more important for private reasons than for itself: it is a landmark mentioned in the "Encyclopaedia", a spectacle that is no longer useful but one intimately associated with their childhood. Finally, in Lopahin, we have the voice of the future, which assures us of the necessity of its sacrifice. The voices are intertwined to great effect, while being kept separate and distinct. And what they give us, as they emerge relative to each other, is a significantly deepening perspective on the centrally placed image of the cherry orchard. Like the gentry themselves, the orchard is a touching relic of the past: glorious in blossom, imaging a gracious and leisurely age, but essentially of no use. In its present state its vulnerability seems a cause for sadness, but its unproductiveness, compared with the juicy harvests of the past, partly qualifies the loss. Compared with it again, Lopahin's projected villas will be ugly and perhaps vulgar, but they will at least have their use as well as their vitality from a new and growing class.

This much is indicated very early in the first Act. But it is characteristic of Chekhov criticism generally that very few accounts of The Cherry Orchard get much beyond this sense of things (mixed up with discussions of character) and a definition of the "comic" or "tragic" or "tragi-comic" response Chekhov is supposed to have had to it. It is here that the disputes arise. For, on the one hand, Chekhov creates a sense of social transition and of its cost, showing a serious interest in the nature and process of social evolution. The financial ruin of the old estates, the relation of that to the Emancipation of the serfs, and the growth of a new merchant class out of the ranks of the former serfs, all have some mention in the play and are in some ways the central psychic facts under whose impetus the characters act. But Firs's subservience, Lopahin's rather aggressive autonomy, and Gaev's failure to be realistic about his debts are not the deeply (even tragically) consequential states The Three Sisters might have made of them. They are presented, instead, with a finely achieved lightness of touch. Like The Three Sisters, the play is imbued with a sense of social and cultural tension, which the breaking string and the thud of the axe express at snapping-point. But even at the first ominous sound of that string a lighter note is not far away:

(All sit plunged in thought. Perfect stillness. The only thing audible is the muttering of Firs. Suddenly there is a sound in the distance, as it were from the skythe sound of a breaking harpstring, mournfully dying away.)

Lyubov. What is that?

Lopahin. I don't know. Somewhere far away a bucket fallen and broken in the pits. But somewhere very far away.

Gaev. It might be a bird of some sort—such as a heron.

Trofimov. Or an owl.

Lyubov. (Shudders) I don't know why, but it's horrid (a pause).

Firs. It was the same before the calamity—the owl hooted and the samovar hissed all the time.

Gaev. Before what calamity?

Firs. Before the emancipation (a pause).

(pp. 40-1)

The way the sound is placed, at an impasse in the conversation and immediately the sun has set, gives it clear symbolic force—which Maurice Valency's suggestively titled book, The Breaking String, somewhat disappointingly fails to specify. It is the sound of social transition, of the passing away of a particular class, as the wheels of a society begin to turn. As the string snaps over characters momentarily silent and stilled, the history that will absorb them feels sadly, and even horrifically, palpable. The play deepens suddenly into a premonition of the defeat awaiting its characters—with the exception, of course, of Lopahin. Yet the social significance of the snapping string is at once suggested and lightened by Firs's reference to similar omens before the Emancipation. The long perspective of time returns to the immediate comedy of Firs's remark.

This tension in the play's mood is even more obvious when it comes to Chekhov's balancing the old order against the new—a departure again from the tone and feeling of The Three Sisters. The Cherry Orchard, in fact, functions throughout in terms of symmetry. Realistically aware of what is gained, as well as what is lost, in the destruction of the orchard, it avoids naive or weak sentimentality. The old order had its bitterness, always present in Trofimov's mind, of which we are asked to be aware:

Think only, Anya, your grandfather, and great-grandfather, and all your ancestors were slave-owners—the owners of living souls—and from every cherry in the orchard, from every leaf, from every trunk there are human creatures looking at you. Cannot you hear their voices? Oh, it is awful!

(p. 43)

But, to balance this, the new one has its positive side:

Lopahin. I sowed three thousand acres with poppies in the spring, and now I have cleared forty thousand profit. And when my poppies were in flower, wasn't it a picture! So here, as I say, I made forty thousand, and I'm offering you a loan because I can afford to. Why turn up your nose? I am a peasant—I speak bluntly.

(p. 67)

Though Lopahin's practicality involves bluntness of manner and even downright destruction, he can be generous and he is not utterly impervious to beauty. His honesty and openness in the play can be as refreshing as a cool wind; and if his poppies are more flamboyant than the stately cherry-orchard and more transient in blossom, they are nevertheless what the cherry orchard no longer is. Though lacking the historical and in a sense cultural permanence of the orchard, they have a more colourful vitality; and, along with their beauty, they are—importantly—profitable. Their beauty is their "use", a beauty for which, unlike that of the orchard, people are prepared to pay.

The earliest plays that Chekhov wrote were vaudeville and farce, and indeed the comic sense of behaviour he exploited there was never far from his work. His sense of humour, while often expressed as irony, also involved a keen sense of the ridiculous in human gesture; and there are many individual effects in The Cherry Orchard that border on burlesque. The whole conception of Epihodov, "two and twenty misfortunes", for example, makes for a fairly primitive kind of comedy running through the whole play as he squashes, breaks and falls over everything. Trofimov, too, falls downstairs at the point of his indignant exit in Act III, and in the same Act Varya wields a stick that almost hits the wrong man. If there is a more sinister significance attaching to the distasteful Pishtchik and Yasha, the comic vein still continues. The characters of The Cherry Orchard, as Valency notices, are more formulaic than those of Chekhov's other major plays, though they are not caricatures; in fact, Mme Ranevsky is the only figure who is even potentially tragic. But even Mme Ranevsky, if she is not herself comic, is set in a context where comedy is always likely to arise. When she pronounces herself so glad to find old Firs alive, he responds deafly "the day before yesterday", and her worldly, rather heavy-handed "wit" is made humorous, if it isn't already, by the solemnity with which it is received:

Pishtchik (to Lyubov Andreyevna). What's it like in Paris? Did you eat frogs there?

Lyubov. Oh, I ate crocodiles.

Pishtchik. Fancy that now!

(p. 16)

Yet although the ridiculous is part of Chekhov's sense of people, it is not his ultimate response to life. The often comic characters in the play inhabit a world that is nonetheless felt to be humanly and historically serious. So that when Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard a "comedy" he may well have meant comedy in the classical sense: not something designed to provoke actual laughter, but a kind of art that, while being imbued with a strong sense of the destiny of its figures, refuses to see that destiny tragically. The sad and spasmodically anguished debate between Chekhov and Stanislavsky about the kind of play each deemed it to be does seem to have rested on a more literal-minded view, at least on Stanislavsky's part, of what the comic mode might involve. Looked at more broadly, however, The Cherry Orchard belongs to something like the category of The Winter's Tale: it contains a tragedy but does not allow it to be fulfilled. In Chekhov's case, this is not because the ending brings partial recovery: Lyubov and Gaev do finally lose their estate. But what is lost at the end of The Cherry Orchard has really already been lost at the beginning. Mme Ranevsky and her family have been away from the cherry-orchard and the play records their coming home; the pattern is primarily one of return—return to a way of life, idyllic and pure, but which there is really no hope of sustaining. So that, rather than a tragedy, The Cherry Orchard might be seen, from one point of view, as a modern adaptation of Pastoral.

Pastoral, of course, has taken many forms over the centuries. Wordsworth's "nature" poetry, for example, or Corot's landscapes may not seem "pastoral" in the classical sense at all. But it does seem as if periods of very rapid social transition are often accompanied in the arts by a renewal of interest (on the part of both artists and their audiences) in images of rural content. At its simplest, the contrast between an ideal of rustic goodness and the sophisticated vanities of the world is the artist's most natural moral reaction to the competing energies of a society in rapid change. Yet even if the contrast takes more complicated artistic forms than this, the popular tendency at such times to equate the loss of an old way of life with the loss of cultural innocence may well supply the artist with a stock of potent psychological imagery. In The Cherry Orchard that imagery involves the orchard itself, identified by both Lyubov and Gaev with the purity of their childhood, to which, in coming back to the orchard, Lyubov is trying to return. And, together with that, Chekhov quite self-consciously adapts to his usual stage effects the pastoral shepherd's pipe and wayside shrine. In effect, just prior to the onset of one of the most momentous social transitions in modern history, Chekhov renovated stylized elements of an old pastoral mode for his own distinctly modern purposes: to define the yearning for lost innocence that is so central to Lyubov's individual psychology, and to indicate by ironic disjunctions from the pastoral ideal the state of a culture in which the loss of innocence (and energy) has long since happened.

Like The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard is constructed around a central image, not (as in Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters) around a person or persons. On the whole, this has the disadvantaage of robbing the play of that interest in complex personalities that makes The Three Sisters so humanly rich. But the advantages for Chekhov of this quasi-symbolist way of conceiving his task are, firstly, the tightness it enables him to give to the shape of his work, and secondly, the opportunity it offers, by removing him from close psychological involvement with his characters, for a drama with an explicit cultural and historical dimension. Where the abundance of The Three Sisters may hinder an easy perception of its emergent pattern, The Cherry Orchard immediately feels to be a well-constructed play. And where our absorption by 0lga's, Masha's and Irena's personalities in The Three Sisters may distract us from noticing the stage-composition, there is no such distraction from The Cherry Orchard's changing visual tableaux. The Cherry Orchard begins and ends with a stage without people: in each case there is only the "nursery", cold and empty, with the cherry-orchard sparkling through its windows. The cherry-orchard itself is the dramatis persona. For, right from the beginning of Act I, it is from the static spectacle of the orchard, white with frost, that the play takes its psychological shape:

A room, which has always been called the nursery. One of the doors leads into Anya's room. Dawn, sun rises during the scene. May, the cherry trees in flower, but it is cold in the garden with the frost of early morning. Windows closed. Enter Dunyasha with a candle and Lopahin with a book in his hand.

(p. 3)

The sunrise is just beginning as the Act begins, so that the light defines the cherry-orchard against the more shadowy inside foreground; and the whiteness of the blossoming trees and frosted earth gives the outside scene a static, timeless air. As the light gradually intensifies throughout the Act, the cherry-orchard pales back into the distance. But no account of the play can afford to disregard this immediate visual presentation of the orchard, impersonal and almost magically suspended in the morning frost. For its strangely timeless quality and mute purity become for a while, as in pastoral, the reference-points against which the ordinary human world seems burdened and exhausted by time. The room in which Act I takes place is a former nursery, a place full of memories. Lopahin and Dunyasha enter during those odd few minutes between night and day when time is most palpable:

Lopahin. The train's in, thank God. What time is it?

Dunyasha. Nearly two o'clock (puts out the candle). It's daylight already.

(p. 3)

And, when Lopahin begins his typically Chekhovian reverie, bringing a personal and social past simultaneously forward to sustain his anticipation of seeing Lyubov again, the complexity of human time is felt against the unvarying cycle of the cherry-blossoming, momentarily spellbound in three degrees of frost:

Lyubov Andreyevna has been abroad five years; I don't know what she is like now … She's a splendid woman. A good-natured, kind-hearted woman. I remember when I was a lad of fifteen, my poor father—he used to keep a little shop here in the village in those days—gave me a punch in the face with his fist and made my nose bleed. We were in the yard here, I forget what we'd come about—he had had a drop. Lyubov Andreyevna—I can see her now—she was a slim young girl then—took me to wash my face, and then brought me into this very room, into the nursery. "Don't cry, little peasant," says she, "it will be well in time for your wedding day" (a pause).

(pp. 3-4)

Human time, as Chekhov envisages it, is both complicated by nostalgia and fraught with irony. This "little peasant" will later own Lyubov's estate, and her troubles will be increased by his failure to have that "wedding-day". But it is the irrevocability of time that occupies our attention in Act I as Lyubov and her entourage arrive back from the worldliness of Paris in the hope of a new life. When, towards the end of the Act, the windows are flung open to the orchard twittering with birds, the innocence of which it reminds Lyubov has an almost tragic past tense:

Varya (softly.) Anya's asleep. (Softly opens the window) Now the sun's risen, it's not a bit cold. Look, mamma, what exquisite trees! My goodness! And the air! The starlings are singing!

Gaev (opens another window) The orchard is all white. You've not forgotten it, Lyuba? That long avenue that runs straight, straight as an arrow, how it shines on a moonlight night. You remember? You've not forgotten?

Lyubov (looking out of the window into the garden). Oh, my childhood, my innocence! It was in this nursery I used to sleep, from here I looked out into the orchard, happiness waked with me every morning and in those days the orchard was just the same, nothing has changed (laughs with delight). All, all white! Oh, my orchard! After the dark gloomy autumn, and the cold winter, you are young again, and full of happiness, the heavenly angels have never left you … If I could cast off the burden that weighs on my heart, if I could forget the past!

(p. 20)

It is characteristic of Chekhov to avoid a surface nostalgia here (that emotion which is so attractive, yet so dangerous in unskilled hands), and instead to make Lyubov's, albeit somewhat theatrical, longing for childhood a longing for innocence and escape from time. The whiteness she prizes as purity in the orchard touches her because of the loss of that quality in her own life (just as Gaev, too, values the brilliance and symmetry that are missing from his). For although Mme Ranevsky is an attractive character, a woman of energy of whom Chekhov said "nothing but death could subdue a woman like that", there is a worldliness and incipient vulgarity about her that reveal her a long way, psychologically, from the cherry-orchard world of her youth. She feels the passing of time, not in terms of age, but in terms of guilt—guilt about her lover, about the death of her son, about all that Paris has meant to her. And if, as the play goes on, she seems singularly inactive about any attempt to save the orchard that means so much to her, it is, first, because she feels morally that she does not deserve the orchard, and second, because in that world she does not actually belong. In her deepest self she regards the experience of losing the orchard, of letting it slip through her hands, as a form of penance—the loss of the emblem of that innocence whose reality has long since gone. In any case, the call of her life—and love—is to Paris. The telegrams that arrive at her estate even before she herself does are a persistent cause of tension, of self-division, which under the trying circumstances of Act III suddenly explodes into a defiant recognition of where her allegiances lie:

Lyubov. That's a telegram from Paris. I get one every day. One yesterday and one today. That savage creature is ill again, he's in trouble again. He begs forgiveness, beseeches me to go, and really I ought to go to Paris to see him. You look shocked, Petya. What am I to do, my dear boy, what am I to do? He is ill, he is alone and unhappy, and who'll look after him, who'll keep him from doing the wrong thing, who'll give him his medicine at the right time? And why hide it or be silent? I love him, that's clear. I love him! I love him! He's a millstone about my neck, I'm going to the bottom with him, but I love that stone and can't live without it (presses TROFIMOV'S hand). Don't think ill of me, Petya, don't tell me anything, don't tell me …

(pp. 53-4)

After this speech, a few significantly placed lines from "The Magdalene" make it clear that, paradoxical as it may seem, the cherry-orchard, with all its metaphoric connotations of innocence for Lyubov, has to be lost for her to have peace of mind.

When the play begins, the only character to have anything like the purity the orchard represents is Anya, who bears so much likeness to Lyubov's younger self. In Act I all hope seems centred on her. Significantly, the shepherd's pipe plays as she retires to bed, and the last words of the Act are a spoken tribute to her (ordinary metaphors, perhaps, but meaningfully suggestive of natural radiance in this carefully established context):

Trofimov (tenderly). My sunshine! My spring.

Later in the play, however, as Anya becomes more and more the victim of Trofimov's rhetoric, her value as embodying innocence is greatly qualified. In welcoming the "new dawn" with Trofimov, she subordinates her natural goodness to a shaky ideal; and at the end of Act III she comforts Lyubov with promises that are plainly empty. The pastoral shepherd's piping is not heard again after the end of Act I.

Chekhov, as I have said, is renovating certain elements of pastoral to define a process of cultural transition. The whole opening scene of Act II, as a pictorial composition, is pastoral in character—the initial illusion of purity about the pastoral setting becoming only gradually and subtly ironic as we discern the presence of the "great town" in the background. Then, more particularly, the ironic intention becomes manifest through the disintegration of the pure and exact visual impression (described in the elaborate stage-directions) into an incongruous awkwardness of movement and modernity of dialogue when the action actually begins. The "wider horizon" Chekhov wanted in the stage-setting provides an urban perspective to the pastoral image, foreshadowing the end of a country idyll. More importantly, however, the human groupings in the foreground (framed, in this case, by the wayside shrine and well, so clearly reminiscent of pastoral) recall Watteau's famous painting, Les Charmes de la Vie, bringing to mind the subtle melancholy of that picture. Epihodov is set apart with his guitar, while the others are clustered on the garden seat. The setting seems initially to invite delight and the pleasures of courtly love. But, while there is a love-triangle of a kind between Yasha, Dunyasha and Epihodov, it is not one to radiate innocence and joy. Like Yasha's and Epihodov's singing, something in the setting is vaguely off-key: there is a sense of disquiet, and each figure, "plunged in thought", seems oddly absorbed in himself.

Like Watteau's Gilles, Chekhov's composition shows his feeling for the fate of those secondary characters, like the artificer and the clown, who have been congenially parasitic on a high culture which is now entering a phase of decline. For, before the lifelessness of a culture is generally recognized, these people instinctively reflect the fact by a certain stiffness of posture and, in some cases, artlessness of gesture. Their demeanour reveals the emptiness of their art which, in no longer serving something vital, no longer serves them. So that it is no small calculation on Chekhov's part that Act II should begin with Charlotta—governess, conjurer and ventriloquist—captured at an artlessly confessional moment, speaking (unheard) to other subordinate people, all of whom seem, despite their stylized postures, lonely and bereft of resource:

Charlotta (musingly). I haven't a real passport of my own, and I don't know how old I am, and I always feel that I'm a young thing. When I was a little girl, my father and mother used to travel about to fairs and give performances—very good ones. And I used to dance salto-mortale and all sorts of things. And when papa and mamma died, a German lady took me and had me educated. And so I grew up and became a governess. But where I came from, and who I am, I don't know … who my parents were, very likely they weren't married … I don't know (takes a cucumber out of her pocket and eats). I know nothing at all (a pause). One wants to talk and has no one to talk to … I have nobody.

Epihodov (plays on the guitar and sings). "What care I for the noisy world! What care I for friends and foes!" How agreeable it is to play on the mandoline!

Dunyasha. That's a guitar, not a mandoline (looks in a hand-mirror and powders herself).

(pp. 28-9)

It is part of the comic convention that the sorrows of which Charlotta speaks are recognized rather than felt, partly balanced by, and partly deflected into, her cucumber-eating. The expressions of melancholy are stylized. But the fact that feelings are formalized in this arrangement does nothing to discount the fact that they are there. Though lacking the individualism, and indeed the cruelty, of tragedy, the scene gives classical expression to a state of cultural decay by which the characters are tangibly but unconsciously oppressed. With the setting sun, in deliberate contrast to the sunrise of Act I, Chekhov prepares imaginatively for the demise of the landed class in this play and for the loss of all that that has contributed positively to the culture.

Consistent with this stylized beginning, the Act in general assumes a processional character—three groups of figures in turn arriving to converse by the abandoned shrine before the sun finally sets and the string is heard snapping in the sky. The last of these groups includes Trofimov, the "perpetual student" whose opinions (were it not for their often ironic context in the play) are fairly close to what Chekhov's letters suggest were his own. Trofimov's speeches widen the specific social reference of the play:

The vast majority of the intellectual people I know, seek nothing, do nothing, are not fit as yet for work of any kind. They call themselves intellectual, but they treat their servants as inferiors, behave to the peasants as though they were animals, learn little, read nothing seriously, do practically nothing, only talk about science and know very little about art.

(p. 39)

It is characteristic of Chekhov's irony, however, that this character, who so often accords with his own attitudes, is a conspicuously inadequate person, embodying more than anyone the inactivity of which he speaks. What Trofimov advocates in his most rhetorical speeches is embodied before him in Lopahin; and though he cannot recognize it, Chekhov clearly does so in creating that symbolic stalemate between Lopahin and Lyubov on the subject of Russia's "giants":

Lopahin. You know, I get up at five o'clock in the morning, and I work from morning to night; and I've money, my own and other people's, always passing through my hands, and I see what people are made of all round me. One has only to begin to do anything to see how few honest, decent people there are. Sometimes when I lie awake at night I think: "Oh! Lord, thou hast given us immense forests, boundless plains, the widest horizons, and living here we ourselves ought really to be giants."

Lyubov. You ask for giants! They are no good except in story-books; in real life they frighten us.

(Epihodov advances in the background, playing on the guitar)

Lyubov (dreamily). There goes Epihodov.

Anya (dreamily). There goes Epihodov.

Gaev. The sun has set, my friends.

(pp. 39-40)

Epihodov steps forth as if in answer to Lyubov's call: the most absurd representative of the old order, passing across the stage in the last rays of light. As the sun sets over him, the string in the sky snaps over all. Immediately, a change occurs. By its own inner momentum, the play works towards this as one of its crucial points of timing. The wayfarer enters, begging and then ridiculing Varya's money; Lopahin suddenly taunts her about their assumed marriage, which he has never done before; and Trofimov wins the loyalty of Anya. Although Lopahin's "giants" would at least be decent and incorruptible men, and although Trofimov the idealist prophesies happiness, there is nothing to endorse either hope in the play's structure. In fact, the rising moon, the poplars, Epihodov's melancholy tune, and the echo of Varya's voice—"Anya! Anya!"—say otherwise.

It is at this point, from the beginning of Act III, that the strong pastoral note fades away and Chekhov turns more directly to give an image of shifting power and social disintegration. From a beginning in which what is essentially a family is re-united in a setting of shared memories, the play accumulates people—only to loosen the bindings between them. The emphasis shifts from Lyubov's personal longing for lost innocence to the power-dynamics of social change. In Acts I and II Yasha and Dunyasha, coming only gradually into their own right as characters, are disruptive presences among the cherry-orchard people, breaking up any sense that Lyubov and Gaev are the unrivalled central persons in a stable community. Though officially subordinate in station, they dress and act like the class they serve; and Yasha's service to that class is often performed with irony. In Act III, however, beginning with the introduction of the post-office clerk and station-master as reluctant guests at Lyubov's party, Chekhov now brings directly into focus the stages of Lyubov's and Gaev's loss of power and the greater importance of a new factor in the determination of status—the factor of money. In no other of Chekhov's plays is money so important, so insidiously dominating the characters' lives. Pishtchik can think of nothing else, as he himself says. And the unusually nervous balance of relationships in Act III derives from the fact that, although the scales of power are presumed to have tipped with the sale of the orchard, no one knows exactly which way.

Like its counterparts in Chekhov's other major plays, Act III brings the drama to a climax by collecting its characters together in strained and untypical circumstances. Almost always, these occasions have the inbuilt irony of being gatherings that should not have been. Like Serebryakov's meeting to propose the sale of the estate in Uncle Vanya, and the fire that occurs by chance in The Three Sisters (so wholly inappropriate to the sisters' state of feeling at the time, that it seems as if it has been lit "on purpose" to spite them), Act III of The Cherry Orchard is "the wrong time to have the orchestra, and the wrong time to give a dance" (p. 48). The very presence of the post-office clerk and the station-master is a clear sign of change, a disappointment in terms of what has been prepared for by the double drawing-room, the arch and the burning chandelier. After the outdoor setting of Act II, this scene is burdened with the accessories of a past age, oppressing the non-aristocratic present with their disproportionate formality and weight. The dance, designed to promote high spirits, has only a forced gaiety, beneath which lie frustration and a flickering aggression. No one in the room (except perhaps the silly Dunyasha) is really happy, and only a convention of mock-abuse, freely indulged in, covers—or partly covers—the personal aggressions that are going on. The propensity for aggression infects nearly all the characters, but it is most obvious in Charlotta—that curiously disembodied and autonomous person, obscure as to class, mannish, and yet not without a feminine quota of loneliness. Charlotta works with artifice, is skilled in illusion; and it is by illusion that she distracts attention from the painful fate hanging over the cherry-orchard. In her check trousers and grey top hat, and springing into the air with shouts of "Bravo!", she is an unrealistic figure (belonging, one comes to see, to the stylized tradition of mime); and yet an intriguing and important one. For her tricks show more than a simple desire to entertain, being intensely self-assertive and in some ways frightening in their willed anarchy. Chekhov makes them, in fact, cleverly symbolic of just such cruel, almost predestined operations of "chance" and sudden overthrow of the old by which the world of the play works and which gives Lyubov's estate to Lopahin.

Significantly, the first definite news that the orchard has been sold provokes laughter from Yasha and irony from Firs: reactions in each case to Lyubov's loss of power, and coming with a quickness that betrays an aggression that has always been latent though masked. The process of loss culminates in the burlesque of Varya's taking a stick to Epihodov, perfectly timed to become her last frustrated gesture of authority. It is subverted by the entry of Lopahin, the new owner of the cherry-orchard. As Lopahin announces the fact that he owns the orchard, activity and dialogue stop to allow the shock to reverberate across the stage. Only after Varya has thrown down her keys do things resume their progress, but now at Lopahin's bidding, not Lyubov's. The final shift of power takes place, definitively, in that one moment, after which Lyubov is left only with the private hope of going to Paris and Anya's well-intentioned but empty promises.

So far as the characters are concerned, the drama at this point is effectively finished; and Act IV is in many ways thinner than the other Acts. What it does, however, is to shift the emphasis away from people and more towards social fact. The very setting of the scene is more impersonal, with the cold, hard reality of Mme Ranevsky's loss embodied in the new starkness of the former "nursery". The sense of space on the stage is a sense of "desolation", of emptiness—an emptiness in which Lopahin and Yasha with their glasses of champagne are somewhat at a loss. The house already has an abandoned and hollow air. As in Act I, the weather is sunny and still, with three degrees of frost; but the significance of such weather now is simply that it is "just right for building". A pervasive shift has taken place in the culture represented in the play, from aristocratic to bourgeois values. Yet Chekhov's response is no more all sadness than it is all fun: he simply recognizes that, up to a point, life is change and that time usually brings at least some good:

Trofimov. Your father was a peasant, mine was a chemist—and that proves absolutely nothing whatever. (Lopahin takes out his pocket-book). Stop that—stop that. If you were to offer me two hundred thousand I wouldn't take it. I am an independent man, and everything that all of you, rich and poor alike, prize so highly and hold so dear, hasn't the slightest power over me—it's like so much fluff fluttering in the air. I can get on without you. I can pass by you. I am strong and proud. Humanity is advancing towards the highest truth, the highest happiness, which is possible on earth, and I am in the front ranks.

Lopahin. Will you get there?

Trofimov. I shall get there (a pause). I shall get there, or I shall show others the way to get there.

(In the distance is heard the stroke of an axe on a tree).

Lopahin. Good-bye, my dear fellow; it's time to be off. We turn up our noses at one another, but life is passing all the while. When I am working hard without resting, then my mind is more at ease, and it seems to me as though I too know what I exist for; but how many people there are in Russia, my dear boy, who exist, one doesn't know what for. Well, it doesn't matter. That's not what keeps things spinning.

(pp. 67-8)

This dialogue between Lopahin and Trofimov is entirely without malice. It is the last salutation between men bent on opposite ways, and it rises to the occasion with an uneasy but touching reconciliation: "We turn up our noses at one another, but life is passing all the while". Trofimov has the vague idealism of the old class, Lopahin the quiet, instinctive pragmatism of the new. Lopahin has money and a confidence based on the utility of work; but the axe is also his that fells the cherry-trees. Trofimov has only a great dream; and, while it is in one way a democratic dream, it is in its self-aggrandizing pride and self-assurance unmistakably aristocratic in origin. It sounds, to say the least, a very precarious dream, placed up against the down-to-earth question—"Will you get there?"—and the distant sound of the axe.

It is significant, of course, that this balancing of gains and losses between the old order and the new is achieved through Lopahin and Trofimov. The ethical side of Chekhov's intelligence demands that he recognize Lopahin's basic decency and that he admire Lopahin's ability to get things done. To do so, he sets him beside one of the less sympathetic members of the old class, with whom our sympathies are not so involved. In this way a fairly ready balance is achieved and Chekhov's intellectual grasp of the situation is left clear. For some time, in fact, the play counterpoints each response with another in order to prevent the feelings of any one character or group of characters from holding complete sway. Lyubov and Gaev are both saddened and relieved at the loss of the orchard, since their personal lives are somehow freed: freed perhaps too late, and certainly in an ambiguous way, but freed nonetheless. Lopahin, on the other hand, having triumphed in the purchase of the orchard, seems to have no private energy left. There is no doubt now that he will never marry Varya.

The emptiness of the house, left to stand during the winter to be knocked down in the spring, when "new life" theoretically begins, makes us feel this departure from the cherry-orchard to be the sad finale to a whole era of Russian life. Still the voices are set in dialogue:

Anya. Good-bye, home! Good-bye to the old life!

Trofimov. Welcome to the new life!

There is not one response but many, deftly inter-twined:

Lopahin. Till the spring, then! Come, friends, till we meet! (goes out).

(Lyubov Andreyevna and Gaev remain alone. As though they had been waiting for this, they throw themselves on each other's necks, and break into subdued smothered sobbing, afraid of being overheard)

Gaev (in despair). Sister, my sister!

Lyubov. Oh, my orchard!—my sweet, beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness, good-bye! good-bye!

Voice of Anya (calling gaily). Mamma!

Voice of Trofimov (gaily, excitedly) Aa-oo!

(p. 77)

This counter-pointing of youth and age, hope and elegy, perfectly balances a sense of alternative social possibilities. It is a tribute to Chekhov's intelligence that that balance should persist to the very end. But as all the voices dissolve into silence and the dull thud of the axe, the moment has come for him to abandon the previous restraints on his own sympathies. The sounds retreating, then silence, and finally the axe and solitary footsteps, all echo life deserting the cherry-orchard and the destruction of the cherry-orchard itself. And with the appearance of Firs, old, sick and lying motionless on the stage as the curtain drops, a chapter of history seems to be coming to a close.

It is true, I think, that this image of Firs at the very end of the play softens and distorts our sense of the Russian past, evoking too simple a pathos. Since the cherry-orchard itself is, from one point of view, an intrinsically biased emblem of the past—its value, however finally ambiguous, being instantly established in its visual beauty, its glistening whiteness—the ending of the play with its historical implication needs to be firmer. Firs is a risky figure for Chekhov to give much importance to because he is so much a stock-creation, producing only a limited comedy and always tempting Chekhov to indugle over-simple effects. We might do well to compare the sense of the past as embodied in him with that of even the very recent past in The Three Sisters, where it takes such a complex form in Olga's, Masha's and Irena's characters, or with the late story "A Woman's Kingdom", where a past style of life is seen incongruously penetrating the one that has replaced it. Fortunately, Firs lying on the stage is not the only impression with which The Cherry Orchard leaves us. Above him is the sound of the string snapping in the sky, and behind him are the resounding strokes of the axe, conveying the eerie impression of the inevitability, pathos, and finally the chilling unalterability of a social transition taking place. Our sympathy for these people and this household is converted, I think, into a more abstract understanding of historical process. Certainly, after the simplification of feeling introduced by the figure of Firs, that is something that the end of the play needs.

Clayton A. Hubbs and Joanna T. Hubbs (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: "The Goddess of Love and the Tree of Knowledge: Some Elements of Myth and Folklore in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring 1982, pp. 66-77.

[In the following essay, the critics argue that "archetypes from myth and folklore" inform The Cherry Orchard and exert significant influence on its plot.]

In the climactic scene of The Cherry Orchard, Gayev recites the following hymn to the Great Mother Goddess:

Oh, glorious Nature, shining with eternal light, so beautiful and yet so indifferent to our fate … you whom we call Mother, uniting in yourself both Life and Death, you live and you destroy.…1

Gayev's speech is followed by an embarrassed silence "only broken by the subdued muttering of Feers. Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away." In the stage directions for the scene, the trees of the cherry orchard are contrasted to man-made trees, telegraph poles:

A road leads to Gayev's estate. On one side and at some distance away there is a row of dark poplars, and it is there that the cherry orchard begins. Further away is seen a line of telegraph poles, and beyond them, on the horizon, the vague outlines of a large town, visible only in very good, clear weather.


In the final scene of the play we hear the breaking string a second time, this time against the background of the cherry trees being cut down to make way for construction. Liubov, whose name means "love" and whose role in the play suggests her identification with the Mother Goddess, is cast out into the profane world as if she were Eve being cast out of Paradise: "Oh my darling, my precious, my beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness … good-bye! … Good-bye!"

Gayev's evocation of nature as an indifferent goddess juxtaposed with the sound of a breaking string produces a sense of sadness and dislocation, the prevailing tone of The Cherry Orchard and all of Chekhov's plays. "Out of the sky" suggests a break between man and the sustaining cosmos. The association of Liubov with the tree (the chopping down of the trees and the departure of the mother occur together against the sound of the breaking string) provides us with a clue to the complex symbolism and structure of the play: The role of the Great Goddess changes from that of the bringer of life to the agent of death, from an initial association with the Tree of Life to a final association with the Tree of Knowledge, from the central and totemic figure of the Goddess to the denigrated and sinful Eve.

The mother, in the double aspect that Gayev describes her, as the agent of life and of death, is clearly the central figure that informs The Cherry Orchard. The play's four acts follow the movement of the seasons, from spring and the promise of renewal of life with the return of the mother in act one to winter and the coming of death in act four. By isolating one aspect of the Great Mother Goddess, her totemic association with trees (in this case the cherry trees of the orchard) and noting the change that occurs as the nature of that association moves from one with the Tree of Life (the cherry as the fruit-bearing tree which feeds both peasant and gentry) to the Tree of Knowledge (telegraph poles, man-made trees which indicate the dislocation and human isolation of industrial society), we will disclose the controlling symbolism of the play and outline its movement from the promise of renewal of comedy and to the suffering and death of tragedy.2

The historian of religion Fedotov argues that the cult of nature as mother is deeply embedded in Russian life and is the source of Russian religiosity. Christianization merely transformed the caring Russian Demeter into the all-encompassing Bogoroditsa (Mother of God).3 At the same time the evil aspects of the Mother Goddess—as death dealer—were identified in part with the temptress Eve, the sinful rebel, mother of mankind whose action condemned her children to exile and death. Eve became the prototype for the disobedient and hence evil wife against whose snares the Orthodox church warned its male members.4 But the cult of the pagan all-powerful Great Mother continued in Russia into the twentieth century. As Gayev's speech reminds us, the two aspects of the Great Goddess as bringer of life and death are clearly united. What is involved here is a gradual displacement of her functions. To appreciate fully Chekhov's use of the complex symbolism of the double aspect of the mother and of the feminine, we must consider the disparity between her image in Russian folklore and in Christian mythology.

Russian folklore is suffused with the worship of "Mother Moist Earth" (Mat' Syra Zemlia) embodying the forces of nature and the family bond. She appears to bear her children parthenogenetically. Though she is without name, she is akin to Demeter, goddess of fertility and motherly love. The peasant is her child, tied to the earth umbilically as though to the body of the nurturing mother. Fedotov describes him as "the fatherless son of Mother Earth" and though she taught him fidelity, he continues, she did not instill in him the male virtues of freedom and valor.5 Since she represents the totality of being and nature, she is the good, nurturing mother; but she is also the evil hetaera and hag. Russian folklore presents us with these two distinct aspects of her being in the figures of the witch Baba Yaga and the nymphs called rusalki. It is through them that the linkage of earth and tree, of the Goddess with her Tree of Life, seems most apparent.

The cannibal witch Baba Yaga lives alone in the forest but is frequently represented as the mother of many daughters and surrounded by all forms of animal life. Through her fearsome hut on hen's feet youths must pass in their rites of passage into manhood and womanhood. They must escape her oven, her maw. But she is not merely a dangerous obstacle in the quest; she can also provide the key to success to the hero or heroine who knows how to win her favor or outwit her.6 This dual function, good and evil, is also shared by the rusalki. Here the sexual aspect suggested metaphorically in Baba Yaga's oven and her "heraldry," the mortar and pestle, is more pronounced, while the maternal aspects are diminished. The rusalki or Russian sirens are thought to live in all three elements of nature—water, earth, and sky—and their movement from one to the other suggests their role in the process of fertility as self-inseminatory. They are represented often as half-birds, half-fish. From their perches in the trees to which they migrate in the spring from their abodes in lakes, rivers, or springs, they lure men to their death. At the same time they bring fertility to the land.7

Both the Yaga and the rusalki are linked with trees—the first as the mother living in the midst of her primeval forest; the latter as hetaera, who lure the unwary. The tree, which in the form of the birch is associated with the Greek Goddess in Russian lore, is often represented as her homologue. In folk art, particularly embroidery, one often finds the motif of a goddess (perhaps "Mother Moist Earth" herself) flanked by horsemen, animals, birds, and many forms of vegetation. Frequently, the figure of a woman is replaced by that of the universal symbol of the Tree of Life, suggestive of the Mother Goddess encompassing her male child-consort.8 In Russian folk tradition the tree has an especially significant function. It is closely associated with the natural cycle of fertility for which it is the totem. The "priestesses" of the Tree of Life are peasant women—both young and mature.9 In the rites of the agrarian calendar which regulate all social and personal life of the peasantry, women are the midwives of nature who help deliver her child in the form of the harvest. Their homology with the fertile earth is suggested in the following Christianized proverb: "Your first Mother is Mary, your second mother is the earth, and your third is your own mother."10 In the calenderic rites that fertility is linked with trees. The festival of "bringing in the spring" which began the pagan year rites was the most joyous of the Russian festivals. In some areas before the Revolution, girls brought a doll figure or a tree from the forest into the village and called it "our Blessed Mother Spring"; and as though to suggest the persistence of rites in Russia which recall those of Demeter and Kore, they sang: "My spring, where is your daughter?"11 This ritual initiated a series of festivals in which women appeared to transfer the power of the tree, its rising sap—represented mythologically as the migration of the rusalki from water to tree—into the village to stimulate seeds planted in the fields and, analogously, human fertility. Going into the forest during the spring festival of Rusalia, girls and women decorated and chopped down a tree called a "Rusalka." This tree was used to augur future marrianges.12

While the tree is perceived as the symbol of the mother as nature and has the significance of the Tree of Life in the folkloric context, in Christian symbolism the Edenic tree is no longer called the Tree of Life but the Tree of Knowledge and is presided over by an angry male god rather than a maternal goddess. The feminine, once analogous with the cosmos, is derogated to the function of the helpmate of Adam, created rather than creating, born through the masculine "womb"—Logos. (One might call her "manufactured.") As Eve, she is the source of man's fall, his willful seductress; and yet she is also the mother of mankind—a disobedient and hence evil mother who condemns her progeny to death. In her rebellion against the just Jehovah, she sinned by reassociating herself with the forbidden tree through the act of eating its fruit.

In The Cherry Orchard we see precisely the movement from the orchard presided over by the ancient form of the goddess as the Tree of Life, the fruit-producing tree, to the orchard which begins to lose its life-giving harvest, abandoned by its goddess and ceding to the Edenic Tree of Knowledge—of the bitter and divisive fruit. Chekhov's image of the orchard dissolving into the line of telegraph poles clearly suggests the displacement of one by the other: the domain of nature is to be dominated and subjected to man's design. Liubov, the mother, thus embodies both pagan and Christian mythologems: She is a mother goddess, giver of life and fertility, as her name implies; but she becomes increasingly impotent and thus evil, suggesting the unpredictable aspects of the rusalki and the Yaga who avenge themselves on those who disobey them. The once all-powerful goddess is displaced from her orchard—her own creation. As the fallen Eve, Liubov betrays the old Adam, her weak brother Gayev who is under her power, and abandons the orchard to the "New Adams," Trofimov and Lopahin. As the degraded Eve, her act is one of rebellion: She showers her last gold on the ground until she has none to give and leaves those who will no longer worship her former glory and her orchard. In so doing, she condemns the orchard to destruction and those who remain to the routine of meaningless work "by the sweat of their brow."

We now see the context for the complex symbolism of The Cherry Orchard. The Tree of Life which produces fruit is now, if not useless, not used. It stands as the "totem" of agrarian Russia, the place in which gentry and peasants communed in the cycle of nature. As old Feers says, "The peasant belonged to the gentry and the gentry belonged to the peasant; and now everything is separate and you can't understand a thing." All this has resulted from the orchard's falling into neglect after the initial departure of Liubov. The final break comes with her sale of the orchard and its abandonment. Liubov thus appears as a last representative of the sustaining power of the pagan nature myth; her "fall" brings to an end the old comic cycle of death and rebirth and suggests the "linear" finality of modern tragedy.

Having outlined the thematic and structural bases of the play in myth and folklore, we will examine its dramatic movement from the hope of renewed life to the fact of death. Despite our emphasis on chronology to show the mythic analogues, we wish to emphasize that Liubov's transformation from the goddess of love to the fallen Eve does not come as straightforward progression. Like the literal and historical levels of meaning, the mythic one remains richly ambiguous and cuts across the other two.

Liubov's springtime arrival as the sun comes up brings with it the promise of renewal. She is escorted by her worshipful entourage.13 Her daughters, her former self, and her brother Gayev bring her, like the Goddess of Spring, into the nursery where she appears both as the resurrected child ("I feel as if I were little again") and the mother of her drowned son and two unmarried daughters. She is both a Russian Demeter and a Kore. However, the goddess has already forsaken her land; her beautiful Adonis-like child has died—as a result of what she calls "her sins," her sexual transgressions—and the peasants go hungry. It is the death of the child which has driven her away. To pay the debts for her sins, the orchard must be sold and her trees sacrificed.

But for the moment there is hope of a paradise regained, of the old order renewed. Only her adopted peasant daughter Varia, who "lives like a nun," suspects that "in fact there's nothing in it, it's all a kind of dream." But the old serf Feers, embodiment of the old order, says: "The Mistress is home again! Home at last! I don't mind if I die now … (Weeps with joy)" (340). Coming right after Ania's recapitulation of the past and announcement to the audience that little brother Grisha was drowned in the river, this reference to a "happy" death as though it were an old man's return to the maternal womb ironically unites the child-Adonis to the old man. Liubov leaves because of an unexpected death over which she appeared to have no control and returns not to life but to another death—that of the old man Feers, of the orchard, and of the "grandfather house" contained within it. Child, old man, house, and orchard—encompassing all in a maternal bond—will disappear at play's end as Liubov leaves. But for now she has returned, and she is happy: "God, how I love my own country! I love it so much, I could hardly see it from the train, I was crying all the time [through tears]. However, I must drink my coffee. Thank you, Feers, thank you, my dear old friend. I am so glad I found you still alive" (341-42).

In her tears she evokes the Orthodox version of the God-bearer Madonna whose image co-exists among the peasantry with that of Mother Earth. In her iconic as well as ritual and folkloric representation—as the embodiment of the orchard and the symbol of the Goddess of Love—she will be destroyed for money. But as we have seen, she is not only the grieving Madonna who weeps for the death of humanity, she is also the pagan goddess of sexual and profane love. She is a rusalka, a siren, in the guise of the Christianized temptress Eve. In Paris—the image of the West through which industrialization reaches Russia and through which the cycle of the seasons is superseded by the dictates of society and machine, in which woman rules as "coquette" rather than in her maternal role as goddess of bonding love—the consort of the former goddess is a sickly lover. Maternal love is replaced by a shady "liaison" in a society where pairings are determined by man, not nature, and not for the reproduction of life but for profane pleasures.

Meanwhile the orchard languishes. The "debate" over its fate is the apparent action of the play. Lopahin, who loves Liubov and still worships her, insists that the cherry orchard be cut down to pay the family debts. Although Lopahin's spiritual attachment to Liubov remains, his dependence on the natural cycle has been replaced by a compulsion to work and to accumulate capital. In the past the orchard provided nourishment to the entire county. In the old days, Feers says, "they had a recipe." But the "recipe," the contract or bond with the natural order made by both peasant and gentry, cemented by the nurturing mother, is now forgotten. Lopahin, the embodiment of one form of the new Adam, sums it up:

Up to just recently there were only gentry and peasants living in the country, but now there are all these summer residents. All the towns, even quite small ones, are surrounded with villas. And probably in the course of the next twenty years or so, these people will multiply tremendously. At present they merely drink tea on the verandah, but they might start cultivating their plots of land, and then your cherry orchard would be gay with life and wealth and luxury.…


Liubov's weak brother, Gayev, who remains more strongly under her spell, can only say, "What nonsense," anticipating the very words with which Liubov will chastise Lopahin for his sentimental belief in the future and work. Gayev—like the landowner Pishchik, Feers, and her children—are still in her sphere.

In act one it is Gayev who reminds Liubov of her identification with the orchard:

Gayev [opens another window]. The orchard is all white. You haven't forgotten, Liuba?.… Do you remember? You haven't forgotten?

Liubov Andryeevna [looks through the window at the orchard]. Oh my childhood, my innocent childhood! I used to sleep in this nursery; I used to look on to the orchard from here, and I woke up happy every morning. In those days the orchard was just as it is now, nothing has changed. [Laughs happily.] All white! Oh, my orchard! After the dark, stormy autumn and the cold winter, you are young and joyous again.…


She sees her mother "walking through the orchard … in a white dress! [Laughs happily.] It is her!" (348). The orchard is not only Liubov in youth, as Kore, it is also her Mother Demeter whose role she herself has now assumed in regard to her children. The cherry trees dressed in white appear as an embodiment of woman (348). Trofimov, who enters in his shabby clothes, links the orchard in its bloom with her drowned son Grisha: In a literal as well as symbolic sense he takes Grisha's place. While Lopahin will take the place of Liubov as the "owner" of the land which is organically attached to her, so Trofimov will take the place of the youth unattached to the mother and looking forward to history and man's actions outside the organic sphere of nature as mother. Trofimov, a prototype for the forward-looking intelligentsia which wishes to propel Russia into the industrialized and westernized future, replaces Grisha, the child-Adonis attached to the mother. Liubov at first fails to recognize him and then strongly dislikes him:

Liubov Andryeevna [quietly weeping]. My little boy was lost … drowned … What for? What for, my friend? [More quietly.] How is it that you've lost your good looks? Why have you aged so?

Trofimov. A peasant woman in the train called me "that motheaten gent."

Liubov Andryeevna. In those days you were quite a boy, a nice young student, and now your hair is thin, you wear glasses.… Are you still a student? [Walks to the door.]

Trofimov. I expect I shall be a student to the end of my days.


The image of the mother and her drowned child suggests the interruption of the nurturance and continuance of life through the body of the mother. One can see in Trofimov, the petrified puer eternus, the symbol of that interrupted cycle. He is implicated in the child's death—most clearly in the sense that Grisha had been passed into his hands by Liubov to be "educated." Trofimov, the child substitute, exists only through his continued attachment to the Tree of Knowledge—the symbol of alienation, sin, and exile.

In the second act the focus shifts from the past to the present, from spring to summer, and the dream of regeneration of the first act is dramatically shattered. All the ancient folkloric motifs linking nature to mother and family are present in the background against which the servants, aping their betters, complain of loneliness and isolation. Here Gayev delivers his hymn to the Great Goddess. The shrine in the open fields is by a well, sacred in the folk tradition to the water nymphs, the rusalki; the discarded gravestones in the disused shrine evoke the image of the disintegration of the family clan with the dissolution of the worship of the mother-centered natural cycle. The action will still take place in the field, but the outline of a town looms on the horizon. The trees cede to telegraph poles threading their way out of the orchard and into the city. The servants' "dumb show" anticipates the one at play's end, the death of old Feers. Chekhov includes each character in the tragic action.

Lopahin attempts to persuade the lady to sell the estate for building plots. Liubov complains that her servants go hungry (the old servants get nothing but dried peas from her daughter Varia) while she spills coins on the open field. But she is not too distracted to admonish Lopahin, as she has Trofimov, for the drab and meaningless life he leads and to suggest, unsuccessfully, that he marry Varia. Liubov as matchmaker, as the goddess of the family who determines fates, finds herself unable to mate her own daughter to these "new men." Feers reminds them that in the old order "peasants belonged to the gentry and the gentry belonged to the peasants; but now everything is separate and you can't understand anything" (362). As a counterpoint, Trofimov pompously lectures Liubov and Gayev on the "progressive" opinions of a segment of the intelligentsia. Man is not a child of Mother Nature; he is a self-created being: "Where's the sense of being proud when you consider that Man, as a species, is not very well constructed physiologically and in the vast majority of cases is coarse, stupid, and profoundly unhappy too? We ought to stop all this self-admiration. We ought to—just work" (363). Trofimov and Lopahin thus come together in opposition to Liubov and her weakling brother as the new men whose recipe for salvation is to oppose the natural order, "to work." Trofimov works for a new humanity, an "advanced" mankind; Lopahin, more practically, works to enhance his financial worth. One is absorbed in ideas, the other in amassing wealth. Neither has time for love.

As an ironic counterpoint to the progressive visions of these "new men," Gayev, the Old Adam, sings his hymn to the Great Goddess, and we hear the sound of the breaking string. The break with nature and the past is complete; but the men of the future, Lopahin and Trofimov, are false prophets. As it was for the three sisters, Chekhov shows us that all this knowledge is useless without a sustaining myth, a reason for existing.

In the autumn of act three the future already belongs to Trofimov and Lopahin. Liubov is now the patriarchalized version of the Great Mother of the ancient world, Eve, whose sin makes mankind suffer. It is Liubov's regretable inattentiveness which results in the sale of the orchard and the necessity to "toil in the sweat of one's brow." It is through her that man is expelled from sacred to profane time, from the mythic realm of Eden to the stage of history where his sins must be expiated through labor and torment. She is the scapegoat and will be expelled in act four. As the orchard goes, so goes Mother Russia, Old Russia—subdivided into plots, industrialized to the rhythm of the machine and the clock. Liubov has lost all power:

Liubov Andryeevna. What truth? You can see where the truth is and where it isn't, but I seem to have lost my power of vision. I don't see anything.… You look ahead so boldly—but isn't that because life is still hidden from your young eyes.… I can't conceive life without the cherry orchard and if it really has to be sold then sell me with it.… [Embraces Trofimov, kisses him on the forehead.] You know, my son was drowned here.… [Weeps.] Have pity on me.


Trofimov has replaced Grisha, but he has not grown up; her daughter wishes to marry a "freak" who is "above love." When Lopahin enters to gloat over his purchase of the estate and order the trees cut, the sense of rape and despoliation of nature and her daemon Liubov is complete (384). Lopahin's "new life" will come at the expense of the destruction of an organic unity with nature. Chekhov's irony here is perhaps almost too apparent. The tyranny of nature—and of the old social order—is replaced by the tyranny of labor and of money:

Lopahin. Everything must be just as I wish it now. [Ironically.'] Here comes the new landowner, here comes the owner of the cherry orchard!


Only Ania and Varia, the daughter "priestesses" of the Great Mother, each one linked with one aspect of the New Men, Trofimov and Lopahin, still attempt to worship Liubov's now empty powers (385).

Act four, winter, is marked by "an oppressive sense of emptiness." Liubov, the Great Goddess as Demeter, promising fertility and renewal in the spring of the first act, has now become Kore and Eve, reigning over the house of the dead. Lopahin and Trofimov combine as the patriarchal figures of Pluto and Jehovah who have captured her forever perhaps. When spring comes again, the house and its remaining inhabitants will no longer exist, ceding to the new industrial, patriarchal order.

Lopahin and Trofimov see salvation only in continuous planning for the future and in work. No longer attached to the regular cycle of the seasons, work becomes neurotic repetition with no cosmic pivot. Lopahin says, "When I work for long hours on end without taking any time off, I feel happier in my mind and I even imagine I know why I exist" (389, emphasis added). Man is not expendable in nature: he rejoins his family and ancestors and forms a collective unit with them in the natural cycle.14 However, in society he is expendable, an often unnecessary cog—Trofimov's "coarse, stupid" humanity. With the departure of the mother goddess from whom the peasantry as well as their masters drew strength, meaningful life comes to an end.

Gayev [with despair in his voice]. Sister, my sister.…

Liubov Andryeevna. Oh my darling, my precious, my beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness … good-bye! … Goodbye!


The world left in its new cycle of history and labor—the "new life" welcomed by Trofimov in his last line in the play—appears doomed to sterility and its children to a sense of orphanage, unable to communicate their sorrow or their love. The mother, as the totem holding the family together, leaves her children scattered. The extreme pathos of Chekhov's plays is thus focused in the breaking string—the break with nature as mother, the eternal ground of communion for humanity.

We must conclude that in Liubov's final relinquishment of the cherry orchard Chekhov presents us with the end of a myth, the displacement of the Tree of Life by the Tree of Knowledge and of the Great Mother Goddess by the sinful Eve. Man is driven from the paradise of comedy by a destiny which finally denies his cyclically based perceptions. In place of the reassuring continuum of the natural cycle, Chekhov's characters face discontinuity and death. In Three Sisters, Vershinin considers what it would be like to start life all over again: "If that happened, I think the thing you'd want most of all would be not to repeat yourself" (264). In The Cherry Orchard we see that hope fulfilled, with a suggestion of its consequences. It may be argued that Chekhov's plays represent the end of the evolution of drama from the fertility rites of traditional man who lives in myth to the empty repetitions of modern man who lives in a condition of constant material and spiritual dislocation. In Chekhov's earlier plays the mother's absence is the major source of pathos. In The Cherry Orchard, the reasons for the absence and the consequences are fully presented: Liubov, who first abandons and then is betrayed by her children, loses her power; with her departure the cord which had attached them to the land and its cyclic laws is broken.

In re-examining Chekhov's plays from the perspective of the archetypes from myth and folklore which inform them, we may better understand not only the structure of individual works but the nature and significance of all of Chekhov's dramatic works. We see that they are not limited to what Francis Fergusson has called "the little scene of modern realism" or to the absurd drama of arbitrary issue. Like the tragic drama of the ancient Greeks, Chekhov's plays dramatize man's relation to natural forces over which he attempts—and fails—to gain control. Attempts to subdue the forces of nature lead to psychic dissolution, alienation, and abandonment. The central archetypes remain the same; the specific forms are drawn from the tradition of Russian folklore and Christian myth


1 Anton Chekhov, Plays, trans. Elisaveta Fen (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1959), p. 365. Subsequent references will appear in the text.

2 For a full summary of critical responses to the sound of the breaking string, see Jean-Pierre Barricelli, "Counterpoint of the Snapping String: Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard," California Slavic Studies, 10 (1977), 121-36. Barricelli persuasively argues that "Chekhov was too precise and self-conscious an artist to allow a gratuitous or solely mood-setting, isolated incident to enter his work," and—concurring with J. L. Styan, Chekhov in Performance—declares that "To interpret that sound is to interpret the play." We agree that the two soundings of the snapping string are central to our understanding of the play, that the play is a "drama of death," and that "the background of the snapping string must be sought in folklore." Barricelli's outline of the dialectic of life and death, symbolized most vividly by the heron and the owl that Gayev and Trofimov respectively suggest as the sources of the eerie sound when it first occurs in the second act, is an important reading. However, we do not agree with Barricelli's conclusion that the play's origin in folklore is a "distant" one.

The structural and thematic movement from comedy to tragedy encompasses a major theme in Russian literature and the experience of which it is a reflection—the movement from a woman-centered, cyclical agrarian society, dominated by the figure of the mother as avatar of nature to a society which is industrialized and intensely patriarchal. Like The Cherry Orchard, many of the major works of Russian literature are dominated by the figure of the woman. (See V. Dunham, "The Strong Woman Motif," in C. Black, ed., The Transformation of Russian Society, Cambridge, 1960.)

On the central role of the mother in Russian society and culture, see M. Matossian, "The Peasant Way of Life," in W. S. Vucinich, The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Stanford, California, 1968), p. 18; and N. S. Arsen'ev, Iz Russkoi kul' turnoi i tvorcheskoi traditsii (Frankfort, 1959).

For a discussion of the allegorical structure of the play, see John Kelson, "Allegory and Myth in The Cherry Orchard," Western Humanities Review, 13 (Summer 1959), 321-24: "Since, on the mythic level, the play is mimesis of the cycle of Nature, it is appropriate that one character (Liubov) should represent the continuing, sustaining, and life-giving power of Nature." Kelson concludes that the mother's departure is a ritual one: "Like Persephone, she will return to the world of the living, and when she does she will bring life back to the earth again." Kelson's reading is valuable; however, it ignores the deep and pervasive irony of the play. As usual—and here rather systematically—Chekhov "stands myth on its head." The movement is from life to death, from the comic to the tragic; and the promise of ritual return and renewal is pathetic and false.

In the life-to-death, spring-to-winter movement the four acts of the play follow rather closely the four phases of the seasonal cycle of the year and the organic cycle of human life upon which Northrop Frye bases his theory of genres: dawn, spring, and birth (romance); zenith, summer, and marriage (comedy, pastoral, and idyll); sunset, autumn and death (tragedy and elegy); darkness, winter, and dissolution (satire): The Fables of Identity (New York, 1963), p. 16, and The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957). In our discussion of the play's mythic structure and folkloric symbolism, we pay little direct attention to its literal social implications. This may suggest an assumption that Chekhov takes the position of a political reactionary defending the old order, but this is not the case. Chekhov, as always, is ambivalent, and his satire cuts both ways. The old union of the peasant and gentry was cruel and despotic, assimilated as it was to the agrarian cycle (see Gayev's hymn to Nature), but it had represented a fixed and predictable structure (see Feers's speech in which he insists that the gentry belong to the peasants and the peasants to the gentry). The new order, with its capitalistic and individualistic concerns and its open-ended belief in progress freeing human life from the natural cycle, appears to deprive life of meaning. Thus Chekhov criticizes both the romantic vision of nature and of social progress.

3 G. P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind (New York, 1960), pp. 13 and 360-62. On the Christianization of the pagan Mother Goddess, see N. Matorin, Zhenskoe bozhestvo v pravoslavnom kul'te (Moscow, 1931).

4 E. Elnett, Historic Origins and Social Development of Family Life in Russia (New York, 1926), pp. 22-23. On woman's resistance to Christianization in medieval Kiev, see S. Smirnov, "Baby bogomerzskiia," in Sbornik statei posviashchennykh V. O. Kliuchevskomu (Moscow, 1909), pp. 217-243.

5 Fedotov, p. 19.

6 For an extended discussion of the Baba Yaga, see A. A. Potebnia, "O mificheskom znachenii nekotorykh obriadov," Chteniia v obshchestve istorii i drevnostei rossiiskikh, numbers 2, 3, 4 (1865), 85-232; and on the initiatory function of the Yaga, see M. G. Wosien, The Russian Folktale (Munich, 1969), pp. 133-140.

7 Archeological and ethnographic materials on the rusalki are gathered together by B. A. Rybakov, "Rusalii i bog Simargl-Pereplut," Sovetskaia arkheologiia, vol. 2 (1967), 102-125. For a full discussion of the importance of the rusalka image in Russian folk art, see V. M. Vasilenko, Russkaia narodnaia rez'ba i rospis' po derevu v xviii-xx vv (Moscow, 1960).

8 On the universally found image of the tree of life, see E. O. James, The Tree of Life (Leiden, 1966) and G. d'Alviella, The Migration of Symbols (New York, 1956), pp. 122-174. The motif of the Mother Goddess represented both as woman and as tree of life in Russian folk art is discussed by B. A. Rybakov, "Drevnie elementy v russkom narodnom tvorchestve," Sovetskaia etnografiia. No. 1 (1948), 90-106 and A. Netting, "Images and Ideas in Russian Peasant Art," Slavic Review (March 1976), 65 ff.

9 D. K. Zelenin, "Totemicheskii kul't derev'ev u russkikh i u belorussov," Izvestiia akademii nauk SSR, otdelenie obshchestvennykh nauk, No. 3 (Moscow, 1933), 591-629. See also

10 D. Strotmann, "Quelques apercus historiques sur le culte marial en Russie," lrenikon xxxii, p. 187 (translation ours).

11 I. I. Zemtsovskii, ed., Poezii krest 'ianskikh prazdnikov (Leningrad, 1970), p. 290 (translation ours).

12 D. K. Zelenin, "Istolkovanie perezhitochnykh …" op. cit., pp. 10-11; and V. Ya. Propp, Russkie agrarnie prazdniki (Leningrad, 1963), pp. 130-131, suggests that in this ceremony women assume the powers of fertility of the earth and bring it into the collectivity. On the calendrical cycle associated with women and incarnations of the feminine, see L. S. Nosova, Iazychestvo v pravoslavii (Moscow, 1975), p. 93. On the matristic sources of Russian pagan culture, see Z. R. Dittrich, "Zur Religiosen Urund Frühgeschichte der Slaven," Jahrbuch für Geschichte Östeuropas, Band 9 (Wiesbaden, 1961), 481-510.

13 Like the chthonian Mother Earth and her avatars in Russian folklore, Baba Yaga and the rusalki, Liubov lives without a husband. Like the representative of earth, the mother, she stands at the center of the family and the play's action. As a representative of the gentry class and like the maternal goddess, she stands above and yet among the peasantry—her estate enclosing them.

14 Fedotov insists on the relationship of the pagan Russian cult of ancestors to the cult of earth as mother: "From the sperm of the parents man is brought forth into the everlasting rod [clan or extended family] for his short existence, just as the seed, buried in the earth's womb, gives a new life to the ear of corn which is procreated through the death of the seed itself.… Russian paganism (as well as the primitive Greek) considered the individual only as a transient moment in the eternal life of the rod. From the parents man comes and to the parents he returns, into the womb of the Mother Earth" (Fedotov, pp. 18-19).

15 Chekhov could be echoing a refrain found in the popular religious verses called Dukhovnye stikhy in which Adam bewails his loss of Paradise with the following words: "Oh my Paradise, my beautiful orchard / I was happy, Paradise, to be in you / Eve was happy.…" But why is it Liubov who recites this lament while Gayev, the Old Adam, can only cry for his sister? Chekhov may be suggesting, obliquely again, the strength of the mother-centered pagan religion and the relative weakness of the Christian version of life in the old agrarian order. See P. Bezsonov, ed., Kaleki perekhozhie, Part VI (Moscow, 1861), pp. 242 ff.

G. J. Watson (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: "Chekhov and the Drama of Social Change: The Cherry Orchard," in Drama: An Introduction, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 132-46.

[In this essay, Watson examines a number of factors contributing to the life-like quality of The Cherry Orchard.]

The Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, like Ibsen and Miller, is interested in man's relations with society—his last play, which might be regarded as his masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, is a profound drama of social change. He is, however, a more 'open' dramatist than the other two. That is, Ibsen places a perhaps too insistent emphasis on the intractable nature of the opposition between individual aspiration and social constraints. His views are fixed: his protagonists must always, will always, be broken in their attempts at self-assertion. If there is a criticism of Ibsen's drama, it is that there is a hint of a predetermined thesis lying behind his plays. Miller's Death of a Salesman also suffers from its author's adoption of a rigid stance, in this case the desire to assert the possibility of the tragedy of the common man (Willy's very surname is Loman), which is juxta-posed uneasily with Miller's social insights.

Chekhov'S Objectivity

The most immediately apparent quality of Chekhov's art (he was a superb writer of short stories as well as of plays) is its dispassionateness or objectivity. This may be due in part to his direct experience and knowledge of a very wide social spectrum. He was a serf's son, but also a doctor, a landowner and an artist, and moved as easily in Russia's backward villages as in the artistic and intellectual circles of her major cities. Being a doctor brought Chekhov into contact with a wide range of life, but 'though it was important to Chekhov as a source of copy, medicine was still more important in a philosophical sense: it reinforced his pragmatical, down-to-earth view of life'.1 He writes to a friend in a famous letter:

You confuse two concepts: the solution of a problem and its correct presentation. Only the second is incumbent on the artist … In my view it's not the writer's job to solve such problems as God, pessimism and so on. The writer's job is only to show who, how, in what context, spoke or thought about God and pessimism. The artist must not be the judge of his character and of what they say: merely a dispassionate observer …2

This dispassionateness of outlook has a deep impact on the dramatic form of Chekhov's plays, giving them an 'open-ended' quality which makes considerable demands on the subtlety and responsiveness of actors and producers. Even more than in most authors is it damaging to separate Chekhov's 'form' from his 'content'. 'How he says it' is very much 'what he says'.

'Real Life': Chekhov's Distaste for Theatricality

Chekhov is a master of dramatic anti-climax, going out of his way to avoid what he considered to be falsely 'theatrical' episodes or moments. He remarked with pride of The Cherry Orchard that there was not a single pistol-shot in it, but it is not only gross melodrama which he rejects. He cleverly subverts and confounds even more legitimate dramatic expectations raised by the pattern of his action. Thus the climactic action, Lopakhin's announcement that he has bought the orchard, is made almost apologetically, and in the disarmingly digressive context of Gayev's longing for anchovies, Black Sea herrings and a game of billiards, which affects him every bit as much as the loss of his ancestral lands. Again, a persistent motif in the play is the possibility of a marriage between Varya, Mrs Ranevsky's adopted daughter, and Lopakhin. This would unite two single characters, suggest the virtue of work as an antidote to social disintegration (Varya and Lopakhin are the play's hard workers), perhaps even symbolise a stage in the evolution of the Russian class system which would fit in with the play's major thematic interests—in short, a 'loose end' would be very neatly tied. What happens in the last Act, however, is that Lopakhin has more or less to be driven to a tête-à-tête with Varya. Chekhov dramatises it thus, in a way that perfectly illustrates his art of anti-climax and his mastery of apparently inconsequential dialogue. Lopakhin has been left on his own:

Lopakhin [with a glance at his watch]: Yes. [Pause.] [Suppressed laughter and whispering are heard from behind the door. After some time Varya comes in.]

Varya [spends a long time examining the luggage]: That's funny, I can't find it anywhere.

Lopakhin: What are you looking for?

Varya: I packed it myself and I still can't remember. [Pause.]

Lopakhin: Where are you going now, Varya?

Varya: Me? To the Ragulins'. I've arranged to look after their place, a sort of housekeeper's job.

Lopakhin: That's in Yashnevo, isn't it? It must be fifty odd miles from here. [Pause.] So life has ended in this house.

Varya [examining the luggage]: Oh, where can it be? Or could I have put it in the trunk? Yes, life has gone out of this house. And it will never come back.

Lopakhin: Well, I'm just off to Kharhov. By the next train. I have plently to do there. And I'm leaving Yepikhodov in charge here, I've taken him on.

Varya: Oh, have you?

Lopakhin: This time last year we already had snow, remember? But now it's calm and sunny. It's a bit cold though. Three degrees of frost, I should say.

Varya: I haven't looked. [Pause.] Besides, our thermometer's broken. [Pause.]

[A voice at the outer door: 'Mr Lopakhin!']

Lopakhin: [as if he had been expecting this summons]: I'm just coming. [Goes out quickly.]

[Varya sits on the floor with her head on a bundle of clothes, quietly sobbing.]

It is necessary to quote at length to convey something of the fluidity of Chekhov's dramatic art, especially his handling of dialogue, which makes Ibsen (and indeed many other dramatists) seem stiff and wooden in comparison. Chekhov marries perfectly the naturalistic surface level of speech (with its hesitations, pauses and massive non-sequiturs) to a perception of the real emotional currents flowing in any act of human communication. So here, empty chat about a bit of luggage, train-journeys and the weather simultaneously masks and obliquely reveals the truth of the situation—Varya's inability to drop into tenderness from her usual bossy, managing kind of manner, her fear of being thought to be 'on offer', her hope that he will say something; Lopakhin's fear of his own adequacy, the absence of any genuine commitment to her, his overwhelming embarrassment. It is dramatically absorbing but never seems 'theatrical' in the pejorative sense of the word. Chekhov was very clear about this, writing in a letter which sums up his anti-theatrical stance:

The demand is made that the hero and heroine should be dramatically effective. But in life people do not shoot themselves, or hang themselves, or fall in love, or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, running after women or men, talking nonsense. It is therefore necessary that this should be shown on the stage. A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life. Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not on stilts.3

Chekhov'S Sense of Plot

Another way in which Chekhov gives The Cherry Orchard the texture of 'life as it really is' is by his careful construction of a plot which does not give the appearance of being a plot. There is no character in the play who is in any way manipulating events towards any sort of end—Mrs Ranevsky and her brother, indeed, seem incapable of action, simply standing aside helplessly doing nothing to prevent the sale of their estate. Lopakhin, whom it would have been very easy to cast in the role of the villian-despoiler, not only does nothing to get the estate into his power, but, far from employing schemes and stratagems from self-interest, tries hard to ensure that it stays in the hands of its hereditary owners. He only buys it at the last moment, on the spur of that moment, and is rather dazed at what he has done. A large part of any audience's sense of a dramatic plot comes from the presence of dynamic characters who manipulate the action—Edmund in King Lear, Volpone and Mosca, even Hedda Gabler. In suppressing this type of character in The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov contrives to give the action of the play the 'open', random feel of life—things seem to happen, rather than be made to happen.

Group Scenes

Chekhov characteristically employs a large group of characters, often on the stage at the one time, in such normal group contexts as arrivals, parties and departures, and other social ceremonies. This may be explained as deriving from his attempt to suggest the large social representativeness of his action (whereas Ibsen, concerned with the fate of single individuals, characteristically focuses on one or two characters in intense dialogue). These group scenes provide even more opportunities for Chekhov's mastery of random, inconsequential dialogue, as the characters speak not so much to each other as past each other, in contexts which permit of juxtapositions and non-sequiturs which are sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, and where the polyphony of voices does indeed create at times a musical effect. No one character dominates, and this in turn enables Chekhov to achieve his brilliantly subtle modulations of mood, which more than anything else, perhaps, make his dramatic texture seem so fluid.

Group or 'crowd' scenes work very well in dramas that attempt social representativeness. The confused history of an Ireland in the midst of revolution and civil war is captured brilliantly in O'Casey's three 'Dublin' plays, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926), where the tenement or slum settings enable O'Casey to depict many characters with differing political views and loyalties in communal dispute. The same sense of communal integration and fission is illustrated in works such as Soyinka's A Dance of the Forests and in Edward Dorall's A Tiger is Loose in Our Community, where the crowd scenes depicting antagonisms between the Chinese and Tamil populations are especially vibrant. (Dorall has completed a postgraduate thesis on O'Casey's plays.)


Chekhov's ability to create mood, and to convey his meaning through the suggestiveness of mood rather than through the much more explicit psychological analysis to be found in Ibsen, can be seen most clearly in the opening of Act 2 of The Cherry Orchard. Here all the elements in Chekhov's sense of dramatic form coalesce, to create what has been called 'theatre-poetry'. No verse is actually spoken: the 'poetry' comes from the setting, from the grouping of characters, from the dramatic rhythm (or pace of the action), and from the musical counterpoint of Yepikhodov's guitar. It is open country; a tumbledown old chapel and what seem like old tombstones give intimations of mortality and a hint of the decay of old certainties. The cherry orchard can be seen only dimly, and beyond it a row of telegraph poles and the distant outlines of a big town—a clear visual suggestion of the incursion of a newer modern world on an older, possibly outmoded way of life. The four characters converse after a fashion, but each is absorbed in his own separate thoughts. The sense of separation, of individual loneliness, is strong—Yepikhodov is in love with Dunyasha, but she loves Yasha, who loves only himself. Charlotte the governess says that she doesn't know who she is, where she comes from, and that she is 'alone in the world'. But these four are also a group, a group of servants, which lends ironic point to the demonstration of their separateness. The implication might be that they are all servants of a way of life which is disintegrating. The sun is setting, and from this and the other visual details of the setting, it could be argued that Chekhov is creating a kind of tone-poem on the demise of the landed class, and on the loss of everything which that class had contributed, positively, to the culture. Later in this Act comes the first ominous and symbolic sound of a breaking string, a device taken up and used again in effective counterpoint to the sound of Lopakhin's axes biting into the cherry orchard, in the play's conclusion—if anything, an even more powerful example of 'theatre-poetry'.

Tragedy or Comedy?

Chekhov the elegiac writer is certainly popular; he is the dramatist of the melancholy mood, the poet of the gloom and soulfulness of a Russia about to pass away for ever and aware in its bones of the nature of its lingering disease. But Chekhov is not to be so easily pinned down or labelled. The opening of Act 2 could also be played—and seen—in a much more comic way. Here is one detail from Charlotte's opening speech:

Who my parents were I don't know either, very likely they weren't even married. [Takes a cucumber out of her pocket and starts eating it.] I don't know anything.

The cucumber is robustly bizarre, in the manner of some of Dickens's greatly eccentric and greatly comic unnecessary details; and eating a good firm cucumber is not, especially in a theatre, a silent business. Charlotte herself and Yepikhodov can be seen as essentially farcical, and Yasha and Dunyasha as riddled with comic affectations; the whole scene can be regarded as a parody of the melancholy of the 'superfluous man' (or class), a Russian literary type.

Indeed, Chekhov's ability to modulate tone, or to hold opposing moods in a delicate balance means that The Cherry Orchard as a whole resists generic classification. Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Stanislavsky (1863-1938), the great director of the Moscow Arts Theatre closely associated with Chekhov, was in no doubt of its tragic qualities—but this intensely irritated Chekhov, who firmly insisted on calling the play a comedy. This might seem to be conclusive, but the play's final moments—the farewell to the home and the orchard, and the bitter-sweet vignette of the abandoned old servant, Firs—can only be described as comic with some considerable strain. Ronald Hingley's view of the problem seems eminently sensible:

In firmly describing his plays, above all The Cherry Orchard, as comedies, Chekhov was perhaps confusing matters by dragging in a traditional theatrical term inapplicable to his new form of drama. What he was really appealing for, we suggest, was a lightness of touch, a throw-away casual style, an abandonment of the traditional over-theatricality of the Russian (and not only the Russian) theatre.4

Once again, we are back with the salient point: that Chekhov's stance is that of a dispassionate (though not cynical) observer, and that consequently his dramatic mode embraces great tonal fluidity, an alert anti-theatricality, a subtle obliquity of dialogue, and an ability to suggest through 'theatre-poetry' what another dramatist might hammer home explicitly. Chekhov's own dramatic mastery in these respects has influenced dramatists as different as Shaw, Pinter and Beckett.

This technique, and the attitude which informs it, enable Chekhov to present his drama of social change both fairly and comprehensively. The Cherry Orchard, like nearly all of his plays, is about 'the fate of the cultured classes in the modern world'.5 In many British stage productions, Chekhov's vision is sentimentalised, and The Cherry Orchard becomes an elegy for the doomed gentry, attractive and whimsically eccentric, lovable in spite (or because) of their faults. On the other hand, it is also easy to throw a falsifying over-emphasis in the other direction. This has been especially true of Soviet criticism, which tends to see Chekhov as a breezy extrovert, portraying with comic vigour the inadequacies of the decaying upper class, and looking forward by implication and with confidence to the brave new world which was to be ushered in, only thirteen years after his death, by the Bolshevik revolution. Both approaches distort Chekhov's remarkable flexibility, his ability to make a full diagnosis (to use the medical terminology he himself was fond of). To see this clearly requires a brief discussion of Chekhov's portrayal of Lopakhin, however difficult it is to isolate one aspect of a very closely woven work of art.


The Cherry Orchard describes the dispossession of a family of land-owning gentry by the son of one of its former serfs, Lopakhin, who has become a self-made man, a dynamic member of the new rising business class. The possibilities of slotting Lopakhin into a melodramatic stereotype are sufficiently obvious, but the portrait is much more subtle.

Lopakhin's great moment in the play, and indeed the climax of whatever action there is, comes near the end of Act 3, when he comes back to the pathetic little party which Mrs Ranevsky is throwing, and announces to a shocked room that he has bought the cherry orchard:

And now the cherry orchard is mine. Mine! [Gives a loud laugh.] Great God in heaven, the cherry orchard's mine! Tell me I'm drunk or crazy, say it's all a dream. [Stamps his feet.] Don't laugh at me. If my father and grandfather could only rise from their graves and see what happened, see how their Yermolay—Yermolay who was always being beaten, who could hardly write his name and ran round barefoot in winter—how this same Yermolay bought this estate … where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren't even allowed inside the kitchen … Hey, you in the band, give us a tune, I want to hear you. Come here, all of you, and just watch Yermolay Lopakhin get his axe into that cherry orchard, watch the trees come crashing down. We'll fill the place with cottages. Our grandchildren and our great grandchildren will see a few changes round here.

The words exude the confidence of a once-repressed class coming into its own. It is the turning-point of the play, and implicitly the turning-point for Russia, the death of the old order. In a good production, the audience should almost be able to feel the ground shaking underneath the characters' feet, as if the steamroller of history was already rumbling up the driveway: 'just watch Yermolay Lopakhin get his axe into that cherry orchard, watch the trees come crashing down'.

The Death of the Old Order

Lopakhin's words refer to some of the exploitative aspects of the old order, and in doing so recall a speech of considerable power and social bite given to the student Trofimov in Act 2. He is trying to point out to Mrs Ranevsky's daughter, whom he loves, the realities of the system on which her traditional status rests:

Owning living souls, that's what has changed you all so completely, those who went before and those alive today, so that your mother, you yourself, your uncle—you don't realise that you're actually living on credit. You're living on other people, the very people you won't even let inside your own front door.

This whole speech so alarmed the State censor that he insisted that Chekhov should rewrite it. It—and Lopakhin's speech in Act 3 which contains obvious verbal echoes of it—suggest that Chekhov might have approved of the demise of a system of feudal exploitation.

Such a supposition rests on the argument that Chekhov created Lopakhin as a representative of the new dynamic order which was to supplant a decadent gentry. The play certainly paints a strong contrast between the utilitarian, practical Lopakhin (and the doctor in Chekhov approved of the practical and the utilitarian) and the almost incredible lassitude and negligence of Mrs Ranevsky and her brother. Lopakhin also comes extremely well out of the comparison with the play's other 'man of the future', Trofimov. Trofimov is very specific about the Russian disease—too much talking and theorising, and not enough work. The irony is that Trofimov is a spectacular example of the type that he criticises, the eternal student, full of empty theorising. His often inflated rhetoric about his 'being in the vanguard' as 'mankind marches towards a higher truth' compares unfavourably with Lopakhin's plain speech, that of a man more interested in doing than in philosophising:

I'm always up by five o'clock, you know. I work from morning till night, and then—well, I'm always handling money, my own and other people's, and I can see what sort of men and women I have around me. You only have to start a job of work to realise how few decent, honest folk there are about.

Lopakhin's role, then, is dynamic, differentiated sharply from the dithering gentry and from the windy theorising of the intellectual; and in him we may feel that Chekhov has embodied his approval of the direction taken by social change in Russia since the emancipation of the serfs.

Lopakhin and the Orchard

It is possible, however, to take a very different view of Lopakhin. This could originate in a sense of the beauty of the cherry orchard itself. The play begins with it, sparkling white with frost through the windows of the empty nursery, and ends with the sound of its destruction. In its mute purity it may be seen as emblematic of a beautiful lost world—not just the lost world of a more expansive feudal life-style, but the lost world of childhood innocence and purity, a world outside time and change, which is locked up somewhere, in different shapes and forms, in all our imaginations. Mrs Ranevsky and her brother do not see in the orchard (as Trofimov insensitively can only see) a symbol of political and social power, once wielded, now lost. It is rather a living memento of the innocence and happiness of childhood: for Mrs Ranevsky it contains a personal truth which cannot be measured by the application of moralistic or political standards, as she tries to explain to Trofimov in Act 3. And in Act 1, as the windows are thrown open to the orchard, she exclaims:

Oh, my childhood, my innocent childhood! This is the nursery where I slept and I used to look out at the orchard from here. When I woke up every morning happiness awoke with me, and the orchard was just the same in those days. Nothing's changed. [Laughs happily.] White! All white! Oh, my orchard! After the damp, dismal autumn and the cold winter here you are, young again and full of happiness. The angels in heaven have not forsaken you. If I could only shake off the heavy burden that weighs me down, if only I could forget my past.

Lopakhin seems cursed by an absolute insensitivity to the personal meaning of the orchard for Mrs Ranevsky. He fails to respond to its beauty, and crassly begins to chop it down before Mrs Ranevsky is even out of the house, a crassness that is underlined by his inappropriate production of celebratory champagne. His axes thud not only into wood, but into people's deeply felt past and present lives. Chekhov's dramatic fluidity and mastery of tonal modulation easily accommodate the playing up of the pathos of Mrs Ranevsky's position, and accordingly as this is done, so does Lopakhin's position take on the tinge and colouring of the utilitarian barbarian, not actively malicious but so insensitive as to be almost as bad; and the play becomes an elegy for the passing of a culture and a way of life symbolised in the orchard itself—beautiful, but unproductive, and since commercially useless, however graceful, to be destroyed by a harsh new type.

Both views of Lopakhin, one friendly, one hostile, are based on the idea that Chekhov must have had one definite attitude to social change. If that attitude could be 'worked out', the character could be 'explained'. But Chekhov's dramatic complexity—and a good deal of his moral significance for our categorising and polarised modern world—insists that a human being cannot be explained in terms of his class role or his social status, that human acts are never just the products of socioeconomic factors, but result from a blend of such factors with other, more unpredictable, personal ones. Chekhov makes it very difficult to pigeon-hole Lopakhin as representative of the new dynamic bourgeoisie.

Lopakhin and Mrs Ranevsky

Lopakhin does not see Mrs Ranevsky as the class enemy. Quite the contrary. Many details in the text suggest that he is in love with her, however difficult it might be to define precisely the nature of that love. As he says to her in Act 1, after getting over his agitation at the prospect of her return:

This brother of yours calls me a lout of a peasant out for what I can get, but that doesn't bother me a bit. Let him talk. You must believe in me as you used to, that's all I ask, and look at me in the old way, with those wonderful, irresistible eyes. Merciful heavens! My father was a serf, belonged to your father and your grandfather before him. But you—you've done so much for me in the past that I've forgotten all that and love you as a brother. Or even more.

Clearly, with his constant efforts to help Mrs Ranevsky out of her financial predicament, which stem from his love for the woman he is to displace, a major and multiple irony of the play is established. Lopakhin may be cast by history as the man of the future but he is as besotted by the past and by admiration for the gentry's way of life as they themselves are.

The inheritance of serfdom is still powerfully active within him, spiritually and emotionally. He tells Dunyasha very early in the play that he has 'plenty of money, but when you really get down to it I'm just another country bumpkin;' and he goes on to rebuke her for her claims to lady-like 'nerves': 'You're too sensitive altogether, my girl. You dress like a lady and do your hair like one too. We can't have that. Remember your place.' These terms could easily have come from old Firs, the play's most absolute believer in the values of the feudal past. Lopakhin cannot entirely rid himself of feelings of inferiority to the cultured milieu he now dominates financially, and his decisiveness as a business man is undercut by his dithering in the area of personal relationships, where he is just as ineffective as, say, Gayev is when dealing with the practical problems of life. There is, for instance, his curiously abortive relationship with Varya—into which Chekhov also works Lopakhin's emotional dependence on Mrs Ranevsky: 'I don't feel I'll ever propose to her without you here.'

Chekhov'S Moral Tolerance

Lopakhin, like all the major characters of the play, is seen in a kind of double perspective, which liberates him from dramatic or political stereotyping. The obviousness of what Chekhov says should not blind us to its moral importance: what we do, how we act, should never be taken as a definition of, or confused with, what we are—and vice versa. Lopakhin is no more a simple representative of the new bourgeoisie than Mrs Ranevsky is a simple representative of an obsolete gentry. Sympathy is aroused for her by the intensity with which she associates the orchard with her childhood happiness and innocence. Yet Chekhov also shows, with his infinitely lively sense of the complexity of human beings, that Mrs Ranevsky does not make any real effort to save the orchard because she knows that she no longer belongs to its world, but to Paris and her lover. In a sense, she even wants to lose it. While she still owns it, its very beauty and its associations can only jab the more at her conscience, exacerbate a depressed consciousness of her now rootless, feckless life. When the orchard is lost, her outer and her inner life come more into harmony again. Thus her brother says near the end:

It's quite true, everything's all right now. Before the cherry orchard was sold we were all worried and upset, but when things were settled once and for all and we'd burnt our boats, we all calmed down and actually cheered up a bit … And you can say what you like, Lyuba, you're looking a lot better, no doubt about it.

She replies:

Yes, I'm not so much on edge, that's true. And I'm sleeping better … I'm going to Paris and I'll live on the money your great-aunt sent from Yaroslavl to buy the estate—good old Aunty! Not that it will last very long.

The Balance of the Conclusion

The indifference and irresponsibility shown in the insouciant attitude to 'Aunty's money' reminds us again, at this crucial point towards the play's close, of the negligence and extravagance of Mrs Ranevsky's life, in the end the main cause of her loss of her family estate. The ending of the play could have easily, in the hands of a lesser dramatist, turned into a sentimental orgy as the charming aristocrat bids farewell to her home. Indeed, Chekhov's depiction of the leave-taking of Mrs Ranevsky and her brother is deeply moving. But the balance is held: the play ends with a superb picture of the old servant Firs, alone, forgotten by the family, lying down to think over the futility of his devoted service to a family whom even he seems to sense is finished. His words, and their context, clearly do more than refer to his own personal situation:

Life's slipped by just as if I'd never lived at all. I'll lie down a bit. You've got no strength left, got nothing left, nothing at all. You're just a nincompoop. [Lies motionless. A distant sound is heard. It seems to come from the sky and is the sound of a breaking string. It dies away sadly. Silence follows, broken only by the thud of an axe striking a tree far away in the orchard.']

This is wryly funny, but also intensely moving—the distinctive Chekhovian emotional balance is held brilliantly right to the end of the play, that kind of double vision which enables him to see the desperate absurdity of his characters and at the same time the human values in their lives, which tempers his irony with compassion. The 'openness' of Chekhov's dramatic mode is the formal expression of the wide tolerance of his vision of men in society.


1 R. Hingley, A New Life of Anton Chekhov (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 52.

2 M. H. Heim and S. Karlinsky (eds), Letters of Anton Chekhov (London: Bodley Head, 1973), p. 117.

3 Cited by R. Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 142.

4 Hingley, op. cit, p. 302.

5 Brustein, op. cit., p. 178.

Donald Rayfield (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: "Critical Reception," in The Cherry Orchard: Catastrophe and Comedy, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 15-28.

[In the essay below, Rayfield surveys European and American responses to, and interpretations of, The Cherry Orchard throughout the twentiety century.]

The Cherry Orchard began to reverberate in Russian literature even before it was performed or published. The first reaction, in November 1903, was that of the state censor Vasili Vereshchagin, who found two passages of social criticism in Trofimov's speeches in act 2 too out-spoken and forced Chekhov to substitute less biting passages. In December, when Chekhov came to Moscow to attend rehearsals, the great director of the Moscow Arts Theater Konstantin Stanislavsky, and many of his actors appeared to react to the play as though it were a tragedy or a straightforward political diatribe. Stanislavsky's telegram of congratulation ended, "we wept in the last act."1 His wife Maria Lilina, who was to paly Ania, dared to contradict the author's subtitle "comedy": "It's a tragedy, whatever outlet to a better life you reveal in the last act.… I wept, as a woman." 2 A little later she intuited, "The Cherry Orchard is not a play, but a work of music, a symphony." Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Stanislavsky's second in command, had for 12 years enjoyed Chekhov's trust. He had achieved a reputation in Russia as a playwright and sacrificed this career to serve the Moscow Arts Theater: his plays, such as Tsena zhizni (The Price of Life) of 1889, developed the merchant dramas of Nikolai Ostrovsky with a French vaudeville lightness and, despite their lack of original spark or subtlety, were apparently genuinely admired by Chekhov. Nemirovich-Danchenko sensed (in an extravagant telegram Chekhov to Chekhov) that they has "overdone the tears"3 Chekhov stressed the play's vaudeville qualities: the play's tears vaudeville of the Ranevskaia household were only metaphorical. At the same time he edited the text to bring out the sensitivity of his capitalist Lopakhin. Chekhov was prepared to incorporate an actor's improvisation only if it enhanced the ludicrous side of the play. Some actors realized how complex the play was: A. L. Vishnevsky called it "the most expensive lace … the most difficult of your plays to perform."4

The play was first performed on 17 January 1904 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chekhov's literary career, but the sight of the dying author, unable to stand, wanly acknowledging applause, was hardly festive. The interpretation of the play as a tragic swan song was linked with the spectable of the playwright's lugubrious last bow. Nemirovich-Danchenko had packed the theater with a claque of spectators (known as "angels") standing behind the legitimate seated audience; many of them were Chekhov's Crimean neighbors—emaciated tubercular young men from Yalta—and their sobs as the play ended to the sound of the last blows of the ax on the cherry trees cast an elegiac pall over the performance.5 Chekhov's reported reaction was annoyance: "It's all wrong, the play and the performance. That's not what I saw, and they couldn't understand what I wanted."6 Yet over the 1904 season the theater could not believe its production had betrayed the author: "Never in my theatrical career do I remember seeing an audience react like that to the slightest detail of drama, genre, psychology, as today," Nemirovich-Danchenko telegraphed to Chekhov. "The overall tone of the performance has splendid assurance, precision, talent. More than any other of your plays, the success is due to the author, regardless of the theater."7

Only after Chekhov's death did Nemirovich-Danchenko concede that they had misinterpreted the play: "We didn't fully understand his subtle writing. Chekhov was refining realism to the point of symbols, and the theater took aOne long this delicate weft in Chekhov's work."8 One perceptive reviewer, hte dramatists Aleksandr Amfiteatrov, insisted, "For all its great success neither the public nor the critics had grasped all its charm; they will take a very long time discovering one depth after another, sinking deeper and deeper into it, loving it and becoming used to it."9 Amfiteatrov's review was one of the most penetrating: he realized that Chekhov was not to be understood as a political partisan or a social arbiter, that Ranevskaia and Gaev were not the traditional bad landowners rightfully deprived of their property: "The Gaevs perish not in revolt against modern times, but because fate has come to pass: a race is dying out."

Throughout the season, until Chekhov's death in July, there were some 80 reviews of the Moscow Arts Theater's performances. On the whole, the wittiest were the most negative. The doyenne of symbolist salons and head of the anti-Chekhovian school of criticism, Zinaida Gippius (writing as "Anton the Extreme"), dismissed the play as unperformable.10 A year before she had caricatured the Chekhovian play this way: "It's raining. Leaves are falling. People are drinking tea with jam. They set out a game of patience. They're very bored. They drink, and a drunk laughs quietly for a long time. They're bored again. Sometimes a man feels a sexual urge, makes a pass, and says, 'Voluptuous woman!' They then drink tea again, are bored, and finally die, sometimes of an illness, sometimes by shooting themselves."11

The majority of critics, however, agreed with the Moscow Arts Theater: this, said Vlas Doroshevich, "was a comedy in name, a drama in content."12 It was, he said, a narrative poem: the landowner Ranevskaia and her family were morituri (doomed to die). Russia's symbolists, constantly feuding with realism, were, however, detecting in Chekhov not a boring student of reality but a fellow poet mourning the destruction of beauty and the hatefulness of life. The signal was given in the spring of 1904 by the poet, novelist, manifesto writer, and theoretician Andrei Bely. While other symbolists (e.g., the selfproclaimed maestro Valeri Briusov) felt that the play was artifice and that only act 3 had real dramatic impact, Bely in an influential article proclaimed that Chekhov had married realism and symbolism, making the play "a continuous link between the fathers and the children.… In act 3 … Chekhov's devices crystallize; a family drama takes place in the hall, while in the back room, lit by candles, masks of horror dance in frenzy.… [W]hat from a distance seem to be shadowy cracks turn out to be openings into eternity."13 In 1907 Bely redefined the play: "realism made transparent, naturally fused with symbolism."

In a letter to Chekhov, Vsevolod Meierkhold—the "dark genius" of the Russian theater and once a protégé of Stanislavsky but now a Lucifer cast out into St. Petersburg by the Moscow Arts Theater—claimed The Cherry Orchard as authentic symbolist repertory: "I don't much like the Moscow performance of this play.… Your play is as abstract as a Tchaikovsky symphony. And a director should use his ear above all to grasp it. In act 3 to the sound of idiotic stamping—and that stamping should be audible—Horror enters, unnoticed by the people. The cherry orchard is sold. They dance. 'It's sold!' They dance. And so on to the end.… When one reads plays by foreign authors, you stand apart by your originality. In drama, too the West will have learn from you."14 Meierkhold worshipped Chekhov;he had played Treplev in The Seagull and, before his break with Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky, was apparently the actor for whom the part of Tuzenbakh in Three Sisters was written. It seems that Meierkhold was encouraged by Chekhov's response to his alternative views and felt them to be part of a dialogue. Meierkhold is reported to have told A. K. Gladkov, "Do you know who first sowed doubts in me that not all the paths of the Moscow Arts Theater were right? Anton Chekhov. He disagreed with a lot in the theater, much he criticized outright."

Meierkhold's views on the symbolist nature of The Cherry Orchard were spectacularly graphic but never realized in the theater. His own three performances of the play in the Black Sea port of Kherson in February 1904 apparently differed little from the Moscow Arts Theater style he had been trained in. Moving to St. Petersburg and joining forces with the great actress-director Vera Komissarzhevskaia, Meierkhold found himself forced to submit to her view that The Cherry Orchard was un-playable except in the Moscow Arts Theater tradition.

Nevertheless, in 1906 Meierkhold did sketch an alternative mise-en-scène for the play, which was never produced, despite the 30 years of his career still left to run. The ideas he set out in a 1908 article of are persuasive: Epikhodov, Iasha, and Duniasha he saw as the circus figures of Pierrot, Harlequin, and Colombine, who figure prominently in French and Russian symbolist poetry, in Pablo Picasso's blue period, and in Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka.15 Meierkhold's vision of Ranevskaia identifies her as the life force.

The progressive, realist camp who saw in Maksim Gorky's Lower Depths the real future of drama and revolution tended to dismiss the play as did Gorky: "Nothing new. Everything—moods, ideas, if you can call them that, characters—are to be found in the earlier plays. Of course it's beautiful, and raw anguish on the stage hits the audience. But what the anguish is about, I don't know."16 Others as subjective as the symbolists reinterpreted Chekhov's play to suit their views: typical in its breathtaking naïvete is a letter Chekhov received from Viktor Baranovsky, a radical student in the provinces: "I heard … a call to an active, energetic life of ferment, to bold, fearless struggle—and so to the end of the play I felt intense pleasure. Lopakhin and the student are friends going arm in arm towards that bright star."17 Many reviewers assumed that if the Ranevskaia household lost its estate deservedly, then Lopakhin or Trofimov were rightful heirs and would create "a future on the wreck of the old."18 The ambiguity and irony of Chekhov's stance escaped the radicals, as it had for the previous 18 years, ever since Chekhov's neurotic idealist and villain Ivanov (in the play of the same name) first taxed their judgment with his equivocations.

Powerful disparagement was also heard: the most consistent for 50 years to come was from Chekhov's disciple, the great writer Ivan Bunin. He acknowledged Chekhov's supremacy in the short story but, like Tolstoy, felt that the plays were embarrassingly ignorant and incompetent. In vain, Chekhov's defenders pointed out that you did not have to be a nobleman to write about the landed gentry, that strict social realism was not Chekhov's aim. Bunin was upset by Soviet ideology hijacking the Moscow Arts Theater and the "progressive" speeches of Chekhov's characters. Bunin's loathing of The Cherry Orchard is important because it formed an undercurrent of opinion that still flows in Russia today. Bunin wrote, "There were never any orchards in Russia that were entirely given over to cherry trees and there's nothing wonderful about cherry trees.… Ranevskaia is supposed to be a landowner and yet a Parisian, she either weeps hysterically or laughs.… It's also quite implausible that Lopakhin should have these profitable trees cut down with such stupid haste before the former owner has even left the house.… Firs is fairly plausible, but the rest is unbearable."19

The breakup of the symbolist movement on the eve of World War I and the Bolsheviks' use of the theater as ideological centers turned The Cherry Orchard first into an unquestionable classic and then into a vehicle for illustrating the inevitability of the old order's collapse. Russian criticism concentrated on textual and intertextual problems, demonstrating the kinship of Chekhov's drama to the "new drama" that arose on the fringes of Western Europe—in Norway, Sweden, and Russia—so that the trio of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov took on a misleading similarity, as dramatists who protested against not only the congealed conventions of the theater but also the hypocrisy and oppression of bourgeois societies. Survivors of the formalist school made only modest inroads into such a simplistic view: the Bulgarian scholar Petr Bitsilli pointed out how daringly Chekhov uses conventional devices such as eaves-dropping and soliloquy in The Cherry Orchard; Sergei Balukhaty emphasized the lyrical structure and demotion of the exterior world. But Soviet criticism had to subordinate all insights to one task—to prove that great prerevolutionary dramatists were humanists heralding a new dawn, entry to a Promised Land.

For this reason the current of rejection never waned. St. Petersburg poets sensed Chekhov's indifference to their city. The poet Anna Akhmatova was notorious for her dismissal of Chekhov's "grayness": one might suspect that the dislike was self-defense, for many of Akhmatova's early poems are condensed versions of ironic Chekhovian narratives. But the poet Osip Mandelstam, in an unbroadcast radio talk he prepared in 1935 while in exile in Voronezh, articulated his dislike: "A biologist would call the Chekhovian principle ecological. Cohabitation is the decisive factor in Chekhov. In his dramas there is no action—just contiguity and the consequent unpleasantnesses. Recently I went to the Voronezh Town Theater in time for act 3 of The Cherry Orchard. The actors were putting on their makeup and resting in the dressing rooms.… On the whole, the ruins of the play, backstage, were not bad. After acting Chekhov the actors came offstage as if chilled and a little shifty. The correlation of theater and so-called life in Chekhov is that of a chill to good health."20

To those who suffered starvation, persecution, and execution, the predicaments of Chekhov's characters seemed trivial: even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the satirist Viacheslav Pietsukh has a character exclaim, "Ditherers, bastards, they had a bad life, did they? I'll bet they wore excellent overcoats, knocked back the Worontsoff vodka with caviar, mixed with lovely women, those reptiles philosophized from morning to night for want of anything to do—and then they say they have a bad life, you see? You sons of bitches ought to be in the clutches of a planned economy, you should be brought to an Executive Committee's attention—they'd show you what a cherry orchard was!"21

Abroad, Chekhov's reputation depended on two elements: the theatrical climate and the quality, even availability, of translations. In Slavonic cultures the theatrical climate was favorable, and there were literati familiar with Russian. Not surprisingly, the first performances of The Cherry Orchard abroad were in Bulgaria (1904) and Bohemia and Moravia (1905). But the nationalistic theater could catch only the "Russianness" and little else; the self-confidence of translators such as the Czech Boleslav Prusík resulted in ludicrously poor translation. In 1911 England was the first major Western European country to stage The Cherry Orchard, at first in an imperfect translation by Constance Garnett. The actors solemnly misinterpreted the morality: the English Duniasha was shocked at Charlotta's supposed illegitimacy. Critics found the play "stationary," "queer, outlandish, and even silly." They cited its "fantastic trivialities" and, at their most charitable, assumed it was a display of Russian temperament that no English actor was ready for.22 (They unwittingly agreed with Chekhov, who had always assumed his drama was of purely local interest.) Half the audience had left the theater by act 3. The few receptive spectators were Russian specialists like Maurice Baring or innovative dramatists like George Bernard Shaw. Baring followed the progressive Russian interpretation, compared the play with Molière's Le Misanthrope (The Misanthropist) in its lack of violent action, and insisted that the play had to be seen, not read, for the sake of the "hundred effects that make themselves felt on the boards"23 Shaw was extravagant: "When I heard a play of Chekhov's I want to tear my own up." He called The Cherry Orchard the "most important production in England since that of A Doll's House"24 His Heartbreak House (1919) was to pay explicit tribute to Chekhov's comedy.

World War I and the Revolution presented Russia in a militant, heroic light and led critics to discard Chekhov as irrelevant to modern times and his Russia as an ephemeral and uninteresting setting. When The Cherry Orchard was again staged in England, in a slightly better version by George Calderon in 1920, it was still judged to be "a decadent ritual," at best "a philosophical essay." Only major innovators responded with enthusiasm. Virginia Woolf declared after watching The Cherry Orchard that she felt "like a piano played upon at last … all over the keyboard and with the lid left open."25 The novelist Frank Swinnerton considered The Cherry Orchard to be the best of Chekhov's plays for its "most beautifully varied … snatches of idle, puzzled, irrelevant talk."26 Irish writers, like Shaw, saw common ground between Ranevskaia's household and decaying Irish estates. Very few, notably the dramatist and director Granville Barker, who had seen Chekhov produced in Moscow, understood that Stanislavskian acting principles were inseparable from Chekhov's textual innovations: they welcomed the play as a means of carrying out a similar revolution in the English theater.

In the United States Chekhov's plays were read a decade before they were produced, and most critical opinion derided them. The critic Storm Jameson in 1914 concluded that Chekhov was no great dramatist but "by virtue of the complexity of life … and an unresting note of revolt … a great artist."27 When a 1915 anthology of "modern masterpieces" included The Cherry Orchard, an anonymous reviewer complained, "Why this streak of abstract life is included in a collection … is hard to say.… [I]t is a lazy dream of idle aristocrats … mere portrayal of inept circumstances.… [T]o plod through Chekhov's cerebral abullitions … the rankest American amateur would be suspected of softening of the cerebellum."28 In 1923 New Yorkers saw The Cherry Orchard, produced in Russian by the Moscow Arts Theater, with Chekhov's widow, Olga Knipper, playing Ranevskaia and also assisting English-language productions of other Chekhov plays, notably Three Sisters. A few critics saw in the aging Knipper-Chekhova merely Junoesque posing, but makers of opinion, such as Edmund Wilson, became apostles of Chekhovian drama, declaring the comedy one of "ineptitude touched with the tragedy of all human failure."29

Only after the ponderous performances of the Moscow Arts Theater abroad (by both Stanislavsky's "Soviet" and Vasili Kachalov's "émigre" troupes) had given way to more confident English and American productions did critics and directors begin to see the comedy implicit in The Cherry Orchard. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times in 1928 concluded that "despite the melancholy of the conclusion, this comedy … sealed an epoch … stream of consciousness.… [N]othing since The Cherry Orchard has woven the new method into such a luminous pattern of beguiling life."30 By 1933 Tyrone Guthrie in his London production (yet another translation by Charles Butler) had declared Chekhov to be "a thoroughly amusing and flippant dramatist"31 and based his comedienne's Ranevskaia on Knipper's performance. The influential Miss Le Gallienne productions in the 1940s compromised by making The Cherry Orchard a "tragicomedy in which the hero and villain were both aspects of progress and the victim was beauty."32 In England, too, James Agate had swung opinion in 1925 by declaring it "one of the great plays of the world" and "a comedy of guesswork,"33 thereby rescuing Chekhov from the contempt of populist critics (e.g., the Daily Express: "This silly, tiresome, boring comedy.… I know of no reason why this fatuous drivel should be translated at all. There is no plot. The cherry orchard is for sale, and certain dull people are upset because it must be sold").34

Germany was one of the first countries to appreciate Chekhov's drama. His play Ivanov has such striking echoes in Gerhart Hauptmann's Einsame Menschen (Lonely People) that it is tempting to see Chekhov imitated in it. Rainer Maria Rilke, spellbound after seeing The Seagull at the Moscow Arts Theater, wrote plays such as Das tägliche Leben (Daily Life), in which a Mascha, dressed in black, was enthralled by the artist hero. In February 1906 the Moscow Arts Theater (including Knipper) performed in Russian in Berlin: they brought with them the only two Chekhov plays—Uncle Vania and Three Sisters—then available in German. But their performance was shattering: the notoriously tight-lipped Hauptmann burst into tears in the hall and shrieked in the foyer that this was the greatest stage experience of his life; others, such as the poet Christian Morgenstern, were moved to tears. This created a climate that would be favorable to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard as yet another example of Stimmungstheater (mood theater). Despite wartime Russophobia, The Cherry Orchard was first performed in German in Vienna in 1916 and again in Munich in 1917. The novelist and dramatist Lion Feuchtwanger had a hand in polishing the German version. He cryptically declared the play "a gloomy mirror of the human spirit which is measuring its limits against the limitless."35 When the Moscow Arts Theater returned to Germany in 1922, however, it again omitted The Cherry Orchard (as it had The Seagull), but scorn for Russian inertia was so ingrained that Chekhov's mature plays were rarely performed until well after World War II, and Nazi hostility to all things Slav had prevented significant appreciation of The Cherry Orchard in Germany, even though Chekhov was not banned under Hitler. A divided Germany brought a divided view of The Cherry Orchard: the Tübingen production of 1947 was slapstick; the East Berlin version of 1950 was coarse, alienating, and Brechtian.

France had esteemed the Russian novel earlier than any other foreign culture, yet, despite the efforts of the translator Denis Roche, reaction to Chekhov had been muted. He was seen primarily as a disciple of Maupassant. The French lack of interest justifies Chekhov's protest to his wife against allowing a translation of The Cherry Orchard: "Why translate my play into French? It's crazy, the French won't understand anything about Ermolai [Lopakhin] or the sale of the estate and will only be bored." "I can't forbid it, let anyone who wants translate, it will still be pointless."36 Not until 1921 was a major play of Chekhov's professionally staged in Paris, and despite the success of The Seagull, Uncle Vania, and Three Sisters in 1929, The Cherry Orchard had to wait until 1944 before it was staged at all. This neglect is all the more surprising when we consider that the French director Georges Pitoëff was of Russian origin and had studied under Stanislavsky and Meierkhold. He had been present at the first performance of The Cherry Orchard on 17 January 1904, and between 1915 and 1920, while in exile in Switzerland, he had translated the play into French. (The Roche version was rehearsed in Paris in 1914 but aborted when war broke out.) The absurdist dramatist Arthur Adamov translated several of Chekhov's plays, and his essays collected in the 1964 volume Ici et maintenant (Here and Now) show that he regarded The Cherry Orchard as the first progenitor of comedy where language fails its primary functions. "Chekhov's characters," he said, "don't say what they think at any given moment but what forms a sort of continual scheme of their thinking." 37 It is the falsity of Chekhov's characters' speeches that made for Adamov potential tragedy comic.

In 1954 Jean-Louis Barrault won acclaim for The Cherry Orchard, which he put forward as the greatest of Chekhov's plays: "The play's action actually unfolds through silence and, aside from the poem-tirades which are separate, the dialogues exist, as in music, only to make the silence resound."38 The delay in presenting the play to the French was evidently justified, for Barrault had catapulted his spectators straight into a modern view of the play as a play around the unspoken, as a musical structure not primarily about the fate of human individuals. Barrault's explanatory remarks are the most illuminating of any made by an actor-director, even more profound than Stanislavsky's. "It is a play about time," Barrault wrote. "And therefore it doesn't matter whether the storyline is Russian or Japanese." Although Barrault paid tribute to the Russian spirit "on the boundaries of East and West" for revealing a way of "penetrating and perceiving the imperceptible passage of time," he insisted on its universality as a play about time: "The action never slackens; it is tense, solid, for, I repeat, every minute is full. Every minute has its own saturation, but not with dialogues, but silence, life itself passing."

By breaking down the framework of a social message, Chekhov's ideological impact, Barrault asserted, was like acupuncture: the impact was out of all proportion to the force exerted. The three male protagonists—Gaev, Lopakhin, and Trofimov—Barrault saw in terms of time as past, present, and future—a view subsequent directors and critics have adopted. In France, Barrault's view that Chekhov had shown maximum economy in representation—"Not a single thing can be crossed out"—accredited The Cherry Orchard as a play that met all the criteria of art set by Racine and Flaubert. Chekhov was naturalized. France could now accept a Russian writer so un-Dostoyevskian, and the perfection of the play led critics to doubt that it should be subjected to the inevitable imperfections of production. Only the visit of the Moscow Arts Theater in 1958 with The Cherry Orchard sobered susceptible audiences into a pedestrian, Soviet-oriented view of Chekhov and his theater as faithful reproducers of reality and a herald of a brighter future.

By the 1950s, all over the Western world and in Japan, where overtones of Macbeth and the symbolism of the cherry blossom were particularly appreciated, The Cherry Orchard was established as a classic. Criticism was now concerned with providing guidance for correct interpretation. As modern structuralist brains drained from Prague to Boston, Paris, and Oxford, attention was paid to the integrity of Chekhov's text, casting the mold in which this study is set. The significance of every detail in the play—from the breaking string to the Duniasha's saucer, from traditional farce such as the dialogue of the deaf to the new absurdities of extraneous imagery (e.g., fish and billiards)—challenges critics to resolve the overall equivocations, to "make the silences resound" as Bar rault put it. Research in Russia has established how manifold Chekhov's sources were, so that the very texture of the play seems as much a collage of phrases read and overheard as a linearly composed narrative. The new release of material from archives will uncover more sources for the raw material of the play. Questions of genre also preoccupy critics in Russia and abroad: In what sense can a play about the loss of property, love, and death be termed a "comedy," and is the answer in the play's formal structure rather than in the audience's stock responses to these losses?

Today, as new and antagonistic schools of criticism—whether feminist or deconstructionist—proliferate rapidly, The Cherry Orchard has been spared the gutting that other modern "classics" have undergone. But some recent productions of the play amount to a deconstructionist critical reception. Russian directors, once the thaw permitted dissent from official practices, rebelled against leisurely productions by the Moscow Arts Theater (its performance of The Cherry Orchard in Poland allegedly lasted five hours). Anatoli Efros's production in 1975 at Moscow's Taganka Theater, then the nearest to a radical theater in the Soviet Union, stretched neurosis in the characterization and morbidity in the sets to give an expressionist hysteria to Lopakhin and Ranevskaia and to create an atmosphere of funeral gloom. Efros's follower, Leonid Trushkin, produced a "cooperative" Cherry Orchard in 1990, where the "much esteemed bookcase" of act 1 becomes the whole set, turning the actors into marionettelike automata: against this background Ranevskaia appears as an Edith Piaf-like amoral life force, undefeated by the loss of the estate, filling the finale with comic optimism. In the October 1992 Moscow Festival, foreign Cherry Orchards returned to Moscow to bewilder the Russians with German expressionism (Peter Stain) or Czech hysteria (Otomar Krejčí).

Recent non-Russian productions have translated not just the text but the whole setting. There have been Irish and even confederate American Cherry Orchards (one being The Wisteria Trees, with black Dunia and Yasha; another Michael Schultz's all-black cast), although few spectators found universality unlocked by such transformations. Trevor Griffiths in Britain rewrote the text in order to give the play a neo-Trotskyist political analysis, a transformation so radical that it implies Chekhov's original play to be irrelevant to modern audiences. Peter Brook's 1981 Paris production sought universality by using an international cast, so that Chekhov was performed in French with English, Danish, and other accents, and almost no props, ridding the play of its Russianness. Trying "to play the myth—the secret play" was a high price paid to make Everyman and Everywoman protagonists of the play. The flight from Chekhov's explicit settings and dynamics and from the Moscow Art Theater's heritage led to an unfortunately unforgettable American interpretation of 1985: Joel Gersmann reduced the play to "They buy the farm, they lose the farm," kept only the theory of time zones (future shock and derelict past) from critical tradition, and subjected what was left to transvestism, punk rock, and violence, with Ranevskaia wielding a chainsaw, Trofimov having sexual intercourse with Ania on a stage free from props. Gersmann's sole achievement in "playing the subtext" was to use song to bring out the significance for what happens onstage to Ranevskaia's drowned son, Grisha: "Grisha's dead, Grisha's dead / Drowned in the river, No-one heard his screams."

Just as in classical music, the critical pendulum, however, has swung back in favor of observing the composer's original dynamics and even using period instruments to reconstruct original performances. Thus, in performing Chekhov, where we have to hand a body of interpretative guidance from the author and his first directors, the most powerful contemporary Russian productions, such as Vladimir Pakhomov's in the Lipetsk Theater, have reverted to a modified Stanislavskian interpretation, trusting the original text to bridge the increasing distance between us and Chekhov's times and using the archival and interpretative discoveries of Chekhov critics only where one might reasonably imagine the ghost of the author approving. In the West the publication of new translations, notably Michael Frayn's, where the language works onstage and is yet a professional rendering of Chekhov's Russian, has saved innovative directors coping with quaint, unintelligible, and unspeakable lines but at the same time deprived them of a pretext for radical misinterpretation.


1 Konstantin Stanislavsky, telegram to Chekhov, 21 October 1903.

2 Maria Lilina, letter to Chekhov, 18 October 1903.

3 Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, telegram to Chekhov, 21 October 1903.

4 A. L. Vishnevsky, letter to Chekhov, undated [November 1903].

5 See Osip Dymov, "Pervoe predstavlenie Vishniovogo sada v SanktPeterburge," Utro Rossii 4 (1904): 1.

6 See Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, iz proshlogo, vol. 1 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1952), 177.

7 Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, telegram to Chekhov, 2 April 1904.

8 Nemirovich-Danchenko, Iz proshlogo, 1: 107.

9 Aleksandr Amfiteatrov, Rus' [newspaper], no. 110, 31 March 1904; no. 111, 1 April 1904.

10 See Zinaida Gippius, Novy Put' [St. Petersburg journal] 5 (1904): 251-67.

11 See Zinaida Gippius, Nova Put [St. Petersburg journal] 8 (1903): 184-87.

12 Vlas Doroshevich, Russkoe Slovo [St. Petersburg newspaper], no. 19, 1904.

13 Andrei Bely, Arabeski (Moscow: Skepion, 1911), 400.

14 Vsevolod Meierkhold, letter to Chekhov, 8 May 1904; see Literaturnoe Nasledstvo [Moscow] 68 (1960): 448.

15 Vsevolod Meierkhold, "Teatr. K istorii i tekhnike," in Teatr. Kniga o novom teatre (St. Petersburg: Shipovnik, 1908), 143.

16 Maksim Gorky, Sobranie sochineii v 30i tomax, vol. 28 (Moscow: Nauka, 1954), 291.

17 Viktor Baranovsky, letter to Chekhov, 20 March 1904, RGB Archives.

18 M. Khosidov, letter to Chekhov, 13 June 1904, RGB Archives.

19 Ivan Bunin, O Chekhove (New York: Chekhov Publishing House, 1955), 216.

20 Osip Mandelstam, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 4 (Paris: YMCA Press, 1981), 108-109.

21 Viacheslav Pietsukh, Ia i prochee (Moscow, 1990), 42.

22 For example, London Daily Telegraph, no. 21, 1911; see Victor Emeljanow, Chekhov: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 10-11.

23 Maurice Baring, "Russian Literature," New Quarterly [London] 1 (1907-1908): 405-29.

24 George Bernard Shaw, quoted by H.M.W. in the Nation [London], 16 May 1914, 265-66.

25 Virginia Woolf, in Emeljanow, Critical Heritage, 200.

26 Frank Swinnerton, in Emeljanow, Critical Heritage, 192.

27 Storm Jameson, "Modern Dramatists," Egoist, 16 March 1914, 116-17.

28 Anonymous reviewer, Dramatist 4 (July 1915): 590-91.

29 Edmund Wilson, "The Moscow Arts Theatre," Dial 74 (January 1923): 319.

30 Brooks Atkinson, "The Cherry Orchard," New York Times, 11 March 1928, pt. 8, p. 1.

31 Tyrone Guthrie, in Emeljanow, Critical Heritage, 380.

32 Miss Le Gallienne, in Emeljanow, Critical Heritage, 441.

33 James Agate, Sunday Times [London], 31 May 1925.

34Daily Express, quoted by Patrick Miles, Chekhov on the British Stage, 1909-1987 (London: Sam and Sam, 1987), 26.

35 Lion Feuchtwanger, "Der Kirschgarten," Die Schaubühne [Munich] 33 (1916): 175-182.

36 Letter to Olga Knipper, in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v 30i tomakh (Moscow: Nauka, 1974-83), letter nos. 4214 and 4238. Letters from these volumes are hereafter cited in text by number.

37 Arthur Adamov, Ici et maintenant (Paris: NRF, 1969), 197.

38 Jean-Louis Barrault, "Pourquois La Cerisaie?" in Cahiers de la Compagnie Madeleine Renard-Jean-Louis Barrault (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 87-97.


The Cherry Orchard (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)


Critical Overview