The Cherry Orchard Cherry Orchard, The - Essay

Anton Chekhov


(Drama Criticism)

The Cherry Orchard

Francis Fergusson (essay date 1949)

(Drama Criticism)

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; 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...

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Jacqueline E. M. Latham (essay date 1958)

(Drama Criticism)

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 entire section is 5008 words.)

Ronald Gaskell (essay date 1972)

(Drama Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2013 words.)

Beverly Hahn (essay date 1973)

(Drama Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 7796 words.)

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

(Drama Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6361 words.)

G. J. Watson (essay date 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5154 words.)

Donald Rayfield (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5337 words.)