Illustration of a chopped down cherry tree that was cut into logs

The Cherry Orchard

by Anton Chekhov

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Virginia Woolf (essay date 1920)

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[One of the most prominent figures in twentieth-century literature, Woolf rebelled as a novelist against traditional narrative techniques, developing a highly individualized style employing the stream-of-consciousness mode. She was also esteemed for her critical essays, which cover a broad range of topics and contain some of her finest prose. In the following review of a performance of The Cherry Orchard, Woolf asserts that the play is foreign to English sensibilities yet is emotionally moving regardless.]

Although every member of the audience at the Art Theatre last week had probably read Tchekhov's The Cherry Orchard several times, a large number of them had, perhaps, never seen it acted before. It was no doubt on this account that as the first act proceeded the readers, now transformed into seers, felt themselves shocked and outraged. The beautiful, mad drama which I had staged often enough in the dim recesses of my mind was now hung within a few feet of me, hard, crude, and over-emphatic, like a cheap coloured print of the real thing. But what right had I to call it the real thing? What did I mean by that? Perhaps something like this.

There is nothing in English literature in the least like The Cherry Orchard. It may be that we are more advanced, less advanced, or have advanced in an entirely different direction. At any rate, the English person who finds himself at dawn in the nursery of Madame Ranevskaia feels out of place, like a foreigner brought up with entirely different traditions. But the traditions are not (this, of course, is a transcript of individual experience) so ingrained in one as to prevent one from shedding them not only without pain but with actual relief and abandonment. True, at the end of a long railway journey one is accustomed to say goodnight and go to bed. Yet on this occasion, since everything is so strange, the dawn rising and the birds beginning to sing in the cherry-trees, let us gather round the coffee-cups; let us talk about everything in the whole world. We are all in that queer emotional state when thought seems to bubble into words without being spoken. The journey is over and we have reached the end of everything where space seems illimitable and time everlasting. Quite wrongly (since in the production approved by Tchekhov the birds actually sing and the cherries are visible on the trees) I had, on my imaginary stage, tried to give effect to my sense that the human soul is free from all trappings and crossed incessantly by thoughts and emotions which wing their way from here, from there, from the furthest horizons—I had tried to express this by imagining an airy view from the window with ethereal pink cherries and perhaps snow mountains and blue mist behind them. In the room the characters spoke suddenly whatever came into their heads, and yet always vaguely, as if thinking aloud. There was no "comedy of manners"; one thought scarcely grazed, let alone struck sparks from, another; there was no conflict of individual wills. At the same time the characters were entirely concrete and without sentimentality.

Not for an instant did one suppose that Madame Ranevskaia was wrapping up a mystic allusion to something else when she spoke. Her own emotions were quite enough for her. If what was said seemed symbolical, that was because it was profound enough to illumine much more than an incident in the life of one individual. And, finally, though the leap from one thought to another was so wide as to produce a sense of...

(This entire section contains 1590 words.)

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dangerous dislocation, all the separate speeches and characters combined to create a single impression of an overwhelming kind.

The actors at the Art Theatre destroyed this conception, first, by the unnatural emphasis with which they spoke; next by their determination to make points which brought them into touch with the audience but destroyed their harmony with each other; and, finally, by the consciousness which hung about them of being well-trained English men and women ill at ease in an absurd situation, but determined to make the best of a bad business. One instance of irrepressible British humour struck me with considerable force. It occurred in the middle of Charlotte's strange speech in the beginning of the second act. "I have no proper passport. I don't know how old I am; I always feel I am still young," she begins. She goes on, "When I grew up I became a governess. But where I come from and who I am, I haven't a notion. Who my parents were—very likely they weren 't married—I don't know." At the words I have italicised, Dunyasha bounced away from her to the other end of the bench, with an arch humour which drew the laugh it deserved. Miss Helena Millais seemed to be delighted to have this chance of assuring us that she did not believe a word of this morbid nonsense, and that the old jokes still held good in the world of sanity round the corner. But it was Miss Ethel Irving who showed the steadiest sense of what decency requires of a British matron in extremity. How she did it, since she spoke her part accurately, it is difficult to say, but her mere presence upon the stage was enough to suggest that all the comforts and all the decencies of English upper-class life were at hand, so that at any moment her vigil upon the bench might have been appropriately interrupted by a man-servant bearing a silver tray. "The Bishop is in the drawing-room, m'lady." "Thank you, Parker. Tell his Lordship I will come at once." In that sort of play, by which I mean a play by Sheridan or Oscar Wilde, both Miss Irving and Miss Millais would charm by their wit, spirit and competent intellectual outfit. Nor, though the quotation I have made scarcely proves it, have we any cause to sneer at English comedy or at the tradition of acting which prevails upon our stage. The only question is whether the same methods are as applicable to The Cherry Orchard as they are to The School for Scandal.

But there are four acts in The Cherry Orchard. How it may have been with the other readers I do not know, but before the second act was over some sort of compromise had been reached between my reader's version and the actor's one. Perhaps in reading one had got the whole too vague, too mad, too mystical. Perhaps as they went on the actors forgot how absurd such behavior would be thought in England. Or perhaps the play itself triumphed over the deficiencies of both parties. At any rate, I felt less and less desire to cavil at the acting in general and more and more appreciation of the acting of Mr. Cancellor, Mr. Dodd, Mr. Pearson and Miss Edith Evans in particular. With every word that Mr. Felix Aylmer spoke as Pishchick, one's own conception of that part plumped itself out like a shrivelled skin miraculously revived. But the play itself—that was what overwhelmed all obstacles, so that though the walls rocked from floor to ceiling when the door was shut, though the sun sank and rose with the energetic decision of the stage carpenter's fist, though the scenery suggested an advertisement of the Surrey Hills rather than Russia in her wildness, the atmosphere of the play wrapped us round and shut out everything alien to itself. It is, as a rule, when a critic does not wish to commit himself or to trouble himself that he refers to atmosphere. And, given time, something might be said in greater detail of the causes which produced this atmosphere—the strange dislocated sentences, each so erratic and yet cutting out the shape so firmly, of the realism, of the humour, of the artistic unity. But let the word atmosphere be taken literally to mean that Tchekhov has contrived to shed over us a luminous vapour in which life appears as it is, without veils, transparent and visible to the depths. Long before the play was over we seemed to have sunk below the surface of things and to be feeling our way among submerged but recognisable emotions. "I have no proper passport. I don't know how old I am; I always feel I am still young"—how the words go sounding on in one's mind—how the whole play resounds with such sentences, which reverberate, melt into each other, and pass far away out beyond everything! In short, if it is permissible to use such vague language, I do not know how better to describe the sensation at the end of The Cherry Orchard, than by saying that it sends one into the street feeling like a piano played upon at last, not in the middle only but all over the keyboard and with the lid left open so that the sound goes on.

This being so, and having felt nothing comparable to it from reading the play, one feels inclined to strike out every word of criticism and to implore Madame Donnet to give us the chance of seeing play after play, until to sit at home and read plays is an occupation for the afflicted only, and one to be viewed with pity, as we pity blind men spelling out their Shakespeare with their fingers upon sheets of cardboard.

Virginia Woolf A review of "The Cherry Orchard, "in New Statesman, Vol. XV, No. 380, July 24, 1920, pp. 446-47


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The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov

The following entry presents criticism on Chekhov's drama Vishnevy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard). See also Anton Chekhov Short Story Criticism, Anton Chekhov Drama Criticism, The Three Sisters Criticism, Gooseberries Criticism, and The Seagull Criticism.

Considered by many critics to be Chekhov's greatest play, The Cherry Orchard is a portrayal of a family of aristocrats who lose their ancestral estate as a result of their failure to face the realities of the changing social, political, and economic order of late nineteenth-century Russia. Commentators praise the realism and artistry with which Chekhov illuminates the human condition through the plight of the Ranevskaya family. As Virginia Woolf stated in a review of the play: "Chekhov has contrived to shed over us a luminous vapour in which life appears as it is, without veils, transparent and visible to the depths."

Plot and Major Characters

The drama revolves around the impoverished Ranevskayas, their servants, and family friends as they discuss the approaching sale of their house and cherry orchard. Lopakhin, the son of a former serf of the family, urges them to chop down the cherry orchard and build cottages in order to make their property profitable. Chekhov's characters, however, are unable to act decisively in the face of a new socio-economic order. Eventually, Lopakhin purchases the estate. At the conclusion of the play, the characters disperse to continue their lives independently.

Major Themes

The Cherry Orchard blends elements of the tragic and the comic. Although the subject of the play—the Ranevskaya's loss of their ancestral home—is ostensibly a tragic one, Chekhov subtitled the play "A Comedy," presenting his characters in a comic light; their speech and actions are often absurd and most are ineffectual. Nevertheless, this work displays one of Chekhov's most important themes: the triumph of ignorance and vulgarity over the fragile traditions of elegance and nobility. Critics maintain that his depiction of the "ordinary drabness" of life, brings to the stage a realism that eschewed the epic scale of traditional drama. As Francis Fergusson has observed: "If Chekhov drastically reduced the dramatic art, he did so in full 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."

Critical Reception

Stagings of The Cherry Orchard, first performed by the Moscow Art Theater under the co-direction of Constantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, reflect the pathos of the characters' situation. Initial critical reaction was mixed but Stanislavsky's treatment of the play as tragedy received unanimous praise and has thus become the predominant interpretation. Nevertheless, commenting on the humor of the work, Dorothy Sayers wrote that "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." Most critics agree that the subtlety of The Cherry Orchard, which has neither a dominant protagonist nor traditional plot development, is a tribute to Chekhov's skill as a dramatist. Noting the ethereal quality of Chekhov's work, Joseph Wood Krutch has commented: "Others build upon a solid foundation. They are architectural and they attain solidity by placing stone upon stone; but he merely throws out one thread after another. Each is so fragile that a wind would blow it away, but we are soon enmeshed in a thousand of them. Out of delicacy laid ceaselessly upon delicacy comes strength."

Joseph Wood Krutch (essay date 1928)

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[Krutch was one of America's most respected literary critics. Noteworthy among his works are The American Drama since 1918 (1939), in which he analyzed the most important dramas of the 1920s and 1930s, and "Modernism" in Modern Drama (1953), in which he stressed the need for twentieth-century playwrights to infuse their works with traditional humanistic values. In the following review of a performance of The Cherry Orchard, Krutch offers the play as evidence of Chekhov's genius and singularity as a dramatist.]

For the third new production of its season the Civic Repertory Theater has chosen The Cherry Orchard of Chekhov and has made of the play, familiar as it is, by far the most interesting of the three. It is true that here, as usual, Miss Le Gallienne's production leaves something to be desired—that the limitations, financial and other, of her enterprise preclude the possibility of perfect finish, and that her sorely tried company is called upon by the exigencies of the repertory to perform feats of versatility beyond their capacity. It is true, furthermore, that neither her own good performance in the role of the self-effacing Varya nor that of Alla Nazimova (guest for the occasion) as the charmingly incompetent mistress of the orchard is enough to dispel that somewhat impromptu air which often marks the production at this theater. And yet the intelligence of the direction, coupled with the intelligence of the play, is sufficient to make The Cherry Orchard delightful to all those capable of seeing below a surface not quite so smooth as that to which Broadway is accustomed, and of relishing the delicately humorous genius of the author.

Important novelists have often been seduced by promises of fame and money to try their hands at the stage, but they have very rarely enriched either themselves or the drama. Chekhov stands almost alone among the great writers of fiction who have, with results other than regrettable, allowed themselves to be persuaded by importunate managers; and his unusual success is probably due in a very considerable measure to the fact that instead of going to the theater he made the theater come to him—a highly unusual proceeding, since nothing is more pathetic than the respect generally paid by the layman to the infantile "mysteries" of conventional stagecraft. Grave professors are reduced to a state of awed wonder by the pronunciamentos of any fourth-rate hack who talks about the "laws of the theater," and first-rate novelists who would show the door to any one who told them how to write in any other form accept complacently the imbecile suggestions of the "practical man of the theater," producing, as a result, plays which have none of the virtues of the professional litterateur and all the defects of the amateur dramatist. Chekhov, on the other hand, had the good sense to conclude that the public wanted him to be, in the theater as elsewhere, not a lumbering imitation of another, but Chekhov himself; accordingly he wrote two plays which are like no others ever seen upon any stage but which are, nevertheless, replete with all the virtues which made his stories unique.

The very soul of his method had always been the avoidance of anything artificially "dramatic," and he was wise enough not to alter it when he came to write drama. In The Cherry Orchard as in his stories the plot is insignificant; instead of clothing a narrative skeleton with thought and feeling he generates his moods and delivers his reflections in a manner which appears to be in the last degree casual. Strokes of characterization, flashes of humor, and unexpected touches of nature seem introduced almost at random; and yet somehow an unforgettable picture is evoked. Doubtless there is art in every line of this seeming artlessness, and Chekhov, indeed, complained at one time that he was writing it at the rate of four lines a day; but the art is not of any familiar sort. Others build upon a solid foundation. They are architectural and they attain solidity by placing stone upon stone; but he merely throws out one thread after another. Each is so fragile that a wind would blow it away, but we are soon enmeshed in a thousand of them. Out of delicacy laid ceaselessly upon delicacy comes strength.

If Chekhov meant to say, as in The Cherry Orebmd he apparently did, that the touching absurdity of the society he pictures was destined to be gradually and peacefully replaced by the cruder, though sturdier, race of peasants turned capitalists, then he was a very bad prophet indeed so far as Russia was concerned, but it is not for prophecy that we turn to him.

What we get instead is as delightful pictures as any contained in the whole realm of Russian literature of the charming childishness of those gentle people whose incompetence precipitated one of the bloodiest upheavals of history—pictures whose moods vary, as gracefully as the moods of the people who are their subjects, from bubbling gaiety to hopeless melancholy and back again. Never, moreover, was penetration more gentle than his. His insight spares no one and yet no one is really wounded. He is merciless in his exposure of every character and yet every one of them finds mercy. No one else ever stripped his characters barer than he, but no one else ever held helpless victims up to a kindlier ridicule. Good art is perpetually revealing how it can accomplish the impossible. Smiles and tears, satire and sentiment—what combination is generally more nauseous? But the combination is Chekhov's and Chekhov is great.

Joseph Wood Krutch, "The Greatness of Chekhov," in the Nation, New York, Vol. CXXVII, No. 3304, October 31, 1928, p. 461.

Further Reading

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Lantz, K. A. Anton Chekhov: A Reference Guide to Literature. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, 287 p.

Annotated bibliography of Chekhov criticism arranged chronologically by publication date. Includes English, Russian, French, and German sources.

Meister, Charles W. Chekhov Bibliography: Works in English by and about Anton Chekhov; American, British and Canadian Performances. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1985, 184 p.

Lists editions of The Cherry Orchard in English, critical and biographical sources, and information on stage performances of the play.


Priestly, J. B. Anton Chekhov. London: International Profiles, 1970, 87 p.

Overview of Chekhov's life and career.


Balukhaty, S. D. "The Cherry Orchard: A Formalist Approach." In Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, pp. 136-46. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Rigorous formalist analysis of thematic structure in The Cherry Orchard.

Brandon, James R. "Toward a Middle View of Chekhov." Educational Theatre Journal XII, No. 4 (December 1960): 270-75.

Apropos of viewing performances of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters by the Moscow Art Theatre, Brandon states: "We should set aside our natural inclination to think of Chekhov's plays as being either tragic or comic, and instead recognize that… they are both at the same time."

Brustein, Robert. "Anton Chekhov." In his The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama, pp. 135-79. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1964.

Examines the complex nature of Chekhov's plays, maintaining that The Cherry Orchard "functions … as a satire on conventional melodrama, achieved through the reversal of melodramatic conventions."

Cross, A. G. "The Breaking Strings of Chekhov and Turgenev." The Slavonic and East European Review 47 (January-July 1969): 510-13.

Asserts that Chekhov's theme of the passing of the old social order in The Cherry Orchard, symbolized by the sound of breaking string, has precedence in Ivan Turgenev's works. Cross states that "there is every likelihood that Chekhov had read" particular writings by Turgenev that would have provided inspiration.

Durkin, Andrew R. "The Cherry Orchard in English: An Overview." In Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 33 (1984): 74-82.

Compares translations of The Cherry Orchard available in English, assessing their relative success in conveying the intent of the original Russian text.

Fergusson, Francis. "The Cherry Orchard: A Theater-Poem of the Suffering of Change." In Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, pp. 147-60. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Analyzes Chekhov's artistry as a dramatist, focusing on the second act of The Cherry Orchard.

Hahn, Beverly. "The Cherry Orchard." In her Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, pp. 12-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Maintains that the play "brilliantly assimilates comic and tragic possibilities to one another until practically every scene is both light in texture and pervaded by a subtle melancholy—a true merging of tragic and comic possibilities."

Latham, Jacqueline E. M. "The Cherry Orchard as Comedy." Educational Theatre Journal X, No. 1 (March 1958): 21-9.

Argues that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy, not a tragedy. Latham concludes: "In his revelation of the ludicrous in human nature Chekhov successfully achieves a very rare blend of sympathetic and judicial comedy; the audience is aware of the triviality and inadequacies of the comic characters yet they cannot completely dissociate themselves from them, to assume a superior position."

Lewis, Allan. "The Comedy of Frustration—Chekhov." In his The Contemporary Theatre: The Significant Playwrights of Our Time, pp. 59-80. New York: Crown Publishers, 1962.

Comments on the comic elements in The Cherry Orchard.

Orr, John. "The Everyday and the Transient in Chekhov's Tragedy." In his Tragic Drama and Modern Society: A Sociology of Dramatic Form from 1880 to the Present, pp. 57-83. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Thematic overview of The Cherry Orchard.

Pavis, Patrice. "Textual Mechanisms in The Cherry Orchard." Assaph: Studies in the Theatre, No. 4 (1988): 1-18.

Addresses stylistic and structural elements of the play, as well as thoroughly analyzing the symbolic function of the cherry orchard on the estate.

Reed, Walter L. "The Cherry Orchard and Hedda Gabler." In Homer to Brecht: The European Epic and Dramatic Traditions, edited by Michael Seidel and Edward Mendelson, pp. 317-35. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Asserts that Chekhov's use of "comic and tragic archetypes" signifies his "desire to get beyond the conventional resolutions that literature provides."

Silverstein, Norman. "Chekhov's Comic Spirit and The Cherry Orchard." Modern Drama 1, No. 2 (September 1958): 91-100.

Views The Cherry Orchard as a comedy, providing biographical anecdotes about Chekhov in order to support the claim.

Stanislavski, Constantin. "The Cherry Orchard." In his My Life in Art, translated by J. J. Robbins, pp. 420-24. New York: Robert M. MacGregor, 1948.

Recalls Chekhov's ill health in the last year of his life, during which The Cherry Orchard was first performed, and notes his sense of humor.

Styan, J. L. "Shifting Impressions: The Cherry Orchard." In his The Elements of Drama, pp. 64-85. Cambridge: The University Press, 1960.

Explicates a passage from the fourth act of The Cherry Orchard in order to show that the effect of Chekhov's drama arises from his focus on relationships between the characters rather than on actions, events, or the characters themselves.

—. "The Cherry Orchard." In his Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, pp. 239-337. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Provides an act-by-act analysis of The Cherry Orchard.

Toumanova, Nina Andronikova. "Sunset in the Cherry Garden." In her Anton Chekhov: The Voice of Twilight Russia, pp. 204-21. NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1937.

Offers a plot summary of The Cherry Orchard, stressing the play's dimensions as a drama about social classes.

Valency, Maurice. "The Cherry Orchard." In his The Breaking String. The Plays of Anton Chekhov, pp. 251-88. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Recounts the circumstances of the composition of The Cherry Orchard and provides an overview of the play.

Additional coverage of Chekhov's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 124; DISCovering Authors ; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 3,10, 31; and World Literature Criticism.

Irving Deer (essay date 1958)

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[Deer is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he perceives the dialogue in The Cherry Orchard both as a manifestation of the characters' inner turmoil and as a means of avoiding action.]

Both directors and actors are confronted with many perplexing problems when they deal with Chekhov's full length plays. Perhaps the most perplexing are those which they meet in the attempt to discover and express the dramatic significance of Chekhov's dialogue. The difficulty is not that Chekhov's dialogue requires any unusual acting techniques, but rather that it has no obvious form. It seems to be rambling, disconnected, and irrelevant. Take for example a brief scene from the first act of The ThreeSisters. Olga has been grading papers and thinking aloud about her father's funeral, the drudgery of her job, and her long held hope of going to Moscow. Irina picks up the Moscow refrain and then Olga again goes into one of her "catch-all" speeches:

You look radiant today, lovelier than ever. And Masha is lovely, too. Andrey would be good looking if he hadn't got so heavy, it's not becoming to him. And I've grown older, a lot thinner; it must be because I get cross with the girls. Now that I'm free today and am here at home and my head's not aching, I feel younger than yesterday. I'm only twenty-eight.… It's all good, all God's will, but it seems to me if I had married and stayed at home all day long, it would have been better. (A pause) I'd have loved my husband.

When one realizes how much of this kind of associative talk goes on in Chekhov, it is not too difficult to understand why some critics (Walter Kerr and William Archer, for example) see in Chekhov's plays only a formless mass without conflict or progression.

The apparent formlessness of Chekhovs' dialogue is even more clear when we compare Olga's speech with a more conventional speech in modern drama, say a speech by Lady Utterword in Shaw's "Chekhovian" play, Heartbreak House. Lady Utterword is home after an absence of twenty-three years and she finds everything as chaotic as ever. Her father and the nurse are disrespectful. She cannot even get a cup of tea. "Sitting down with a flounce on the sofa," she says to Ellie Dunn, who also has not been received properly:

I know what you must feel. Oh, this house, this house! I come back to it after twenty-three years; and it is just the same: nobody at home to receive anybody, no regular meals, nobody ever hungry because they're always gnawing bread and butter or munching apples, and what is worse the same disorder in ideas, in talk, in feeling. When I was a child I was used to it: I had never known anything better, though I was unhappy, and longed all the time—Oh, how I longed! to be respectable, to be a lady, to live as others did, not to have to think of everything for myself.… And now the state of the house! the way I'm received! the casual impudence of that woman Guinness … You must excuse my going on in this way; but I am really very much hurt and annoyed and disillusioned.…

Like Olga, Lady Utterword is also "thinking aloud" about her home, her past and her family. She also is distressed. But unlike Olga, her speech is obviously prompted by events around her. She feels herself horribly insulted and everything she says represents her reaction against those who affront her sense of conventional decency. She sticks to the point; her ideas are clearly connected. The speech is obviously dramatic.

Even when the ideas in a Chekhov speech are clearly and logically connected, the speech is often confusing for another reason. Conventionally, speech in drama is a device for simultaneous two way communication: the characters talk directly with each other and at the same time they talk indirectly to the audience. But in Chekhov, these two functions of dialogue seem often separated. The characters seem to be talking to themselves in a daze primarily for the purpose of giving the audience direct exposition. Chekhov appears to have done Scribe one better. Scribe had to have two servants dusting while they gave the audience background information. Chekhov can get by with only one character, who need not even be dusting.

Consider, for example, the opening conversation between Lopahin and Dunyasha in The Cherry Orchard. Lopahin, the merchant, and Dunyasha, the maid, have been anxiously awaiting the train which will bring Madame Ranevskaya and her entourage. Dunyasha tells Lopahin that the train has arrived. He answers: "… thank God… But how late was the train? Two hours at least. (Yawning and stretching.) I'm a fine one, I am, look what a fool thing I did!—You could have waked me up." Dunyasha then replies: "I thought you had gone. (Listening) Listen, I think they are coming now." Lopahin listens and then says:

No—no, there's the luggage and one thing and another. (A pause) Lyuboff Andreyevna has been living abroad five years. I don't know what she is like now—She is a good woman. An easy-going simple woman. I remember when I was a boy about fifteen, my father, who is at rest—in those days he ran a shop here in the village—hit me in the face with his fist, my nose was bleeding.—we'd come to the yard together for something or other, and he was a little drunk. Lyuboff Andreyevna, I can see her now, still so young, so slim, led me to the wash-basin here in this very room, in the nursery. "Don't cry," she says, "little peasant, it will be well in time for your wedding"—(a pause) Yes, little peasant—My father was a peasant truly, and here I am in a white waistcoat and yellow shoes. Like a pig rooting in a pastry shop—I've got this rich, lots of money, but if you really stop and think of it, I'm just a peasant—(turning the pages of a book) Here I was reading a book and didn't get a thing out of it. Reading and went to sleep. (A pause)

As if she had not heard a word, Dunyasha replies: "And all night long the dogs were not asleep, they know their masters are coming."

As we can see, Lopahin and Dunyasha communicate with each other only occasionally. Although they both share the stage, they seem to be talking more to themselves than to each other. Lopahin's long monologue seems to be there merely to get background information across to the audience. Dunyasha does not engage in any conflict with Lopahin which would force him to talk at such length. She either knows most of what he says or she is not interested in it at the moment. It does not affect her in any way. There seems to be no dramatic relationship between the characters or between them and the situation in which they find themselves.

When a Shakespearean character speaks to himself, he is obviously engaging in a struggle which is an expression of the central conflict of the play and which leads to new action. Take Macbeth's "If it were done when 't is done" speech for example. Everything Macbeth says there expresses his struggle to overcome his qualms of conscience or his fear of retribution. This speech is part of the process by which he whips himself up to the point of murdering Duncan. Like Shakespeare's soliloquies, most modern soliloquies are obviously relevant to the central conflict and plot of the play. When Peer Gynt, for example, expostulates to himself on the beauty of Anitra the slave girl [in Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt], we are not at a loss for one moment. We have seen his daydreaming tendencies before. The contrast between his idealized version of the girl and her dirty legs and selfish actions shows us immediately not only what kind of a man Peer is, but also points ahead to his financial ruin at her hands.

Even if we suppose that Lopahin is in a semi-conscious state, and therefore cannot be expected to talk with as much point as Macbeth or Peer Gynt, the speech still seems mere verbiage. Arthur Miller's salesman, Willy Loman, is a dazed and broken character who often talks to himself. But although he may be dazed and prone to "lose himself in reminiscences," Miller always makes obvious the meaning of Willy's speeches to himself. As the flashbacks which usually attend Willy's "thinking aloud" sessions indicate, he is either trying to relive an idealized dream of the past, or he is punishing himself for having committed some wrong. On the other hand, nothing Lopahin says seems to express his feelings or desires. It is no wonder then that directors and actors have difficulty understanding how Chekhov's speech reveals character or expresses the conflicts within the play.

But a close examination of the dialogue reveals that Lopahin's rambling remarks are, in fact, actually expressive of internal conflict which is an integral part of the central conflict of the play. Lopahin has only partially accomplished his purpose of greeting the Ranevskayas by going to the Cherry Orchard. Once there, instead of going to the station to meet the returning party, he goes to sleep. Upon awakening, he chides himself for not completing his purpose. He both starts and ends his musings on this chiding note. He seems to be scolding some impulse or desire within himself which has prevented his conscious will from achieving its aim.

Lopahin is torn by guilt for deeper causes, however, than mere oversleeping. He questions his right even to be at the Cherry Orchard. "My father was a peasant truly,… I'm just a peasant [too].…" As a peasant by birth and upbringing, he feels that he is subservient to the Ranevskayas. He still remembers the time when the honor of being in the nursery could compensate for his father's beatings. Yet, as a freed serf, he has the money and the desire to be an aristocrat. He scolds himself for desiring to rise above his class, "like a pig rooting in a pastry shop," and yet he wants to do just that. Thus, when he meditates upon the incongruity of the peasant in white waistcoat, he is struggling to reconcile the conflicting desires within himself.

He is so torn by conflicting desires that even his attempt to "talk himself awake" becomes a form of day dreaming. For at the very moment that he is trying to "wake up" so that he can greet the Ranevskayas, he goes into a kind of reverie about what the orchard has meant to him in the past: "I remember when I was a boy about fifteen.…" His reverie begins as an attempt to define his problem, but it becomes a means of escaping from it. By concentrating on what appears to him an insoluble conflict, he loses the will to act. Instead he ends by merely scolding himself because he really does not properly use his aristocratic skill of reading. He substitutes recognition of his problem for solution of the problem.

Lopahin's apparently non-functional speech is really functional in several ways. In the first place, it is a means by which he chides himself for shirking his responsibilities toward the Ranevskayas. Second, it helps to build up in his own mind the importance of those responsibilities and to define them more clearly so that he will try harder to accomplish them. And third, it allows him to talk and thus escape the reality of his problems by letting him concentrate on merely recognizing the problem instead of on trying to solve it. Since the third of these functions is opposed to the other two, Lopahin's speech works like his dream-seeking action: it sets up a tension which keeps him acting in the attempt to reconcile the contradictions within himself.

All of the major characters in the play face problems similar to Lopahin's: like him, they are torn by contradictory impulses and desires. Madame Ranevskaya and Gayeff can passionately desire to save the Orchard at any cost, and yet refrain completely from doing anything to save it because they desire to keep the Orchard intact as a symbol of past bliss. Anna and Trofimoff can love each other deeply and yet refrain from marriage because of their dedication to abstract ideals.

Since the characters' attempts to achieve any of their important aims are thwarted by their opposing desires, like Lopahin they indulge in daydreams. But again like Lopahin, they do even this for two opposing reasons: one, to reaffirm their aims, and two, to escape from the difficulties they have in achieving those aims. Madame Ranevskaya and Gayeff grow angry when faced with the reality of their problems, and like Lopahin, they escape into the past. Madame Ranevskaya rhapsodizes about what the nursery has meant to her; Gayeff makes a speech to the desk about how it has served the family. But rhapsodizing about the nursery and eulogizing the desk serve finally to again remind Madame Ranevskaya and Gayeff of their present problems. Like Lopahin, they become more determined to solve the problems; and also like Lopahin, they use recognition of a problem as a comfortable escape from attempting any real solution to it.

Like the daydreams of Lopahin, Madame Ranevskaya, and Gayeff, those of the other important characters usually take the form of sentimental talk about the Cherry Orchard. Nearly everyone envisages it as a Utopia where he can achieve the purposeful, unified life he so desperately wants. It becomes for everyone a symbol of the ideal for which he is striving. By thinking and talking about the ideal world they envision, Chekhov's characters gain a feeling of purpose. They delude themselves into believing that they are actually bringing unity and purpose into their lives.

But occasionally they discover that their escape into sentimental daydreams is actually preventing them from solving any of the problems. As Trofimoff says, "Apparently, with us, all the fine talk is only to divert the attention of ourselves and of others." Varya, too, realizes that talk will not make Lopahin propose. As she says, "It's two years now; everyone has been talking to me about him, everyone talks, and he either remains silent or jokes." It is this partial awareness of the discrepancy between their aims and their achievements which keeps them struggling to achieve their aims. Lopahin tries again and again to persuade Madame Ranevskaya that she must divide the Orchard into commercial lots if she is to save it. Gayeff tries to face his problems despite his tendency to lapse into daydreams or sentimental talk. Madame Ranevskaya struggles to keep her mind on her present problems, and not on her past bliss. But always the characters allow the dream of unity and purpose to substitute for actions which will achieve their purpose. And since they allow their thoughts and words to take the place of any direct action which might help them achieve what they want, they must fall. As Lopahin says to Madame Ranevskaya after he has bought the orchard, "Why, then, didn't you listen to me? My poor dear, it can't be undone now. Oh, if this could all be over soon, if somehow our awkward, unhappy life would be changed!"

Chekhov's dialogue then is functional because of its rambling, formless quality, not in spite of it. With such dialogue Chekhov has hit upon a perfect means of making objective the constant struggle his characters have between their desire to act realistically in order to solve their problems and their desire to daydream in one form or another in order to avoid their problems. But because talk gives them both a way of struggling and a way of avoiding struggle, they allow it to divert them from saving the Orchard. Thus, far from being irrelevent, Chekhov's dialogue is actually the essential expression of the central conflict in The Cherry Orchard.

Irving Deer, "Speech as Action in Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard'" in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. X, No. 1, March, 1958, pp. 30-4.

Daniel Charles Gerould (essay date 1958)

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[Gerould is an American playwright, critic, and educator who has written and edited several works about drama. In the following essay, he argues that The Cherry Orchard is a true comedy rather than a tragedy, social drama, or problem play.]

Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard often occupies a peculiar position in the general education curriculum. Since it is included in many anthologies of world drama, The Cherry Orchard is readily available for use in those humanities courses which would consider such works as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Jonson's Volpone, along with two or three plays by Shakespeare, as the appropriate texts for a study of the drama. The critical reputation of Chekhov's play, coupled with this accident of availability, leads those who feel that modern drama should somehow be represented in a humanities course to select The Cherry Orchard for this purpose. Thus The Cberry Orchard is most often chosen by teachers of the humanities with a sense of reluctance, for lack of a better alternative rather than for any intrinsic qualities of the play as a work specially suited to the purposes of general education.

It is for this reason that I believe the position of The Cherry Orchard in most humanities courses is insecure and uneasy. Such a contention is borne out by the widespread perplexity about how to teach the play in the classroom. This uncertainty about the play may even produce in some teachers a feeling of distaste for the work as something questionable, strange, and abnormal in both form and content. "Morbid" and "decadent" are words frequently used to characterize Chekhov's subject, if not by implicit extension his method and point of view. As far as structure is concerned, the play is admitted to be "formless," and it is only in terms of lyricism, symbolism, and atmosphere that Chekhov's dramatic technique seems susceptible of treatment.

In these terms, The Cherry Orchard would appear to be a literary anomaly, indeterminate in its artistic shape and in its moral dimensions. The case against its inclusion in a humanities course seems very strong, for what could serve as a poorer introduction to the drama than a formless play which utilizes non-dramatic means to create a mood of pathos? Therefore, once a humanities course has adopted The Cherry Orchard, the problem of justifying its inclusion in the curriculum becomes an acute one. What type of play do we intend The Cherry Orchard to represent in a general education course? Since this question is usually asked only after the problem has arisen, the customary answer resembles a rationalization or apology rather than an enthusiastic argument on behalf of the play.

The usual reply to the question is that The Cherry Orchardis a representative of the type of play that deals with social problems. The term "problem play" is often heard. The editors of anthologies in their introductions tell us that The Cherry Orchard deals with "the passing of the old regime in Russia," with "changing Russian society," and with "the tragedy of pre-revolutionary Russian life." It is felt that the social theme gives The Cherry Orchard dignity and seriousness and prevents the play from being merely morbid and depressing.

I should like to challenge the value of this approach. No one questions that The Cherry Orchard has value as a social document, just as almost any great play or novel does. However, to make The Cherry Orchard "an augury of a new order in Russia" (as Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro has been made a prophecy of the French Revolution) is to distort the meaning of the play in order to make it serve the ulterior purposes of the historian and the social scientist. If we are to justify the use of The Cherry Orchard in general education, it will not be by reducing Chekhov to the role of providing data on social conditions. Rather, it must be by the qualities of the drama as a drama. If it is really anomalous, it is inappropriate for a general humanities course, whatever its social preoccupations. Should we seriously maintain that its failings as representative drama are compensated for by its being an accurate picture of Russian society in transition?

Unfortunately, The Cherry Orchard continues to be regarded as social drama, and this is the aspect of the play which receives public attention and conditions our thinking about it. For example, not very many years ago an adaptation of the play appeared on Broadway. In this version the plot and characters were transferred to an American setting because the adapter thought he saw a parallel between the social picture given by Chekhov and the conditions in the South toward the end of the last century. In this play, called The Wisteria Trees, Madame Ranevskaya is transformed into a slightly faded southern belle who owns a plantation overrun with wisteria, and the characters drink mint juleps and eat corn bread instead of vodka and cucumbers. The social theme—which has become the relation between the races—even gains in emphasis by the transposition. The only quality lost is, I should maintain, the entire sense of the play as Chekhov wrote it.

Once we are willing to abandon the idea of The Cherry Orchard as a problem play or social drama, I believe it is possible to find the real justification for its inclusion in a humanities course. It will even be possible to assert that The Cherry Orchard can be a crucial work in such a course because of the important literary questions that it raises. If it comes at the end of discussion of certain tragedies and comedies, it can appropriately serve as a vantage point from which to survey all that has been learned from such a study of the drama. At this point the students should profit from being confronted with a play that does not seem to fit into any recognizable pattern and that at first puzzles them as to how to react to what they read.

For these reasons, The Cherry Orchard represents a challenge to the students' newly acquired skills in reading and interpreting a complex and difficult work of art. That this is not merely a matter of labels, not an imaginary or an academic problem, can be indicated by the different and contradictory interpretations that have been given to Chekhov's play by actors, directors, and critics.

I should like to suggest in this [essay] how I believe such an investigation of The Cherry Orchard as a literary type can be carried out along lines relevant to a general course in the humanities. By the examination of a difficult play like The Cherry Orchard in terms of a genre with which the students are already acquainted, not only will the play itself receive a thorough exploration, but also the concept of the genre will be tested and enlarged. If we assume that the students in a humanities course first read several English comedies such as Volpone and Twelfth Night, then a discussion of The Cherry Orchard as another representative type of comedy will serve a special function as a conclusion to the study of this genre. Therefore, from the following analysis of The Cherry Orchard, I shall attempt to show ways in which we may deduce some general principles about comedy which, I hope, will illuminate some of the differences between comedy and tragedy.

As I have already suggested, this investigation starts with a problem and should be especially suitable to treatment by the discussion method. I shall therefore present my analysis in the terms of such a discussion and first raise objections in the form of typical questions and then attempt to answer them.

The first reaction to any proposal to consider The Cherry Orchard as a comedy will probably be one of disbelief. This must be our starting point. How could anyone possibly call a comedy a play in which the heroine's husband dies of drink, her son drowns, her lover deserts her, and she returns to the one thing in the world she loves—her home and cherry orchard—only to have them taken from her and destroyed, only to be turned out into the unfriendly world again, all alone? Furthermore, the other characters, who also love the orchard, are scattered at the end of the play, and the faithful old servant Firce is left behind, locked up in the deserted house—perhaps to die. Wouldn't a person have to have a warped sense of humor to find this story comic? Here is the first objection to calling The Cherry Orchard a comedy. It is an objection in terms of the plot, which seems to be composed of unhappy events and to have an unhappy outcome.

A further objection might be made in terms of the characters and their emotions. Practically every character in the play from Madame Ranevskaya to Dunyasha the maid is deeply sensitive. Hardly a page passes that someone doesn't weep or give voice to strong feelings. At the end of the play Madame Ranévskaya and her brother Gaieff fall into each other's arms and sob. Aren't these the reactions we expect from serious, not comic, characters? How could we possibly reconcile the strength of feeling all the characters display toward the orchard with a comic point of view?

A final objection might then be formulated on the basis of our reaction as audience to what we see on the stage or to what we read. Don't we pity the central characters and feel sorry for them in their misfortunes? Then doesn't a play of this sort have a depressing effect rather than a comic one? Don't we close the book or leave the theater feeling sad?

It would seem, then, that neither the plot of the play, nor the characters, nor the effect of these two upon the audience is in any way comic. This is the problem and these are the questions that The Cherry Orchard raises. If we imagine for a moment that we are producing and directing a production of the play, it becomes of the greatest importance to answer these questions satisfactorily before attempting to tell the actors how to speak their lines. By making the problem as real and as difficult as possible through the use of these three objections, we can insure that our answers and explanations will involve us in a thoughtful examination of each of the elements of the play and be the result of a thorough reading. It will be appropriate to take up each of the objections in order.

The first objection is that the plot is made of unhappy events, has an unhappy outcome, and is thus not at all comic. However, in such a summary of the action of the play, we are telling the story as it might appear in a novel, starting with Madame Ranevskaya's unhappy marriage, following her through the death of her son Grisha, her unhappy love affair in Paris, and her desertion by the man who had lived off her money, and finally ending with her return home and the loss of her estate. Now the play itself presents only the last stages of this long story, and we learn what happened in the past, not by seeing it presented directly, but by having it narrated by various characters in the course of the play.

Thus we can say that The Cherry Orchardbegins toward the end of a sequence of events which goes back over many years, instead of showing us directly that whole sequence. In this respect, The Cherry Orchard is unlike a play such as Macbeth which traces through the major events of the plot over a period of many years; and it resembles to some degree a Greek play like Oedipus which begins at the very end of a long story with the final moment of crisis. However, The Cherry Orchard does cover a period from May to October of one year and therefore presents not only the final moment in a long progression but also several selected stages leading up to the final moment. We shall return a little later to this question of time, and then we shall have to ask why Chekhov, concentrating as he does on the moment of crisis, wishes to present the elapsing of several months.

The important point for our present discussion is to fix the limits of the action in order to determine what sort of plot the play has. We notice now that the action of the play is inclosed within the arrivals of the first act and the departures of the last act. In Act I we see the various characters assemble about the cherry orchard—some coming from far off, some from nearby. In the last act we see all these characters dispersed and scattered, with the exception of old Firce, who is forgotten. The action of the play in some way brings about the change from arrival to departure, from gathering to dispersal.

What is it that brings about this change? Obviously, it is the selling of the estate and orchard. Most plays contain some basic problem or conflict which the characters must face; and the resolution of this problem or conflict, either successfully or unsuccessfully, will affect the lives of these characters. Clearly, the problem in The Cberry Orchard is the approaching sale of the property. Can the sale of the estate be avoided and the orchard saved? This is the central question for all the characters; the fact that they are unsuccessful in dealing with this problem brings about the end of the play, the departures in Act IV.

That people are unsuccessful in solving a problem involving the loss of what they love most may not yet strike us as comic, but at least we have a new and accurate formulation of the action of The Cherry Orchard, which we can now describe as the unsuccessful efforts of the owners of the orchard to save their property in the face of its approaching sale.

Then the plot of the play will be concerned with these efforts to save the orchard. What are these efforts? Gaieff has four different ideas: the first is that he might inherit a fortune from somebody; the second that his niece Varya might marry a rich man; the third that his rich aunt might give him enough money; the fourth that he might get a job in a bank. How sensible or practical are any of these hopes? When we consider that to pay their debts they need several hundred thousand rubles, we see that Gaieff's schemes are ridiculous and absurdly unrealistic daydreams. For example, in Act II, Gaieff says: "I have the promise of an introduction to a General who may lend me money on a note." His sister comments: "He's out of his head. There's no General at all."

And what does Madame Ranevskaya do herself to prevent the loss of her homestead? She lends money to Pishchik, a needy neighbor; she gives money to a tramp; she holds a ball and hires an orchestra the day of the auction. Here is plenty of action, but it is all of a sort not to save the orchard but rather to make its loss absolutely certain. Therefore, we can say that the characters act in such a way as to insure that what they are trying to prevent will take place. Their actions, supposedly designed to save the orchard, are so futile and ludicrous that either they are utterly useless or they even tend to impoverish the family still more.

In other words, the actions of the characters are inappropriate, inadequate, and irrelevant to the situation in which they find themselves and to the problem they face. It is for this reason that we can say the action of the play is purely a comic one and one of the most perfect comic plots ever created.

Very early in Act I Varya tells Anya, "The place will be sold in August," and a little later Lopakhin announces to all: "If we can't think of anything and don't make up our minds, then on August 22 both the cherry orchard and the whole estate will be sold at auction. Make up your mind! I swear there's no other way out."

As Dryden points out in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, it is a highly effective dramatic device to set a long-awaited day when something decisive will take place, on which the action of the whole play hinges. Chekhov uses the ever present threat of the sale of the orchard to contrast with the ludicrous preoccupations of the characters and their ridiculous responses to the threat. They reveal themselves to be totally incapable of the necessary, practical activity.

Let us look a little more closely at Chekhov's technique. In Act II Lopakhin continues to plead with Madame Ranevskaya to make a decision. He says: "We must decide once and for all: time won't wait. After all, my question's quite a simple one. Do you consent to lease your land for villas, or don't you? You can answer in one word: yes or no? Just one word!" "Who's been smoking such abominable cigars here?" replies Madame Ranévskaya.

Those two speeches contain in miniature the essence of the whole play, its plot and its humor. Most of Chekhov's comedy comes from this kind of incongruity—the trivial response to a serious situation. Thus there are many references to petty, undignified objects which seem to obtrude upon the important problem of how to save the orchard. Trofimov can't find his galoshes, Gaieff continues to eat candy and play his imaginary billiard game, and all kinds of food keep popping up at what should be solemn moments—frogs legs and herring and nuts and pickled cherries. While Charlotta Ivanovna, the lonely German governess, delivers her soliloquy at the beginning of Act II, "I haven't anybody to talk to … I haven't anybody at all," she is munching on a cucumber. Likewise, when Gaieff returns from the auction, where he could do nothing to prevent the loss of his estate, he comes back not entirely empty-handed; he says, weeping, to old Firce: "Here, take this. Here are anchovies, herrings from Kertch.… I've had no food today." His heart is broken, but he remembered the anchovies.

I should like to suggest as a general axiom that such an incongruity between situation and response, between the serious and the trivial, is one of the fundamental sources of comedy. Nothing more quickly deflates the tragic dignity of a character and brings him down to the level of common humanity than a sudden annoyance at cigar smoke or a craving for a cucumber. Imagine Macbeth during his soliloquy: "I have lived long enough. My way of life / Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf," all at once overcome with an urge to have a bowl of home-made Scotch broth with barley.

We are now in a position to look a little more closely at this type of comic plot and see whether we can describe precisely the kind of comic incongruity with which we are dealing. For example, in a comedy such as Volpone there is an incongruity between the wit, intelligence, and eloquence of Volpone and Mosca and the unworthy and degraded ends for which all their talent is expended.

In The Cherry Orchard the reverse is true. The end of saving the orchard is worthy, but the characters are unable to engage in even the simplest plans or schemes to raise money; they are incapable of managing any business affairs. Although both plays center around money problems, in The Cherry Orchard squandering, not greed, is the comic failing of Madame Ranevskaya and her brother. In Act II, Madame Ranevskaya tells her friends: "I've always scattered money about without being able to control myself, like a madwoman." The Cherry Orchard is the comedy of the spendthrift or the wastrel. With the exception of Lopakhin, the principal characters are too foolish and footless to hold on to their dearly beloved possessions.

A brief examination of the structure of The Cherry Orchard should confirm these observations about the nature of the plot and the incongruities which it presents. We might begin this discussion of the organization of the play with a simple question: Why does the action of the play begin with the return of Madame Ranévskaya from Paris? In order to answer this question, we must first ask about her motive for coming home.

Here the gradual unfolding of the past gives us the explanation. We learn that after running off to Paris with her lover, Madame Ranevskaya continued to spend money recklessly, even buying a villa at Mentone on the Riviera by mortgaging her Russian estate and getting head over heels in debt. Finally, the French villa was sold to pay her debts, her lover ran off with another woman after robbing her of everything she had, and Madame Ranevskaya was left penniless and unable to pay her debts on her Russian estate. At this point she comes home, and the action of the play begins.

We can now see that the reason why she returns is that she has no more money left; she must attempt to save the estate and solve her financial problem. Thus the action of the play begins with her coming home, since it is her return which poses this central financial problem.

The turning point in the play occurs in Act III, when we learn that the merchant Lopakhin has purchased the estate. What is the nature of this turning point? It is a complete reversal, a total upset, since the estate now passes into the hands of the man who seemed least likely ever to own it—Lopakhin, son of a former serf on that very property! Here is another aspect of the comic incongruity of The Cherry Orchard: Not only have the owners lost their estate through their own folly, but it now belongs to the man that no one could have imagined as the new owner. The incongruity is made doubly ludicrous by the fact that Lopakhin is the one character in the play who had sincerely made repeated efforts to save the estate for its rightful owners. Chekhov has made this reversal quite probable, yet at the same time comically surprising, by his careful development of the relationship between Madame Ranevskaya and Lopákhin.

In Lopákhin there is a constant alternation between his old self, the son of a serf, and his new self, the rich businessman. At the turning point in Act III, when Lopakhin arrives flushed with his purchase to announce that he is now owner of the estate, Chekhov reminds us of the incongruity of his new position by the fact that Varya, who has threatened to hit the pompous, insolent clerk Yepikhodov, actually strikes Lopakhin by chance as he enters. The new master of the estate is hit over the head with a stick as he arrives to proclaim his new power, and this incident recalls to us the other Lopakhin—the small peasant boy beaten by his drunken father.

If the announcement of the sale of the orchard represents the turning point in the play and the resolution of the central problem, what is the function of the final act? The last act presents the consequences of this solution; we must see how the failure to save the orchard will affect all the characters. Thus if the arrival of Madame Ranevskaya initiates the action and poses the basic problem, it is not until her departure that the action ends, that her failure to solve the problem is presented to us in its entirety. Thus the setting of Act IV parallels that of Act I, except that the room is now empty and dismantled. As before, the characters were waiting for the train to arrive, now they are waiting for it to depart.

These remarks will have to suffice as an examination of the plot, the structure, and the revelation of the past. Our observations about the inability of the characters to change and meet new circumstances bring us to our second point. We raised the objection that the emotions of the characters are of too great depth and seriousness to be comic. For example, there are the passionate outbursts of Trofimov, Madame Ranevskaya, and Gaieff. Perhaps these characters are incapable of acting effectively in a given situation, but they can at least feel profoundly, and this makes them pathetic and moving rather than comic. After all, King Lear is incapable of acting effectively, yet he is deeply tragic. Couldn't a similar case be made for Madame Ranevskaya and the others?

In order to answer this question, we must return to an earlier problem we left unresolved: the elapsing of time in The Cherry Orchard. Why does the play cover a period of six months? We can see now that this period from May to October is necessary to show the characters' repeated and continuous failure to act intelligently in a situation that demands practical action. A more limited time-span would not have shown effectively the change in the circumstances of the family, and, at the same time, their complete inability to change themselves and to grasp the reality of what is happening to them. To estimate rightly their flagrant wasting of opportunity, we must feel the passing of time and experience the difference between the household bustling with activity in May and the deserted room in October, without curtains, furniture and with suitcases piled in the corner.

Here we touch on the central fact about the characters in The Cherry Orchard. Their responses are always the same. To Dunyasha's announcement about Yepikhodov's proposal, Anya says, "Always the same …"; Madame Ranevskaya tells Gaieff, "You're just the same as ever"; and Varya says of Madame Ranevskaya herself: "Mother hasn't altered a bit, she's just as she always was." Trofimov will always go on being a student—like all the others, he is growing old without growing up. The characters age but remain unchanged, learning nothing from life.

They share a common past which they love to talk about; they would really like to go back to those good old days. They wish to return to their childhood and be children again; they can't seem to realize that things aren't as they used to be, that they have to face certain responsibilities. Instead, they refuse to face reality. By living in the past, in a world of dreams, they hope to avoid having to live in the present and make hard decisions. Although the orchard will be sold in a few months, all they do is talk about the wonderful old days.

Naturally enough, the old servant Firce is an extreme of this type; he lives entirely in the past. He even regrets the emancipation of the serfs. He remembers in the happy old days of slavery, fifty years ago, they dried the cherries from the orchard and made them into a most wonderful jam—when he is asked how it was done, he mutters that the recipe is lost and no one remembers how. Old Firce lives his life in this foggy, imaginary past when everyone was happy and didn't know why. And so it is with all their past happiness: the recipe is lost, and no one remembers how.

Madame Ranevskaya and her brother are like Firce in that they recall without cease the nursery and their ecstatically happy childhood. But by the end of the play they seem to have learned nothing at all from their experiences and to have matured in no way as a result of all their emotions. We can well imagine that Madame Ranevskaya will feel the loss of the estate chiefly when she talks about it to others, that she will weep and gush sentimentally about the orchard and the nursery, about her girlhood and days of innocence, as she sits in that small smoke-filled room on the fifth floor in Paris. Likewise, her brother Gaieff will embarrass and bore the people at the bank with his repetitious effusions about the "dear and honored" hundred-year-old cupboard, instead of doing the least bit of work.

It is this fixity, this lack of adaptability of the characters' emotional responses that makes them comic. We soon come to assess the emotions of Madame Ranevskaya and Gaieff as sentimental and excessive rather than tragic. That we are to laugh at Gaieff's foolish sentimentality is clear because the other characters try to shut him up and make gentle fun of his outbursts. His continual stock response: "Red into the corner!" as though he were playing billiards, is an example of such comic fixity on a simple, mechanical level. The self-pitying, self-dramatized outbursts of Madame Ranevskaya represent the same source of comedy on a psychological level.

On the basis of the foregoing analysis, I should like to suggest another axiom: In comedy the characters do not change profoundly because of the experiences they undergo, but they continue making the same responses, repeating the same errors, committing the same follies. The more we learn about Madame Ranévskaya's past, the more we see that her present difficulties are a result of an incorrigible nature which has not changed. She is consistent in her behavior; having created the unpleasant situation in which she finds herself, she is unable to extricate herself from it for just the same reasons. Furthermore, we can easily picture a comic figure such as Madame Ranevskaya continuing to act in the same way even after we have left the theater or closed the book. This is just the opposite of the shattering experience of tragedy which either ends the hero's life or utterly transforms it.

On the other hand, Madame Ranevskaya has never come to grips with reality and never will; she will go on living in the world of illusion, talking about herself and weeping over herself. It is this contrast between illusion and reality which makes all the characters in The Cherry Orchard part of the same comic vision. Let us now look at the other characters and see the particular illusions in which they live.

The servants are caricatures of their masters, with whom they mingle in a ridiculous and incongruous fashion. Dunyasha is just a maid, but she dresses and acts like a lady, her hands are white and delicate, and she has become so sensitive that she almost faints from nerves. Yasha is only a footman, but he has turned into such a Frenchified fop in Paris that he feels quite superior to his masters and turns up his nose at Lopakhin's bottle of domestic champagne (although he manages to finish it single-handed).

Yepikhodov is a lazy clerk who has great intellectual pretensions because he has read Henry Thomas Buckle's The History of English Civilization, but his shoes squeak. He also accidentally tips over chairs, breaks dishes, and puts trunks on hatboxes, and these calamities lead him to proclaim grandiloquently: "Fate, so to speak, treats me absolutely without mercy, just as a small ship, as it were." He finds cockroaches in his wine glass and becomes a fatalist, threatening to commit suicide if Dunyasha throws him over for Yasha. As he strums his guitar lugubriously, he says: "Now I know what to do with my revolver." In other words, Yepikhodov is a pompous fool who imagines he is as poetic and mysterious as Hamlet.

Lopakhin is all dressed up "in a white vest and brown shoes," seemingly successful and cultured, but the reality is that he's a peasant in origin and in spirit, and his past keeps showing through the veneer. In Act II he confesses that he's really a fool and an idiot and that his handwriting is just like a pig's!

The one character who understands and explains this kind of contrast between illusion and reality is the student Trofimov. He points out to the others: "It's obvious that all our nice talk is only carried on to delude ourselves and others." Trofimov sees clearly the contrast between ideals and facts, wishful thinking and actual practice. Because of this, we might suspect that Trofimov is a spokesman for the author and not a comic figure, and we might think that we are to take quite seriously his talk about the future.

Let us look at Trofimov a little more closely. His creed is expressed in the phrase: "We must work"—which is what none of the characters do, Trofimov included. In fact, he has been wasting his time for years with some vague and endless course of study at the university. Trofimov penetrates the delusions of everyone but himself. He is perceptive enough to recognize that by clinging to the orchard the others are refusing to face reality, but he doesn't see that he likewise is escaping from the present with his beautiful dreams of the future. His talk of the future is as much sentimental rhapsodizing as Madame Ranevskaya's gushing about the orchard and poor little Grisha her dead son.

Trofimov informs all the others: "Mankind goes on to the highest possible truths and happiness on earth, and I march in the front ranks!" But he's marching without his galoshes, which he still can't find. He is the perfect type of the seedy, balding bohemian with elaborate theories and very little common sense. His contemporary counterpart is well known to all of us.

From these observations about character, it would be possible to indicate as another axiom that one of the basic incongruities in comedy lies in the inability of the characters to tell illusion from reality. Here we can make a distinction between The Cherry Orchard, on the one hand, and earlier English comedies such as Volpone and Twelfth Night, on the other. In the two Elizabethan plays, one group of characters deliberately dupes or tricks another and helps to produce the delusion, whereas in The Cherry Orchard the characters are self-deluded. In fact, they wilfully resist any efforts made to enlighten them on their true characters and state of affairs; they prefer to remain oblivious to the real world.

Such self-delusion manifests itself in a variety of ways. One of the principal forms it takes is egotism or self-centeredness. Each character is so wrapped up in himself that he is hardly aware of those about him. Although all the characters are intimately connected to the family group through deep ties in the past and through their love of the estate and the orchard, preoccupation with self produces an isolation of each character from all the others. The comic separateness of characters who should be close to one another is emphasized by their disregard for and deafness to what others are saying and by their persistence in thinking their own thoughts aloud.

On the simplest level, this deafness is quite literal, as in the case of old Firce, who once again represents the extreme toward which all the other characters tend in varying degrees. Firce lives in a world of illusion all his own because he is hard of hearing. His comments are nearly always irrelevant because he does not know what the others are talking about, quite literally as well as figuratively. When Madame Ranevskaya first sees him after her return, she goes up to him and says emotionally, "Thank you, dear old man. I'm so glad you're still with us." Firce replies, "The day before yesterday." A little later on, a propos of nothing at all, he mumbles, "They were here in Easter week and ate half a pailful of cucumbers."

On a less obvious plane, all the characters are deaf and go on muttering irrelevant things to themselves, unheeded by the others. When Dunyasha tells Anya that Yepikhodov has proposed to her, Anya says, "I've lost all my hair pins …" and later Anya falls asleep while Varya is talking to her. Pishchik even falls asleep in the middle of his own conversation when he is talking! Just at the moment that Varya first announces to Anya that the estate will be sold in August, Lopakhin sticks his head in the door and, for a joke, moos like a cow. There is a special comic irony here in that this is the future owner of the estate commenting on the central problem of the play, the chances of saving the orchard. No one pays any real attention to anyone else. Gaieff even talks to waiters in restaurants about the decadents!

Thus the self-centered isolation of the characters produces a lack of communication, a failure in expression. This lack of communication is one of the principal sources of comedy in The Cherry Orchard and appropriately brings us to a discussion of the comic use of language. If, in tragedy, language is used for maximum eloquence and expressiveness, in comedy language is abused for maximum nonsense and confusion. I should like to propose as another axiom that in comedy the resources of language are deliberately misused. This misuse takes the form of excess in many English comedies of the Shakespearean period. For example, in Volpone we see eloquence and rhetoric pushed to ludicrous extremes and put to unworthy uses in Volpone's mountebank speeches and in his pleas and arguments to Celia.

In The Cherry Orchard there is also an abuse and misuse of language, but it is in the opposite direction. Rather than an excessive glibness, there is a deficiency in articulateness. Old Firce's disconnected mutterings give us the essence of the comic use of language in The Cherry Orchard. Each character talks to himself about something irrelevant to the present situation, usually about something in the past either trivial or personal to the speaker, the significance of which cannot be grasped by the other characters.

Characteristically, the non sequitur or meaningless remark which doesn't logically follow what has gone before is the primary source of humor in Chekhov's use of language. The non sequitur not only expresses a momentary illogicality but, in the comic world that Chekhov creates, expresses the characters' reaction to their situation. Their response to the approaching sale of the estate is a non sequitur indicating the world of illusion in which each lives.

Even if these answers to the first two objections to calling The Cherry Orchard a comedy are found to be satisfactory, won't it still be possible to assert that the spectacle of this group of foolish, bungling, impractical characters being dispossessed and cast out into a world with which they are not fit to cope is not a comic one? A perceptive reader may be willing to grant that the characters are as incompetent as we have described them and that their actions are futile and inappropriate, but he will insist that the effect of seeing lonely, irresponsible people come to an unhappy end is one of sadness, not comedy. He might well argue that we feel sympathy and even pity for Madame Ranevskaya, Gaieff, Varya, old Firce, and all the rest, and ask whether these emotions are compatible with the conception of comedy which we have been developing. It will then be necessary to investigate the problem of the unhappy ending and the matter of comic sympathy if we are to convince this perceptive reader that he is actually experiencing comic, not tragic, emotions.

As concerns the unhappy ending and its supposedly sad effect, there are two answers. The first is that the denouement of the play is not quite so unhappy as it may at first appear. Although Madame Ranevskaya and her brother dread the loss of the estate before it takes place, after it has happened they seem to be surprisingly indifferent to the reality. Gaieff comments gaily: "Yes, really, everything's all right now. Before the cherry orchard was sold we were all excited and worried, and then when the question was solved once and for all, we all calmed down, and even became cheerful. I'm a bank official now, and a financier … red in the center; and you, Liuba, look better for some reason or other, there's no doubt about it." Madame Ranevskaya replies: "Yes. My nerves are better, it's true. I sleep well.… I'm off to Paris. I'll live on the money your grandmother from Yaroslavl sent to buy the estate—bless her!—though it won't last long."

A fine use for grandmother's money—to go back to Paris and live with her lover! Here is the crowning irony and incongruity: the money that was to be used to save the beloved estate will actually be used so that Madame Ranevskaya can continue a little longer in her loose, shiftless life!

If we remember Madame Ranevskaya's resolve in the first act when she said, "I'm through with Paris" and tore up the telegrams from her lover, we see the comical nature of the denouement in which, after all her noble intentions to save the orchard and reform her life, she continues true to her unregenerate nature, throwing away her own and other people's money in a completely unworthy cause.

In the second place, it is a mistake to suppose that comedies always have happy endings for the comic or ridiculous figures. In fact, the reverse is usually true: the ridiculous figures do not achieve their ends, but they are in some way frustrated, chastised, or held up to laughter or scorn. Thus it is that the denouement of The Cherry Orchard is in some way frustrating for all the characters. It is this very frustration which unifies all the different lines of action in the play; everything goes wrong, no one accomplishes any of the things he sets out to. All the minor mishaps and failures are related to the loss of the estate as lesser frustrations around one central failure. For example, Lopakhin in Act I comes to meet the party at the train station, but he falls asleep and misses the train; Varya would like to marry Lopakhin and he her, but neither can ever get around to talking about it. Such misfortunes are even personified in one almost farcical figure, the clerk Yepikhodov, nicknamed "Two-and-Twenty Troubles." This frustration of the purposes of ridiculous figures is of the very essence of comedy. Just a moment ago we saw that the unhappiness produced thereby is not so great or so deeply felt as to be tragic and bring about any radical change in the lives of the characters. Therefore, we can conclude that the so-called unhappy end of The Cherry Orchard produces a true comic effect.

As for the objection that we feel sympathy for the characters, I should say that there is no reason why a comic figure should not be sympathetic. If we think of Don Quixote or Falstaff or Charlie Chaplin, we see that many of the greatest comic creations are very sympathetic. If we take sympathy to mean an "affinity between persons," a "liking or understanding arising from sameness of feelings," and the "ability to enter into another person's mental state" (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language), then in one important aspect comic characters are much more sympathetic than tragic ones. We are more like comic figures. We admire and respect a man like Oedipus from a distance, and we are awed by Lear's sufferings; but we feel we share the same weaknesses and the same fallible human nature as comic characters like Madame Ranévskaya. We are close to them and do the same foolish things they do: we procrastinate, waste time, choose poor companions, spend money foolishly, and then feel sorry for ourselves and invent excuses. And many of us are like Trofimov: we've spent far too many years at the university over imaginary studies, until our hair has grown thin and we wear spectacles.

It is in this sense that comedy is just as profound as tragedy and perhaps more universal. Tragedy presents only the exceptional cases, individuals whose experiences are unique; comedy deals with types, with those traits all men have in common: their pettiness, egotism, foolishness, weakness, and hypocrisy.

From this point of view, tragedy and comedy are not to be distinguished one from the other by an unhappy or a happy ending. Rather, they are two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. In the tragic view we see nobility and relentless self-honesty even in the cornered murderer Macbeth; in the comic view we see an unkempt philosopher looking about on the floor for his galoshes and a middle-aged woman, ignobly in love, deceiving herself with sentimental lies. In this way, comedy sees the contrast between what man should be and what he is, between what he claims to be and what he actually does; and it exposes all imposture.

In these terms, comedy is a criticism of life and a critical view of human nature, and not merely a form. All the great comic writers from Aristophanes and Moliere to Chekhov and Shaw have been interested not only in creating works of art but, first and foremost, in criticizing the foibles and extravagances and the faults and vices of men and women. Jonson wrote: "The office of a comic poet is to imitate justice and instruct to life … to inform in the best reason of living." Chekhov says almost exactly the same thing: "All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realise that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves."

Despite their similarity of purpose, Chekhov, unlike Jonson in Volpone, is not concerned with vices like greed, jealousy, and lust which lead to violence and crime. Rather Chekhov is submitting to comic scrutiny the lesser follies of the bunglers in life—the half-baked sentimentalities, the fatuous emotionalism, and the wasteful absurdities of Madame Ranevskaya and her family and servants. Because they are kind, gentle fools with generous hearts and good intentions, we can sympathize with them and even pity them at the same time that we laugh at their utter lack of sense.

Such is the main line of argument which I believe can be profitably followed in a presentation of The Cherry Orchard as a comedy. However, the enunciation of these general principles and theories will be chiefly useful insofar as they enable us to understand and to enjoy more fully the play itself. Therefore, as a conclusion to this analysis, it will be of the utmost importance to present a detailed examination of certain portions of the text as concrete illustration of all that we have been saying about The Cherry Orchard. I should like to offer the following explications of two short scenes as examples of what can be done to show exactly how Chekhov's comic view operates in practice.

The first scene is the quarrel between Madame Ranevskaya and Trofimov which occurs during the ball in Act III.

In the course of this quarrel, each tells the other painful truths. Trofimov tells Madame Ranevskaya that she is deceiving herself both about the orchard which must be sold and also about her lover in Paris, who is no better than a thief. In anger, Madame Ranevskaya answers that Trofimov is nothing but a schoolboy who has never grown up. She says: "You're not above love, you're just what our Firce calls a bungler. Not to have a mistress at your age!" Trofimov leaves in horror at the things that have been said, vowing, "All is over between us." It seems for a moment that there may have been a tragic realization of the truth of their accusations and hence a discovery leading to a final rupture between the two, which would be grave, since we know how much they care for each other.

But what actually happens? We hear a loud crash and learn that Trofimov has fallen downstairs in his haste to make an effective exit. A moment later he is back in the room dancing with Madame Ranevskaya, and the whole episode is forgotten. There could be no better illustration of the way in which comic characters bounce back and go on in their old unthinking manner, quite unchanged by what has happened. The fall downstairs ludicrously deflates Trofimov's solemn, "All is over between us," and his speedy return to dance with Madame Ranevskaya contradicts his words.

In this scene we see how Chekhov transforms what might have been a tragic quarrel into a ridiculous scene with an unmistakable comic effect by the use of the surprising anticlimax that terminates the scene. At just the most serious moment, the rug is almost literally yanked out from underneath Trofimov, and he falls flat on his face. The next moment he's back on his feet again—dancing!

The second scene I should like to examine comes at the very end of the play, the short scene in which we see old Firce locked up in the deserted house. I have mentioned this scene several times because I feel that it is of central importance to an understanding of the play. What is the effect of this scene which gives us our final impression of The Cherry Orchard?

Before Firce appears, we have the departure of Madame Ranevskaya presented in the grand manner. She and her brother fall in each other's arms and sob. This seems to be the great emotional climax of the play. Madame Ranevskaya exclaims: "My dear, my gentle, my beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness, good-bye! Good-bye!" This is where the ordinary dramatist would end his play, with the exit of the leading actress, as beautiful, as tearful, as emotional as possible. In fact, this is where the author of The Wisteria Trees did end his play, and, in the terms of the trade, this is called "good theater."

But a great dramatist like Chekhov does something much more than that. What Chekhov has done in ending the play, not with the farewell of Madame Ranevskaya to her orchard, but with the appearance of old Firce is exactly the same kind of comic anticlimax which we saw in the quarrel scene. Nothing shows better the shallow sentimentality of Gaieff and his sister about the orchard than the fact that they've entirely forgotten to insure that Firce will be taken care of, Firce the one person who has been blindly faithful to his masters.

Madame Ranevskaya has just said, "We go away, and not a soul remains behind." As if to contradict her, to show her persistence in error, old Firce then comes shuffling in, wearing slippers and white vest and dress jacket, and we have the final comic surprise and incongruity of the play. Failure and frustration of purpose prevail to the very end. The contrast of the sound of the axes, practical and efficient in their destruction of the orchard, with the picture of the feeble old servant still in livery lying down and falling asleep in the empty house expresses the central contrast between reality and illusion which has run through the whole play.

Firce reacts as he always has, thinking that Gaieff has forgotten his overcoat. "Oh, these young people!" he exclaims. It is appropriate that Firce end the play and have the last words, since he represents the extreme obliviousness to reality; his falling asleep is the final lack of response to the external world.

His last words enforce the whole comic meaning of the play. He says: "Life's gone on as if I'd never lived.…Oh, you … bungler!" This word bungler, which is a favorite with Firce, is used to describe practically every character in the play. It is the key word in The Cherry Orchard because it portrays the bumbling, muddled, sentimental failures that all the characters are. Thus The Cherry Orchard ends with delusion triumphant: Madame Ranevskaya leaves, intoxicated with her own words but failing to realize that her one loyal follower has been abandoned, and Firce himself remains bunglingly devoted to his bungling masters. The comedy is complete.

Lest this reading of The Cherry Orchard be thought too personal and unconventional to be sound for the purposes of general education, I should like to point out that we have Chekhov's own words about the play to serve as a guide. The following remarks which appear in different letters Chekhov wrote concerning The Cherry Orchard support not only the contention that the play should be regarded as a comedy but also the view that failure to approach the work in terms of its proper genre will result in serious misinterpretation.

Chekhov writes: "I shall call the play a comedy… It has turned out not a drama, but a comedy, in parts 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 persistently called a drama? Nemirovich and Stanislavsky see in it a meaning different from what I intended. They never read it attentively, I am sure."

Therefore, what I am urging is that we restore The Cherry Orchard to the proper tradition, the humanistic tradition; only by treating it as a comedy, along with other comedies, shall we be able to understand the play as Chekhov wrote it. We must read the play attentively, as the author suggests we should, and restore to the title the part most editors of The Cherry Orchard omit: A Comedy in Four Acts. In this way, I believe The Cherry Orchard can occupy an important position in any humanities course.

Daniel Charles Gerould, "The Cherry Orchard'as a Comedy," in The Journal of General Education, published by The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, Vol. 11, No. 2, April, 1958, pp. 109-22.

John Kelson (essay date 1959)

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[In the following essay, Kelson argues that the superficially formless plot of The Cherry Orchard is undergirded by extensive patterns of historical allegory, structural symmetry, and myth.]

The Cherry Orchard, which dramatizes the lives of a group of "job-lots," people whose sense of isolation and futility is perhaps most forcefully expressed in the ambivalent, Villonesque "Je ris en pleurs" feelings of Madame Ranevsky, is widely admired for the psychological realism of its characterizations and for the theatrical effects it achieves by subtle employment of mood and atmosphere. To use another line from Villon, who, like the characters in The Cherry Orchard, lived in an agonizingly transitional age, the play as a whole seems to be saying: "Ou sont les neiges d'antan?"

It is my intention to show that, while this impression is certainly a part of the total effect that the play has upon the reader, beneath this surface of seemingly aimless existence there is a patterning so rigorous as to give every impulsive speech and despairing gesture an almost predetermined significance. Thinking of the play as a person, one can say that beneath the quivering, oh so sensitive flesh there is a very firm bone structure and a strongly beating heart.

The structure of the play allows for at least three levels of meaning: literal, historical, and mythical. On the literal level of psychological realism, the play gives a picture of humanity in which loneliness, futility, and frustration are the dominant emotions. It is on the literal level, of course, that the play makes its most immediate appeal to the reader. In addition to this emotional content, however, there is historical allegory which, like the allegory in Orwell's Animal Farm, depends for its appeal on the knowledge of Russian history that the reader can correlate with the naturalistic events and characters of the literary work. Some of the characters, as a matter of fact, are motivated in ways difficult to explain satisfactorily except on the level of historical allegory; I am thinking particularly of Charlotte and Barbara, the governess and adopted daughter, respectively, of Madame Ranevsky.

Following is a brief schematization of the allegorical correspondences of the various characters, with occasionally a suggestion as to the way particular characters are motivated in response to other characters in terms of the historical allegory. Madame Ranevsky, Gayef, Anya and Pishtchik correspond, in that order, to the pleasure-seeking, dilettantish, idealistic and opportunistic elements of Russian aristocracy at the turn of the century. Barbara, the adopted daughter, the one in charge of the estate during the mistress' absences, the one who feeds the servants on peas while dreaming of the day she can cast off her responsibilities for the life of a pilgrim, represents the Russian Orthodox Church. Her ambivalent relationship with Lopakhin, who stands for the Bourgeois class, is understandable in terms of Russian history, just as is her fear of the Tramp, a symbol of atheistic Marxism. The Bolsheviks had declared themselves as a separate identity in 1903, just a year before The Cherry Orchard was produced. Trophimof, as the Intellectual class, and Firs, Yasha, and Dunyasha as representing aspects of the Servant class, can be easily identified. Of the two remaining characters, Ephikhodof fits readily into his role as the type of the Bureaucrat, as he is left in charge of the estate during the absence of Lopakhin. His delusions, seeing a spider straddled over him upon awakening, and his misfortunes, clumsily breaking things as he moves about, remind one of other fictional clerks in recent European literature, among whom are the hero of Gogol's The Overcoat, the Underground Man and the Double of Dostoevsky, and, most famous of all, the man-turned-insect of Kafka's Metamorphosis. Finally, there is Charlotte. She embodies the spirit of the modern Russian artist, as composer painter and writer. Her cries of loneliness, of not being understood, reflect the attitude of the modern artist, whether Russian or otherwise. At the beginning of Act II, when she reminisces about her earlier days, mentioning the salto Mortale and the old German lady, what we have on the allegorical level is a brief resume of the development of Russian musical culture in particular, and in general a statement of the progress of the Fine Arts through imitation of foreign models to the establishment of a native, national art. She has become, that is, a governess. Her theatrical background, her ventriloquism and her conjuring tricks make her a suitable representative of the Artist, the dealer in entertaining illusions.

To turn to a reading of the play as the representation of myth is to penetrate deeper than surface emotion (the raw nerves of psychological realism) or intellectual amusement (the jigsaw of allegory). It is on this level, I believe, that the play gives us a meaning which will account for the most enduring appeal that the play has.

To begin with, although the cherry orchard is certainly the central image of the play, it is the seasonal cycle of Nature that provides the basic structure for the action of the drama. The four acts correspond to the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The first act, for example, is so constructed that everything in it tends to reinforce the atmosphere associated with springtime, with birth and planting. The act opens with the reveries of Lopakhin, representative of the forces in Russian society that are going to displace the aristocracy, and it closes with the reveries of Anya, who represents the youthful, idealistic element of the established aristocracy, that element which, by joining hands with the intellectuals, can contribute to the growth of the new order. The time of year is May, the setting is the nursery, and the atmosphere is one of hopefulness; enthusiastic plans for the future are in the air. Lopakhin has a plan to save the orchard for his beloved benefactress; Dunyasha has fallen in love again; and Gayef is full of schemes that reassure Anya, causing her to doze off contentedly as the curtain falls, just as Lopakhin had been dozing contentedly when it rose. The ecstatic remark of Trophimof as he gazes on Anya provides an appropriate curtain line: "My sunshine! My spring!"

In Act II the time is late June, the setting is the open fields. Being summer, there are evidences of growth and development, of active cultivation of planted things. Telegraph poles are in sight, the outline of a big town may be discerned off in the distance. Here, as in Act I, there is parallelism between the first and last scenes. Charlotte, at first, and Trophimof, at the end, express feelings of "mysterious anticipation." Just as Trophimof represents the Russian intellectual, cultivating dissatisfaction with things as they have been, so Charlotte represents the Russian artist, conscious of a profound unrest after having been educated by Italians and Germans and having become now a governess, one who is trying to train and discipline the native Russian capabilities in art. All the characters talk about the way they have spent their lives, the things they have done in their youthful enthusiasms. For just as the theme of Act I is Infancy, so the second Act centers upon Youth. As in Act I, Anya and Trophimof are center stage as the curtain falls, now having definitely committed themselves to the stirrings of the new society. The Tramp, in his mysterious passage across the stage, has proffered an invitation—"Brother, my suffering brother … Come forth to the Volga. Who moans?" …—and Anya and Trophimof seem to have accepted it, for Anya says, "Let us go down to the river. It's lovely there."

As the curtain rises on Act III, the time is autumn, the orchard, now ripe for harvest, is being sold, and a celebration is in progress. Now is the time at which the plantings made in the spring will be gathered in, if they have thrived, or cast aside, like the chaff from the wheat, if they have not prospered. The parallelism between first and last scenes continues. This time Pishtchik, with his talk of the horse of Caligula that became senator, and a representative of the aristocracy which can no longer harvest anything but tares, is paralleled with Lopakhin, the founder of a new dynasty, another breed of work horse that has been transformed into a senator. Everything has now come to maturity. That which must die can look forward only to death, while the "young wood, green wood" that has been growing through the spring and summer will continue on into the next cycle of life.

The wintry mood of late October dominates the last act; the hopefulness of Lopakhin, Anya and Trophimof, among the representatives of the new life, is subdued by their sympathy for those who have only a short span left. The parallelism of opening and closing scenes in this act involves, on the one hand, the delegation of servants who have come to pay their last respects to the dispossessed landlord, and, on the other, old Firs, who sinks down to die in silence and loneliness in the abandoned nursery. Just as the delegation at the beginning is characterized by the distant murmur of their voices, dying away into silence, so does Firs mumble inaudibly as he resigns himself to his fate.

The most important element in this framework of the seasons, however, has not yet been mentioned. The beginnings and endings of the four acts enclose centrally placed scenes in which Madame Ranevsky is the dominating figure. Her musings in each act are appropriate to the season: in the first she recollects her childhood, in the second she speaks of more recent years, in the third she disputes with Trophimof about her present lover whose appeals for her sympathy and protection she will not reject, and in the fourth act all of her concern is with finding secure places for all those who have been in her service, particularly Barbara and Firs. Since, on the mythic level, the play is mimesis of the cycle of Nature, it is appropriate that one character should represent the continuing, sustaining and life-giving power of Nature. Thus Madame Ranevsky is in the first act the Sorrowing Mother for, in grieving over her lost son Grisha, she is another Demeter mourning the Persephone snatched from her. Her Grisha is taken from her, but what Lopakhin says of her at the beginning of the play, mentioning the way she wiped the blood from his face and took him in her arms, suggests that on the mythic level Lopakhin is the son returned to her, and in his return there is the renewal of life, the beginning of a new cycle. She is, in the second act, a Goddess of Fertility, eternally procreant, carelessly spilling gold coins from her lap as she sits in the midst of a burgeoning field. In the third act she is represented as a Love Goddess, a Venus lamenting over her Adonis ill and alone in Paris. (Note that Trophimof says he does not want to be an Adonis, after saying which he succeeds in making a complete fool of himself.) As she was a Demeter in the first act, she becomes a Persephone in the last. She reigns as Queen of the Dead, tenderly concerned for Barbara and Firs; but also, like Persephone, she will return to the world of the living, and when she does she will bring life back to the earth again. As she says to Anya, "I'll come back, my angel."

Thus the play has at its center a character who, seen only in her human and finite appearance, is the very picture of helplessness and ineffectuality, but who, in her mythic character, is actually that which sustains and renews the life around her. It is she, not Lopakhin, who triumphs, for Lopakhin, like all the others in the play, is only another one of the unhappy children on earth whom she gathers into her arms to comfort and console.

John Kelson, "Allegory and Myth in 'The Cherry Orchard', "in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Summer, 1959, pp. 321-24.

J. L. Styan (essay date 1962)

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[Styan is an English critic and educator who has written numerous studies of the theater, including the three-volume Modern Drama in Theory and Practice (1981). In the following excerpt, he undertakes a detailed explication of the fourth act of The Cherry Orchard in order to reveal the development toward the climax and subsequent denouement of the play.]

The Cherry Orchard is a play which represents an attitude to life under stress and a way of life in transition. The orchard itself summarizes the hopes and regrets, the desires and ideals of this way of life. Just as the orchard with the town on the horizon epitomizes all Russia, so the play in its structure at once encompasses the range of social class from landowner to domestic serf, and brings the past hard against the future in its three or four generations. It achieves in its design as wide a statement as a naturalistic play could hope to do.

In the last act of the play, this structure of change and decay is welded into a firm whole, both because its parts are here drawn together and because the sympathies of the audience are under careful restraint and precise control. In this act the crescendo of finely chosen discords is heard and felt with inimitable impact. The following account is written, not to repeat what is well known, but to discover how the impact is caused.

The mood of the act is conjured immediately with the rise of the curtain. It is late autumn and the cherry trees stand bare outside the window. The nursery is in a pitiful state of nudity, with fade-marks on the walls where the pictures were, furniture stacked or covered with dust-sheets, luggage waiting for removal. 'There is an oppressive sense of emptiness'. It was a brilliant stroke to have this final scene played in the nursery of Act I rather than in the drawing-room of Act III, not only to balance the arrival of the family with their departure, but also because a setting of birth and childhood challenges the affections of all the generations, young and old.

In the desert spaces of this room stands waiting the new master of the cherry orchard, now an embarrassed and rather lonely man, Lopakhin. Embarrassed because the family has always been unable to forget his peasant origins; lonely because he now realizes how he has hurt those he loved by taking from them what they loved. He waves his arms a little in nervousness; beside him stands Yasha with a tray of champagne, Lopakhin's offering of farewell, according to Russian custom. He has done what is expected, but coming from him this same champagne needles them all, except Yasha.

We in the audience take in the situation at a glance: this is a situation we can recognize and know from experience. We can fully understand, and thus sympathize with, this man in this position, but if we see him only at the level of one who has to speed the parting guest, the irony of his situation keeps us from a complete identity. We now see him as the merchant away from his merchandise, the shopkeeper out of his shop, fish out of water, for all that, as Chekhov told Stanislavsky, 'he must behave with the utmost courtesy and decorum, without any vulgarity or silly jokes… it must be borne in mind that such a serious and religious girl as Varya was in love with Lopakhin; she would never have fallen in love with some cheap moneymaker'. We see him in his 'white waist-coat and brown shoes' (this is Chekhov to Nemirovich-Danchenko now), taking long strides when he is lost in thought, stroking his beard back and forth. At this moment the comedy of his characterization half rises to the surface.

irony of his situation is accentuated, too, because Chekhov so carefully contrasts this scene with the last. Act III bustled visually to an emotional climax; Act IV is toned so much lower as to be almost an anticlimax. It offers a pause in its first few minutes for us to soak up its bitterness. We left Lopakhin in a drunken hysteria, proclaiming half in joy, half in self-reproach, 'Here comes the new landowner, here comes the owner of the cherry orchard!' He is now involved in the complexities of sentiment which surround the departing family, unable fully to grasp what we in our Olympian seats assimilate in a flash.

His helplessness is enacted when Mme Ranevsky, with her brother Gaev, enter feverishly, cross the stage quickly, and go off, leaving him standing there perplexed, offering them the champagne they have ignored: 'Have some champagne, please do, please!' We balance this gesture against the depth of feeling in Mme Ranevsky; yet, in its own way, it too commands our sympathy.

The exchanges which follow with Yasha and Trofimov are all to explore the nature of Lopakhin's embarrassment with that clinical eye which is to keep us alert to the meaning of his suffering. The same Lopakhin is there displaying his classical comic obsession: business-like in his appreciation of the cash value of the wine—'eight roubles a bottle', he tells Yasha; business-like in his time-keeping—'there are only forty-six minutes before the train's due to leave'. Though Chekhov uses him to supply one of his illuminating moments of the mood and atmosphere in the house with his 'It's devilishly cold in here', the practical man with his feet on the ground must add, 'Good building weather'.

Thus by suggestion we are told that Lopakhin is floundering, and the more he turns for reassurance to matters of money, of time and of business, measurable, accessible, firm and concrete things, the more we smile. Should we have wept to see him unable to cope with the huge and complex agony of a lost cause? So he puppets it back and forth across the bare stage, obeying the little laws of his own habits, while we weigh his inadequacy with mixed amusement against tender impressions sustained over three acts.

The image grows denser when Trofimov, with an incongruous air of efficiency and youthful egotism, enters echoing Lopakhin: 'I think it's time to start. The horses are at the door'. We begin to notice now how Chekhov applies pressure to our sense of time in this last act, squeezing out our sympathy for the general distress on the stage, while at the same time neatly indicating how little the 'eternal student's' assumption of command for the operation of departure is justified. Against Lopakhin's 'We must start in twenty minutes. Hurry up' is set the dubious 'I think…' of Trofimov. Especially since he is chiefly bothered because he cannot find his galoshes; and in a personal flutter he calls to the one least likely at this time to be able to help him—Anya (it is Varya who throws a pair of galoshes at him a few minutes later). The humble detail derides the total appearance.

However, Lopakhin is grateful to have someone, even someone he in his soul despises, to talk to at the moment. Without being asked, he pours out his heart with an abrupt, 'And I must be off to Kharkov …'. Then follows a long speech during which he is talking only to himself. Meanwhile Trofimov continues to hunt among the luggage and ignore him, until a breathless pause from Lopakhin brings Trofimov to a halt. With a bitter look and a curt reply, Trofimov puts him in his place: 'We'll soon be gone, then you can start your useful labour again'. Trofimov can be cruel in a way that the family itself would never dare to be.

Lopakhin now begins to draw on our sympathy more warmly, and it is Trofimov who comes more under scrutiny. Lopakhin in a sudden gesture of friendship, prompted perhaps by guilt, offers some of the champagne which Yasha is busily quaffing alone upstage. He is curtly refused. A little quarrel flashes out, and the sparks of their slight differences in social class and their greater differences in wealth catch fire, reminding us dramatically that behind the emotionality of the farewell unquenched antagonisms still burn:

LOPAKHIN. Well, well… I expect the professors are holding up their lectures, waiting for your arrival!
TROFIMOV. That's none of your business.
LOPAKHIN. How many years have you been studying at the university?
TROFIMOV. I wish you'd think up something new, that's old and stale.
Incidentally, as we're not likely to meet again, I'd like to give you a bit of advice.…

He goes on to criticize the 'wide, sweeping gestures' of Lopakhin's talk about building villas. We know that his criticism is really a criticism of himself, since he is the one who speaks in wide, sweeping gestures. We know, furthermore, that a Lopakhin who can buy the cherry orchard can also calculate precisely the profits from its summer residents. This is a farcical quarrel of tit-for-tat, but one with an ugly gist.

As if he suddenly realizes that he is dealing with a man of different calibre from himself, indeed that he may be saying things he will regret, Trofimov lets his anger die quickly. He sees that his comments on Lopakhin's personal behaviour have hurt far more than any criticism of his business methods: this attack on Lopakhin's social graces is of course a direct thrust at his class background. So Trofimov retracts and intuitively says the right thing, incidentally illuminating a little the mystery of the most complex character in the play: 'When all's said and done, I like you, despite everything. You've slender, delicate fingers, like an artist's, you've a fine, sensitive soul…'. We are reminded of Lopakhin's dreams in Act II, that men should be 'giants' to live in consonance with a country of 'vast forests, immense fields, wide horizons'.

They would then have parted friends, and the moral would have suggested itself, we may suppose, that there is a basis for progress and co-operation between opposing classes on grounds of human tolerance, and so on, and so forth. Chekhov indeed hints at the need to link industry with culture and culture with industry, as he does less obliquely in the mouth of Vershinin in The Three Sisters. But here Chekhov doesn't allow us any such immediate response. Lopakhin, in a final mistaken gesture of friendship, offers the younger man money for his journey—the sort of offer he might have valued himself in earlier days perhaps, an offer that makes sense to the practical man he is. Trofimov is of course touched on another raw spot. He sees Lopakhin's generosity as a further sign of the vulgarity that distinguishes them, and the quarrel again flares up. He tells a lie about having had a translation accepted in order to refuse with dignity. They are, we recognize, two of a kind in matters of personal pride.

So Trofimov the idealist speaks. He is a free man, money can mean nothing to him, and, with the grand, abstract sweep of the arm of one who has nothing to lose and everything to gain, he drops into cliché:

Humanity is advancing towards the highest truth, the greatest happiness that is possible to achieve on earth, and I am in the van!

LOPAKHIN. Will you get there?

TROFIMOV. Yes. (A pause.) I'll get there myself, or show others the way to get there.

In that pause Chekhov allows just time enough to let the insidious irony seep back. During that moment of hesitation, Chekhov permits us to pin down all youthful revolutionary leaders with their own doubts: pathetic Trofimov becomes comic again, and Lopakhin makes his point. The vision of a glorious future clouds slightly, but it does not disappear, for we hear of it again with Anya. As if to mark the impression, the first sound of an axe cutting into a cherry tree is heard distantly off-stage. 'Life is slipping by', says Lopakhin in a real gesture of shared sympathy, and irreverently identifies Trofimov's grand rhetoric, as we have already done, with infinite numbers of us, and not merely in Russia: 'how many people there are in Russia, my friend, who exist to no purpose whatever! Well, never mind, perhaps it's no matter'. He at least feels happier for working hard—he slips into the pragmatic view of the practical man again.

These two in their characteristic duologue embrace the conflict in our own minds. They offer not merely a restatement of a class difference in society, or of youthful idealism corrected by a maturer wisdom, though this symbolism is there. For it is a mark of the darkness of the comedy that both of these characters are specimens of broken-hearted clown: neither can therefore teach us a complete truth or give us a final answer. In the acumen of the one and the optimism of the other, Chekhov points to a rooted error of judgment. Behind them both lies the fading nostalgic beauty of all the cherry orchard stood for when circumstances were different. Chekhov is not indicting the Russian merchant or the Russian intellectual, any more than he is telling us what fools Lopakhin and Trofimov are: Chekhov is more subtle than this. There is some truth in Lopakhin's view and some in Trofimov's. We are to imagine a blend of Lopakhin and Trofimov, perhaps together with a little of Anya's lack of affection and a good deal of Mme Ranevsky's heart. He is pressing us, in other words, to take a more balanced view. We are to discover that these two confused men are, like us, groping in a dark room while an unknown hand moves the furniture. Their differences of pragmatism and ideality are those that struggle within ourselves with each new experience that comes. If Chekhov leaves us in uneasy doubt about the righteousness of either, it is to encourage us towards impartiality; it is to induce a greater awareness of serious comic meaning in the extraordinary series of little episodes, particularities and attitudes that make up the dénouement of the play.

As if suddenly to reduce the scale of our view, Chekhov now places the manservant Yasha centre-stage and completes the little story of the triangle Epihodov—Dunyasha—Yasha.

Yasha would be the one unsympathetic character in the play were he not also a little comic, and one must ask the reasons for this. As Lopakhin represents the new aristocracy of business-men, so Yasha represents a new breed of underlings, the smart servants who cheat their masters and lord it over their equals. They astutely take advantage of the social changes that only bewilder their superiors. They grease their hair, Chekhov is saying, and, when they can, they smoke cigars and ape their betters. They can mesmerize silly girls like Dunyasha, and, for what they are worth, break their hearts. They despise the genuine affection towards the family of a domestic serf like old Firs. For Chekhov they sum up all that is poshlost, vulgar.

Somewhat indirectly, Yasha is to suggest what might happen to the minds of the other young people of the same generation, like Anya and Trofimov, had they too to fend for themselves in a commercial world. In this he is the complement of Lopakhin, illuminating a side of this character we would not otherwise see, the Smerdyakov facet of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, the Svidrigailev of his Raskolnikov. He is denied any of Lopakhin's sensitivity and generosity of spirit. Now a little drunk from champagne, he speaks with casual disrespect to Anya when she inquires whether Firs, his foil, has been taken to hospital: 'I told them to take him this morning. He's gone, I think'. But Anya knows Yasha too well, and calls to Epihodov, 'Semyon Panteleyevich, will you please find out whether Firs has been taken to hospital?' Yasha is not concerned. With the gentlest of touches, we are told incisively that the man is wholly egocentric and contemptuous of all about him.

This is confirmed when Varya calls that his mother has come to say goodbye to him before he returns to Paris. This reminder of his former life is unwelcome, and he shrugs off her old-fashioned sentiment with a superior air: 'She just makes me lose patience with her'. We may criticize this as altogether too strongly contradicting psychological truth: a rejection of a mother by her son shocks. It condemns him, and illuminates the impression that was dim before, that there is an amoral and destructive aspect of progress. Like Lopakhin's unwitting negation of what is personally delicate and living in the cherry orchard home, like the eliminating of the Mme Ranevskys who have their own contribution to make to the harmony of existence, subtle changes in the social order can tear up what is deep-rooted and valuable in human life.

Unlike some farcical intrusions into modern domestic comedy, Yasha's presence in the play is relevant to the whole. His part faintly echoes that of Lopakhin, for it shows us how silly ignorance may injure silly innocence. This is done lightly: the regrets and distress of Dunyasha, the pert maidservant, are her just deserts; there is no real suggestion that Epihodov's love for her has been mortally wounded—no melodrama here. In their miniature comedy, played very much in the remoter background, Epihodov is the sort who can say how much he envies Firs because he is 'beyond repair' and must soon 'join his ancestors', and this part, written for brittle comedy, written for the Russian comedian Moskvin, must exclude bitterness. In the same way, Dunyasha is quite an accomplished actress: she shams 'delicacy', falls too easily in and out of love, powders her nose, faints at appropriate moments, and so on. Her story must exclude tragedy, although it allows for pathos.

Nevertheless, all that Yasha stands for is thereby effectively diminished. He drinks his champagne in spite of the fact that 'it isn't the real thing', dreams of the journey in the express train, and longs for Paris where something is always 'going on', where there is less 'ignorance'. In view of the character who purveys these ideas, they are received by us only with scepticism. This is given open expression in laughter when Gaev enters, fixes one look on Yasha's hair, and says, 'Who's smelling of herring here?'

The late owners of the cherry orchard, Lyubov (Mme Ranevsky) and Gaev, are two lovable fools, held in affection by all around them. They now re-enter. 'In ten minutes we ought to be getting into the carriage …', and again we are reminded of time. Time was dogging us through the scene of the party in Act IiI, and now we realize that its pressure is not only of dramatic hours and minutes, but a poetic urgency fixing a paralysed attention on the treasure that is escaping. The loss of the orchard, prefigured from the outset, has grown in the imagery of the play to mean the loss of a whole way of life, with all the particularity of its hopes and frustrations, all the living experience of its memories and its expectations. There are ten minutes left for us, as it were, breathlessly to savour its sadness.

In the grip of a genuine nostalgia and a deep regret, Mme Ranevsky takes a last look round her nursery: 'Goodbye, dear house, old grandfather house'. With the simplest of epithets, Chekhov paints a picture of generations, while directly expressing the character's emotions. It would seem we are to expect an emotive sequel, flushed with sentiment. Yet there is an ironic edge to every gesture and statement which is to follow. Our view of the play remains carefully under control.

Lyubov's ardent kissing of Anya, with all her desire for her future happiness, hardly conceals the dilemma of a woman caught between her uncertain regret for the past and her uncertain hope for the future. She is not happy, but perhaps her daughter is:

MME RANEVSKY. Are you glad? Very glad?
ANYA. Yes, very. Our new life is just beginning, Mama!
GAEV (brightly). So it is indeed, everything's all right now.

Anya unaffectedly sees no past standing over her like a judgment as her mother does: she unknowingly clouds the nostalgic image of the dear past, and looks fearlessly forward to a bright future. But we sense that Anya is her mother as she was, and Lyubov is as her daughter will be.

Gaev's effort of gaiety confirms the ambiguities beneath the surface of their mood. Our impression of the inadequacy of Mme Ranevsky, for all her unselfishness, is here as elsewhere reinforced by the greater weakness of her brother. This man who has no money-sense at all, who let the orchard slip between his fingers also, is simulating happiness as obviously as she: we immediately recognize his instinct to console himself. He tells us that he is to become a bank-clerk, of all things, 'a financier'.

Passionately embraced and passionately embracing, Anya, the innocent who has yet to face the world of hard experience, dreams of Mama's return, of passing examinations and working hard … 'We'll read during the long autumn evenings, we'll read lots of books, and a new, wonderful world will open up before us…'. For a perceptible moment seventeen-year-old Anya reverses their roles; she is the little mother comforting Lyubov, till she relaxes into golden fancies. Almost symbolically the child curls up on the dust-sheet over the sofa, seeing with the bright eyes of youth, reassured by the caresses of the mother who tells her she will come back. We have the authority of the play's cumulative ironies to doubt what we see and hear.

In case we too grow sentimental over this imaginary prospect, too reassured by the archetype of mother and child, Chekhov plays an ace. He had brought in Charlotta, the German-bred governess, and has had her downstage, looking with our eyes at the scene. Now, half to cheer the company, it would seem, half to express her and our scepticism, she plays one of her tricks:

(Picking up a bundle that looks like a baby in swaddling clothes.) Bye-bye, little baby. (A sound like a baby crying is heard.) Be quiet, my sweet, be a good little boy. (The 'crying' continues.) My heart goes out to you, baby!

This must strike us as a naughty burlesque of the pathetic exchange we have just seen, belittling and colouring the impression the other three have created. The burlesque is offered with less of the gentle, shaded touch so familiar in Chekhov, and more with that callous juxtaposition to be found later in works like Anouilh's Point of Departure. Chekhov feels it necessary to give a more severe shock to dispel the more subversive sentiment. It is Chekhov's command to us to return to earth, and it is enacted when Charlotta almost viciously throws the bundle down and says, 'Are you going to find me another job, please? I can't do without one'. She is practical, for we remember what she told us on the garden seat in Act II, that she does not know who her mother was, that she has no past, that she is alone—as Anya may well be.

By the matter-of-fact tone of her last remark, a moment of farce is turned to wormwood. 'You should only sit down to write', Chekhov told Bunin, 'when you feel as cold as ice'.

Pishchik, 'strong as a horse', eternally penniless, high with blood-pressure, puffing and sweating, is most part clown. He is an ineffectual landowner from another cherry orchard, and we are really unable to take his financial distresses seriously. His constant borrowing of money is his comic 'gimmick', and Gaev by his scuttling exit reminds us of Pishchik's apparent role in the play. He will enter now to provide us with some crazy horse-play perhaps, a little knock-about relief, 'what a phenomenon!' But he too has a calculated place in the pattern.

He blusters in, out of breath as usual, greeting Mme Ranevsky and Lopakhin, pouring a glass of water, fumbling in his pocket, swallowing a mouthful. Between his gasps for air and comic business with the tiresome glass, he drags from his pocket—a handful of notes! Too late he repays money that might have paid the mortgage interest on the unhappy estate. For in bewilderment he has found that science and progress have overtaken him unawares, to his advantage and amazement. In joy and confusion he explains what has happened: 'Wait a moment… I'm so hot… A most extraordinary thing happened. Some English people came to see me and discovered a sort of white clay on my land …'.

His perpetual simple astonishment at the phenomena of life around him is now given real cause for expression. Foreign capital was in fact being invested in Russia in the 1890's. Now indeed he can ridicule his naive search for a philosophical justification for the forgery of banknotes—or taking one's own life. 'Just now a young fellow in the train was telling me that some great philosopher or other… advises people to jump off roofs. You just jump off, he says, and that settles the whole problem.… Fancy that!' Thus subtly, farcically, does the author drop a thought among the audience, brushing it off as soon as it has settled. The sequence of the dialogue suggests that Pishchik had thought for a gossamer moment of a resort to suicide: now providence has relieved him of the need, just as it had left her token, ignored, with Mme Ranevsky. Could this same thought have occurred to her?—oh, but no—we dismiss the idea: Chekhov is teasing.

As if to strengthen our feelings, Pishchik has dashed about the room, sat down, stood up, drunk his water and gone—at such a pace that we have hardly had time to assimilate the impression he leaves us with. He has gone without noticing that the family is on the eve of departure. Lyubov calls after him, and the pace abruptly halts as he turns back and looks unhappily about him. He sees the bare room at last. Something did not 'turn up' for them this time. His tone changes: 'Well, never mind. (Tearfully.) Never mind … These Englishmen, you know, they're men of the greatest intelligence.… Never mind.…I wish you every happiness, God be with you. Never mind, everything comes to an end eventually'. Jumping off the roof was not so outrageous a notion after all—'everything comes to an end eventually'. What was stated in jest is now echoed with deep embarrassment; the puppet becomes a man.

Pishchik's little scene, brief and funny and pathetic as it is, fits into the design. The comedy misleads us momentarily, but the contrast in the tempo of playing between the time of Pishchik's entrance and that of his exit again reorients by a fine degree the play's whole meaning. Pishchik's primary function is to introduce that recognizable element of fatalism into the structure of the life being demonstrated, though we remain free to dismiss it. The chance purchase of Pishchik's clay by the astonishing Englishmen is the counterpart of the sale of the cherry orchard: the positive and the negative of the same picture. Are we equally subject to chance? Only death is inevitable. Comic Pishchik epitomizes mankind faced with insoluble problems: in bewilderment he blusters with joy, and in the same bewilderment he frets in misery. It is all very droll.

Characteristically, Chekhov allows his good-hearted Pishchik a tender moment before he takes his departure from the play. This is quoted in all its subtlety, and without comment:

And when you hear that my end has come, just think of—a horse, and say: 'There used to be a fellow like that once.… Simeonov-Pishchik his name was—God be with him!' Wonderful weather we're having. Yes.… (Goes out, over-come with embarrassment, but returns at once and stands in the doorway.) Dashenka sent greetings to you. (Goes out.)

The tiny tragedy of Charlotta is followed by the tiny comedy of Pishchik, and this in turn is followed by the tiny tragedy of Varya. But just as Charlotta could never of course have risen to any real stature, neither can Varya. Chekhov wrote to Nemirovich-Danchenko that she was to be 'a little nun-like creature, somewhat simple-minded, plaintive'. Plaintive, but still a comedienne: 'she is a cry-baby by nature and her tears ought not to arouse any feelings of gloom in the audience' [David Magarshack, Chekhov the Dramatist, 1952].

Yet the sequence which follows that of Pishchik's exit moves into the friendly territory of common experience far enough to colour the action with a sufficient tincture of pathos.

First Mme Ranevsky gives us another reminder of time: there are but five minutes remaining. However, as she insists, there is still time enough to settle a final problem, that of Varya's future. It is firmly in the mother's mind, in spite of many protestations from the parties concerned, that Lopakhin must propose to her. 'We have another five minutes or so …'. A moment later: 'You'll hardly need more than a minute, that's all'.

Much of the comedy, and much of the pathos, of this episode rests upon counterpointing two senses of time: on the one hand, that which presses from without, the waiting carriage and the approaching train; and, on the other, the inner reluctance of Lopakhin, whose emotional indigestion makes it so impossible to hasten the passing of this most embarrassing moment. His scene with Varya is to be played so slowly as to make an audience conscious of an intentional dramatic meaning through tempo. The contrast with the quicker pace of Pishchik's speech and movement is to make us feel Lopakhin's own confusion of mind about time. When he looks at his watch and when he finally leaves the room in unseemly haste, we must be made to ask ourselves, were these actions the result of his anxiety for the family's prompt departure, or for his own? If this scene is to illuminate one more facet of the agony of the relentless advance of tomorrow, we must feel the state of Lopakhin's shuttlecock mind in wanting the moment to fly, and yet wanting it to stop. He asks only that human relationships may resolve themselves in natural harmony, for they will not obey the clock.

Chekhov's dialogue for this episode is masterly. With brevity, and yet with an adroit mustering of points in favour of a marriage, Mme Ranevsky is made to use all her feminine wit to accomplish a mother's last duty to a daughter. She excuses her for looking thin and pale. But this is only because she has no work to do—an appeal to a Lopakhin who would be expected to want an industrious wife. She tells him that her Varya cries a lot—an appeal to his protective sympathies. Finally she tells him that Varya loves him—an appeal to his masculine pride. '… And I just don't know, I just don't know why you seem to keep away from each other. I don't understand it'. She implies a question: what reason can you give for your delay?

What reason can Lopakhin give? We guess: although Varya is only adopted into the household to earn her keep as a housekeeper, perhaps an illegitimate daughter of Lyubov's husband, nevertheless, like Lopakhin's purchase of the cherry orchard, his marriage to Varya would perhaps be a glancing blow against social tradition, which he has always instinctively accepted. Lopakhin could never aspire to the manners and graces Varya has acquired in her years with Lyubov. A social barrier, however, is hardly used by Chekhov as a dramatic crux: there is to be no melodramatic gesture of defiance. The mother wants the marriage, as does the foster-daughter; but how strong are the ties that bind Lopakhin to the older respect for class? There is no defiance in his proposal, and Lopakhin remains human, humble, and no puppet. But he is equally reluctant to make a proposal of marriage because he is as shy as any man might be. Thus with sure control, Chekhov presents a socially symbolic situation under a wholly naturalistic guise, as he had done with Trofimov's poverty, Yasha's pertness, Pishchik's unexpected wealth. Neither Mme Ranevsky nor Lopakhin are aware of the forces present on the stage with them at this moment of decision.

MME RANEVSKY.… I don't understand it.
LOPAKHIN. Neither do I myself, I must confess. It's all so strange somehow.…

We feel Lopakhin's emotional immaturity and awkwardness compared with Mme Ranevsky's experience and grace. But the practical man will at last face the situation, and other members of the family are ushered out of the room, and Varya is called, while Lopakhin waits alone on the stage.

We are prepared for comic relief by the interminable pause that holds us in suspense after the exit of the mother. It is a pause redolent of the agony of making an irrevocable personal decision. We are held until we are ourselves self-conscious and Lopakhin's discomfiture is ours. So we are ready to laugh when we hear the 'suppressed laughter and whispering' of the others behind the door, and when in even greater embarrassment Varya enters pretending to hunt among the luggage: 'It's strange, I just can't find …'. It is with this new pause that the character of the scene begins to change, and a warmth of feeling begins to spread over it.

In a series of false starts, Lopakhin tepidly endeavours to make the bright opening gambit which might lead to the happy embrace of a potential bride and groom. But each time his leading questions only stress the misery of Varya's present position, and because she is the 'simple-minded, plaintive' little creature presented in the play, they lead her quickly to tears. He asks where she will go now that the family is leaving—she will go to the Rogulins to be a housekeeper. What is worse, her post will be seventy miles away—it might as well be in the antipodes. Husband and home will be left far behind, and for both Varya and Lopakhin a marriage must be contracted now or never. 'So this is the end of life in this house …'. Upon Lopakhin's saying this, Varya, in the anguish of nostalgia and longing, buries her tears furiously among the luggage. She has not dared to look at him.

Lopakhin has said the wrong thing, and he must start again. But the same nostalgia grips him too. As he looks out of the window, he sees the cold sun of autumn and feels the frost descending. With another of his fine imaginative strokes, Chekhov invokes the weather to epitomize the mood of the scene and at the same time extend and make articulate the feelings that surround the characters. The irony of Lopakhin's estimating the degrees of frost with the accuracy of a farmer, and of Varya's exasperated retort that their thermometer is broken, echoes painfully through a further long pause. Time rushes onwards.

Suddenly a voice, perhaps Epihodov's, calls his name, and Lopakhin is gone, his dilemma resolved for him. Varya is left to weep uninhibitedly with her face in a bundle of clothes. The precious moment is destroyed. How? By fickle accident, by the pressure of extraneous situation, certainly by a human inadequacy, perhaps by a deeper power of birth and blood, by all these things, by Chekhov's seeing life like this in such moments of time.

The idea of the mutation of things emerges through a succession of innumerable minute insights that are discovered to us. It will depend on what we contribute to the interpretation of this episode, however, and what these characters have grown to represent to us, if we are to see the scene as something more than an unhappy little fragment in two small lives that do not matter so very much; the rather pathetic surface of the action on this level will fail to affect us or the play. However, we are so well prepared for the anticlimax when it comes, that we must pay another kind of attention to its meaning.

The false starts and proprieties of the man, the gentility and discretion of the woman, our sense of the limitations of a conventional behaviour in such a situation as this, must vividly illuminate human weakness. Varya and Lopakhin, if indeed the busy man ever really wanted marriage, cannot make a sufficient adjustment to the requirements of change. Two small people who cannot see their position except subjectively, are shown buffeted by forces they cannot recognize, even less control. With an appalling irony, Varya, virtual mistress of the house, who had thrown her keys at Lopakhin's feet in Act III, must now go to the Rogulins 'to be their housekeeper, or something'. While she becomes a servant, he will be master. Against such a reversal, Lopakhin's well-meaning decorums are wholly misplaced, almost laughable. A pathetic loneliness, half-conscious maybe, is balanced by a comic awkwardness.

Chekhov is saying to us in as positive a way as he can without breaking his naturalistic convention, that the smashing of one order need not necessarily comprehend the end of an existing harmony of relationships, certainly not of individual happiness. He is inviting us to see the position with an objectivity denied to his characters. He does it by enlarging and emphasizing their feelings, and presenting these in the white light of their comic littleness.

Chekhov now crowds his stage in order to empty it at the curtain. This is his last opportunity to bring together his small host of characters with the cumulative impact of all their petty, but overwhelming, little troubles. Before he finally dismisses the world of the cherry orchard, its fragmentary impressions are to be blended into a total image.

The room fills with people, as it did in Act I when it was a springtime, happier time of homecoming: Varya, Mme Ranevsky, Anya, Gaev, Charlotta with her dog, Yasha, Epihodov, Dunyasha, with other servants and coachmen. Trofimov and Lopakhin will enter in a moment. The house bustles with life and urgency once more, but it is the urgency of departure. The attitudes characteristic of this or that generation, each with a contrasting outlook fixed upon the future or the past, are by simple strokes compressed into a tone of voice, a gesture, a familiar form of words, which seem to echo and re-echo from the far walls of the play till they merge into its sombre reverberations.

The mother who resigned herself so quickly to the failure of her plan that we suspect that she had hardly anticipated its success, says flatly, 'Now we can start on our journey'. But her heart is in the past. Anya, representative of a younger generation, happy at new prospects and widening experience, echoes her joyfully: 'Yes, our journey!' Equally unrealistic, she is living in the future. Gaev, overwhelmed with personal memories, is least in command of his feelings, and after his habit slips from sentiment into rhetoric: 'My friends, my dear, kind friends! Now as I leave this house for ever …'. Here it is dear old Gaev whom Chekhov permits to strike the seemingly false note of comedy, and it is emphasized by the girls who implore him to stop.

Amid all the activity of preparation and dressing and gathering of personal luggage, Mme Ranevsky sits centre-stage, silent and alone in a pool of quietness. By her stillness she catches our eye: 'I'll just sit down for one little minute more. I feel as if I'd never seen the walls and ceilings of this house before, and now I look at them with such longing and affection …'. She is sincere and articulate about her emotions, and suddenly this apparently feather-weight heroine becomes solid for us: Chekhov uses her as his spokesman for the suffering, conscious and unconscious, of all. But only for that moment: she will be once more fussing about the luggage as soon as she hears her brother's voice take on the oratorical tone again. She tears herself out of her mood: 'Have they taken out all the luggage?' For us, the serious mood remains and continues under the surface of trivialities.

Now with inspired cunning, forcing us to enter into his peculiar war of nerves, the author has the most obvious comedian in the play, Epihodov, register his one truly fetching moment of pathos. As a result of Lopakhin's 'See that everything's all right, Epihodov', we digest the following exchange:

EPIHODOV (in a husky voice). Don't worry, Yermolai Alexeyevich!
LOPAKHIN. What are you talking like that for?
EPIHODOV. I've just had a drink of water. I must have swallowed something.
YASHA (with contempt). What ignorance!

Like Pishchik, Epihodov is allowed his feelings, however limited, before the end. But precisely because he has never before done other than make us mock at his emotion, his present frog in the throat startles us, just as it surprises Lopakhin and challenges Yasha. Yasha asserts his difference from the peasant by a characteristic remark of derision. This mild friction between the two servants adds nearly the last of the pieces to the jigsaw of class rivalries, here well thrust home by pressure of exceptional circumstances.

The limelight shines on Lopakhin too, for a last time. Again, Chekhov cleverly serves a double dramatic purpose by a single expedient.

MME RANEVSKY. When we leave here there won't be a soul in the place.…
LOPAKHIN. Until the spring.

Hearing the despondency in Lyubov's voice, he tries to respond with a brightly engaging comment. Like the realist he is, he is concerned with the present. But again he has said the wrong thing. In his odd effort to make amends, he has intensified her distress. Spring is when strangers will live where they live; spring is when the orchard would have been in blossom; spring was when they came home, only to leave again.

At this moment, Varya pulls an umbrella from a bundle. It flies up, and she seems to be about to strike him. In a gesture that catches our eye immediately, an echo of the incident with the billiards cue in Act III, Lopakhin's reaction summarizes in a flash his place in the pattern: he raises his arm to ward off the blow, and we are reminded of his peasant relationship with the family. Yet it also reflects his essential lack of confidence and the guilt he feels surging up as soon as he has spoken, that of his outrageous presumption in buying the estate. With a laugh, he promptly turns his instinctive fear into a little pantomime that relaxes the tension between himself and Varya and makes them friends again. Like the whole play, it is a token of confused emotions.

As a gesture, it is also a signal for renewed activity by everyone. Trofimov takes charge and orders the party into the carriage. Varya finds his galoshes at last—Chekhov leaves no detail unfinished. Trofimov has to put them on while still giving his orders—Chekhov deflates even his last assumption of dignity. Lopakhin efficiently counts the heads. Anya and Trofimov, the younger ones, leave first, hailing the future:

ANYA. Goodbye, old house! Goodbye, old life!
TROFIMOV. Greetings to the new life!

The older ones leave their lives behind them; youth has the world before it. The rest follow, Varya unwillingly, Yasha willingly, Charlotta coldly, Lopakhin warmly. Lyubov and Gaev are left alone, two small figures clasping each other in grief in the centre of the bare, blank stage.

With unparalleled simplicity of effect, Chekhov has his two forlorn puppets stand motionless in the deserted nursery. The cherry orchard is already forsaken, and they are the life that used to be. The lightness in Mme Ranevsky is now heavy, her feelings squeezed dry: and she says what the orchard and the house mean to her in explicit terms.

They express the salt and bitter taste, the uneasy ache of the experience of the whole play: 'Oh my darling, my precious, my beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness … goodbye!… Goodbye!' The orchard is the symbol for just those things: life, youth, happiness, and their passing. The symbolism is not a loose sentimentality: it is recognized in the astringency of our criticism.

They listen, as we do, to the excited cries from Anya and Trofimov impatient outside the house in the carriage, impatient to plant another cherry orchard. A world outside is calling, and another beyond that. Inside, the sobs of regret are counterpointed with the shrill calls outside, until Lyubov and her brother leave: 'We're coming … (Both go out).' The play is over; the point is made.

But is it? The curtain refuses to fall, and Chekhov tries his most daring stroke. For an age we sit looking at empty, half-lit space, while the master of pauses employs the longest pause of his career. We are to assimilate the implications of the drama by the tempo he ordains: 'The stage is empty. The sound of doors being locked is heard, then of carriages driving off. It grows quiet. The stillness is broken by the dull thuds of an axe on a tree. …' The spirit of the cherry orchard is allowed time to seep into us, and by sheer radiogenic dramatics, we learn what it is to be left in a house when all have departed; we learn what it is to be that house and to feel the axe in our soul. There is no comedy here now: it is all twilight.

We wait again for the curtain to fall, but again it does not. We hear instead the shuffle, the slow shuffle of old feet, and we dimly discern Firs as he creeps in. The old servant has been left behind in the general confusion. He moves with difficulty to the door that has just been bolted, tries it unsuccessfully, and stumbles to the sofa covered with its dust-sheet. He sits. 'They forgot about me. Never mind …'. He is content, for the world outside no longer has any call upon him. Those of his generation cannot lose their cherry orchard now. At his age, neither past, present nor future have much meaning. With a final prick of comedy, almost a lifetime is compressed in his speech: 'I don't suppose Leonid Andreyevich put on his fur coat, I expect he's gone in his light one.… These youngsters!' He lies still, while once more we await the fall of the curtain.

Yet even now there is a last bold trump to play: 'A distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away.' ust as Chekhov had gathered together his players for their last ensemble, visually gathering together the joy and the sadness, hope for the future and regret for the past, so he attempts to epitomize the mixture of all our feelings in one unearthly and inexplicable sound, the sound we heard, unexplained, in Act II. To interpret it is to interpret the whole play. The curtain falls slowly with this in our ears, this and the sound of an axe striking a tree in the orchard far away.

The teasing structure of The Cherry Orchard easily accounts for its misinterpretation by producers from Konstantin Stanislavsky onwards. Where Chekhov's effect rests on a knife-edge balance of comedy and pathos in so many details, it is only too easy to tip the play towards one or the other. By inclination the sentimental majority of us leans towards the emotionality of the passing of an order. The substitution of one world for another is an excuse for melodramatics. Yet Chekhov was constantly making a plea to redress the balance: 'I am writing about life … this is a grey everyday life indeed … but not an eternal whimpering'. He believed that a full, objective statement of what he saw of the behaviour of people would be sufficient to paint the unbiased picture he wanted. Although some may feel he should have made more direct statements, relying less on the vagaries of arbitrary mood of the audience, less on the caprices which abound in the theatre, to the end he preferred, as he said, to show us horse-thieves rather than condemn them.

Chekhov put on the stage a group of people. He made this the centre of attention; not events, unless they affected the characters; not characters, unless they were to disturb or cast a reflection on the group. His group lives by the commonplaces of life they display, and these carry the weight of the play. Thus he found a form for drama suited to the stage. He is accused of having no plot, but it is not the absence of plot, rather the presence of many little plots, suggestive phases of many little lives woven intricately together, that gives his play its careful, taut pattern in which every detail is intensely relevant. Every detail is relevant, that is, to the creation of that particular balance of sympathies which can recreate for an audience the fluid feel of life. It is not a gallows humour he offers, nor mere exuberance, but it embraces each of us in its restless appeal to truth.

J. L. Styan, "Naturalistic Shading," in his The Dark Comedy: The Development of Modern Comic Tragedy, Cambridge at the University Press, 1962, pp. 59-126.

Walter Kerr (essay date 1969)

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[Kerr is an American dramatist, director, and critic who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama criticism in 1978. A long-time drama critic for the New York Times, as well as the author of several book-length studies of modern drama, he has been one of the most important and influential figures in the American theater since the 1950s. In the following excerpt, Kerr discusses the merits of Chekhov's and Stanislavsky's respective conceptions of The Cherry Orchard.]

Now, here's a curious thing. The Cherry Orchard, perhaps all of Chekhov, cannot be truly sad unless it is funny.

I had never seen a Moscow Art Theater performance of The Cherry Orchard until the company paid a courteous visit to City Center, and I went with a half-dozen contending questions in my head. Chekhov had never liked what Stanislavski did with the play: the author insisted he had written a comedy and that the director had made tragedy of it. But the quarrel had ended in a terrible irony. Chekhov's comedy had apparently been scuttled, but Chekhov's reputation had been enormously enhanced. The production had been successful against its author. Why?

What comedy was missing? And what had Stanislavski put into its place with such authority that forever after the play would be seen as he saw it, would be duplicated and imitated time and time again until the entire world would think of Chekhov in terms that Chekhov himself detested?

I couldn't hope that a performance in 1965 would answer questions first raised in 1904. Though the physical staging might still be Stanislavski's—people might dance behind archways or nestle against haystacks as he had directed them to so long ago—at least two things were bound to have changed. New actors may try hard to echo a tradition of performance; but they cannot help bringing themselves into the tradition, which means they cannot help altering it in subtle ways. And the political and social changes in Russia since 1904 must, willy-nilly, have done something to the atmosphere. An institution may be revered and told to go on doing its work as before, no matter what aesthetic is being imposed upon newer playwrights and their playhouses. But what is happening on the street, or in an auditorium five blocks away, is bound to drift in through the stage doors, if only as an awareness. A change in the climate is noticed, and felt, even by an actor who is bundled protectively to his ears. Was there any chance at all now of estimating Stanislavski's original tone—and hence Chekhov's dismay with it?

In point of fact no one can be certain how much the interior intellectual life of The Cherry Orchard has changed color with regimes. One can suspect—but not prove—that the student Trofimov has gained earnestness with the years. Trofimov looks to a nobler future and makes impassioned speeches about it. He sees stupidity and corruption about him; he will have none of the old way of life; he expects that one day mankind will march boldly into a much purer dawn. Possibly the first actor who played the part saw some humor in it, as I now feel certain Chekhov did. Trofimov is, after all, as much a prattling dreamer as the sentimental, irresponsible, wool-gathering Gayev is. By the end of the third act he is going to look a good bit of a fool as he falls all over himself and tumbles downstairs in one of his temperamental fevers. But after a revolution any character who seems to have prophesied a revolution must inevitably acquire a small halo. The part is presently played as though Trofimov had spent time in the wilderness with John the Baptist and had come back clear-eyed, an accredited visionary. Has his stature as a seer grown week after week since 1917, without orders from above or without anyone's quite noticing it? The question is probably unanswerable, and must be passed.

But there was illumination aplenty, on other scores, in the production brought us. To begin with, the Moscow Art Theater feels its way toward rather more comedy in The Cherry Orchard than we who have heard Stanislavski's edict but seen little of his work are inclined to give it in our own performances. Indeed some of the comedy is surprisingly broad: the clerk Epikhodov is not merely accident-prone, breaking a billiard cue a moment after he has picked it up; he is a Dromio, unable to leave the stage without backing successively into three pieces of furniture which are by no means in his way.

There is comedy in the complacent money-grubbing of a corpulent neighbor, comedy in the way in which a servant who has risen above himself elegantly spits out his cigar ends, playful comedy in the determination of lovers not to be spied upon at sunset. The outer edges of the play are conceived lightly; not everyone anticipates doom.

But—and here no doubt is where Chekhov's blood pressure rose—there is no fatuity, no giddiness, no transparent thoughtlessness of a gently amusing sort at the center of the piece. When we come to the brother and sister who own the estate that is to be lost, and above all when the sister, Ranevskaya, lets her temper flare at the idealist Trofimov, we come to something that is as hard and inflexible as Medea's mighty will. In the Moscow Art production, Ranevskaya does not let a world slip through her fingers out of flightiness, or charming presumption, or a womanly affectation of being unable to cope with figures. She stands sturdy as a rock, surveying her diminishing world with alarmed but far-seeing eyes, an intelligently tragic figure who knows that she is about to be bent by the wind but is ready for it. When she lashes out at Trofimov for his endless prating of things to come, the scene is not a delightfully exasperated tussle of cross-purposes, an explosion of misunderstandings. It is a showdown. Willed death confronts willed hope, with countenances of granite.

Actually, there is nothing in the earlier portions of the play, nothing in the texture of the play, to justify so rigid and inexorable a duel. Ranevskaya is simply not a tragic figure. She has no purpose, no intention, no passion to make her one. It is the very purposelessness of her life, her ingratiating ability to circumvent decisions, that defines her. The business of turning her into Brunnhilde, or into a kind of dowager Prometheus, does not work. We look at her displaying so much keenness of mind and force of character and decide that she would not only have accepted the peasant Lopakhin's offer for the estate; she would have sat at the table with him and bargained until she had forced the price higher. If the present interpretation of the role is in the Stanislavski tradition, then this is the point at which Stanislavski overreached himself and outraged his playwright.

But there is a further consequence that interests me more. As the lady of the orchard becomes increasingly hard-headed, strong-willed, tragic, we feel less and less for her. At the center of the Moscow Art's Cherry Orchard there is little pity. The axes are closing in and we feel no sorrow. Ranevskaya will be dispossessed; but her plight will not move us.

It may be one of the distinguishing marks of Chekhov's work that tears come only when they are not asked for, only, in fact, when there is a sustained—if unrealistic—surface gaiety. The Ranevskaya who touches us will most likely always be the woman who puts the brightest, most impossible face on things, who dances and mothers and cajoles when she should be taking stock, who flies into a tantrum with a talkative student because she is temperamentally incapable of listening to anyone. A charmer, an optimist, inadvertently a fool.

When we see that her silken, impulsive, endearing evasions are funny because they are hopelessly out of kilter with the facts, when we laugh because she is helplessly prisoner of a grace that is now irrelevant but still a grace, when we cannot help smiling that she should mismanage things so adroitly, then we will feel sorry for her, too. Pathos cannot be bought with long faces; it is a reflex from having noticed something absurd that cannot change itself. At least I think it is in Chekhov.

Why, then, was Stanislavski's Cherry Orchard so successful, so successful that its mood has been imposed upon most productions of Chekhov for sixty years? The Moscow Art Theater production seems to give us an answer to that, also. It is filled—even now—with a superb sense of continuing life, of dancers who go on dancing even after the ballroom doors are closed, of old servants who must surely be in the kitchen when they are not actually before our eyes, of restless footsteps going up and down stairs we never see and no doubt pacing the floor above us though we never hear a sound above. The people of the production are busy with themselves. They leave the scene with something in mind; when they return, their eyes have changed as eyes do when something that needed doing has been done. Nothing is ever forgotten. The probabilities of the day behind and the night ahead are constantly in mind; they fill the personalities we learn to recognize with a twenty-four-hour history. No actor seems to reflect on anything that is not in the play. The play fully occupies its residents. They are never going to be anywhere but in it.

The physical, visual, aural, tactile echoes are overwhelmingly dimensional. You could walk with Varya, in her black dress and with the keys at her belt, throughout the house and never see her work finished. The stage is composed of planes, receding infinitely. There is no corner you could look around and see only scenery. I don't think I have ever attended a production in which the naturalistic flow of event was so matter-of-fact that there was no event at all, only the indisputable comings and goings of the of-course people, the people who of course live there, always have. Where else should they be? How else should they dispose themselves?

Chekhov ought to have complained. And the production ought to have been as successful as it was.

The theater plays tricks like that.

Walter Kerr, "Chekhov and Others," in his Thirty Plays Hath November: Pain and Pleasure in the Contemporary Theater, Simon and Schuster, 1969, pp. 146-83.

Bernard Beckerman (essay date 1971)

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[An American critic and educator specializing in the field of drama, Beckerman wrote Dynamics of Drama: Theory and Method of Analysis (1970) and served as the editor of the "Theater and Dramatic Studies" series published by UMI Research Press. In the following essay, he contrasts dramatic analysis and literary interpretations ofThe Cherry Orchard, maintaining that most critics fail to acknowledge the distinction.]

Peter Trofimov is a contradictory fellow. He attacks the depressing habits of Russian life and prophesies happiness to come. Articulate and idealistic, he expresses what lies beyond the felling of the cherry orchard. But he also takes a condescending tone towards others, quite convinced of his superiority. Priggish and insensitive, he exhibits a ludicrous obliviousness to primary human concerns. The Soviet critic, Vladimir Yermilov, considers him "good for nothing." Admittedly Peter has a positive side, for he does help Anya to face the future, but he himself does not "belong to the progressive fighters for future happiness" [Yermilov, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov]. [In The Breaking String] Maurice Valency eschews such doctrinaire judgment. For him Trofimov is "lovable, believable, and a little ridiculous … [yet not] altogether healthy." "For all his earnestness, [he is] merely another passionate drifter in the universities, a member of that intelligentsia which he himself derides … for its laziness and lack of purpose."

Neither Yermilov nor Valency allude to two passages that I consider particularly significant for an understanding of Trofimov. Twice in the play Trofimov has an abrasive exchange with the merchant Lopakhin. Neither exchange is more than half a dozen speeches long. Yet their importance exceeds their duration. The first occurs in Act II. Trofimov, Anya and Varya have just joined the older people at an abandoned chapel near the cherry orchard. Lopakhin teases Trofimov for being a perennial student. Peter responds curtly, "Mind your own business." Lopakhin persists, and then asks "What's your opinion of me?" Peter responds by comparing him to a beast of prey. There is general laughter. The second exchange occurs in Act IV immediately after Trofimov joins Lopakhin in the old nursery. Again Lopakhin teases him for being a perennial student, again Trofimov tells the merchant to mind his own business, and when irritated further, again anatomizes Lopakhin, this time commenting on his behavior and his aspirations. In the middle of his remarks, however, Trofimov interrupts himself and then says, "Anyway, all the same, I like you. You have fine, delicate fingers, like an artist, you have a fine, delicate heart—" Lopakhin senses the change of tone, for he immediately interrupts Trofimov with an embrace.

The two exchanges are remarkably similar and yet different. Although the second is shorter than the first, their structures are parallel. Lopakhin teases, Trofimov rebuffs him, Lopakhin persists, Trofimov criticizes him. The major difference between the two passages occurs when Trofimov checks himself and expresses affection for Lopakhin. Chekhov prepares for this change in a subtle way, untranslatable into English. During the first exchange, when Trofimov tells Lopakhin: "Mind your own business," he employs the second person plural. In the second exchange he repeats the same line, but utilizing "thy," the intimate form of address. Both in the broader structure as well as in this small detail, Chekhov shows care in juxtaposing these two passages precisely. What did he wish them to express?

Robert Brustein is one of the few critics to refer to these exchanges between Trofimov and Lopakhin. [In The Theatre of Revolt (1962) he] treats the first, where Trofimov calls Lopakhin a beast of prey, as evidence that Trofimov is wrong in his assessment of Lopakhin and the second as evidence that despite his error Trofimov does "in a more generous moment" appreciate Lopakhin's finer side. In effect, he adopts an image of an unchanging Trofimov whose views on Lopakhin are hardly modified in the course of the play. Of the parallel structure of the two exchanges, nothing is said. In this Brustein exemplifies the practice we find fairly common among critics, a practice that can be seen even more clearly in David Magarshack's comments on Trofimov. [In Chekhov the Dramatist, 1960] Magarshack, who is a knowledgeable and sensitive interpreter of Chekhov, draws a full scale portrait of Peter. "The only idealist in the play, … [he is] essentially a comic character. His exterior itself is comic.… But his outward appearance is merely a pointer to the deepseated comic streak in his nature. He is 'an eternal student'… eternal adolescent … reason means everything to him and experience nothing.… [Although] a queer fellow … [that] does not prevent [him] from having a great aim in life." It is through his mouth that "the theme of hard work as the key to future happiness is expressed." What we see exemplified in Magarshack and what we found in the previous summations of Trofimov's character is the static quality of the descriptions. Here I am not concerned with the interpretations these critics offer so much as with the way they express their interpretations. They are interested in what Peter is, not what experience he goes through. Their descriptions stress being, not doing, a fixed nature not an evolving one. From the variety of circumstances in which Trofimov is involved, they select a mosaic of lines and incidents to illustrate a finished view of his character. I would like to offer another mode of description, one that defines a character by his encounters not his sentiments.

When Trofimov interrupts himself in Act IV and then addresses Lopakhin warmly, he reveals a sensitivity to someone else's nature for the first time in the play. He finally accepts Lopakhin for what he is, no longer judging him by austere and rather arrogant standards. How he arrives at this point can only be understood by tracing the events that lead from the one exchange in Act II to the other in Act IV.

The second act, from the entrance of Trofimov, Anya and Varya to the end, can be divided into two major segments. The first segment deals with the gathering of the Ranevsky household at the abandoned chapel. They talk, they fall silent, they hear a "breaking string" in the distance. A stranger intrudes upon them. Mme. Ranevsky refers to Varya and Lopakhin's marriage. They depart leaving Trofimov and Anya behind. All of this is arranged in a carefully modulated pattern of activity that has the appearance of rambling talk. Let us not consider, however, the subject of this talking, but the kind of event the talking produces and the sequence it follows.

As human activity, their talking can be classified as pleasurable indulgence in speech making or, in stage terms, that special Chekhovian activity of speechifying. First, at the urging of the women Trofimov delivers a lengthy oration on the state of human affairs. He compares a utopian future to the present shiftlessness of the Russian intelligentsia, concluding with a call for silence. Lopakhin carries on one of Trofimov's themes, the necessity for work, but he begins in a more personal vein only to slip into rhetorical bombast. He is deflated by Mme. Ranevsky. In the silence Epikhodov, the inept accountant of the estate, passes by. The old uncle Gaev addresses a third speech to astonishing nature, but in turn he too is interrupted by Anya and Varya. After a long silence two brief declamations follow. One is delivered by an intruding passer-by. The second, in the form of a slightly distorted quotation from Hamlet, is pronounced by Lopakhin. After Mme. Ranevsky tells Varya that her marriage to Lopakhin has been arranged, Lopakhin intones: "Akhmelia, get thee to a nunnery," and goes on to "Nymph, in thy orisons.…"

Together these five "speeches" provide the structural support for the scene. As the action proceeds, each becomes progressively shorter and more extravagant. A serious deeply felt passion pervades Trofimov's speech. Similarly, Lopakhin begins his observations in a straightforward, common sense manner, only to leap into high style with his address: "Lord, thou gav'st us the great forests.…" Gaev directly invokes Nature in his customary rhetorical manner. The passer-by, in effect, parodies their declamations with his call: "Brother, suffering brother.…" Lopakhin's quotations from Hamlet are the final reduction of speechifying to absurd and senseless mockery. All these speakers have the purpose, as Trofimov observes, of diverting attention from themselves. The talk is entertainment, nothing more, as we can readily deduce from the attitude of the listening women. They treat Trofimov's words as clever, fashionable diversion, Gaev's invocation as tiresome fustian.

Counterbalancing this urge to talk endlessly is an impulse to end talk. After his speech, Trofimov calls for silence. Mme. Ranevsky's interruption of Lopakhin is followed by silence again during which Epikhodov strolls past, strumming his guitar. Finally, the interruption of Gaev's praise of nature is followed by a pervasive stillness.

All sit absorbed in thought. Silence. The only sound is FIERS muttering to himself softly. Suddenly a distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, the sound of a breaking string, sadly, dying away.

Here is the crux of the segment. Once the characters give themselves to silence, they are vulnerable to the ominous, intangible foreboding that fills the atmosphere. They guess at the source of the sound. Mme. Ranevsky shudders. Fiers recalls having heard the same sound just before the troublesome days when the serfs were emancipated. There is silence again. All prepare to leave, but are stopped by a passer-by who uses declamation as a beggar's ploy and after begging successfully, laughs at them. Thus, the impelling forces of the segment can be described as consisting of two contrasting urges: one, to speechify, the other, to yield to silence. The speeches get shorter and shorter, the pauses lengthen until they overwhelm the characters. Paralleling this action-pattern is another contrasting shift. The speeches move from a serious to a comic, even grotesque, tonality while the silence moves from a comic irony (Trofimov calling for silence after his long speech) to a somber and ominous apprehension.

In the last major segment of Act II, Trofimov, now alone with Anya, returns to his speechifying. This time he addresses her directly so that his style is more personal than it has been. Nevertheless, the same interplay exists as before. Proclaiming that they are "above love," Trofimov elaborates on the contrast between past and future. He talks about living in the present but can only look behind or beyond. Anya is thrilled by "how well you speak!" To his appeal, "Be free, like the wind," she replies in rapture, "How well you say it!" It is obvious that she is in love with his eloquence and the idealism it arouses, and therefore, happy in the present. She finds the night wonderful, she is aware of the rising moon, later she wants to go down to the river where it is lovely. Although Trofimov and Anya talk to each other, it is clear that they are in touch with different planes of experience. He is wrapped in "inexplicable visions of the future," she imbibes the romance of high flown words ringing in the moon-filled night. Insensitive to her mood, he repeats "Happiness is coming.…" They are interrupted by Varya's call for Anya. He repeats his prophecy that happiness is on its way, approaching nearer and nearer. Again Chekhov introduces a comic touch, for it is Varya who comes nearer and nearer, calling "Anya, where are you," naming for him, if he were only aware, an immediate source of happiness. In this manner Chekhov recapitulates the movement from serious persuasion to heady bombast, revealing thereby the ironic divorce between words of men and the language of nature, and showing Trofimov to be a faintly ridiculous fellow who fails to see any connection between what he says and what exists before him.

In Act II then, Chekhov reveals the most compelling aspects of Trofimov's idealism: his articulateness, his ability to stir Anya's soul, and his priggish superiority to such tender feelings as love. But already Chekhov reveals the other side of his loquacity and idealism. The attack is oblique. Trofimov speaks about work. Lopakhin works. But he too is bitten by the rhetorical bug. The case is not simple. Trofimov is not a fool, yet he is not wholly to be taken seriously. By the progressive satirization of speechifying, Chekhov casts doubt on the value of Trofimov's words without undermining his ideals.

In the third act, Trofimov's superiority towards others is manifested once again. He teases Varya, mocks Pishtchik, and lectures Mme. Ranevsky. With Mme. Ranevsky, this superiority finally encounters a resistance strong enough to unnerve him. Mme. Ranevsky wants him to understand a heart aching with love. At first she asks him to be less unkind to Varya, unhappy because Lopakhin reveals no signs of an inclination towards her. Trofimov scorns Varya who has misinterpreted his attitude towards Anya: he is above love. Mme. Ranevsky interprets his reply as a criticism of herself, finally asking him for comfort as she waits for word about the sale of the estate. He insists she face the truth. What truth? She isn't as sure of the truth as he seems to be. What she pleads for is sympathy. "Pity me," she weeps. He utters words of sympathy, but in tones of disapproval, for she observes, "But it must be said in another way, another way.…" This is a turning point. She criticizes him gently, then confesses how deeply she adores her man in Paris who has made her suffer so much. Sensing Peter's disapproval, she once again pleads with him not to condemn her, but he attacks her lover. They quarrel. She mocks him for his ridiculous behavior. Above love? He's not above love. He's a fool. "At your age not to have a mistress!" Shocked, disconcerted, he mutters to himself, throws two or three sentences at her, "All is over between us," and goes out, promptly to fall down a flight of stairs. This is the last word Trofimov speaks in Act III. Thereafter, we see him dancing with Mme. Ranevsky and at the very end of the act we see him observe how Anya comforts Mme. Ranevsky with words he taught her.

The structure of this sequence is a product of Mme. Ranevsky's longing for humane sympathy coming into conflict with Trofimov's determination to judge others according to idealistic yet uncompromising standards of behavior. These standards, unfortunately, make him insensitive to the personal needs of others. Mme. Ranevsky thinks he merely lacks a sexual outlet, but Trofimov's real failure is his unwillingness to recognize the claims of affection, whether sexual or non-sexual. When Mme. Ranevsky punctures Trofimov's manner, the result, as so often in Chekhov, is a comic denouement to a serious clash. Trofimov's fall downstairs is only the external expression of an inner explosion. It quiets him so that he no longer speaks. Instead, he is content to receive a lesson in human tenderness. Not the word spoken but the tone used truly comforts.

The next time we meet Trofimov is at the beginning of Act IV. Now that Lopakhin has bought the cherry orchard, everyone is leaving the estate. Trofimov enters the partly vacated nursery looking for his galoshes. Lopakhin is there. Keeping the first exchange between Trofimov and Lopakhin in mind, we see that in echoing its structural pattern, Chekhov is deliberately pointing up the change in Trofimov. At first Lopakhin's teasing and Trofimov's irritation seem to indicate that nothing has altered. This impression is further supported when Trofimov starts to criticize Lopakhin once again. But then Trofimov stops. An ellipsis in the text makes it quite clear that the actor must alter the tone of his voice, whether by a shift in timbre, inflection, rhythm, or all three. Just as in Act III Chekhov depends upon the actor's voice to convey the contrast between Trofimov's words of sympathy to Mme. Ranevsky and his tone of criticism, so in Act IV he depends upon the actor to reveal the change within Trofimov that has occurred since the end of Act III. For the first time in the play Trofimov speaks intimately to another person. The change is further reinforced by Trofimov's subsequent announcement to Lopakhin that he has earned money translating a book. He has stopped talking and started working.

Chekhov casts additional light on Trofimov in the curious and superb way he dramatizes Trofimov's relationship to Anya in Act IV. Oddly enough, they do not exchange a single word. Nevertheless, Chekhov creates the definite effect that they are in harmony with one another. The harmony is not necessarily physical. He is off to Moscow, she off to study. Will they be together in the future? Who knows? It is sufficient that at this point in their lives they are in accord. Chekhov achieves this impression of unity in an extremely oblique manner. First, they are both engaged in the same sort of activity, getting people out of the house. They display similar kinds of energy in checking on details and calling on others to leave. Secondly, they have four pairs of speeches. In each of the pairs Anya speaks first and Trofimov reinforces or extends what she says without speaking directly to her. Anya asks Lopakhin not to start cutting down the cherry trees before her mother leaves. Trofimov reinforces her remarks by admonishing Lopakhin: "You really might show more tact." The second pair expresses their farewell to the house:

ANYA. Good-bye house. Good-bye, old life.
TROFIMOV. Welcome, new life. (Goes out with Anya)

The third and fourth pairs are identical. From off stage Anya calls "Mama" and Trofimov echoes with a cry of joy. It is true that the details of their personal lives remain hazy, but their spiritual life is vigorous. They are free of the crippling effects of speechifying, and eager to work appropriately for the future.

From the close scrutiny of Trofimov's experiences in the play, we can readily see the fallacy of drawing a static character sketch of him. At first he is both idealistic and ridiculous, a talker not a doer. But in the course of the action he is purged of his vain pretensions. He becomes capable of personal affection and though not completely freed of grand speeches, he can assert modestly, as he does when Lopakhin asks if he will ever accomplish his utopian goals, "I'll get there or show others how to get there." No longer does he use words to entertain Anya. Indeed, in each of the four parallel passages cited, Anya is the first to speak. Without conversing they convey a common purpose and strength.

Although my reading of the foregoing events may appear to be interpretive, it is not so in actuality, as a close scrutiny of the text will show. I regard the reading as essentially descriptive. In the main it keeps to the work as written. It does not seek to create the effect of the play but to define the structural pattern of the action. This aim, however, runs contrary to widespread literary practice. American critics by and large tend to distrust "objective" structural analysis of the drama. Symptomatic of such distrust is Robert Jackson's introduction to a collection of critical essays on Chekhov [Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1967, edited by Robert Jackson].

In the course of summarizing the various essays, Jackson compares the work of S. D. Balukhaty ("The Cherry Orchard: A Formalist Approach") with that of Francis Fergusson ("The Cherry Orchard: A Theater-Poem of the Suffering of Change"). Although Jackson feels that there is much to recommend Balukhaty's formal method, he acknowledges that many will find it unsympathetic, for Balukhaty "divorces analysis of structure and device from poetic ideas and meaning." By comparison, "Francis Fergusson's sensitive analysis of poetic structure and device … appears almost as a living thing beside Balukhaty's hard algebra of criticism." And indeed Fergusson does evoke a poetic vision of "suffering of change." In his interpretive scheme of The Cherry Orchard, the second act is the agon which embodies awareness of such suffering. His detailed discussion of the gathering at the chapel stresses the atmosphere of the scene, that is the longings and emotional contrasts in the characters. By doing so he supplies a sensitive sketch of the dramatic effect that this act can have upon a reader or a spectator. In effect, he offers a literary equivalent of a stage performance. But he does not provide a satisfactory description of what is happening among the characters. For instance, he treats the silences perceptively, but fails to give due consideration to the nature and purpose of the speeches. Nor does he adequately trace the modulations of tragedy and comedy. In fact, his stress upon mood tends to cast a pall of unrelieved somberness upon the action which obscures the shifts from tragic to comic tonalities. In preferring this "sensitive analysis of poetic structure" to Balukhaty's "hard algebra," Jackson reinforces the prevailing taste for sensibility and the prevailing distrust of schematic approaches. Unfortunately, such distrust stands in the way of refining the tools of dramatic analysis so that they will have sufficient flexibility to overcome the rigidity of formalism and yet adequate preciseness to enable critics to distinguish between structure and effect. Admittedly, Fergusson's essay is a superior example of literary interpretation. But I am less concerned with interpretation and more concerned with the primary processes of analysis out of which interpretation springs.

The basis for a sound dramatic analysis is significantly different from the practice of literary interpretation, at least as exemplified by Fergusson. After summarizing the second act of The Cherry Orchard, he compares it to Canto VIII of Dante's Purgatorio. "The action is the same; in both, a childish and uninstructed responsiveness, an unpremeditated obedience to what is actual, informs the suffering of change." He sees a similarity between the rhythms and pauses of the poem and the play, finding the mode of awareness in Dante the Pilgrim similar to that in Gaev when, just prior to invoking Nature, he announces that the sun has set. Again, let us examine the method rather than the conclusion of his comparison. Implicit in such a comparison is the assumption that artistic effect is independent of artistic form. A poem and a play, two quite distinct forms of expression, can produce identical effects, Fergusson indicates. A further assumption is that the unified context of a poem corresponds to the diffused context of a play such as The Cherry Orchard. Dante's mode of awareness, as part of a literary progression, is a central event in the poem; Gaev's "awareness," to the extent it is separable from that of the other characters, is only one aspect of a mosaic of responses, the impact of which depends upon the context of a larger action. But both of these assumptions can be summed up in one overriding assumption. In linking Chekhov to Dante, Fergusson is joining poet to poet. For him The Cherry Orchard is a poetic achievement.

In taking this position Fergusson is not unlike G. Wilson Knight who [in The Wheel of Fire, 1930] felt that the metaphoric reality of Shakespeare's plays existed above and somewhat independent of the dramatic form. Both critics, not unfamiliar with theatrical production themselves, abdicate their responsibility to illustrate the workings of dramatic art. When Fergusson states that Chekhov can create a "single action with the scope, the general significance or suggestiveness, of poetry," he does nothing more than bestow an accolade upon Chekhov's ability to express a complex action. In such a sentence the term poetry has a purely evaluative significance; it is a synonym for profound goodness. But Fergusson uses the term in a more technical sense, as evidenced by his reference to "the rhythms, the pauses, and the sound effects" of both writers. It is here that his comparison breaks down. It may be that quite different aesthetic forms or, for that matter, quite different life experiences can arouse similar responses in us. But this similarity is apparent only in isolation, as single analogous moments. Artistic events occur in context, however, and the context of poetry-as-a-form is significantly distinct from the context of drama-as-a-form. In the context of poetry Dante's awareness emerges as an acute sensitivity to the nuances of day and hour, a sensitivity that links together the far flung sailor and the departing pilgrim. In the context of drama, Chekhov, utilizing an analogous mood, depicts not the mood itself but the way various characters encounter it, setting against the sense of the dying day the impulse to resist and alter it. Conceived as poetry, Gaev's "awareness" is a moment of static sensibility. Conceived as drama, it is a spring board into embarrassing sentimentality. Its final effect depends on sequence (contrasting steps in Gaev's behavior) and relationship (his attitude in comparison to the reactions of others) as manifested through the thrust of the actor and the corresponding energies of the other performers. To achieve a comprehensive sense of such a context, a critic cannot base his conclusions upon the habits of literary interpretation, but upon sound analytic processes peculiar to the dramatic mode.

These analytic processes, I admit, are difficult to separate from interpretation because in most instances, analysis and interpretation mingle in a critic's mind. Nevertheless, there are distinctive methods of dramatic analysis that can be stated, transmitted, and employed in teaching, production and criticism. They are not nor need to be "hard" or "algebraic." In fact, they should be simultaneously "objective" and intuitive, systematic and flexible. In tracing Trofimov's development, I looked at what was happening, not merely at what was said. I kept to the exact sequence of events rather than ignored sequence to suit a particular theme. With Chekhov especially, it is not enough to examine the attitudes and views of the characters. Even more important, it is necessary to analyze the type and form of segments as well as the relative emphasis he places upon each segment. This principle is immediately evident when one attempts to answer the question: what is The Cherry Orchard about? Is it about the loss of the estate, and by extension, about the passing of an old order? Well, yes—and no.

The cherry orchard—its loss and the meaning for the family—is certainly prominent in the action. On one hand, the fate of this property is the crucial event of the play. On the other, Chekhov treats its sale as much background as foreground. If one were to calculate how much of the play is devoted to the imminent loss of the orchard, one would find that it occupies a relatively small portion of the action. In the first act there is one substantial segment and about five speeches that deal with the subject. In Act II there are two short segments and one speech. The fullest treatment of this motif occurs in Act III where there occur twelve short speeches and a climactic scene when Lopakhin reveals his purchase of the estate. During the last act there are a few references to the loss although, of course, the entire act is suffused with awareness of it.

By contrast, more time is devoted to the various love affairs, abortive and otherwise, that abound in the play. There are four relationships that reveal contrasting aspects of love between man and woman: Mme. Ranevsky and her lover in Paris, Trofimov and Anya, Varya and Lopakhin, and finally a triangle, Dunyasha the maid, Yasha the valet, and Epikhodov. There is a further hint that Lopakhin has an especially deep affection for Mme. Ranevsky although this liaison is implicit rather than operative. Act by act, Chekhov reveals periodic glimpses of the state of these relationships: in one, the promise of a fulfilment that seems likely but that never comes; in another, the shabby consummation and dissolution of a back stairs intrigue. These love affairs parallel the unfolding fortune of the estate. Sometimes they echo, sometimes they counterpoint the problems of saving the orchard. How ironic it is that Lopakhin's efforts to persuade Mme. Ranevsky to cut down the cherry trees is a reverse enactment of Mme. Ranevsky's futile attempt to get him to marry Varya. It is through the contrasts in the ways these people deal with love and business that Chekhov evokes the rich complexity of life. To grasp its full range, we need a far more subtle instrument of dramatic analysis than we now have.

Because dramatic presentation is a personal, aesthetic experience achieved through a social act, an adequate method of dramatic analysis requires the synthesis of a wide variety of disciplines. The influence of verbal analysis—imagery, meter, rhythm, linguistic conventions—is already strong. What is now being channeled into the new mode of analysis are techniques derived from the stage. The means by which a skillful actor or director dissects a script and discovers the flow of action are necessary tools in any competent dramatic study. Essentially, they identify the rhythmic units of action and the distinctive sources of energy that provide the interaction among characters.

A greater, and potentially more significant, synthesis is required, however. Half of our task is to achieve an adequate description of the interaction between performer and playgoer, for the art of the theater lies in that interaction. The other half is to enlarge the comparative study of dramatic forms in order to distinguish how recurrent patterns of action are developed and altered by successive dramatists.

To make progress in either half of this task, we shall have to turn to nonliterary disciplines for information and stimulation.

First, we need to learn more about perceptive processes. The pioneer studies of the Gestalt school have been absorbed and modified by successive psychologists, and in fact the philosophical implications of these perceptual studies have had a major influence upon contemporary structuralism. Since most of these studies have stressed visual perception, it is to be expected that their findings would be applied to the analysis of visual response in the fine arts. E. H. Gombrich and Rudolf Arnheim have shown how experimental results can illuminate our understanding of both the creative and appreciative processes. The stress on visual perception, however, limits the relevance of these studies for the theatre. Fortunately in the last few years, psychologists like J. J. Gibson and Jean Piaget have broadened their treatment of perception, and have shown how perceptual organs function as perceptual systems. Their efforts can be of immense importance to dramatic analysis if they succeed in describing how the visual, auditory, and haptic systems absorb presented objects and events.

Secondly, we need to examine theatrical response as an aspect of learning, which in turn depends upon our understanding the processes of knowing. Here the ideas of Michael Polanyi can be invaluable in discriminating modes of cognition. In his exploration of the tacit dimension, for example, Polanyi distinguishes between peripheral and focal awareness of an object, showing how learning mediates between the two levels of attention. This distinction is of first importance for our understanding of theatrical perception. Applied to The Cherry Orchard, for instance, it helps to explain the relative degrees of attention we give to the motifs of financial hardship and thwarted love. As we attend to the play, the impending loss of the orchard is brought into focus from time to time, but for much of the action it remains in the background. We are aware of the problem peripherally at the same time as we are focally concentrated on the various situations involving love or aspirations for the future. Exactly how these levels of awareness are related to each other and how together they produce the effect of complex reality remains to be investigated.

Thirdly, we need to examine the role of dramatic structure as both the embodiment of meaning and a mode of communication. The comparative method devised by other disciplines like anthropology and sociology and stressed by structuralist philosophy may help us here. Contemporary dramatic analysis proceeds from the scene unit to the entire play, not from the play as a whole to its subordinate parts. In future cross-cultural studies, the scene unit will serve as the element for comparison. As such, it is analogous to the story function that Vladimir Propp used as the basis for his monograph, The Morphology of the Folk Tale. This pioneer study, which has profoundly affected the course of folklore research, suggests one way in which a comprehensive method of dramatic analysis can be constructed.

As yet comparative study utilizing the scene unit is in its infancy. There are some promising preliminary results, nevertheless. Along with several doctoral students, I have conducted research into long dramatic speeches, and already we are finding two or three dominant patterns in works selected from the entire range of dramatic literature.

Ultimately, what distinguishes dramatic analysis from literary interpretation is not any single aspect of textual examination. Instead, the difference is a factor of the contexts of literary and dramatic works. If indeed the perceptive process is an essential part of aesthetic response, as all studies on perception indicate, then the distinction between reading a poem and witnessing a play will make it impossible to speak of a common response. For the critic the literary text is a finished work perceived through a single, highly concentrated perceptual system: vision. The dramatic text, by contrast, is a work perceived visually but intended to be perceived totally. Acknowledging the vast amount of work yet to be accomplished in refining an adequate mode of dramatic analysis, we can still list a series of principles that underly such analysis when applied to playscripts.

  1. Presentation is the primary experience intended by the dramatist. This is more than stating that a play is written for presentation. It means that the core experience of drama is living through the events of the play, that before anything else, the enjoyment of these structured events in a theater is both its own reason for being as well as the precondition for any other response. By no means does this imply that reading a play, by Shakespeare for instance, is less valid than witnessing its performance. We must recognize, however, that reading a play by Shakespeare as a poem provides a different artistic experience from witnessing it as drama.
  2. To allow for the presentational character of drama, dramatic analysis requires a vertical rather than a horizontal method. The horizontal method is the prevailing one. Through it a play is divided into temporal strands of plot, character, diction, spectacle, and thought. We do not experience plays in this fashion, however. Instead we experience them vertically, that is, all elements (character, story, etc.) are perceived simultaneously as total segments of time, in effect, as scene or segmental units.
  3. The structure of the segmental unit is a product of a limited number of variables. These are not composed of character and story but of interactions among agents who embody active and reactive thrusts of energy.
  4. The impact of drama depends upon the sequential unfolding of the segments. Therefore, sound analytic procedure requires description of characters or events in terms of temporal context. The portraits of Trofimov drawn by Yermilov, Valency, Brustein, and Magarshack violate this principle.
  5. Theatrical response is total. It is not purely emotional, not intellectual, but a complex affective-cognitive reaction that is not very well understood. The crucial factor in response is the dynamic element in the play to which the individual attends. This is embodied in the structure of the segment as well as in the structure of relationship between segments. Therefore, the appreciation of the structure of a segment is the key to a potential dramatic response.
  6. The purpose of dramatic analysis is not to arrive at definitive interpretations of a work, but to discover and test dramatic possibilities. Beyond analysis, there is interpretation. In that respect, the description of the segmental structure leads not so much to an appreciation of meaning so much as to an appreciation of unresolved states in which human action is captured. For example, Chekhov repeatedly arranges segments in such a way that one character exerts pressure upon another, seems to bring the other to a point of confrontation, but just at the moment the issue is to be faced, the character under duress either dismisses or avoids the issue. Lopakhin trying to get Mme. Ranevsky to face the imminent loss of the estate, she trying to get him to accept Varya, she castigating Trofimov, in each of these sequences the person under attack changes the subject or, in a characteristic manner, changes his behavior. Comic response highlights the inability of a person to deal with a significant problem. Thus, in terms of action, the characters do not suffer change in a rather metaphysical manner. Quite the contrary. They assert themselves, often with determination, but without the ability to bring matters to a head.

Ultimately, what distinguishes a major dramatist are not his ideas nor his psychological penetration of people nor, perhaps, even the beauty of his expression, so much as his instinct for shaping human relationships into provocative, unresolved actions. He created illusions of imminence, of energies about to burst, of impacts just made. Since he cannot show action itself, he shows the symptoms of internal action, and arranges them carefully in planes of contrast. His art lies in the engineering of precise relationships which have maximum evocative power. Chekhov's mastery lies in his capacity to initiate a number of motifs (loss of the cherry orchard, variants of male-female love relationships) and to utilize them as aspects of the antagonism between loving and doing. Mme. Ranevsky is keenly aware of human yearning and affection; she is incapable of utilizing that capacity to direct her or her family's life. She depends upon the past and the chance generosity of the present. Lopakhin is her opposite. He has a rudimentary capacity for human feeling, but cannot apply it in any systematic way. We never know how much genuine affection he has for Varya, but whatever its extent he cannot display it to her or act upon it. On the other hand, he can act resolutely in business. Trofimov lies between. Less sensitive than either of the two, filled with the desire to act but content to talk about acting, he finally gains the capacity to both feel and perform. The two capacities are connected, Chekhov seems to show. Yet even then one cannot be sure. Just as Chekhov contrasts loving and doing, he seems to contrast the social and the personal planes of existence. Is he showing that the loss of the orchard is irrelevant, that Lopakhin is pathetic because he cannot translate his money making capacity into human relationships and that Trofimov is strengthened by becoming aware of others?

These contradictory Chekhovian contrasts which offer us alternatives can be so clearly seen in the conclusions of his plays. In the last moments of The Cherry Orchard a number of off-stage noises succeed one another. The joyous cries of Anya and Trofimov call Mme. Ranevsky forth. Sounds of departure follow. Then "a dull sound is heard, the stroke of an axe on a tree." On stage Fiers appears, left behind. The sound of the breaking string dies away sadly. Finally, the sound of the axe is heard again. Each of the sounds has its own significance: the cries of youth heralding the future, the thud of the axe proclaiming a change from one era to another, the echo of a breaking string mourning the passage of an ancient life. By arranging these in a sequence of future, present, past, and present again, Chekhov does not make a statement about either the past or the future; he merely juxtaposes stimuli. Their succession stimulates a complex movement in our imagination, a movement induced over and over again each time we contemplate the forms of his action.

Bernard Beckerman, "Dramatic Analysis and Literary Interpretation: 'The Cherry Orchard'as Exemplum, "in New Literary History, Vol II, No. 3, Spring, 1971, pp. 391-406.

Harvey Pitcher (essay date 1973)

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[Pitcher is an English critic who has written extensively about Russian literature. In the following excerpt, he contrasts The Cherry Orchard with Chekhov's other plays.]

What most clearly distinguishes the content of The CherryOrchard from its predecessors is that it has by far the simplest of Chekhov's plots. The play's 'shape' is no more than a straight line, which passes through the threat to the estate, ineffectual attempts to save it, the sale, and the dispersal of the family. It is the simplest and also the least dramatic of Chekhov's plots, in which for the first time, as he himself noted, 'there isn't a single pistol shot'. A certain amount of suspense is generated in Act III, but whether or not the estate has been sold seems trivial when compared, for example, with the outcome of the duel in Three Sisters. The final act may be very poignant, but again it has none of that deep anguish which one associates with the finales of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters.

Moreover, the complex interlocking love intrigues of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya are not repeated in The CherryOrchard, except in the comic love triangle of the minor characters; nor can it be described as a 'polyphonic' play in the manner of Three Sisters, where four distinct stories are developed in parallel. What happens to individuals in The Cherry Orchard is seen largely within the context of what happens to the estate, and the 'individual fates hanging in the balance' quality of Three Sisters is never so keenly felt. In contrast to the young characters of the earlier play, Ranyevskaya and Gayev are both well into middle age; they are not standing at the crossroads, they have already made or marred their lives, whatever happens to them now. Ranyevskaya's inability to break finally with her lover in Paris is an emotional undercurrent that runs beneath the surface throughout the play, but the outcome of this story is obviously dependent on whether or not the estate is sold. Trofimov claims that he and Anya are 'above love', but even if one overrules him and sees their relationship as a 'love story', it is neither very dramatic nor of great interest in its own right: Anya changes, she grows up perceptibly during the few months of the play, but this is because Trofimov makes her see the orchard and the whole of her past in an entirely different light. Only the story of Varya and Lopakhin does have some dramatic interest of its own—will Lopakhin propose or won't he? Their story recalls Irina and Tuzenbach, and Sonya and Astrov. Varya, like Sonya, is twenty-four, at the crossroads; yet even here the parallel is not quite exact, for what Varya would really like to do with her life is not to marry Lopakhin, but to become a pilgrim and to wander from one holy place to another.

So what then is The Cherry Orchard? What has made it the best known of Chekhov's plays, and why does it exert such a continuing fascination?

When Stanislavsky recalls that by the autumn of 1903 Chekhov had still not decided on a title, his memory must certainly have been at fault, for Chekhov had referred to his new play as The Cherry Orchard as far back as December 1902, not only long before the time recalled by Stanislavsky, but before he himself had even put pen to paper. And indeed it does seem to me of considerable importance for the evolution of the Chekhov play that this particular title had been chosen at such an early stage of composition. In contrast to The Seagull (a symbol to be identified with one or more characters), Uncle Vanya (one individual) and Three Sisters (a group of individuals), the new title is both inanimate and 'supra-individual'. It immediately conjures up the whole situation of the play (the inevitable sale of the estate of which the orchard forms part), a situation that is bound to cause disruption in the lives of all the characters. The play's disruptive element, in other words, is contained within the situation itself and not, as before, within particular individuals. Previously Chekhov had used the technique of making his outsiders cause disruption in the lives of the residents. Emotional tension had been generated by making these characters bring with them into the play elements of friction and antagonism, so causing the emotional network to vibrate in painful and urgent ways.

Now it would not have been at all difficult for Chekhov to follow a similar procedure in The Cherry Orchard, since at first sight the merchant Lopakhin appears to be an obvious successor to Natasha in Three Sisters—if not more than a successor, for he wields much greater power. Strikingly, however, Lopakhin is not treated as an unsympathetic figure by Chekhov. Soviet critics may regard him as the villain of the play, but one need only quote Chekhov's remark that Lopakhin is 'a very decent man in every sense' to refute such a view. Moreover, with the possible exception of the minor character, Yasha, The Cherry Orchard alone of the four major plays has no unsympathetic characters whatsoever. At the end of the play, all the characters depart with the exception of Firs; and this avoids that sense of contrast and unresolved opposition between outsiders and residents, between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, which is implicit in the endings of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters.

Thus in The Cherry Orchard Chekhov is no longer relying on the contrast between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters as a means of activating the play's emotional network. This change would have come about because he was attracted in the first place to a situation rather than to particular characters (the sisters, for example). That situation—the plight of the aristocratic family forced to sell its beautiful estate—would have seemed to him rich in emotional and social implication, though, as in Three Sisters, I [suggest] that the social landscape interested Chekhov not so much for its own sake, but more as a backcloth for the emotional processes. In itself the situation was neither especially dramatic nor momentous: it would not be possible to activate the emotional network by introducing intense drama into the characters' personal lives—exposing them to extreme emotional situations so as to evoke an extreme response; nor would it have seemed appropriate to activate the network by making the characters fall in love with one another. On the other hand, many people might be involved in this situation, for a variety of reasons, and their lives would all pass through the situation as through an emotional focal point, each life being more or less deeply affected by the orchard's fate. Their common relationship to this situation would create the emotional network between them.

The new and final evolutionary departure in The Cherry Orchard is therefore to bring out the emotional interrelatedness of a group of people who are not 'linked' by emotional hostility, and who at the same time are not linked by special ties of family or background. It was by making the situation central that Chekhov found himself able to do this. In Three Sisters emotional responsiveness is largely associated with the harmonious family relations among the Prozorovs. In The Cherry Orchard, though family relations play a part, there is less harmony but more general responsiveness. It is not necessary for characters to be all that close to one another for emotional responsiveness to start to operate. Lopakhin and Ranyevskaya, for example, are divided by their background, yet Chekhov brings out the emotional interrelatedness between these two very different characters.

We have come a long way from The Seagull, where emotional interaction only occurred within the suffocatingly close relationship of mother and son.

Harvey Pitcher, in his The Chekhov Play: A New Interpretation, Chatto & Windus, 1973, 224 p.

John Tulloch (essay date 1980)

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[In the following excerpt, Tulloch analyzes the thematic and symbolic structure of The Cherry Orchard.]

The Cherry Orchard is unusual among Chekhov's dramas in that the central focus is not the problem of choice among the intelligentsia. Whereas The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters are all related to fundamental questions of identity for their author as a professional doctor and writer—the problem of art, the problem of science, the problem of education and upbringing—The Cherry Orchard is a play about social mobility and change. In particular, the play examines a moment in time when large-scale industrialisation had made possible a proletarian solution in addition to the evolutionist-technological vision of his earlier literature. The estates on which the action of the earlier dramas takes place are of course historically typical, insofar that the specific problems and the conflicting responses are typical of the situation of intellectuals in a modernising autocracy. But they appear timeless, and the epic vision becomes a commitment of method, a matter of endurance, a programme for living in which a better future lies in the hands of each individual.

In The Cherry Orchard the estate is no longer timeless. It is threatened by a new order of modernisation which enables a peasant to become master of the estate which owned his family as serfs; and threatened, too, by other, more violent, aspects of industrial growth. The cherry orchard is confronted with the modern capitalist and the modern revolutionary. The question of choice, and with it the crisis of identity, while remaining individual is subsumed within broader social movements.

Each character typifies a social position in his response to the orchard. Trofimov sees in the trees dead souls; Lopakhin sees in them the opportunity for technology and growth; Madame Ranevskaya thinks only of style, elegance and the white figures of the past; Varya, a girl raised above her station by the kindly condescension of a status-conscious society, thinks only of saving that order through petty cheeseparing and recourse to religion, its official ideology. To say, however, that Chekhov poses the question of individual choice within the framework of social movements is not to interpret his play in the light of a straight-forward class struggle. Chekhov is favouring neither an aristocratic, nor a bourgeois, nor a proletarian solution.

By choosing the decay of a landed estate (and the complete inability of the old landowners to come to terms with the problem of farming without serfs) for his theme, Chekhov was not only selecting a problem about which he had written more than once, and of which he had a close personal experience, but also a typical contradiction of a society which tried to modernise yet, in terms of social stratification, stay the same. The situation in The Cherry Orchard is the moment when the autonomous world of tradition has been breached by the serf reforms and the will to modernise; when in Firs' words, 'everything is muddled', and action must be rational and decisive, yet within mores and institutions which remain ascriptive. The reactions of each landowner to the problem of debt differ at the personal level—Ranevskaya escapes to Paris, Gayev into dreams of liberal gentry and superfluous men, Simeonov-Pishchik into money-grubbing and a hand-to-mouth existence from day to day while he waits for something to turn up. But socially their reactions are qualitatively the same. They are simply incapable of adapting to the demands of a new rationality; Pishchik is as incapable of entrepreneurial activity when profitable minerals are discovered on his land, as Madame Ranevskaya is of profiting from the spread of new urban wealth to the country. Essentially they are people preoccupied with the old style of life, servants in livery, large tips to the waiters, casual philanthropy and amateur medical treatment for the poor—people who act from day to day, move from place to place, but really stay the same.

Yet the contradictions of the modernising autocracy have deprived these people of sureness of response. There is in The Cherry Orchard none of the rhythmic Arcadian symbolism of the English conservative tradition when it was threatened by the 'mob' beneath; nor yet a negative perspective, of angst, as the hero fights against frightful odds and fails. Neither allegory nor angst are possible moods for an author who stands outside a social group in decline, and views that decline with intellectual approval mixed with personal sympathy for those he knew and respected. Rather, the mood is elegiac, compounded of an intensely human crisis of identity at the personal level and a distancing, comic inconsistency of interaction.

In their isolation the landowners are marginal and anomic figures. Ranevskaya, the aristocratic woman who married beneath her station, travels from place to place seeking purpose in locations and in a lover who cheats her. Faced with the sale of the orchard she retreats into her past when everything was elegant and certain. Gayev also retreats into the past, given an extra and pompous dignity by his references to learning and social service. But his relationship to reason and the Enlightenment is empty; it goes no further than justifying the continued existence of the unproductive orchard on the grounds that it was mentioned in the Encyclopaedia. For all his escape into a pathetic flow of words, his refrain, 'I'll be silent, I'll be silent', is that of a man lost. Anya is aroused by the revolutionary ideals of Trofimov, but the vision of a new life of this naive girl is strangely mixed with the intention of planting another orchard and living happily ever after with her mother as they read to each other in the long evenings. Varya is divided between a desperate attempt to save the old order, to which she would somehow or other attach Lopakhin, and a desire to escape into the nun-like existence of Ol'ga in "Big Volodya and Little Volodya." Increasing mobility within this crumbling, self-conscious structure simply intensifies social marginality which, in the absence of a confident and coherent symbolic system becomes spiritual anomie as each individual faces alone the meaninglessness of his existence.

But there is little tragedy. Spiritual isolation is signified by a comic failure of communication when characters are collectively faced with the reality of change. So when Lopakhin first suggests the need to cut down the cherry orchard and let the land for summer villas, the reaction among the landowners is a comic and trivial dialogue of escape. Firs speaks of an old recipe for drying cherries; Ranevskaya asks for the recipe, but it is lost. Pishchik then asks whether they ate frogs in Paris, and Ranevskaya says she ate crocodiles, which Pishchik greets with great wonder. Lopakhin tries again with his plan. Gayev replies 'what idiocy!' and after a brief exchange between Varya and Ranevskaya which reveals both the former's workaday ritual and the latter's asylum in Paris, Gayev launches into his famous oration to the old and venerable bookcase which has been the source of his family's devotion to the people for so long. Silenced by Lopakhin's irony, he retreats into his billiards talk, and almost immediately the remaining landowner, Pishchik, reveals his extraordinary unconcern for the realities of life (and medical science!) by swallowing all of Ranevskaya's pills. Each individual responds quite typically to Lopakhin's suggestion; and each response reveals inner isolation. Yet the interaction, revealed as a collective style of life, is comic and absurd. The private worlds of Ranevskaya, Gayev, Varya and Pishchik, sad and lyrical though they may be, are a focus of irrationality, and thus, situationally, of the absurd.

It is within this overtly comic and nostalgic mood (which is nevertheless serious and sometimes fearful) that Chekhov is able to portray the genuine human values which are overcome in his works. As in The Seagull, the typical time perspective associated with the ascriptive society is a tension between time that passes meaninglessly, often absurdly, and the desire to make time stand still. The tension is rendered in mood by the relationship between broad comedy and nostalgia in the play; and scenically by beginning and ending the play in the same location, yet a location grievously altered.

Act I introduces the problem of the cherry orchard in a location of compulsive nostalgia: the nursery of generations of cherry orchard owners, each one (as in The ThreeSisters, but in a more genteel setting) growing in the image of his parents. For Lopakhin active decisions about the future of the orchard are urgent, 'time flies by'; but for the landowners, accustomed to a different time scale, there can be no meaning in its passing. It is better not to consider the matter; something will turn up—an act of God, or of rich grandmamma; Anya may marry a wealthy man, or money may be won on a lottery ticket. Meanwhile resort to nostalgia can convince that nothing has changed:

Oh, my childhood—my dear, innocent childhood! I once used to sleep in this nursery. I looked out from here at the orchard. Each morning that I awoke happiness awoke with me, and then the orchard was exactly as it is now. White all over—it hasn't changed a bit.

Objects which relate them to their youth are plentiful in the nursery: toys, little tables, aged bookcases, faithful retainers. And when the thought arises, 'strange though it may appear', that action must be taken to save it all, they can look into the eternal orchard and see the ghost of their mother walking. Faced by the visible passage of time, the dying and ageing servants, the balding Trofimov, the compulsion to nostalgia is even greater. For Ranevskaya, who throughout the play is torn most acutely by the tension between time passing and time past, Trofimov can only bring to mind the memory of her dead son—which is, in itself, a sign of an uncertain future. Nostalgia is then incorporated within a wider but equally escapist mood—fatalistic guilt in which everything, the passing of time, the sale of the orchard, the death of her child, are the punishment for her past and an act of God. Varya takes up the theme of dependence on God's mercy, while Anya, whom Ranevskaya loves with all the resonances of nostalgia, lives anew the innocent naivety of her mother's early days. Thus the dialogue between the flower-like innocence of youth and a trust in God for its passing, which continually tears Madame Ranevskaya, is acted out by her 'daughters'. As the close-knit family prepares to sleep with its memories and pious hopes, these two girls, these two values, see the Act to its close. Everything is in decay, but the scene is tranquil. 'From far away' the sound of a shepherd's pipe is heard, an echo of Chekhov's story "The Pipe", where an old shepherd plays nostalgically, complaining that Fate, God, the Emancipation, have destroyed the real gentry (when half were generals), and destroyed with them the fertility of Nature. The mournful sound responds to the nursery's proper tone, relating it to the orchard just outside—but to the cherry trees' timeless and beautiful past (when, as Firs too would say, the place was full of generals) and not to their present decay. It is a sound which evokes the enclosed nostalgia of the nursery, embalms the dialogue of fragile innocence and fatalistic experience, and speaks of man's inability to comprehend the world beyond the nursery walls.

Act 2 confronts us with a dramatic scene change. The nostalgic claustrophobia of the nursery is gone, and the world beyond assumes its contemporary form. In sharp contrast to the enclosed space of Act 1, the author insisted on a boundless view of Nature, 'a sense of distance unusual on the stage'. In this place beyond the nursery, time is clearly not without significance. Man has related with Nature, and technology has spread; for beyond the poplars there are telegraph poles, and a town is to be seen on the far horizon. The drama is purely visual, in the scene change itself. The vision of Nature and technology stands in quiet testimony to the meaningless enclosure of time and purpose in the previous Act. The sound of the shepherd's pipe belonged to the nostalgia of the nursery. The world of change, however, is no more than a mute backcloth to the antics of both masters and servants.

When the sound of change does come out of this vast environment, these people will not recognise it, because they do not understand its sequence or its laws. For Gayev the railways are useful merely to take him to town, where he can converse with the waiters about the Decadents, and then to bring him back in time for a game of billiards. For Ranevskaya the sequence of life's change, from innocent upbringing, through marriage to a drunken spendthrift, to the arms of the usual lover, and from the death of her son, through desertion in Paris, to attempted suicide, is explicable only in religious terms—sin, and appeal to the mercy of God. Meanwhile she squanders money just the same, pours her love and her hopes on Anya and Varya, and prefers to ignore the issue of the orchard for 'what we were talking about yesterday'. The lives of these 'improvident, unbusinesslike and strange people' has simply not been patterned to ordered change, and when something new occurs passive fatalism is the only available response.

Time for them has always been cyclical—the filtering of generations through the nursery—and when instead it manifestly destroys, their reactions are confused and fearful. Madame Ranevskaya clings helplessly to Lopakhin (the agent of change whose message she cannot heed or even understand) because 'I keep imagining that something awful is about to happen … like the house collapsing on us'. A tramp comes by, and, like the peasants on the steppes, they are filled with wonder and fear by the sounds and strange figures of the expanse beyond them. And also like the peasants who cling to their protective fire, they retreat to their own enclosed world where, in Act 3, we find them once more, amidst the brightly lit chandeliers and luxurious fittings, whirling to the dance and drowning the outside world with the brash sounds of the ball.

Act 2 has opposed a world of purposeful change to the encapsulated time of Act 1; and the response of the landowners is, typically, not so much to reject as to flee from it as something disturbingly incomprehensible. Pishchik's dance calls, which, like the lotto calls in The Seagull, assert a timeless repetition, are more familiar and more comforting. Yet time does move on; it is the day of the auction, and the social poverty of the ball itself is an insistent comment on change. Madame Ranevskaya waits helplessly for this final judgment on her past, Varya continues to call on God, and Anya dances, a butterfly heedless of time. Meanwhile Sharlotta, engaged as always in tricks, produces something from nothing, thus parodying by sleight of hand the full scope of the landowners' vision. For Ranevskaya it is a time of pitiful decline and, with the entry of the new owner, collapse. This woman, once brought up with the tenderness of a flower like Anya, has no knowledge or inner resources with which to face the crisis; and when to Trofimov's claim to be above love, she answers 'I suppose I am below love', there is an echo once again of the ascriptive division of the Russian woman between the idealist and the seducer. Her only recourse, in fact, has to be external, back to her seducer. Though she knows she will be 'going to the dregs', she cannot bear to hear Trofimov speak in spiteful categories about her lover—it is the kind of callous 'truth' with which the revolutionary, like Lvov in Ivanov, destroys.

In Act 4 the family location has shrunk back to its real temporal and spatial proportions, the enclosed nostalgia of the nursery. But the nursery is bare. All the objects of nostalgia in which Gayev and Ranevskaya could hide from their fate have been stripped away. Time has actually passed, and the absurdity of it all for these people is emphasised by Pishchik's unexpected and quite undeserved fortune, and his final 'Don't worry, all things finish in their time'. Gayev will take a job in a bank, which will certainly prove to be a fiasco. Ranevskaya will return to Paris, keep her lover on the limited sum grandmamma sent for the estate, and then will be a pauper. Even her last wish comes to nothing: the sick Firs is not taken to a hospital but is left in the deserted house; and Varya will never be married to Lopakhin.

In a most moving scene, alone on a bare stage, illusions spent, Gayev and Ranevskaya weep quietly together, unheard by Trofimov and Anya whose illusions are just beginning; and whose naively hopeful calls begin the whole process of empty dreams again in a new form. Finally Firs, alone and near to death, speaks Chekhov's deep sympathy for those caught in this process of meaningless time:

Life's over as though I'd never lived.

The summary of life by an abandoned servant is entirely appropriate, for in this play without the foregrounding of the usual love triangles, servants perform an important structural role. In plays which considered the mediating role of art, education etc. such as TheSeagull, Chekhov was able to portray the relationship of authentic and false choices as relations of love, and so give them dramatic immediacy. The Cherry Orchard demanded a rather different thematic organisation since here he was dealing with a whole order in decline, in which he knew people as deserving of sympathy as Trigorin and Treplev, yet who collectively created the world of Arkadina. In a play which demonstrates the humanity of these people, yet also displays the harsh social network on which the humanity rests the close analysis of the world of the servants is not coincidental.

Each of the landowning group finds a reflection here. Thus Firs, like Gayev, is always looking into the historical past; Yasha, like Ranevskaya, seeks escape to Paris; Dunyasha, like Anya, escapes into dreams; Sharlotta, like Varya of doubtful birth, drowns her unhappiness in ritual too (Varya in keys and dried peas and Sharlotta in tricks); and Yepikhodov, as submissive to fate and to women as Pishchik, like him stumbles from one chance occurrence to another. Moreover, the servants' style of interaction reflects that of their masters. At the beginning of Act 2, their response to the natural and technological world beyond them is prologue and paradigm for the landowners' mixture of spiritual isolation and comic interaction. Thus Sharlotta, abandoning her tricks for a moment, says thoughtfully,

… Where I'm from or who I am I don't know… I don't know anything… I'm longing for someone I could talk to, but there is no-one. I have no-one.

The desire for direct relations and the weariness with rank of a governess who performs tricks on command is identical with the loneliness of Chekhov's "Bishop": her words are his:

I've got nobody to talk to. I'm alone, quite alone.
I have no-one and … and who I am, or what
I am alive for, no-one knows.

The theme is taken up by the clerk Yepikhodov:

I don't really seem to know the direction I want to go, or what I'm really after—that is to say, should I live or should I shoot myself, as it were.

(In an earlier version of the play which, according to Stanislavskii, Chekhov rather unwillingly altered, Firs too was incorporated in the anomic theme).

These lonely cries are enmeshed in a trivial and comic interaction in which Yepikhodov courts Dunyasha while she courts Yasha, who shows off to everybody, Sharlotta munches a cucumber, and Yepikhodov waves a gun about, explaining the fact that cockroaches get into his kvass by fatalistic laws of history. However, the structural importance of the servants is not simply as a comic parody of their masters (who, after all, do that for themselves). It is not the pretension of the masters that is laid bare by the servants, as, say, in a play by Moliere, but their humanity—which is genuine, but at a cost. The servants have an 'alienating' function in the Brechtian sense, a 'making strange' of familiar scenes (there was certainly nothing new about dramatising the decline of a landed class)—thereby, supposedly, channelling the audience's patterns of response away from emotional identification with a group which, intellectually, Chekhov disapproved.

Hence Firs' nostalgic aspiration for a time when the 'peasants knew their place and the gentry knew their place'—when in fact peasants were flogged, generals danced at the balls and there was no proper medical treatment for the servants—puts into historical focus Gayev's effusive:

you have promoted within us the ideals of public
service and social consciousness.

Similarly, the social climbing Yasha, who is prepared to dally with Dunyasha (but not publicly because of his status) and who is ashamed of his peasant mother, not only reproduces at a lower social level the avarice and vulgarity of Ranevskaya's lover, but comments on the whole framework of ascriptive love relations—on Ranevskaya, who like Dunyasha, is 'below love', on her sin of marrying 'beneath her', and even on the attempted match of Varya and Lopakhin which would have fitted social convention so well. Dunyasha, 'like a flower', and with her preoccupation with makeup and mirrors, reflects not only the 'spring blossom' Anya, but her mother's giddy and lost innocence too, and beyond that all the other cherry orchard ladies, dressed in white, educated to dazzle socially with the latest hair-style and Paris fashion. Sharlotta, whose spiritual isolation is less protected by the layers of nostalgia of her betters, parodies with her baby noises in the final Act Ranevskaya's only remaining resource: personal and familial resurrection in Anya—so a moving and human moment is shown to be an empty response to the pressure of choice. One can only pity Ranevskaya, but her actions have deprived Sharlotta and Varya of meaning too. And when in Act 2 Yepikhodov, with his back to the expansive technology beyond him, assigns to unchangeable historical laws the trivial events of his life, he too goes beyond comedy, lighting up not only Gayev's equally futile attitude to technology and his 'you'll still die in the end, whatever you do' response to Trofimov's ideals, but also the whole immobile crowd of these cherry orchard people who find change 'so vulgar'. Even the tramp, emerging as if out of the sound of the breaking string, has an alienating function: Varya is frightened of this man who speaks of the suffering people she has been raised above; Ranevskaya gives him money, and her kindly generosity is given perspective as the typically static philanthropy which, Chekhov once wrote to [A. F. Koni, 26 January 1891], 'in Russia has such an arbitrary quality'. A man wanders ill, he is given money and wanders out again—and behind him there is the growth of a rational technology-

A whole order is tied together with this immobile procedure; and the same reforms which created zemstvo medicine are here seen as the 'troubles'. Moreover, the order in decline may itself 'leave its mark'. Everyone is involved in ritualised actions:

  1. the class in decline—Ranevskaya always giving money away, Gayev potting the red and eating sweets, Pishchik borrowing money and saying 'extraordinary thing';
  2. the lower classes who aspire to rise—Dunyasha always powdering her nose, Yasha always giving himself airs and saying 'what stupidity';
  3. and even those who have risen—Varya always cheeseparing and spying on the lovers, and Lopakhin constantly being deferent and waving his arms about. Thus the new order of social mobility is threatened with inclusion as the traditional world adapts and renews itself.

It is clear in the values of the younger servants, in the deference that Anya and Varya expect from them, and particularly in Lopakhin's consciousness of hierarchy, that the real human crisis does not lie in the historical decline of a particular group. It lies in the division of human personality by ascriptive values which existed in Firs' golden past, continue in the present, and threaten to be incorporated in the merchant values of the future (as Chekhov had shown in earlier works, such as "The Mask" and "My Life"). The social crisis of the landowning class, and their particular anomie, is thus not the central one of the play. The social crisis rather clarifies the loss of wholeness by tearing away the comfortable ideology which hid it hitherto. Just as in "Dreary Story" and "Bishop" Chekhov used the impact of physical decline to reveal the meaningless passage of time, so in The Cherry Orchard he uses the impact of social decline to reveal the same thing. The question of identity and the problem of meaning extends beyond this class to the process of modernisation itself. As Lopakhin says, 'what hordes of people there are in Russia, my friend, who have no aim in life at all!'

Against the passive and hierarchical world of the landowners, Chekhov sets two forms of modernisation, embodied in two major characters, the revolutionary Trofimov, and the merchant (and former peasant) Lopakhin. It is their activist dialogue which carries Chekhov's vision. Trofimov in fact articulates a number of Chekhov's cherished beliefs—in the importance of science and art, education, and an intelligentsia which works:

Mankind is constantly marching forward, constantly perfecting itself. Everything which we can't understand at the moment will one day be comprehensible. But to reach this point we have to give everything to our work, and we have to help those people who are seeking after truth. Here in Russia, hardly anyone has begun to work as yet. The great majority of intellectuals that I know don't search for anything, don't do anything and as yet are incapable of working.… They merely chatter on about science and don't know a lot about art either.

Yet for all his talk about love for the people, unremitting toil and science, Trofimov is conspicuously unable to love, work or be scientific. Despite the obvious tenderness of the inner man, Trofimov does his best to drive out sentiment. He claims that his relationship with Anya is above love:

… we are above love. The whole object and meaning of our life is to rid ourselves of everything that is petty and illusory in life, everything that hinders our happiness and freedom.

Like Shamokhin in "Ariadne", he abstracts love, denying feeling. Nor does he work; he is the 'eternal student' who not only is criticised by the other characters for doing nothing, but himself admits that he will probably be a student for the rest of his life. And … in his eagerness to generalise, he also denies the achievements of contemporary science. His famous speech about the frightful condition of workers draws too much on revolutionary abstraction to be accurate. In denying the great advances made in zemstvo medicine (of which Chekhov was so very proud) Trofimov is opposing the evolutionary vision.

Like all of Chekhov's revolutionaries Trofimov has become, despite his undeniably sympathetic qualities, a 'walking tendency', with a simplistic ideological vision that makes him prone to categorise quite brutally all those about him. Thus his attitude to the orchard is not scientific but revolutionary—the landowners must atone for the dead souls who cry from the trees about years of persecution. Significantly, he tries to categorise Lopakhin according to a determinist Marxian formula—the necessary evil of a bourgeois period in Russia:

My opinion of you, my dear Lopakhin, is simply this: you're a rich man, and soon you'll be a millionaire. Now, as part of the natural process by which one kind of matter is converted into another, you are a necessary evil—just as Nature needs beasts of prey which devour everything in their path.

It is interesting that Trofimov speaks a language of fatalistic Darwinism reminiscent of Van Koren to disguise the Marxist content from the censor; but it is not untypical, since for Chekhov both these value systems were part of the same 'inauthentic' paradigm.

Trofimov's vision of the future is as boldly uncontradictory as his evaluation of the complex Lopakhin. Having told Anya that they are above love, he continues, 'Onwards! We must march irresistibly together to that brilliant star shining there in the distance! Onwards, my friends! Let us not lag!'; and again 'It's upon us! Happiness is drawing closer and closer. I can almost hear its footsteps!' The speeches are as rhetorical as the vision is simplistic, and the whole thing is put into perspective by Chekhov in making Anya translate this new life into planting a new orchard with her mother, and in making Trofimov himself ludicrous and laughable. Like the revolutionary Dr Lvov in Ivanov, Trofimov is a prig, and Chekhov is eager to make him appear absurd, with a beard that won't grow and a premature impotence. He is, in Madame Ranevskaya's words, 'an absurd prude, a freak', and is so upset by her suggestion to take a lover that he falls downstairs. Also, like Chekhov's other revolutionary creation at this time, Sasha in "The Betrothed", Trofimov is dirty and down-at-heel. In every way he lacks beauty and wholeness, and despite his statement that man should not be proud since physically very imperfect, he claims to take a pride in being a 'moth-eaten gent'. He claims too, like Gusev, to be strong, and above the need for other men—yet he trails along on the coat-tails of the landowners.

Between on the one hand the student who deeply loves his mistress and her daughter, and on the other the revolutionary who believes that landowners have to atone for their oppression, there is an ambivalence of identity which deprives Trofimov of action, and so immerses him in the familiar rhythm of comic trivia and personal crisis with all the other characters of immobility. He is as irresolute as the family he clings to—and like them (and like Sasha again) this revolutionary is strangely anachronistic. At the end of Act 2, Trofimov tells Anya:

Your mother, you yourself, your uncle don't understand that you are living in debt, at the expense of others. You live off people whom you don't even allow into the house. We are at least two hundred years behind the times.

But at the end of Act 3, Lopakhin puts Trofimov out of date:

Oh, if only my father and grandfather could rise up from their graves and see what's happened here.… I have bought the very estate on which my father and grandfather were serfs, where they weren't even allowed into the kitchen.

In Chekhov's view it is the rational and beauty-loving merchant that makes the revolutionary anachronistic, and not the other way around.

In a play of ritualised action and withdrawal, it is Lopakhin alone who is mobile—both socially and dramatically. Undoubtedly there are elements of the old-fashioned, subservient Russian merchant about him, as well as elements of the more independent new capitalist who had just begun to appear in Russia. He is acutely conscious of his peasant origins and of the eternal hierarchy of the old order. At the same time he shows an equally acute understanding of change, and the profits to be gained from it. But he is certainly not the ruthless capitalist that Trofimov describes, nor even the type of grasping merchant Chekhov portrayed in earlier works—which is what contemporaries seemed to expect him to be. In his letters Chekhov insists that Lopakhin is not this type of merchant:

You have to remember that he is not a merchant in the crude sense of the word. [Chekhov to Ol'ga Knipper, 28 October 1903]

Quite unlike the shiftless Trofimov, it is around Lopakhin that the action moves. Chekhov's letters suggest that he structured his whole play round his development:

Yes, Lopakhin is a merchant. But he is a good man in the fullest sense; and his presence must suggest considerable dignity and intelligence. There should be no trickery or pettiness attached to him. I thought that you would make a great success of Lopakhin's role, which is the central one of the play. If you decide to play Gayev, get Vishnevskii to play the part of Lopakhin—he won't succeed in being an artistic Lopakhin, but he'll avoid being a petty one. Luzhskii would play the ruthless foreigner and Leonidov would make a kulak out of him. [Chekhov to K. S. Stanislavskii, 30 October 1903]

Chekhov's letter to Stanislavskii rejects the Western 'capitalist' and the Russian 'kulak' interpretation of the merchant, and calls for him to be artistic, intelligent, and thoroughly human, thereby countering those Soviet and Western interpretations which prefer to see Lopakhin as a brutal destroyer of beauty. (The Western 'aesthetic' analysis is as misconceived as the Soviet class one—typical of the former is Magarshack's [in Chekhov the Dramatist]: 'The cherry orchard indeed is a purely aesthetic symbol which its owners with the traditions of the old culture behind them fully understood… to Lopakhin it is only an excellent site for "development".' In fact it is Lopakhin and not the owners who understands this decaying orchard.)

Chekhov was equally adamant about the centrality of Lopakhin's part to Nemirovich-Danchenko:

If [Stanislavskii] decides to play Lopakhin and succeeds in the part, the play will be a success. But if Lopakhin is made trivial, played by a trivial actor, both the role and the play are certain to fail. [2 November 1903]

To emphasise the artistic sensitivity and humanity of Lopakhin, Chekhov added some words to the final version of the play, in which he makes even Trofimov recognise his qualities:

Your fingers are fine and gentle, like an artist's, and you are refined and sensitive at heart.

And to the actor Leonidov, Chekhov insisted that Lopakhin should 'look like a cross between a merchant and a professor of medicine at Moscow University'.

We are given in the letters the image of a man of intelligence, sensitivity and humanity, with features of both the artist and the scientist about him; and this is the image which Chekhov draws with great care in the play itself. Lopakhin loves beauty, but recognises the brutal reality of the world of serfdom which fashioned the values of the cherry orchard people; he regrets his poor education, but as a man of intelligence recognises the emptiness behind Trofimov's supposedly scientific conversation. Like Chekhov, Lopakhin was the grandson of a serf, and too near the people to romanticise them in an abstract or nostalgic manner. Like Chekhov, he was brutally beaten by his shopkeeper father as a child. And like Chekhov, the career of this man with artist's hands and the appearance of a professor of medicine is much concerned with squeezing the serf out of his soul—in terms not just of social mobility, but spiritual mobility as well. His tipsy but joyous cry from the heart in Act 3 is one of liberation, but his search for identity does not end with a merchant's possession of real estate. Lopakhin has a creative vision, of a new life evolving as the unproductive orchard is replaced by gardens where people grow things. In place of the decayed old order and their orchard where beauty hides stagnation, 'our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren will one day see a new living world springing up here'—as always in Chekhov, the reference to the future children, and to the particular time-scale, is significant.

So it is Lopakhin, not Trofimov, who finds meaning in work, and who responds 'scientifically' to the problem of the cherry orchard. It is Lopakhin who has the evolutionary and epic vision of a world of limitless potential peopled by giants. It is Lopakhin alone who, awkward and out of place with his gauche gestures in the claustrophobia of the nursery, does not turn his back on the sweeping horizons and growing technology of Act 2. Yet, unlike Trofimov, his visions are never left as vast generalities. While Trofimov talks arrogantly and abstractly of his place in the vanguard of progress in Act 4, Lopakhin's practical policy of replacing the infertile orchard goes methodically ahead:

TROFIMOV. Mankind is on the march to the ultimate truth, the most supreme happiness that can be achieved on earth—and I am in the vanguard!

LOPAKHIN. Will you get there?

TROFIMOV. I will… Either I'll get there or I'll light the way for others!

(The sound of an axe striking a tree is to be heard in the distance)

LOPAKHIN. Well, my friend, goodbye. It's time we went. We torment each other, and meanwhile life goes on just the same. When I work long hours without a break I think a bit more clearly, and then I seem to know the reason for living.

Trofimov's pause contrasts with the relentless sound of the axe, and his generalities with Lopakhin's enduring work. Thus in Act 2, in response to Trofimov's speech about the need of the intelligentsia to work on behalf of science and art, which concludes with the inaccurate generalisation about workers' conditions, Lopakhin answers pragmatically:

Now, I want to tell you that I am always up by five every morning. I work from morning till night. I invariably have my own and other people's money around me, and I get plenty of opportunity to see what kind of people they are. You only have to begin work to find out how few honest, decent people there are around.

Trofimov's speech begins with the exhortation to work by a man who never does, and concludes with a false generalisation; Lopakhin responds with a speech about real work in the present and concludes with the vision of a land fit for giants. It is the pragmatist as well as the visionary we need to remember. Lopakhin does not oppose Trofimov's appeal to science—indeed he subsumes it in his following words and actions. But he does oppose the abstractions Trofimov is committed to.

Despite the inconsistencies and occasional naivety of a peasant who has become a landowner, Lopakhin has no simplistic solutions. He recognises the human suffering as well as the hope that accompanies progress, and at the moment of his triumph weeps genuinely for the woman he had desperately tried to help. His maturity is of a dialectical kind: he wants to save the old class by changing it; he wants to preserve its human values while removing their social basis. The values of the old order should not be killed, as Trofimov would have it, but subsumed, incorporated within a new, growing humanity—just as Trofimov's vision of science is incorporated. Ranevskaya and Trofimov, master and revolutionary, are given value—or more precisely, both synthesised and rejected—by Lopakhin. But the way is hard, and unlike the revolutionary, Lopakhin cannot hear the footsteps of the new life:

How I wish we could get past this stage. If we could just change this unhappy and arbitrary life soon.

Lopakhin can feel Ranevskaya's tragedy, and knows, like Gurov at the end of "Lady with a Little Dog," that the way ahead is not simple.

Against Ranevskaya's suffering there is hope, and against Trofimov's hope, suffering: it is in this context that the sound of the breaking string can be understood. A detailed reading of the text surrounding its first appearance reveals a typical pattern. Ranevskaya wants to avoid the question of the cherry orchard by reverting to the talk of the past. Trofimov talks of the future of man and science—punctuated by Gayev's fatalistic pessimism, by Ranevskaya's eagerness to find some meaning in him, and by Lopakhin's irony over his pseudo-science. There follows Trofimov's speech about Russian intellectuals and the condition of the workers, then Lopakhin's practical refutation of it and his vision of a land fit for giants. Ranevskaya immediately trivialises Lopakhin's vision with her own fears:

Why on earth do you want giants? They're fine enough in fairy tales but they terrify me anywhere else.

The juxtaposition of her banality and Lopakhin's sense of potential induces a feeling of melancholy, emphasised by the guitar of 'twenty-two misfortunes', Ranevskaya's pensive 'There goes Yepikhodov' (repeated by Anya) and the going down of the sun. There follows Gayev's typically fatalistic acceptance of the separation of Nature and man:

(quietly, as if reciting): Oh, Nature, glorious Nature! You shine with your eternal light, so beautiful and yet so impervious to our fate.

Anya and Varya as usual beg him not to talk so pompously, and Trofimov emphasises the escapism of Gayev's vision with 'You'd better double off the red back into the middle pocket'. Gayev relapses into his other refrain, 'I'll be silent. I'll be silent'. There follows a pensive silence, broken only by the subdued muttering of Firs. Suddenly, out of the dark vastness of Nature itself comes a cry of melancholy—as in "The Steppe"; there it was a bird calling for understanding, here it is the sound of a breaking string from the technological world these nursery people have ignored.

The reactions are typical and significant. Lopakhin explains the sound rationally and practically—it comes from the mine. Gayev continues his thoughts about Nature, and thinks it was some bird, perhaps a heron. Trofimov converts this into a bird presaging ominous and great events, the owl. Ranevskaya is frightened and almost immediately gives more money away, as though buying off something incomprehensible. Varya is also frightened, but worries about her mistress' improvidence. Firs dreams of the golden days before the great 'troubles'. Gayev shakes and wants to escape from implacable Nature to his billiard room, just as Trofimov had suggested. So the sound of the breaking string, like the cherry orchard which began this conversation of evasion, distinguishes the alternatives of action in a world where 'everything's muddled'. Afterwards the landowners, as always, escape, Lopakhin turns to the practical question of the cherry orchard, and Trofimov stays with Anya to talk of revolution.

The second sound of the breaking string also takes place in the silences around the muttering Firs; and is directly stimulated by the contradictions, the hope and suffering (of Anya/Trofimov against Ranevskaya/Gayev; more personally of Lopakhin against Varya), which dramatise the question of the cherry orchard. The sad sound of the axe punctuates Firs' statement of the tragedy of human potential:

Life's over as though I'd never lived.… You've got no strength left, you old fool. Nothing's left, nothing.

As this last, decayed man falls motionless, the sound of the breaking string coming out of the wide sky again speaks the elegy of man separated from value. The betrayed potential of the cherry orchard people is evident in this isolated old servant in the abandoned nursery where he is the only object of nostalgia left. The shepherd's pipe calling to the youthful Anya and Varya in the enclosed nursery of Act 1, which is an ambivalent call of potential and stagnation, is not answered. But the ambivalence is clarified. The true value of the nursery is now clear; for nostalgia there is emptiness, for naive youth there is abandoned old age. And outside, in the final moment of the play, there is the sound of Lopakhin's axe. Real value, real time, like Lopakhin's more successful actions, lie beyond the nursery, and that is the dramatic point of the play.…

[At] the social level TheCherryOrchard clarifies the potential responses of stagnation, revolution and scientific evolution to the contradictions of the modernising autocracy; at the personal level, it dramatises the struggle of a man of artistic and scientific sensitivity to squeeze the serf mentality of Russia and of his childhood out of his soul. The struggle for development was both Russia's and Chekhov's own.

John Tulloch, in his Chekhov: A Structuralist Study, The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1980, 225 p.

Greta Anderson (essay date 1991)

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[In the following essay, Anderson proposes that linguistic and phonic patterns reinforce the structure and meaning of The Cherry Orchard.]

Kay Unruh DÈS Roches has recently demonstrated how an analysis of the verbal repetitions in the original text of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea contributes to a specific understanding of the play which a close study of its English translations would not be able to yield ["A Problem of Translation: Structural Patterns in the Language of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea," Modern Drama, 30 (1987)]. Her essay suggests that all plays in translation "need a criticism based on a detailed description of untranslatable elements in the original text," a criticism which would be as relevant to the theater as to the classroom. Chekhov's major plays certainly merit such an approach, not only because they are so popular in both settings, but because, even in translation, their verbal repetitions (and acoustic repetitions) are such a significant part of our experience of them. Here, a reading of the Russian text of The Cherry Orchard will reveal the original shape and sound of its repetitions and probe the meanings inhering in their arrangement. As in Ibsen's play, the repetitions in Chekhov create local patterns which telescope into the play's larger thematic structure. By understanding the play in terms of musical structures, we can appreciate in greater detail the measured grace and good humor with which the playwright has his characters conduct themselves together, in the face of an uncertain future. Attention to structural rhythms tends toward a reading of the play more in accord with Chekhov's designation of the play as a comedy than do most interpretations, particularly those which focus on its closing moments. Of the final snapped string, [J. L. Styan has written in Chekhov in Performance, 1971], "to interpret that sound is to interpret the play": this essay will explicate the rhythmic framework in which that note sounds.

Throughout this play in which "nothing happens," Chekhov creates a dramatic "action" based on community and place—ultimately, the severance of the two. Thus, the characters appear on stage just as they would appear on the family estate, engaged in casual conversation or hysteric outburst, as the case may be. What makes such a loose "ensemble" structure cohere is, at least in part, the interplay of different types of verbal and acoustic repetition, with intermittent repetitions establishing a base rhythm upon which are layered the lyrical swells and lulls of local repetition. Through the effects of these two techniques on the audience's experience of time and emotion, Chekhov creates the boundaries of scenes and acts, and structures the play's close. The most common form of intermittent repetition occurs in character-specific "motifs," from Gayev's "cue ball into the corner" to Yepikhodov's sad song on the guitar. Such repetitions function to counter the strange with the familiar, the tragic with the perpetually comic, and, recurring from beginning to end as they do, mark the play's progress through time, evoking the pulse of particular lives through fateful vicissitudes. Local repetitions, as when a word is sounded twice—"doubling"—or when characters repeat their own words or others' within the space of a speech or exchange, often serve to amplify the tenor of the moment, but may also "round off" scenes within acts and close the acts themselves, returning heightened emotions to a baseline level, bringing silence to the stage.

The first line we hear Pishchik utter is the phrase "Think of that now!" in response to Charlotta's out-of-the-blue assertion: "My dog even eats nuts." He repeats this phrase twelve times in the play. This repetition establishes him as a gaping, vacuous character, but his character type is less important here than Chekhov's use of his "Think of that now!"s. The second delivery occurs later in Act One, following an equally bizarre exchange:

PISHCHIK. How was it in Paris? What's it like there? Did you eat frogs?
LYUBOV. I ate crocodiles.
PISHCHIK. Think of that now!

Moments later, Pishchik interrupts Gayev's verbal tribute to an antique bookcase with the exclamation: "A hundred years! … Think of that now!"

Pishchik's repetitive exclamations form a pattern of response to the more eccentric, potentially discordant elements in the play. The absolute predictability of his reaction domesticates the wild unpredictability of speeches like those cited above, balancing out the outrageousness in which Chekhov, and Chekhov's audience, delights. Both Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters are much about the social carrying capacities of their communities, and the strain on equilibrium caused by certain combinations of personalities. In this sense, the community of The Cherry Orchard could not tolerate another Charlotta, nor could it do without Pishchik's normalizing responses, "Think of that now!" But Pishchik is not a "blank" background character. We take interest in him, not only because he swallows a boxful of pills, but because his speech is so consistently vacant. Pishchik's repetitive domestications of eccentricity are in fact just another genre of eccentricity.

Like Pishchik's expressions, Gayev's billiards speeches, though strange or obsessive by the standards of the outside world, form a normalizing subtext within the play. In almost every scene in which he appears, we witness the soon familiar "Cut shot into the corner" or one of its variants, accompanied by an appropriate pantomime. Other characters encourage this behavior. Lyubov is the first to articulate the standard line, responding to her brother's gestural "cue" with "How does it go? Let's see if I can remember… cue ball into the corner! Double the rail to center table," a speech which, being her first upon entering the stage, reveals her desire to resume the patterned discourse of the community she left and now returns to. In a later scene, Trofimov suggests that Gayev "cue ball into the center," his attempts at grandiloquence having been unanimously shut down. Gayev's billiards habit is endorsed by his family as more tolerable than his tendency to apostrophize the closest object at hand. Other characters rave, but Gayev is silenced as soon as he launches into his fustian extemporizations, and it is precisely because the others are allowed to rave that Gayev must be limited to his billiards motif. Trofimov, Lyubov, and to a lesser extent, Lopakhin all express deeply held and contrasting points of view—about tradition and change, love, the peasants; Gayev's idiosyncratic lyricism clutters the arena of situated conflict, and participates in communal discourse only to be silenced.

"Cue ball into the corner" and its variants not only provide Gayev's community an alternative to his excessive speechifying, they also provide him a viable response to personal crisis. According to Chekhov's stage directions, he announces his imaginary billiards shots "in deep thought," 'forlornly," and finally, "afraid of bursting into tears." Gayev's habitual dislocation of emotion in the billiards game is not acutely demonstrated in Act Three, during the public disclosure of his financial ruin. Gayev enters the scene of the party weeping from the auction's outcome. When, from the adjacent room, the click of billiard balls is heard, his expression changes: he stops weeping, and returns to his everyday concerns, leaving with Firs to change out of his business clothes. The allusion to billiards in this scene is most poignant because the symbolic language of billiards and the emotion Gayev brings to it are so unequal in value. Billiards is just a game, but it is Gayev's stronghold against debilitating change.

The repeated instances of Gayev's verbal tic might be charted as "ticks" on the play's temporal axis. Since these utterances are distributed equally throughout the play and, as Lyubov's initial speech makes clear, existed before the play, they form a constant that we can imagine will continue into the next phase of Gayev's life. Pishchik's banal "Think of that now"s produce a similar rhythmic effect. But while these intermittent repetitions might be said to "keep time" in the play, its local repetitions serve to amplify the dimensions of individual moments, as characters use them to express their joy or grief—their passions. Likewise, while the pre-existence and continuation of certain verbal patterns suggest the sensation of unbounded or existential time, those rhythms are counterbalanced by the containing power of local repetitions at the ends of scenes and acts.

Of the play's characters, Lyubov, Anya and Varya most frequently use local repetition for emotional emphasis:

LYUBOV. Today my fate is decided … my fate.(Act III)
ANYA. I'm at peace now! I'm at peace!(Act I)

Local repetition is often syntactically enhanced, as in these cases of anaphora and epistrophe:

LYUBOV. You should be a man, at your age you should understand those who love. And you yourself should love … you should fall in love! [Angrily] Yes, yes! (Act III)

CHARLOTTA. But where I come from and who I am—I don't know.… Who my parents were—perhaps they weren't even married—I don't know.… I don't know anything. (Act II)

Doubling, or the immediate repetition of a word, occurs frequently in the play; the words most often repeated thus are those of silencing or coming and going:

VARYA. Don't talk about it, don't talk about it.(Act I)
GAYEV. I'll be silent, silent.(Act II)
LOPAKHIN. I'm going, I'm going.(Act I)
GAYEV. I'm coming, I'm coming.(Act I)

In the following passage, Gayev and Trofimov attempt to silence Lyubov by doubled repetition. The scattered repetition in Lyubov's initial speech reflects her disrupted emotions: "son," the word best modified by "my," is separated from her two utterances of that pronoun. As Lyubov gains control, she uses repetition—"For what? For what, my friend?"—to intensify her expression of grief:

GAYEV [embarrassed]. Now, now, Lyuba.

VARYA [crying]. Didn't I tell you, Petya, to wait until tomorrow?

LYUBOV ANDREYEVNA. My Grisha … my little boy … Grisha … son …

VARYA. What can we do, Mama dear? It's God's will.

TROFIMOV [gently, through tears]. There, there …

LYUBOV ANDREYEVNA [crying softly]. My little boy is dead, drowned … For what? For what, my friend? … But Petya, why do you look so bad? Why have you grown so old?

Lyubov's repeated question paradoxically purges her emotion as it contains it; it aestheticizes, through rhythm, an emotion too strong for ordinary syntax. This frees her to move on to another gesture better suited to the social setting; she teases Trofimov about his "mangy" appearance. In other words, her verbal repetition ends the "scene" which her weeping began.

Chekhov broke from contemporary dramatic convention when he chose not to subdivide into "french scenes" his later one-acts and the acts of his full-length dramas from TheSeagull onward. Still, though they are not demarcated, there are within the acts distinct units of action, usually initiated or closed off by characters' entrances and exits, or one of the forty-three pauses written into the stage directions. For example, in Act One, Dunyasha's exit as she goes to prepare coffee leaves Anya and Varya alone in a distinct scene. Her reappearance ends the scene. Verbal repetitions often directly precede or follow such breaks in the action, emphasizing the boundaries of what we identify as scenes. In this case, Varya begins and ends the tête-à-tête with the phrase: "My darling has arrived! My pretty one has arrived!" Afterwards, the coffee serving begins: a new scene. This perpetual ending and beginning conditions the audience's response to the ends of acts, and to the end of the play. The audience comes to expect the continuation of action after closure and silence.

The scene immediately preceding the first snapping of the string is initiated by a dramatic entrance, concluded by a pause, and bounded also by verbal doubling. Like so many scenes in Chekhov's plays, it does not further the action, but holds the characters in a static suspension. The logic that effects its dramatic coherence is based on musical structures, rather than the signifying processes of the serial increment—the "what happens" of the plot unit:

[Yepikhodov crosses at the rear of the stage, playing the guitar.]

LYUBOV ANDREYEVNA [pensively]. There goes Yepikhodov …

ANYA [pensively]. There goes Yepikhodov …

GAYEV. The sun has set, ladies and gentlemen.


GAYEV [in a low voice, as though reciting]. Oh, Nature, wondrous Nature, you shine with eternal radiance, beautiful and indifferent, you whom we call mother, unite within yourself both life and death, you give life and take it away…

VARYA [beseechingly]. Uncle dear!

ANYA. Uncle, you're doing it again!

TROFIMOV. You'd better cue ball into the center.

GAYEV. I'll be quiet, I'll be quiet.

[All sit, lost in thought. Silence. All that's heard is the quiet muttering of FIRS. Suddenly a distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, like the sound of a snapped string mournfully dying away.]

The snapping string is the structural close to a scene which opens with several musical elements. Yepikhodov enters playing a guitar. The repeated anapests of Yepikhódov idyót, Yepikhódov idyót, create a distinct rhythm, to which the trochees of the next line answer: Sólntze syélo, gòspodá. Finally, the last syllable of this line is repeated immediately in Trofimov's "Da." In fact, the repeated -da, or the acoustic image -oda, seems, as much as the setting sun, to inspire Gayev's rhapsody addressed to Nature, or priróda. Gayev expands beyond the acoustic coincidence to deliver a lyric speech crammed full of literary language: nature is divine, indifferent; she lives and destroys. His phrase "whom we call mother" acknowledges this literariness, as does the stage direction: "… as though reciting." Finally, the abstraction of phonic repetition which introduced or generated Gayev's bathetic verbalization is reinstated in the silence urged upon him by his nieces, and by the sound which follows.

The reasons for this specific suppression of verbality may be found in a long speech by Trofimov immediately preceding the passage cited above. In it he proclaims the hypocrisy of the intelligentsia, and states his distrust of "fine talk" and "serious conversations." But by its length and its polemical sophistication, the speech of the "eternal student" itself might well qualify as "fine talk." The others ignore his conclusion—"Better to remain silent"—and continue their verbal seriousness until they are interrupted by the entrance of Yepikhodov. The music which Yepikhodov introduces to the stage provides a simple alternative to literary language and political debate, and the ensuing "conversation" utilizes musical principles. In it Gayev, like a player in an orchestral ensemble, is instructed to either play his part or be silent.

The above scene illustrates Chekhov's use of local repetition to create verbal borders for scenes within the larger dramatic framework. But the repetitive element which closes the action also connects the unified part to the continuous whole, and to a time line which extends beyond the drama's borders. The sisters' pleas for silence are a motif introduced in Act One when Gayev makes a stupid speech shortly after lamenting this tendency of his. Here, Anya's "Uncle, you're doing it again!" comes close to duplicating her earlier complaint, "You're doing it again, uncle!" But Varya, in this second instance, and in a similar instance in Act Four, does not restate the substantive imperative, "be quiet"; she simply cries out, "Uncle dear." The content of the sisters' verbal gesture is implicit because it is a repetition, yet part of that content has shifted to the very fact of its repetition: we smile at the "[not] again!" Formally, the expression begins to approach the enigmatic "Cue ball into the center" as a trope of rhythmic continuity in communal discourse, a seme that constitutes both a constant and a constraint in lives which are now changing course, dispersing.

Chekhov's use of local repetition to contain dramatic action is most evident in the endings of his acts. The first three acts of The Cherry Orchard conclude with the doubled utterance of the Russian verb poidyóm (variously rendered in translation as "let's go," "come," or "come along"). The repetition of this verb at the end of acts works like a refrain or chorus in a ballad, closing off each part, while linking those parts in a continuing series, simultaneously creating linguistic closure and prompting a renewal of linguistic activity. Interestingly, the element of narrative stasis in a ballad becomes the repeated action of the play. Something does happen: the characters come and go. Finally, they go. The doubled poidyóms which close the first three acts prepare us for the last enunciation of this verb in the final and decisive exit of the family from the estate; the patterns created in the first three instances help inform our experience of that exit, and of the play's final events as a whole.

Varya supplies the refrain to Act One as she ushers her sister to bed:

VARYA. Come to your little bed … Come along. [Leading her] My little darling fell asleep. Come along.… [They go]

[In the distance, beyond the orchard, a shepherd is playing on a reed pipe.

TROFIMOV crosses the stage and, seeing VARYA and ANYA, stops.]

VARYA. Sh! She's asleep … asleep … Come along, darling.

ANYA [softly, half-asleep]. I'm so tired …

Those bells … Uncle… darling … Mama and Uncle.

VARYA. Come along, darling, come along. [They go into ANYA'S room]

TROFIMOV [deeply moved]. My sunshine! My spring!

In Act Two, the refrain is rendered by a shared repetition, heard over the familiar strum of Yepikhodov's guitar:

VARYA'S VOICE. Anya! Where are you?

TROFIMOV. That Varya again! [Angrily] It's revolting!

ANYA. Well? Let's go down to the river. It's lovely there.

TROFIMOV. Let's go. [They go]

VARYA'S VOICE. Anya! Anya!

Anya's speech comforting her mother concludes Act Three:

ANYA. Mama!… Mama, are you crying? My dear, kind, good mama, my pretty one, I love you… I bless you. The cherry orchard is sold, it's gone, that's true, true, but don't cry, Mama, you still have your life before you, you still have your good, pure soul… Let's go together, let's go, darling, away from here, let's go!… We'll plant a new orchard, more splendid than this one, you will see it and understand, and joy, deep, quiet joy will sink into your soul, like the evening sun, and you will smile, Mama! Come, let's go, darling! Let's go!…

Established in the endings of the first three acts is a pattern of alternating harmony and discord, from Trofimov's effusive infatuation to Varya's peskiness back to the shared dreams of mother and daughter. This pattern prepares us for the discord of the ending, and mollifies that discord with promise of a rhythmic renewal of joy and harmony. The invocation of the sun in the two upbeat passages is significant, presenting an image of that which is ever repeating. Like other motifs, this natural one both divides time and stresses its infinite extension; it also comforts the community with its rhythm. Paired with spring, as in Trofimov's speech, the sun suggests bright renewal; imagined at sunset, as in Anya's speech, it evokes suffusing warmth. The relative timing of these two images—sunshine and spring in the first act; the colored dusk in the third—might imply a dramatic progression in synch with the natural temporal structures of days and years. In fact, the play begins in spring and ends with the onset of winter. But Chekhov would remind us that nature's changes are cyclical and continuous; Lopakhin refers to the next spring twice in the final act. Likewise, the opening of Act One subverts temporal closure even as it establishes a structural correspondence to the unit of "day." In the play's first exchange, Dunyasha, responding to Lopakhin's query "What time is it?" replies, "Nearly two," snuffs the candle that she carries, and continues, "It's already light." The enacted drama begins at day's beginning, but alludes to the everpresent past, to the dark of the previous night.

Act One opens with Lopakhin's awakening and closes with Anya's retreat to her bedroom for sleep. Act Three also closes with the suggestion of bedtime, rendered by the lullaby qualities of the repetitions in Anya's speech to her mother. In inflected languages like Russian, the possibilities for acoustic repetition, especially through suffixal assonance, are greatly increased. In Russian, assonance through inflection is particularly pronounced in feminine nominative and accusative adjective endings, where the vowel sound is doubled,—"-aya, -yaya/ -ooyoo, -yooyoo"—and acoustically imitates the feminine noun endings—"-a, -ya/ -oo, -yoo." Chekhov utilizes this feature of his language in Anya's speech ending; the string of adjectives—Mìlaya, dóbraya, khoróshaya, moyá… moyá, prekrásnaya—modifying "mama," and also those modifying the feminine nouns "joy" and "soul," add to the verbal repetition and syntactic parallelism a distinct acoustic repetition. These repeated soft sounds effectively calm and silence Lyubov. And by silencing Lyubov, Anya silences the stage, bringing the act to a rounded close.

But while Act Three ends precisely with the by now familiar refrain, Poidyóm … poidyóm!, the previous acts end with a refrain and a coda, a focused conclusion followed by an expression from off-center, or even offstage. Act One ends, not with the repetitive final words of the two characters whose conversation is central to the drama, but with the exclamation of the observing Trofimov, "My sunshine! My spring!" Likewise, Varya's call, from offstage, tags behind the happy closure of the lovers' exit at the end of Act Two. The end of Act Four and of the play itself is structured on a similar model of closure and coda, amplified and expanded.

Toward the close of Act Four the audience hears the sequence—

GAYEV. My sister, my sister!

—repeated twice, then completed by Lyubov's "Poidyóm" as she and Gayev exit. A silence then falls upon the empty stage. The audience which has been sensitive to the play's structures feels the resolution of this moment, yet nevertheless anticipates a further note. And indeed, the stillness is broken by the thud of an axe against a tree somewhere offstage. The ensuing appearance of Firs, presumably removed to a hospital, is as shocking as if he had risen from the dead—and we understand that he is to die. His ragged speech provides the coda to the closing departure of his previous masters:

FIRS [goes to the door and tries the handle]. Locked. They have gone … [Sits down on the sofa.] They've forgotten me… It's nothing … I'll sit here awhile … I expect Leonid Andreich hasn't put on his fur coat and has gone off in his overcoat. [Sighs anxiously.] And I didn't see to it … The greenhorn! [Mumbles something which can't be understood.] That life is gone, as if it never were lived … [Lies down.] I'll lie down awhile … There's no strength left in you, nothing's left, nothing … Ugh, you … addlepate! [Lies motionless]

Early in his speech, Firs acknowledges the fact that would tend to give the play's ending a pessimistic tone: "They've forgotten me." But Firs goes on, repeating the habitual concern for and affectionate criticism of Gayev he has voiced all along, asserting the endurance of their relationship beyond the dramatic, or material, relevance of that relationship: Leonid Andreich is gone for good. It is as if Firs says, "They've forgotten me; what's more, as usual, the greenhorn's forgotten his coat. He'll never change." Firs lives for his master and through his master; in expressing that fussbudgety love of the life that will go on without him, he, in a sense, transcends his own death. The moment is followed by a darker view of his fate, and of the play's action. The line, "That life is gone, as if it never were lived," might serve as a gloss on the play itself. Soon the audience will leave the theater and leave these other lives behind. "Nothing's left, nothing …" seems to be a definitive ending to the play, a doubled repetition to arrest the propulsive "Let's go… let's go" of previous endings. But this end too has a coda. Firs's last utterance subverts the closure of his death with a gritty assertion of continuity. "Addlepate" may be Firs's last word and the play's last word, but it is not the last time his word will be used. Lyubov has already adopted this epithet in her put-down of Trofimov in the third act, acknowledging Firs as her source: "You! You're not above love. As our Firs would say, you're just an addlepate!" Firs's cranky expression will continue to sound in the community of which he was once an integral part.

Non-verbal sound has the "last word" in the play. A distant sound is heard, that of a snapped string "mournfully dying away." While the same sound in Act Two invited the characters' interpretations, this time it invites the audience's interpretation. Finding no referent for that noise, the audience might interpret the sound based on what it knows about the play's ending, rather than the other way around. Firs is abandoned, left to die alone. Outside someone is chopping down the orchard. In this context, the distant sound might be heard as the end punctuation to a cruel tragedy.

Searching for Chekhov's "intentions" regarding the sound raises difficult questions about the difference between playgoing versus play-reading. It is crucial to keep in mind that the reading audience will experience this "sound" differently from an audience in the theater; it will note that the string has sounded "(as if) from the sky" (angels on high?), that it is "(like) the sound of a snapped string" (reminiscent of Atropos's snip), that it "dies away" (like Firs), and that it does so "mournfully." But it might well note that these figures do not constitute but describe the sound, and that they are, to the word, the same figures used to describe it in Act Two. Chekhov is thwarting the reader's expectation for variation in literary language; his linguistic repetition stresses the structural, phonic identity of the two sounds, the acoustic repetition that a live audience would hear.

"The sound of the snapped string," in other words, indicates more a recurring motif than the sound of a snapped string. Recall the description of the first issuance of the string's sound:

All sit, lost in thought. Silence. All that's heard is the quiet muttering OF FIRS. Suddenly a distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, like the sound of a snapped string mournfully dying away.

In Act Two, silence, and Firs's mumbling, preceded the sonic event. In the second issuance, the volume is turned up, as it were; we hear the fragments of Firs's disconnected speech. The significance of the ending note may likewise seem amplified, momentous, but the momentum generated by its repetition prepares us for another act, another sounding of the string. Because of the patterns established and developed throughout the play, we expect another coda.

So, finally, the snapped string is followed by the sound of an axe continuing its work on the orchard. This sound is rhythmic, repetitive, and does not cease. It epitomizes not so much the ending or beginning of an era, but the current of the ongoing present, the infinitely receding coda to joy and grief, day and night, arrivals and departures, life and death. It answers the play's opening speech not with an apocalyptic gong, but with the repeated ticking of tocks. And thus the action of the play merges with the "action" of our own lives—the changes we do not so much "suffer" as endure or experience, the music we make with others while we can. For the final coda, the members of the audience will say to their companions, "Let's go," and, as they emerge outside under a changed sky, they may check their watches and note, as Lopakhin does in Act One: "Time passes … Time passes, I say."

Greta Anderson, "The Music of 'The Cherry Orchard': Repetitions in the Russian Text," in Modern Drama, Vol XXXIV, No. 3, September, 1991, pp. 340-49.


Essays and Criticism