The Cherry Orchard
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.
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."
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."