The Cherry Orchard (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

Anton Chekhov


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."

Virginia Woolf (essay date 1920)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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 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...

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Joseph Wood Krutch (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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,...

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Irving Deer (essay date 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 2982 words.)

Daniel Charles Gerould (essay date 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Kelson (essay date 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 2014 words.)

J. L. Styan (essay date 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 8263 words.)

Walter Kerr (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)

Bernard Beckerman (essay date 1971)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 6649 words.)

Harvey Pitcher (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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 Cherry Orchard 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...

(The entire section is 1491 words.)

John Tulloch (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 7316 words.)

Greta Anderson (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.



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