Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175

Anton Chekhov intended The Cherry Orchard as a farce, yet when Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater decided to produce the play, it was presented as a tragedy, according to Stanislavsky's view of the play. Chekhov was so frustrated by the failure of Stanislavsky and other commentators to share his vision of the play as a farce that he burned all copies of the manuscript except for one that remained in Moscow. Chekhov was suffering in the last stages of tuberculosis, yet still managed to make the trip to Moscow to attend rehearsals almost daily. Despite his conflicts with Stanislavsky about how the play should be interpreted, he kept a close watch on the production by attending the rehearsals.

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In his The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Maurice Valency asserted:

It is strangely ironical that Chekhov never saw his play produced as a comedy, as he intended, nor has anyone, apparently, ever ventured to produce it in this manner. The Cherry Orchard has many comic passages, some of them so broad as to approximate farce but, generally speaking, directors have been unable to fathom the author's comedic intention. The reason is not far to seek. The play, on the whole, is not funny. The characters have their comic side, but the situation is sad. No rationalization has ever succeeded in giving it a comic bias.

Chekhov combined elements of both kinds of drama—comedy and tragedy—in The Cherry Orchard, but he used those elements to underscore each other. Some critics have maintained that it is precisely because The Cherry Orchard cannot be viewed as a comedy or even as a tragedy in the strictest sense that it is such a successful drama; the combination of both comic and tragic components, these critics maintain, generates the realism in and the emotional impact of The Cherry Orchard. The heartbreak that is felt as the characters lose what they want most is diminished by the sense that these characters have not lost their sense of humor; in addition, presenting both negative and positive emotions makes the characters, and their situations, much more accessible to the audience. Francis Fergusson, in an essay included in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, argued: "If Chekhov drastically reduced the dramatic art, he did so in full consciousness, and in obedience both to artistic scruples and to a stricter sense of reality. He reduced the dramatic art to its ancient root, from which new growths are possible;" Chekhov was very deliberate in the crafting of the play. Though most modern productions focus on the tragic in the play, there is no escaping the humor present in it. Chekhov honed this ability to capture the "real lives" of people and "real situations"—noting that in life there is always a mixture of the tragic and comic—and recreated it for the stage. In The Cherry Orchard, his last play, he combined the farcical elements of his earlier works—like The Marriage Proposal— with the anguish and misery found in his tragedy, The Seagull, and created a new type of drama.

When the play premiered on January 17, 1904, Chekhov sought to avoid it. It was only after a messenger was dispatched to report the audience had erupted in thunderous applause after the second act that he was persuaded to attend. To his horror, the play was stopped between the third and fourth acts as those present saluted the author on his twenty-five years as a writer. Weak from tuberculosis, Chekhov suffered through the evening watching what he viewed as his farce presented as what he called "a piece of sniveling sentimentality," as quoted in Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. Stanislavsky would eventually modify his view of the play in the thirty years after the initial production, but he would never see the play in the manner Chekhov had intended.

The Cherry Orchard is still performed and taught today because the characters remain very real to audiences; they personify aspects of comedy and tragedy that are present in the everyday lives of viewers. The complexities of the situations that occur in the play mirror the complexities in life. Real life may not be as balanced as is life in the play, but Chekhov manages to make the play feel like reality. The actions, or failures to act, have consequences, and not all stories have a happy ending. Hope still exists, but it is the hope that the characters can create for themselves a future that is better than the present, rather than the hope that fate will bring that better future to the characters.

Soviet critics after the 1917 Communist Revolution seized upon the character of Peter Trofimov as a hero. He is a young political radical, whose ideas and political beliefs have caused his expulsion from school. He looks forward to a more equal society, and the views he espouses in the play— especially his speech to Anya in which he likens the trees in the orchard to human souls—made him a favorite of Communist critics and scholars. Many Western scholars, however, do not view Trofimov as a hero, largely because although he makes speeches, he rarely acts, and even though he presents himself as being concerned with the fate of all humanity, he cannot understand those around him. Furthermore, these critics argue, Trofimov refuses Anya's love and affection and opts instead to "fall in love" with his theories about humanity. Despite such criticisms, scholars do agree that Trofimov is ardent in his beliefs and fully intends to work for better things in the future, and these personal characteristics are those which Chekhov intended to celebrate in The Cherry Orchard. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union (and Communist governments), Russian critics tend to emphasize the psychological significance of Trofimov rather than his political convictions.

Most scholars do agree that Chekhov's last play is his triumph, and that its strengths lie in its combination of both tragic and comic elements. By creating this balance between the two genres, he creates a world where every little action and decision (or lack thereof) has its consequences, and the action in the play is very real. These characters seem to live on after the final curtain. Despite the fact that this psychological realism caused the failure of the first production of The Seagull, the audience was ready by 1904 to embrace the reality of the characters and to both empathize with and understand their actions. The Cherry Orchard is an excellent example of how one literary work can generate a variety of interpretations. Though the play was intended as a farce by Chekhov, it generally is produced more in accordance with Stanislavsky's view that it is a tragedy. It is important to note that this play is still produced and studied all over the world, because although Chekhov did not want the play to be translated due to his belief that people outside of Russia would not understand the issues it raises, The Cherry Orchard has proven successful largely because its themes are universal in scope.

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