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

The Cherry Orchard

by Anton Chekhov

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The Cherry Orchard as a Comic Masterpiece

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Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, theorized in the essay collection Comedy, that laughter springs from our perception of "something mechanical encrusted upon the living." The comic figure, Bergson maintained, is rigid or inflexible in circumstances that demand a resiliency of the mind or body.

Moreover, laughter increases through a character's repeated failures to alter a rigid behavior, for it is repetition that transforms mere rigidity into the semblance of something mechanical, like a jack-in-a-box.

If Bergson's ideas have any validity, there is no writer who possessed a greater sense of the comic than Anton Chekhov. Nor is that sense more fully revealed than in his last play, The Cherry Orchard, generally considered his greatest work.

From the outset, Chekhov designed the play as comedy. In a letter to his wife, Olga, quoted in Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, he said that it was to "be funny, very funny, at least in conception." Furthermore, as his later correspondence indicates, he was convinced he had done what he intended. Writing to Lilina, wife to the Moscow Art Theater's great director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, he claimed that, "in places," The Cherry Orchard was "even a farce."

Stanislavsky and his co-director, Nemirovich-Danchenko, as they had with other Chekhov plays, chose to interpret the play as much more serious stuff than farce. On stage, they weighed it down as a serious drama, advertising it as such, much to Chekhov's annoyance. The playwright had never felt that either man had fully understood his plays, and he often bristled at their interpretations—yet he could hardly argue with the acclaim their theater won him.

Chekhov's adherence to realism, his objectivity, made it difficult for his contemporaries to see his characters in the kaleidoscopic light in which he cast them. In The Cherry Orchard, as in all his comedies, he created characters who confront serious, often insoluble problems. From one perspective, they do elicit sympathy, even pity, no matter how passive or inept they may also seem. If their suffering is the main element the audience perceives, the comic impulse is suppressed, for, as Bergson noted, laughter is really only possible when there is an "absence of feeling."

Farce, most particularly, depends on a hardening of the heart, an emotional distance that allows uninhibited laughter, often at the expense of a character's misfortune or suffering. Some great comic writers, including William Shakespeare, have used various methods to prevent an audience from feeling too much empathy--comic asides, for example, or mistaken identities arising from the use of disguise. Chekhov, ever true to the limits of realism, uses no such devices. As a result, as J. L. Styan suggested in Chekhov in Performance, he risked misinterpretation: "Farce, which prohibits compassion for human weakness, and tragedy, which demands it, are close kin. The truth is that The Cherry Orchard is a play that treads the tightrope between them, and results in the ultimate form of the special dramatic balance we know as Chekhovian comedy."

The Cherry Orchard , depicting the passing world of twilight Russia (before the country's casualty-ridden involvement in both World Wars and its Communist Revolution), certainly has a tragic backdrop. Sometimes, when it cannot be repressed, an anxious awareness of that passing wells up in the characters, but it does not change them. Only Lopakhin really adapts, because to find his place in the new world, he must help destroy the old. He is not mercenary or callous, however, just practical. Although he has only a commercial interest in Mrs. Ranevsky's property, he is genuinely respectful towards her, partly from habitual...

(This entire section contains 2036 words.)

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reverence that typified the Russian peasant class from which he springs. Initially, he even tries to help her, but her inability to take action finally forces him to buy her land himself. In doing so, he severs the last invisible strings of class deference, ties that bind another character, the old manservant, Firs, until death. The play confirms Lopakhin's resourcefulness, his adaptability. He is, primarily, a flexible character, and is not therefore comical, except perhaps in his still-born efforts at wooing Varya.

The central symbol of the old Russia is The Cherry Orchard. In his way, Peter Trofimov, the perennial student, perceives it as such, but he sees nothing of worth in the ways of the past. The orchard only reminds him of human misery. He speaks of the ghosts of the serfs to Anya:

Can't you see human beings looking at you from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every tree trunk? Don't you hear their voices?

His solution is not to cut the orchard down, but rather to run from it, into "ineffable visions of the future." He is a Utopian dreamer, as impractical and inflexible as Mrs. Ranevsky and her brother, and, therefore, unlike Lopakhin, he is more than slightly ridiculous.

The Cherry Orchard is not simply an emblem of a Russia that has passed. As Styan suggested, "it represents an inextricable tangle of sentiments, which together comprise a way of life and an attitude to life." Its white cherry blossoms remind Mrs. Ranevsky and her brother, Gayev, of their youthful purity and innocence. To them, the orchard is a thing of great and enduring beauty, and they find Lopakhin's proposal to replace it with vacation cottages "vulgar." For Firs, the orchard is "an inviolable aesthetic symbol of the traditional order." Anya, on the other hand, drawn by her heart to Trofimov, accepts the student's dream of a future happiness, despite Trofimov's inconvenient belief that they must transcend love and practice celibacy to prepare for it.

On a more mundane level, the orchard is simply a white elephant. No one harvests its fruit, and, in fact, no one even enters it, except the anonymous, unseen woodsman who starts felling its trees in the last act. And while the orchard may be glimpsed through the windows of the house, it is the house itself that is the play's true setting, "the centre and heart of the play," as J. B. Priestley claimed in his text Anton Chekhov.

Three of The Cherry Orchard's four acts take place inside the house, and two of them, the first and the last, occur in the same room—the nursery. It is the setting for both the arrival and departure of Mrs. Ranevsky and her entourage. The room at first vibrates with life, brimming with the excitement of the reunited family members, who animate the room with their memories and maudlin but joyous greetings to the furniture. In contrast, at the end, it is stripped of all its furnishings, all signs of life, except some odds and ends; the flotsam of the past, now abandoned, like Firs, who seems indistinguishable from the discarded sofa on which he lies immobilized at the final curtain. Staged, the room has a more immediate impact than the orchard, for it is actually present, unlike The Cherry Orchard, which remains indirectly experienced through words alone. The orchard's presence is most keenly felt in the last act, in the sound of the axe that has begun its destruction.

The most poignant and haunting presence in the play is not even identified with a locale. It comes in the sound of the breaking string, heard first in the second act, and then at the end of the play. Maurice Valency argued in The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, that the broken string is "the golden string that connected man with his father on earth and his father in heaven, the age-old bond that tied the present to the past." In general terms, it represents the passing of a way of life, but it relates, too, to the play's specific actions, especially Lopakhin's purchase of Mrs. Ranevsky's estate. The act gives him an overwhelming sense of emancipation, expressed in his triumphant monologue at the close of Act Three:

"I've bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren't even allowed in the kitchen. I must be dreaming. I must be imagining it all. It can't be true."

Most of the other characters suffer some anxious and painful moments in their ritual passage into the changing but uncertain world that the play foreshadows. Some, like Yepikhodov and Charlotte, experience an identity crisis, while others, like Gayev and Firs, seem sadly disoriented and confused. Yet, as Francis Fergusson claimed in The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays, while The Cherry Orchard is "a theater poem of the suffering of change," it is free "from the mechanical order of the thesis or intrigue" play. The tragic implications of the change drift through the comedy like the ghost of Mrs. Ranevsky's mother in the orchard, but they are not shaped into a single catastrophe and momentous reversal of fortune. The tragic elements are simply too diffuse and, like the breaking string, too distant to be distinct or fully understood.

They are also muted and even subverted by the foreground elements that provide a comic counterpoint to the tragic backdrop. Much of the play's action remains routine and mundane, even trivial. Behind a facade of politeness, there is a quiet tension between those who fear change and those who welcome it, but when tension surfaces as anger or open aggression, Chekhov releases the pressure through some sort of comic safety valve. For example, in the third act, Trofimov, stung by Mrs. Ranevsky's attack on his perceptions of man/woman relationships and his childish whining, exits with theatrical indignation, only to fall down some offstage stairs to a chorus of laughter. So, too, in the second act, when the frustrated Lopakhin calls Mrs. Ranevsky "a silly old woman" because she will not agree to his plans for the estate, Gayev defuses the situation with his billiard game prattle and non-sequitur confession to a fruit candy addiction.

Most of the play's characters are idiosyncratic, and some, like Gayev and Pishchik, are wonderfully eccentric. Most, said Priestley, if "coldly considered," are also at least slightly contemptible: "Madame Ranevsky is a foolish woman only too anxious to return to a worthless young lover; Gayev is an amiable ass who talks too much; Anya is a goose and her Trofimov a solemn windbag; Lopakhin, the practical self-made man, is confused and unhappy; Epihodov a clumsy idiot; Dunyasha a foolish girl; Yasha an insufferable jumped-up lad; and Firs far gone in senility." However, Chekhov never leaves any one of them exposed to such a naked light for very long; he is too congenial for that, too, as Priestley stated, "tender and compassionate."

Each character also seems to have a comic foil or nemesis, Firs and Kasha, for example, or Charlotte and Yepikhodov. All also ride some sort of mental hobby horse that sporadically sends them off the track of conversation onto private, incongruous pathways, i.e., amusing non-sequiturs. Most, at the point of self-awareness, behave exactly like a jack-in-the-box, never able to suppress their foolish impulse. For example, in Act Two, Mrs. Ranevsky, berates herself for her careless waste of money, then immediately drops her purse on the ground and a moment later bestows one of her last gold coins on a panhandler. Meanwhile, Yepikhodov, ever mindful of his role as an unfortunate clod, stumbles into furniture as if to prove he was not miscast for the part.

It is possible to probe such characters to reveal some darker or more sinister personality traits. Beverly Hahn, for one, argued in Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays that the weaknesses of Mrs. Ranevsky and Gayev, their lack of will, "amounts to a complex sense of guilt and self-degradation which is both personal and yet obscurely the product of their situation of privilege." The Moscow Art Theatre audience of 1904 came from and returned to the world depicted in Chekhov's plays, and they experienced such inner guilt first hand—plus all the pain, sorrow, and pathos that Stanislavsky felt was in The Cherry Orchard and that scholars can still expose. But a reader or viewer of the play need not be quite so myopic. There is sufficient distance from Chekhov's world to free laughter from inhibition, restoring the comic balance that Chekhov felt was somehow missed in his own time.

Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free

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Prtichett is an English literary figure, and is considered a modern master of the short story and a preeminent literary critic. He writes in the conversational tone of the familiar essay, approaching literature from the viewpoint of a lettered but not overly scholarly reader.

Chekhov started writing The Cherry Orchard in Yalta in February 1903. He wrote to Olga, who was in Moscow and whom he called his "little pony," that a crowd of characters was gathering in his mind, but he could only manage to write four lines a day and "even that gives me intolerable pain." His disease was possessing his whole body, moving to his intestines and his bowels. Olga came to Yalta in July, hoping the play would be finished in time for her to take a fair copy back to Moscow in September when the theater season opened. It was not ready because he was continuously revising what he had written, but also because, in his anxiety about money, he had agreed to become the literary editor of a new magazine which had been started by his liberal admirer Lavrov, and he was reading dozens of manuscripts for him. At last the play was finished, "except for difficulties with the second act." Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko sent him long and enthusiastic telegrams. There was only one jarring note: Stanislavsky had called the play "a truly great tragedy." Tartly, and fearing Stanislavsky's possessiveness, Chekhov replied that it was not even a drama—"It is a farce."

The central subject of The Cherry Orchard seems to have been taken from Chekhov's story A Visit to Friends, written in 1898, which deals with the bankruptcy of the Kiselev family, with whom he had stayed many times at Babkino. Chekhov did not include the story in the complete edition of his work, and it has been suggested that he did not want to offend the family: but the story may very well have been rejected because it is too labored in a novelizing way. In the story, the family have turned cynically to a shrewd and successful young lawyer, hoping against hope that he will find some way of saving them from ruin: he knows so many rich people. The wife thinks the solution lies in getting him to marry their daughter. He is sentimentally attracted to her, but self-interest is stronger than sentiment: he simply sneaks away in the night. The young man is ashamed of his behavior.

In The Cherry Orchard, Lopakhin, the property speculator, evades all appeals to marry Ranevskaya's ward. He seems to be a new version of the shrewd, plain, practical railway engineer who appears in Lights and more fully in the excellent My Life, a man with a business-like eye for taking over the properties of the feckless landowning families. Chekhov admired this self-made man and he warned Stanislavsky that Lopakhin must not be played as a greedy vulgarian; he saw that Lopakhin's weakness was that he would be too cautious and inhibited in love. Ranevskaya must not be played as an entirely frivolous and irresponsible spendthrift: she is all heart; her sensuality is natural to her and not vicious. In her reckless life in Paris, she has nursed a lover who has deceived and robbed her, and she will return to him at the end of the play when he is ill again and appeals to her once more. She is shrewd when she mocks Trofimov, the high-minded and self-absorbed "eternal student" who has been the family tutor, because, at his age, he has never had a mistress. He is, she says, a prig. She may be a victim of what Chekhov called morbus fraudulentus when she gazes at her cherry orchard and sees in the white blossoms the symbol of the lost innocence of her girlhood, but the incurable lavishness of her heart is genuine. Lopakhin will not forget the moment she tenderly washed his face when his nose was bleeding when he was a little boy, and called him "little peasant." In Lopakhin, the tongue-tied moneymaker, that childhood memory is a genuine grace. What Chekhov brings out, as he makes his people tell their own story without listening to one another, is their absurd pride in their own history and their indifference to everyone else's. Ranevskaya may long for the tongue-tied Lopakhin to propose to her ward, but the girl's real dream is for a life of pious journeys from convent to convent.

The truly desperate character is the bizarre half-German outsider, Sharlotta, who breaks the tension of the play by her mystifying tricks with cards and her ventriloquism. Chekhov had seen such a girl at a fair on one of his trips. She is the daughter of anarchy and is truly frightening. Everyone else knows who they are. She does not know who she is. " have no proper identity papers and I don't know how old I am. I keep imagining I am young...Where I come from and who I am I do not know." All she knows is that she has traveled, when she was a child, from fair to fair and that her gypsy parents taught her to do card tricks. A German lady rescued her and turned her into a governess. She pulls a cucumber out of her pocket and eats it. "I am so lonely, always so lonely...and who I am, what I exist for, nobody knows." Pathos? Not at all—a wild independent native homelessness. In the final scene of the play, in the general good-byes when the house is sold, she picks up a bundle, pretends it is a baby, produces the illusion of a baby crying as she sings "Hush, little baby, my heart goes out to you," and then throws the bundle on the floor and says to them all: "And please find me another job. I can't go on like this."

What about the eloquent speech of Trofimov, the eternal student, sent down twice from the university, working for the "glorious future" in Russia? He attacks the theorizing intelligentsia and proudly refuses a loan from Lopakhin at the end of the play. In Act II he cries out: "The whole of Russia is our orchard." Is he a proud prophet of revolution and reform? Hardly: he is a rootless enthusiastic bookworm.

Objection has been made to the final scene, in which Firs, the sick and rambling old servant, lover of the old days, is left behind when the family leave, locked in by mistake. The family had assumed he was in the hospital and no one had troubled to find out. Is this eerie or simply anticlimax? It "works," for he is the very conscious historian of the family in a play which is notable for its pairs of matching scenes. For we remember that in the wild ballroom scene in the third act, Chekhov has brought in the local stationmaster, who insists on reciting a notorious poem called "The Sinful Woman." It is dearly directed at Ranevskaya's adultery. He is seemingly unembarrassed by his tactlessness and may even be thinking that he is celebrating her fame in local gossip. No one listens. But it is Firs who enlarges the history of the family. He says:

We used to have generals, barons and admirals at our dances in the old days, but now we send for the post-office clerk and the stationmaster and even they are not all that keen to come.

He rambles on about the good old days of serfdom:

I feel frail. The old master, Mr. Leonid's grandfather, used to dose us all with powdered sealing wax no matter what was wrong with us. I've been taking powdered sealing wax for twenty years or more and maybe that is what's kept me alive.

The matching of time present and time past gives the play the density and intricacy of a novel; the play is the most novelized of Chekhov's plays because the people talk it into existence and because no one listens. It is a farce because the people are a disordered chorus who have lost their gods and invent themselves. They are a collective farewell, and that is what moves us. As Professor Rayfield has written, the play is also Chekhov's farewell to Russia and his genius.

Source: V.S. Pritchett, in his Chekov: A Spirit Set Free, Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, pp. 220-224.

Russian High Comedy

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The Moscow players proceeded last night from the lower depths of Gorky to the high comedy of Tchekhoff, revealing new artistic resources. Stanislavsky, Olga Knipper-Tchekhova, Moskvin, Leonidoff and half a dozen others entered with consummate ease into a rich variety of new characterizations. The stage management was less signal in its effects, but no less perfect. Yet for some reason The Cherry Orchard failed to stir the audience, even the Russian portion of it, as did The Lower Depths and even Tsar Fyodor.

This is a play of comedy values both high and light. The milieu is that of the ancient landed aristocracy, beautifully symbolized by an orchard of cherry trees in full bloom which surrounds the crumbling manor house. Quite obviously, these amiable folk have fallen away from the pristine vigor of their race.

The middle-aged brother and sister who live together are unconscious, irreclaimable spendthrifts, both of their shrinking purses and of their waning lives. With a little effort, one is made to feel, even with a modicum of mental concentration, calamity could be averted. But that is utterly beyond their vacuous and futile amiability; so their estate is sold over their heads and the leagues of gay cherry trees are felled to make way for suburban villas.

Beneath the graceful, easy-going surface of the play one feels rather than perceives a criticism on the Russia of two decades ago. Here is a woman of truly Slavic instability, passing with a single gesture from heartbreak to the gayety of a moment, from acutely maternal grief for an only child long dead to weak doting on a Parisian lover who is faithless to her and yet has power to hold her and batten on her bounty. Here is a man whose sentiment for the home of his ancestors breaks forth in fluent declaiming, quasi-poetic and quasi-philosophic, yet who cannot lift a finger to avert financial disaster.

In the entire cast only one person has normal human sense. Lopakhin is the son of a serf who has prospered in freedom. He is loyal enough to the old masters, dogging their footsteps with good advice. But in the end it is he who buys the estate and fells the cherry trees for the villas of an industrial population. It is as if Tchekhoff saw in the new middle class the hope of a disenchanted yet sounder and more progressive Russia. The war has halted that movement, but indications are not lacking that it is already resuming.

With such a theme developed by the subtly masterful art of Tchekhoff, there is scope for comedy acting of the highest quality. It is more than likely that the company seized every opportunity and improved upon it. But to anyone who does not understand Russian, judgment in such a matter is quite impossible. Where effects are to be achieved only by the subtlest intonation, the most delicate phrasing, it fares ill with those whose entire vocabulary is da, da.

As an example of the art of the most distinguished company that has visited our shores in modern memory, this production of The Cherry Orchard is abundantly worth seeing. The play in itself is of interest as the masterpiece of the man who, with Gorky, has touched the pinnacle of modern Russian comedy. But if some Moscovite should rise up and tell us that in any season our own stage produces casts as perfect and ensembles as finely studied in detail, it would be quite possible to believe him.


Critical Overview


The Cherry Orchard (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)