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

The Cherry Orchard

by Anton Chekhov

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Places Discussed

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Ranevsky estate

Ranevsky estate. Madame Ranevsky’s estate is located somewhere in the provinces of central Russia. Three acts of the play take place in her large house. Act 1 is set in what was once the nursery, a large, high-ceilinged room which has become an informal meeting place. The second act is set in a field not far from the house, near an old chapel. The third act reveals the true opulence of the house: Its drawing room with a chandelier is in the foreground, and dancing couples can be seen in the ballroom through arches at the rear. Act 4 returns to the nursery, now stripped of its decorations and ready to be vacated by Madame Ranevsky and her family. Madame Ranevsky’s world is doomed by economic and social forces usually identified with offstage places. A station is nearby, from which characters go to Russian cities like Kharkov and Moscow. Madame Ranevsky’s problems are made acute by her irresponsibilities with both men and money, both of which are associated with Paris.

Cherry orchard

Cherry orchard. The most important part of the setting of three of these acts is the visible symbol of the fragile and doomed beauty of Madame Ranevsky’s world, the cherry orchard itself. It is revealed in all its blooming spring beauty through the large, tall windows in act 1. In the next act, it is visible at the edge of the field. It can be seen again in the desolation of act 4, denuded now of its blossoms because it is October.

Historical Context

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In 1904, the year The Cherry Orchard was first produced, Russia was in a state of upheaval. The Japanese declared war on Russia on February 10, 1904, following Russia's failure to withdraw from Manchuria and its continuing penetration of Korea. The Japanese defeated Russia at the Yalu River on May 1, 1904; by October of that year the Japanese had forced Russia to pull back its forces. This war was the beginning of tensions in Asia and the establishment of Japan as a military force.

On the home front, Russia's minister of the interior, Vyacheslav Plehve, exercised complete control over the public. He forbid any political assemblies, required written police permission for small social gatherings, and forbid students to walk together in the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia's capital. On Easter Sunday of 1904, 45 Jews were killed, 600 houses were destroyed in Kishenev in Bessarabia on orders from Plehve, and the police were instructed to ignore rioting in the streets. These events culminated with Plehve's assassination on July 28, 1904. This kind of civil unrest marked the beginning of a time of great conflict and transformation in Russia that ended with the Communist Revolution in 1917.

These tensions both in and outside Russia made life difficult for Russian citizens. The middle class began to assume an elevated position in society as many nobles lost their wealth and large, lavish estates. As the Ranevsky family discovers, Russia is changing and the climate is no longer hospitable to those who do not act in their own interests. Trofimov's character alludes to the strict control of the public when he speaks of the "things he's seen" that have caused him to age prematurely. When the serfs were freed, the landowners were forced to pay for labor, and as conditions in Russia worsened due to war and the totalitarian regime, revolution becomes imminent.

Transportation and Industry
The Trans-Siberian Railroad's link from Moscow to Vladivostok opened in 1904. This is the longest line of track in the world, spanning 3,200 miles between the two cities. In the...

(This entire section contains 727 words.)

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United States, the first New York City subway line of importance opened on October 27, with the Interborough Rapid Transit, known as the IRT, running from the Brooklyn Bridge to 145th Street with stops in between. This system would grow to become the world's largest rapid transit system, covering more than 842 miles. These transportation systems are important because, as society became more urbanized around the world, it changed. Large plots of land, such as the cherry orchard in Chekhov's play, were broken up into smaller plots for building and industry. The railroads allowed people of all economic backgrounds to travel and allowed goods to be shipped long distances using much less manpower.

Science and Technology
Marie Curie discovered radium and polonium in uranium ore in 1904; these two new radioactive elements helped to fuel the nuclear age in the decades to come. Also in 1904, German physicists Julius Elster and Hans Friedrich Geitel invented the first practical photoelectric cell, which led to the invention of radio. The first wireless radio distres ssignal was sent the same year. Clearly, the time in which Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard— during 1903 and 1904—was a time of much change and scientific advancement. The simple way of life on the orchard was being phased out of existence; a different mindset was required for the dawning age of science and industry. The Ranevsky family is unable to adapt to this new, quickly evolving world in which discoveries are made almost weekly and change is imminent.

Literature and Drama
1904 saw the first publication of such works as Lincoln Steffens's expose of urban squalor The Shame of the Cities, The Late Mattia Pascal, by Italian novelist Luigi Pirandello, Henry James's The Golden Bowl, and Reginald, by English writer Saki, also known as H. H. Munro. Plays which, like The Cherry Orchard, were first produced in 1904 include: Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge, Frank Wedekind's Pandora's Box, George Bernard Shaw's Candida and How He Lied to Her Husband, and Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, by James M. Barrie. Chekhov's style was substantially different from his contemporaries'; his self-proclaimed "farce," The Cherry Orchard, portrays psychology and human behavior far more realistically than many of his fellow playwrights. Unlike the other plays of its time, The Cherry Orchard focuses upon an historical era and examines the whole of society rather than just characters.

Literary Style

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Comedy vs. Tragedy
Anton Chekhov wrote his last play, The Cherry Orchard, as a comedy about a wealthy family that loses its beloved home and orchard to a man who was born a serf on their estate. A comedy is one of the two kinds of drama (the other is tragedy), one that is meant to amuse and typically ends happily. Chekhov referred to The Cherry Orchard as a farce, which is a type of comedy characterized by broad humor, outlandish incidents, and often vulgar subject matter. When Konstantin Stanislavsky decided to produce the play at the Moscow Art Theater in 1904, however, he stated in a letter to Chekhov, as quoted in Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater: "It is not a comedy, not a farce, as you wrote—it is a tragedy no matter if you do indicate a way out into a better world in the last act...when I read it for the second time...I wept like a woman, I tried to control myself, but I could not. I can hear you say. 'But please, this is a farce...' No, for the ordinary person this is a tragedy." This difference of opinion between Chekhov and Stanislavsky would lead to a great rift between the two friends. Like that first production, most contemporary productions of The Cherry Orchard still emphasize the play's tragic elements, rather than choosing to present Chekhov's vision of the play as a farce.

A tragedy, strictly defined, is a drama in prose or poetry about a noble, courageous hero of excellent character who, because of a tragic flaw, brings disaster upon himself. Tragedy treats its subjects in a dignified and serious manner, using poetic language to help evoke pity and fear and bring about catharsis, a spiritual awakening or renewal. The Cherry Orchard does not fit into the conventional definition of tragedy, but the inability of the main characters to act to save themselves or solve their own problems serves to evoke empathy in the reader/viewer. The play provokes a feeling that the circumstances depicted are tragic, despite the humorous passages.

Comic Moments
There are many comic situations in the play. Leonid Gayev's constant calling out of imaginary billiard shots, and his chatter create some wonderful comic moments: his salute to the one-hundred-year-old bookcase ("Dear highly esteemed bookcase, I salute you"), and his addiction to hard candy are a few examples. Simon Yepikhodov, also known as Twenty-two Calamities, is a character included purely for comic effect. His boots squeak, and, as he states: "Everyday, sir, I'm overtaken by some calamity. Not that I mind. I'm used to it. I just smile.'' Yepikhodov's love triangle with Dunyasha and Yasha lends comic value as well.

The elderly servant Firs's doddering ways and muttering and the misunderstandings that result from his frailties—are also presented with comic intent. However, language is used to make Peter Trofimov comic in a much different way; his passion often gives way to comical rants. After he is chastised by Mrs. Ranevsky for his declaration that he is "above love" with Anya, he storms out and falls down a flight of stairs. This is played for comic effect in Chekhov's stage directions, but could easily be portrayed in a serious manner. Yasha's exchange with Dunyasha in the orchard is another comic moment. Calling Dunyasha his "little cucumber," Yasha flirts with her and makes her love him, while fully intending to leave her. Again, the complexity of the characters that Chekhov has created leave room for interpretation by actors and directors.

Boris Simeonov-Pishchik is both tragic and comic at the same time. He is constantly seeking a loan from Mrs. Ranevsky to pay off his debts, though her financial situation is no better than his. Most of his pleas are comic, yet the entire situation is a dreadful one. Chekhov's idea of finding the humor in tragic circumstances is an important part of his individuality as a playwright. Pishchik's comments about his family pedigree lead to his admission that he has fallen on hard times: "My father, may he rest in peace, liked his little joke, and speaking about our family pedigree, he used to say that the ancient Simeonov-Pishchiks came from the horse that Caligula had made a senator. But you see, the trouble is that I have no money. A hungry dog believes only in meat. I'm just the same. All I can think of is money.'' Although one can certainly find humor in Pishchik's statement, anyone who has ever worried about his or her finances can sympathize with his preoccupation with money. In numerous situations, Chekhov manages to walk a fine line between comedy and pathos, one that could fall to either side depending upon interpretation. This is a contradiction present in the play, and it illustrates why some consider it a farce and others regard it as a tragedy.

Point of View and Empathy
The point of view in this play is third-person, allowing the audience to see the events in the story from outside any particular character but without any insights into their inner thoughts or motivations. The audience often experiences empathy for these characters. Empathy is a shared sense of experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself. When, at the end of the play, the axes begin the job of chopping the orchard down; the reader/viewer feels Mrs. Ranevsky's pain. Upon learning of her young son's death, which is followed shortly by her husband's (events that take place prior to the play's first act), the audience understands her need to run away to Paris. Similarly, when Lopakhin fails to propose to Varya, the audience can appreciate the heartbreak she experiences.

Compare and Contrast

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1904: A Zemstvo congress meets in St. Petersburg, Russia, and demands that civil liberties are accorded to citizens and that an assembly of representatives of the people is convened.

Today: Russia still grapples with basic civil liberties and rights after the fall of the Soviet Empire. A coup is attempted by right-wing activists, but democratically-elected President Boris Yeltsin retains his power.

1904: The Trans-Siberian Railroad opens, linking Moscow to Vladivostok. The railroad's 3,200 miles of track makes it the longest line in the world.

Today: Citizens of Vladivostok take to the streets to protest the government's failure to deliver on financial reforms. The expansive distance between Moscow and Vladivostok, though linked by communications and public transportation, makes it difficult for the central government to control the city.

1904: French physicist Marie Curie discovers polonium and radium—two new radioactive elements. This discovery leads to the advent of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and space flight.

Today: Despite financial difficulties, the Russian space program continues to advance. The space station Mir, powered by nuclear means, continues to orbit the Earth manned by astronauts from both Russia and the United States.

1904: The National Tuberculosis Association in the United States is established to fight the disease, which is also known as consumption. In Russia, the disease claims the life of playwright Anton Chekhov.

Today: Tuberculosis is on the rise again in the United States, and around the world due to HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Thought to be virtually wiped during the 1970s, tuberculosis has gained a foothold through weakened immune systems that result from viruses like HIV. However, many treatments are now available to combat tuberculosis, and the illness does not carry with it a death sentence, as it did during Chekhov's time.

Media Adaptations

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The Cherry Orchard, Part I: Chekhov, Innovator of Modern Drama, an educational film includes select scenes and a discussion by Norris Houghton, 1968; available from Britannica Films.

The Cherry Orchard, Part II: Comedy or Tragedy? from the same series as the above; scenes with discussion by Houghton; focus on technique of dramatizing interior action and concept of subtext, 1967; available from Britannica Films.

Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, using the Stanislavsky method, director Yuri Zavadsky stages select scenes from The Cherry Orchard; available from IASTA.

The Cherry Orchard, on three audio cassettes, translated by Leonid Kipnis, actors include Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn; Caedmon/Harper Audio.

Anton Chekhov: A Writer's Life, a brief biographical study of the dramatist, 1974; available from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

Chekhov, Henry Troyat's biography of Chekhov on twelve audio cassettes, read by Wolfram Kandinsky, 1989; available from Books on Tape.

Chekhov: Humanity's Advocate, an audio cassette in the Classics of Russian Literature Series; Ernest Simmons discusses Chekhov's work and artistic principles, 1968; available from AudioForum.

The Seagull, another Chekhov classic adapted to film by Sidney Lumet, starring James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave, Simone Signoret, David Warner, Harry Andrews, Eileen Herlie, Denholm Elliot, 1968; available on video from Warner Brothers.

The Seagull, Russian film version with English subtitles, directed by Yuri Karasik, 1971; available from Facets Multimedia, Inc.

Three Sisters, yet another Chekhov classic adapted for film by Laurence Olivier and John Sichel, starring Olivier, Joan Plowright, Alan Bates, Jeanne Watts, Louise Purnell, Derek Jacobi, 1970; available from American Film Theater.

Three Sisters, video taped version of the Actors Studio production of the play, directed by Paul Bogart, starring Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Shelly Winters, Kevin McCarthy, and Sandy Dennis, 1966.

Vanya on 42nd Street, imaginative filming of a rehearsal of David Mamet's stage adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, directed by Louis Malle, with Andre Gregory as the director of the play in rehearsal and Wallace Shawn as Uncle Vanya, 1994; available from Columbia Tristar Home Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Field, Bradford S., Jr., Gilbert, Miriam, and Klaus, Carl H. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater, Scott, Foresman, 1981.

Further Reading
Bergson, Henri. "Laughter," in Comedy, edited by Wylie Sypher, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1956.
Bergson's essay is included with George Meredith's "An Essay on Comedy" and appendix essay, "The Meanings of Comedy,'' by editor Sypher. The collection is an excellent source for ideas on the nature of the comic.

Bruford, W. H. Chekhov and His Russia: A Sociological Study, Archon Books (Hamden, CT), 1971.
Relates Chekhov's work to Russia's social structure, with a discussion of the various groups, including the merchants, landowners, intelligentsia, and the peasants; a very useful background study for The Cherry Orchard.

Fergusson, Francis. The Idea of a Theater. A Study of Ten Plays, Princeton University Press, 1972.
A highly regarded and influential introduction to theater, this study relates the structure of The Cherry Orchard to classical tragedy.

Hahn, Beverly. Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Although a general study of both fiction and drama, work discusses The Cherry Orchard at length to answer critical assaults on Chekhov as "a melancholy and merely impressionistic dramatist."

Kirk, Inna. Anton Chekhov, Twayne (Boston), 1981.
General introduction to Chekhov. Makes passing mention of Bergson as a relevant theorist for the comic in Chekhov.

Magarshack, David. Chekhov the Dramatist, Hill and Wang (New York), 1960.
Divides Chekhov's plays into two categories: plays of direct and plays of indirect action (plays with significant offstage action), including The Cherry Orchard. Stresses comic structure of plays.

Priestley, J B. Anton Chekhov, A S. Barnes & Co. (Cranbury,
NI), 1970.
A critical biography in the "International Profiles" series, arguing that Chekhov was a better dramatist than fictionist. A good introduction to Chekhov, with illustrations.

Rayfleld, Donald. Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art, Harper
& Row (New York), 1975.
A critical biography that analyzes the relationship between Chekhov's fiction and his plays, showing how each sheds light on the other.

Styan, J. L. Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1971.
An act by act interpretation of Chekhov's four major plays, particularly useful for preparing the text for performance.

Valency, Maurice. The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Oxford University Press (New York), 1966.
Study focuses on Chekhov's plays in the context of the development of modern drama in Europe and the relationship of his plays to his fiction.


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Barricelli, Jean Pierre, ed. Chekhov’s Great Plays: A Critical Anthology. New York: New York University Press, 1981. Seventeen essays that cover Chekhov’s dramatic art and the individual plays. The essays on The Cherry Orchard include the editor’s “Counterpoint of the Snapping String: Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard” and Francis Fergusson’s “The Cherry Orchard: A Theater-Poem of the Suffering of Change.”

Magarshak, David. Chekhov the Dramatist. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960. A thorough discussion of such topics as plays of direct action, transitions, and plays of indirect action, using Chekhov’s development as a dramatist as the context.

Peace, Richard. Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. A solid study of Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1901), The Seagull (1896), and The Cherry Orchard. Excellent for basic information and knowledge about the plays.

Pitcher, Harvey. The Chekhov Plays: A New Interpretation. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Offers bold new interpretations and nonstandard views, which make this study a valuable contribution to the understanding of Chekhov’s plays. The chapter on The Cherry Orchard is particularly illuminating.

Valency, Maurice. The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1966. One of the best treatments of Chekhov’s plays. Valency analyzes Chekhov’s approach to theater, and individually discusses all the plays, including The Cherry Orchard.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide