When Anton Chekhov began his play The Cherry Orchard in December 1902, he intended it to be a farce in four acts. Having written it during a particularly awful bout with emphysema, it took almost a year for him to send it out to Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre, where it had been eagerly anticipated. Stanislavski, in Chekhov’s opinion, took the play too far. He had dashed off a telegram to Chekhov saying, “Just read play…shaken…cannot come to senses in unprecedented ecstasy…sincerely congratulate author genius.
” This disgusted Chekhov – why should a farce evoke such a visceral reaction? (Hingley, New Life, 300) The answer soon became clear. Stanislavski was determined to stage the play as a realistic and tragic ode to the dying upper class, when in fact, this was not even close to what Chekhov had intended.
The differences in the viewpoints of Chekhov and Stanislavski became particularly widened when The Cherry Orchard went into rehearsals. As the play began to receive publicity, Chekhov became increasingly unhappy with the tragic overtones.
In a letter to his wife Olga, he wrote, “Why do they persist in calling my play a drama on the posters and in press announcements? Nemirovich and Stanislavski absolutely do not see in my play what I actually wrote and I am ready to give my word in any terms you wish that neither of them has ever read my play attentively.” (Benedetti 190) When Chekhov finally arrived, he found his play in a mess of depression and melancholy. He tried to fix it, leading Stanislavski to say that “the blossoms had just begun to appear when the author arrived and messed up everything for us.” (Simmons 612) Chekhov was appalled to see that the brief fourth act he had written dragged on for a weepy, mind-numbing forty minutes. However, both Chekhov and Stanislavski felt it necessary to concede some ground on their respective viewpoints, just to keep rehearsals going. As a result, both became skeptical about the possibility of the play becoming a success. To a friend, Chekhov wrote, “I expect no particular success…the thing is going poorly.” (Priestley 58) Upon opening the play, Chekhov’s attitude had not changed – in a letter to a friend, he writes, “My play was performed yesterday and therefore I am not in a particularly bright mood today.” (Magarshack, A Life, 382)
Some of Chekhov’s irritation could be attributed to the impatience of a dying man, yet he had grounds for his argument. As The Cherry Orchard went into rehearsals, Chekhov quarreled with Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko over the interpretation of the play. “Why,” he wrote to Nemirovich, “do you say there are many weepy people in my play? Where are they? Varya’s the only one, and that’s because she’s a crybaby by nature. Her tears are not meant to make the spectator feel despondent. I often use “through her tears” in my stage directions, but that indicates only a character’s mood, not actual tears. There’s no cemetery in the second act.” (Karlinsky 460) On the subject of tears in a comedy, Donald Rayfield notes that Ranevsky, Anya, Varya, Gaev, and Pishtchik all cry, but they cry “for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. The music of the play does not harmonize with their tears: the ball in Act 3 is a series of quadrilles and waltzes of comic irrelevance.” (Evolution, 220)
Given the circumstances of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian history, it is tempting to see the play as a dismal story of loss, and Madame Ranevsky and her family as victims of the uprising of the industrial classes. When the play opened in January of 1904, the Socialist movement had already begun to gain momentum in Russia. A year earlier, Lenin had published his revolutionary pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, as well as his text State & Revolution, both of which called for an elite party of educated rebels who would act as a vanguard of the working class. He had also called on the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party to help establish a provisional revolutionary democratic dictatorship for the proletariat. In this context, one could interpret the play as either a revolutionary call to arms or a touching ode to a class doomed to brutal extinction. ` Yet Chekhov asserted that the work must be taken as a whole. Lopahin, who buys the estate, is not a typical “evil landlord” who is ruthlessly evicting the family from their comfortable lifestyle. Trofimov, although a revolutionary, is also a disillusioned and cynical student, blinded by hopeless adoration; and Ranevsky is a self-indulgent elitist who participates fully – although passively – in her own demise.
Even this wreck that dominates the play is only another step in the great scheme of history. Chekhov sets his play against Tsar Alexander II’s serf emancipation of 1861, which was also feared as an oncoming disaster that would swallow up the nation. (Hirsch) Yet in this play, as in all of Chekhov’s works, life goes on – a barely perceived, yet deeply experienced, pattern of hopes and disappointments, of comings and goings. Had Chekhov had a sophisticated literary terminology with which to work, he might have used the term “dark comedy”, or “problem play” to describe The Cherry Orchard (as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has more recently been noted.) (Moorty, par. 1)
The Cherry Orchard was not a comedy in the sense that comedies are normally seen. Rather, Chekhov had his own brand of comedy. In ancient Greek theatre, the word “comedy” meant a concern of the daily lives of ordinary people, as opposed to tragedy, which was built around great beings who had lost everything due to fate. Aristotle himself noted that comedy was “an imitation of characters of a lower type who are not bad in themselves but whose faults possess something ludicrous in them.” (Magarshack, Dramatist, 272) The Cherry Orchard certainly fits as a comedy in this mode of thinking – although somewhat aristocratic, the loss of the orchard is due to their own mishandlings, rather than fate.
However, The Cherry Orchard sometimes straddles the fence between comedy and pathos – the deciding factor being whether we as the audience sympathize with the characters’ problems. We see the crossover into pathos within the character development of Madame Ranevsky. She is a sympathetic character, and this places her near the category of tragic hero, because she is not a part of the irony that keeps us relatively distant from the other characters. But at the same time, our emotional involvement overall is different than that of a tragedy. This has to do partly with the overall impact we see the characters’ actions having on their society. If you consider Romeo and Juliet, the deaths of the star-crossed lovers shake Verona to the core and force the Montagues and Capulets to reconsider their grudge. As a result, the society completely changes their development. In a comedy, the protagonists have no such power, since they deal with the trappings of everyday people. This relative sinking into oblivion in The Cherry Orchard is what caused publications such as The Daily Express to bash the play as a “silly, tiresome, boring comedy…There is no plot. The cherry orchard is for sale, and certain dull people are upset because it must be sold.” (Rayfield, Cherry Orchard, 23)
It also must be noted that much of Chekhov’s humor does not effectively translate into English. This may be one reason foreign audiences have a difficult time seeing The Cherry Orchard as a comedy. No translation has been able to successfully capture Epihodov’s line in Act One when he presents a bouquet of flowers to Dunyasha. He means to say, “Allow me to communicate with you,” but the Russian word is prisovokupit, which is a play on words with the word sovokupit, which means “to copulate.” (Rayfield, Cherry Orchard, 52-3)
To Soviet audiences in the 1930s, the triviality of the family’s problems in The Cherry Orchard made it difficult for them to see anything but comedy in the play. Even after the Soviet Union had collapsed, satirist Viacheslav Pietsukh has a character in one of his works say, “Ditherers, bastards, they had a bad life, did they? I’ll bet they wore excellent overcoats, knocked back the Worontsoff vodka with caviar, mixed with lovely women…philosophiz[ing] from morning to night for want of anything to do – and then they say they have a bad life, you see? You sons of bitches ought to be in a planned economy… they’d show you what a cherry orchard was!” (Rayfield, Cherry Orchard, 21) And in this sense, the Soviets are right. Although the end of the play isn’t very cheerful, Ranevsky is alive and healthy. She is also probably better off than she had been, with the opportunity to start a new future with a new lover in Paris.
One can argue that Lopahin, the descendant of a serf, is better off, as well. At the end of the third act, he proclaims, “I have bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even admitted into the kitchen….All must be as I wish it. Here comes the new master, the new owner of the cherry orchard!” He is hopeful, with a newly acquired sense of confidence. Even Anya reminds her mother that “a new life is beginning”; and Gaev responds, “Everything is all right now. Before the cherry orchard was sold, we were all worried and wretched, but afterwards, when once the question was settled conclusively, irrevocably, we all felt calm and even cheerful.” This is all more that could be said for the worried masses that crowded in to see the play as a means to forget their sobering existences.
This ability to move forward is a perfect example of the Chekhovian comedy, which again, hailed back to the Greeks. The way Chekhov saw it, comedy had more to do with the idea that there was an opening towards the future which tragedies (and especially the Greek tragedies) couldn’t provide. (Gilman 200) Stanislavski, however, disagreed. In an October 1903 letter to Chekhov, Stanislavski informed him that The Cherry Orchard was, in fact, a tragedy, “regardless of what escape into a better life you might indicate in the last act.” Chekhov knew very well that Stanislavski could not be swayed – Stanislavski was too firmly rooted in tradition. Chekhov could not make it to Moscow for rehearsals until well after they were underway; by the time he arrived, he was too sick to put up much of a fight. (Magarshack. A Life, 380)
The characters in The Cherry Orchard are by nature comic characters. The definition of “comic character” was one thing that Stanislavski didn’t understand. He saw the comic character as someone who was supposed to keep the audience laughing at all times, but that was not always the case. For example, Falstaff is undeniably a comic character, but his fall in Henry IV is one of the most tragically moving scenes in the play. The same is true in The Cherry Orchard – although we, as the audience, feel sympathy and compassion for Ranevsky (and other characters, to a lesser extent), we must still see that they are essentially comic characters. All of the characters in the play, with the possible exception of Anya, have a ridiculous sense to them that define them as comic characters.
Where, then, do we see these comic elements in the characters? One major example is Gaev, Ravensky’s brother. To him, life is just about as serious as the billiards games he plays in his head. (Even more amusing is the fact that Gaev’s billiards games make no sense – Chekhov himself admitted he knew nothing about the game.) One of the most famous exchanges in the play is Gaev’s ode to the cupboard in Act One. This tearful monologue is so absurd that one can’t help laughing at it. Gaev’s comedy is further accentuated by his candies. In Act Two, he notes that he’s eaten all of his substance in sugar-candies. This is a symbol of his childish views in life, something that we would most definitely not see in a tragedy. It is obvious that Ranevsky herself has not matured, either. When her husband and son had died, she left Russia with her lover, leaving Anya and Charlotta behind. She returns to her lover, who has been unfaithful and spent all of her money. She is inherently controlled by her wistfulness, looking out at the garden from her nursery. Nostalgically, she says, “I used to sleep here when I was little…(cries). And here I am, like a little child.” This, of course, is what Chekhov is getting at. Gaev and Ranevsky have not changed, but the world definitely has. They are children in a world full of, and made for, adults. For the most part, they aren’t even aware of reality; and even in their moments of self-awareness, they lack the means to come to true grips with their reality. Whether or not lack of maturity is a tragic flaw is a debate left to the reader. As noted earlier in this essay, I suggest that it is not. Using the classical model as an example, immaturity doesn’t have the same sympathetic pull that other tragic flaws do (as seen in Othello or Hamlet). Again, the English translation does not help to convey these immature qualities. Ranevsky’s first line upon entering is, “The nursery!” (“Detskaya!”) This is linguistically closer to the words for “childhood” (detstvo) and “childish” (detsky) in Russian than in English. (Golub, 18)
The audience should see Charlotta in a comic light as well. She doesn’t say much, but when she does, it usually doesn’t pertain much to the matter at hand. We see this at the beginning of the play when the travelers enter. As Ranevsky is reminiscing about her childhood in the home, Charlotta turns to Pishtchik and says, “My dog eats nuts, too.” It may be a continuation of a conversation which started offstage, but to the audience or reader, it seems like a random statement. Charlotta can be sympathized with as well – she notes that her parents are dead and she feels alone in the world. However, Chekhov does not develop her character deeply enough for the audience to get too attached to her. She is well known for her tricks – in one scene, we see her performing a card trick; later, she shows off her ventriloquist talents. Chekhov was adamant about Charlotta’s role as a comic character – in a letter to Nemirovich he says, “Charlotta is an important role…Muratova might be good, but she’s not funny. This is Ms. Knipper’s role.” (Karlinsky 462)
Even the smaller characters are rife with comedy. Semyenov-Pishtchik is a broad comic figure, as his name implies. Magarshack notes that the first half of his name is “impressively aristocratic and the second farcical – its English equivalent would be Squeaker.” (Dramatist 284) He completely misses jokes and laughs in the wrong place; he even forgets that the house has been sold and promises to stop by on Thursday when the family is just about to leave. Epihodov (or “two and twenty misfortunes”) is another smaller comic character. He is the classic klutz – a man in squeaky boots who drops flowers on the floor, falls over chairs, and crushes a hatbox by putting a suitcase on top of it. He even seems to embrace these calamities, thinking that the nickname has been given to him in affection. He is pedantic and often smug, a man who prides himself on being cultured and is yet unsure whether or not he should shoot himself. His physical awkwardness is a reflection of his master Gaev’s lack of self-discipline, and he is a microcosm of the entire family, the most absurd traits of which are brought together in him.
The one discordant character in The Cherry Orchard is Firs, the old servant who represents the old way of life. When he is left behind at the end, the residents of the house have effectively dropped their aristocratic ways for a new life. One common misconception is that Firs’ final action of lying on the floor is representative of his death. David Magarshack is quick to point out that just because Firs lies on the floor doesn’t mean he’s dead – that “would have introduced a completely alien note in a play which Chekhov never meant to be anything but a comedy.” (Dramatist 285-6) I introduce him just to point out that although he appear somewhat tragic, he exists primarily as a symbol of the old way of life and not as a separate entity to be considered under the same set of characteristics as the other characters. But even some productions play him as a hopeful character – one production by the Utah Shakespeare Festival did just that. (Moorty, par. 3)
However, it is important to note that The Cherry Orchard is not a comedy simply because of the large number of comic scenes and characters. John Reid notes that the comedy lies in Chekhov’s attitude towards the subject – and that attitude is “chiefly determined by the author’s emphasis upon survival and the acceptance of change.” (par. 4) Reid then goes on to point out that “the comic detachment of Chekhov’s treatment allows the audience to recognize, for example, the Ranevskayas’ infantilism, or, the immature idealism of Trofimov’s revolutionary rhetoric – but, at no point, does the diagnosis allow the audience to simplify that subtle juxtaposing of conflicting attitudes and feelings.” (par. 4) The point is, Chekhov is deeper than a quick scan or first viewing would reveal. In my research, I did manage to find one production that was praised overall for its comic characters. This was performed by a touring company of the Moscow Art Theatre in the summer of 1964, which played a repertoire of Gogol’s Dead Souls, Pogodin’s Kremlin Chimes, and The Cherry Orchard. The tour venues included, among others, New York, London, and Tulane University. Harold Hobson of London’s Sunday Times wrote, “If there is inspiration in the London Theatre, it is to be found in the Moscow Art Theatre’s ‘Cherry Orchard’.” The New Yorker’s Edith Oliver had this praise to offer Angelina Stepanova, who played Charlotta: “..as Charlotta, the lanky, nutty governess and amateur conjurer, Angelina Stepanova gives the only legitimate performance of this part I’ve ever seen, making this mysterious woman’s loneliness as important as her freakishness, and at the same time retaining all the comedy of the role.” Oliver concludes her review with a general comment about the comedy of the entire play: “So much of The Cherry Orchard has gone almost unnoticed in other productions of it. In this vigorous, thorough, and subtle one, the details are all brought to light – the nuances of feeling, the bits of high and low comedy, the clues to personality….And the details are the play.” (Edwards 282-85)
However, the tragic translation has, for the most part, become tradition. This is the most disconcerting part about Stanislavski’s flawed interpretations of Chekhov’s plays (and particularly, The Cherry Orchard.) This idea was further enhanced by writers such as George Bernard Shaw, who, in his preface to Heartbreak House (in a reference to The Cherry Orchard) wrote, “Chekhov, more of a fatalist than Tolstoy, had no faith in these charming people extricating themselves. They would, he thought, be sold up and sent adrift by the bailiffs; therefore, he had no scruple in exploiting and flattering their charm.” (Magarshack, Dramatist, 387) This opinion, although far from the truth, probably shaped England’s attitude towards the play more than any other critical study. Author Dorothy Sayers defended Chekhov, pointing out that “the tragedy of futility never succeeds in achieving tragedy. In its blackest moments, it is inevitably doomed to comic gesture.” (Sayers 324) At this point in time, The Cherry Orchard is nearly universally accepted as a tragedy, and to attempt to revive it as a comedy would seem almost futile. But unless we can do so, it will never truly be Chekhov’s play.
Benedetti, Jean. The Moscow Art Theatre Letters. 1991, Routledge, New York.
Edwards, Christine. The Stanislavsky Heritage – Its Contribution to the Russian and American Theatre. 1965, New York University Press, New York.
Gilman, Richard. Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity. 1995, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Golub, Spencer. The Recurrence of Fate: Theatre & Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia. 1994, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. 1966, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York.
Hingley, Ronald. A New Life of Anton Chekhov. 1976, Oxford University Press, London.
Hirsch, Francine. The Russian Empire. Lecture – History of Soviet Russia (History 419). 1/23/2004, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Karlinsky, Simon, and Michael Henry Heim. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought – Selected Letters & Commentary. 1973, University of California Press, Berkley.
Kernin, Alvin B., ed. Character and Conflict – An Introduction to Drama. 1963, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York. *Also, this is my source for the text of The Cherry Orchard. Spellings of characters’ names are taken from this translation, except when I’m directly quoting a text.
Magarshack, David. Chekhov: A Life. 1952, Grove Press, New York.
Magarshack, David. Chekhov the Dramatist. 1952, John Lehmann Ltd., London.
Moorty, S.S. The Cherry Orchard: The Glory of the Past. 2000. Bard.org. 4/15/2004
Priestley, J.B. Chekhov 1970, A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc., Cranbury, New Jersey.
Rayfield, Donald. The Cherry Orchard – Catastrophe and Comedy. 1994, Twayne Publishers, New York.
Rayfield, Donald. Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art. 1975, Harper & Row Publishers, Great Britain.
Reid, John. Vishnevyi sad (The Cherry Orchard). 2004. The Literary Encyclopedia. 4/15/2004
Sayers, Dorothy. The New Statesman and Nation. Feb. 27, 1937, p. 324.
Simmons, Ernest J. Chekhov: A Biography. 1962, Little Brown, Boston.