A Comparison of Comedy in The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard

When one imagines Russian theatre around the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, a barrel of laughs is likely not the first clichéd metaphor to spring to mind. This was a contradiction as Russia as it made its way towards revolution, where the old class system was already dying and the poor were beginning to see glimmers of hope that some wealth and power could be theirs, while at the same time prosperity at large was faltering. This left an aristocracy that was increasingly seeing itself as a hollow shadow of its past, as well as less financially capable of sustaining itself and its way of life. New issues now emerged among those in the servant class, who were finding themselves without employment. This also led to new forms of greed in the merchant and former serf classes who now felt, perhaps rightly so, that it was their turn to be on top. Anton Chekov’s plays subsequently reflect the tumultuous state of rural Russia in which he lived during a time of great social change. As such, the contemporary settings of Anton Chekov’s major plays were not exactly humorous, as on the surface, but rather were deeply chaotic and in many ways had an element of farce. Of course, hard and confusing times are often the sources of the greatest comedy. The conflicts that arose in this period between classes and between persons were certainly ripe for dramatic and even comedic reflection. While it is tempting to read Chekov’s plays as though they are fully tragic—and while it is impossible to ignore the tragic elements that this dramatist’s plays contain—it is more intriguing to discover how the playwright derived so much comedy in these settings.Neither The Seagull nor The Cherry Orchard can be called full comedies in the modern sense of the word; they are not laugh-out-loud funny throughout, nor are they concerned with generally light-hearted and ultimately inconsequential material. Death is seen in both plays, as are the destruction of relationships and the loss of happiness based on certain ways of life. It is possible to imagine how a production might give even these elements a comic twist. This can be done, however, without damaging the honesty or complexity of Chekov’s texts and characters, and in fact there are certain elements in both of the plays that almost demand to be seen as comic rather than tragic. The method by which action is presented in these two plays, namely through narrative dialogue and the use of off-stage action that is only reported to the audience/reader, is one of the primary comedic aspects in each of these plays; this allows Chekov to blend the comic with the tragic by removing the tragedy from the view of the audience, allowing the audience to focus on the comedy. To see a specific use of offstage action to prevent a confrontation between the audience and the truly tragic elements of the play—one need look no further than Konstantin’s second suicide attempt. This comes at the very end of the play, and Konstantin is successful now whereas he failed in his first attempt. He ends his life after a downward cycle of depression that goes ultimately unexplained by Chekov’s text. Had the audience actually witnessed Konstantin’s death, it would be difficult to regard much in the play as truly comedic. Directly viewing as this act of senseless destruction would doubtless focused the audience’s consciousness on the tragic aspects of the play. By keeping this instance offstage, the audience is free to draw stronger associations with other, more comedic which, it must be noted, are more light-hearted than a depressive suicide.Chekov’s use of offstage action is not strictly limited to death, however. In The Cherry Orchard, the purchase of the cherry orchard by Lophakin at the conclusion of the play is mentioned in retrospect, and his plan to cut down the orchard is mentioned in foresight. Interestingly, the most important asset – symbolically, culturally, and financially – of the aristocracy is the cherry orchard, yet the most significant actions of having the orchard usurped by a former serf and his desire to eliminate are is not seen on stage. Again, Chekov skillfully intertwines the dichotomous aspects of tragedy (which is clearly Lyubov’s loss of her orchard) and comedy by his subsequent, comedic (and almost pitiful) portrayal of Lyubov and her response as flighty and idealistically unflustered, almost willfully ignorant. She expresses her horror at her loss of her cherry orchard (and the loss of her nobility, which she does not seem to realize), and immediately returns to her aristocratic ways of planning to travel and even giving out loans. This failure of Lyubov to recognize a shift in social class is an important aspect of characterization present in Chekov’s work. That is, all characters live in their own stasis, a quasi-utopian atmosphere isolated from and unaware of the outside world; they are trapped within the boundaries of their own worlds. This is clear in Lyubov’s response: even though she lost what made her an aristocrat, she maintains the attitude of one – namely, the belief that once one achieves nobility, one can never lose it. Conversely, Lophakin, who does rise in status and wealth after his purchase of the cherry orchard, still maintains aspects of a lower-class serf, such as crudeness and clumsiness, as well as his naivety in handling financial matters. This lack of awareness on both parts of the social spectrum adds to the comedy in both The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. The death that occurs at the end of The Cherry Orchard—that of the serf-turned-servant, Fiers—is far more comic than the death of Konstantin, however, and that is why this death occurs onstage rather than out of sight of the audience. Much of The Cherry Orchard is focused on characters’ selfishness and lack of foresight; with prudence and acknowledgement of others, many of the bad events that befall the characters could have been averted. This is definitely a dark form of comedy, but the repeated nature of this trope throughout the play renders it ultimately comedic. The idea that Fiers decides to curl up, forgotton, on a couch in an old house and die, is the final punch-line of the play and must be seen onstage. Chekov’s portrayal of Fiers’ death as the last action occurring on-stage in the play is the culmination of a character who symbolizes the “lynchpin” that supports and stabilizes the aristocracy. His former role as a slave in the cherry orchard was symbolic of his crucial support to the aristocracy. With the forward progression of society in the play, which inevitably includes the fall of the upper class, Fiers is shown to be increasingly ignored and whose health steadily declines. Finally, with the selling of the cherry orchard and the clear fall in status of the aristocracy at the conclusion of the play, Fiers experiences a prolonged, and an aristocratically-appropriate melodramatic death. Other examples of what is seen and what is unseen as elements of both forestalling true tragedy and embracing full comedy can be seen in both plays. The actual chopping down of the cherry orchard in The Cherry Orchard takes place offstage because, like Konstantin’s death, this would become the full focus of the audience’s experience if it were actually shown rather than merely suggested through offstage action and sounds. Nina’s brief and largely inexplicable appearance in the final act of The Seagull actually allows her breakdown and self-embarrassment to become more comedic, as it is seen to be more nonsensical than a truly tragic loss—she is flighty, disconnected, and an ultimately comedic character because the tragedies in her life occur offstage, while her brief triumphs are directly exposed to the audience as empty and meaningless to everyone except her. The fact that Nina is not privy to the joke again makes this very dark yet very humorous comedy.Interestingly, the many months that intervene between scenes in The Cherry Orchard and the two-year gap in the Seagull demonstrate that the same situations have been allowed to persist for so long that they have essentially reached this state of boredom. Though events occur in these periods, of course, and though the audience even learns of some of these events through the dialogue of the play, these events do little other than sustain the status quo of the characters and they remain largely unchanged when the audience views them again directly. This is comic because rather than directly observing these characters going through their ups and downs, the audience only sees that their rises and falls are of little importance. When such meaninglessness is juxtaposed against the level of meaning and the depth of emotion that these characters attach to the same meaningless developments, the result can be nothing other than comedy—again, very dark and cynical comedy, but comedy nonetheless.Modern theatre—most modern disciplines in the arts as well as the sciences, for that matter—have become obsessed with categorization. Determining whether Chekov’s plays should be classified as tragedies or comedies is a perennial debate amongst theatre practitioners and scholars, and the case certainly has not been resolved on the stage. It is clear, however, that the comedic aspects of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard are at least as strong as the elements of tragedy traditionally seen in these plays. In both The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, Chekov as a witness to major historical turning points in Russian history, served both as a literary commentator and as a satirist.

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