The Cherry Orchard
“The Cherry Orchard”: Liberation Leads to Different Paths
The Cherry Orchard, a classic of modern theater by Anton Chekhov, portrays the coming of age in a Russian society that is beginning to witness a rising middle class upon freeing the serfs. The characters of Firs (the manservant to Gayef) and Lopakhin (a rising middle class businessman and landowner) react differently to this changing way of life. Lopakhin takes his liberation and elevates himself to a higher level, whereas Firs is unable to figure out what to do with himself after so many years as a serf and, consequently, stays enslaved; however, both men always remain aware of their lower status amid this changing era.
Lopakhin takes the horrid poverty of his parents’ peasantry origins and uses them as a motivation to raise himself up a notch into the developing middle class: “Well, it was soon over. I bid nine thousand more than the mortgage, and got it; and now the cherry orchard is mine! . . . If only my father and grandfather could rise from their graves and see the whole affair, how their Yermolai, their flogged and ignorant Yermolai, who used to run about barefooted in the winter, how this same Yermolai had bought a property that hasn’t its equal for beauty anywhere in the whole world! I have bought the property where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed into the kitchen” (Chekhov 38). He makes his money by making shrewd and cunning business decisions which resemble his idea to sell off plots of the cherry orchard for villas. Lopakhin is a person who sees a problem and envisions a way to repair the problem because he is a forward thinker. He even becomes something of a financial advisor to his former mistress, Madame Ranevsky, when he tells her and Gayef repeatedly to sell pieces of the orchard and set up villas for the rising middle class to move onto: “You know your cherry orchard is going to be sold to pay the mortgage… if only you will cut up the cherry orchard and the land along the river into building lots and let it off on lease for villas… It’ll all be snapped up. In two words, I congratulate you; you are saved” (Chekhov 8). Unfortunately, unlike Lopakhin, she and Gayef are too proud and ignorant to heed this advice. They allow their sentiment towards their childhood home to interfere with the best decision for them financially: “Cut down the cherry orchard! . . . If there is one thing that’s interesting, remarkable in fact, in the whole province, it’s our cherry orchard” (Chekhov 9). Lopakhin, unlike Firs and many other once-enslaved people, is able to rise up from his ashes to produce a better life for himself and his family; and even buys the property he and his predecessors were enslaved on. Liberation leads Lopakhin differently because Lopakhin takes advantage of his opportunities and is able to see past the current struggles and failures into the future. He then creates a plan which will allow his future to be bright and successful by thinking things through and making sometimes hard, yet ultimately responsible decisions to implement his plan.
Firs, on the other hand, withers under enslavement, and dwindles even more under freedom. Firs has spent so many years being told what to do that he cannot think for himself and is unable to see forward; he is paralyzed by the past and its old ways. He continues to go through the motions of taking care of an already grown Gayef because it is what he has always done. Firs only lives to please: “My mistress has come home; at last I’ve seen her. Now I’m ready to die” (Chekhov 6) although the devotion is not mutual; in fact, he is regarded as somewhat crazy by those he respects the most. Perhaps if Firs were a little more self-respecting and selfish in the right way he would realize that in these changing times a servant can amount to anything; formerly enslaved Russians cannot survive if they solely follow the ways they have grown accustomed to. Firs constantly repeats throughout the play that all the ways of the past were perfect and society should go back to that era–of serfs and masters–when a servant knew what to do with himself or herself. Firs’ inability to rise to the opportunities presented to him and his unwillingness to make a name and a living for himself lead him to be a lonely man who dies without a soul around him: “Life has gone by as if I never lived” (Chekhov 49). Although Madame Ranevsky questions whether or not Firs was taken to the hospital and is there safely, she does not thoroughly check the situation and instead believes a fellow ex-serf Yasha when he claims that he has taken Firs to the hospital. After doing so much for a family he loves, Firs is disrespected in the worst of ways and is not shown the care he deserves. In actuality, Firs is alone in the house after everyone has deserted him and falls to a bench and dies there without anyone at all to see or even to know.
Although both Lopakhin and Firs are connected to serf society in Russia, these characters react differently to the liberation they are presented with. Whereas Lopakhin grows from his background of poverty, Firs is unable to accept the challenge and think for himself. Both, however, remain aware of their previous serfdom and remain aware of the changes occurring around them. During the time period of The Cherry Orchard, a radically new Russia emerged: “In 1861, when it became clear that Russia was no longer a great power, Czar Alexander II issued the Emancipation Manifesto, which called for the freedom of all serfs. Peasants were now able to buy land. The hope was that a transformation of the social order would spark a market economy. During this time a middle class rose to power peopled by industrialists, businessmen, merchants and other professionals. These reforms caused great controversy as they introduced what was the beginning of a free-market economy, undermining the power of the nobility and sometimes even impoverishing them.” Lopakhin took advantage of this new market society successfully, while Firs drifted away into nothing but a dying memory of an outdated way of life. Thus, these two characters portray the growing Russia from different viewpoints, showing us a glimmer of the reaction of the actual people of the time. Both Firs and Lopakhin, although they treat the liberation differently, remain aware of the poverty from which they rose and of the varying Russia around them. Firs continues to believe the past was better for all and should not be altered. Lopakhin reflects on his rise from poverty after he successfully buys the cherry orchard which shackled his father and grandfather for the entirety of their lives.
While Lopakhin uses his new opportunities to the best of his ability and rises to become a middle-class wealthy landowner, Firs remains chained to the “good old ways” and dies completely alone. Both characters portray the implementation of change in Russia and recognize their poverty. Although they are extremely unique characters who take advantage of their opportunities very distinctively, both are central to Chekhov’s pointed portrayal of the rising middle class.
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.
Static in Motion : Examining the Complexities and Contradictions of Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard
A notoriously psychological composer of satire and comedy, Anton Chekhov employs The Cherry Orchard as a case study of an ensemble of ludicrous characters united in their inability to transform their behaviors or identities. Each character appears suspended in his/her separate concerns, each so self-absorbed that he/she is rendered ineffectual in saving the estate and orchard; the characters appear doomed to remain forever as they are: Trofimov the student, Gaev the silenced, Firs the slave, Lyubov the gullible, etc. In contrast, Lopakhin is driven by motivations of action and change: though his father was born a peasant and his grandfather a serf before him, Lopakhin has risen above poverty and become even richer than the aristocrats who once owned his family. By this virtue, he represents the new wealth of Russia in an increasingly democratic and middle class society. However, Chekhov reveals that despite his wealth and appearance, Lopakhin remains painfully bound to his identity as a peasant, static despite his role as a major force of action throughout the play. Each aspect of his character is shaped by his peasant mentality, including his pessimism about life, desire to succeed in business, and hypocritical attitude towards transcending class positions.Chekhov wastes little time establishing Lopakhin as a character entrapped in the past. In the play’s first monologue, Lopakhin displays incredible self-awareness and self-deprecation as he recounts his transformation from a peasant boy whose father beat him into a successful business man in a three-piece suit and fancy shoes. Despite this triumph, he recalls the expression that he is “a silk purse from a sow’s ear” (Act 1, line 29); that is, he reveals the inherent contradiction of his being, that it’s impossible to make something of true quality from poor materials (i.e. an aristocrat from a peasant). To further drive home this point, Lopakhin despairs: “I read through this entire book and didn’t understand a word of it” (Act 1, lines 34-35). Despite his wealth, Lopakhin lacks the culture and education required to truly rise above his peasantry, openly dismissing the success of his present and future beyond the realm of mere aesthetics. It’s interesting that he makes little effort to hide his shame and dismay concerning his origins, an attitude which reflects upon this plain, straight-talking and summative style of speech (from which we draw a stark contrast from the obscure references in other character dialogues). Save a few quips and remarks, Lopakhin’s tangents repeatedly relate to his father or his peasant status, suggesting he is a character with a metaphoric chip on his shoulder who works hard to prove himself when even he admits the effort is futile.Lopakhin’s fatalistic attitudes towards his identity are contrasted sharply with his optimistic ambitions in the realm of business. Unlike his origins, he has power and control over wealth, seeking to depart at least aesthetically from his past through clever planning. Due to his skill, he could be seen as the would-be hero of the play; he is prepared to save the family from their debts, generously loaning them $50,000 to start up their consolidation of the orchard’s land into summer homes. He even identifies with the family and takes their plight personally–especially that of Lyubov, who showed him kindness during his days as a peasant. He cries “I love you like my own flesh and blood… more, even, than my own flesh and blood, (Act 1, lines 277-278),” later grouping himself with the family’s lot by saying “unless we come up with a plan, unless we reach a decision” (lines 328-329). The use of “we” is very interesting here, since this displays genuine concern and identification with a class whom he can identify with on a financial, but not personal, level. His dialogue is often short, quipped, sarcastic or humorous when responding to the tangential dialogue of other characters, and he constantly glances at his watch to suggest his social discomfort in matters non-related to business. He is a character motivated not so much by deep-vested personal interest in the family, but rather to see the land developed into one reflecting his vision of “wealth, prosperity, [and] happiness” (though he ignores the more social ramification of replacing the grandeur of the orchard with ordinary housing (Act 1, line 358)).“You only have to try to get something done to realize how few honest, decent people there are in this world,” he at one point laments (Act 3, lines 343-344). Here, his pessimism about life rears itself to criticize the household itself. However, it’s very interesting to note that he’s criticizing them for the very reasons he criticizes himself: lack of self transformation and movement. For the family to react to the selling of the estate would imply a change within themselves, from passive to proactive, from personal irresponsibility to responsibility. However, aristocracy is stereotypically defined as possessing such qualities; hard work and effort is left to the lower classes. Lopakhin exclaims “I can’t live without work, I don’t know what to do with my hands…they’re hanging there, as if they belonged to someone else” (Act 4, lines 37-39). In contrast, the practice of aristocracy is idle hands. Lopakhin repeatedly labels himself as ‘just a peasant’ unable to shake the habits of his past, yet he faults the aristocracy by not, in a sense, becoming peasant-like by laboring and earning their wealth. He desires them to change in a way that he has already deemed impossible, though in previous parts of the play he was quick to remind characters of their “place.” (For example, he chides the maid Dunyasha for dressing attractively and reminds Trofimov that he will always be a student.)Finally, despite his distaste for their inaction and apathy, Lopakhin takes great pains to help the family. As a reader I cheered in the scene in which he begs Lyubov to action, warning “either I’m going to burst out sobbing, or screaming, or else I’m going to fall on the ground, right here in front of you. I can’t stand it any more! You’re driving me mad!” (Act 2 lines 164-166). Indeed, he echoes the sentiment of the audience that Lopakhin has clearly formed a plan to save the orchard, that he has repeated this plan several times, and that these pleas have fallen upon deaf ears. From this, we gather that Lopakhin is a genuinely good man, a man of business savvy that could have likely easily scammed the family out of their estate if he so chose. It was only after all his methods of persuasion failed that he acquired the estate, bidding a ridiculously high $90,000 over the previous debt. That he would pay so much displays the heavy symbolic value he weighs in transcending the peasantry of his past. “Here comes the new master, the owner of the cherry orchard!” he cries in glee, comically knocking over a candlelabrum (Act 3, lines 406, 407). Though he now owns the property, this comedic moment reveals that he is a clumsy master of its aristocratic connotations.Ultimately, though Lopakhin drives the plot of the play by pushing for action and buying the estate, his identity remains unchanged by the acquisition. Like the other characters, he is merely a piece in the mosaic of suspended characters, unable to change the fundamental aspects of himself that make him forever a peasant. Even after Lopakhin’s grand standing of the achievement, he reveals that he will not even be staying at the estate, but rather going off to further business (Act 4 lines 34-35). In the end, his victory has accomplished little.