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.
Lessons of the Cherry Orchard
Anton Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” is labeled a comedy, however, it has a handful of meaningful lessons that can be learned from the characters featured in the play. These character’s debacles and actions act almost as a social commentary for the industrial era in which the play was written. One of the characters that best represent this idea is the maid Dunyasha. Dunyasha is a maid with a background of poverty but her job has her constantly surrounded by the lives of the “wealthy” Raynevskaya family. She has gotten so use to being around “their lifestyle” (Chekhov 864) that she subconsciously attempts to live as they do. However, whenever she outwardly acts as a higher class individual, there is always a person who is actually of the upper class to put Dunyasha in her place. With her, Lopakhin is also treated differently due to his poor past despite rising to the middle class. The idea of never being able to rise above the class a person is born into was prominent during the early industrial era however this idea would soon change with the introduction of the middle class. Both of these ideas are seen throughout the play and prove to be one of the most prominent lessons that Chekhov wished to teach the audience.
It is not long after we are first introduced to Dunyasha that it becomes apparent that she is of the lower class and has no chance to rise above it. As Dunyasha and Lopakhin (a wealthy business man) anxiously wait for the arrival of the Ranyevskaya family, Lopakhin takes notice of Dunyasha’s attire which is not her normal lower class attire. He criticizes her by saying that she is “getting to full of herself” (851) and stresses that she needs to “remember who [she is]” (851). The irony behind this is that similarly to Dunyasha, Lopakhin also comes from a poor background. Even though he has since risen to become a wealthy and successful business man of the upper middle class, he seems to have forgotten who he use to be as if he were never a poor boy who simply wished to live a more prosperous life. You would think that Lopakhin would have sympathy for Dunyasha but quite the opposite seems to be true. It is this type of selfishness that made the divide between the upper class and the lower class as large as it was back in that time.
Despite being treated as a subordinate, Dunyasha still fights to be seen as more than just a maid. It is for that reason that she does not act like a typical maid. She is always involved in the conversations around her no matter the social status of the group. When Dunyasha is reunited with Anya she almost fights to make her life seem interesting and that it should be of importance to Anya. While talking to Anya, Dunyasha addresses her as if she did not work for her family. She claims that she “can’t wait another minute” (852) to describe all that has happened in her life since Anya’s absence. To this, Anya replies “now what?” (852) and the stage directions make it obvious that Anya has no interest in Dunyasha’s life and yet she keeps on talking as if she is a friend of equal status to Anya. Dunyasha’s naivety to her situation as a lower class individual represents the youth’s lack of distinction between classes and how she simply wishes to live as her employers do.
Dunyasha is not the only character that fights to be recognized as an equal to the Ranyevskaya’s. Lopakhin has known the Rayevskaya family since his father worked as a serf on the family property. Despite currently being successful and being the only person attempting to save the family from debt, some members of the family still see Lopakhin as “crude” (855). The family seems to live in the past with how they treat people and how they act. Despite being in debit, the family still lives as if “money grows on trees” (860) which causes them to act the way they do. The mother gives out “two hundred and forty rubles” (860) despite having no money while her brother is always the first to ask whose “wearing the cheap cologne” (855). Perhaps if they gave up their old lives they would be able to prosper. Lopakhin’s ability to not live in the past is what gives him the edge in becoming the family’s savior. He is willing to give up the cherry tree orchard to preserve the future while the family is not as willing because they want to preserve the past.
Ultimately, the motif of living in the past is what causes the divide between the characters social standings. The reason why the mother is reluctant to sell her property was partly due to the fact that it would be occupied by middle class families. The idea of the “middle class” was a new concept and was not greatly accepted by the posh upper class. To the lower class it was an opportunity to rise above poverty. The middle class would appeal to Dunyasha and move her closer in social status to the family that she attempts to mimic. In the end the interaction between the different social classes in the play represented the social changes that were evident with the arrival of industrialization. Anton Chekhov helps shed light on the social discrimination between the classes with the treatment of Dunyasha and with the downfall of the wealthy family, predicts the change that was imminent in that time.
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.
The Cherry Orchard: Chekhov’s Comedy, Stanislavsky’s Tragedy
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. WORKS CITED 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.
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.
The Cherry Orchard: Creating the Genre of the Tragicomedy
Anton Chekhov fought with the famed Stanislavsky over staging his play The Cherry Orchard as a tragedy. According to Chekhov, the play about a well-to-do family forced to surrender its home and orchard to a man who began life as a mere serf on their estate was intended to be viewed strictly as a comedy. Historically speaking, comedy and tragedy are the oldest genres of drama and can typically be differentiated according to their endings: a comedy ends happily, while a tragedy has a much more downbeat resolution. Chekhov claims he wrote The Cherry Orchard to be performed as a quite specific subgenre of comedy, a farce. What differentiates farce from other types of comedy is the introduction and utilisation of a more broadly-based humor, eccentric occurrences, and occasionally bawdy content. Konstantin Stanislavsky, famous for inventing “The Method” school of acting, ignored the declared authorial intent, and instead, foreshadowing the New Criticism around the corner, chose to stage the play according to his own interpretation of it as a tragedy (Haslam 24). Stanislavsky’s choice became the standard method for producing The Cherry Orchard, as later directors have shied away from the considerable problems associated with staging the play according to its author’s vision. The primary obstacle that blocks the route toward audiences watching The Cherry Orchard as a farce is that the strict adherence to Greek definitions of tragedy precludes exploration of the play’s political idealism as comedic. Tragedy has come to be classified as a drama that follows the downward spiral of a character who, while noble, also is plagued by what has come to be known as the tragic flaw or, as Aristotle described it, hamartia. Hamartia is not so much a character flaw as it is an error in judgment that sends the hero on his course to a tragic ending (Aristotle 27). Tragedy differs from comedy not just in how events play out, but also in how the characters are presented, and this may well be the crux of the argument over whether a presentation of The Cherry Orchard as farce would undermine the stark political ideals of many of its characters. Tragic characters are dignified through elevated poetry and great scenes of tragic import that lead to the one thing that a comedy is not expected, though occasionally does, contain: catharsis. Catharsis is a Greek dramatic term that has come to mean a spiritual cleansing. In its original meaning, however, Aristotle created the term as a response to Plato’s fear that poetry led men to act irrationally. Aristotle posits that through catharsis people can treated to a harmless expurgation of pent-up emotional unrest via fictional representations of profound psychological anxiety (Aristotle 27). That is heady stuff, and reveals clearly the importance to the Greeks of delineating between comedy and tragedy. The problem in regard to Chekhov is that The Cherry Orchard does not snugly conform to the ideals of Aristotelian tragedy, yet nevertheless presents characters who do exhibit hamartia in the sense that their own lapses in judgment result in what to them is a tragic ending rather than a happy ending. In addition, while the play’s resolution cannot truly be described as cathartic, it does retain the power to invoke the sense of pity that is also an integral element of tragedy (Haslam 46). Further complicating the issue is that, unlike most tragedies, the humor of The Cherry Orchard is undeniable, although this humor is only obvious in short passages. The question that must be considered in light of the fact that The Cherry Orchard has now been well-established as a tragedy is whether the comedy succeeds in undermining the tragic realism and political idealism that vital to contemporary enjoyment of a play that, apparently, is capable of being performed both as farce and as tragedy. Returning to Aristotle, the definition of a comedy differs from a tragedy through such means as comedy being merely an imitation so feared by Plato. The primary Aristotelian differentiation between tragedy and comedy meets at the crossroads of hamartia. The infamous tragic flaw is rarely discovered in comedy; in its place Aristotle finds ludicrous faults of a much lower order (Cooper 5-8). The difficulty that comes with viewing the political seriousness of The Cherry Orchard is probably due, at least in part, to this mistaken assumption that comedy is a lower order than tragedy. Indeed, contemporary critics have coined a new phrase to allow for comedic elements to be introduced into the tragic milieu: tragicomedy. Aristotle would no doubt find this disturbing. It is equally disturbing from a modern perspective that, while more open to allowing comedy to contain profound themes, is still universally resistant to conferring the same weight upon pure comedy as upon pure drama. The traditionally Aristotelian comic character is designed with the intention of drawing laughs, but even in Greek comedy satire was the predominant genre. Satire works best when it is applied through a deadpan imitation of seriousness; attempting to satirise, for instance, an Ingmar Bergman film by replacing his stark imagery, long takes, and sparse dialogue with the manic elements of farce would result in utter failure. The Cherry Orchard succeeds in infusing the serious with the comical by delivering itself as comedy without compromising the seriousness of the characters who spout political ideals. As one instance, the ending of the player is neither fully comic nor fully tragic; Ranevsky is arguably in a better condition at the play’s conclusion than she was at its origin. She has been allowed the opportunity to do what few characters in a tragedy are allowed: to eschew the mistakes of her past and move on. Ranevsky is second only to the orchard itself in importance and the sympathy she quite naturally draws comes very close to ascribing certain elements of the tragic hero to her. There is some legitimacy to this concept structurally as well since the play’s forward motion follows her journey. Political idealism succeeds very often in drawing sympathy; it just as easily draws laughter. Chekhov’s brilliance is in creating a play that dares to challenge both perspectives on the validity of idealistic hope.This duality is represented no better than in the character of Boris Simeonov-Pishchik, who in contemporary terms is a tragicomic character. While his pleas throughout the play are presented as comedy, what lies beneath that veneer is a very serious, even tragic, situation. This is Chekhov finding the core connection that ties tragedy to comedy, with boundless enthusiastic optimism as the ribbon. What makes the scenes involving Boris asking Ranevsky for help in getting out from under his debt avoid real tragedy is not necessarily because they are presented comically, but because the comedy serves to further underline the double-edged sword of an idealistic outlook. Consider the following lines spoken by Pishchik: “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.” Surficially those words are comical, supporting the farce that Chekhov saw as the play’s driving comic force. At the same time, however, there is universality to his words than speak of generations people of all classes who find themselves in sudden economic uncertainty. Within that division of the funny and the serious is an even greater dramatic contradiction within the play that has led to the century-long debate over whether The Cherry Orchard is a farce or a tragedy.Few things in life can provide the opportunity for elevating the dignity or stripping the dignity away from a person than idealistic values. Chekhov consistently does both within the same character or situation by first allowing the audience to feel empathy toward a character and then introducing comedy to show the slippery quality of idealistic beliefs. Take as one instance the way that Chekhov treats the character of Gayev, a supposedly elegant patrician. The traditional view of such a character type is forever tainted in the scene in which Gayev is forced to deflate his façade and demand that his sister make the choice between him and a lowly footman. Further corrupting the idealistic view of a certain kind of citizen that Gayev is supposed to represent is the fact that he becomes an official at the bank despite the fact that it appears he is entirely incapable of holding such a job of grave responsibility for any length of time. The Cherry Orchard clearly takes place within a period of time that is ripe for tragedy, as Russian aristocrats and landed gentry began to face up to the coming revolution. Obviously, the play should not be viewed in Marxist terms since Chekhov was hardly a Marxist, but the metaphorical bananas he tosses toward political idealism does force one to confront and decide which side of the class warfare should be viewed most heroically. Chekhov almost certainly did not intend for The Cherry Orchard to be viewed as an outright indictment of the upper class to which he belonged, but the fact that he viewed his play as a farce may well be an indication that he was ahead of his time in viewing the ability of comedy to make revolutionary points that would get lost in the emotional pathos that is difficult to avoid in a tragedy. The tragedy of those characters in the play comes about from their lack of adaptability. Anyone holding fast to political idealism in which the worst character flaw is the inability to change with the times can be forgiven for seeing more humor in this situation than tragedy. ReferencesAristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. Trans. George Whalley. Ed. John Baxter and Patrick Atherton. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997Cooper, L. An Aristotelian theory of comedy, with an adaptation of the poetics, and a translation of the tractatus coislinianus’. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1922. Haslam, S. Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard. In R.D. Brown and S. Gupta, Eds. Aestheticism and modernism. London: Routledge, 2005.