The Cherry Orchard: Creating the Genre of the Tragicomedy

January 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.  

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