”The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov
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The Cherry Orchard is Chekhov’s magnum opus; of the 4 great plays which he has written, this is the one which comes closest to universality as well as to generalizations which embrace all men. The Cherry Orchard is a far less sombre play–it is a laughable, regrettable chaos, it was written, with daring effort, by a dying man. Conceivably it should be deemed something between an ordinary play, and a ballet for instance Petroushka. In normal drama there is generally a significant unity of action; however, very often, little unity of acting. In The Cherry Orchard the unity of action is for the most part lost in a diversity of themes; its real unity lies in the union of its actors to make a total effect of combined tears and laughter. However there is as well a propensity in drama for attention to be concentrated on the actor speaking at a given moment, whereas the others eagerly wait their turns to speak; while in ballet the dancers dance simultaneously. At all events there are scenes of cautiously studied confusion in The Cherry Orchard which reminds of the crowd-scenes in a ballet like Petroushka. Nowhere else in Chekhov’s major plays is there such a whirl of boisterous humor and ludicrous absurdity. (Ed Menta, 1997)
Although it reflects striking aspects of the Russian soul it as well contains aspects of feelings and thoughts which are relevant to all mankind. The Cherry Orchard is born from silence, it is a huge pantomime recounting in the course of two hours and being decorated every now and then with bursts of poetry in the similar way as a necklace is livened up here and there with beautiful jewels. It is a setting of concise retorts which frame a very unusual silence. The Cherry Orchard flows gradually like life; it is a sort of pure spring in which one hears the murmur of souls. Only some plays can give such a physical “impression of the passing of time”; this effect is attained through the fact that starting from silence, the play reproduces most intensely the present; and the theatre is primarily the art of the present. In life the present is what is most difficult to get hold of. Consequently it is not surprising that The Cherry Orchard ought to be a play very difficult to grasp; its action occurs in silences, and the dialogues, with the poetic outbursts which shine like jewels, are like music merely meant to make silence vibrate: silence struggles with time which in front of us or behind our backs constantly transforms the future into past and memory. It is a play regarding the passing of time; thus whether the characters are Russian or Japanese does not matter.
Similar to some plays of Shakespeare and Molière it is a play which has universal value and which belongs to all mankind. However just as that English genius has illustrated better than anybody else the approach of madness, and just as French insight is at its best in telling the problems of the human heart, the Russian genius appears to be better fitted than any other to handle the present or the lived moment. Is Russia not placed astride the east and the west in just the same way as the present is astride the past and the future? Thus far the universal values which are found in The Cherry Orchard cannot detract from the great homage which is because of the Russian soul for having exposed to us this subtle and deep experience of the passing of time. The arrangement of this play, which is constructs on silence and which occurs in the present, is basically musical. The present, certainly, is something so indefinable, so fast changing, that the author never has sufficient time to build up a given theme, therefore he must always pass on to the next.
There is no time to stop, thus we pass from an everyday incident to a sentimental sensation, from this sensation to a general thought, from that to a joke, from that to reflections on society, and all that., without ever exhausting any one of these moments which are in fact merely means of avoiding the danger to which one incessantly returns. We are confronted by a series of moments of torpor scattered with sharp awakenings and ineffective attempts to turn away a magnetic attraction towards suffering and disaster, likewise as one tries to keep oneself awake for the reason that one is afraid of dying in one’s sleep. Each of these unfulfilled and incomplete moments leaves behind a state of apprehension which is in fact the true subject of the play. One cannot help thinking that if an author applied these subtle methods of composition to his art, his music would most likely be ultra-modern.
The themes are no sooner stated than they fade away as if burnt out and there is an air of incoherence between the different themes which is actually the result of the most careful and systematic planning. The dramatic movement is tremendously subtle, and built as it is on a musical analogy, it is a slow movement. The dramatic cadence of the play is a matter of density and not of velocity, or of speed of acting and recounting events; it is efficient when every instant is filled to capacity. It is often said, and it is even confirmed as far as The Cherry Orchard is concerned in the Dictionnaire des Oeuvres, that there is very little action in Chekhov. What this in reality means is that there are no complex plots or abundance of incidents; however that does not mean that there is no action. Action must not be puzzled with plot. “Let whatever you do be always simple,” said Horace, and Racine added: “Invention consists in making something out of nothing.” The action of The Cherry Orchard is taut, and it holds the whole play, for every one of its moments is well filled and has its own density which does not lie in the dialogue but in the flowing life. (F. L. Lucas, 1963)
The rest of the play is made up of life itself. The house is asleep in the night, waiting; people arrive; have some coffee, read a telegram, after that go to bed. The morning comes, the birds awaken. In small groups, the inmates of the house sit in turn on the same bench, similar to flights of swallows on the same telegraph wire. Some Jewish musicians pass by, playing; the moon rises; some dancing takes place; one more telegram is read, then a few glasses of kvass, a game at cards; five people arrive from town. The time has now come to leave ‘the cherry orchard’; clothes have to be packed up, furniture has to be brought together; one hears the jingling bells of the horses in the courtyard; the shutters are closed, a last glance at the old wells and all is over. This house, which two hours before was like a pregnant woman about to give birth, is now an icy tomb from which life has fled. This life composed of silences, these strangely fleeting themes, this sorrowful and tormented unfolding of the action, confront French actors with entrancing problems. The French actor is used to basing his acting on the text which, in the French theatre, usually contains the action; here in this case, acting must find its basis outside the text. When the action is contained in the text, it unfolds at a quicker cadence than when it is outside the text.
The French actor is thus used to a quick tempo. The Cherry Orchard has a slow tempo, even for Russian actors, and besides that, Russian slowness is not the same as French slowness; consequently The Cherry Orchard must be produced according to French slowness and not Russian slowness, however this slowness constitutes for French actors an outstanding discipline in the art of conveying the density of life. There are few plays more entrancing than this play. There are not several actors who get thoroughly engrossed and lost in this play, however when that happens, those who do so live the best moments of their artistic lives. It is the same for a whole cast; The Cherry Orchard is one of the few plays in which an entire cast could in fact get so intensely lost as to cease to think that they are in a theatre, and believe on the contrary that this family truly exists and that they are in real life, and such an amazing metamorphosis occurs in the name of poetic truth. This play belongs neither to the naturalism of the start of the century nor to realism, it belongs to truth, and truth always has two faces, a real one and a poetic one–its look and its inner meaning, and that is the foundation of poetic realism as in Shakespeare.
The Cherry Orchard reminds of a nest of tables which stretch indefinitely one into the other; it starts from any known everyday subject, to move to the universal and the general; it is something like a Japanese flower which starts unfolding in a glass of water once the appropriate tablet has been thrown in; it is as well a kind of allegory, which starting from everyday life rises to the metaphysical plane; it begins from individuals in their own universe and it rises to the general plane where individuals are seen under the angle of universality, and that is what makes it a great play.
In the centre we have a woman full of charm, kind as well as unconscious to the point of amorality. She symbolizes that type of human being which is weak, fervent, most attractive by the combination of virtue and weakness which makes the true hero. Her heart in her hand, a sinner full of love, distributing her money freely, Liouba is the symbol of humanity, the eternal human being. Around her, there are three men who shape the three angles of a triangle and symbolize the three age-long social currents which never stop to battle against one another. Gaiev exemplifies custom, ancient civilization and the old generation; he stands for an age which has lost its vivacity, which is now fast fading away, and which one tries to hold back with all the homesickness of a good thing which has been lost and thus far remains worthy of love. At the top of the second angle, we discover Lopakine, the son of a moujik, the hard-working business man, proud of his recently acquired strength, and as well somewhat feeling guilty of the imperfections which he still drags about him.
He also loves and esteems the age which is just fading away and would like to save it, however social evolution is tempting and he finds himself more or less compelled to buy ‘The cherry orchard’, sign of an obsolete world; it is he who has the idea of exploiting it in a modern way, by dividing the property into plots of land for building new houses. He announces in predictive tones the first revolution which was to break out a year later (we are in 1904). If Gaiev represents the past, Lopakine represents the present. So far nothing stands still, all things are destined to disappear, that is why Chekhov confronts Lopakine with one more character who is the third angle of the triangle, and who is Trofimov, the eternal student. Trofimov has a kind of undeveloped visionary gift which allows him to tell Lopakine that the present occupiers of his recently built houses will be their owners tomorrow; Trofimov, who is the potential revolutionary, announces the 1917 revolution and the truth that every social revolution is followed by another. We cannot help thinking regarding the permanent state of revolution of Trotsky.
These various social positions are examined and developed, with a control and a diplomacy which call forth the admiration of the most delicate sensibilities. The social aspect of The Cherry Orchard is dealt with by a fairy-like hand and consequently is all the more effective. Like the Chinese methods of acupuncture, the prick is small however the consequences are of enormous importance and go far beyond the ‘Russian case’. They have an effect on every one of us, both in space and time; it is something that is applicable for all men at all times. If the individuals who are studied turn out to be sociological cases, sociology then turns into a science which is of interest for the eternal individual. Trofimov elucidates how this kind of development occurs; he says: “If we wish to begin to live, we must first of all redeem our past and tear ourselves away from it; but one cannot do that without great suffering, and one cannot redeem anything without a frightful and obstinate effort.”
This sentence is clearly addressed to a whole generation, as well as to a whole society and as well to the religious notion of redemption; however it is also addressed to every individual throughout the ages and in its most general aspects. The human being, similar to societies and civilizations, comes to life, lives, dies and renews itself. Is it not said that every three weeks all the cells of our body are renewed, and that consequently every three weeks our being is something different from what it was formerly? Chekhov deals with three types of human beings” Gaiev the one who is about to disappear, Lopakine the one who is due to replace him in the present, as well as Trofimov the one who already prepares for the one who will replace Lopakine. They are the past, the present and the future.
Though, attractive our past might be, however such we might cling to it, we have to become commendable to received the future, and so as to be so; we have to have the courage to tear ourselves away from our past; it is the price we have to pay for the right to live, it is the redemption and the ransom exacted by life; “good night, old life, good morning, new life”; and while the eyes may still be reddened by tears, a new smile starts to break. That’s life, and that is the lesson of The Cherry Orchard. That is the meaning of the three men who gravitate round Liouba Ranievsky, the moving sign of humanity on the march, on a plane far above any social plane. The Cherry Orchard is neither a pragmatic play nor a social play; Chekhov is too great a man to tie himself to one single plane; it is the play of a great poet who, owing to the depth of his feeling, and an extraordinary vision, goes beyond the social, which is given the significance that it deserves, to the very sources of existence. (Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, 2002)
One more lesson which can be learnt from The Cherry Orchard is that Chekhov illustrates us what a true artist is. We rather are inclined to shun that word on account of hypocritical modesty, however we nevertheless know that an artist is a witness for his time and so he must try first and foremost to be the servant of justice. We cannot be follower and just simultaneously; a true artist can merely be partisan of justice and nothing else; he can merely be committed to justice and to nothing else, and such was Chekhov’s love of justice that it is said that he was appreciated and admired by the two camps which existed in the Russia of his time. In The Cherry Orchard we love Gaiev and we love the good old days, however we as well love Lopakine and would hope to help him to purify himself and to bring to him what he lacks and what at times gives him a sense of disgrace. At the same time we cannot although approve of the ideas of Trofimov; we regret his droopiness, and would ask him to be more sensible in his revolutionary plans.
Chekhov’s art is an art dedicated to justice, consequently to great art, and The Cherry Orchard leaves behind it a great feeling of impartiality. Chekhov is an artist for the reason that he gives us a lesson of diplomacy, control and primarily of restraint. One cannot be a great artist without a strong sense of pudicity. The lack of pudicity can merely be excused on the ground of simplicity and candor; but certainly one must not confuse restraint and prudishness. Chekhov educates us the art of economy. One cannot take away anything from The Cherry Orchard; whatever could be left out has been, left out by the author. One is reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s admirable remark regarding one of his films: “When a work seems finished, you shake it like a fruit tree so as to keep only the fruit which cling solidly to the branches.” “Never put anything in a play which is not absolutely necessary,” said Racine.
With Chekhov the stage directions themselves are significant and must be examined with great care; in one of his letters he said: “One finds often in my plays the stage direction: “through tears”, but that is intended to show the state the characters are in and not the tears.” All his characters, like the majority of Shakespeares characters, are ambiguous; Lopakine the terrible is as well a shy, undecided and good man; Madame Ranievsky, the victim, has too a very fervent nature; Gaiev who represents tradition is lazy; Trofimov, the revolutionary, is a spineless, impetuous character. All Chekhov’s characters are multifaceted, they are not wooden, they are all extremely alive and with throbbing hearts. (Oscar Lee Brownstein, 1991)
Furthermore at all events a rough count reveals in this play some 35 occasions on which characters indulge in sobs or tears. Some, certainly, of these tears may be simplistic and ridiculous. But by no means all. It appears a lot of weeping for a pure ‘farce’. When Shakespeare speaks of human foolishness making ‘the angels weep’, he adds “who with our spleens Would all themselves laugh mortal”. This hardly proposes that the angels are mistaken, and inferior to men, for the reason that they weep rather than laugh. “Life is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” May it not be best both to think and to feel?
Thus the Cherry Orchard rests on the heart –the heart which, a Trofimov says, holds 95 senses which go beyond the mind and beyond the 5 senses which have officially been put at our disposal. It is the heart which puts us in a state of tears when we look back upon our past and which as well pulses on and consequently compels us to face the present and the future. It is the heart which matters, for it is superior to the head which merely produces ideas, or to the senses which merely produce greed; the heart is above all revelation, vision as well as why not say the word-love, that is to say true knowledge, for as Claudel shrewdly said, to know is to be born with, or at the same time as, the thing that one knows. (Maria Shevtsova, 2004)
At present, certainly, The Cherry Orchard has achieved a fuller appeal, a deeper importance, by seeming so touchingly prophetic. For in 1917 the whole Cherry Orchard of Tsarist Russia was felled in blood. Though unluckily the new owners proved far less human and humane than Lopákhin. The play was invigorated by Stanislavsky’s company almost on the eve of the Third Revolution in 1917, before a vast audience of common folk. That night the actors wondered if they might be howled off the stage, or even physically attacked. However, strangely enough, it proved one of their greatest achievements; as if even that rough populace in the auditorium felt the pensive, poetic charm of the old life now vanished for ever. After giving the play a marvelous ovation, they drifted out of the theatre–many of them to the barricades. Soon, through the darkness, rang the crack of rifleshots. Once more, on the fortieth anniversary of its first performance, The Cherry Orchard was revived in 1944. Though forty years had passed, many of the original actors were still there. Yet again Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper, played Mme Ranevsky. What artistic continuity, amid the catastrophe of war and revolution. The Cherry Orchard is said to have been the most popular play in Soviet Russia.
Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, 2002. Who’s Who in Contemporary World Theatre; Routledge
Ed Menta, 1997. The Magic World behind the Curtain: Andrei Serban in the American Theatre; Peter Lang
- L. Lucas, 1963. The Drama of Chekhov, Synge, Yeats, and Pirandello; Cassell
Maria Shevtsova, 2004. Dodin and the Maly Drama Theatre: Process to Performance; Routledge
Oscar Lee Brownstein, 1991. Strategies of Drama: The Experience of Form; Greenwood Press