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Chekhov’s Innovation in The Cherry Orchard

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Words: 3720 |

Pages: 8|

19 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 3720|Pages: 8|19 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The different viewpoints of Chekhov and Stanislavski
  3. Interpretation of the Play
  4. Chekhovian Comedy
  5. Soviet Reception and Beyond
  6. Comic Characters
  7. Chekhov's Attitude and Comedy
  8. Conclusion

Introduction

Anton Chekhov embarked on the creation of his theatrical masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, in December of 1902. Initially conceived as a four-act farce, Chekhov labored on this project while grappling with the debilitating challenges of emphysema. It was nearly a year before he eventually submitted it to Konstantin Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre, where it had been eagerly anticipated. Much to Chekhov's surprise and initial dismay, Stanislavski's reaction was far from what he had envisioned. Upon reading the play, Stanislavski sent a telegram to Chekhov expressing his profound admiration: "Just read play...shaken...cannot come to senses in unprecedented ecstasy...sincerely congratulate author genius." This overwhelming reaction troubled Chekhov, as he had not intended for a farce to evoke such intense emotions (Hingley, New Life, 300).

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The different viewpoints of Chekhov and Stanislavski

As the initial disparity between Chekhov's intentions and Stanislavski's interpretation became evident, it marked the beginning of a substantial divergence in their viewpoints regarding The Cherry Orchard. Stanislavski was adamant about staging the play as a realistic and tragic portrayal of the declining aristocracy, a perspective that deviated significantly from Chekhov's original vision (Benedetti 190). This disparity in their interpretations became more pronounced during the rehearsal phase, leading to a growing discontent within Chekhov.

Chekhov's dissatisfaction with the tragic overtones of The Cherry Orchard escalated as the play garnered attention. He expressed his frustration in a letter to his wife, Olga, stating, "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 at the rehearsals, he was disheartened to witness his play mired in melancholy and desolation. In an attempt to rectify the situation, Chekhov made changes to the production, which led Stanislavski to lament, "the blossoms had just begun to appear when the author arrived and messed up everything for us" (Simmons 612). The brevity of the fourth act, as envisioned by Chekhov, was transformed into a protracted and tearful episode lasting forty minutes. Despite their conflicting viewpoints, both Chekhov and Stanislavski felt compelled to compromise to maintain the progress of rehearsals, albeit with a growing sense of skepticism about the play's prospects. Chekhov himself confessed to a friend, "I expect no particular success... the thing is going poorly" (Priestley 58). Even after the premiere, Chekhov's sentiments remained unchanged, as evidenced by his letter to a friend: "My play was performed yesterday, and therefore I am not in a particularly bright mood today" (Magarshack, A Life, 382).

Although it is tempting to attribute some of Chekhov's frustration to the impatience of a man facing his own mortality, his concerns were rooted in genuine grievances. During the rehearsal process, Chekhov engaged in heated disputes with Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko over their differing interpretations of the play. In a letter to Nemirovich, he queried, "Why 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). Donald Rayfield, in addressing the matter of tears in a comedy, observed that characters such as Ranevsky, Anya, Varya, Gaev, and Pishtchik shed tears, but they do so "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). This discord between Chekhov's intentions and the execution of the play's emotional elements exemplifies the growing divide between the playwright and the director, Stanislavski.

Interpretation of the Play

In the context of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russian history, it is tempting to view The Cherry Orchard as a somber narrative of loss, with Madame Ranevsky and her family cast as victims of the uprising of the industrial classes. When the play premiered in January 1904, Russia was in the throes of the Socialist movement, with Lenin's revolutionary writings, including "What Is To Be Done?" and "State & Revolution," advocating for an elite party of educated rebels to lead the working class. This backdrop invites two possible interpretations of the play: as a call to arms for revolution or as a poignant tribute to a doomed upper class (Hirsch).

However, Chekhov himself emphasized the importance of considering the play as a whole. Lopahin, the character who purchases the estate, does not conform to the stereotypical "evil landlord" archetype ruthlessly displacing the family from their comfortable existence. Likewise, Trofimov, a revolutionary, is portrayed as a disillusioned and cynical student, blinded by futile adoration. Meanwhile, Ranevsky embodies a self-indulgent elitist who, albeit passively, contributes to her own downfall.

The upheaval depicted in the play is merely another chapter in the grand scheme of history. Chekhov frames his work against the backdrop of Tsar Alexander II's serf emancipation of 1861, which, too, was initially perceived as a looming disaster that would engulf the nation (Hirsch). Yet, as is characteristic of Chekhov's oeuvre, life persists, marked by the almost imperceptible yet profoundly felt patterns of hopes and disappointments, comings and goings. If Chekhov had access to modern literary terminology, he might have described The Cherry Orchard as a "dark comedy" or a "problem play," akin to how Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" has been categorized more recently (Moorty, par. 1).

Chekhovian Comedy

The Cherry Orchard defies conventional comedy in its own unique manner. In ancient Greek theatre, "comedy" referred to stories centered on the daily lives of ordinary individuals, contrasting with tragedies that focused on grand figures brought low by fate. Aristotle characterized comedy as "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). In this sense, The Cherry Orchard aligns with this definition of comedy, as the loss of the orchard is a consequence of the characters' own mishandlings rather than a twist of fate.

However, The Cherry Orchard occasionally treads the fine line between comedy and pathos, with the audience's empathy for the characters being the determining factor. Madame Ranevsky, a sympathetic character, teeters close to the category of a tragic hero because she remains unaffected by the play's pervasive irony, which distances the audience from the other characters. Yet, the emotional engagement differs significantly from what one would encounter in a tragedy, primarily due to the limited impact the protagonists' actions have on their society. In a comedy, the central characters lack the transformative power seen in tragedies like "Romeo and Juliet," where the deaths of the star-crossed lovers reshape Verona. In contrast, the protagonists in a comedy deal with the everyday struggles of ordinary people. This relative insignificance of their actions in The Cherry Orchard led publications like The Daily Express to dismiss 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).

Moreover, it's worth noting that much of Chekhov's humor resided in nuances that do not always translate effectively into English. This linguistic challenge may partly explain why foreign audiences sometimes struggle to perceive The Cherry Orchard as a comedy. For instance, no translation has been able to capture the subtlety of Epihodov's line in Act One when he presents a bouquet of flowers to Dunyasha, intending to say, "Allow me to communicate with you." Yet, the Russian word he uses, "prisovokupit," is a wordplay involving "so..." and "copulate" (Rayfield, Cherry Orchard, 52-3).

Soviet Reception and Beyond

In the 1930s, Soviet audiences grappled with perceiving The Cherry Orchard as anything other than a comedy due to the perceived triviality of the family's problems. Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, satirist Viacheslav Pietsukh's work featured a character who exclaimed,

"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).

In this regard, the Soviets had a valid point. Although the play concludes on a somewhat somber note, with Ranevsky alive and well, she arguably finds herself in a better situation, with the chance to embark on a new future with a new lover in Paris.

One could also argue that Lopahin, the descendant of a serf, has improved his circumstances. In the third act, he proudly 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 exudes hopefulness and newfound confidence. Anya, too, reminds her mother that "a new life is beginning," and even Gaev exclaims,

"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 contrasts starkly with the troubled masses who attended the play to briefly escape their harsh realities.

This ability to move forward encapsulates the essence of Chekhovian comedy, drawing inspiration from ancient Greek theater. Chekhov perceived comedy as having more to do with the notion that there existed an opening toward the future, a facet that tragedies, especially Greek tragedies, could not provide (Gilman 200). However, Stanislavski disagreed with this perspective. In an October 1903 letter to Chekhov, Stanislavski asserted that The Cherry Orchard was, in essence, a tragedy, "regardless of what escape into a better life you might indicate in the last act." Chekhov was well aware that Stanislavski's views were deeply entrenched in tradition, and upon his arrival in Moscow for rehearsals, his ailing health left him unable to mount a substantial counterargument (Magarshack, A Life, 380).

Comic Characters

The characters within The Cherry Orchard inherently possess comedic traits. Stanislavski's interpretation of "comic character" was at odds with Chekhov's, as he perceived comic characters as individuals solely responsible for keeping the audience in perpetual laughter, a viewpoint that did not always hold true. A prime example is Falstaff, an undisputed comic character whose downfall in "Henry IV" is one of the most tragically poignant scenes in the play. Similarly, The Cherry Orchard presents characters who, despite evoking sympathy and compassion, are fundamentally comic in nature. With the possible exception of Anya, all the characters in the play exhibit a sense of ridiculousness that marks them as comic figures.

Gaev, Ranevsky's brother, epitomizes this comedic quality. He treats life with the same seriousness he reserves for his imaginary billiards games, despite his apparent ignorance of the sport (a fact even Chekhov himself admitted). One of the play's most famous exchanges occurs when Gaev delivers an emotional monologue eulogizing a cupboard in Act One, a moment so absurd that it elicits laughter. Gaev's comedic disposition is further underscored by his penchant for candies, as he reveals in Act Two that he has consumed his sustenance in sugar candies. This symbolizes his childlike perspective on life, a characteristic that would be out of place in a tragedy. Ranevsky, too, remains trapped in her own immaturity. Following the deaths of her husband and son, she left Russia with her lover, abandoning Anya and Charlotta. Upon her return, she finds her lover unfaithful and her finances depleted, yet she remains ensnared by her nostalgia, gazing wistfully out at the garden and reminiscing about her childhood with phrases like,

"I used to sleep here when I was little...(cries). And here I am, like a little child."

Chekhov underscores the point that Gaev and Ranevsky have failed to evolve, whereas the world around them has transformed significantly. They are essentially children existing in an adult world, largely unaware of reality or incapable of fully grasping it. Whether immaturity qualifies as a tragic flaw is subject to debate, but it lacks the same empathetic allure as other tragic flaws, as seen in characters like Othello or Hamlet. In Chekhov's view, immaturity does not carry the same tragic weight. In fact, the English translation sometimes hinders the conveyance of these immature qualities. For instance, Ranevsky's first line upon entering is, "The nursery!" ("Detskaya!"), a phrase that linguistically resonates closer with the words for "childhood" (detstvo) and "childish" (detsky) in Russian than in English (Golub, 18).

Even the minor characters in The Cherry Orchard possess their own comedic essence. Semyenov-Pishtchik, as his name suggests, is a broad comic figure. Magarshack astutely notes that the first half of his name exudes an aristocratic air, while the second half is farcical – in English, it might equate to "Squeaker" (Dramatist 284). He consistently misses jokes, laughs at inappropriate moments, and even forgets that the house has been sold, insisting on visiting when the family is on the brink of departure. Epihodov, known as "two and twenty misfortunes," is another minor character steeped in comedy. He embodies the classic klutz, perpetually donning squeaky boots, dropping flowers, stumbling over chairs, and crushing a hatbox by placing a suitcase on top of it. Remarkably, he seems to embrace these calamities, believing that the nickname is bestowed upon him out of affection. Pedantic and often smug, Epihodov takes pride in his supposed cultural refinement, yet he remains uncertain about whether or not to end his own life. His physical clumsiness serves as a reflection of his master Gaev's lack of self-discipline, encapsulating the absurd traits present within the entire family.

Firs, the old servant, stands as the one character within The Cherry Orchard who deviates from the prevailing comedic tone. When he is left behind at the play's conclusion, it symbolizes the family's abandonment of their aristocratic lifestyle for a new beginning. However, there is a common misconception that Firs' final act of lying on the floor signifies his death. David Magarshack clarifies that Firs' prostrate position does not necessarily imply death and that interpreting it as such would introduce an incongruous element into a play Chekhov never intended to be anything other than a comedy (Dramatist 285-6). Firs serves primarily as a symbol of the old way of life and should not be assessed within the same framework as the other characters. Nevertheless, certain productions have portrayed him as a character with a hopeful outlook, notably a production by the Utah Shakespeare Festival (Moorty, par. 3).

Chekhov's Attitude and Comedy

It is crucial to emphasize that The Cherry Orchard's classification as a comedy does not merely stem from the presence of numerous comic scenes and characters. John Reid asserts that the comedy in the play is fundamentally rooted in Chekhov's attitude toward the subject matter, particularly his emphasis on survival and the acceptance of change (par. 4). Reid further argues that Chekhov's comic detachment allows the audience to discern the characters' immaturity, such as the Ranevskayas' infantilism and Trofimov's idealistic but immature revolutionary rhetoric. This diagnosis, however, does not permit the audience to oversimplify the intricate interplay of conflicting attitudes and emotions (par. 4).

The depth of Chekhov's work becomes apparent upon closer examination, transcending superficial interpretations or initial viewings. One production that received accolades for its portrayal of the comedic characters was staged by a touring company of the Moscow Art Theatre in the summer of 1964. Their repertoire included Gogol's "Dead Souls," Pogodin's "Kremlin Chimes," and The Cherry Orchard. The tour took them to prestigious venues such as New York, London, and Tulane University. Harold Hobson of London's Sunday Times hailed the production, declaring, "If there is inspiration in the London Theatre, it is to be found in the Moscow Art Theatre's 'Cherry Orchard.'" Edith Oliver from The New Yorker praised Angelina Stepanova's portrayal of Charlotta, noting that she gave a legitimate performance that delved into the character's loneliness while retaining the comedic essence of the role. Oliver's review concluded with a general remark about the comedy in the entire play, emphasizing the importance of bringing forth the details, nuances of feeling, high and low comedy, and personality traits, as these details constitute the essence of The Cherry Orchard (Edwards 282-85).

Nevertheless, the enduring tradition of translating The Cherry Orchard as a tragedy remains the dominant interpretation. This aspect underscores the inherent challenge posed by Stanislavski's flawed interpretations of Chekhov's plays, particularly The Cherry Orchard. This misconception was further perpetuated by writers like George Bernard Shaw, who, in his preface to "Heartbreak House," mentioned Chekhov's fatalism, incorrectly attributing it to the characters' inability to extricate themselves from their circumstances. Shaw suggested that they would inevitably be dispossessed and cast adrift by creditors, and thus, he saw no qualms in exploiting and flattering their charm (Magarshack, Dramatist, 387). This skewed perspective significantly shaped England's perception of the play more than any other critical analysis.

Author Dorothy Sayers came to Chekhov's defense, highlighting that the tragedy of futility never truly attains the status of tragedy, as even in its darkest moments, it remains prone to comic gestures (Sayers 324). At present, The Cherry Orchard is widely accepted as a tragedy, and attempting to revive it as a comedy may seem like an exercise in futility. However, unless we make the effort to do so, we may never fully grasp the essence of Chekhov's intended vision for the play.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, originally intended as a farce, underwent a dramatic transformation under the influence of Konstantin Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre. What Chekhov had envisioned as a comedic commentary on the decline of the Russian aristocracy evolved into a more somber and tragic portrayal of societal change. The clash of perspectives between Chekhov and Stanislavski during rehearsals exemplified their divergent views on the play's essence, further exacerbated by Chekhov's deteriorating health.

Throughout the essay, we explored the play's characters, major and minor, each imbued with a distinctive comic essence that enriches the narrative. Gaev's absurd billiards monologue, Semyenov-Pishtchik's obliviousness, and Epihodov's perpetual clumsiness all contribute to the comedic tapestry woven by Chekhov. These characters, trapped in their own immaturity and inadequacy, reflect the broader theme of a fading aristocracy incapable of adapting to a changing world.

Moreover, The Cherry Orchard's comedy is not merely a product of humorous scenes or characters but is deeply rooted in Chekhov's attitude towards survival and the acceptance of change. The play's comedic detachment allows audiences to perceive the characters' flaws and contradictions without oversimplifying the intricate interplay of emotions and attitudes.

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While some productions have successfully highlighted the comedic aspects of The Cherry Orchard, the prevailing tradition of translating it as a tragedy has endured. In today's theatrical landscape, The Cherry Orchard is predominantly viewed as a tragedy. Nonetheless, the exploration of its comedic undercurrents not only unveils Chekhov's profound insights into the human condition but also offers a fresh perspective on a classic work of literature. To truly grasp Chekhov's intended vision for the play, we must continue to examine and appreciate the nuances of its comedy, even if it requires challenging the established tradition.

References:

  1. Benedetti, Jean. The Moscow Art Theatre Letters. 1991, Routledge, New York.
  2. Edwards, Christine. The Stanislavsky Heritage – Its Contribution to the Russian and American Theatre. 1965, New York University Press, New York.
  3. Gilman, Richard. Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity. 1995, Yale University Press, New Haven.
  4. Golub, Spencer. The Recurrence of Fate: Theatre & Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia. 1994, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
  5. Hingley, Ronald. Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study. 1966, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York.
  6. Hingley, Ronald. A New Life of Anton Chekhov. 1976, Oxford University Press, London.
  7. Hirsch, Francine. The Russian Empire. Lecture – History of Soviet Russia (History 419). 1/23/2004, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  8. Karlinsky, Simon, and Michael Henry Heim. Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought – Selected Letters & Commentary. 1973, University of California Press, Berkley.
  9. 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.
  10. Magarshack, David. Chekhov: A Life. 1952, Grove Press, New York.
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Chekhov’s Innovation in the Cherry Orchard. (2018, May 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-cherry-orchard-chekhovs-comedy-stanislavskys-tragedy/
“Chekhov’s Innovation in the Cherry Orchard.” GradesFixer, 27 May 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-cherry-orchard-chekhovs-comedy-stanislavskys-tragedy/
Chekhov’s Innovation in the Cherry Orchard. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-cherry-orchard-chekhovs-comedy-stanislavskys-tragedy/> [Accessed 25 Feb. 2024].
Chekhov’s Innovation in the Cherry Orchard [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 May 27 [cited 2024 Feb 25]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-cherry-orchard-chekhovs-comedy-stanislavskys-tragedy/
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