The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard was Anton Chekhov’s last play, written just before he died of tuberculosis at the age of 44. Chekhov is perhaps known best for his short stories, but his four major plays (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) are dramatic classics. In this play, a once-wealthy Russian widow, Lyubov Andreevna, returns to her ancestral estate, along with her feckless brother, her two daughters, and a small retinue of essential servants. Although she is ecstatic to be at home once more, it quickly becomes clear that her home and the stunningly beautiful cherry orchard that surrounds it must imminently be sold at auction for debt. The only way out — the suggestion of Lopakhin, a merchant and family friend — would be to cut down the cherry trees and develop the land for summer tourists, but this the widow and her daughters absolutely refuse to do.

Jenny: I almost never read plays, except in French, so this was both a treat and a challenge for me. It is a real work of the imagination to bring a play to life as you read it. I would love to see this performed. However, as I got used to the medium, it became easier for me to enter into what Chekhov called the “submerged life” of the play. There is almost no action, but so much is revealed about the characters, even in short speeches — about social class, resentment, snobbery, frivolity, absurdity, and so much more.

Teresa: I used to read plays all the time, and I think I read some Chekhov in college, but for the life of me, I can’t remember which play(s) I read. I’ve always loved reading plays, but I found this a challenge to get into. The playwrights I’ve read the most (Williams, Shaw, Ibsen) make use of long speeches and detailed stage directions, which is more reader-friendly, even if the speechifying can feel artificial on stage. This play, however, is filled with quick dialogue, with hardly any speeches more than a quarter of a page long. I love this kind of play on stage, but I didn’t feel I really got this by just seeing it on the page. And I would love to see this on stage, because you’re right, there’s a lot there. Did any moments in particular stand out to you?

Jenny: All kinds of small things that built up over time. I think the first moment I really got into the play (and I did get into it) was this exchange between Lopakhin, the merchant, and Gaev, the brother.

Gaev (speaking to Lyubov, his sister): Right into the pocket! Once you and I used both to sleep in this room, and now I’m fifty-one; it does seem strange.

Lopakhin: Yes, time does fly.

Gaev: Who does?

Lopakhin: I said time does fly.

Gaev: It smells of patchouli here.

Gaev’s pointed exclusion of Lopakhin from the reminiscence and the conversation, to the point of rudeness and non sequitur, is symptomatic of his whole attitude toward any class but his own. All the action of the play is in small, subtle, relationship-oriented moments like this.

Teresa: That particular exchange passed me by, but it is typical of the way the characters relate to one another. Each one seems to exist in his or her own world, to think only about his or her own obsessions. And, mostly, they hardly ever really listen to what others are saying. It’s like each one has an image of the way the world is, or the way it’s supposed to be, and nothing will change that.

Jenny: It does seem for a while that the whole set of relationships is going to be static. Varya and Lopakhin will never marry. Firs, the elderly servant, will never die. Trofimov is a perpetual student. And the cherry orchard, which has been the same for centuries, will always be there. But by the end of the play, things have certainly changed, and permanently, whatever the desires of the characters. There are signs of this oncoming change throughout the play. There’s the repeated line to Trofimov: “How old you’ve grown, and how ugly!” And of course Lopakhin’s marveling at his own position in society: wealthy, when his grandparents were serfs. I don’t necessarily get a sense that we’re supposed to think the change is all for better or all for worse — just that it’s inevitable.

Teresa: I agree. There are characters for whom the change is a bad thing, and others for whom the change is good, but the play as a whole doesn’t feel like a celebration of progress or a lament on past glories. But there is a feeling that the characters need to acknowledge change, to be willing to move on, whatever that means for each one.

Were there any particular characters who stood out to you? Varya’s story was the one that got to me. She’s the one character who seemed to have a grip on reality, and she’s the one who doesn’t get what she wanted most. Plus, she has to put up with everyone’s assumptions that her marriage will happen, when she knows there’s no reason to assume that it will. The whole situation made me want to punch Lopakhin in the nose!

Jenny: Oh, that whole miniature tragedy was perfectly done, I agree. I think I wanted to know more about Charlotta, the governess. Her behavior was so odd — why would you choose someone with such a strange background and such odd parlor tricks to chaperone your daughter? — and it was clear there was more to her than met the eye. She seemed out of place with the servants and with the masters. Where did she belong?

For me, the most intriguing thing about the play was the ending. It seemed to resolve, and yet not to resolve, the tension that came before it. I found it powerful, but ambiguous, and it left me feeling very much on edge. Here’s a quotation from Virginia Woolf about Chekhov’s short stories that summed up my feelings about the ending perfectly:

But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.

There was no final chord, or perhaps not a conventional one. What did you think?

Teresa: The ending is strange. Most of the characters are in different circumstances, and they know it, but there’s no sense that they are going to establish new patterns or let the events of the play really change them. But then there’s that note of melancholy right at the end, with the one character on the stage perhaps making the most irrevocable change of all. And his presence is complicated by the way the other characters talked about him in that final scene. It’s a haunting final moment, and one that I think would be tremendously powerful on stage. I’m crossing my fingers that someone will mount a production here someday so I can see it for myself.

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This review is part of the Classics Circuit, which is currently doing White Nights on the Neva, a tour of imperial Russian literature. This tour will run through July 16.

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One Response to The Cherry Orchard

  1. rebeccareid says:

    Interesting that you say he was most well-known for his stories — someone in a previous post for the Circuit who read the stories said he was most well-known for the plays!

    I have not read any Checkhov plays but I loved how he wrote his stories. I will have to find this and give it a try — and I hear you on the need to SEE it to best appreciate it. Was this ever made into a movie? Sometimes watching plays that way helps me too.

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