It is, as a rule, when a critic does not wish to commit himself or to trouble himself, that he refers to atmosphere. And, given time, something might be said in greater detail of the causes which produced this atmosphere—the strange dislocated sentences, each so erratic and yet cutting out the shape so firmly, of the realism, of the humor, of the artistic unity. But let the word atmosphere be taken literally to mean that Chekhov has contrived to shed over us a luminous vapor in which life appears as it is, without veils, transparent and visible to the depths. Long before the play was over, we seemed to have sunk below the surface of things and to be feeling our way among submerged but recognizable emotions. . . . In short, if it is permissible to use such vague language, I do not know how better to describe the sensation at the end of The Cherry Orchard, than by saying that it sends one into the street feeling like a piano-played upon at last, not in the middle only but all over the keyboard and with the lid left open so that the sound goes on.
—Virginia Woolf, “On The Cherry Orchard”
Modern drama has two indisputable founding fathers:Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. If Ibsen liberated drama’s subject matter and restored the play as a serious criticism of life, Chekhov supplied the theater with a radically new method and dramatic form that altered all of the available conventions of dramatic production. In The Seagull, the first of his four major full-length plays, Chekhov has another playwright, Treplev, assert:
I regard the stage of today as mere routine and prejudice. When the curtain goes up and the gifted beings, the high priests of the sacred art, appear by electric light, in a room with three sides to it, representing how people eat, drink, love, walk, and wear their jackets; when they strive to squeeze out a moral from the fl at vulgar pictures and the fl at vulgar phrases, a little tiny moral, easy to comprehend and handy for home consumption; when in a thousand variations they offer me always the same thing over and over again—then I take to my heels and run, as Maupassant ran from the Eiffel Tower, which crushed his brain by its overwhelming vulgarity. . . . We must have new formulas. That’s what we want. And if there are none, then it’s better to have nothing at all.
Chekhov offered to drama the reformulation that Treplev calls for, a new formula that needed a new theory of acting and a radical reconception of drama itself to be understood and appreciated. No less a literary titan than Leo Tolstoy, who often disparaged Chekhov’s plays in which “nothing happened,” regarded Chekhov as his chief artistic rival. Chekhov, Tolstoy declared, “is an incomparable artist” who “created new forms of writing, completely new, in my opinion, to the entire world, the likes of which I have encountered nowhere.” Of his drama, Tolstoy predicted “that in the future, perhaps a hundred years hence, people will be amazed at what they find in Chekhov about the inner workings of the human soul.” Chekhov himself, with characteristic modesty, diminished his achievement, except as an innovator. “Everything I have writ-ten,” he remarked, “will be forgotten in five or ten years; but the paths I have cut out will be safe and sound—my only service lies in this.” No other dramatist in as few major works has asserted a comparable influence on the development of theater than has Chekhov. His two final plays are the culmination of his artistry as a playwright: If Three Sisters is Chekhov’s most complex and ambitious drama, The Cherry Orchard is in many ways his most intriguing and emblematic play, the first of Chekhov’s dramas to be translated into English and the first Russian play to command the world’s stage. It continues to be his best-loved and most performed play, as well as one of the acknowledged foundation dramas upon which the modern theater has been built.
Remarkably, Chekhov fundamentally shaped two literary genres—modern drama and the modern short story—and it is a commonplace to view him as a fiction writer who turned to drama only in his final years. It is far more accurate to regard Chekhov as a lifelong dramatist who resorted to fiction by necessity to earn a living while the contemporary Russian theater caught up with his dramatic vision. In the words of Russian literature scholar David Magarshack, Chekhov
was a born dramatist whose first works of importance were three full-length plays, two written in his late teens and the third in his early twenties. He took up short-story writing for two reasons: first, because he had to support a large family which was entirely dependent on him, and the writing of short-stories was the quickest way of doing it; secondly, because the state of the Russian stage in the eighties and nineties of the last [19th] century was such that no serious playwright could hope to have his plays performed, let alone earn a decent living in the theatre.
Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog on the Black Sea. His father was a former serf who rose to become a grocer but whose artistic interests as a choirmaster, violinist, and occasional painter took precedence over more practical considerations. Chekhov’s interest in the theater was sparked by trips to the Taganrog Theatre and in home reenactments of such plays as Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. When Chekhov was 16, his father became bankrupt and relocated his family to a Moscow slum to avoid his creditors. Chekhov remained behind to finish his education at the local gymnasium, supporting himself by tutoring younger students. When he was 19, Chekhov joined his family in Moscow and assumed their financial support while enrolled in the medical program at Moscow University. He paid for his education and his family’s upkeep by writing comic sketches and short stories for humorous magazines. When he became a doctor, in 1884, he continued writing stories and one-act satirical farces based on many of them, juggling a medical career (“my lawful spouse”) and his writing (“my mistress”).
By 1898, when Chekhov achieved his first great success with the Mos-cow Art Theater’s landmark production of The Seagull, the tuberculosis that Chekhov had contracted during his student days had advanced beyond a cure. Chekhov settled in Yalta after suffering a pulmonary hemorrhage and did not see his plays staged by the Moscow Art Theater until their Crimean tour in 1900. At a rehearsal, however, he had met the actress Olga Knipper, who played Arkadina in The Seagull, and they were married in May 1901. If a bio-graphically derived sense of provincial exile from Moscow stands behind the dramatic conflict of Three Sisters, Chekhov draws on other biographical circumstances in The Cherry Orchard, particularly his dispossession from Taganrog due to his father’s bankruptcy. The Cherry Orchard was conceived and composed during the final stage of the illness that would take his life in 1904, yet Chekhov was adamant that what turned out to be his final work should be a comedy. Following the success of Three Sisters in 1901, Chekhov wrote to his wife, “I keep dreaming of writing a comic play, in which all hell will break loose. I don’t know whether anything will come of it.” Begun in 1902 and completed in September 1903, The Cherry Orchard “has turned out not a drama,” Chekhov asserted, “but a comedy, in places even a farce.” Konstantin Stanislavsky, who would produce and direct the play for the Moscow Art Theater, disagreed: “It isn’t a comedy or a farce, as you claim—it’s a tragedy.” The dispute between playwright and director over The Cherry Orchard’s tone and intention that began with its first production has persisted in performances ever since. The Cherry Orchard is a play of such intriguing complexity and multiple (and at times contradictory) modes and methods that it can support either interpretation, while it ultimately is neither one nor the other—neither simply comedy nor tragedy—but something new altogether. In its challenge to the established dramatic genres, The Cherry Orchard helped establish the tragicomic as the dominant modern dramatic mode, while its linkage of surface realism and the symbolic anticipated the techniques of the great literary modernists of the 20th century, such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot.
If Three Sisters is all about deferred and frustrated departures, The Cherry Orchard by contrast commences with an arrival—the return to her heavily mortgaged Russian estate of the widow Lyubov Andreevna Ranevskaya from Paris where she had gone to forget the drowning death of her son five years before. Like Three Sisters, in which the usual dramatic action is excluded, waiting establishes the central dramatic tension. Dominating the action is the suspended question of what will become of the estate with its renowned cherry orchard that must be sold unless a solution is found to recover the family’s fortune. Again, as in Three Sisters, Chekhov gathers together a large cast to react collectively to the threat to the family while revealing its causes. They include Madame Ranevskaya’s indolent brother, Leonid Andreyevitch Gaev; her daughter Anya and adopted daughter Varya; her son’s former tutor, Trofimov; fellow landowner Pischchik; the bookkeeper, Yephikhov; and former serf, now successful businessman Lopakhin. Included as well is a full compli-ment of servants—Charlotte, the governess; Yasha, the valet; Dunyasha, the maid; and the ancient footman, Fiers. Act 1 of the play, subtitled “A Comedy in Four Acts,” appropriately is set in the nursery, where the family can evade the present crisis by summoning up and recalling the past. As the Russian critic A. R. Kugel has observed, “All the inhabitants of The Cherry Orchard are children and their behavior is childish.” To avoid the estate being auctioned, Lopakhin offers the practical solution that the cherry orchard should be cut down and the land divided into building lots for summer holiday makers. This suggestion, which would pay off the family’s debts and secure their future, is greeted with shock and incredulity. “If there’s anything of interest in the entire district,” Lyubov asserts, “even outstanding, it’s none other than our cherry orchard.” For Gaev reference to the famous orchard in an encyclopedia puts an end to such a suggestion. Both brother and sister reveal themselves as incapable of decisive action or adult responsibility. Lyubov is a generous but impractical sentimentalist; Gaev is more focused on his mental games of billiards, his fruit candies, and considering hosting a jubilee celebration for an old bookcase. His ideas to rescue the situation—Anya’s marriage to a rich man, Varya’s marriage to Lopakhin, a gift from their rich great-aunt—are, in his words, “several remedies, very many, and that really means I’ve none at all.” The often ridiculous, self-deluded behavior of all under the impending threat of the family’s dispossession sets the play’s mixed tonality in which the absurd collides with the portentous. The threat to the cherry orchard begins to accumulate symbolic significance expressing the demise of an era in which the Russian landed gentry and their entire leisured way of life are about to be destroyed by the practicalities of a new materialistic order. Characteristically Chekhov balances the accounts on both sides of the equation: Lyubov and Gaev cherish the past and appreciate the beauty of the cherry orchard but are incapable of maintaining it; Lopakhin is so consumed by the practical that the orchard and house are nothing more than commodities. Lyubov and Gaev exist in the past; Lopakhin for the future, and the present is squandered in the often inconsequential and absurd behavior of all.
Act 2 shifts the scene outside near the orchard at sunset as each of the characters reacts to the impending now inevitable sale of the property, which begins to push them to a deeper understanding of themselves and their circumstances. Each member of the household is allowed a sympathetic moment. By revealing their suffering, loneliness, and isolation, Chekhov complicates and deepens his presentation of characters who are far too foolish to be taken as wholly tragic, but far too sensitive and recognizable in their suffering to be only laughed at. The breakup of the estate begins to put into perspective the characters’ past, their natures, and a new set of future challenges. For Fiers, the coming dispossession means that the old order is passing. In the ancien régime, he says, “the peasants stood by the masters, the masters stood by the peasants, but now everything is all smashed up, you can’t tell about anything.” This tone of melancholy and nostalgic appraisal is countered by the young people, Anya, and Trofimov, whose idealism and commitment to a new future redeemed by work and selfless dedication cause Anya to ask, “What have you done to me, Petya, why don’t I love the cherry orchard any longer the way I used to?”
The party scene of act 3—the ball following the auction—has been described by Chekhov scholar Laurence Senelick as “the supreme example of Chekhov’s intermingling of subliminal symbol and surface reality.” As desultory conversation takes place in the drawing room, against the forced gaiety of the dancing in the background, the characters await word about the result of the auction. The underlying tension surfaces in Madame Ranevskaya’s argument with Trifimov about the value of her estate and her announcement of her intention to return to Paris and the lover who fleeced and deserted her. The tone of impending doom is broken by the comic elements of Charlotte’s ventriloquism and magic tricks and Trofimov’s tripping and falling down the stairs after delivering his moral judgments. The fateful news about the auction is delivered at the end of a farcical sequence in which Varya, squabbling with Yephikhov, strikes out at him with a pool cue only to hit the entering Lopakhin, who manages to announce that he has purchased the cherry orchard.
Symbolically act 4 returns to the nursery setting of act 1 but reverses its arrivals with departures. The dispossession and dispersal of the family is now complete as they all depart for an uncertain future, as an entire way of life is falling under the ax that can be heard outside. We are left suspended in uncertainty and a mixed mood. As the critic John Gassner observes, “Chekhov maintained a sensitive equilibrium between regret for the loss of old values and jubilation over the dawn of a new day. And it is the quality of detachment that also enabled him to equalize pathos and humor, and to render a probing account of the contradictions of human character.”
Only Fiers remains as the curtain comes down:
[The stage is empty. The sound of keys being turned in the locks is heard, and then the noise of the carriages going away. It is quiet. Then the sound of an axe against the trees is heard in the silence sadly and by itself. Steps are heard. FIERS comes in from the door on the right. He is dressed as usual, in a short jacket and white waistcoat; slippers on his feet. He is ill. He goes to the door and tries the handle.
Fiers: It’s locked. They’ve gone away. [Sits on a sofa] They’ve for-gotten about me. . . . Never mind, I’ll sit here. . . . And Leonid Andreyevitch will have gone in a light overcoat instead of putting on his fur coat. . . . [Sighs anxiously] I didn’t see. . . . Oh, these young people! [Mumbles something that cannot be understood] Life’s gone on as if I’d never lived. [Lying down] I’ll lie down. . . . You’ve no strength left in you, nothing left at all. . . . Oh, you . . . bungler! [He lies immobile.]
[The distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, of a breaking string, dying away sadly. Silence follows it, and only the sound is heard, some way away in the orchard, of the axe falling on the trees.]
The conclusion here, despite a shared sonic effect, is contrary to that of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. This is not the explosion of Nora’s liberation and its blast to conventional orthodoxy; rather it is a slow and steady expiration, with the death of Fiers and the ceasing of his heartbeat echoed by the relentless sound of the ax falling on the trees. To the bang of Ibsen, Chekhov offers the whim-per of a dying fall, frustrated wills and desires, a serious comedy of human errors and loss. Modern drama seems to gravitate between the poles of bang and whimper, between exploding the past certainties in decisive action and turning the focus of drama from action to inaction and paralysis. Chekhov is the master dramatist of inaction: He pioneered its stage representation by rejecting the long-functioning Aristotelian premises for a radically new dramatic method that replaced the reliance on a main plot and main characters with multiple plot lines, collective protagonists, and the fusion of all into a unified thematic whole. Chekhov’s art, as expressed in The Cherry Orchard and his other works, features an essential humane truthfulness. “A play should be written,” he argued, “in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is, and people as they are—not on stilts. . . . Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life.” Stripped of the usual dramatic action, Chekhov’s plays locate their interest in the gradual revelation of character and circumstance “in all the grayness of their everyday life.”