Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, theorized in the essay collection Comedy, that laughter springs from our perception of "something mechanical encrusted upon the living." The comic figure, Bergson maintained, is rigid or inflexible in circumstances that demand a resiliency of the mind or body. Moreover, laughter increases through a character's repeated failures to alter a rigid behavior, for it is repetition that transforms mere rigidity into the semblance of something mechanical, like a jack-in-a-box. If Bergson's ideas have any validity, there is no writer who possessed a greater sense of the comic than Anton Chekhov. Nor is that sense more fully revealed than in his last play, The Cherry Orchard, generally considered his greatest work.From the outset, Chekhov designed the play as comedy. In a letter to his wife, Olga, quoted in Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays, he said that it was to "be funny, very funny, at least in conception." Furthermore, as his later correspondence indicates, he was convinced he had done what he intended. Writing to Lilina, wife to the Moscow Art Theater's great director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, he claimed that, "in places," The Cherry Orchard was "even a farce." Stanislavsky and his co-director, Nemirovich-Danchenko, as they had with other Chekhov plays, chose to interpret the play as much more serious stuff than farce. On stage, they weighed it down as a serious drama, advertising it as such, much to Chekhov's annoyance. The playwright had never felt that either man had fully understood his plays, and he often bristled at their interpretations—yet he could hardly argue with the acclaim their theater won him. Chekhov's adherence to realism, his objectivity, made it difficult for his contemporaries to see his characters in the kaleidoscopic light in which he cast them. In The Cherry Orchard, as in all his comedies, he created characters who confront serious, often insoluble problems. From one perspective, they do elicit sympathy, even pity, no matter how passive or inept they may also seem. If their suffering is the main element the audience perceives, the comic impulse is suppressed, for, as Bergson noted, laughter is really only possible when there is an "absence of feeling." Farce, most particularly, depends on a hardening of the heart, an emotional distance that allows uninhibited laughter, often at the expense of a character's misfortune or suffering.
Some great comic writers, including William Shakespeare, have used various methods to prevent an audience from feeling too much empathy--comic asides, for example, or mistaken identities arising from the use of disguise. Chekhov, ever true to the limits of realism, uses no such devices. As a result, as J. L. Styan suggested in Chekhov in Performance, he risked misinterpretation: "Farce, which prohibits compassion for human weakness, and tragedy, which demands it, are close kin. The truth is that The Cherry Orchard is a play that treads the tightrope between them, and results in the ultimate form of the special dramatic balance we know as Chekhovian comedy."
The Cherry Orchard, depicting the passing world of twilight Russia (before the country's casualty-ridden involvement in both World Wars and its Communist Revolution), certainly has a tragic backdrop. Sometimes, when it cannot be repressed, an anxious awareness of that passing wells up in the characters, but it does not change them. Only Lopakhin really adapts, because to find his place in the new world, he must help destroy the old. He is not mercenary or callous, however, just practical. Although he has only a commercial interest in Mrs. Ranevsky's property, he is genuinely respectful towards her, partly from habitual reverence that typified the Russian peasant class from which he springs. Initially, he even tries to help her, but her inability to take action finally forces him to buy her land himself. In doing so, he severs the last invisible strings of class deference, ties that bind another character, the old manservant, Firs, until death. The play confirms Lopakhin's resourcefulness, his adaptability. He is, primarily, a flexible character, and is not therefore comical, except perhaps in his still-born efforts at wooing Varya. The central symbol of the old Russia is The Cherry Orchard. In his way, Peter Trofimov, the perennial student, perceives it as such, but he sees nothing of worth in the ways of the past. The orchard only reminds him of human misery. He speaks of the ghosts of the serfs to Anya: Can't you see human beings looking at you from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every tree trunk? Don't you hear their voices? His solution is not to cut the orchard down, but rather to run from it, into "ineffable visions of the future." He is a Utopian dreamer, as impractical and inflexible as Mrs. Ranevsky and her brother, and, therefore, unlike Lopakhin, he is more than slightly ridiculous. The Cherry Orchard is not simply an emblem of a Russia that has passed. As Styan suggested, "it represents an inextricable tangle of sentiments, which together comprise a way of life and an attitude to life." Its white cherry blossoms remind Mrs. Ranevsky and her brother, Gayev, of their youthful purity and innocence. To them, the orchard is a thing of great and enduring beauty, and they find Lopakhin's proposal to replace it with vacation cottages "vulgar." For Firs, the orchard is "an inviolable aesthetic symbol of the traditional order." Anya, on the other hand, drawn by her heart to Trofimov, accepts the student's dream of a future happiness, despite Trofimov's inconvenient belief that they must transcend love and practice celibacy to prepare for it. On a more mundane level, the orchard is simply a white elephant. No one harvests its fruit, and, in fact, no one even enters it, except the anonymous, unseen woodsman who starts felling its trees in the last act. And while the orchard may be glimpsed through the windows of the house, it is the house itself that is the play's true setting, "the centre and heart of the play," as J. B. Priestley claimed in his text Anton Chekhov. Three of The Cherry Orchard's four acts take place inside the house, and two of them, the first and the last, occur in the same room—the nursery. It is the setting for both the arrival and departure of Mrs. Ranevsky and her entourage. The room at first vibrates with life, brimming with the excitement of the reunited family members, who animate the room with their memories and maudlin but joyous greetings to the furniture. In contrast, at the end, it is stripped of all its furnishings, all signs of life, except some odds and ends; the flotsam of the past, now abandoned, like Firs, who seems indistinguishable from the discarded sofa on which he lies immobilized at the final curtain. Staged, the room has a more immediate impact than the orchard, for it is actually present, unlike The Cherry Orchard, which remains indirectly experienced through words alone. The orchard's presence is most keenly felt in the last act, in the sound of the axe that has begun its destruction. The most poignant and haunting presence in the play is not even identified with a locale. It comes in the sound of the breaking string, heard first in the second act, and then at the end of the play. Maurice Valency argued in The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, that the broken string is "the golden string that connected man with his father on earth and his father in heaven, the age-old bond that tied the present to the past." In general terms, it represents the passing of a way of life, but it relates, too, to the play's specific actions, especially Lopakhin's purchase of Mrs. Ranevsky's estate. The act gives him an overwhelming sense of emancipation, expressed in his triumphant monologue at the close of Act Three: "I've bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren't even allowed in the kitchen. I must be dreaming. I must be imagining it all. It can't be true." Most of the other characters suffer some anxious and painful moments in their ritual passage into the changing but uncertain world that the play foreshadows. Some, like Yepichodov and Charlotte, experience an identity crisis, while others, like Gayev and Firs, seem sadly disoriented and confused. Yet, as Francis Fergusson claimed in The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays, while The Cherry Orchard is "a theater poem of the suffering of change," it is free "from the mechanical order of the thesis or intrigue" play. The tragic implications of the change drift through the comedy like the ghost of Mrs. Ranevsky's mother in the orchard, but they are not shaped into a single catastrophe and momentous reversal of fortune. The tragic elements are simply too diffuse and, like the breaking string, too distant to be distinct or fully understood. They are also muted and even subverted by the foreground elements that provide a comic counterpoint to the tragic backdrop. Much of the play's action remains routine and mundane, even trivial. Behind a facade of politeness, there is a quiet tension between those who fear change and those who welcome it, but when tension surfaces as anger or open aggression, Chekhov releases the pressure through some sort of comic safety valve. For example, in the third act, Trofimov, stung by Mrs. Ranevsky's attack on his perceptions of man/woman relationships and his childish whining, exits with theatrical indignation, only to fall down some offstage stairs to a chorus of laughter. So, too, in the second act, when the frustrated Lopakhin calls Mrs. Ranevsky "a silly old woman" because she will not agree to his plans for the estate, Gayev defuses the situation with his billiard game prattle and non-sequitur confession to a fruit candy addiction. Most of the play's characters are idiosyncratic, and some, like Gayev and Pishchik, are wonderfully eccentric. Most, said Priestley, if "coldly considered," are also at least slightly contemptible: "Madame Ranevsky is a foolish woman only too anxious to return to a worthless young lover; Gayev is an amiable ass who talks too much; Anya is a goose and her Trofimov a solemn windbag; Lopakhin, the practical self-made man, is confused and unhappy; Epihodov a clumsy idiot; Dunyasha a foolish girl; Yasha an insufferable jumped-up lad; and Firs far gone in senility." However, Chekhov never leaves any one of them exposed to such a naked light for very long; he is too congenial for that, too, as Priestley stated, "tender and compassionate." Each character also seems to have a comic foil or nemesis, Firs and Kasha, for example, or Charlotte and Yepichodov. All also ride some sort of mental hobby horse that sporadically sends them off the track of conversation onto private, incongruous pathways, i.e., amusing non-sequiturs. Most, at the point of self-awareness, behave exactly like a jack-in-the-box, never able to suppress their foolish impulse. For example, in Act Two, Mrs. Ranevsky, berates herself for her careless waste of money, then immediately drops her purse on the ground and a moment later bestows one of her last gold coins on a panhandler. Meanwhile, Yepichodov, ever mindful of his role as an unfortunate clod, stumbles into furniture as if to prove he was not miscast for the part. It is possible to probe such characters to reveal some darker or more sinister personality traits. Beverly Hahn, for one, argued in Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays that the weaknesses of Mrs. Ranevsky and Gayev, their lack of will, "amounts to a complex sense of guilt and self-degradation which is both personal and yet obscurely the product of their situation of privilege." The Moscow Art Theatre audience of 1904 came from and returned to the world depicted in Chekhov's plays, and they experienced such inner guilt first hand—plus all the pain, sorrow, and pathos that Stanislavsky felt was in The Cherry Orchard and that scholars can still expose. But a reader or viewer of the play need not be quite so myopic. There is sufficient distance from Chekhov's world to free laughter from inhibition, restoring the comic balance that Chekhov felt was somehow missed in his own time.