Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Cherry Orchard: Historical Context

In 1904, the year The Cherry Orchard was first produced, Russia was in a state of upheaval. The Japanese declared war on Russia on February 10, 1904, following Russia's failure to withdraw from Manchuria and its continuing penetration of Korea. The Japanese defeated Russia at the Yalu River on May 1, 1904; by October of that year the Japanese had forced Russia to pull back its forces. This war was the beginning of tensions in Asia and the establishment of Japan as a military force.
On the home front, Russia's minister of the interior, Vyacheslav Plehve, exercised complete control over the public. He forbid any political assemblies, required written police permission for small social gatherings, and forbid students to walk together in the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia's capital. On Easter Sunday of 1904, 45 Jews were killed, 600 houses were destroyed in Kishenev in Bessarabia on orders from Plehve, and the police were instructed to ignore rioting in the streets. These events culminated with Plehve's assassination on July 28, 1904. This kind of civil unrest marked the beginning of a time of great conflict and transformation in Russia that ended with the Communist Revolution in 1917. These tensions both in and outside Russia made life difficult for Russian citizens. The middle class began to assume an elevated position in society as many nobles lost their wealth and large, lavish estates. As the Ranevsky family discovers, Russia is changing and the climate is no longer hospitable to those who do not act in their own interests. Trofimov's character alludes to the strict control of the public when he speaks of the "things he's seen" that have caused him to age prematurely. When the serfs were freed, the landowners were forced to pay for labor, and as conditions in Russia worsened due to war and the totalitarian regime, revolution becomes imminent.
Transportation and Industry
The Trans-Siberian Railroad's link from Moscow to Vladivostok opened in 1904. This is the longest line of track in the world, spanning 3,200 miles between the two cities. In the United States, the first New York City subway line of importance opened on October 27, with the Interborough Rapid Transit, known as the IRT, running from the Brooklyn Bridge to 145th Street with stops in between. This system would grow to become the world's largest rapid transit system, covering more than 842 miles. These transportation systems are important because, as society became more urbanized around the world, it changed. Large plots of land, such as the cherry orchard in Chekhov's play, were broken up into smaller plots for building and industry. The railroads allowed people of all economic backgrounds to travel and allowed goods to be shipped long distances using much less manpower.
Science and Technology
Marie Curie discovered radium and polonium in uranium ore in 1904; these two new radioactive elements helped to fuel the nuclear age in the decades to come. Also in 1904, German physicists Julius Elster and Hans Friedrich Geitel invented the first practical photoelectric cell, which led to the invention of radio. The first wireless radio distres ssignal was sent the same year. Clearly, the time in which Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard— during 1903 and 1904—was a time of much change and scientific advancement. The simple way of life on the orchard was being phased out of existence; a different mindset was required for the dawning age of science and industry. The Ranevsky family is unable to adapt to this new, quickly evolving world in which discoveries are made almost weekly and change is imminent.
Literature and Drama
1904 saw the first publication of such works as Lincoln Steffens's expose of urban squalor The Shame of the Cities, The Late Mattia Pascal, by Italian novelist Luigi Pirandello, Henry James's The Golden Bowl, and Reginald, by English writer Saki, also known as H. H. Munro. Plays which, like The Cherry Orchard, were first produced in 1904 include: Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge, Frank Wedekind's Pandora's Box, George Bernard Shaw's Candida and How He Lied to Her Husband, and Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, by James M. Barrie. Chekhov's style was substantially different from his contemporaries'; his self-proclaimed "farce," The Cherry Orchard, portrays psychology and human behavior far more realistically than many of his fellow playwrights. Unlike the other plays of its time, The Cherry Orchard focuses upon an historical era and examines the whole of society rather than just characters.

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