According to Beverley Hahn, “The Cherry Orchard might be said to belong to the same category as The Winter’s Tale: it contains a tragedy but does not allow it to be fulfilled. In Chekhov’s case, this is not because the ending brings partial recovery: Lyubov and Gayev finally lose their estate.”
Chekhov’s last play was written, with great pain and difficulty, in the year before his death. Yet despite the author’s own tragic circumstances, he himself thought of the play as a comedy. The idea of writing a four-act vaudeville or a comedy for the Moscow Arts Theatre goes back to 1901 and his own formulation of: “a funny play, where the devil would go about in a whirlwind” seems to hint at the sort of naive slapstick comedy associated with the early Gogol of Evenings in a Village near Dikanka, as though Chekhov, at the end of his life, felt the need to go back to his own comic roots... Unlikely as it may seem, the influence of Gogol can certainly be detected in the play.
As the Cherry Orchard was nearing completion, Chekhov forewarned Stanislavsky’s wife (M.P. Lilina) in a letter of
September 15, 1903: “ Not a drama but a comedy has emerged from me, in places even a farce”. The First person to read the play in Moscow was its recipient, Olga Knipper, but in the telegram she sent to her husband expressing her delight with the play, she mentioned the tears it evoked in her. That very same day (October 18) Nemirovich Danchenko read the play to a group of members of the Moscow Arts Theatre company. By the fourth act they were in tears. The following day the manuscript was given to Stanislavsky. The first act he dutifully read as a comedy, but described himself as forcibly caught up by the second act, in a sweat in the third, and by the fourth he, too, was blubbering. In a letter to the author, he challenged the view which Chekhov had advanced to Lilina: “This is not a comedy or a farce, as you wrote, it is a tragedy, whatever way out you may have found for a better life in the last act”.
The emotion which actors and producers alike felt in the play was further reinforced by the circumstances of its First performance. The premiere took place on January 17, 1904, a date which coincided with Chekhov’s forty-fourth birthday, and was further marked out as a jubilee celebrating a quarter century of his career as a writer. At the end of the play, despite the fact that he was terminally sick man, the author was called on stage to receive the tributes proper to such an occasion. Chekhov’s ordeal was not lightened by the fact that the play had not only been badly acted but produced in a way contrary to his own intentions. The happy comedy which he had envisaged had turned into a valediction of tears. In a letter to Olga Knipper of April 10, Chekhov complained:
Why is it that in posters and newspaper announcements my play is persistently called a drama? Nemirovich Danchenko and Stanislavsky see in my play something absolutely different from what I have written, and I am willing to stake my word on it that neither of them has once read my play through attentively. Forgive me, but I assure you, it is so.
This fundamental disagreement about the interpretation of The Cherry Orchard is one of the most intractable, yet intriguing problems in Chekhovian scholarship. It suggests, as a general issue, some irreconcilable cleavage between an ‘author’s theatre’ and a ‘producer’s theatre’ the implications of which go beyond the staging of Chekhov’s own plays, yet, on a particular plane, it raises fundamental questions about the nature of Chekhov’s humour. In spite of the tears that it evoked in those who first read and performed it, Chekhov defiantly sub-tilled his play “A Comedy in Four Acts”, (komediya v chetyrekh deystviyakh). Is it possible to read the play through attentively and find out why?
At first sight it appears to be Chekhov himself who calls for tears from his actors: his own directions indicate that many the speeches are to be delivered “through tears”. Nevertheless as rehearsals were under way, Chekhov clarified his intentions in a letter to Nemirovich Danchenko on October 23, stressing that these ‘tears’ were not to be taken literally—they were merely an indication of mood. Yet this prescription for a mood which patently runs counter to the laughter expected of a ‘comedy’ has its own resonance in the traditions of Russian literature: it suggests Gogol’s well-known formula “laughter through tears”.
National perceptions of what is comic vary significantly. Russian humour often appears to have a dark, cruel side, when compared with the blander, more good-natured view of comedy found in English writers. The humour of Dostoyevsky is a case in point: indeed one of Dostoyevsky’s minor comic characters. Dr. Gertsenshtube in The Brothers Karamazov, asserts that Russians very frequently laugh where one ought to weep. There is perhaps something typically Russian in the concept: “laughter through tears”. Chekhov, who once proclaimed Gogol the greatest of Russian writers, showed a Gogolian sense of humour in many of his early stories. This in The Death of a Civil Servant he invites his readers to laugh at the circumstances which bring about the death of a figure traditionally treated as deserving compassion—the poor civil service clerk.
This does not, of course, explain why Chekhov’s compatriots in the Moscow Arts Theatre did not find the play ‘comic’. National attitudes to humour are but a partial explanation of the problem. Thus it is a commonplace that laughter and tears are closely associated; they are merely different physical vehicles for the release of emotional tension. The mixed elements of laughter and tears can be seen at the most fundamental level of the comic in the traditional figure of the clown, who not only exploits comedy and pathos in turn but often contrives to blend them for sharper artistic effect. The skilful admixture of the pathetic to the comic catches an audience “‘between the wind and the water”, the presence of pathos in a situation which is principally perceived as funny intensifies the comic effect, in as much as the audience’s awareness of another, and contrary, pull towards ‘tears’ produces a divided response, and a corresponding heightening of tension. If the comic prevails, such tension can only find its resolution in greatly intensified laughter. By the same token, an audience’s awareness of comic elements in a situation of basic pathos sharpens the pang and can produce real tears. Shakespeare knew of this and made ‘comic’ detail tell in his account of the death of Falstaff in Henry V (the dying Falstaff compares a flea on Bardolphe’s nose to a black soul burning in hell).
No situation is unequivocally comic in its own right. The basic devise of ‘slapstick’ contains pain and humiliation as well as comedy, so that a clown can exploit a fall either in the direction of laughter or the direction of pathos.
Chekhov spoke of his last comedy as ‘in places almost a farce’ and it is true that it contains pronounced elements of ‘slapstick’: an incensed and indignant Trofimov falls downstairs; Varya, wishing to hit Yepichodov with a stick, hits Lopakhin instead: Yepichodov crushes a hat box, and has boots which squeak as he walks. Nevertheless these stock ingredients of farce are not as straight-forward as they might at First seem.
When in Act I Lopakhin pokes his head round the door and makes an unexpected mooing noise at Varya, her reaction is to threaten him with her fist, but Chekhov’s accompanying directions read: (through tears).
When in Act IV, Varya takes up an umbrella rather too violently and Lopakhin feigns fear that he is about to be beaten, the audience is aware not only of Varya’s threatened fist in Act of Lopakhin’s non-proposal that preceded it and has injected its own tension in this second non-event.
This final act, where the Moscow Arts Theatre saw only tears, is in reality packed with comic detail. Even Lopakhin’s failure to propose to Varya has its Gogolian antecedents in the ludicrous behaviour of those reluctant bridegrooms Shponka and Podkolesin (Ivan Fedorovich Shponka and his Aunty, and Marriage) and overt comedy persists until the end in such details as the unexpected onset of Yepichodov’s comic voice.
Action on a Knife Edge
Throughout The Cherry Orchard Chekhov places the action on a knife edge between laughter and tears; but he intends no neutral balance. He expects pathos to weigh on the side of the comic, not against it, and comedy, thus reinforced, to tilt decisively in favour of laughter. The expectations of Stanislavsky were entirely different, and with equal ease he was able to incline the play’s delicate mechanism in a contrary direction.
The ‘tearful’ interpretation of the play derives almost entirely from a particular focus on a single character: Lyubov Andreyevna. At the very beginning, before her entry on stage, Lopakhin characterizes her as: “a good person, easy to get on with, a person without affectation”. Once on stage she easily captures an audience’s sympathy; she is warm, full-blooded, romantic, generous (though some of these qualities, particularly, the latter, may also be flaws). (She can be seen as a tragic figure, who has suffered both in life and in love). Happy and excited though she is, in Act I, to return to the place of her birth, there is nevertheless a sadness which she cannot conquer: If only one could take off this heavy stone from my breast and shoulders, if only I could forget my past. Later in Act III she will be more precise about the nature of this stone—it is her lover in Paris from whom she has parted: “I love, love…this stone round my neck. I am going down to the bottom with it, but I love this stone, and cannot live without it.” The fact that the image here is one of drowning suggests yet another identification for this ‘stone’ of the past—the grief and guilt associated with the drowning of her young son; a punishment, she feels, for having taken up with a lover.
It cannot be doubted that Lyubov Andreyevna is at the very centre of the play, and the conflict for possession of the cherry orchard might be interpreted as an opposition of her values to those of Lopakhin: the romantic and the generous opposed to the prosaic and the mercenary; the cultured and the vulnerable in hopeless combat with the philistine and the successful: the ancient and aristocratic ranged against the plebeian and the new. Conflict within the play, however, is not as straight-forward as this.
Another possible opposition exists between Lyubov Andreyevna and the ‘eternal student’ Trofimov—a conflict between a depth of feeling which stems from a tragic past and a naive superficial optimism about the future, which shuns all emotions. Trofimov is the play’s chief advocate for a complete break with the past. He successfully woos Anya, the representative of the younger generation of landowners away from all attachment to the cherry orchard, yet such wooing seems essentially ideological. Her mother mocks Trofimov for saying that he is ‘above love’ castigating his smugness as a lack of experience:
Lyubov Andreyevna:.... You confidently find answers for all the important problems, but tell me, my dear, isn’t that because you’re young, because you’re not old enough for a single one of your problems to have brought about any substantial suffering?
This choice of verb “to suffer through” is typical of Lyubov Andreyevna’s emotional attitude to life with its emphasis on ‘love’ and ‘suffering’ (it seems significant that her very Christian name ‘Lyubov’ actually means ‘Love’). Her emotionalism is in obvious contrast to Trofimov’s purely intellectual attitude to life and its problems.
It cannot be denied that the play ranges Lyubov Andreyevna against Lopakhin and Trofimov, but it does not do so in any crude diagrammatical way. If comic elements, which are a feature of the way her two ‘opponents’ are presented, seem excluded from the portrayal of Lyubov Andreyevna herself, we should not necessarily assume that she is the only serious character in the play, and that her attitude to life is the only one endorsed by the author himself. A further point remains to be made about the legacy of “laughter through tears”.
The ‘tears’ of Gogol’s world hint at the serious intentions which lie behind his comic artistry, yet paradoxically Gogol singularly failed in his portrayal of serious characters and positive ideas in Part II of Dead Souls precisely because he divorced them from humour. His successors, notably Goncharov and Dostoyevsky, learned the lesson. In an often quoted letter Dostoyevsky discusses the value of humour in portraying the positive hero, and throughout his writing such preposterous figures as Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, ‘the underground man’ and ‘the ridiculous man’, are often mouthpieces for ideas close to the author’s heart. Chekhov is frequently admired for his sane objectivity and his refusal to preach at his readers, but the serious ideas he presents in many of his short stories (such as those of Gromov in Ward No. 6, of Poleznev in My Life, of Ivan Ivanovich in Gooseberries) are made more objective through authorial self-distancing, using the device of humour. The fact that Chekhov calls The Cherry Orchard a comedy does not preclude a serious intention. Quite the contrary—by giving comic overtones to the portrayal of both Trofimov and Lopakhin Chekhov makes this intention more credible.
Lyubov Andreyevna and Gayev
If it were not for the figure of Lyubov Andreyevna, no producer would hesitate to present the play as a comedy. She is surrounded by a retinue of genuinely comic characters, as well as by more serious figures who nevertheless are not allowed to escape implications of the comic. Lyubov Andreyevna seems above all this, and yet the comedy is centred on her in a very real sense; for in those who surround her can be glimpsed traits and attitudes of Lyubov Andreyevna herself—but parodied and exaggerated to the point where they become comic. The most obvious example of this is to be seen in her brother who acts a comic alter ego. Brother and sister share many attitudes and assumptions in common, but in Gayev they are taken to ludicrous extremes. It is because of this exaggeration that the oppositional relationship of both Lopakhin and Trofimov is as we shall see, even more pertinent for Gayev than it is for Lyubov Andreyevna herself.
The opening stage directions of Act I make clear the emotional and symbolic setting for Lyubov Andreyevna’s home-coming: (A room which used to be the children’s bedroom and is still referred to as the ‘nursery’). The Russian is even more piquant: the word: detskaya—’nursery’ is derived from an adjective which can also mean ‘childlike’, ‘infantile’. Lyubov Andreyevna’s First utterance in the play is this one word detskaya in the form of an exclamation. Her next remarks develop the theme: “The nursery, my dear, my beautiful room!...I used to sleep here when I was little…(Cries.) And now I feel as if I were little again”. The ambiguity of this last statement, which could also mean ‘even now I am like a small girl’ seems significant. It is followed by her twice kissing her brother Gayev, who is in essence a child, and by once kissing Varya—the most adult member of the household.
Nursery as the Setting
The nursery as the setting for Act I is thus highly suggestive: both Lyubov Andreyevna and Gayev have the characteristics of children incapable of looking after themselves or of living in any other world than that of make-believe. But it is in Gayev that the characteristics of the child are most pronounced—with his constant sucking of sweets (he jokes of having consumed his estate in the form of sweets); with his imaginary games of billiards; but above all through the way in which he allows Firs to fuss over him, and scold him for not wearing the right clothes.
The tendency towards romantic effusion, evident in Lyubov Andreyevna’s opening speeches on the nursery, is taken to comic excess in Gayev. Towards the middle of Act I he causes embarrassment by his comically inappropriate declamation honouring the centenary of a family bookcase. Yet only shortly before this, his sister had addressed it, even kissed it: “You can laugh at me, I’m foolish…My dear bookcase ! (Kisses bookcase.) My own little table!” In spite of her invitation to laugh at this exhibition of emotion (indeed perhaps because of it) such an unsympathetic response from the audience is effectively blocked. We are merely allowed a glimpse of irony, when it is later discovered that this emotional symbol of the past has been guarding the telegrams from her lover in Paris, summoning her return.
When Gayev opens the window on to the cherry orchard in Act I he is permitted his one moment of poetry:
Gayev: (opens another window) The orchard is all in white. You haven’t forgotten, Lyuba, have you? That long avenue over there keeps running straight, straight as a cord stretched tight. It shines brightly on moonlit nights. You remember, you haven’t forgotten, have you?
This, however, is merely the prelude to a much longer speech from Lyubov Andreyevna in her most exalted and poetic manner:
Lyubov Andreyevna: (looks through the window at the orchard) Oh, my childhood, days of my innocence! In this very nursery I used to sleep, I used to look out at the orchard from here, and when I woke up each morning I felt happy, so happy. At that time too the orchard was exactly the same, nothing at all has changed. (Laughs jubilantly.) All in white, all! Oh, my orchard! After the dreary, rainy autumn and cold winter, I find you young once more, filled with happiness, and I know the angels in heaven have not deserted you...
Here in spite of the moments of potential bathos (the middle-aged Venus regretting lost purity; the heavenly angles) Lyubov Andreyevna’s speech is not comic. Indeed one may argue, in view of what has already been said on the mixed nature of the comic and the pathetic, that the audience’s awareness of potential bathos serves in effect to heighten the pathos. Yet what is possible for Lyubov Andreyevna is not allowed her brother: his apostrophizing of Nature in Act II is treated as yet another absurd embarrassment:
Gayev: (in a low voice, as if reciting) Oh, nature, marvelous nature, shining with eternal radiance, beautiful yet unfeeling, you whom we name as mother, in whom are united both the living and the dead, you give life and you destroy...
Much the same is true in Act IV, Gayev is once more silenced when he begins to talk in a rhetorical manner about his feelings on leaving the house, whereas earlier in the act his sister had been allowed to pour out her elevated feelings on the same subject and even to personify the house as ‘old grandfather’ “Good-bye, dear house, old grandfather (house). Winter will pass, spring will come again, and then you won’t be here anymore, you’ll be pulled down. How much these walls have seen?”
If Gayev is an obvious comic shadow for the childlike and naively romantic aspects of Lyubov Andreyevna, it can also be seen that similar functions are carried out by other characters who surround her. Simeonov-Pishchik is the embodiment of her fecklessness over matters of money and estate affairs. When Lyubov Andreyevna drops her purse in Act II the incident seems tragically symbolic (even though comedy is possible in the actions of Yasha crawling around the stage to pick up her scattered gold). Nevertheless, the comic counter-weight comes in Act III, when Pishchik, who is similarly faced with the need to make mortgage repayments suddenly think he has lost his money, but finds it again in the lining of his coat. Lyubov Andreyevna’s incompetence in money results in the loss of her estate, but such fecklessness in Pishchik has the happy outcome of comedy. For Pishchik, something always turns up: Englishmen find china clay deposits on his estate, and at the end of the play, he has money to pay everyone back.
The means by which Pishchik is saved is yet a further commentary on Lyubov Andreyevna’s romantic attitude to her estate and her cherry orchard. He is prepared to come to terms with modern commercial interests, be it the railway he allows to pass through his estates, or the mining of china clay. The business proposition put to her by Lopakhin is dismissed as ‘vulgar’.
Pishchik is a comic deflator of such pretentiousness. In Act I he interrupts the discussion of former gastronomic delights prepared from the fruit of this orchard by asking Lyubov Andreyevna whether she ate frogs in Paris, and she allows herself the comic retort: ‘I ate crocodiles’. Shortly afterwards her hypochondria receives similar treatment, when Yasha reminds her that it is time to take her pills:
Pishchik: No need to take medicines, my dearest...Oh, no damage comes from it, no benefit, either...Here, let me have them...honored lady. (Takes the pills, pours them into the palm of his hand, blows on them, puts them in his mouth, and drinks them down with kvas.) There!
As a result, he later falls asleep whilst still speaking, snores, but suddenly wakes up and asks Lyubov Andreyevna to lend him money for his own mortgage repayments.
The tragic overtones of Lyubov Andreyevna’s life—the misfortunes which weight on her like a stone—find a comic projection in the ridiculous figure of Yepichodov, nicknamed ‘Two-and-Twenty Hard Knocks’. He, like a truly tragic figure, is a stoic in the face of adversity: “Everyday something or other unpleasant happens to me. But I don’t complain; I am accustomed to it, I even laugh at it.” Lyubov Andreyevna’s unhappy, destructive love affair has its gross parallel at the level of the servants in the triangular relationship between Yepichodov, Dunyasha and Yasha, and tragedy even seems threatened at the beginning of Act II, when Yepichodov reveals that he always carries a gun in case he feels like shooting himself. Nevertheless, despite the subsequent behaviour of Dunyasha, he spends the rest of the act quietly strumming his guitar.
Charlotta and Firs
Two incongruously associated aspects of Lyubov Andreyevna’s character: on the one hand her cosmopolitan rootlessness, and on the other her immersion in the past and deafness to a changing world, are embodied in the antithetical figures of Charlotta and Firs. Chekhov had originally ended Act II with a lyrical conversation between these two characters, but he dropped this idea on the advice of Stanislavsky, transferring some of Charlotta’s speeches to the beginning of the act instead.
There is more than a hint of the fairground in the passportless wandering of Charlotta, yet it serves as a comment on her mistress and benefactor, who has lived in Mentone and Paris, and who, once back in Russia, confesses almost immediately that she cannot sit still; her return to Paris in Act IV comes as no surprise. When Lyubov Andreyevna expresses pleasure that Firs is still alive, and receives the incongruous reply “the day before yesterday”, we may laugh at what this tells us about Firs, but at the same time be aware of an echo for his backward looking mistress. There is more pathos in the presentation of Firs and Charlotta than there is in the portrayal of the other comic characters. In Firs this stems from his age, but in the case of Charlotta it is perhaps significant that she of all the characters is the nearest to the professional clown.
The comic characters perform a vital function in the delicate mechanism of the play’s overall balance. They act as conductors of ridicule, drawing the comedy away from Lyubov Andreyevna herself, allowing her to remain serious, tragic, poetic, yet at the same time they take up and comment on certain aspects of her personality, which if taken to excess, or if seen in a different perspective, are merely comic. The shadowy presence of such aspects can serve to heighten the pathos of her presentation, but if they are allowed more fully into the light, we may then indeed have something nearer to Chekhov’s own intentions. A hair’s breadth can separate the devices of pathos and comedy—at the shock of loss Lyubov Andreyevna: (would have fallen, if she were not standing beside a table and an armchair); whereas, in the elation of gain, Lopakhin. (pushes a small table accidentally and nearly knocks over some candle-sticks.)