Saturday, August 14, 2010

Discuss ‘The Cherry Orchard’ as a comedy. (P.U. 2004)

The Cherry Orchard is not the easiest of Chekhov’s works with which to begin a reassessment of him. Because it is his last work, composed in illness and apparently in a psychological state of unusual detachment from the particulars of the life around him, its created world does feel somewhat (brittle, and it is visually and, dramatically exceptionally stylized.) In this sense, it seems to confirm those elements of the popular conception of Chekhov which involve his being charming but lacking imaginative strength, an orchestrator of ‘mood’ (nastroenie), but mood without content. But precisely because it does conform, more than any other Chekhov piece, to this conception of him as a melancholy and merely (impressionistic) dramatist, it is useful starting point from which to begin a fresh approach to him.

Stanislavsky’s Comments
In a letter to Olga Knipper on November 25, 1903, before the premiere of  The  Cherry  Orchard,  Chekhov  commented  prophetically:  “So Nemirovich-Danchenko did not read my play to the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature ? We began with misunderstandings and we shall end with them—such, it seems, is the fate of my play”. The misunderstandings in question were principally those between himself and the co-directors of the Moscow Art Theatre, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, as to the prevalent spirit of this last and perhaps most intriguingly, originals of his plays. (As early as September 1903 while he was still in the process of writing. Chekhov had said, “I shall call the play a Comedy”; and later he added, “It has turned out not a drama, but a comedy, in parts a farce, indeed...” Never did he renounce this conviction that The Cherry Orchard was, above all things, a comedy. But Stanislavsky, from the moment of First reading the play, had very different ideas about it: “This is not a comedy or a farce, as you wrote, it is a tragedy whatever the solution you may have found for the better life in the last act”) During the rehearsals for the premiere on January 17 1904, there was considerable antagonism between author and director, Chekhov objecting not only to the excesses of Stanislavsky’s ‘naturalism’ but also—and primarily—to the sad and wistful mood which he felt was being falsely projected onto his play. (In some of the performances under Stanislavsky’s direction, the duration of the fourth act was extended from twelve to forty minutes to make the utmost of the ‘tragedy’ of the final scene). Nor was Chekhov’s anger quick to subside. As late as April 1904 he was still complaining to Olga:
Why is it that my play is persistently called a drama in posters and newspaper advertisements? Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky see in my play something absolutely different from what I have written, and I‘m 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.
The Cherry Orchard, then, was first staged amid a controversy about its basic mood, a controversy which even today remains unresolved. But the irony of the situation is that, despite all Chekhov’s protestations, the popular conception of Chekhov until very recently has been Stanislavsky’s Chekhov: that wistful lyricist whom so many writers have characterized as negative, as being (incapable of giving expressions to human will or to purposeful human energy). It is this conception of Chekhov which David Magarshack, untypically, perpetuates in the following description:
The dying, melancholy sound of a broken string of a musical instrument... is all Chekhov needed to convey his own attitude to the ‘dreary’ lives of his characters... With the years this sound acquired a nostalgic ring, and it is this sad, nostalgic feeling Chekhov wanted to convey by it. It is sort of requiem for the ‘unhappy and disjointed’ lives of his characters.
The peculiar thing about Magarshack’s account is that this paragraph comes in the midst of an argument that The Cherry Orchard is a farce; and this perhaps typifies the strain evident in a number of critical accounts as they attempt to accommodate Chekhov’s intentions to a basic seriousness in their own response. In recent years a number of critics have reacted against the older view which took Stanislavsky’s side in the debate—doing so, however, in a way which seems slightly forced. Apart from David Magarshack’s account of the play as farce, Maurice Valency discovers it to be, of all things, “cosmic vaudeville?” and Logan Speirs finds it ‘astonishingly light and fresh?’ Only two accounts—those of J.L. Styan and Harvey Pitcher—seem to come close to the true spirit of the play; but neither of them views it as it should finally be viewed (as comedy in a strictly classic sense).
Poetic Elegy
Traditionally, The Cherry Orchard has been seen as the poetic elegy which Stanislavsky claimed it was: a play of nostalgic regret for the passing of the landed gentry, cultivated but passive, from control of the Russian land. Its characters, it has often been said, are appealing but weak, unable to act or even to recognize the vulnerability of their position; and in the orchard itself Chekhov has given a somewhat uncritical image of the gracious old order, wantonly destroyed by the new. Clearly, this account has a partial truth: the play is indeed about a world in the process of change, the major characters do seem mysteriously unable to save their orchard, and the loss of the orchard at the end is felt with something like nostalgic regret. But a close look even at the major characters should reveal that their so-called weakness and lack of will is actually something much deeper and much more interesting: In Lyubov and Gayev it amounts to a complex sense of guilt and self-degradation which is both personal and yet obscurely the product of their situation of privilege. Lyubov’s addiction to pills and her incassant coffee-drinking suggest, obliquely, something disturbed and guilty about her worldliness; and Gayev’s incongruous reference to billiards (while disconcertingly unrealistic and obtrusive in the play) represent his attempt to deflect his particular sense of self-degradation into harmless and apparently meaningless verbal gesture. Nor are these characters simply illustrative ‘types’ of upper-class decadence (though they are certainly closer to being that than the characters of Three Sisters). For although Gayev really is, in one way, the “superfluous man of the eighties” so solemnly imputed to Chekhov as his characteristic ‘type’, the fact that he himself perceives his relation to that type liberates him, comically, from it:
Gayev:      I’m a man of the eighties! No one pays tribute to those days, but I still went through plenty in life for my convictions, I can tell you I did. The peasant has reason to love me. You must get to know the peasant, I say.
The comedy, and the resilience in Gayev himself which will later find him returning home from the sale of the orchard drying his tears with one hand and in the other clutching anchovies and Kertch herrings, give the lie to any account that would make the characters simply stereotypes of upper-class decadence and the art correspondingly predictable or moralistic.
(As has often been noticed, the cherry orchard captures, as an image, something of the past glory of the Russian estates, focussing the different feelings of the characters towards that past.) It forms the centre of a carefully balanced composition which begins as soon as Lopakhin suggests his plan to cut the orchard down:
Lyubov Andreyevna: Cut down? My dear, forgive me, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. If there’s anything at all in this whole district that’s still exciting, even incredible, that one thing is our cherry orchard.
Lopakhin: The only thing incredible about that cherry orchard is that it’s damn big. There’s only one crop every two years, and when it comes there’s plenty of cherries around, but nobody will buy them.
Gayev:      This orchard is even mentioned in the Encyclopaedia.
Lopakhin: (having glanced at his watch) If we don’t think of something or come up with an idea, the cherry orchard and the whole estate will be sold at auction on August twenty-second. You can make up your minds to it! There’s no other way out, I swear it to you. None at all, none.
Firs:          In times before, about forty or fifty years ago, the cherries were dried, soaked, marinated, and jam was made, and it used to be...
Gayev:      Be quiet, Firs.
Firs:          And it used to they’d send cartloads of dried cherries off to Moscow and to Kharkov. Oh, there was money galore! And dried cherries at that time were soft and juicy, sweet and a good smell to them.. .They knew a way of doing it at that time...
Lyubov Andreyevna: And where on earth is that way now?
Firs:          They’ve forgotten. No one remembers it.
(The voices on the stage come from three directions in time. Firs’s voice is from the past, when the orchard was abundant with life and work, beautiful but also productive. Lyubov and Gayev speak from the present of an orchard already more important for private reasons than for itself: it is a landmark mentioned in the ‘Encyclopaedia’, a spectacle that is no longer useful, but one intimately associated with their childhood. Finally, in Lopakhin we have the voice of the future, which assures us of the necessity of sacrificing the orchard. The voices play effectively around one another, while each is heard separately and remains distinct. And what they give us, as they emerge relative to each other, is a significantly deepening perspective on the centrally placed image of the cherry orchard. Like the gentry themselves, the orchard is a touching relic of the past: glorious in blossom, an image of a gracious and leisurely age, but essentially of no use. Its vulnerability to the axe is sad, but its unproductiveness, compared with the juicy harvests of the past, partly qualifies the loss. Compared with it, Lopakhin’s projected villas will be ugly and perhaps vulgar, but they will at least have their use and take their vitality (however purely notional that vitality is in the actual world of the play) from a new and growing class.)
This much is indicated very early in the First Act. But it is characteristic of Chekhov criticism generally that very few accounts of The Cherry Orchard go much beyond this sense of things (mixed up with discussions of character) and a definition of the ‘comic’ or ‘tragic’ or ‘tragi-comic’ response Chekhov is supposed to have had to it. It is here that the disputes arise. (For on the one hand, Chekhov creates a sense of social transition and of its cost, showing a serious interest in the nature and process of social evolution and change. The financial ruin of the old estates, the changing economics associated with the emancipation of the serfs and the growth of a new merchant class out of the ranks of the former serfs, all are mentioned in the play and are in some ways the central psychic facts under whose impetus the characters act:
Firs:          I’ve been living a long time now. They were going to get me married before your papasha was even in the world yet... (Laughs.) When freedom came for the serfs, I was already the head valet. I did not accept freedom at that time, so I kept on with the master and mistress...(Pause.) Oh, I remember everyone was glad, but what they were glad about, why, they didn’t even know themselves.
Lopakhin: Oh, it was very good in the old days. At least they used to flog them.
Firs:          (not having heard him) Yes, the good old days. The peasants were attached to the master, and the master to the peasants, but nowadays they are all mixed up, and you can’t tell one from the other.
Gayev:      Keep quiet for a moment, Firs. Tomorrow I must go to town. I was promised an introduction to a certain general who might give us money on a promissory note.
Lopakhin: Nothing will come out of it. And you won’t pay the interest either, you can rest assured of that.
But, on the other hand. (Firs’s subservience, Lopakhin’s rather aggressive autonomy, and Gayev’s failure to be realistic about his debts) are not the deeply (even tragically) consequential states which Three Sisters might have made of them. In fact, the lightness of texture in The Cherry Orchard is very finely achieved. Like Three Sisters, the play is imbued with a sense of social and cultural tension, which the breaking string and the thud of the axe express at snapping-point. But the heartfelt agreement between Firs and Lopakhin which Firs’s deafness makes possible gives the dialogue a comic touch; and even at the First ominous sound of that breaking string, a lighter note is not far away:
All are sitting, deep in thought. Silence. All that can be heard is Firs, who mumbles quietly. Suddenly a sound is heard far off in the distance, as if coming from the sky. It is the sound of a string breaking that dies away sadly.
Lyubov Andreyevna: What was that?
Lopakhin: I don’t know. Somewhere far off in the mines a bucket must have broken loose. But it’s somewhere far, far away.
Gave:        Perhaps it was a bird of some kind... like a heron.
Trofimov: Or an eagle owl...
Lyubov Andreyevna: (shudders) It was unpleasant, and I don’t know why. (Pause.)
Firs:          It was just the same before the troubles—and the owl kept hooting and the samovar humming without stopping.
Gayev:      What troubles are you talking about?
Firs:          Just before the serfs were given their freedom. (Pause.)
The way the sound is placed, at an impasse in the conversation and immediately after the sun has set, gives it clear symbolic force. It is the sound of social transition, of the passing away of a particular class, as the wheels of a society begin to turn. As the string snaps in the sky over characters momentarily silent and stilled, the historical process that will absorb them is almost palpable. There is a strong premonition of the defeat of the play’s major characters—of all, that is, except Lopakhin. Yet the social significance of the snapping string is suggested and at the same time lightened by Firs’s reference to similar omens before the emancipation. The long perspective of time returns to the immediately comedy of Firs’s remark.
Overall Structure
In view of this careful balance between comic possibilities and the seriousness of Chekhov’s social and cultural preoccupation, it is hard to see how the overall structure of his art could be called loose. Furthermore, what emerges from the play is characteristic division of Chekhov’s sympathies, in this case between the claims of the old social order and those of the new. Three Sisters contains Chekhov’s closest act of identification with people of any class, and the sisters belong to that same class of which Lyubov and Gayev are a decadent extreme. Yet Chekhov, himself the grandson of a serf, was also aware of the positive achievements of social change and of the social value of the energetic, egoistic thrust of his lower-class characters. The old order in The Cherry Orchard certainly had its bitterness, which Chekhov presents through Trofimov’s outraged social conscience:
Trofimov: Just think, Anya, your grandfather and your great­ grandfather and all your ancestors owned both land and serfs, they owned living souls. Don’t you see that from every cherry tree in the orchard, from every leaf and every trunk, generations of human beings are gazing down at you, don’t you hear their voices...
And, maintaining the balance, the new order has its positive side:
Lopakhin: In the spring I seeded almost three thousand acres in poppies and I just earned forty thousand roubles clear and clean. And when my poppies were in flower, what a picture of beauty that was! What I’m saying is this. I made forty thousand, so I’m offering you a loan because I can well afford to. So why stick your nose in the air? I’m a peasant...and I call a spade a spade.
Though Lopakhin’s practicality makes him blunt in manner, and even downright destructive, he can be generous, and he is not utterly impervious to beauty. His honesty and openness in the play can be as refreshing as a cool wind; and if his poppies are more flamboyant than the stately cherry orchard and more transient in blossom, they are nevertheless what the cherry orchard no longer is. Lopakhin’s poppies, through they lack the historical and in a sense cultural permanence of the orchard (the fact that the orchard feels permanent and so much a part of the past is why its actual destruction at the end of the play comes as such a shock), have a more colorful vitality; and, along with their beauty, they are—importantly—profitable. Their beauty is their ‘use’, a beauty for which, unlike that of the orchard, people are prepared to pay.
The earliest plays Chekhov wrote were vaudeville and farce, and the comic sense of behaviour he exploited there was never far from his work. In the early stories his sense of humour, while often expressed as irony also involved a keen sense of the ridiculous in human gesture. So it is interesting that, after the intense seriousness of some of the middle-period novellas and the predominant sadness of Three Sisters, Chekhov should revert in his last play to the comic mode. As several writers have noticed, individual effects in The Cherry Orchard even border on burlesque, as for example the whole conception of Epihodov, two and twenty misfortunes, which makes for a fairly primitive kind of comedy at points throughout the play:
Yepichodov: I’m going. (Stumbles against a chair, which falls.) There...(As if he is celebrating it.) There you see, excuse the expression, the kind of circumstance I bump into, by the way... It’s simply even out of this world! (Goes out.)
 Yepichodov squashes, breaks and falls over everything. Trofimov, too, falls downstairs at the point of his indignant exit in Act III: Varya wields a stick that almost hits the wrong man. While there is a more sinister significance attaching to the distasteful Pishchik and Yasha, still the comic vein continues. Yasha, with his affectations, provides a quite robust verbal comedy:
Dunyasha: I love you so terribly much. You’re educated, there’s nothing in the world you can’t figure out. (Pause.)
Yasha:       (Yawns) Yes, miss...The way I look at it, if a girl loves anyone, it means she’s immoral. (Pause.)
The characters of The Cherry Orchard are, as Valency remarks, more formulaic than those of Chekhov’s other major plays: in fact, Lyubov Andreyevna is the only figure who is even potentially tragic. But even Lyubov, if she is not herself comic, is sent in a context where comedy is always likely to arise. When she pronounces herself so glad to find old Firs alive, he responds deafly ‘the day before yesterday’, and her worldly, rather heavy-handed ‘wit’ is made humorous, if it is not already, by the solemnity with which it is received:
Pishchik:   (to Lyubov Andreyevna) What’s in Paris? How did it go? Did you eat frogs?
Lyubov Andreyevna: I ate Crocodiles.
Pishchik:   What do you think of that...
These examples represent Chekhovian comedy developed from its early satirical origins, where Gogol’s influence is often quite heavy, to a stylized, completely distinctive humor arising from calculated pomposities of phrasing and from amusing disjunction of logic which one almost feels crystallizing in the space of the indicated pauses.
For these reasons, Chekhov’s description of the play as “a comedy, in parts a farce indeed” has an obvious truth. Any play which has such elements cannot consistently maintain an air of wastefulness or an aura of tragedy. Yet one notices that Chekhov does distinguish the comedy from his more farcical effects; and it is possible that he actually meant something rather special by the term. Stanislavsky’s sense of the comic mode may have been limited, but Chekhov had a more sophisticated understanding. To him, the comic convention need neither require obvious high spirits nor preclude quite serious human and/or historical implications. For, being acquainted with a wide range of literature, including French literature and Shakespeare, Chekhov was in a position to think of ’comedy’ in more classical terms: not as a mode provoking actual laughter, but as defining works of art which, while being imbued with a strong sense of the destinies if their figures, refuse to see those destinies tragically. Looked at more broadly than Stanislavsky’s terms would allow, then, The Cherry Orchard might be said to belong in 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 do finally lose their estate. But what is lost at the end of The Cherry Orchard has really already been lost at the beginning. Lyubov Andreyevna and her family have been away from the cherry orchard and the family have been away from the cherry orchard and the play records their coming home; the pattern is primarily one of attempted return—return to way of life which is idyllic and pure, but which there is really no hope of sustaining. So, whatever Chekhov actually meant when he said “I shall call the play a comedy”, The Cherry Orchard is surely best regarded as such by virtue of its affinities with the comedies of the past. In fact, it is perhaps most fruitfully regarded as embodying a unique and distinctively modern version of an almost discarded mode common to a number of those early comedies: that is, the pastoral mode.
The Pastoral Element
Pastoral, of course, has taken many forms over the centuries. Wordsworth’s ‘nature’ poetry, for example, or Corot’s landscapes may not seem ‘pastoral’ in the classical sense at all. But there is some evidence to suggest that periods of rapid social transition are often accompanied in the arts by a renewal of interest (on the part of both artists and their audiences) in images of rural contentment. At its simplest, the contrast between an ideal of rustic goodness and the sophisticated vanities of the world may be the artist’s most natural moral reaction to the inevitably competing emerges takes a more complex form than this, the popular tendency at such times to equate the loss of an old way of life with a stock of potent psychological imagery. In The Cherry Orchard that imagery involves the orchard itself, identified by both Lyubov and Gayev with the purity of their childhood to which, in coming back to the orchard, Lyubov is trying to return. And, together with that, Chekhov quite self-consciously includes with his usual stage effects the pastoral shepherd’s pipe and wayside shrine. In effect, just before the onset of one of the most momentous social transition in modern history. Chekhov renovated stylized elements of an old pastoral mode for his own distinctly modern purposes: to define the yearning for lost innocence that is so central to Lyubov’s individual psychology, and to indicate by ironic disjunction from pastoral ideal the state of a culture in which innocence and energy have long since been lost.
 Throughout his mature work, Chekhov is strongly aware of the formative traditions in his characters’ lives and the state of the civilization in which they live. But this cultural and historical interest is unusually easy to isolate in The Cherry Orchard since (like The Seagull) the play is constructed around a central image, not (as in Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters) around a person or persons. On the whole, this has the disadvantage of robbing the drama of that interest in diverse individual personalities which makes Three Sisters (say) so complex and variable. But it does mean both that Chekhov can produce a tighter shape to his work and that he can focus more directly and emblematically on the social and cultural implications which he wishes to convey. The Cherry Orchard begins and ends with a stage without people: in each case there is only the ‘nursery’, cold and empty, with the cherry orchard sparkling through its windows. The orchard itself is the protagonist. For, right from the beginning of Act I, it is from the static spectacle of the orchard, white with frost, that the play takes its psychological shape:
A room that still goes by the name of the nursery. One of the doors leads to Anya’s room. It is dawn and the sun will soon come up. It is May. The cherry trees are in flower, but in the orchard it is cold, there is morning frost. The windows in the room are closed. Enter Dunyasha with a candle and Lopakhin with a book in his hand.
The sun is just rising as the act begins, so that the light defines the cherry orchard against the more shadowy interior foreground; and the whiteness of the blossoming trees and frosted earth gives the outdoor scene a static, timeless air. As the light gradually intensifies throughout the act, the cherry orchard pales back into the distance. (But no account of the play can afford to disregard this immediate visual presentation of the orchard, impersonal and almost magically suspended in the morning frost. For its strangely timeless quality and mute purity and mute purity become for a while, as in pastoral, the reference-points against which the ordinary human world seems burdened and exhausted by time).
The room in which Act I take place is a former nursery, a place full of memories. Lopahin and Dunyasha enter during those odd few minutes between night and day when times is most palpable:
Lopakhin: The train’s arrived, thank the Lord. What’s the time?
Dunyasha: Almost two o’clock. (Extinguishes the candle.) It’s already light.
And when Lopakhin begins his typically Chekhovian reverie, bringing a personal and social past simultaneously forward to sustain his anticipation of seeing Lyubov again, the complexity of human time is felt against the unvarying cycle of the cherry-blossoming, momentarily spellbound in three degree of frost:
Lopakhin: Lyubov Andreyevna has been living five years abroad, and I don’t know what she’s become now...She’s a very fine person. An obliging person, simple. I remember when I was a youngster about fifteen, my father—he’s dead now but at the time he was a shopkeeper in the village here— hit me in the fact with his fist. The blood ran out of my nose...We had come to the yard here for some reason, and he’d been drinking. Lyubov Andreyevna, as I remember right now, was still very young, such a slim woman she was. She led me over to the washstand here in this very room, the nursery. “Don’t cry, little peasant,” she says “it will heal before your wedding...” (Pause.)
This kind of interest in time, in the fluidity of memory in bringing old situations forward into the present, is distinctive of Chekhov’s last plays. In this instance, human time is both complicated by nostalgia and fraught with irony. This ‘little peasant’ will later own Lyubov’s estate, and her troubles will be increased by his failure to have that ‘wedding day’. But it is the irrevocability of time that occupies our attention in Act I, as Lyubov and her entourage arrive back from the worldliness of Paris in the hope of a new life. When, towards the end of the act, the innocence of which it reminds Lyubov has an almost tragic past tense:
Varya:       (quietly) Anya is sleeping, (quietly open the window.) The sun’s come up now, and it isn’t cold. Look Mamochka, what marvelous trees! And the air, too, dear God in heaven! The starlings are singing!
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?
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... If only the heaviness I feel in my heart, the millstone I carry now, were suddenly taken away forever, if only I could forget my past!
The Element of Escapism
It is characteristic of Chekhov to avoid a surface nostalgia here (that emotion which is so attractive yet so dangerous in unskilled hands), and instead to make Lyubov’s longing for childhood—albeit somewhat theatrical—a longing for innocence and escape from time. The whiteness she prizes as purity in the orchards touches her because of the loss of that quality in her own life (just as Gayev, too, values the brilliance and symmetry that are missing from his). For although Lyubov Andreyevna is an attractive character, a woman of energy like that’, there is a worldliness and incipient vulgarity about her that reveal how far away she is, psychologically, from the cherry-orchard world of her youth. She feels the passing of time, not in terms of age, but in term of guilt—guilt about her lover, about the death of her son, about all that Paris has meant to her. And if, as the play goes on, she seems singularly inactive about the any attempt to save the orchard that means so much to her, it is First because she feels that she does not morally deserve the orchard, and second because that is not really where she belongs. In her deepest self she regards the experience of losing the orchard, of letting it slip through her hands, as a form of penance—the loss of the emblem of that innocence whose reality has long since gone. In any case, the call of her life—and love—is to Paris. The telegram that arrive at her estate, even before she arrive herself, are a persistent cause of tension, of a self-division into a defiant recognition of where her allegiances lie:
Lyubov:   That telegram is from Paris. I get one every day. Both yesterday and today. That wild creature has fallen ill again, and he’s in trouble again...He begs forgiveness and implores me to go to him, and I really should go to Paris and spend some time near him. You disapprove, Petya, I can see from your face, but what else can be done, my dear, what can I really do? He is sick, he is alone and unhappy, and who is there to look after him? Who can stop him from doing the wrong things, and who will give him his medicine at the right time? Then why try to hide it or keep quiet about the way I feel? I love him, that’s clear. I love him, I love him...That man’s a millstone around my neck, I’m being dragged down with him, but I love that stone and I can’t live without it. (Presses Trofimov’s hand.) Don’t think badly of me, Petya, don’t say anything to me, don’t say anything...
Harvey Pitcher has given a convincing account of what he calls the ‘emotional network’ of this scene, where Lyubov Andreyevna first makes an appeal to Trofimov because he seems to have a stronger sense of right than she has and then, when he fails her, abandons herself to that other side of her nature which is impelling her towards Paris. In this episode (and elsewhere, through his association with Grisha, whose death Lyubov see as her ‘punishment’), Trofimov functions as an externalized figure of Lyubov’s own conscience. Recognizing her love for the man who has robbed and abandoned her, she instinctively fears what Trofimov will say; and in defiantly proclaiming her love to him, she is proclaiming it to her own conscience as well. She is no longer torn between shame and desire in deciding what to do; and after this, the lines recited in the background from A.K. Tolstoy’s ‘The Magdalene’ simply reinforce our impression that—paradoxical as it may seem—the cherry orchard, with all its metaphoric connotations of innocence for Lyubov, simply must be lost if she is to have peace of mind.
If this whole area of suggestion is explored in some details, it highlights several features of Chekhov’s dramatic art: the forceful visual suggestion of his stage images, the way that suggestion is complicated by the dialogue which takes place across and around it, and the simultaneous dramatization of social fact and the very personal psychological situation of individual characters. It is the work of a consummate artist whose control is everywhere evident in the work at large. For Lyubov’s lost innocence is, in a sense, embodied before both her and us in Anya, the daughter who bears so much likeness to Lyubov’s younger self. In Act I all hope seems centered on her. Significantly, the shepherd’s pipe plays as she retries to bed, and the last words of the act are a spoken tribute to her (ordinary metaphors, perhaps, but meaningfully suggestive of natural radiance in this carefully established context):
Trofimov: (deeply moved) Light of my life! My springtime!  When, therefore, Anya subordinates her natural goodness to a shaky ideal in welcoming the ‘new dawn’ with Trofimov, the sense of defeat is both personal (in what it implies for Lyubov, whom Anya comforts at the end of Act III with promises that are plainly empty) and in a broad sense cultural. Anya succumbs to the new ideology; the pastoral shepherd’s piping is not heard again after the end of Act I.
Stage Directions
Chekhov is renovating certain elements of pastoral to define a process of cultural transition. The whole opening scene of Act II, as a pictorial composition, is pastoral in character—the initial illusion of purity about the pastoral setting becoming only gradually and subtly ironic as we discern the presence of the ‘great town’ in the background. Then, more particularly, the ironic intention manifests itself through the disintegration of the pure and exact visual impression into an incongruous awkwardness of movement and modernity of dialogue when the action actually begins. The entire opening scene, beginning with the visual contrivance in the stage directions, demands the most absolute precision for its effect:
A field. A very small, old chapel—bent out of shape and deserted a long time ago. Near it are an old bench, a well, and large stones that apparently were once used as tombstones. A road to Gayev’s estate can be seen. Towering popular trees loom darkly on the side, where the cherry orchard begins. In the distance is a row of telegraph poles, and far, far away on the horizon—appearing indistinct—is a large town, clearly seen only in very fine, clear weather. It is shortly before sunset. Charlotta, Yasha, and Dunyasha are sitting on the bench. Yepichodov stands nearby and plays guitar, as the others sit lost in thought. Charlotta, wearing an old peaked cap, has taken a gun from her shoulder and is adjusting the buckle on the sling.
These stage directions are, clearly, much more elaborate than is usual and more precise in their disposition of the figures and properties. Chekhov mentions them specifically in a letter to Nemirovich-Danchenko: “In the Second Act I substituted for the river an old chapel and a well. This is better. But in the second act you will make provision for a real green field, and a path, and an horizon wider than is usual on the stage”. This ‘wider horizon’ provides an urban perspective to the pastoral image, foreshadowing the end of a country idyll. Even more importantly, the human grouping in the foreground (framed, in this case, by the wayside shrine and the well, so clearly reminiscent of pastoral) recall Watteau’s famous painting, Les Charmes de la vie, bringing to mind also the subtle melancholy of that picture. Like Watteau’s figure with the lute, Epihodov is set apart with his guitar, while the others are clustered on the garden seat. The settings seems initially to invite delight and the pleasures of courtly love. But while there is a love-triangle of a kind between Yasha, Dunyasha and Epihodov, it is not one that radiates innocence and joy. The divisions of attention and intention among this peculiar assortment of characters have the same effect as the preoccupied bodily attitudes of Watteau’s figures. Just as Watteau’s figures are subtly turned away from one another, Chekhov’s characters are absorbed in their separate thougths; and both scenes make us feel the absence of any truly functioning community between individual persons. The painting and the stage setting have in common on air of mournful distraction and even lassitude in the characters, which suggests their oppression by something both inside and outside themselves. Like Yasha’s and Yepichodov’s singing, something in the stage setting is vaguely off-key: there is a sense of disquiet, and each figure” plunged in thought”, seems oddly absorbed in himself.
Like Watteau’s Gilles, Chekhov’s composition shows his feeling for the fate of those secondary characters, like the artificer and the clown, who have been genially parasitic on a high culture which is now entering a phase of decline. For before the lifelessness of a culture is generally recognized, these people instinctively reflect the fact by a certain stiffness of posture and (in some cases) artlessness of gesture. (Their demeanor reveals the emptiness of their art, which, in no longer serving something vital, no longer serves them. Thus, it is no small calculation on Chekhov’s part that Act II should begin with Charlotta—governess, conjurer and ventriloquist—captured at an artlessly confessional moment, speaking (unheard) to other subordinate and dependent people, all of whom seem, despite their stylized postures, lonely and bereft of resource):
Charlotta: (in a thoughtful mood} I don’t have a genuine passport. I don’t know how old I am, but I keep on thinking I’m very young. When I was a small little girl, my father and mamasha used to travel from fair to fair and give shows—very good ones too. Oh I used to jump around, doing salto-mortale and all sorts of tricks. And when papasha and mamasha died, a certain German woman took me into her home and started teaching me. All right. I grew up and then became a governess. But where I come from and who I am—I don’t know...Who were my parents, maybe they weren’t even married...I don’t know. (Takes a cucumber out of her pocket and begins eating it.) I don’t know anything. (Pause.) I’d really like to start a conversation, but there’s no one to start with...I don’t have anybody at all.
Yepichodov: (plays the guitar and sings)
“What care I for the world and its tumult,
What care I for my friends or my foes...”
How pleasant it is to play the mandolin!
Dunyasha: It’s a guitar, not a mandolin. (Looks at herself in a small mirror and powder herself.)
It is part of the comic convention that the sorrows of which Charlotta speaks are itemized rather than felt, partly balanced by, and partly deflected into, her cucumber-eating. The expressions of melancholy are stylized. But the fact that feelings are formalized in this arrangement does nothing to discount the fact that they are there. Though lacking the emphasis on personality and the sense of life’s active cruelty which we associate with tragedy, the scene gives classical expression to a state of cultural decay by which the characters are tangibly but unconsciously oppressed. With the setting sun, in deliberate contrast to the sunrise of Act I, Chekhov prepares imaginatively for the demise of the landed class in this play and for the loss of everything which that class has contributed, positively, to the culture.
Act III as a whole assumes a processional character which is consistent with this stylized beginning: three groups of figures in turn arrive to converse by the abandoned shrine, before the sun finally sets and the string is heard snapping in the sky. The last of these groups includes Trofimov, the ‘perpetual student’ whose opinions (were it not for their often ironic context in the play) are fairly close to what Chekhov’s letters suggest were his own. Trofimov’s speeches widen the specific social reference of the play:
Trofimov: The educated people I know, the vast majority at any rate, aren’t in search of a single thing, and they certainly don’t do anything. So far they lack even the ability for real work. They call themselves the intelligentsia, but they speak to their servants as inferiors and treat their peasants as if they were animals. They are poor students, they read absolutely nothing serious, and they do precisely nothing. They only talk about science, and as for art, they understand next to nothing.
But it is characteristic of Chekhov’s irony—here and throughout his work—that this character, who so often accords with his own attitudes, is a conspicuously inadequate person, embodying more than anyone the inactivity of which he speaks. What Trofimov advocates in his most rhetorical speeches is embodied before him in Lopakhin; and though he himself cannot recognize it. Chekhov clearly does so in creating that symbolic stalemate between Lopakhin and Lyubov on the subject of Russia’s ‘giants’:
Lopakhin: You know, I get up before five in the morning, and I work from morning till night. Now, I’ve always got money on hand—my own and other people’s—and so I can see what kind of people are around. You have only to start doing something or other to realize how few honest, decent people there are. Sometimes when I can’t get to sleep, I keep thinking, “Dear Lord in heaven, you gave us these enormous forests, boundless fields, broad horizons, and living among them we really ought to be giants ourselves...”
Lyubov Andreyevna: Now you find giants indispensable...Oh, they are very nice only in fairy stories; anywhere else they can scare you. (Yepichodov crosses at the depth of the stage, playing his guitar. Lyubov Andreyevna is deep in thought.) There goes Yepichodov...
Anya:        (deep in thought) There goes Yepichodov...
Gayev:      The sun has set, ladies and gentlemen.
Yepichodov steps forth as if in answer to Lyubov’s call: the most absurd representative of the old order, passing across the stage in the last rays of light. The sounds of his guitar give way to silence, which, in turn, is broken by the sound of the snapping string. David Magarshack has pointed out how much the force of this movement depends on Chekhov’s stilling his characters into a state of ‘suspended animation’, a trance-like frame of mind which is somehow induced by the spectacle of Yepichodov silhouetted against the setting sun and signaled First by Lyubov’s and Anya’s dreamily repeating “There goes Yepichodov and then by Gayev’s softly chanted apostrophe to Nature. As the sun sets over Epihodov the characters against sit “plunged in thought”. But this time it is with an unspoken community of feeling, at least for the duration of the string snapping in the sky. Here, especially, one is aware of Chekhov’s special instinct for dramatic timing. The subtly ritual casting of the act has prepared for some such moment, and it comes immediately after a discussion of the ‘giants’ which Lopakhin, at least, thinks Russian ought to be, which heightens our awareness of what these people actually are. The sound of the snapping string feels like the triumph of some impersonal process over these characters’ lives. It is like a forewarning of the judgment of history on their lifelessness and decadence. And as soon as that sound is heard in the play, a whole series of changes occurs. A wayfarer enters, begging and then ridiculing Varya’s money; Lopakhin taunts her openly about the general presumption that they will marry, which he has never quite done before; and Trofimov decisively wins Anya’s loyalty. Although Lopakhin’s ‘giants’ would at least be decent and incorruptible men, and although Trofimov the idealist prophesies happiness, there is nothing in the play’s structure to endorse either hope. In fact, the rising moon, the poplars, Epihodov’s melancholy tune, and the echo of Varya’s voice at the end of the act—’Anya ! Anya !’—say otherwise.
At this point from the beginning of Act III, Chekhov has effectively moved the drama beyond the situation in which the pastoral suggestions had their meaning. With the fate of the old class all but sealed, he turns more directly to give an image of shifting power and social disintegration. From a beginning in which what is essentially a family is re-united in a setting of shared memories, the play accumulates people—only to loosen the bonds between them: and, as part of that process, the emphasis shifts from Lyubov’s personal longing for lost innocence to the power-dynamics of social change. In Acts I and II Yasha and Dunyasha, coming only gradually into their own right as characters, are disruptive presences among the cherry-orchard people, breaking up any sense of those people as forming a stable, self-contained community. Though officially subordinate in station, they dress and act like the class they serve; and often Yasha’s service to that class is performed insolently and ironically. In Act III, however, with the introduction of the post-office clerk and station-master as reluctant guests at Lyubov’s and Gayev’s loss of power and the greatest importance of a new factor in the determination of status—money. In no other of Chekhov’s plays is money so important, so insidiously dominating the characters’ lives. Pishchik can think of nothing else, as he himself says. And the unusually nervous balance of relationships in Act III derives from the fact that, although the scales of power are presumed to have tipped with the sale of the orchard, no one knows exactly which way.
Like its counterparts in Chekhov’s other major plays, Act III brings the drama to a climax by collecting its characters together in strained and untypical circumstances. Almost always, these occasions have the inbuilt irony of being gatherings that should not have taken place. Like Serebryakov’s meeting to propose the sale of the estate in Uncle Vanya, or the accidental fire in Three Sisters (so wholly inappropriate to the sisters’ state of feeling at that moment that it seems as if it has been lit ‘on purpose’ to spite them), the part in Act III of The Cherry Orchard takes place at ‘the wrong time’ to have the orchestra, and ‘the wrong time to give a dance’. In every detail the occasion is an affront to all that Lyubov and Gayev have represented in the past:
The drawing room. In the distance, through the archway, the ballroom can be seen. The chandelier is lighted. The Jewish orchestra mentioned in the second act is heard playing in the entrance hall. It is evening. In the ballroom they are dancing a grand rond. The voice of Simeonov-Pishchik is heard, “Promenade a une paire!” They enter the drawing room: Pishchik and Charlotta Ivanovna are the first couple; Trofimov and Lyubov Andreyevna the second; Anya and the post office civil servant, the third; Varya and the stationmasters, the fourth; and so on. Varya if weeping quietly, and as she dances, she wipes her tears away. Dunyasha is in the last couple. They walk around the drawing room, and Pishchik shouts, “Grand rond balancez!and “Les cavaliers a genoux et remerciez vos dames !” Firs, wearing a dress coat, brings in a tray with seltzer water, Pishchik and Trofimov enter the drawing room.
The very presence of the post-office clerk and the station-master is a sign of change, a disappointment in terms of what has been prepared for by the double drawing-room, the arch and the burning chandelier. After the outdoor setting of Act II, this indoor scene is burdened with the accessories of a past age, oppressing the non-aristocratic present with their disproportionate formality and weight. The dance, designed to promote high spirits, can only manage a forced gaiety, beneath which lie frustration and a flickering aggression. No one in the room (except perhaps the silly Dunyasha) is really happy, and only a convention of mock abuse, freely indulged in, covers—or partly covers—the personal aggressions that are going on:
Trofimov: (teases) Madame Lopakhina! Madame Lopakhina!...
Varya:       (angrily) You’re a used-up old gentleman!
This propensity for aggression infects nearly all the characters, but it is most obvious in Charlotta—that curiously displaced and autonomous person, obscure as to class, mannish, and yet not without a feminine quota of loneliness. Charlotta works with artifice, she is skilled in illusion; and it is by illusion that she distracts attention from the painful fate hanging over the cherry orchard. In her check trousers and grey top hat, and springing into the air to shouts of ’Bravo!’, she is an unrealistic figure, belonging, one comes to see, to the stylized tradition of mime. Yet the significance of her tricks is important and intriguing:
Charlotta: (holds the pack of cards on the palm of her hand; to Trofimov) Tell me quickly, what card is on top?
Trofimov: Well, hmm? Well, the queen of spades.
Charlotta: And here it is! (To Pishchik.) Well, what do you say the top card is now?
Pishchik: The ace of hearts.
Charlotta: And here it is! (Claps her hands and the pack of cards disappears.) Oh, what fine weather today! (She is answered by a mysterious woman’s voice that apparently comes from under the floor, “Oh, yes, the weather is incredible, dear leady.”) Oh, you’re so fine, indeed you’re my ideal...
The voice: “I like you very much, too, dear lady.”
The station master: (applauds) Bravo, our Miss Ventriloquist, bravo!
The rapid succession of one trick after another and Charlotta’s triumph in her power of command make this a tour de force of personal assertion which has also an edge of aggression about it. In the circumstances, with Lyubov helplessly awaiting news of what has happened to the estate. Charlotta’s demonstration of her power to will the world as she wants it, and her willing a kind of anarchy, feels to the audience like an act of psychic violence. The violence is cleanly achieved: it is probably not even conscious. But Chekhov makes it impossible for us not to feel that Charlotta in some sense wills her employers’ loss of power. It is, after all, just such a cruel, almost predestined operation of ‘chance’ and sudden overthrow of the old order which gives Lyubov’s estate to Lopakhin.
Chekhov is unusually alert to this kind of latent aggression in subordinate people; and the First definite news that the orchard has been sold provokes laughter from Yasha and, most surprising of all, irony from Firs. From then on the cherry-orchard people can do nothing but lose. And this process of loss culminates in the burlesque of Varya’s taking a stick to Yepichodov: her last frustrated gesture of authority, as Lopakhin—the new owner of the cherry orchard—enters and is almost struck by the stick. I mentioned earlier Chekhov’s sure sense of timing. Here, as Lopakhin announces that he has bought the orchard, Chekhov depends for an effect on bringing the whole on­going momentum of the drama itself to a halt: there is neither action nor dialogue as the shock reverberates across the stage. Only after Varya has thrown down her keys does the action resume its progress, but now with Lopakhin in command and not Lyubov. The final shift of power takes place, definitely, in that one moment, after which Lyubov is left with nothing but her private hope of going to Paris and Anya’s well-intentioned but empty promises.
As far as the characters are concerned, the drama at this point is effectively finished; and the last act is in many ways thinner than the other three. What it does, however, is to shift the emphasis away from people and towards social fact. The very setting of the scene is more impersonal, with the cold, hard reality of Lyubov’s loss embodied in the new starkness of the former ’nursery’.
The setting is the same as in the first act. There are no window curtains or pictures. The few remaining pieces of furniture have been piled into one corner, as if for sale. There is a feeling of emptiness. Suitcase, travelling bags, etc., have been piled up near the outer door at the rear of the stage.
Sense of Emptiness
The sense of space on the stage is a sense of emptiness, an emptiness in which Lopakhin and Yasha with their glasses of champagne are somewhat at a loss. The house already has an abandoned and hollow air. As in Act I, the weather is sunny and still, with three degrees of frost; but the significance of such weather now is simply that it is “just right for building”. A pervasive shift has taken place in the culture represented in the play, from originally aristocratic to bourgeois values. Yet Chekhov’s response remains ambivalent. He is too much of a realist not to place some value simply on the continuity of life, even as the play clearly expresses his regret at the cultural implications of the change:
Trofimov: Your father was a peasant, mine was a druggist, and these simple facts prove—exactly nothing. (Lopakhin takes out his wallet.) Oh, leave it alone, do...Even if you gave me two hundred thousand, I wouldn’t take it. I’m a free person. And everything you value so highly and is held so dear by all of you, both rich and poor, not one of these things can sway me one iota. Why, they have a much power as a fluff of eiderdown floating in the air. I can make a go of it without you, I can even pass you by. I’m strong and proud. Humankind is on its way to a higher truth, to the greatest happiness possible on this earth, and I’m in the vanguard!
Lopakhin: Will you get there?
Trofimov: I will. (Pause.) I’ll either get there or show others the way to get there.
There is heard the sound of an axe striking a tree in the distance.
Lopakhin: Well, good-bye, dear boy. It’s time to go. You and I stick our noses in the air and look down on each other, but life goes on without giving a hoot about us. When I work and keep at it steadily for some time, thoughts come more easily, and it seems to me I too know why I exist. But think how many people there are in Russia who just exist, brother, and for what—it’s beyond me. Well, it doesn’t matter, that isn’t what keeps the wheels greased and spinning. Leonid Andreich has taken a job at the bank, they say, at six thousand a year... He just won’t stick to it, you know, he’s much too lazy...
In this exchange between Lopakhin and Trofimov, two aims or styles of life are brought into confrontation, but it is a confrontation without malice. It is the last salutation between men bent on opposite ways, and it rises to the occasion with an uneasy but touching reconciliation: ‘We turn up our noses at one another, but life is passing all the while’. Trofimov has the vague idealism of the old class. Lopakhin the quiet, instinctive pragmatism of the new. Lopakhin has money and a certain confidence in the utility of work; but his is also the axe that fells the cherry trees. Trofimov has only a great dream; and, while it is in one way a democratic dream, it is in its self-aggrandizing pride and self-assurance unmistakably aristocratic in origin. Each man is presented to us as to some extent self-deceived. Lopakhin is unable to see the destructive side of his ‘work’, and when he says, “When I am working hard... it seems to me as though 1 too know what I exist for”, he half-recognizes that the real purpose of life eludes him. Trofimov naively trusts in his dream; but it seems, to say the least, a highly precarious dream when set again the down-to-earth question “Will you get there?” and the distant sound of the axe.
Yet it is significant that this note of impartiality is struck in a scene involving these particular characters, Trofimov and Lopakhin. Chekhov’s ethical sense demands that he recognize Lopakhin’s basic decency and that he admire Lopakhin’s ability to get things done. To do so, he sets him beside Trofimov—a character who is emotionally cold and therefore not one to whom we give warm sympathy, but an idealist in his own terms and an associate of the old class. In this way a certain balance is achieved between the claims of the old order and the new, and Chekhov’s presentation of the situation is demonstrably fair. For sometime, in fact, the play carefully elicits responses and counter responses so as to prevent the feelings of anyone character of group of character from holding complete sway. Lyubov and Gayev are seen to be saddened by the loss of the orchard, but they are also relieved, and not just because the tension is over but because their personal lives are somehow freed. They are freed too late perhaps, and certainly in an ambiguous way, but freed nonetheless. Lopakhin, on the other hand, having triumphed in the purchase of the orchard, seems to have no private energy left. The scene where he cannot bring himself to propose to Varya, tactfully constructed as it is, makes us feel more than ever that there is something unfree about Lopakhin’s emotional life. It is never made clear whether that lack of freedom derives from a sense of personal insecurity which makes him afraid of marriage, or from a sentimental attachment to Lyubov which makes Varya seem inferior, or simply from his being too occupied with other things. But Chekhov makes us feel all along that Lopahin will not propose to Varya, and he confirms that feeling immediately before the ‘proposal’ scene when the champagne glasses are prematurely emptied by a thirsty Yasha. And in the course of the scene itself, Lopakhin’s inability to propose is suggestively associated with an unconscious reluctance to be controlled by those who controlled his forefathers, when he hears whisperings of connivance behind the closed door.
Dialogue of Opposing Values and Claims
It is characteristic of Chekhov to keep up this dialogue of opposing values and claims for as long as his dramatic situations will allow. The emptiness of the house, left to stand during the winter to be knocked down in the spring, when ‘new life’ theoretically begins, makes us feel the departure from the cherry orchard to be the sad finale to a whole era of Russian life. Yet still the voices are set in dialogue:
Anya:        Good-bye, house! Fare thee well, old life!
Trofimov: Welcome, new life!...
There is not one response but many, deftly intertwined:
Lopakhin: And so, till spring then. Come along, everybody...Until we meet again!... (Goes out.)
Lyubov Andreyevna and Gayev are left alone. They seem to have waited for this moment and throw their arms around each other. They sob quietly, with restraint, afraid they might be overheard.
Gayev:      (in despair) My sister, my sister...
Lyubov Andreyevna: Oh, my beautiful orchard, my dear sweet orchard!...My life, my youth, my happiness, good-bye!... Good-bye!...
Anya:        (offstage, cheerfully and appealingly) Mama!...
Trofimov: (offstage, cheerfully and excitedly) Hullo!...
This counterpointing of youth and age, hope and elegy, perfectly balances two alternative social possibilities. It is a tribute to Chekhov’s intelligence that that balance should persist to the very end. But as all the voices dissolve into silence and the dull thud of the axe, the moment has come for him to abandon the previous restraints on his own sympathies:
They go out. The stage is empty. The sound of all the doors being locked is heard, then of carriages being driven away. It grows quiet. In the stillness a dull thud is heard, the striking of an axe into a tree. It sounds solitary and dolorous. Footsteps are heard. From the door, right, appears firs. He is dressed, as always, in a jacket and white waistcoat, and he is wearing slippers. He is ill.
The sounds retreating, then silence, and finally the axe and the solitary footsteps, all echo life deserting the cherry orchard and the destruction of the orchard itself. And with the appearance of Firs, old, sick and lying motionless on the stage as the curtain drops, a chapter of history does seem to be coming to a close.
It is true that this image of Firs at the very end of the play softens and distorts our sense of the Russian past, evoking too simple a pathos. Since the cherry orchard itself is, from one point of view, a somewhat biased emblem of the past (its value, though ultimately ambiguous, is intrinsically established in its beauty, its glistening whiteness), the play’s ending, which has historical, as well as cultural, implication, needs to be firmer. Firs, also, is a risky figure for Chekhov to give much importance to because he is so much a stock creation, producing only a limited comedy and always tempting Chekhov to indulge over-simple effects. We might compare the sense of the past as embodied in Firs with the sense of even the very recent past in Three Sisters, where it takes such a complex form in Olga’s Masha’s and Irina’s personalities, or with the late story ‘A Woman’s Kingdom’, where a past style of life is seen incongruously penetrating the one that has replaced it. Fortunately, Firs lying on the stage is not the only impression with which The Cherry Orchard leaves us. Above him is the sound of the string snapping in the sky, and behind him the resounding strokes of the axe.
Social Drama
Given the usually robust conventions of the stage, the drama of The Cherry Orchard is unusually subtle, unusually formalized. Even the sequence of sounds with which it ends, which J.L. Styan calls “the most darling...the naturalistic theatre has known”; has a curiously ambivalent effect which is difficult to define. The sound of the snapping string, with its mournful and yet impersonal quality, was an artistic possibility already present in Chekhov’s mind as early as 1887, where it appears in the story “Happiness”. But it finds its fullest realization here in the stylized world of The Cherry Orchard. For, although the sound was one Chekhov actually heard as a boy, its significance to his imaginations was obviously both semi-mysterious and profound. It seems to have made him feel, or perhaps simply expressed for him as nothing else could have done, some harsh and sad intuition about the world and about people’s lives within it which would otherwise have remained inexpressibly abstract. In The Cherry Orchard it combines a number of meanings. In the simplest terms, and together with the sounds of the axe on the tree, it expresses symbolically the end of a particular era: it makes us seem actually to hear social changes taking place, making them unusually palpable. At the same time, it also impersonalizes our responses, taking them away from the characters as individual people, and concentrating our attention more abstractly on their predicament and on the process by which they have been displaced. After the simplification of feeling introduced by the final scene with Firs, that is in part what the play needs. But the ambivalence of the sound, coming inexplicably ‘out of the sky’ and yet ‘mournfully dying away’, captures something deeper in the whole spirit of the play which relates to Chekhov’s wider interest in cultural decay. Nothing could be further from the truth than the suggestion that The Cherry Orchard is simply a social drama weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of social change in late nineteenth-century Russia and accordingly alternating poetic elegy with sequences of farce. Nor, as I hope I have shown, is the play an evocative piece of ‘mood’ with little intellectual substance. Its triumph is to express, as Watteau’s paintings so often express, both the social and psychological manifestations of a situation in which a sustaining and ordering culture has become defunct. And, to express this, it brilliantly assimilates comic and tragic possibilities to one another until practically every scene is both light in texture and pervaded by a subtle melancholy—a true merging of tragic and comic possibilities. The Cherry Orchard, then, may be unusually stylized. But the vitality it brings to elements of a neglected mode of pastoral, the rightness of what happens to its created people in terms of their individual psychology and their cultural predicament, and the cultural assessment which Chekhov undertakes in the play, give us some measure of what an instinctive and alive artist he was.
Q. 5. It has been said that The Cherry Orchard has no plot whatever. Do you agree? Substantiate your answer.
The Cherry Orchard is often accused of having no plot whatever and it is true that the story gives no indications of the play’s content or meaning; nothing happfens it has been pointed out by many critics. Nor does the play have a thesis, though many attempts have been made to attribute a thesis to it. To make it into a Marxian tract, or into a nostalgic defence of the old regime. According to Francis Fergusson, “The play does not have much of a plot in either of these accepted meanings of the word, for it is not addressed to the nationalizing mind but to the poetic and histrionic sensibility. The incidents and actions are selected and arranged to define an action in a certain mode; a complete action, with a beginning, a middle, and end in time. Its freedom from the mechanical order of the thesis or the intrigue is the sign of perfection of Chekhov’s realistic art. And its apparently casual incidents are actually composed with most elaborate and conscious skill to reveal the underlying life, and the natural objective form of the play as a whole.”
The Cherry Orchard has been called a drama “of pathetic motivation”, a theatre-poem of the suffering of change, and the mode of action and awareness is much closer to the skeptical basis of modern realism, and to the histrionic basis of all realism. Direct perception before predication is always true, says Aristotle, and the extraordinary feat of Chekhov, says Fergusson, is “to predicate nothing.” This he achieves by means of his plot: he selects only those incidents, those moments in his characters’ lives, between their rationalized efforts when they sense their situation and destiny most directly. So he contrives to show the action of the play as a whole—the unsuccessful attempt to show the action of the play as a whole—the unsuccessful attempt to cling to the Cherry Orchard—in many diverse reflectors and without pro­pounding my thesis about it.
Slight Narrative Thread
The slight narrative thread which ties these incidents and characters together for the inquiring mind, is quickly recounted. The family that owns the old estate named after its famous orchard—Lyubov, her brother Gayev, and her daughters Varya and Anya—is all but bankrupt, and the question is how to prevent the bailiffs from selling the estate to pay their debts. Lopakhin, whose family were formerly serfs on the estate, is now rapidly growing rich as a businessman, and he offers a very sensible plan: chop down the orchard, divide the property into small lots, and sell them off to make a residential suburb for the growing industrial town nearby. Thus the cash value of the estate could be not only preserved, but increased. But this would not save what Lyubov and her brother find valuable in the old estate; they cannot consent to the destruction of the orchard. But they cannot find, or earn, or borrow the money to pay their debts either; and in due course the estate is sold at auction to Lopakhin himself, who will make a very good thing of it. His workmen are hacking at the old trees before the family is out of the house.
The play may be briefly described as a realistic ensemble pathos: the characters all suffer the passing of the estate in different ways, thus adumbrating this change at a deeper and more generally significant level than that of any individual’s experience. The action which they all share by analogy, and which informs the suffering of the destined change of the Cherry Orchard, is “to save the Cherry Orchard”: that is, each character sees some value in it—economic, sentimental, social, cultural—which he wishes to keep. By means of his plot, Chekhov always focuses attention on the general action: his crowded stage, full of the characters as well a half a dozen hangers-on, is like an implicit discussion of the fatality which concerns them all; but Chekhov does not believe in their ideas, and the interplay he shows among his dramatis personae is not so much the play of thought as the alternation of his characters’ perceptions of their situation, as the moods shift and the time for decision comes and goes.
Though the action which Chekhov chooses to show onstage is “pathetic,” i.e., suffering and perception, it is complete: the Cherry Orchard is constituted before our eyes, and then dissolved. The first act is a prologue: it is the occasion of Lyubov’s return from Paris to try to resume her old life. Through her eyes and those of her daughter Anya, as well as from the complementary perspectives of Lopakhin and Trofimov, we see the estate as it were in the round, in its many possible meanings. The second act corresponds to the agon; it is in this act that we become aware of the conflicting values of all the characters, and of the efforts they make (offstage) to save each one his Orchard. The third act corresponds to the pathos and peripety of the traditional tragic form. The occasion is a rather hysterical party which Lyubov gives while her estate is being sold at auction in the nearby town; it ends with Lopakhin’s announcement, in pride and the bitterness of guilt, that he was the purchaser. The last act is the epiphany: we see the action, now completed, in a new and ironic light. The occasion is the departure of the family: the windows are boarded up, the furniture piled in the corners, and the bags packed. All the characters feel, and the audience sees in a thousand ways, that the wish to save the Orchard has amounted in fact to destroying it; the gathering of its denizens to separation; the homecoming to departure. What this “means” we are not told. But the action is completed, and the poem of the suffering of change concludes in a new and final perception, and a rich chord of feeling.
The structure of each act is based upon a more or less ceremonious social occasion. In his use of the social ceremony—arrivals, departures, anniversaries, parties—Chekhov is akin to James. His purpose is the same: to focus attention on an action which all share by analogy, instead of upon the reasoned purpose of any individual, as Ibsen does in his drama of ethical motivation. Chekhov uses the social occasion also to reveal the individual at moments when he is least enclosed in his private rationalization and most open to disinterested insights. The Chekhovian ensembles may appear superficially to be mere pointless stalemates—too like family gatherings and arbitrary meetings which we know offstage. So they are. But in his miraculous arrangement the very discomfort of many presences is made to reveal fundamental aspects of the human situation.
Chekhov’s Art of Plotting
That Chekhov’s art of plotting is extremely conscious and deliberate is clear the moment one considers the distinction between the stories of his characters as we learn about them, and the moments of their lives which he chose to show directly onstage. Lopakhin, for example, is a man of action like one of the new capitalists in Gorky’s plays. Chekhov knew all about him, and could have shown us an exciting episode from his career if he had not chosen to see him only when he was forced to pause and pathetically sense his own motives in a wider context which qualifies their importance. Lyubov has been dragged about Europe for years by her ne’er-do-well lover, and her life might have yielded several surefire erotic intrigues like those of the commercial theatre. But Chekhov, like all the great artists of modern times, rejected these standard motivations as both stale and false. The actress Arkadina, in The Sea Gull, remarks, as she closes a novel of Maupassant’s, “Well, among the French that may be, but here with us there’s nothing of kind, we’ve no set program.” In the context the irony of her remark is deep: she is herself a purest product of the commercial theatre, and at that very time she is engaged in a love affair of the kind she objects to in Maupassant. But Chekhov, with his subtle art of plotting, has caught her in a situation, and at a brief moment of clarity and pause, when the falsity of her career is clear to all, even herself.
Thus Chekhov, by his art of plot-making, defines an action in the opposite mode to that of Ghosts. Ibsen defines a desperate quest for reasons and for ultimate, intelligible moral values. This action falls naturally into the form of the agon, and at the end of the play Ibsen is at a loss to develop the final pathos, or bring it to an end with an accepted perception. But the pathetic is the very mode of action and awareness which seems to Chekhov closest to the reality of the human situation, and by means of his plot he shows, even in characters who are not in themselves unusually passive, the suffering and the perception of change. The “moment” of human experience which The Cherry Orchard presents thus corresponds to that of the Sophoclean chorus, and of the evenings in the Purgatorio. Ghosts is a fighting play, armed for its sharp encounter with the rationalizing mind, its poetry concealed by its reasons. Chekhov’s poetry, like Ibsen’s, is behind the naturalistic surfaces; but the form of the play as a whole is “nothing but” poetry in the widest sense: the coherence of the concrete elements of the composition. Hence the curious vulnerability of Chekhov on the contemporary stage: he does not argue, he merely presents: and though his audiences even on Broadway are touched by the time they reach the last act, they are at a loss to say what it is all about.
It is this reticent objectivity of Chekhov also which makes him so difficult to analyze in words; he appeals exclusively to the histrionic sensibility where the little poetry of modern realism is to be found. Nevertheless, the effort of analysis must be made if one is to understand this art at all: and if the reader will bear with me, he is asked to consider one element, that of the scene, in the composition of the second act.
Act II: The Scene as a Basic Element in the Composition
Jean Cocteau writes, in his preface to Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel: “The action of my play is in images (imagee) while the text is not: I attempt to substitute a ‘poetry of the theatre’ for ‘poetry in the theatre’. Poetry in the theatre is a piece of lace which it is impossible to see at a distance. Poetry of the theatre would be coarse lace; a lace of ropes, a ship at sea. Les Maries should have the frightening look of a drop of poetry under the microscope. The scenes are integrated like the words of a poem.”
This description applies very exactly to The Cherry Orchard: the larger elements of the composition—the scenes or episodes, the setting, and the developing story—are composed in such a way as to make a poetry of the theatre; but the “text”, as we read it literally, is not. Chekhov’s method, as Stark Young puts it in the preface to his translation of The Sea Gull, “is to take actual material such as we find in life and manage it in such a way that the inner meanings are made to appear. On the surface the life in his plays is natural, possible and at times in effect even casual.”
Young’s translations of Chekhov’s plays, together with his beautifully accurate notes, explanations, and interpretations, have made the text of Chekhov at last available for the English speaking stage, and for any reader who will bring to his reading a little patience and imagination—Young shows us what Chekhov means in detail: by the particular words his characters use: by their rhythms of speech: by their gestures, pauses, and bits of stage business. In short, he makes the text transparent, enabling us to see through it to the music of action, the underlying poetry of the composition as a whole— and this is as much as to say that any study of Chekhov (lacking as we do adequate and available productions) must be based upon Young’s work. At this point I propose to take this work for granted: to assume the translucent text: and to consider the role of the setting in the poetic or musical order of Act II.
The second act corresponds to the agon of the traditional plot scheme: it is here that we see most clearly the divisive purposes of the characters, the contrasts between their views of the cherry orchard itself. But the center of interest is not in these individual conflicts, nor in the contrasting versions for their own sake, but in the common fatality which they reveal: the passing of the old estate. The setting, as we come to know it behind the casual surfaces of the text, is one of the chief elements in this poem of change: if the Act II were a lyric, instead of an act of a play, the setting would be a crucial word appearing in a succession of rich contexts which endow it with a developing meaning.
Chekhov describes the setting in the following realistic terms. “A field. An old chapel, long abandoned, with crooked walls, near it a well, big stones that apparently were once tombstones, and an old bench. A road to the estate of Gayev can be seen. On one side poplars rise, casting their shadows, the cherry orchard begins there. In the distance a row of telegraph poles: and far, far away, faintly traced on the horizon, is a large town, visible only in the clearest weather. The sun will soon be down.”
To make this set out of a cyclorama, flats, cut-out silhouettes, and lighting effects would be difficult, without producing that unbelievable but literally intended—and in any case indigestible—scene which modern realism demands; and here Chekhov is uncomfortably bound by the convention of his time. The best strategy in production is that adopted by Robert Edmond Jones in his setting for The Sea Gull: to pay lip service only to the convention of photographic realism, and make the trees, the chapel, and all the other elements as simple as possible. The less closely the setting is defined by the carpenter, the freer it is to play the role Chekhov wrote for it: a role which changes and develops in relation to the story. Shakespeare did not have this problem; he could present his setting in different ways at different moments in a few lines of verse:
Alack! the night comes on, and the bleak winds
Do sorely ruffle; for many miles about
There’s scarce a bush.
Chekhov, as we shall see, gives his setting life and flexibility in spite of the visible elements on-stage, not by means of the poetry of words but by means of his characters’ changing sense of it.
When the curtain rises we see the setting simply as the country at the sentimental hour of sunset. Yepichodov is playing his guitar and other hangers-on of the estate are loafing, as is their habit, before supper. The dialogue which starts after a brief pause focuses attention upon individuals in the group: Charlotta, the governess, boasting of her culture and complaining that no one understands her; the silly maid Dunyasha, who is infatuated with Yasha. Lyubov’s valet. The scene as reflected by these characters, is a satirical period-piece like the “Stag at Eve” or “The Maiden’s Prayer”, and when the group falls silent and begins to drift away (having heard Lyubov Gayev, and Lopakhin approaching along the path) Chekhov expects us to smile at the sentimental cliches which the place and the hour have produced.
Lyubov Andreyevna’s Party
But Lyubov’s party brings with it a very different atmosphere: of irritation, frustration, and fear. It is here were learn that Lopakhin cannot persuade Lyubov and Gayev to put their affairs in order; that Gayev has been making futile gestures toward getting a job and borrowing money; that Lyubov is worried about the estate, about her daughters, and about her lover, who has now fallen ill in Paris. Lopakhin, in a huff, offers to leave; but Lyubov will not let him go—”It’s more cheerful with you here,” she says; and this group in its turn falls silent. In the distance we hear the music of the Jewish orchestra—when Chekhov wishes us to raise our eyes from the people in the foreground to their wider setting, he often uses music as a signal and an inducement. This time the musical entrance of the setting into our consciousness is more urgent and sinister than it was before: we see not so much the peace of evening as the silhouette of the dynamic industrial town on the horizon, and the approach of darkness. After a little more desultory conversation, there is another pause, this time without music, and the foreboding aspect of the scene in silence is more intense.
In this silence Firs, the ancient servant, hurries on with Gayev’s coat, to protect him from the evening chill, and we briefly see the scene through Firs’s eyes. He remembers the estate before the emancipation of the serfs, when it was the scene of a way of life which made sense to him; and now we become aware of the frail relics of this life: the old gravestones and the chapel “fallen out of the perpendicular.”
The Young Voices
In sharpest contrast with this vision come the young voices of Anya, Varya, and Trofimov, who are approaching along the path. The middle-aged and the old in the foreground are pathetically grateful for this note of youth, of strength, and of hope; and presently they are listening happily (though without agreement or belief) to Trofimov’s aspirations, his creed of social progress, and his conviction that their generation is no longer important to the life of Russia. When the group falls silent again, they are all disposed to contentment with the moment; and when Yepichodov’s guitar is heard, and we look up, we feel the country and the evening under the aspect of hope—as offering freedom from the responsibilities and conflicts of the estate itself:
Lyubov Andreyevna: Now you find giants indispensable...Oh, they are very nice only in fairy stories; anywhere else they can scare you. (Yepichodov crosses at the depth of the stage, playing his guitar. Lyubov Andreyevna is deep in thought.) There goes Yepichodov...
Anya:        (deep in thought) There goes Yepichodov...
Gayev:      The sun has set, ladies and gentlemen.
Trofimov: Yes.
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...
Varya:       (beseechingly) Uncle dear!
Gayev’s false, rhetorical note ends the harmony, brings us back to the present and to the awareness of change on the horizon, and produces a sort of empty stalemate—a silent pause with worry and fear in it.
All are sitting, deep in thought. Silence. All that can be heard is Firs, who mumbles quietly. Suddenly a sound is heard far off in the distance, as if coming from the sky. It is the sound of a string breaking that dies away sadly.
This mysterious sound is used like Yepichodov’s strumming to remind us of the wider scene, but (though distant) it is sharp, almost a warning signal, and all the characters listen and peer toward the dim edges of the horizon. In their attitudes and guesses Chekhov reflects, in rapid succession, the contradictory aspects of the scene which have been developed at more length before us:
Lyubov Andreyevna: What was that?
Lopakhin: I don’t know. Somewhere far off in the mines a bucket must have broken loose. But it’s somewhere far, far away.
Gayev:      Perhaps it was a bird of some kind... like a heron.
Trofimov: Or an eagle owl...
Lyubov Andreyevna: (shudders) It was unpleasant, and I don’t know why. (Pause)
Firs:          It was just the same before the troubles—and the owl kept hooting and the samovar humming without stopping.
Gayev:      What troubles are you talking about?
Firs:          Just before the serfs were given their freedom. (Pause.)
Lyubov Andreyevna: You know, dear friends, evening has come. Let’s go on our way. (To Anya.) You have tears in your eyes... What is it, my little girl? (Embraces her.)
Lyubov feels the need to retreat, but the retreat is turned into flight when “the wayfarer” suddenly appears on the path asking for money. Lyubov in her bewilderment, her sympathy, and her bad conscience, gives him gold. The party breaks up, each in his own way thwarted and demoralized.
Anya and Trofimov are left onstage: and, to conclude his theatrical poem of the suffering of change. Chekhov reflects the setting in them:
Anya:        (throwing up her arms) How wonderfully you speak! (Pause.) It’s unbelievable here today!
Trofimov: Yes, the weather is striking.
Anya:        Whatever have you done to me, Petya? Why is it I no longer love the cherry orchard as I used to? I loved it so tenderly, and I thought no place on earth was better than our own orchard.
Trofimov: All Russia is our orchard. The land is vast and beautiful and filled with marvelous places.
The sun has set, the moon is rising with its chill and its ancient animal excitement, and the estate is dissolved in the darkness as Nineveli is dissolved in a pile of rubble with vegetation creeping over it. Chekhov wishes to show the Cherry Orchard as “gone”; but for this purpose he employs not only the literal time-scheme (sunset to moonrise) but, as reflectors, Anya and Trofimov, for whom the present in any form is already gone and only the bodiless future is real. Anya’s young love for Trofimov’s intellectual enthusiasm (like Juliet’s “all as boundless as the sea”) has freed her from her actual childhood home, made her feel “at home in the world” anywhere. Trofimov’s abstract aspirations give him a chillier and more artificial, but equally complete, detachment not only from the estate itself (he thinks it would be vulgar to be in love with her). We hear the worried Varya calling for Anya in the distance; Anya and Trofimov run down to the river to discuss the socialistic Paradiso Terrestre; and with these complementary images of the human scene, and this subtle chord of feeling, Chekhov ends the act.
The “scene” is only one element in the composition of Act II, but it illustrates the nature of Chekhov’s poetry of the theatre. It is very clear, I think, that Chekhov is not trying to present us with a rationalization of social change a la Marx, or even with a subtler rationalization a la Shaw. On the other hand, he is not seeking, like Wagner, to seduce us into one passion. He shows us a moment of change in society, and he shows us “pathos”; but the elements of his composition are always taken as objectively real. He offers us various rationalizations, various images, and various feelings, which cannot be reduced either to one emotion or to one idea: they indicate an action and a scene which is “there” before the rational formulations, or the emotionally charged attitudes, of any of the characters.
The Surrounding Scene
The surrounding scene of The Cherry Orchard corresponds to the significant stage of human life which Sophocles’ choruses reveal and to the Empty wilderness beyond Ibsen’s little parlor. We miss, in Chekhov’s scene, any fixed points of human significance, and that is why, compared with Sophocles, he seems limited and partial—a bit too pathetic even for our bewildered times. But, precisely because he subtly and elaborately develops the moments of pathos with their sad insights, he sees much more in the little scene of modern realism than Ibsen does. Ibsen’s snowpeaks strike us as rather hysterical; but the “stage of Europe” which we divine behind the Cherry Orchard is confirmed by a thousand impressions derived from other sources. We may recognize its main elements in a cocktail party in Connecticut or Westchester: someone’s lawn full of voluble people; a dry white clapboard church (instead of an Orthodox chapel) just visible across a filed; time passing, and the muffed roar of a four-lane highway under the hill—or we may be reminded of it in the final section of The Waste Land with its twittering voices, its old gravestones and deserted chapel, and its dim crowd on the horizon foreboding change. It is because Chekhov says so little that he reveals so much, providing a concrete basis for many conflicting rationalizations of contemporary social change: by accepting the immediacy and unintelligibility of modern realism so completely, he in some ways transcends its limitations, and prepares the way for subsequent developments in the modern theatre.
The poetry of modern realistic drama is to be found in those inarticulate moments when the human creature is shown responding directly to his immediately situation. Such are the many moments—composed, interrelated, echoing each other—when the waiting and loafing characters in Act II get a fresh sense (one after the other, and each in his own way) of their situation on the doomed estate. It is because of the exactitude with which Chekhov perceives and imitates these tiny responses, that he can make them echo each other, and convey, when taken together, a single action with the scope, the general significance or suggestiveness of poetry. Chekhov, like other great Dramatists, has what might be called an ear for action, comparable to the trained musician’s car for musical sound.
The action which Chekhov thus imitates in his second act (that of lending ear, in a moment of freedom from practical pressures, to impending change) echoes, in its turn, a number of other poets: Laforgue’s “poetry of waiting-rooms” comes to mind, as well as other works stemming from the period of hush before the First World War. The poets are to some extent talking about the same thing, and their works, like voices in a continuing colloquy, help to explain each other: hence the justification and the purpose of seeking comparisons. The eight canto of the Purgatorio is widely separated from The Jules Laforgue (1860-87), French Symbolist poet said to have introduced vers libra (free verse) in poetry.
Cherry Orchard in space and time, but these two poems unmistakably echo and confirm each other. Thinking of them together, one can begin to place Chekhov’s curiously non-verbal dramaturgy and understand the purpose and the value of his reduction of the art to histrionic terms, as well as the more obvious limitations at this point but locates the mode of action he shows here at a certain point in his vast scheme.
The explicit coordinates whereby Dante places the action of Canto VIII might alone suffice to give one a clue to the comparison with The Cherry Orchard: we are in the Valley of Negligent Rulers, who, lacking light, unwillingly suffer their irresponsibility, just as Lyubov and Gayev do. The ante-purgatorio is behind us, and purgatory proper, with its hoped for work, thought, and moral effort, is somewhere ahead, beyond the night which is now approaching. It is the end of the day; and as we wait, watch, and listen, evening moves slowly over our heads, from sunset to darkness to moonrise. Looking more closely at this canto, one can see that Dante the Pilgrim and the Negligent Rulers he meets are listening and looking as Chekhov’s characters are in Act II: the action is the same; in both, a childish and uninstructed responsiveness, an unpremeditated obedience to what is actual, informs the suffering of change. Dante the author, for his elaborate and completely conscious reasons works here with the primitive histrionic sensibility; he composes with elements sensuously or sympathetically, but not rationally or verbally, defined. The rhythms, the pauses, and the sound effects he employs are strikingly similar to Chekhov’s. And so he shows himself—Dante “the new Pilgrim”—meeting this mode of awareness for the First time: as delicately and ignorantly as Gayev when he feels all of a sudden the extent of evening, and before he falsifies this perception with his embarrassing apostrophe to Nature.
If Dante allows himself as artist and as protagonist only the primitive sensibility of the child, the naif, the natural saint, at this point in the ascent, it is because, like Chekhov, he is presenting a threshold or moment of change in human experience. He wants to show the unbounded potentialities of the psyche before or between the moments when it is morally and intellectually realized. In Canto VIII the pilgrim is both a child, and a child who is changing; later moments of transition are different. Here he is virtually (but for the Grace of God) lost; all the dangers are present. Yet he remains uncommitted and therefore open to finding himself again and more truly. In all of this the parallel to Chekhov is close. But because Dante sees this moment as a moment only in the ascent, Canto VIII is also composed in ways in which Act II of The Cherry Orchard is not-ways which the reader of the Purgatorio will not understand until he looks back from the top of the mountain. Then he will see the homesickness which inform Canto VIII in a new light, and all of the concrete elements, the snake in the grass, the winged figures that roost at the edge of the valley like night-hawks; will be intelligible to the mind and, without losing their concreteness, take their places in a more general frame. Dante’s fiction is laid in the scene beyond the grave, where every human action has its relation to ultimate reality, even though that relation becomes explicitly only gradually. But Chekhov’s characters are seen in the flesh and in their very secular emotional entanglements: in the contemporary world as anyone can see it—nothing visible beyond the earth’s horizon, with its signs of social change. The fatality of the Zeitgeis is the ultimate reality in the theatre of modern realism; the anagoge is lacking. And though Ibsen and Chekhov are aware of both history and moral effort, they do not know what to make of them—perhaps they reveal only illusory perspectives, “masquerades which time resumes.” If Chekhov echoes Dante, it is not because of what he ultimately understood but because of the accuracy with which he saw and imitated that moment of action.
Anya and Trofimov
If one thinks of the generation to which Anya and Trofimov were supposed to belong, it is clear that the new motives and reasons which they were to find, after their inspired evening together, were not such as to turn all Russia, or all the world, into a garden. The potentialities which Chekhov presented at that moment of change were not to be realized in the wars and revolutions which followed: what actually followed was rather that separation and destruction, that scattering and destinationless trekking, which he also sensed as possible. But, in the cultivation of the dramatic art after Chekhov, renewals, the realization of hidden potentialities, did follow. In Chekhov’s histrionic art, the “desire is turned back” to its very root, to the immediate response, to the movements of the psyche before they are limited, defined, and realized in reasoned purpose. Thus Chekhov revealed hidden potentialities, if not in the life of the life, at least in ways of seeing and showing human life: if not in society, at least in the dramatic art. The First and most generally recognized result of these labors was to bring modern realism to its final perfection in the productions of the Moscow Art Theatre and in those who learned from it. But the end of modern realism was also a return to very ancient sources; and in our time the fertilizing effect of Chekhov’s humble objectivity may be traced in a number of dramatic forms which cannot be called modern realism at all.
The acting technique of the Moscow Art Theatre is so closely connected, in its final development, with Chekhov’s dramaturgy, that it would be hard to say which gave the more important clues. Stanislavsky and Nemirovich Danchenko from one point of view, and Chekhov from another, approached the same conception: both were searching for an attitude and a method that would be less hidebound, truer to experience, than the cliche-responses of the commercial theatre. The Moscow Art Theatre taught the performer to make that direct and total response which is the root of poetry in the widest sense: they cultivated the histrionic sensibility in order to free the actor to realize, in his art, the situations and actions which the playwright had imagined. Chekhov’s plays demand this accuracy and imaginative freedom from the performer; and the Moscow Art Theatre’s productions of his works were a demonstration of the perfection, the reticent poetry, of modern realism. And modern realism of this kind is still alive in the work of many artists who have been more or less directly influenced either by Chekhov or by the Moscow Art Theatre. In our country, for instance, there is Clifford Odets: in France, Vildrae and Bernard, and the realistic cinema, of which Symphonic Pastorale is an example.
But this cultivation of the histrionic sensibility, bringing modern realism to its end and its perfection, also provided fresh access to many other dramatic forms. The Moscow technique, when properly developed and critically understood, enables the producer and performer to find the life in any theatrical form; before the revolution the Moscow Art Theatre had thus revivified Hamlet, Carmen, the interludes of Cervantes, Neoclassic comedies of several kinds, and many other works which were not realistic in the modern sense at all. A closely related acting technique underlay Reinhardt’s virtuosity, and Copeau, in the Vieux Colombier, used it to renew not only the art of acting but, by that means, the art of playwriting also.
After periods when great drama is written, great performers usually appear to carry on the life of the theatre for a few more generations. Such were the Siddonses and Macreadvs who kept the great Shakespearian roles alive after Shakespeare’s theatre was gone, and such at a further stage of degeneration, were the mimes of the Commedia dell’ Arte, improving on the themes of the Terence and Plautus when the theatre had lost most of its meaning. The progress of modern realism from Ibsen to Chekhov looks in some respects like a withering and degeneration of this kind: Chekhov does not demand the intellectual scope, the ultimate meanings, which Ibsen demanded, and to some critics Chekhov does not look like a real dramatist but merely an overdeveloped mime, a stage virtuoso. But the theatre of modern realism did not afford what Ibsen demanded, and Chekhov is much the more perfect master of its little scene. If Chekhov drastically reduced the dramatic art, he did so in full consciousness, and in obedience both to artistic scruples and to a strict-sense of reality. He reduced the dramatic art to its ancient root, from which new growths are possible.

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