Saturday, August 14, 2010

“It is not what the characters say which matters; it is what they are and what they are doing with their lives.” How far do you agree with this assessment of the characters in The Cherry Orchard? (P.U. 2007)

In The Cherry Orchard Chekhov brings his theatre of action without overt drama to its perfection. No one is killed, and, unlike the other three plays, no shots are fired either on or off-stage, even though Act II opens with Charlotta carrying a sporting gun and Yepichodov revealing that he has a revolver, about which he makes dark hints. As in the other plays drama inheres in the ready-made situation around which each act is built. For the most part, we have seen these situations around which each act is built. For the most part, we have seen these situations before: arrival, departure, frustrated or misplaced festivities.

The First act opens not unlike Uncle Vanya—with a servant and a friend of the family in conversation as they await the appearance of the family itself. But in The Cherry Orchard Lopakhin is waiting for a genuine homecoming, and the natural excitement which this event generates is sufficient to sustain the impetus of a whole act. There are discordant notes beneath the surface but what omens there are all seem to augur well. Thus, as in The Seagull, the dogs have been barking all night, but Dunyasha interprets this as a sign that they know that the masters are coming. When she herself breaks a saucer (because of Yasha’s advances)’, the usually strict housekeeper Varya says that it is a good sign; even the ‘ghost’ which Lyubov Andreyevna sees in the garden brings a moment of happiness, and the act ends on a peaceful, pastoral note, with a shepherd off-stage playing a reed pipe.
Pastoral Theme
At First sight, the set for Act II appears to be carrying on the pastoral theme, but there are disturbing features in this natural setting: a derelict shrine; large, old gravestones; and a well (which on land once used for burial can hardly indicate springs of purity). There is decay at the heart of this pastoral, and indeed it is almost immediately after Gayev’s apostrophising of Nature that the ominous sound of the breaking string is heard. This, in turn, is followed by a portent of dispossession. A shabby stranger passes through the estate, much as wandering musicians had walked through the Prozorov’s garden in The Three Sisters. Although it is Varya who appears to be most affected (just as it is Anya who cries after the sound of the breaking string), nevertheless this figure of a ‘gentleman’ who has seen better days has most relevance for Gayev. It is he who gives him directions and is rewarded by a poetic declamation, which seems a comic echo of his own earlier declamation of Nature. The stranger’s scraps of recitation are both about suffering. In the First he almost appears to be addressing Gayev himself: “Oh, my brother, my suffering brother” Whereas the second is about the universal sufferings of the peasants. The stranger is drunk and he wants to go to the station. Gayev’s First words in Act II had been to comment on the convenience of the railway for going to the town to eat at a restaurant and he had been reproved by his sister for drinking too much and for making speeches. The shabby stranger can be seen as a premonition of the possible future awaiting Gayev himself.
Despite the would-be pastoral setting for Act II, the town itself is mentioned in the opening stage directions: (Further away is seen a line of telegraph poles, and beyond them, on the horizon, the vague outlines of a large town, visible only in very good, clear weather}. The suggestive detail of these directions reveals Chekhov the short-story writer rather than the practical dramatist. It is difficult to carry out these instructions to the letter. The town is more a presence which can be vaguely sensed, and amid these natural surroundings such a presence is a threat; for it is from the town that the new owners of little dachas will come, transported by the same railway which Gayev now finds so convenient for his trips of self-indulgence. The telegraph poles are another mark of the modern world. They, too, are a threat: they carry telegrams summoning Lyubov Andreyevna back to Paris.
Act II is, therefore, full of omens. There are the guns displayed at its opening; there is Lyubov Andreyevna’s sense of impending disaster: “I keep expecting something dreadful to if the house were going to fall down on us.” Yet in terms of real action nothing dramatic happens, and the act ends with the undoing of omens on the part of the younger generation. Anya rejects the ancestral home and Trofimov tells her that if she has any keys she should throw them into the well—a symbolic act against the spiritual values of a poisoned past. Anya approves of his suggestion and they both happily flee to the river where her brother was drowned.
Festive Entertainment
Like Act II of both Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters, the third act of The Cherry Orchard is centered on would-be festivity. The opening stage directions call for light, music and movement, but they also convey a sense of misplaced celebration thorough the way in which Varya is to be portrayed: (Varya cries quietly, and wipes away her tears as she dances). Here is an ambiguity of mood which will he picked up later in the arrival of Gayev with his tears and his purchases hors d’oeuvre.
Festive entertainment is the dominant motif of the act, but it is all somehow wrong. Lyubov Andreyevna comments: “The band came at the wrong time, and the party started at the wrong time” (literally We, too, have inopportunely contrived a ball). The festive mood is all an illusion: the music comes from the local Jewish orchestra (four fiddles, a flute and a double bass); guests of no consequence have been drummed up merely for the numbers; billiards are being played—but only by the servants (Yepichodov breaks a cue and Vasha appears to have usurped the role of Gayev at the billiard table). The entertainments of Charlotta, conjuring tricks and ventriloquy, emphasise illusion, and the recitation, which the station master begins, proclaims celebration, but suggests the price of sin: “Seething people, gaiety, laughter. / The ring of lutes and thunder of cymbals./ All around greenery and flowers”. These are the opening lines which Chekhov’s stage directions seem to require, but unlike his use of quotations elsewhere, Chekhov only gives the title (literally “The Sinful Woman’—Greshnitsa).
Lyubov Andreyevna: What an eccentric boy Petya is...(Having stopped in the middle of the ballroom, the stationmaster recites “The Sinful Woman “ by Aleksey Tolstoy. They listen to him, but he has recited only a few lines when the sounds of a waltz come from the entrance hall and the reading is broken off. All dance…)
A poem with this title, recited immediately after Lyubov Andreyevna’s teasing defense of love to Trofimov, seems like another instance of Chekhovian indirect commentary, and it picks up a motif present in the two preceding acts. Thus much to the embarrassment of his nieces, her own brother had condemned Lyubov Andreyevna (towards the end of Act I).
Gayev:      She is kind and good, a glorious person, really, and I love her very much. But whatever excuses you think of to justify what she’s gone through, you must still admit she’s an immoral woman. You’re conscious of it in her slightest movement.
Lyubov Andreyevna’s ‘Sins’
Lyubov Andreyevna herself refers to her ‘sins’ in a long speech in Act II, and asks God to forgive her: “Oh, Lord, Lord, be merciful, forgive me my sins ! Don’t punish me any more !” She castigates herself for many ‘sins’, but she begins with her financial shortcomings: “Oh, my sins ! Look at the way I’ve always squandered money, continually. It was sheer madness.” The end of this speech is interrupted by the distant sounds of the Jewish orchestra, the very same (as Chekhov stresses in his opening stage directions), which is now playing in Act III; so appear to link celebration with the specific ‘sin’ of profligacy: the hiring of the Jewish orchestra.
Lyubov Andreyevna’s festivities are entirely misplaced; the ‘music’ is not really for her, but for Lopakhin who enters towards the end of the act and announces that he has bought the estate:
Lopakhin: (The orchestra is .heard tuning up.) Hey there, musicians, start playing. I want to hear you! Come on, all of you, come and see Yermolay Lopakhin slash the cherry orchard with his axe. Watch and see the trees come crashing down! We’re going to build summer cottages, and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to see a new way to live around here...Music, start playing!
The Cherry Orchard follows both Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters in bashing its final act on departure and, as in the earlier plays, this final act is in undoing of the implications of Act I. The opening words of the stage directions take us straight back to the starting point: (The same setting as for Act I). Yet the set is not the same: there are no curtains at the windows, no pictures, and what furniture there is, has been piled into one corner as though waiting to be sold.
The parallels between this final act and Act I are striking: in both Lopakhin talks of leaving by train for Kharkov and keeps looking at his watch; in both Yasha is told that his mother is waiting to see him, but is obviously reluctant to see her; in both the characters comment on the cold; and both arrival in Act I and departure in Act IV leave the stage empty for a short time, but the locking of doors in Act IV contradicts the opening of windows in Act I. The play had opened with Lopakhin unintentionally left behind in the house, while the others had gone to the station. Then unrequited love had been lightly adumbrated as a comic theme in the relationship between Dunyasha and Yepichodov, who hands her a bouquet of flowers (which he has just dropped), but says that the gardener has sent them to be placed in the drawing room. He mentions that the cherry trees are in blossom in spite of three degrees of frost. Towards the end of Act IV there is the non-proposal of Lopakhin to Varya in which three degrees of frost seem to assume a certain symbolic significance for their relationship. But the person left behind at the end is not Lopakhin—it is Firs. Lopakhin and Firs are in this and other respects antithetical characters: both are peasants but one represents the old life, the other the new possibilities. The parallelism with Firs also points to the true nature of Lopakhin’s inhibitions concerning the marriage, which has been arranged for him.
Lopakhin and Varya
Lopakhin broaches the subject to his marriage at the very opening of the play, but it is a symbolic utterance, a saying which he attributes to Lyubov Andreyevna. He described how his drunken father had once beaten him as a boy and had burst his nose, but that Lyubov Andreyevna had taken him inside and washed him, saying: “Don’t cry, little peasant. It’ll be better before you’re old enough to get married.” (literally, “It will heal before your wedding”). But for Lopakhin the wounds of the past life have never really healed—in spite of everything he feels he is still ‘a little peasant’, and Lyubov Andreyevna, although she may not intent it, is herself helping to keep these wounds open.
We have seen how in the opening act, she makes no comment on his confession of affection and his feeling that she is rodnaya, and when in Act II Lyubov Andreyevna criticises him for his way of life and his opinions, Lopakhin once more returns to the subject of his drunken peasant father and his terrible upbringing. At this Lyubov Andreyevna bluntly suggests that he should marry her adopted daughter Varya, stressing that she is of the right social origins:—”She comes from the common folk, and she’s a hard-working girl: she can work the whole day without stopping.”
Shortly after this Firs enters and Lopakhin, in repeating the words just tittered by Lyubov Andreyevna to the deal old man, gets an unexpected reply: Lopakhin. “They say, you’ve aged a lot’ Firs. ‘I’ve been alive a long time. They were going to marry me off before your Dad was born.” (Laughs) Once more the question of marriage is obliquely linked to Lopakhin’s origins—his father, but Firs is talking about enforced peasant marriage before the emancipation. Lopakhin teases him about the “good old days”: “Oh, yes, it was a good like all right! At least, people got flogged !” Firs again mishears, but his reply only serves to confirm Lopakhin’s point about the status of the peasant in the old days (while further suggesting the ambiguity of Lopakhin’s present social position).
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.
Later after giving money to the vagrant, Lyubov Andreyevna asks Lopakhin for a further loan. Then, virtually in the next breath, she tells Varya that she has arranged her marriage, and congratulates her. Varya is in tears at her lack of tact; it is as though she is being given away for money. Lopakhin, too, seems embarrassed, at least he counters by showing off his ‘culture’ in a cruel jibe: “Okhmeliya, get thee to a nunnery.” The quotation, though inaccurate, is apt. But the suggestion that Varya might be better suited to a religious life is one made not only by Lyubov Andreyevna but also by Varya herself.
In Act III, Lyubov Andreyevna explains to Varya that no one is forcing her to marry Lopakhin, but the phrase she uses: “No one’s trying to force you” semantically evokes the spectre of serfdom. Here, as elsewhere, there is an ‘ill-defined attitude to the past’, a submerged suggestion of the old ways: the marrying of serfs according to their masters’ wishes. Indeed in Act IV Lyubov Andreyevna says that she is leaving with two cares on her mind, and both of them seem almost feudal. The First is care of the ailing Firs (and we can see how well she copes with that); the second is to make arrangements for Varya. She prevails on Lopakhin to propose before she leaves, and he admits to feeling that once Lyubov Andreyevna has left he will not be able to do so. The fact that Yasha has already drunk up the champagne does not augur well for a celebration. When Lopakhin is confronted with Varya, he is unable to bring himself to propose.
A certain lack of seriousness in Lopakhin’s relationship with Varya is suggested in Act I when he suddenly peers round the door at Varya and Anya and makes a mooing sound, to which Varya responds with a tearful threat of  violence. Later in the same act she ‘crossly’ tells him that it is time he left. Lopakhin’s jibe about Ophelia in Act II hits very near the mark, and her obvious distress (“He scared me, my heart is beating so”) may not be entirely due to the encounter with the shabby stranger. When in Act III she aims a blow at Lopakhin, mistaking him for Yepichodov, the directions indicates that, at First, she apologises (angrily and sarcastically) and when Lopakhin announces that he has bought the estate, Varya demonstratively throws her keys on the floor and walks out. It is clear that throughout the play there is constant tension between the couple. The adopted daughter’s displays of anger stem from insecurity: in each case there lies behind them a linking of Lopakhin to the fate of the household. The self-made man Lopakhin, for his part, will not necessarily do what is expected of him, particularly if there is pressure from a lady for whom he entertains such ambiguous feelings, as he does for Lyubov Andreyevna.
Lopakhin: Autobiographical Features
Lopakhin is one of the most interesting characters in the play. He has been given certain autobiographical features; for like the author he is the son of a petty shopkeeper, whose grandfather was a serf; like him he had an unpropitious childhood, but has made his own way in the world. Lopakhin’s success, of course, has been in business but he also has certain pretensions to culture. At the opening of the play he has a book which he was trying to read before he fell asleep. In Act II he mentions a play which he has seen (though it might only be a vaudeville). He also ‘quotes’ from Hamlet. At the same time he is aware of his own lack of education and of his terrible handwriting. Trofimov comments that he has fingers like an artist, and that he has a subtle and gentle soul. Nor is Lopakhin blind of beauty; he speaks enthusiastically of the poppy crop which he sowed in the spring. Here was beauty which he created, but beauty, which unlike the cherry orchard, could also be made to yield a profit. Besides the man of practical affairs there is also something of the idealist in Lopakhin, and Trofimov is perhaps right in suggesting that he goes too far in believing that the dacha owners will one day engage in productive farming.
Gayev calls him a boor, and there are certainly aspects of his behaviour which might suggest this. In Act III he displays insensitivity when he boasts to its owners of having bought their estate, and a lack of tact in Act IV, when he allows his workmen to start felling the orchard before the family has left. Yet, as we have seen, Lyubov Andreyevna is not always tactful in her dealings with Lopakhin, and her brother at times is downright rude.
Lopakhin’s delight in purchasing the estate is understandable. He, too, has his ghosts, and his speech in Act III picks up many of the points made by Trofimov about the evils of serfdom:
Lopakhin: Don’t laugh at me!  If only my father and grandfather could rise from their graves and see their Yermolay now—their  Yermolay  who  was  forever  getting  beaten, Yermolay who could scarcely read or write, who ran barefoot in the winter—if they could only see how this very same Yermolay went and bought this estate, the most beautiful spot in the world. I bought the estate where my grandfather and my father were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed to go into the kitchen.
The old order has certainly changed. Lopakhin, the new owner of the cherry orchard will have none of the old manorial life, but the axes which ring out its destruction in the final act have a particularly ominous sound for a Russian audience—the axe was the traditional weapon of peasant rebellion: “Your play can be called a terrifying, bloody drama, which God preserve, if it should ever break out. How awful and terrifying it is when the muffled strokes of axes ring out off-stage”. The curtain falls on three different but equally potent symbols of change: Firs left behind, forgotten in the deserted house; the ring of axes outside; and once more the strange sound of the breaking string.
A Comedy?
Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard a comedy but it is not a comedy with a happy ending. Two years before his death, Chekhov told a young student:
You say that you have wept over my plays. Yes, and not only you along. But I did not want to write them for this purpose, it is Alexeevich who has made such crybabies out of them. I wanted something different. I only wished to tell people honestly: ‘look at yourselves, see how badly and boringly you live!’ The principal thing is that people should understand this, and when they do, they will surely create for themselves another and a better life. I will not see it, but I know it will be entirely different, not like what we have now. And as long as it does not exist, I’ll continue to tell people: See how badly and boringly you live! Is it that which they weep over?
Here is Chekhov himself speaking with the voice of Trofimov; here too is Lopakhin telling Lyubov Andreyevna: “Oh, if only we could be done with all this, if only we could alter this distorted unhappy life somehow!” At the same time it is also Lyubov Andreyevna reproaching Lopakhin. “I’m sure it wasn’t at all amusing. Instead of going to see plays, you should take a good look at yourself. Just think what a drab kind of life you lead, what a lot of nonsense you talk!” The play’s sympathies are far from one-sided, and it is given to Lyubov Andreyevna to utter the words, which Chekhov himself could well have taken as an epigraph for his ‘comedy’.

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