Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Chopped Down

Tonight my book club met with a professor of Russian literature from a local college to discuss Anton Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard, which he completed on his deathbed in 1902. He did not live to see its 1904 premiere, directed by Constantin Stanislavski, who insisted that what Chekhov intended to be a comedy was actually a tragedy.

The plot is very simple: Lyúba is the aristocratic landowner of a large estate that includes what was once a world-renown cherry orchard. She has returned with her daughter Ánya from an extended trip abroad to increasing financial difficulty at home. Lopákhin, a wealthy businessman whose father was one of Lyúba's family's serfs, insists that she sell the estate to him so that he can demolish the cherry orchard and parcel the land into sites for the summer homes of the nouveau riche. The play also includes Lyúba's brother Gáev, her foster daughter Várya, Pétya the eternal student, Sharlótta the governess, Yepikhódov the family clerk, the maid Dunyásha, the servant Yásha who accompanied Lyúba on her travels, and Firs, an 87-year-old servant who is the oldest member of the household.

The Cherry Orchard is centered on the interaction between each of the characters and between the characters and their historical context. Czar Alexander II had issued an Emancipation Manifesto in 1861 that freed the serfs and, in the process, gradually deprived the grand estates of their cheap workforce. It was a necessary measure, however, as Russia's sorry performance in the Crimean War had made it clear that Europe's remaining feudal state needed serious reform. By Chekhov's time, the late nineteenth century, the ramifications of this measure were still being felt, as seen in the entropic atmosphere of The Cherry Orchard. An old system of stability is beginning to disintegrate into uncertainty or even chaos. The social strata is collapsing in on itself as the wealthy serfs buy their masters' land and servants like Yásha crave the trappings of status. Where they are headed, no one is certain. Pétya makes a big show of being a radical firebrand but even he is apprehensive about the possible consequences of his proto-Bolshevik ideas.

Chekhov himself, of course, was the grandson of a former serf. But despite his own deep connections to the events forming the historical basis of The Cherry Orchard, he is not entirely unsympathetic to Lyúba and Gáev. Free-spending, sexually amoral Lyúba can certainly be seen as the prototype of the decadent aristocrat but Gáev seems to recall the one positive virtue of nobility that an artist like Chekhov could appreciate. Reflecting on a bookcase that has been in the family for over a century, Gáev says:
Yes ... Quite a thing ... (He runs his hand over it.) Most honorable bookcase! Allow me to salute you for more than a hundred years of service to the glorious principles of virtue and justice. Not once in an entire century has your silent summons to productive labor faltered. (Through tears.) From generation to generation you have maintained our family's courage and faith in a better future, you have nurtured in us the ideals of goodness and social consciousness.
Whereas Pétya spouts rhetoric about "suffering and relentless hard work" bringing Russian into the modern age and Lopákhin brags about waking at four in the morning and laboring with money til night, Gáev hearkens back to the elite virtues of elegance and refinement. His occasional rhapsodies on the the beauty and value of nature and old furniture, though moving and lyrical, stand in almost pitiful contrast to the idealistic utilitarianism espoused by Pétya and, to a lesser extent, Lopákhin, who admits that reading a book only put him to sleep.

Gáev's speeches are not only irrelevant but also a source of embarrassment to the younger characters, who constantly try to shut him up. The anxiety at work on the national scale in The Cherry Orchard is expressed on a more intimate level through the relationships between individuals. No one listens to anyone else and what is expected, such as the prospective marriage between Várya and Lopákhin, never happens.
SHÁRLOTTA (pensively). I have no real identity papers, no way of knowing how old I am, but I always think of myself as young. When I was a little girl, my mother and father toured the fairgrounds giving performances, good ones too. I did the salto mortale and various other stunts. And when Mama and Papa died, a German lady saw to my education. So far, so good. Then I grew up and took a post as a governess. But don't ask me where I'm from or who I am - I don't know ... Don't ask me who my parents were or even if they were married - I don't know. (She takes a small cucumber out of her pocket and bites into it.) Don't know a thing.


I want so much to talk to somebody. But who? ... I'm all alone.

YEPIKHÓDOV. (playing the guitar and singing)

What care I for worldly pleasure.
What care I for friend or foe...

I do so enjoy playing the mandolin!

SHÁRLOTTA. That's no mandolin; that's a guitar. (She gazes at herself in a hand mirror and powders her face.)

YEPIKHÓDOV. To a fool in love it's a mandolin...
We then have Yásha and Yepikhódov discussing the trip abroad, and then Yepikhódov boldly declaring himself to be a "man of culture" and ending his lines with "I always carry a revolver with me." The impression is of people who cannot connect or find a common ground and whose conversation is disjointed and unorganized. They are like elements that cannot coalesce or coherently arrange themselves.

Though never appearing literally, death - the inevitable result of decay and decline - has a strong symbolic presence. Firs, age 87, remembers when "we had generals and barons and admirals at our parties," whereas now Lyúba and Gáev can only beg for the postmaster and stationmaster. He recalls the fame of the cherry orchard and the high prices its produce once fetched in Moscow. "Peasants had their masters; masters had their peasants," he says. "Now they're all scattered. You don't know where you stand." But Firs is even more archaic than Gáev's speeches. At the end of the play, everyone insists he was taken to the hospital, but Firs has actually been forgotten (which he realizes) and left locked in the empty house. He goes over to the couch and lies there motionless as the curtain descends.

What happened to everyone else? We know that Lopákhin has bought the estate, Várya is going to be a housekeeper, and Gáev has accepted a post at the bank which Lyúba insisted he decline. But will they adapt? What will become of their lives in the new era?

What's next?

Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy. - Roberto Bolaño


Mrs. C said...

I love this play; I love Chekov. Thanks for posting on it and giving me a reason to think on it again.

Emily said...

I have never read or seen this, which is something I need to fix! I love your descriptions of the disjointed language & how it functions within the atmosphere of the play. And it's so interesting that it was performed as a tragedy but intended as a comedy - I've heard a similar story about Tennessee Williams attending rehearsals of Streetcar and rolling on the floor laughing. Those wacky playwrights! :-)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Staged correctly, acted right, Chekhov's plays are hilarious. I think "Uncle Vanya" is funnier than "The Cherry Orchard," but it's a matter of degree.

Several years ago, in Chicago, I saw a Steppenwolf Theatre "Cherry Orchard" that did it right.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I have never read this play, even though I know I should. Thanks for taking it apart, and sharing The Cherry Orchard with us today.

Eileen said...

Mrs. C: Glad to bring you good literary memories!

Emily: I think it's definitely a tragicomedy. We'll be watching the film version of this (with Judy Dench!) and Three Sisters next, so I'll be sure to keep you posted!

AR: I'll have to see how the film version turns out! Anything with Judy Dench is definitely "acted right."

Diane: You're most welcome!

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