February 18, 1999
Notes on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard
|“||All the traditional rules of story telling have been broken in this wonderful short story of twenty pages or so. There is no problem, no regular climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories ever written.||”|
|— Nabokov on “The Lady with the Pet Dog”|
A dominant theme in Chekhov’s play of anti-climaxes is that people create and act out their own fictions. Why is it difficult or impossible to see the fictions we create about our own lives when seeing others’ fictions is often so evident? (E.g., Liubóv and Trofímov in Act 3, p. 376–77). What is the relation of truth to reality or facts?
. . .
Madame Liubóv Ranevskaya—owner of the estate
- laments the loss of her little boy (Grisha) who drowned in the river (1.160)
- concerned about her squandering ways (e.g., 2.87–93)
- gives homeless man a gold piece (371); gives $ when she doesn’t have it (382)
- worried about her cherry orchard (e.g., 366)
- haunted by the past (e.g., 367)
- “What truth? You seem to be sure . . .” (376)
Anya—Madame Ranevskaya’s daughter
- loves Trofimov (371)
- “I don’t love the cherry orchard any more, not the way I used to.” (371)
- the cherry orchard is sold (382)
- is she the only character looking toward the future in a clear-eyed sense? (385)
Varya—Madame Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter
- immensely worried about money and losing the estate
- “I can’t sit around and do nothing.” (3.102)
- involved with Lopákhin (1.130; 3.88 ff.)
Lopákhin—pragmatist—son of a serf, but now a wealthy businessman
- cannot understand why Madame Ranevskaya and Gayev will not listen to his plan to save their estate (cf. 2.113–16)
- “I can pay for everything!” (381)
- yet he is insecure because of his past (383)
- constant work toward economic prosperity is what gives meaning to life for him (384)
Gayev—Madame Ranevskaya’s brother
- old and lost in his thoughts, usually concerning billiards.
Firs—remnant of the old days: refused to be freed at first in 1861
- still a servant of Gayev’s (2.200–03)
- left at the end to die—no one really checks to see if he’s been taken care of (4.94, 200)
- who is responsible for him?
Trofimov—the perpetual student
- sees hope for evolving humanity through work and less talk (yet all he does is talk), but little during his time in Russia (e.g., 369)
- Anya loves him, or at least what he says (is there a difference?); he’s above love (e.g., 3.112)
- the cherry orchard as metaphor (371–72)
- to Lopáchin: “Don’t wave your arms around so much.” (383)
- “I’ll get there. Or I’ll make sure the rest of them get there.” (384)
Pischik—landowner with no money, yet he’s obsessed with it.
- wants to be loved as a “flower” (379)
- thinks he’s superior (2.67–8; 382)
- pretty much a sexist and a jerk (e.g., 378)
- doesn’t even care about his mother (384)
- does tricks (374)
Yepikhódov—an accountant—“Double Trouble”
- carries a pistol: “live or shoot myself” (2.26)
- confronts Dunyásha (379)
Some Critical Views
|“||An audience, of course, will find [in The Cherry Orchard] what it will, depending upon how it approaches the theatre experience. If, like recent Soviet audiences, it wants rousing polemics from Trofimov, it can hear them. If, like many Western audiences, it wishes to weep for Mme Ranevsky and her fate, it can be partly accommodated. It is possible to see Lyubov and Gaev as shallow people who deserve to lose their orchard, or as victims of social and economic forces beyond their control. It is possible to find Anya and Trofimov far-sighted enough to want to leave the dying orchard, or ignorant of what they are forsaking. But if production allows either the heroics of prophecy or the melodrama of dispossession, then all of Chekhov’s care for balance is set at nought and the fabric of his play torn apart. Chekhov himself must have known that he was taking this risk, and that it is for us to ask why.||”|
|“||Chekhov’s dramatic characters are quite ordinary people, leading unremarkable lives, and that from a psychological point of view, they are neither particularly complex nor unusual. . . . Chekhov reveals enough about his characters to enable us to understand their situation, and to feel with them in the crises which they pass through; but the characters do not analyze themselves, nor do we learn very much about the influences that have shaped their lives.||”|
|“||The essential difference in characterization [from Chekhov’s earlier plays], I believe, is this: that in the later play[s] Chekhov is not so concerned with what kind of people his characters are, but is focusing his attention directly on their emotional preoccupations. . . . What the characters are feeling has become the focus of attention. . . . Chekhov presents his characters in terms of what they feel about themselves and other people, about their situation in life and about life in general. . . . What Chekhov’s characters do is important only in so far as their actions . . . illustrate these emotional preoccupations, and in particular, as the expression of some inner emotional crisis.||”|
|“||[Chekhov recognized and portrayed on stage that] there is nothing of which we are more urgently, though less expressly conscious than the presence of other life humming about us, than the fact of our experiences and our impulses are very little private to ourselves, almost always shared with a group of people.||”|
|“||An audience is prompted by the Chekhov play to explore what it feels in general about life and the world we live in; and to explore in many and varying directions, for the emotional implications of the Chekhov play are very open-ended.||”|
|“||The cherry orchard is a particular place and yet it is more. It represents and inextricable tangle of sentiments, which together comprise a way of life and an attitude to life. By the persistent feelings shown towards it, at one extreme by old Firs, the house-serf for whom the family is his whole existence, and at the other by Trofimov, the intellectual for whom it is the image of repression and slavery; by Lopahin, the businessman and spokesman for hard economic facts, the one who thinks of it primarily as a means to wiser investment, and by Mme Ranevsky, who sees in it her childhood happiness and her former innocence, who sees it as the embodiment of her best values—by these and many other contradictions, an audience finds that the orchard grows from a painted backcloth to an ambiguous, living, poetic symbol of human life, any human life, in a state of change.||”|
|“||[In The Cherry Orchard,] the artificiality of conventional dramaturgical design, whose effect is to seal-off stage life as hermetic, in a mode of the exemplary or inimitable, has been replaced by an openwork structure which resists climax, definition, or resolution, rejecting the dragooned shapeliness of a narrative frame for the display of heightened emotions, important truths. The truth distilled in [TCO], modest, lowly, oblique, is rooted in recognizable rhythms of our lives, with nothing set off by obvious “construction,” nothing inflated beyond its familiar size, yet with everything transfigured by an imagination whose chief instrumentality is its penetration into the strangeness of the familiar.||”|
Anton Chekhov on the Theatre, Theatricality, and TCO
|“||The whole meaning, the whole drama of a person’s life are contained within, not in outward manifestations . . . A shot after all, is not a drama, but an incident.||”|
|“||Where, either indoors or outdoors, will you see people rushing about, jumping up and down or seizing hold of their head in their hands? . . . The subtle emotions which are characteristic of cultured people must also be given subtle outward expression.||”|
On Sarah Bernhardt and Company:
|“||Every sigh, all her tears, her convulsions in the death scenes, the whole of her acting is nothing more than a cleverly, faultlessly learned lesson. A lesson, readers, simply a lesson! . . . When she acts, she is not trying to be natural, but to be unusual. Her aim is to strike the audience, to astonish and to dazzle them. . . . That’s not how it is in real life.||”|
Pitcher outlines some methods adopted by the Moscow Art Theatre based on Chekhov’s philosophy:
|“||Anything that smacked even slightly of “theatricality” was taboo. Instead acting must be “stage-centered,” the audience must be ignored, the actor must live his part on stage and let his inner feelings dictate his outward behavior.||”|
About The Cherry Orchard:
|“||Not a drama but a comedy has emerged from me, in places even a farce.||”|
Chekhov complained in April 1904 that his play was being advertised as a drama rather than as a comedy. He accused Danchenko and Stanislavsky of finding things in the play that were not there: “They both haven’t read my play attentively even once,” he remarked. “It’s no longer my play. Except for two or three parts, nothing in it is mine. I describe ordinary life, not despondency. They make me into a crybaby or a bore. This is beginning to make me angry.”
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