Chekhov, Anton: The Cherry Orchard

The work under discussion was Chekhov’s last play  “The Cherry Orchard” (1904), the first time the group had discussed a play. The proposer (an established writer) said that he had picked the play largely because he had been trying his hand at writing a full-length play, and Chekhov was considered a master of the craft. Chekhov was unusual in being a major success in two literary forms – the short story as well as the play.

The play had not been performed in English until 1934. There had been many interesting productions since, such as the 1978 version directed by Peter Hall, with a stellar cast including Ralph Richardson as Firs. Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley were amongst the actresses to have played Ranevskaya. Even Monty Python’s Flying Circus had, bizarrely, got in on the act.

The proposer had suggested that readers would need at least two readings to get to grips with the play, and he himself was uncovering yet further meanings after the fifth reading! Indeed all had found the second reading much more rewarding, not least because they spent less time flicking back to sort out who was speaking given the confusion of Russian names.

And the play received an unambiguous thumbs-up. “My favourite dramatist! Subtle, low key expressions of emotion.” “Really enjoyed it – how it catches the Russian psyche and the paradoxes in Russian society as it undergoes a great upheaval”. “What an enormous amount contained in such a small compass!” “Complex, oblique, resonant, poignant, ironic”. And – decisively – “what a pleasure to have a reason to buy another copy of Chekhov’s works, as an old girlfriend went off with my last one!”

Only minor reservations were expressed. The characters were distinct Russian “types”, and a stage production would have to avoid exaggerating them. Some of the dialogue was a bit stilted, and the comic characters a little overdone (although that might work well on stage).  There were also some rather clumsy slabs of exposition of the past of certain characters.

So what was it all about? What about Trofimov’s strictures on the state of Russian society, often sounding like a Communist Party Manifesto: “The huge majority of the intelligentsia do nothing…they treat peasants like animals…the workers eat disgusting food… sleep, without pillows, thirty or forty to a room…” Was it a prediction of the Russian Revolution?

Not so, after some debate, was our conclusion: Chekhov was accurately, and memorably, describing Russian society as it was. He included the economic activity (eg Lopakhin’s efforts and the English investment in Pishchik’s white clay) that was to give Russia the highest growth rate of any European country before the First World War. The Russian Revolution was not, as the Marxists would have it, an inevitable product of economic and social forces. It was an example of the contingent in history, with the First World War being the biggest contingent factor. And indeed the Red Army had come very close to military defeat. What Chekhov was really doing was reflecting on the human condition and how some people adapt and others don’t: it was about ordinary lives, not great revolutionaries.

A major theme was time, and more specifically the challenge of change, at both a personal and a social level. Thus, at the level of personal change, Ranevskaya, Gayev and Anya have to come to terms with the loss of their wealth and status, their cherry orchard. For most of the play Ranevskaya in particular has been in denial about this, and indeed in recent years she has been in flight from all the tragedies of her life. Only at the end is she – and Gayev and Anya – able to move forward more positively. As Gayev cheerfully says: “Before the cherry orchard was sold, we were all worried, we were suffering, and then, once the matter was finally and irrevocably settled, we all calmed down, we even cheered up…”. Or as Trofimov puts it: “To live in the present we must first redeem our past, finish with it, and we can redeem it only by suffering…”.

Chekhov also paints a wider picture of social change. There is the decline of the whole landowning class, the impact of serf emancipation, and the rise of Lopakhin (the businessman from the serf family). There are the town dwellers interested in buying dachas, and the rise of a new type of servant on-the-make in Yasha, contrasted with Firs the traditional servant.

Love is another theme, although most of the love is not reciprocated. The only two relationships that are in any sense successful are that of Anya and Trofimov (and how long is that going to last given his eccentricity?) and that of Ranevskaya and her rascal lover. Indeed wasn’t Ranevskaya the only character in a sexual relationship? Hmmm, well, some doubts about Anya and Trofimov sneaking off to the river– remember how coy a dramatist had to be then!

Chekhov makes fine use of symbolism to deepen his themes and create resonance. The cherry orchard itself is a dominant and protean symbol, and the noise of trees being felled off-stage at the end is one of the most poignant moments in theatre. In addition to representing their wealth, the orchard is explicitly identified with Russia (“All Russia is our orchard”); with the past – the souls of dead serfs and serf-owners; with happiness; and with the youth of Gayev and Ranevskaya (she thinks she sees their mother in the shape of a tree). Is the emphasis on it flowering despite the frost the idea of moving forward despite adversity? The white colour of the blossom – with connotations such as innocence or virginity – is repeatedly stressed.

The bunch of keys at Varya’s waist – taken off and thrown at Lopakhin –symbolises not just ownership of the house but her chastity, which is offered to Lopakhin, but not in the end accepted. The “distant sound of a string breaking, as if in the sky”, which happens twice, most notably at the end, must also have a symbolic purpose. Its purpose is suggested first by the sound “having preceded the troubles” and secondly by the stage direction “a dying, melancholy sound” followed by the sound of the axe.

Some of the characters also take on a symbolic role. Firs symbolises the past of the landowning classes. At one level leaving Firs locked in the house at the end can be seen as another example of carelessness by the family towards their retainers; at the symbolic level it could be seen as their acceptance of the need to move on.

Anya, by contrast, is identified as the future, as the hope of the family. She has moved on from the past: “Why don’t I love the cherry orchard as I used to?” and is the most positive of all at the end: “We shall plant a new cherry orchard…and, Mama, you shall smile!

But there was plenty of debate about other characters. What to make of Charlotta? She is herself unclear: “where I’m from and who I am – I don’t know”. Given her fairground background, she is outside the social norms of the others. And what is the role of her magic? Is this just another way of escaping from reality for the family? Is there an echo of “The Tempest” – Shakespeare’s last play? And why is Chekhov at such pains to stress her man’s peaked cap, her gun, her imagined conversation with a female “beau idéal”?

“Well, of course” weighed in our resident Freudian “Chekhov is going as far as he dare to portray her as a l*****n!” This had them rolling in the aisles. “So if she’s a l*****n why does she take out half a cucumber and chew on it then??!”

(Well, I say, this was hotting up! Time to open another bottle of this tasty 2005 and stop worrying about how to spell all these pesky names…)

What did we make of Trofimov? He was given the two best speeches in the play, showing great analytical gifts. But he was very tactless: for example, on leaving Lobakhin, the self-made man, all he can do is advise him to stop waving his hands around. He was young and optimistic, but preternaturally aged. He gave speeches on the importance of hard work while doing nothing himself (other than, by the end, a little translation). He considered himself too superior to fall in love. Whatever did Anya see in him? Was he simply the type of the eternal student, or was he too intended to have some more symbolic role? Ranevskaya makes a telling comment: “You’re boldly solving all the important questions, but isn’t that because you are young, because you haven’t had time to suffer…”

There was less doubt about Yasha: he was a man of appetite, an unpleasant man on the make. He smells of food, he finishes the champagne (and knows it is not good), he ignores his mother, he exploits the affections of Dunyasha, he rushes to pick up the gold coins. But Gayev, generally portrayed as a billiards-obsessed fool, sees through him, and regularly sends him away complaining about his smell.

“And what then about the famous scene in which Lobakhin fails to propose to Varya ? This is sometimes interpreted as the product of a combination of accidents, but surely it was implausible that someone as wordlywise as Lobakhin would be deflected if he really wanted to propose? Was he not being pressed by Ranevskaya and really rather indifferent ?”

“Well exactly – the problem is that he is really in love with Ranevskaya! And so are Trofimov and Pishchik … in the sense of being entranced by her, maybe not in the sense of intending a physical relationship with a much older woman.” (Well, I don’t know about that, thought your scribe, trying to combine writing down this exciting new insight with a calming gulp of claret, what if Joanna Lumley is playing her?) “Well if that’s right why does Lopakhin turf her out of her house?” “Because she’s going back to her lover in Paris.” “But does he know that?…”

The discussion now moved to Chekhov’s stagecraft. It was remarkable how much depth lay beneath each of the characters – you saw just the tip of the iceberg, but Chekhov had worked out the whole of the iceberg for each one. They said little, but there was a very large sub-text. This aspect of Chekhov – which had been said to influence the method style of acting – had particularly attracted the proposer. To try to achieve such depth for the characters in his own work he had written a long monologue for each, little of which survived into the play as text.

Chekhov had also worked out in detail how each character related to every other character, and no character was simply neutral to another. This was a complex web of relationships to sustain.  It was illuminating to read the play focussing on just one of the characters, and observe how subtly, in what depth and how consistently they were portrayed. All the characters offered superb scope to an actor or actress.

Chekhov went further in terms of prescriptive stage directions than was considered normal in the theatre. This may partly reflect the difficulties he had with Stanislavsky, the director of the first production, who insisted on treating the play as a tragedy. In this play he also followed a pattern common to him of having four acts with a few months passing during the time of the play – thus following the “unity of place” but not of time.

But in what sense was the play a “comedy”, as Chekhov stated on the title page? While there were amusing aspects to the play, it was not a comedy in the conventional sense (nor a tragedy). The word was perhaps used more in the broad sense of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” or Balzac’s “La Comédie Humaine”.

And reflecting ironically on the comedy of human life would fit well with our feeling that this was a work by a man who knew he was near the end of his life: it has that sense of perspective and poignancy. In our discussion of Marquez in 2006 we noted that:

“a number of great artists, if a minority, have been fortunate enough to produce a work at the end of their career which fittingly rounds off their life’s work. For example, Shakespeare’s “Final Plays” fall into that category, with their magical and uplifting exploration of issues of love and time. Thomas Hardy’s “The Well-Beloved”, at the end of his career as a novelist, gives his characteristically quirky take on the themes of love and time. We felt that in “Memories of my Melancholy Whores” – probably his last work of fiction – Marquez had produced his own meditation on time, aging and love”.

 And Chekhov in “The Cherry Orchard” could be added to that list as a great artist at the end of his life giving us his own reflections on time, change, and love.

The conversation drifted on, veering from Chekhov to malt versus grain whisky, and then veering off (don’t ask me how, I was savouring the claret, not taking notes) to the subject of bow ties, and who could tie one these days. “Indeed, I saw someone in a gents at a function take off his clip bow-tie, and replace it with an untied real bow tie in which he could look cool after dinner…how about that?”

How about that reflection on change indeed, but finally your reporter took his leave of the proposer’s elegant West End establishment and gingerly descended the stairs.

And what should there be standing in the hall? A cherry tree, in full bloom. Shedding a little blossom.

Well I never!! How about that for stage management?