Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’: Comedy or Tragedy?
On the 17th of January 1904, The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov had its premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre. The play was staged by the famous actor/director and creator of the eponymous Stanislavski method, known as “method acting”, Constantin Stanislavski. The original intention of Chekhov was for The Cherry Orchard to be a comedy; yet, Stanislavski turned it into a tragedy. Despite the fact that, as remarked by Jean-Louis Barrault, the play has a relatively simple story line: “In Act One, the cherry orchard is in danger of being sold, in Act Two it is on the verge of being sold, in Act Three it is sold, and in Act Four it has been sold” (Svetlana Evdokimova, What’s so Funny about losing One’s Estate, or Infantilism in “The Cherry Orchard”, The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter, 2000), The Cherry Orchard provoked a rather complex discussion on the multi-layered understanding of its true message.
It seems that even before its opening there was much confusion as to what the play was really about. In a letter to his wife, Olga Knipper, from the 19th of October 1903, Chekhov said: “The Odessa newspapers have reported the plot of my play. It doesn’t resemble it a bit.” (Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary). The article in Odessa News outlined the plot of The Cherry Orchard on the basis of some third-hand account of the play. According to the article, the first act showed a cherry orchard in full bloom featuring a group of young people, who then gradually age as the play progresses. This was obviously not true as “the central role in the play is that of an old woman” (from a letter to Vera Kommissarzhevskaya (Yalta, January 27, 1903)). Even more distress was brought on Chekhov by Stanislavsky, who claimed that, “This is not a comedy, not a farce, as you wrote; it is a tragedy, whatever outlet for a better life you may have offered in the last act… I hear you saying: ‘Wait a minute, but this is a farce…’ No, for an ordinary person this is a tragedy.” (Evdokimova). Chekhov was very irritated by these distorted perceptions, which eventually put him into a state of prolonged depression.
Then why did Stanislavski and the press assume the play to be tragic or sentimental? Was it perhaps because of certain preconceived implications drawn from the title and the undeniably sad ending? After all, the idea of a cherry orchard brings to mind certain sentimentalist vision or metaphor on the passing of time – the process of germination, growth, blossoming, bearing fruits and dying. But according to Maurice Bénichou, assistant director of Peter Brook’s 1981 production of The Cherry Orchard, the play is neither sentimental nor tragic, but pathetic and comic: “These characters are childish, excessive: when disasters occur, we cry with them; then we forget them, just as they do.”” (Evdokimova). Furthermore, as to the words of Svetlana Evdokimova: “Clearly, the source of the comic lies not in the play’s fabula or situation, not in what happens, but in how it happens and to whom it happens. The enigmatic, captivating, and almost mesmerising effect that The Cherry Orchard continues to exert on its audience is to be found in its good-humoured but foolish protagonists – both charming in their gullibility and pathetic in their utter confusion. But with the exception of several minor farcical characters, most of the play’s characters cannot be classified as traditional comic types. … the play focuses on the universal childishness of Russian society, and the comic nature of the play’s characters stems to a large extent from their infantilism.” (Evdokimova).
The ‘childishness’ refers here to a child-like behaviour of a grown-up, or, possibly, a lack of acceptance of one’s own maturity. Bearing in mind that the play overlapped with very important changes in Russian society, the intended ‘childishness’ of the play can be understood as a representation of immaturity of different social classes – after all, the aristocracy, represented by Ranevskaya, is unable to accept its social degradation; whilst on the other hand, the liberated serfs – represented by the successful merchant Lopakhin, are still not ready to fully accept their social ‘upgrading’. Therefore, Chekhov, by giving people a chance to laugh at these ‘childish’ characters, “indirectly and subtly facilitates the process of growth in his audience. By laughing at the characters’ lack of maturity, we become more mature ourselves, for, as was suggested by Freud in his discussion of the functions of humor, a good sense of humor is an essential component of maturity. If, as it has been demonstrated in more recent research in the area of cognitive development, humor is a force in the process of maturity, then Chekhov’s choice of the genre of comedy for the treatment of infantilism is truly a felicitous one and even therapeutic: not only is comedy the most amusing and enjoyable medium by which to discuss human weaknesses and society’s flaws, but it is the most effective way of dealing with the subject of maturity and infantilism. For it is by appreciating the play’s comic nature that the reader or spectator grows in maturity, that is, responds to the comedy’s criticism of infantilism in the most appropriate way. Whether Russia will come of age remains to be seen. But Chekhov’s audience, one hopes, will do so.” (Evdokimova).