By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Cherry Orchard was the last play Anton Chekhov wrote before his untimely death, in 1904. The play is in many ways an elegy for an old Russia that was in the process of dying at the turn of the century, with the new Russia powerless to be born. But despite this elegiac quality, Chekhov himself considered the play a comedy – a ‘four-act vaudeville’. Clearly further analysis of the play’s structure and style is necessary, in order to understand what makes The Cherry Orchard such a powerful piece of drama.
Before we come to the analysis, however, it might be worth sketching out the ‘plot’ of the play.
The Cherry Orchard: summary
Madame Ranevskaya owns an estate in the Russian country. She returns to this estate from Paris, where she has been staying. Upon her return to the estate she is accompanied by numerous people, including her brother Gaev, her daughter Anya, and her adopted daughter Varya. Also in attendance is her loyal footman, Firs, who is in his late eighties but doggedly determined to serve his mistress.
She is told by the merchant Lopahin, an old friend of the family who was once looked after by Madame Ranevskaya, that she will have to sell the cherry orchard on her estate in order to pay off her debts.
He advises her to lease out some of the land and to build summer cottages on the estate, which can be rented out to holidaymakers, so she can keep her childhood home and make it financially viable. However, she refuses, partly for sentimental reasons: she is convinced she can see the ghost of her mother among the trees of the cherry orchard.
A tutor named Petya Trofimov arrives, and we learn that Trofimov tutored Ranevskaya’s son Grisha, who drowned five years ago, not long after his father, Ranevskaya’s husband, died. Following these tragedies, Ranevskaya left for Paris. Gaev, meanwhile, has his own plans for how to solve the family’s financial difficulties, one of his ideas being to marry Anya off to a wealthy man.
The second act of The Cherry Orchard takes place in some fields lying outside of the estate. Lopahin, Ranevskaya, and Gaev join Yepihodov, a local clerk, and Dunyasha, a maid from the estate. Ranevskaya has received a letter from her lover in Paris, who wants her to return to him. Lopahin continues to urge the family to take up his idea for how to make the estate financially stable, but they still refuse to listen to his advice.
Meanwhile, Trofimov and Lopahin disagree over the best kind of future for Russia: Lopahin, ever the entrepreneur, argues for a capitalist future whereas Trofimov is all in favour of all-out revolution. Anya is drawn to Trofimov’s politics, and to him, but he has his mind only on revolution and cannot think about love or marriage.
The third act focuses on a party at the estate. Trofimov argues with Ranevskaya, who rejects his idea that he should give up the cherry orchard: it has too much importance for her family’s history. The news arrives that the orchard, which has been put up for auction, has been sold, and Lopahin reveals he is the purchaser. He now owns the orchard where his ancestors once toiled as lowly serfs.
The fourth act concerns Madame Ranevskaya’s departure from the house that has been hers throughout her life (but is no more), as she prepares to return to Paris. The sound of the axe chopping down the cherry trees can be heard outside even before she is out of the house. In one final, darkly comic moment, Firs wonders into the empty house, and we realise that Ranevskaya has forgotten to take him with her.
The Cherry Orchard: analysis
The Cherry Orchard is about a country in crisis, undergoing a dramatic shift between an old, traditional way of life and a whole new system. A year after the play premiered, there would be a failed Russian revolution, a sort of ‘dry run’ for the Bolshevik uprising in 1917 that would lead to the establishment of Communism in Russia.
How Chekhov goes about representing this struggle between the old and the new is worthy of analysis. The Cherry Orchard has been called the first great Expressionist play, because Chekhov sometimes uses exaggeration for symbolic effect: as Michael Pennington and Stephen Unwin point out in their analysis of the play in A Pocket Guide to Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, the size of the cherry orchard is too great for such a place actually to exist.
But it represents the vast estates of old, aristocratic Russia, so it needs to be big for this point to be clear to us. Similarly, Trofimov’s talk of revolutionary politics was deliberately exaggerated and made absurd, Pennington and Unwin tell us, so Chekhov could get such talk past the theatre censors; but the character is making a serious point, and many of his views would feed into the Russian Revolution thirteen years later.
Despite such moments of exaggeration, however, Chekhov approaches the topic of this clash between old and new values with sympathy and subtlety. Lopahin seems genuinely to want to help his old friend and one-time mother-figure to keep the cherry orchard, and is exasperated when she fails to heed his advice (though he still cheerily snaps up the orchard at the ensuing auction, outbidding Gaev’s meagre sum).
And Ranevskaya herself, who could easily provoke ridicule for sentimentally clinging to her childhood home and living beyond her means in Paris, and for failing to ignore the practicalities of economy (the word, we should remember, literally comes from the ancient Greek meaning ‘management of the house’), is someone who also invites our sympathy, not least because of the family tragedies that precipitated her flight to Paris in the first place.
By the same token, Ranevskaya, for all her attachment to the house and the cherry orchard, nevertheless leaves it at the end having forgotten Firs, her loyal servant, leaving him behind on his own. As Pennington and Unwin note, this is a comic moment, but it is comic because it foreshadows later twentieth-century plays by Pinter and Beckett, being almost proto-absurdist in its tone.
Other symbolic touches are easier to decipher: Gaev’s obsession with miming billiards and describing tricky moves in the game is symptomatic of the sort of life he has led: unlike Lopahin and other (former) serfs, he has enjoyed a life of leisure and hasn’t had to work hard for a living.
There is a sense in which, to him, life remains a game, a diversion, a series of moves where the outcome isn’t especially important (as his casual approach to finding a solution to the family’s financial trouble reveals).
But what makes The Cherry Orchard such a rich and enjoyable piece of drama is the faint hint of the absurd in such details, so that they simultaneously operate on a symbolically true, but also borderline farcical, level.