The Cherry Orchard: tragedy or comedy? John Hudson considers Chekhov's play in relation to Aristotelian ideas of tragedy and asks whether it might, in the end, be more of a comedy than a tragedy

Citation metadata

Author: John Hudson
Date: Feb. 2011
From: The English Review(Vol. 21, Issue 3)
Publisher: Philip Allan Updates
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,514 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

What experience an audience might expect from a play by Anton Chekhov is a matter of some contention. In British and American theatre, tradition dictates that we should anticipate gloomy, melancholy characters bemoaning their miserable, tragic fates, as referred to in the Gershwin song 'But Not for Me':


   With love to guide the way
   I've found more skies of grey
   Than any Russian play could guarantee.

But the playwright himself seems to have hoped for a different response. He subtitled his last play, The Cherry Orchard, 'A Comedy in Four Acts' and explained to the original director, Konstantin Stanislavski, that it was 'in places, even a farce'. Famously, the director replied, 'It's not a coinedy, it's not a farce ... it's a tragedy', explaining that when the actors had read the script aloud for the first time they and he had wept copiously.

In his native Russia, Chekhov is perhaps best-known not as a playwright, but as the author of hundreds of comic short stories. The editors of one collection of such stories, Miles and Pitcher, write that 'Antosha Chekhonte', the pseudonym used by the young Chekhov for these comic tales, 'is a far more familiar and accessible figure to most Russians than Anton Chekhov the playwright'. They suggest that, whether 'one regards The Cherry Orchard, for instance, as tragedy, comedy, history or pastoral, no critic should attempt to comment on that play who is not thoroughly steeped in the comic writing of Antosha Chekhonte'. This seems to imply that Chekhov's early humorous work suggests we should accept the author's designation and that we must look to the comedic 'Chekhonte' to understand the work of Chekhov.

Tragic tears?

Stanislavski, on the other hand, argued that because the play had moved the Moscow Arts Theatre cast to tears, it evidently must be a tragedy (he said he himself 'wept like a woman'). This raises the question of whether such a lachrymose effect is sufficient to make a play a tragedy. Of course, by 1904 no one expected that tragedy need conform to the template proposed by Aristotle in his Poetics, if indeed it ever did. Late nineteenth-century works such as Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879) and Hedda Gabler (1890) showed that tragedy could occupy the domestic sphere. Nonetheless, what remains common to these and earlier examples of the tragic genre is the effect on the audience at the end. When Nora leaves her oppressive life behind her, when Hedda shoots herself, when Macbeth's head is brought on by Macduff, and when King Lear finally breathes his last, the audience is left with a combination of emotional exhaustion and renewal. This can be described in each case as catharsis, the purgation of the emotions through pity and terror that Aristotle identified as the ultimate effect of tragedy. Perhaps this is what the 1904 actors felt and we, too, feel at the end of The Cherry Orchard. If so, we might well agree with Stanislavski that it is a tragedy.

Aristotelian?

Other characteristics of the play seem to conform to our expectations of tragedy, in the Aristotelian mould, especially if we consider Ranyevskaya as our tragic protagonist. The action begins in medias res: Ranyevskaya's husband and son have died before the play begins and, her lover having left her destitute in Paris, she has attempted suicide. She has been, clearly, a figure of significant social status, as Lopakhin's fond memories in the opening sequence illustrate. Her fall may be said to represent the dramatic arc of the play. By the end, she has lost everything: her status, her family and, to her mind perhaps most significantly, her beloved estate, which she has linked with her identity in no uncertain terms: 'Without the cherry orchard I can't make sense of my life, and if it really has to be sold, then sell me along with it.' Almost her final line as she takes leave of the house and the orchard, both to be destroyed, is to say farewell to her 'life, [her] youth, [her] happiness'.

She clearly feels that the future holds nothing for her. She is returning to a man she is hopelessly in love with but who she has openly described as 'a millstone round my neck' who will take her 'to the bottom with him'. What money she has is unlikely to last very long, as she acknowledges to Anya. It is entirely probable that she will soon be penniless and alone once more in Paris. This time, having no home to return to and probably no one in a position to save her, given the unpropitious futures we see all the others heading towards, we can surmise that another suicide attempt may succeed. There is no likelihood of a happy ending for Ranyevskaya. In accordance with the expectation of the central figure of a tragedy, she may well be going to her death.

Hubris

Ranyevskaya exhibits hubris in her refusal to recognise the truth about her changes in circumstances: she is living in the past. The first scene, like the last, takes place in a room 'still known as the nursery', which indicates a refusal in the household at large to relinquish the past, demonstrated when Ranyevskaya enters, after her absence of five or six years, and finds things 'just the same as ever'. She clings to her own childhood associated with this room that looked out onto the orchard, and when she looks now she imagines her late mother as a kind of ghost of the past, dressed in white.

Presumably, though, there are other associations that she does not mention--for example, the last proper occupant of the nursery must have been her son, Grisha, who drowned at the age of seven. It was after this accident that Ranyevskaya fled the country, apparently trying to escape her guilt and grief. She is, as tragic tradition requires, a character neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but we [night ponder that when she flees she clearly abandons her 11-year-old daughter, who has just experienced the deaths of her father and young brother. Anya is left to the care of a somewhat crazed governess and an older adopted sister, also abandoned, whose position in the household is curious, to say the least. Although it is not explicitly mentioned as such in the text, this abandonment of her daughter at a time of emotional crisis is certainly reason to see Ranyevskaya as culpable.

What is made clear is her irresponsible attitude to money. She continues to lavish extravagant tips on waiters, peasants and passers-by, despite her penury. This might be thought of as generosity, but at the same time it is a blinkered refusal to abandon a customary pose of condescending affluence. She dismisses Lopakhin's practical solution to their financial problems as 'squalid', preferring to wait 'for something to happen' while continuing to dispense largesse.

There are other suggestions of her hubris: she has flouted the conventions of her privileged status, according to Gayev, by marrying a 'commoner' and being 'depraved'. Chekhov's inclusion of a recitation of part of Tolstoy's Scarlet Woman in Act Three appears to be an ironic comment on Ranyevskaya. She says of herself that by taking a lover after the death of her alcoholic husband she precipitated the 'punishment' of Grisha's death, suggesting that she sees herself as a tragic figure who has brought nemesis upon her head. She asks God to forgive her 'sins', but very little in her actions suggest that she has any real selfknowledge or determination to change her ways.

Pity and terror

However, while this might be thought reason enough for us to pity Ranyevskaya even while considering her responsible for her own downfall, there is little about her fate to make us experience terror, the other supposed component of catharsis. The fate of this spoilt individual, who self-indulgently refuses to relinquish her privileged lifestyle, might perhaps cause us to shed a tear, but it may not be called tragic, if tragedy demands catharsis.

Other possible contenders for the position of protagonist are equally unlikely to invoke terror. Gayev will presumably not make much of a fist as a banker, but then he cuts an absurd, haughty and childish figure throughout. Trofimov--though from the position of twenty-first-century hindsight seeming to foresee the revolutionary future that followed--is portrayed by Chekhov as an impractical dreamer who cannot himself live up to his vociferous calls to action; he cannot even find his galoshes. Anya, perhaps the most appealing of all the characters, is naive and unrealistic. Her image of the future, in which she and her mother will 'read in the autumn evenings, read lots and lots of books, and a marvellous new world will open up before' them is wildly improbable. Even the pragmatic Lopakhin, whose vision of the future seems to be realised and who Soviet theatre deemed the hero of the piece, ends the play unfulfilled, unable to express his love for Ranyevskaya and unwilling to be honest about his lack of feelings for Varya. The final image of the play is the solitary figure of Firs, inadvertently locked into the house for the winter and certain to die, but Firs's death is not tragic. It has been well established that he is likely to die at any moment: Ranyevskaya is surprised he is still alive and he says himself that now she has returned he can 'die happy'. Besides, throughout he has been a comic, peripheral character who laments the passing of serfdom and stable hierarchy and we are certainly not invited to empathise with him.

Russia's tragedy?

It might be worth noting, though, that the play is not called 'Ranyevskaya', 'Trofimov' or even 'Firs' but The Cherry Orchard. Perhaps we should think of the orchard itself as the central character--we are given clear indication that it stands for something wider. It, too, has fallen from grace: where once the cherries provided sustenance and employment, being soaked, pickled, turned into jam or dried to be sent 'by cartload to Moscow and Kharkov', now the orchard is merely a symbol of decadence and oppression. No one buys the redundant crop, which is left on the ground to perish. Even Gayev and Ranyevskaya, who cherish the place, refer to it as a symbol of the past, familial or encyclopaedic. For Trofimov, of course, it represents the oppression of serfs by generations of landowners. He sees their faces peering from behind 'every tree in the orchard--every leaf and every cherry'. And since 'all Russia is our orchard', his desire to convince Anya that the orchard is a place to be despised is a function of his revolutionary desire to change the country. The nation, like tile orchard, has been complicit in exploitation, slavery and death.

While not wishing to suggest that Chekhov uses Trofimov as a mouthpiece for his own views--he is far too good a playwright for that--it is clear that the character voices a debate current at the time the play was written. Although the emancipation of the serfs had occurred nearly 50 years before, the country was still divided by immense class differences, as we can see from Gayev's supercilious remarks about Lopakhin and the latter's own insecurity about his newly-gained wealth and status. Things may have changed to the extent that the grandson of a serf can purchase the estate in which his grandfather was enslaved, but there is still hunger and homelessness. Varya speaks of 'various riff-raff' who are spending the night in the old servants' quarters, and whom she is accused of not feeding adequately. The passer-by, presumably a homeless vagrant himself, dramatically sings of the land overflowing 'with all its people's sea of pain'. Most intriguingly, the curious sound 'of a breaking string--dying away, sad', which reminds Firs of the time before emancipation, recurs at the very end of the play, as if the destruction of the cherry orchard marks another major step in the freedom of the people.

If the cherry orchard is Russia, is it Russia's tragedy that we witness? Certainly, it is the cherry orchard that unquestionably 'dies' at the end of the play: the final stage direction is for the 'thudding of the axe' from the orchard.

Not terror but hope

Whether we see this as a good or a bad thing is perhaps the question. If bad, the play may become a tragedy showing the downfall and death of a way of life: a ruling class consigned to the encyclopaedia, their servants left adrift and insecure.

However, it is difficult to imagine that Chekhov, a doctor and enlightened landowner whose grandfather, too, was an emancipated serf, wishes to engage our sympathy for slavery. Given that the Gayev family is, as we have seen, blinkered in their refusal to accept the failings of the past, and given the context in which the play was written, it seems perhaps more probable that what we feel as the axe falls is not terror but hope. It is true that Anya is naive and Trofimov weak, and certainly neither is a tragic hero, but they point the way to a more caring society. Lopakhin may be resolutely unheroic, even a coward in his treatment of Varya, but his vision for the cherry orchard will actually benefit people--a large number of holiday-makers. His language illustrates the way in which the orchard will be reborn in usefulness: 'our summer countryman will be fruitful and will multiply exceedingly' and 'then this old cherry orchard of yours will become happy and rich and luxuriant'. These are words we might bear in mind as we hear the sad breaking string and the sounds of the axe and this is why, ultimately, the play may well be a comedy and not a tragedy. Not because of the moments of undoubted humour--Yepikhodov's breaking the cue or mangling the language, Charlotta's bizarre magic tricks, Lopakhin bursting in and being nearly brained by Varya with a stick--but because it ends happily. Far from feeling terror as a function of catharsis, the death of the cherry orchard is perhaps best understood as being regenerative: the rebirth of a more equal, productive and useful Russia.

Of course, what actually happened in Russia in the years after the first production of Chekhov's play introduced terror of a far too real kind and was a great deal less happy, but the playwright could not have known that, nor did he live to see the corruption of the ideals of equality his play arguably promotes. With our knowledge of that, perhaps we do cry when we watch the play now, but our tears do not necessarily mean that we are watching a tragedy.

AQA(B) Literature: 'Dramatic genres'

References

Chekhov, A. (1990) The Cherry Orchard, trans. Michael Frayn, Methuen.

Chekhov, A. (1999) Early Stories, P. Miles and H. Pitcher (eds), Oxford World's Classics.

Archive articles

Relevant articles in past issues of THE ENGLISH REVIEW are listed below. Ask your teacher if your school subscribes to The English Review Online Archive.

Martin, T. (2010) 'What kind of play is Measure for Measure?', Vol. 21, No. 1

John Hudson teaches English at St Paul's School, London.

----------

Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A246715018