A. Chekhov - the Cherry Orchard Commentary

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The Cherry Orchard is Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's last play. It premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre 17 January 1904 in a production directed by Constantin Stanislavski. Chekhov intended this play as a comedy and it does contain some elements of farce; however, Stanislavski insisted on directing the play as a tragedy. Since this initial production, directors have had to contend with the dual nature of this play. The play concerns an aristocratic Russian woman and her family as they return to the family's estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage. While presented with options to save the estate, the family essentially does nothing and the play ends with the estate being sold to the son of a former serf, and the family leaving to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down. The story presents themes of cultural futility — both the futility of the aristocracy to maintain its status and the futility of the bourgeoisie to find meaning in its newfound materialism. In reflecting the socio-economic forces at work in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, including the rise of the middle class after the abolition of serfdom in the mid-19th century and the sinking of the aristocracy, the play reflects forces at work around the globe in that period.

Background

There were several experiences in Chekhov's own life that are said to have directly inspired his writing of The Cherry Orchard. When Chekhov was sixteen, his mother went into debt after having been cheated by some builders she had hired to construct a small house. A former lodger, Gabriel Selivanov, offered to help her financially, but in turn secretly bought the house for himself. At approximately the same time, his childhood home in Taganrog was sold to pay off its mortgage. These financial and domestic upheavals imprinted themselves on his memory greatly and would reappear in the action of The Cherry Orchard. Later in his life, living on a country estate outside Moscow, Chekhov developed an interest in gardening and planted his own cherry orchard. After relocating to Yalta due to his poor health, Chekhov was devastated to learn that the buyer of his former estate had cut down most of the orchard. Returning on one trip to his childhood haunts in Taganrog, he was further horrified by the devastating effects of industrial deforestation. It was in those woodlands and the forests of his holidays in Ukraine that he had first nurtured his ecological passion (this passion is reflected in the character of Dr. Astrov, whose love of the forests is his only peace, in his earlier play Uncle Vanya.). A lovely and locally famous cherry orchard stood on the farm of family friends where he spent childhood vacations, and in his early short story "Steppe", Chekhov depicts a young boy crossing the Ukraine amidst fields of cherry blossoms. Finally, the first inklings of the genesis for the play that would be his last came in a terse notebook entry of 1897: "cherry orchard". Today, Chekhov's Yalta garden survives alongside The Cherry Orchard as a monument to a man whose feeling for trees equaled his feeling for theatre. Indeed, trees are often unspoken, symbolic heroes and victims of his stories and plays; so much so that Chekhov is often singled out as Europe's first ecological author. Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard during the course of several years, alternating between periods of lighthearted giddiness and despondent frustration which he considered as bordering upon sloth (in a letter he wrote, "Every sentence I write strikes me as good for nothing.") Throughout this time he was also further inhibited by his chronic tuberculosis. Guarded by nature, Chekhov seemed overly secretive about all facets of the work, including even the title. As late as the Summer of 1902 he still had not shared anything about the play with anyone in his immediate family or the Art Theatre. It was only to comfort his wife Olga...
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