This Day In Writing History
On January 17th, 1904, The Cherry Orchard, the classic play by legendary Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre. It would be the playwright's most challenging work - that is, challenging for the directors who stage it.
The Cherry Orchard was a product of its time in Russian history - the years after serfdom was abolished and before the Bolshevik revolution. It was a time when the aristocracy was losing power and the bourgeoisie was gaining it, and struggled to find meaning in its new status.
In the play, Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevsky, a middle aged aristocrat, and her family return to their country estate, which is scheduled to go on the auction block, as the family can't afford to pay the delinquent taxes on it. They can't even afford the upkeep of the estate, which is crumbling.
Madame Ranevsky's clan is not the only aristocratic family to fall on hard times, (the abolition of serfdom deprived the aristocracy of its slave labor supply) but she cannot come to terms with her financial predicament.
Her aristocratic pride makes her spend money she doesn't have to maintain the lavish lifestyle to which a person of her class is accustomed. And, she still grieves for her husband and one of her sons, who drowned a month after his father died.
Family friend Yermolay Lopakhin, a wealthy merchant, suggests that to make the money she needs to pay off her taxes, Madame Ranevsky should parcel out the vast lands of her estate, build a cottage on each parcel, and lease them all for summer rental. She rejects the idea because it would mean cutting down her beloved (and huge) cherry orchard.
Before he leaves, Lopahkin offers to lend Madame Ranevsky fifty thousand rubles to buy her estate back at the auction if she changes her mind and agrees to his plan for parceling out her land. Her feeble brother Leonid Gayev suggests some alternative solutions, such as a financing scheme involving some banker friends and hitting up a wealthy aunt for the money.
In the end, the stubborn, foolish Madame Ranevsky's plans to save her estate and her beloved cherry orchard fall through and Lopakhin buys the estate at the auction. He tells Madame Ranevsky that he plans to go ahead with the destruction of the cherry orchard and parcel out the land. Before the curtain falls, as Madame Renevsky and her family weep, the sound of chopping cherry trees is heard.
The characters in The Cherry Orchard are walking, talking metaphors. Madame Ranevsky represents the stubborn pride of the waning Russian aristocracy, while her brother Gayev, with his addiction to billiards, symbolizes the aristocracy's addiction to decadent pleasures, which has also rendered them helpless in the face of change.
Lopakhin represents the bourgeoisie, the middle class who profited most from the weakening of the aristocracy in the years before the Bolshevik revolution. He's a self-made man who rose from working class roots to become a wealthy merchant. He wears a fine, expensive white suit - and gaudy yellow shoes.
Lopakhin has a kind of love-hate relationship with Madame Ranevsky. He's grateful for the kindness she's shown him over the years, but he also resents her condescending attitude. Although he's wealthy - wealthier, in fact, than she is now - she still sees him as the lower class, because of his peasant roots. This is one of the reasons why she rejected his plan to save her estate.
Anton Chekhov was less than thrilled with the premiere of The Cherry Orchard at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904. During rehearsals, the director of the production, Constantin Stanislavski, completely rewrote the second act, turning Chekov's comedy into a tragedy. The playwright was furious.
"...in the second act there are tears in their eyes, but the tone is happy, lively. Why did you put so many tears in my play? Where are they?" Chekhov wrote to complain. He later went to the theater in person to supervise the production and work out a compromise with the director.
Although a comedy at heart, The Cherry Orchard delicately balances farce with elements of tragedy. Stanislavski insisted on doing the play strictly as a tragedy. To this day, some directors still struggle to interpret the complex play. Audiences at the Moscow Art Theatre gave the premiere a rousing applause, but the critics' reviews were mixed.
When the play debuted in St. Petersburg at Panin's People's House theater, the audience of pre-revolutionary working class Russians, who understood Chekhov's scathing satire, reportedly cheered at the end, when the aristocrats wept over the demise of their cherry orchard, which was felled onstage.
The Cherry Orchard would be Anton Chekhov's last play. Inspired by incidents in his own life - including the demise of a cherry orchard he'd planted on his own country estate - the play was written over a period of several years, as the playwright began to lose his battle with tuberculosis. He died six months after its Moscow premiere, at the age of 44.
Quote Of The Day
"The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them." - Anton Chekhov
Today's video features a clip from a rare 1962 British production of The Cherry Orchard, featuring Peggy Ashcroft as Madame Ranevsky, Sir John Gielgud as Gayev, and Dame Judi Dench as Anya. Enjoy!