More Chekhov, and I’m still puzzling over genre. Like The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, tonally and structurally, is very like domestic tragedy in 20th-century Anglo-American drama. But Chekhov’s play begins to make sense as comedy if one thinks of Russia as the dramatic protagonist.
The circumstances of Ranevsky family are, if not tragic, at least melancholic: Lyubov Andreyevna becomes paralysed after the death of her husband and young son. Left without the means to stay on at her estate, she nevertheless refuses advice to chop down her beloved cherry orchard in order to build summer villas which will bring in rents to support the widow and her family. Lyubov’s refusal to adapt to the changing economic and social landscape of Russia are her weakness; the play ends with the family moving off, and the youngest daughter, Anya, naively excited for the new life that Lyubov’s inaction has forced on the family — but Lyubov and her brother Gaev’s inability to admit their old lives as privileged estate owners are gone, along with their inability to break their old habits (Lyubov’s of free spending and Gaev’s of indolence) mean the family is likely to struggle if not fail altogether.
But the fact that the estate falls out of Lyubov’s hands is not itself a tragedy. Lophin, a merchant whose family were once serfs on the estate ends up purchasing the land. Lophin represents the newly-freed serfs. He marvels that
If my father and grandfather could rise from their graves and see all that has happened! How their Yermolay, ignorant, beaten Yermolay, who used to run about barefoot in winter, how that very yermolay has bought the finest estate in the world! I have bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even admitted into the kitchen. … Come, all of you, and look how Yermolay Lopahin will take the axe to the cherry orchard, how the trees will fall to the ground! We will build houses on it and our grandsons and great-grandsons will see a new life springing up there. Music! Play up! (4[p86])
The old class and economic structures, from Lophin’s position, are not worthy of mourning and nostalgia. Despite the traces of anger in his speech here, however, Lophin is not simply a vengeful serf out to bring the old masters to ruin. He spends much of acts 1 and 2 advising Lyubov and Gaev that they must chop the cherry orchard down in order to save themselves economically. Only when they fail to act and the estate goes up for auction does he capitalise on the opportunity they let pass: recognising the economic potential in a space of land near the new railroads, he purchases the land in order to build the summer villas himself. Lyubov and Gaev might be sympathetic figures who cannot adapt to modern Russian life, but the world they mourn is not necessarily one the play celebrates either. Changes to the Russian landscape might ultimately be for the better.
I think this is what the play is about anyway.
14 March 2013 ~ Hamilton
Chekhov, Anton. The Cherry Orchard. The Plays of Chekhov. Trans [?] Arthur Zeiger. New York: Caxton House, 1945.