on September 30, 2002
Anton Chekhov's play "The Cherry Orchard" has been published as part of the Dover Thrift Edition series (that's the version I read before writing this review). No translator is credited for this edition. According to the note at the start of the book, the play was initially presented by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904.
The play takes place on the estate of Madame Ranevsky, the matriarch of an aristocratic Russian family that has fallen on financial hard times. She faces the possible loss of her family's magnificent cherry orchard.
The play is populated with interesting characters: Lopakhin, a wealthy neighbor whose father was the serf of Madame Ranevsky's father; Firs, an aged servant who longs for the "old days"; Trophimof, a student with lofty ideas; and more. There is a great deal of conflict among the characters.
"The Cherry Orchard" is about people dealing with very personal conflicts and crises while larger socioeconomic changes are going on around them. The orchard of the title is a memorable image that is well handled by Chekhov. The play contains some really effective dialogue, such as old Firs' reflection on the apparently lost art of making dried cherries. This is definitely one classic play that remains compelling.
on November 16, 2001
Too often, 'The Cherry Orchard' moves dangerously close to that dread thing, the Shavian 'comedy' of ideas. full of facile symbolism, a schematic narrative arc and obvious allegorical characterisation, the play seems to groan under the weight of characters pontificating on grave matters such as social and historical change, the 'idea' of Russia and the rhetoric of freedom and progress.
What saves 'Orchard' is the merciful fact that it was written by Chekhov and not Shaw. Whatever his overall conception of the play's weighty themes - the decline of the aristocracy; the new economic power of former serfs etc. - Chekhov is simply incapable of writing mere mouthpieces, and every character, no matter how monstrous, limited, avaricious, delusive or paralysed (in action or mind), is suffused with the kind of life (flawed, egocentric, perhaps, but human) for which he had a unique, sympathetic, though always honestly satirical eye. it is a tough task to make an audience empathise with a group of silly former slave-owners, but death, loss, change, poverty, personal failure and disappointment are things we have all felt, and we would probably be lying if we couldn't find something of ourselves in most of the characters (I, worryingly, found myself most drawn to the snobbish, immature, enndearingly gauche Gaev).
There are too many emotionally loaded, privileged and enigmatic moments for characters to be simply straw targets, and the play is shot through with poignant autobiographical resonances (it was Chekhov's last, written when he was terminally ill). In fact, the one character I found thoroughly dislikable is the one who seems to make the most humanitarian sense, the revolutionary student Trophimof; but his tedious, inhuman sermons about work and the future sound too much like the Bolsheviks whose barbaric utopia would be established less than two decades later.
Unlike Wilde, say, or Shakespeare, Chekhov rarely reads very well on the page. His deliberately plain speech can seem flat, and the importance of silence, waiting, time passing with an almost painful tangibility is impossible to convey, never mind the rhythms that become so evident in performance, or the use of sound effects and music (American translations seem to me the best, fluid and not fusty; I read Carol Rocamora's this time). This is why actors treasure him - his plays are almost like sketches, giving them unprecedented freedom to create characters from hints and ambiguities.
Another difference between Shaw and Chekhov is that the former's plays are theses or theorems, designed to prove points the author is unswervingly convinced of before he's even written a word. Chekhov is rarely sure about anything, and his plays are liberatingly, if perilously, open-ended. Despite the rigid structures he fences them in, his characters always feel as if they have lived before the play and will continue to, no matter how badly, long after it.
It should also be remembered that Chekhov called 'Orchard' a comedy: it is full of characters and scenes tottering from tragedy to farce. Charlotta, the tragicomic governess, full of amazing magic tricks and ventriloquism, yet fundamentally isolated and facing a desperately uncertain future, is perhaps emblematic.
on May 6, 2002
The Cherry Orchard was me first experience with Chekhov, and I was surprised at the depth in this 49 page play. By no means would I considered myself a "literary expert," but this was very readable and you can pull a lot of the deeper meanings and its context in Russian history by yourself. I was confused at a couple people who write that the simply couldn't understand it and it put them to sleep! It's not THAT tough! If I could understand and appreciate it, almost anyone can!
What I like most about Chekhov is that he doesn't simplify his characters. He's a realist in this sense. Lopahkin and Trophimof each have admirable and detestable characteristics, just like you and I. While it may be set in the tumultuous period prior to the Russian revolution, the ideas and the discussions this play provokes are timeless.
When Lyubov's seven-year-old son drowned in the lake, she just couldn't take being in the Cherry Orchard home anymore and flew to Paris with her daughters. But now returns several years later because neglected the orchard is filled with debts and will be sold the following day.
Except for the little boy drowning, I fail to see the tragedy in this story. The aristocrats (Lyubov and her brother and daughters) complain about how the house is so important to them and yet they abandoned it. Details about how in the past they used to sell jams and such, but then stopped out of nowhere without knowing why, makes them appear aloof. Same with spending the last day playing billiards and having musicians over. Meanwhile, the workers, who have nowhere to go, talk about business and turning the orchard into real estates possibilities. When the orchard is to be sold the family doesn't even attend the meeting.
It appears that if the aristocrats don't pay attention to their income properties, the workers will.
on April 7, 2001
People in my line of work (that is, teachers and critics of literature) seem to be paying more attention to "The Sea Gull" these days, but my money is still on "The Cherry Orchard" as favorite Chekhov play. Dover's incomparably priced edition lacks a little in the readability of the translation, but it's still a nice version of a powerful piece of work.
For me, the real strength of "The Cherry Orchard" is its unwillingness to come down propagandistically on one side of any issue. The intellectual and eternal student Trophimof levels a critique against capitalism, but one must bear in mind that it is capitalism that engineers the upward rise of the erstwhile peasant (and now landowner) Lopakhin (and, in the context of this play's being labeled a "comedy," I think Chekhov codes this rise as a conditionally good thing). Trophimof in fact seems to be granted a great deal of authority by the play, as he complains about the lazy intelligentsia and the useless aristocracy, but, sure enough, not wanting to make things too simple or simplistic, Chekhov has Madame Ranevsky put him in his place. If this is a commentary on turn-of-the-century Russian society and politics (and I think we must read it as such), it is a very balanced, multi-perspectival and complex one.
Even the criticism of the play's upper classes--the focus on Gayef's irrational obsession with billiards or Pishtchik's naive assumption that, when he is in the deepest of financial troubles, something will always come along to bail him out--is delicately balanced against the workaholic insensitivity of Lopakhin, who leaves Varya Ranevsky stranded at the play's end and expecting a proposal of marriage from him that is hinted at but never comes. What Chekhov seems to be supporting is not, perhaps, Trophimof's over-intellectualized and propaganda-like insistence on work, or Lopakhin's materialistic actual obsession with work, but maybe a revaluation of the priorities that have led to social divisions and the problematic reactions to them.
One crucial translation hitch appears early on, as Gayef passionately addresses a cupboard and praises it for holding, for so many years, wisdom and knowledge and the keys to social betterment. All other translations I have consulted have rendered this "cupboard" as a "bookshelf," and, to be honest, that makes a lot more sense, in context. Other issues of readability (or the slight lack thereof) in this Dover edition are best seen in comparison to Hingley's imminently readable and enjoyable Oxford UP translation and edition, which, to my mind, remains the standard. This Dover edition's dialogue is occasionally stilted and impenetrable.
Still, though, for the price, this copy of "The Cherry Orchard" is unbeatable. It's an impressive and provocative play, and even more so when one is reminded of its original context. It's problematic, of course, to pin events to each other and argue for direct influence, but I have a hard time seeing the workers' uprisings in Russia during the winter of 1905-06 as completely unrelated from this play's release in 1904, which set many of these still vital issues into motion in a very productive way.
on October 31, 2000
As I read this play, my family is in the process of moving a thousand miles away from the farm where I grew up. Though I am so far away from the Russian culture and time of this play, the themes of place, tradition, and inevitable change resonated inside of me, and I am grateful to Chekhov for the way he has handled them.
The Cherry Orchard is a play about change, and the symbolism is pretty easy to recognize. What makes it stand apart, I think, from a thousand other plays on the same theme is its wonderful sense of comedy, of smiling sadness. Chekhov all his life insisted it was a comedy. As the Cherry Orchard slips away from the Ranevskys, they seem to smile at its going. As they are unable to change their habits -- still lending money they don't have, still spending extravagantly -- they quietly laugh at their own foolishness. The change comes, and they leave, heartbroken -- but embracing the change at the same time, only feebling struggling against it. One feels saddest, in the end, for Lopakhin, the new owner of the Cherry Orchard. He seems to believe he has bought happiness and friends, but is quickly discovering the emptiness of money and possessions, as no one wants to borrow from him, and no one seems to pay him much heed at all.
Chekhov paints with a fine brush, and I appreciate that. There is no thunderstorming, no ranting and raving in this work. There is a fine and subtle, sad and comedic portrayal of a family and a place encountering change. It is a heartbreak with a smile.
The translation, though the only one I've read, seems good. It is easy to follow and rich in simple feeling.
if you'd like to discuss this play with me, or recommend something i might enjoy, or just chat, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
on July 23, 2000
The cherry orchard is symbolic of the old order in rural Russia, and Chekhov's short play illustrates the social transformation started in the 19th century in a simple and impressive manner. I find it interesting that one previous reviewer calls the Cherry Orchard an "effective allegory of the Bolshevik revolution", since it was written long before 1917. This goes to show exactly how in tune with his times Chekhov was. Character development is limited in this play as there are many roles and few pages, but we are introduced to the classic types also found in other pre-revolutionary Russian literature: the arriviste businessman, the radical escapist student, the obnoxious clerk, the nostalgic aristorcrat, the loyal peasant. In the play, Madame Ravensky leaves her good-for-nothing husband in Paris and returns to the family estate, which she owns with her brother Gayev. The economy of this aristocratic family is fledgling, but they are unable to change their spending patterns and accumstom themselves to a lower living standard. They are also unwilling to cut down the cherry orchard and use the land for villa development, as they are urged by the crude but business-savvy businessman Lopakhin. Lopakhin eventually buys their entire property at an auction, and the reality of the new age eventually dawns on everyone except the ancient servant who takes his last breath still repeating 'young wood, green wood'. An almost spooky dialogue occurs in the last act between Lopakhin and the radical student Trophimov, with the 20th century future of Russia clearly in the balance: work and money, represented by Lopakhin, is rejected by the young utopian idealist. In retrospect, this single scene gives a mind-boggling perspective on Russian history; and some sense of why Russia is still a barbarous country of 'dirt, vulgarity and boredom' as described by the disgruntled characters in Chekhov's play.
on July 27, 2000
"How should one live?" is the fundamental question driving most of Chekhov's work, and it is very overtly laid bare in The Cherry Orchard. Should the aristocratic family in decline stick to owning their cherry orchard (representative of the grandiose trappings of Russian aristocracy), or give in to modern commercialization in order to survive? What is the value of tradition, and how many trees should one own? Chekhov will not answer these questions for you, but he poses them in most interesting ways. In addition to wise insights into such fundamental dilemmas, Chekhov also provides a lot of witty banter, and a great slice-of-life view at 19th century Russian high culture. But this is not just a Russian play or a 19th century play; its themes, questions, and prospective answers are relevant for individuals coping with society and history in any place, and at any time.
on April 23, 2001
As much as I enjoy Chekhov, I'm not a big fan of THE CHERRY ORCHARD; it never made much sense to me. However, this adaptation by David Mamet makes the play easier to follow and understand. The play itself is often labeled as a tragedy, but really isn't. As Mamet points out in the introduction to this adaptation, the closest form of drama THE CHERRY ORCHARD's structure resembles is the farce. In fact, if all the characters weren't so depressing, the play would be hilarious. Perhaps that is what Chekhov originally intended, that as we would see the outrageous, pitiful existence of the characters in this play we would laugh at their mopping and folly and strive to make our lives more meaningful. This isn't the best work to introduce one to the genius of Chekhov, but it is a classic and if one can get past all the whining (or to use a more pc term "reminiscing") it's worth the read.
on January 9, 1999
Anton chekhov's "the cherry orchard" is a captivating, but somewhat confusing tale of an aristocratic household that comes face to face with adversity. His impressionistic portrayal of characters delivers a power packed package of meaning that both appeals to and appalls every human heart. Through a subtle messages and powerful passages chekhov purveys his sentiments about a world that is tainted by a dark cloud of selfishness. Although the play itself is tragic-like the characters are not tragic. They seem to blindly stumble upon the pages of life accomplishing absolutely nothing. Through checkhov's genius they still remain human, with dreams and fears like the rest of us. It is through these characters that chekhov's beliefs are made known.