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Better on stage than the page.
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.