In his essay about revisiting a great
play, Tom Hubbard muses on time, character and the great drama of being human.

Here in 21 fragments he shares a world...

One...In Relation to Another: Coming back into The
Cherry Orchard


The Cherry Orchard was Chekhov’s last play, dating from 1904, the year of his death. This lends the play a special poignancy; in any case, it concerns leave-takings, farewells to the scenes of
the characters’ youth, Chekhov’s perennial evocations of the transience of human life.


‘Farewell, dear house’, says Mme Ranevskaya, the play’s leading anti-heroine, ‘dear old home of our fathers! Winter will pass and spring will come, and then you will be no more; they will tear you down! How much these walls have seen!’


In July of 1904, Chekhov, having left Russia for the last time, and staying in the south German health resort of Badenweiler, made his departure in a manner befitting the tragicomic nature of
his plays and short stories. Just before he died, he said to his carers ‘I’ll have that glass of champagne now.’ Chekhov was a qualified medic, and the champagne was his last prescription to himself. 


Here’s a summary of the plot of TheCherry Orchard – I’ll quote William Rose Benét’s Readers’ Cyclopedia for convenience:

‘Its four acts portray the declining fortunes of the Ranevskis, a landowning family, who are about to lose their estate and beloved cherry orchard. Poor management, neglect, and impracticality have brought the family to the point of bankruptcy, but no one is able to act to head off the disaster. The suggestion of the practical businessman Lopakhin that the family chop down the orchard and build houses on the land is met with horror. For the Ranevskis, the orchard represents the pleasant past, before the mysterious forces of the changing times threaten their idyllic existence. The estate is finally sold from under the hapless family. Lopakhin buys the land and proceeds to carry out his plan to destroy the orchard and erect houses. As the family sadly prepares to depart, the sound of an axe chopping down a cherry tree is heard off stage.’


To be more hard-headed about the play, one has to argue that it’s about more than shattering life changes of a small number of individuals. The private lives are lived in relation to the flux of public events, of profound economic, political and social change that is either underway or is in the offing, which is more or less anticipated.


The Cherry Orchard is an epochal piece – epochal in its artistic innovations (not least in stagecraft) but also in terms of its more general historical moment. We talk enough of ages of transition, and often enough in a glib manner. Does what’s been happening in the USA make it an ‘age of transition’ there? Possibly, but it may be that some ‘ages of transition’ are more transitional than others.

In literary and cultural history, the long turn of the 19th century, the period between roughly 1870 and 1922 is claimed as the age of transition, encompassing social upheaval, technological advance, the age of modernity some might say, culminating in the First World War and marked shortly thereafter by Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s Jacob s Room, Mansfield’s Prelude and Eliot’s The Waste Land.


In the year following The Cherry Orchard and its author’s death, Russia had to conclude its disastrous war with Japan, and within Russia itself there occurred the first attempt at revolution, harbinger of the more successful version twelve years later. Some forty years before, there had an occurred an event that was itself epochal, the ending of serfdom in Russia. Yet that wasn’t so much an end as a beginning and, not unlike the abolition of slavery in the USA, the impact was hardly immediate. The real aftermath of the Russian abolition is seen right here in the midst of The Cherry Orchard: Lopakhin, the rising bourgeois who
success fully bids for the orchard, is the son of a serf. Chekhov himself was
the grandson of a serf. One man in relation to another.


Come inside the play. The class system is in flux. The landowners, the gentry, the class to which Turgenev belonged, is declining. Mme Ranevskaya and her family are broke, not least partly because of her extravagance while living in France – in Paris and at Menton on the Riviera. The businessman Lopakhin, new owner of the cherry orchard, is of the future. Old land, new money.


It’s all been in train. One piece of work in relation to another.  In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot of 1869, you have Nastasya Filipovna, beautiful, posh, but skint, the representative of a downwardly mobile class, as against the nouveau riche Yepanchin family. This was the world Chekhov was thinking about. And imagining.

A key presence in the play, especially towards the end of Act 2, is the young radical intellectual Trofimov. He attacks the injustice, complacency and backwardness of the Russian establishment with much passionate rhetoric at his command. But he lacks a sense of humour, which is always an important quality for the bedside manner, lacks the stageside manner, of Doctor Anton Chekhov shall we say. Another character calls this young Trofimov a prig and the audience could be forgiven for agreeing. He lacks tact in the presence of so many people in Mme Ranevskaya’s entourage, people who are, to use a Scottish expression, up to high doh, stressed out. Trofimov’s views come across as well-meant but half-baked; to use an American expression, he’s sophomoric – the kind of po-faced student whose intellectual insight, such as it is, is not matched by emotional maturity. He admits that he’s an ‘eternal student’; yet ‘eternal student’ can often be the cheap gibe that’s resorted to by the smug and the patronising. After all, Trofimov’s attacks on inequality and inertia surely stick. Critics have remarked that although Chekhov famously won’t make his own views explicit, that he as an artist believes not in providing answers but in posing the right questions... but still this young man Trofimov reflects Chekhov’s own views on the condition of Russia. Chekhov’s ‘neutrality’ concerns his art; beyond art, he’s not a fence-sitter.


Perhaps the most lyrical speech in this lyrical play is Trofimov’s address to the naïve 17-year-old Anya, younger daughter of Mme Ranevskaya, at the end of Act 2:

‘All Russia is our orchard. Our land is vast and beautiful, there are many wonderful places in it. [Pause.]  Think of it, Anya, your grandfather, your great-grandfather and all your ancestors were serf owners, owners of living souls, and aren’t human beings looking at you from every tree in the orchard, from every leaf, from every trunk? Don’t you hear voices? Oh, it’s terrifying! Your orchard is a fearful place, and when you pass through it in the evening or at night, the old
bark on the trees gleams faintly, and the cherry trees seem to be dreaming of
things that happened a hundred, two hundred years ago and to be tormented by painful visions. What is there to say? We’re at least two hundred years behind, we’ve achieved nothing yet, we have no definite attitude to the past, we only philosophize, complain of the blues, or drink vodka. It’s all so clear: in
order to live in the present, we should first redeem our past, finish with it,
and we can expiate it only by suffering, only by extraordinary, unceasing labour.
Realize that, Anya.’

Trofimov’s being a bit of an actor here, but he’s also speaking from the heart.


Set against Anya’s mum, Mme Ranevskaya, Trofimov’s words do carry weight. Yet Mme Ranevskaya is a tragic figure, reduced by her son’s early death by drowning, her severely messed-up love life, and the impending loss of her childhood home...She’s also self-indulgent and short sighted, with her séjours in Paris and at the villa in Menton, her habit of ostentatiously giving large tips to waiters. No wonder the coffers are empty. Chekhov had visited her South of France during the 1890s, and sure, his admitted gusto for life involved spells at the roulette wheel at Nice and fine dining in Monaco. Unlike his Trofimov, Chekhov is no puritan. Yet too much of a good thing repelled him. As someone who’d witnessed so much misery and degradation back home, he couldn’t bear the excess. Here’s part of an 1891 letter where he writes about Monte Carlo:

‘[…] [H]ow utterly contemptible and abominable this life is, with its artichokes, palms, fragrance of oranges! I love luxury and riches, but the impression made on me by the roulette luxury of this place is that of a luxurious water closet. There is a somewhat hovering in the air which, you feel, insults your decency, which vulgarizes nature, the sound of the sea, the moon.’


For all his faults, Trofimov is a prophet. A prophet isn’t the same as a clairvoyant: a prophet detects the future in the long term, the clairvoyant glimpses it for right now. You could argue that a prophet can be a rubbish clairvoyant; that a clairvoyant can’t even begin to aspire to be a prophet. Be that as it may, this capacity to look well into the future isn’t restricted to Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard. Other characters in in Chekhov’s writing make their own far-reaching projections, one person speaking here...In relation to another. In the short story translated variously as ‘On the Way’ or ‘On the Road’, the lead male character remarks to a young lady that Russians can’t live with having no
beliefs: if they reject one set of beliefs, they’ll find another. Fast forward, and the 20th century would bear out his prediction. The man makes his remarks in a railway station, as he and his fellow travellers are waiting for a train to arrive. In Chekhov, departures tend to mark the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another, and at the end of The Cherry Orchard, the main characters are getting ready to catch a train. 


Actually, trains feature a lot in 19th century Russian literature. Take Dostoevsky’s Idiot and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: in The Idiot a train journey marks a beginning; in Anna Karenina a train in motion marks an end …


If one attempts to analyse a character in The Cherry Orchard in isolation, one
spectacularly misses the point. Each character must be seen in relation to the others. I keep using this term. I find I keep returning to it. Sure, we could say about any play or work of fiction, that the parts are in relation to each other - but in Chekhov the idea is crucial.


I’ve positioned Trofimov in relation to Mme Ranevskaya; it’s also worth placing her in relation to her brother Gaev. Pathetically comic as he is, ineffective, garrulous (his nieces find him embarrassing in this regard – ‘Uncle, you’re at
it again!’) there’s something about his positioning next to his sister that throws light and shadow upon their relationship, and their class. Gaev is somewhat self-consciously eccentric, a bumbling upper-class twit. No self-respecting country would have one of these as its leader. It’s been said that there’s a touch of the fin-de-siècle decadent about Gaev but the Glaswegian word ‘sowel’ rather applies to him – ‘Och he’s a wee sowel so he is’. Here’s someone who’s difficult to dislike, someone you pity; someone who’s incapable of responsibility and who makes the most of that. The New York Yiddish word ‘nebbish’ also comes close: I could just about imagine Gaev being played by Woody Allen. At the Little Lyceum in Edinburgh in the late ’70s I saw the late John Grieve in the role of Gaev. (A young Gregor Fisher, now best known for Rab C. Nesbitt, was also in the cast.) As played by Grieve, Gaev’s preposterous address to a bookcase, an inanimate object, was especially memorable in that production.

Yes: Gaev’s flowery farewell speech to the bookcase, the bookcase which he has loved so much and which he’ll have to leave forever, marks him as even more sentimental and lachrymose than his sister Mme Ranevskaya. Yet in relation to her, Chekhov’s portrayal of Gaev is a masterstroke of fine shading. For example, his sister’s leave-taking speech to the old family home has a certain sublimity; by declaiming to a piece of furniture therein – albeit a bookcase – Gaev’s offering is sheer grotesquerie. Moreover, seen in relation to Trofimov, while Gaev looks all the more to the past, Trofimov sees the future. Here’s nostalgia set against prophecy. So...Here’s characterisation. Situation. Here’s history, stagecraft. Each in relation to the other, shading each other, illuminating. Light and shade, past and future.... Here you have the art of Chekhov.


The Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, in one of the poems based on his experience of the 2nd World War, wrote that ‘there were no gods and precious few heroes’. In Chekhov, there are no villains and precious few heroes. In the more confident earlier years of the 19th century, a Charles Dickens could give us, in Oliver Twist, the figure of Mr Brownlow, the entirely kind-hearted man who shelters the waif Oliver, as against Bill Sikes the thug and murderer. By the 1890s though, Oscar Wilde can mock the would-be conventional novelist Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest when she says of her book, ‘The good ended happily and the bad unhappily: that is what fiction means.’ At the end of a Dickens novel, we hear wedding bells; not so at the end of a Chekhov play. There are sexual frissons, but precious few liaisons. 


Chekhov admired Ibsen. In a letter of 1903 he declared that Ibsen was his favourite author. As dramatists, it’s often remarked that Chekhov and Ibsen are quite distinct from each other. Nevertheless, and inevitably, Chekhov’s The Seagull tends to be set beside Ibsen’s The Wild Duck: both birds are symbols of tragic vulnerability. The complacency of the earlier 19th century was challenged
by a succession of Darwin, Marx, Wagner, Nietzsche... Nietzsche is referred to
in The Cherry Orchard by one of its more absurd characters in an absurd context. And then there’s the looming presence of Freud, whose study of unconscious motivations precedes Chekhov’s play by just a few years. Though
it’s unlikely that Chekhov would have been aware of his medical colleague from
Vienna, still Strindberg was of that fin-de-siècle city in spirit (and in body during 1894), going on to make the most of the unconscious, of dreams, of his Drömspel / Dream Play of 1902. Here’s one writing this here... Another there. We may hear, pick up ideas... Even while not seeming to listen.


In The Cherry Orchard characters are at times prone to talk past each other; they’re not listening to each other. It’s both funny and sad and we find examples of this kind of thing all through Chekhov’s work. His characters are like us. We miss things. We don’t hear each other. The most poignant example in The Cherry Orchard comes just before the end when they’re packing up and getting ready to leave the estate for the last time. Mme Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya, it was hoped, would marry Lopakhin and so the cherry orchard would be saved. She’s in love with him anyway. They’re alone together before the leave-taking but the moment for a declaration passes. Varya and Lopakhin instead allow themselves to be distracted by the most banal preoccupations. Lopakhin talks about the weather; Varya fusses about her packing and about a broken thermometer. 

Chekhov was a doctor and doctors encounter people at their most vulnerable. As medic and writer, Chekhov treats (treats!) his characters both compassionately and dispassionately, both humanely and objectively.


All these people, all these characters. All related to each other, or if not related 
moving about each other, influencing our reading of each, changing our
understanding. Here’s this one. That one. Fool. Prophet. Here’s kindness.  Cruelty. Here’s this one in love. This other unable to express their love. These people speaking, not listening... They are together for a while and caught within this play.  Yet who remains on the stage at the end? It’s a character who has previously made only fleeting appearances in the action: the old retainer, Firs, whose faithful service has been taken for granted, and who has been at the receiving end of gratuitous insults. So I’ll finish by quoting my Scottish historian friend Professor Christopher Harvie:

‘The estate is sold off to Lopakhin, and the trees are going to be felled. All the superior folk leave, and they forget they’ve locked their old servant Firs into the house. He’s so doddery that he’ll probably never get out, and he says “It’s as if I’ve never lived.” Lenin once said that it was Chekhov who made him a revolutionary - with a line like that.’

This essay comes from a Zoom presentation made for the Scotland-Russia Forum in January 2021.

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