Naturalism in Search of a Genre.

Look! In the sky! It’s a tragedy! No, it’s a comedy! No, it’s…both? This is the dilemma directors, actors, readers, and audiences alike have experienced throughout the years when reading, watching, or performing Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s final work, The Cherry Orchard. Originally written as a comedy, it was first produced as a tragedy by Konstantin Stanislavsky and The Moscow Art Theatre in 1904. The Cherry Orchard tells the story of Madame Ranevskaya, her brother Gayev, and her two daughters Varya and Anya, the family that owns the old estate and the orchard after which it is named. The family is nearly bankrupt and their estate is set to be sold at auction soon. Try as they might, they cannot earn, borrow, or even find the money they need to save their precious estate. The wealthy businessman and son of former serfs on the estate, Lopakhin, suggests that the family cut down the orchard, divide it into lots, and build rental property on the expanse. This, however, would destroy the very thing that they love the most: the orchard. In the end, the family cannot find the means to save the orchard, and so it is sold at auction to—ironically—Lopakhin, who intends to do with the land just what he suggested the family do. Insult is added to injury as his men begin chopping down the orchard even before the family has left the premises. While it cannot be denied that humor is found throughout The Cherry Orchard, neither can the underlying feeling of tragedy. Many scholars have questioned the ultimate genre of Chekhov’s play, and found their answer, whether or not it was the one they expected to find.

Barricelli makes much of the “sound of a snapped string mournfully dying away” found both near the end of Act II and at the very end of Act IV (348, 380). He does not hold his opinion back and firmly resolves that “regardless of Chekhov’s own paradoxal assertions about his plays being comedies and not tragedies, is that the play in not an “undramatic drama” but indeed a tragic drama.” (115) He implores his readers to “be able to say how [the sound] got to have this meaning [of tragedy], and how it reveals it structurally within the play.” (116) Barricelli looks to Russian folklore at the time, and finds his answer.

In folklore, a player may leave his instrument behind as a “life token,” an extension of himself, and if during his absence a string breaks, this is considered evil portent. The chord that snaps involves the idea of a separable soul. One may come upon several such examples of a breaking string: “If an instrument breaks for no special reason, then there will soon be a wedding, or, according to a more widespread superstition, one must expect death.” (117)

While Barricelli goes on to state that only the latter part of the superstition applies, I believe that both are relevant. The symbolism of the heron and the owl, of which Gayev and Trofimov, the former tutor to Madame Ranevskaya’s late son, speak, can be linked to Egyptian hieroglyphics. In the Egyptian systems, the owl symbolizes death, night, cold, and passivity, while the heron symbolizes morning and the generation of life. (118) Both meanings exemplify the very balance of comedy and tragedy in The Cherry Orchard: a simple sound that forebodes of new beginnings and endings, of life and death.

Fergusson explores the poetic aspect of The Cherry Orchard. He finds that “the larger elements of the composition—the scenes or episodes, the setting, and the developing story—are composed in such a way as to make a poetry of the theatre; but the “text”, as we read it literally, is not.” (386) He never addresses the question of comedy or tragedy, but merely accepts the presence of both. He describes it as “a realistic ensemble pathos,” (383) explaining his standpoint by asserting that “the characters all suffer the passing of the estate in different ways, thus adumbrating this change at a deeper and more generally significant level than that of any individual’s experience.” (383) He takes questions the sound of the snapped string as well, calling it a “sharp, almost warning signal,” but says nothing else about it. (389) Fergusson does address the irony of the play in another way, noting that in the last act “all the characters feel, and the audience sees in a thousand way, that the wish to save the Orchard has amounted in fact to destroying it; the gatherer of its denizens to separation; the homecoming to departure.” (384) This statement is ultimately is the same as the question between comedy and tragedy. Are these ironies amusing or heart-breaking? Once again we find that they are both.

Remaley questions: “Is it indeed a comedy as Chekhov claimed, or a tragedy as so many producers and critics have chosen to interpret it?” (16) This can be answered once more in the final scene of Act IV, as they are leaving the orchard forever, Madame Ranevskaya and Gayev hold each other, sobbing. Gayev is unable to say anything other than, “My sister, my sister…” (379) while Madame Ranevskaya exclaims in despair, “Oh, my dear, sweet, lovely orchard!…My life, my youth, my happiness, good-bye!…Good-bye!” (379) Furthermore, in the last moment, we find that Firs, the aged and ailing valet, has been forgotten. He speaks the finals words of the play, muttering,

“They have gone…They’ve forgotten me…I’ll lie down awhile…I expect Leonid Andreich hasn’t put on his fur coat and has gone off in his overcoat.[Sighs anxiously.] And I didn’t see to it…When they’re young, they’re green!…There’s no strength left in you, nothing’s left, nothing…Ach, you…addlepate! [Lies motionless.] (380).

The audience is left with this searing and symbolic image. At this moment of solitude and death, the “sound of a snapped string” of which Barricelli spoke is heard once more, combined with the “thud of the ax far away in the orchard” (380). These concluding scenes are anything but comedic. Remaley does, however, cite many instances of humor found in The Cherry Orchard. He uses the example of Yasha, Madame Ranevskaya’s manservant, who is deeply offended by Lopakhin’s champagne, yet drinks the entire bottle himself (17). Another example Remaley uses is Gayev’s rather long apostrophe to the antique bookcase:

Dear and most honoured book-case. In you I salute as existence devoted for over a hundred years to the glorious ideals of virtue and justice. In the course of the century your silent summons to creative work has never faltered, upholding through tears in several generations of our line confidence and faith in a better future and fostering in us the ideals of virtue and social consciousness. (18)

To drive his point home, Remaley quotes Ionesco, who comments that “it all comes to the same thing anyway; comic and tragic are merely two aspects of the same situation” (20). The tragic story is not made a comedy, or even neutralized, by its comedic elements, but rather it is made more tragic. It causes the reader to feel that much more for the characters, for in this they become that much more realistic. Life is ups and downs, highs and lows, tears and laughter.

In the end, all debate can be settled simply by going to Chekhov’s personal writings. Chekhov “insists that the reader understands that his play is a description of life, and the single, all-important fact which screams for attention is that life contains both the comic and the tragic, both the ludicrous and the serious, both the painless and the painful.” (Remaley, 19) He firther insists that “the critic commits a serious error when he emphasizes either the somber, pessimistic dimension or the lighter, comic dimension in his dramatic creations, for both dimensions are equally evident in life and must be equally evident in any artistic endeavor which hopes to achieve verisimilitude with life.” (Remaley, 20) Chekhov intended The Cherry Orchard to be a comedic play, which it is, yet in his naturalism it became tragic as well. In fact, he struck the very heart and soul of man existence: that happiness is pain, that sorrow can be joyful, that life is found in death, and that endings lead to beginnings.

Annotated Bibliography:

<!–[if supportFields]> BIBLIOGRAPHY <![endif]–>Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. “Counterpoint of the Snapping String: Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.” Chekhov’s Great Plays: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Jean-Pierre Barricelli. New York & London: New York University Press, 1981. 111-128.

In his essay, Barricelli explores the juxtaposition between life and death Chekhov creates in The Cherry Orchard, focusing on the symbolism of the sound of a string snapping found at the end of both Act II and Act IV. Barricelli cites numerous critics of Chekhov’s work, bringing many different views into play, whether or not he agrees with their standpoint on the sound, and ultimately on the genre of the play. He explores the many possibilities of the origin of the sound and its meaning, comparing the sound to other sounds in Chekhov’s plays and bringing Russian folklore at the time into his discussion. In the end, Barricelli finds that The Cherry Orchard is indeed tragic, and that the sound of the snapping string is ominous and deeply symbolic.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich. “The Cherry Orchard.” The Major Plays. Trans. Ann Dunnigan. New York: Signet Classic, 1964. 313-380.

The Major Plays is a compilation of five of Chekhov’s most famous works, translated by Ann Dunnigan. These include: Ivanov, The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. It includes a one-page biography on Chekhov and Foreword by Robert Brustein, of Columbia University.

Fergusson, Francis. “The Cherry Orchard: A Theatre-Poem of the Suffering of Change.” Anton Chekhov’s Plays. Ed. Eugene K. Bristow. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977. 382-395.

Fergusson reviews Chekhov’s style of writing, noting that indeed The Cherry Orchard has a beginning, middle, and end, yet Chekhov does not bind himself to such things as a thesis or a traditional plot. Fergusson explores the idea of “Poetry of the Theatre,” while comparing and contrasting Chekhov’s poetic style in The Cherry Orchard to that of Dante, Cocteau, and Ibsen. He uses the final scene in Act II for his arguments, but still incorporates the entire play into his dissertation. Fergusson finds that Chekhov incorporates the whole of emotions into his poetic realism in The Cherry Orchard, finding that less is often more once again.

Remaley, Peter P. “Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”.” South Atlantic Bulletin (1973): 16-20.

In this article, Remaley directly addresses the question of whether The Cherry Orchard is a comedy or a drama. He compares and contrasts the characters reactions to the situations with which they are presented to that of real life. Remaley observes that regardless of Chekhov’s initial intention of writing The Cherry Orchard as a comedy, it still has every capability in its own rite of being tragedy. Remaley concludes that both elements are achieved, which, in reality, imitates life more than pure comedy or tragedy alone would.

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~ by Mary Christa on November 11, 2008.

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