Is there any production of The Cherry Orchard that has managed to satisfactorily resolve, in the author’s favor, the initial disagreement between Moscow Art Theatre director Constantin Stanislavski and Anton Chekhov? Stanislavski, on seeing the completed play script sometime in 1903, called the play a tragedy. Chekhov insisted that it was a comedy, even a farce. The play premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre on January 17, 1904, just six months before Chekhov’s death at age 44 from tuberculosis.
The productions I’ve seen (including three of those pictured, above) have tended to emphasize the blue notes – poignancy, nostalgia, melancholy, grief – and, as the action of the play unfolds, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine it staged as light entertainment, which demands and generally receives (in art, that is) a happy ending.
Chekhov’s final play revolves around the return of a Russian family to their estate after a long absence; they’ve fallen on hard times and are prepared to trust in God but refuse the help of man to save their ancestral home and their beloved cherry orchard from the auction block. In this excerpt (from the first act of Paul Schmidt’s emphatically American translation), Liubóv Ranyévskaya and her teenage daughter Anya, entourage in tow, have just decamped from the railroad station, late one night in May:
LIUBÓV ANDRÉYEVNA: I can’t believe I’m really here! (Laughs) I feel like jumping up and waving my arms in the air! (Covers her face with her hands) It’s still like a dream. I love this country, really I do, I adore it. I started to cry every time I looked out the train windows. (Almost in tears) But I do need my coffee! Thank you, Firs, thank you darling. I’m so glad you’re still alive.
FIRS [the family serf turned servant]: Day before yesterday.
GÁYEV [Liubóv’s brother]: He doesn’t hear too well anymore.
LOPÁKHIN [businessman]: Time for me to go. I have to leave for Hárkov at five. I’m really disappointed; I was looking forward to seeing you, have a chance to talk. . . You look wonderful, just the way you always did.
PÍSCHIK [neighboring landowner]: (Breathes hard) Better than she always did. That Paris outfit . . . She makes me feel young again!
LOPÁKHIN: Your brother here thinks I’m crude, calls me a money grubber. That doesn’t bother me; he can call me whatever he wants. I just hope you’ll trust me the way you used to, look at me the way you used to…My God, my father slaved for your father and grandfather, my whole family worked for yours; but you, you treated me differently. You did so much for me I forgot about all that . . . I’ve got a great idea. Now listen, here’s how it works: your place here is fifteen miles from town, and it’s only a short drive from the train station. All you’ve got to do is clear out the old cherry orchard, plus that land down by the river, and subdivide! You lease the plots, build vacation homes, and I swear that’ll bring you in twenty-five thousand a year, maybe more.
GAYÉV: What an outrageous thing to say!
LIUBÓV ANDRÉYEVNA: Excuse me…Excuse me, I don’t think I quite understand.
LOPÁKHIN: You’ll get at least twenty-five hundred an acre! And if you start advertising right away, I swear to God come this fall you won’t have a single plot left. You see what I’m saying? Your troubles are over! Congratulations! The location is terrific; the river’s a real selling point. Only thing is, you’ve got to start clearing right away. Get rid of all the old buildings. This house, for instance, will have to go. You can’t get people to live in a barn like this anymore. And you’ll have to cut down the old cherry orchard.
LIUBÓV ANDRÉYEVNA: Cut down the cherry orchard? My dear man, you don’t understand! Our cherry orchard is a landmark! It’s famous for miles around!
Images: (clockwise from left) Judi Dench and Frederick Treves, 1981 BBC production; Zoë Wanamaker, The National Theatre, 2011; Dianne Wiest, Classic Stage Company, 2011; Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, The National, 2001; Moscow Art Theatre, ca. 1923.