Even cut free from its roots, Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard carries with it, as freight, the tragedy overhanging its author’s life. Chekhov’s tuberculosis progressed with such exquisite slowness that it resembles a metaphor of itself, a dim, gloomy background that – first intermittently, then increasingly – intruded onto Chekhov’s determinedly cheerful foreground.
By the time of The Cherry Orchard‘s composition, Chekhov’s illness had become so severe that even writing four lines a day gave him “intolerable pain,” he confided to his wife. And yet, even as pain advanced, death remained offstage, inconceivable, intangible to the point that Chekhov, mere months before he succumbed, raised the possibility that he might go to the front of the Russo-Japanese War and serve as a doctor.
Years earlier, Chekhov had remarked on this wondrous remoteness of death. In 1888, he’d spent the summer in a cottage on the Lintvaryov family’s estate. One of the Lintvaryov’s daughters, a doctor, was then dying of a brain tumor. Chekhov wrote:
“What seems strange to me is not that she is about to die, but that we do not feel our own death and write [stories] as though we would never die.”
During the action of The Cherry Orchard, the characters hear the strange, sad sound of a bucket falling down a mine shaft, which is typically interpreted, as “pronouncing the new industrial order that will ruin the feckless family,” in the words of biographer V.S. Pritchett.
And yet, this bird-like cry, receding just as quickly as it ascends, also evokes unexpected awareness of mortality, that sense of emerging, sometimes without clear cause, from the blissfully unconscious stream of life and breathing in the cold certainty of its end. The foreknowledge of our own, inevitable passing away haunts us all, but it also slips by us, first because we can no more hold it in our minds than we can capture the air in our hands, and also because it manifests itself at precisely that instant when we are most powerless to mindfully receive it.
In the same way, Madame Ranyévskaya and her family are aware of the threat to their beloved cherry orchard but can do nothing to save it; all they can do is pass the time acting out their universal shadow play of joy and pain.
Image: Anton Chekhov in 1887, 1898 and 1904.