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The Language of Russia

By Heidi Madsen

The Cherry Orchard was written at a time of great industrial and rural unrest—unrest which led Russia to revolution—causing the collapse of an empire and the formation of the first Soviet government. Written with tremendous authorial reticence, the play approximated the social and domestic speech and situation of the people in pre-revolutionary Russia. Indeed, Chekhov’s plays, not unlike those of Aristophanes’, were based on elements of “home.” Chekhov did not believe that his plays should be performed, or that they would even be understood, outside the borders of Russia. In addition, painstaking personifications and reenactments of often ridiculous human conditions are performed on stage, but the characters in The Cherry Orchard do not speak in aphoristic or sententious phrases. Leo Tolstoy once explained why the peasants in Maxim Gorky’s (a contemporary of Chekhov’s) The Bull do not speak true to life: “They all speak in aphorisms. Aphorisms are not natural to the Russian language” (cited in Carl Van Doren, An Anthology of World Prose [New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935], 1019). With that in mind it is unfortunate that through numerous translations the language that is used in The Cherry Orchard has probably lost some of its grammatical and rhetorical accent. In his book, The Cherry Orchard: Catastrophe and Comedy, Donald Rayfield tells us that some twenty translations have been published in the last eighty years [New York: Twain Publishers, 1994], 38). Parallel to what Gayev says in Act 1: “If a great many remedies are suggested for some disease, it means that the disease is incurable. . . . If a text has many translations, then it must be untranslatable” (Van Doren 1034).

At the opening of the play the owner of the estate Madame Lyuba Ranevsky and her daughter Anya return home after a long sojourn in Paris, only to learn that the beloved orchard is to be sold for the payment of debts (either that, or cut up to make way for summer villas). However, the orchard, albeit non-human, is the play’s only central protagonist; and, as we know, a protagonist is not casually disposed of.

It is an orchard of immense and exaggerated proportion. Chekhov was an orchard owner himself at one time and must have known that the size was realistically impossible. He wanted it to represent something grand, something excessive—even wastefully so, with its row upon row of producing trees, either white with blossom or red with fruit, wherein from “every cherry, from every leaf, from every trunk human creatures” peer out (Van Doren 1042), where, from the window, Ranevsky sees her dead mother walking down a flowering avenue (Van Doren 1033). There are owls and other strange birds perched on branches, and trees of good and evil omen, and like the disastrously dominant female character, the orchard is at the threshold of drastic alteration. The family orchard, once walked by governors, barons, and admirals, now is frequented with post-office clerks, station managers, and even the son of former household slaves, who visit the estate and linger destructively. It should be natural for them to visit, however, if what Trofimov, a perpetual student and potential love interest of Anya, declares at the close of Act 2 as the truth: “all Russia [should be] our garden” (Van Doren 1042).

The Cherry Orchard is a play of seemingly combined incompatibles. Chekhov did not approve of his own wife’s tearful interpretation of Madame Ranevsky, nor of his director Stanislavky’s, whose perception was that the play’s elements were wholly catastrophic. Like the stage directions in one of George Bernard Shaw’s melodramas, “with intensely recalcitrant resignation,” and “bursting into dry, angry tears” things of this nature that go on in The Cherry Orchard should not make the spectator too sad (cited in Bernard Shaw, Complete Plays with Prefaces Volume III: The Devil’s Disciple [New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963], 374 375). The costume and scenery, rather than belonging to any precise period, reveal the basic traits of individual characters not unlike the black silhouette of the villain, the non-picturesque rags of the thief, etc., of operatic theatre, of melodrama and vaudeville, of circus comedies based on detective stories and penny dreadfuls— like the contrasting color symbolism found in the dress of the two sisters: Anya in innocent white, and Varya in despairing black.

In 1901 Chekhov voiced his intentions of writing a four-act vaudeville, saying he would if nothing stopped him from doing so; January 17, 1904, was the premiere of The Cherry Orchard, so it could be assumed that this was the closest he ever came to fulfilling this intention. Shaw, an author of Melodrama, stated that “a good melodrama is a more difficult thing to write than all this clever-clever comedy; one must go straight to the core of humanity to get it, and if it is only good enough, why, there you have Lear or Macbeth” (cited in Daniel Gerould, Melodrama [New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980], frontispiece). Not assuming that it is in fact a vaudeville, The Cherry Orchard is subtitled “a comedy in four acts,” the type of “comedy” that must be played seriously—casting off all skepticism and doubt—and approached as high art. This may have been precisely what Chekhov had in mind for The Cherry Orchard, a theatre of strong effects, “a theatre relying at one extreme on titanic emotions, and at the other, on reckless buffoonery (Gerould, iv).

Methods exercised by Chekhov in The Cherry Orchard have not only influenced countless authors, but have led straight to certain cinematic and tele-visual dramatic techniques. Numerous films, adapted from novels, can be seen effectively employing the comic and the tragic simultaneously” Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (adapted from a novel by Truman Capote), Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, and accurate cinematic depictions of Charles Dickens. Completing the full circle, a film version of The Cherry Orchard is currently in pre-production staring Claire Danes and John Malkovich.

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