The Cherry Orchard – Anton Chekhov (1904)

The Cherry Orchard - Chekhov

The Cherry Orchard – Chekhov

Having absolutely no familiarity with Chekhov (except for his namesake Chekov in Star Trek), I was curious to read some of his work. I am not that familiar with reading plays – I love to attend good ones locally, but I have found that reading a play and watching a play can be two very different experiences.

So – trawled around the ‘net for a while and decided on The Cherry Orchard as my first foray into his work.  Having finished it, I am not quite sure what has made this work so famous. It seemed pretty ordinary to me (although I do expect to get harpooned by avid fans when I say this).  What is the big deal about this?

The play is set in Russia (naturally, as Chekhov was Russian), and focuses on a family of the aristocracy and the return of the matriarch after having lived overseas for quite some time. Essentially, the family estate (which includes a large and famous cherry orchard) is faced with foreclosure due to unpaid debts and they have to decide what to do with this: do they sell the orchard and their grounds to another family? Do they sell it to a real estate developer (equivalent) and see it sectioned off into holiday cottages and the orchard dug up?

So, as a reader, it would seem appropriate to expect some kind of settlement by the end of the play, but this is not to be. I am very open to Po-Mo endings, Po-Mo anything really, but this particular version just struck me as pointless – absolutely nothing happens.  There are endless conversations about what various people think should happen, but after all that build-up, there is nada. As mentioned before, I am not a reader who necessarily needs a story to have the ending all wrapped up and in a pretty bow, but at least make it have a point in some way. (Unless I am missing something?)

There are some obvious themes throughout the story — the changing roles of class in Russian society, the theme of identity (and changing identity) — which were interesting when you link them back to what was happening to Chekhov personally: his family ended up in poverty and having to sell their own house to cover costs, Chekhov himself refurbished a house later in his life (complete with orchard and pond) upon which he lavished care and in the words of his brother, “look[ed] after… as though they were his children,” , the play has a physician and Chekhov was a physician etc…

Chekhov died of TB just after this play came out, and one apocryphal anecdote has it that his body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway care for fresh oysters which caused a bit of a hoopla for those involved…

In further researching this, it was noted in numerous sources that most producers are not sure how to show the play – is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy? And I think that here is the crux of the whole problem – because the play does not commit itself to one or the other, I wonder that it becomes less than either.

As mentioned in the introduction, I am not a Chekhov expert by any means, nor am I an experienced dramatist or reader of plays, so it might well be that I am missing something vital here in my interpretation of The Cherry Orchard. Can anyone enlighten me?

Chekhov Star Trek