The Cherry Orchard (Вишнёвый сад or Vishniovy sad in Russian) is Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's last play. It premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre 17 January 1904 in a production directed by Konstantin Stanislavski and within six months, Chekhov died of tuberculosis. Chekhov intended this play as a comedy and it does contain some elements of farce, however, Stanislavski insisted on directing the play as a tragedy. Since this initial production, directors have had to contend with the dual nature of this play.
The play concerns an aristocratic Russian woman and her family as they return to the family's estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage. While presented with options to save the estate, the family essentially does nothing and the play ends with the estate being sold and the family leaving to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down. The story presents themes of cultural futility — both the futility of the aristocracy to maintain its status and the futility of the bourgeoisie to find meaning in its newfound materialism. In reflecting the socio-economic forces at work in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, including the rise of the middle class after the abolition of the feudal system in the mid-19th century and the sinking of the aristocracy, the play reflects the forces at work around the globe in that period.
Since the first production at the Moscow Art Theatre, this play has been translated into many languages and produced around the world becoming a classic work of dramatic literature. Some of the major directors in the west have directed this play each interpreting the work differently. Some of these directors include Charles Laughton, Peter Brook, Eva Le Gallienne, Jean-Louis Barrault, Tyrone Guthrie and Giorgio Strehler. The play's influence has also been widely felt in dramatic works by many including Eugene O'Neill, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller.
There were several experiences in Chekhov's own life that are said to have directly inspired his writing of The Cherry Orchard. When Chekhov was sixteen, his mother went into debt after having been cheated by some builders she had hired to construct a small house. A former lodger, Gabriel Selivanov, offered to help her financially, but in turn secretly bought the house for himself. At approximately the same time, his childhood home in Taganrog was sold to pay off its mortgage. These financial and domestic upheavals imprinted themselves on his memory greatly and would reappear in the action of The Cherry Orchard.
Later in his life, living on a country estate outside Moscow, Chekhov developed an interest in gardening and planted his own cherry orchard. After relocating to Yalta due to his poor health, Chekhov was devastated to learn that the buyer of his former estate had cut down most of the orchard. Returning on one trip to his childhood haunts in Taganrog, he was further horrified by the devastating effects of industrial deforestation. It was in those woodlands and the forests of his holidays in the Ukraine that he had first nurtured his ecological passion (this passion is reflected in the character of Dr. Astrov, whose love of the forests is his only peace, in his earlier play Uncle Vanya.). A lovely and locally famous cherry orchard stood on the farm of family friends where he spent childhood vacations, and in his early short story "Steppe," Chekhov depicts a young boy crossing the Ukraine amidst fields of cherry blossoms. Finally, the first inklings of the genesis for the play that would be his last came in a terse notebook entry of 1897: "cherry orchard." Today, Chekhov's Yalta garden survives alongside The Cherry Orchard as a monument to a man whose feeling for trees equaled his feeling for theatre. Indeed, trees are often unspoken, symbolic heroes and victims of his stories and plays; so much so that Chekhov is often singled out as Europe's first ecological author.
Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard during the course of several years, alternating between periods of lighthearted giddiness and despondent frustration which he considered bordered sloth (in a letter he wrote, "Every sentence I write strikes me as good for nothing.") Throughout this time he was also further inhibited by his chronic tuberculosis. Guarded by nature, Chekhov seemed overly secretively about all facets of the work, including even the title. As late as summer 1902 he still had not shared anything about the play with anyone in his immediate family or the Art Theatre. It was only to comfort his wife Olga Knipper, who was recovering from a miscarriage, that he finally let her in on the play's title, whispering it to her despite the fact that the two were alone. Chekhov was apparently delighted with the very sound of the title, and enjoyed the same sense of triumph months later when he finally revealed it to Stanislavski. By October of 1903 the play was finished and sent to the Moscow Art Theatre. Three weeks later Chekhov arrived at rehearsals in what would be a vain attempt to curb all the "weepiness" of the production which Stanislavski had directed. The authour apparently also snickered when, during rehearsals, the word "orchard" was substituted by the more practical "plantation," feeling he had perfectly and symbolically captured the impracticality of an entire way of life.
Although critics at the time were divided in their response to the play, the debut of The Cherry Orchard by the Moscow Art Theatre on January 17, 1904 (also Chekhov's birthday), was a resounding theatrical success and the play was almost immediately presented in many of the important provincial cities. This success was confined not only to Russia, as the play was soon seen abroad with great acclaim as well. Shortly after the play's debut, Chekhov departed for Germany due to his worsening health, and by July of 1904 he would be dead.
Act I opens in the early morning hours of a day in May in the nursery of Madame Ranevskaya's ancestral estate somewhere in the provinces of Russia just after the turn of the 20th Century. Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (Любовь Андреевна � аневская) returns to her country house with her 17-year old daughter Anya (Аня) and her German governess Charlotta Ivanovna (Шарлотта Ивановна), as well as her valet, Yasha (Яша), from Paris where they have been living for the past five years. The trio is met by Varya (Варя), Mme. Ranevskaya's adopted daughter who has overseen the estate in her absence; Yermolai Alexeevich Lopakhin (Ермолай Алексеевич Лопахин), a local merchant and family friend; Leonid Andreevich Gayev (Леонид Андреевич Гаев), Mme. Ranevskaya's brother; as well as members of the household staff including Dunyasha (Дуняша), the chambermaid who behaves like a refined lady; Epikhodov (Епиходов Семен Пантелеевич), a clumsy clerk in the Ranevskaya household who has proposed to Dunyasha; and the aging footman, Firs (Фирс), who was once a serf to the Ranevskaya family and who, after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, remained in their service for lack of a better opportunity for work. Dunyasha becomes smitten with the cultured Yasha, who steals a kiss from her while the two are alone.
Mme. Ranevskaya is reminded that the estate will be auctioned in August to pay the estate's mortgage. Lopakhin offers a plan to save the orchard if only she will allow part of the estate to be developed into summer cottages. However, this will incur the destruction of the famous cherry orchard which Mme. Ranevskaya states is nationally known, and which has become to her a symbol of her youth and childhood. Other solutions to the debt are also proposed but nothing is resolved and the conversation is diverted to other topics. While Ranevskaya enjoys the view of the orchard as day breaks, she is surprised by Petya Trofimov (Петр Сергеевич Трофимов), a young student who acted as tutor to Ranevskaya's son, Grisha. We learn that Grisha drowned five years prior to the beginning of the play, and that this was a contributing factor to Ranevskaya's fleeing Russia and her home. Ranevskaya is grief-stricken at the reminder of this tragedy, despite Trofimov's insistence on seeing her upon her return (much to the consternation of Varya.)
After Ranevskaya retires for the evening, Anya confesses to Varya that their mother is heavily in debt and their uncle Gayev suggests sending Anya to Yaroslav where their great aunt lives in the hopes that she will lend them the money to save the estate. Gayev also reminds Varya that Lophakin is a wealthy man and has always been enamoured of her, and that a marriage with him would ensure the family's survival. They all go to bed with a renewed hope that the estate will be saved and the cherry orchard not cut down.
Act II opens on a road bordering the cherry orchard in mid-summer. The estate is still in jeopardy but the family seems more concerned with courtships. Yasha and Epikhodov are each attempting to attract the attentions of Dunyasha. The young Anya has fallen in love with Trofimov, enfuriating Varya, who herself has become the subject of rumours that she will be engaged to Lophakin. Lophakin tries to steer the conversation towards the business of the estate but Mme. Ranevskaya reveals the sad truth about her finances and her relationship with a man in Paris who cruelly took advantage of her money and feelings. The old footman Firs speaks of the past on the estate before the emancipation of the serfs. The sound of a Jewish band is heard in the distance and Ranevskaya decides to hold a party and invite them to play. When Trofimov appears, Lophakin teases the boy for his being a perpetual student and Trofimov espouses his philosophy of work and useful purpose to the delight and humor of everyone around. During their conversations, a disheveled vagrant passes by and begs for money; Ranevskaya thoughtlessly gives him all of her money, despite the protestations of Varya. Shaken by the disturbance, the family departs for dinner, with Lophakin futilely insisting that the cherry orchard be sold to pay down the debt. Anya stays behind to talk with Trofimov, who disapproves of Varya's constant hawk-like eyes, reassuring Anya that they are "above love." To impress Trofimov and win his affection, Anya vows to leave the past behind her and start life anew. The two depart for the river as Varya calls scoldingly in the background.
Several months have passed, and the evening of Ranevskaya's party has come. Offstage the musicians play as the family and their guests drink, carouse and entertain themselves. It is also the day of the auction for the estate and the cherry orchard; Gayev has received a paltry amount of money from his and Ranevskaya's stingy aunt in Yaroslav, and the family members, despite the general merriment about them, are both anxious and distracted while they wait for word of their fates. Varya worries about paying the musicians and scolds Trofimov and their neighbor Pischik for drinking, Dunyasha for dancing and Epihodov for playing billiards. Charlotta entertains the group by performing several magic tricks. Ranevskaya scolds Trofimov for his constant teasing of Varya, whom he refers to as "Madame Lophakin." She then urges Varya to marry Lophakin, but Varya demurs, reminding her that it is Lophakin's duty to ask for her hand in marriage, not the other way around. She says that if she had money she would move as far away from him as possible. Left alone with Ranevskaya, Trofimov insists that she finally face the truth that the house and the cherry orchard will be sold at auction. Ranevskaya shows him a telegram she has received from Paris and reveals that her former lover is ill again and has begged for her to return to his aid. She also reveals that she is seriously considering joining him, despite his cruel behavior to her in the past. Trofimov is stunned at this news and the two argue about the nature of love and their respective experiences. Trofimov leaves in a huff but offstage falls down the stairs and is carried in by the others. Ranevskaya laughs and forgives him for his folly and the two quickly reconcile. Anya enters declaring a rumor that the cherry orchard has been sold. Lophakin arrives with Gayev, both of whom are exhausted from the trip and the day's events. Gayev is distant, virtually catatonic and goes to bed without saying a word of the outcome of the auction. When Ranevskaya asks who bought the estate, Lophakin reveals that he himself has purchased it in order to save the family. Varya, enraged, hurls the keys to the estate on the floor, and Lophakin, half-drunk and smug, tells how he outbid everyone and gleefully (and angrily) celebrates his victory. Ranevskaya, distraught, clings to Anya, who tries to calm her and reassure her that the future will be better now that the cherry orchard has been sold.
It is several weeks later, once again in the nursery (as in Act I), only this time the room is being packed and taken apart as the family prepares to leave the estate forever. Lophakin arrives with champagne as a going-away present but Ranevskaya snubs him - despite his best intentions for the family he loves, she views him as a destroyer of her youth and happiness. Trofimov enters in search of his galoshes, and he and Lophakin exchange opposing world views. Anya enters and reprimands Lophakin for ordering his workers to begin cutting down the cherry orchard while the family is still in the house. Lophakin apologizes and rushes out to stop them for the time being in the hopes that he will be somehow reconciled with them. Anya also inquires about Firs' health and Yasha informs her that he has been taken to a hospital that morning. Dunyasha enters and begs Yasha for some sort of affectionate parting; Yasha for his part wants nothing to do with her or his old life, as he hungers to return to Paris and to live in style. Charlotta enters, lost and in a daze, and insists that the family find her a new position. Gayev and Ranevskaya return to say goodbye to the room where they grew up and spent their childhood. Gayev gaily announces that he has a job at the local bank, and Raneskaya reveals that she is indeed returning to Paris to be with her former lover. She also scolds Lophakin for not yet asking Varya to marry him. Lophakin concedes to do so, and the rest withdraw to give the two some privacy. When Varya enters (knowing that he will propose to her), Lophakin and she converse about the weather and various mundane subjects, both trying to find a way to reveal their feelings. One of the workers calls for Lophakin and he exits hastily without asking Varya to marry him. Varya is devastated and Ranevskaya comforts her when she returns. The family and their servants all gather to say their respective goodbyes to the estate and the cherry orchard, one by one departing for their new lives. Ranevskaya tearfully bids her old life goodbye and leaves as the house is shut up forever. In the darkness Firs wanders into the room and discovers that they have left without him and boarded him inside the abandoned house to die. He lies down on the couch and resigns himself to his fate, as offstage we hear the axes as they cut down the cherry orchard.
One of the main themes of the play is the effect social change has on people. The emancipation of the serfs on 19 February 1861 by Alexander II allowed former serfs to gain wealth and status while some aristocrats were becoming impoverished, unable to tend their estates without the cheap labour of slavery. The effect of these reforms were still being felt when Chekhov was writing forty years after the mass emancipation.
Chekhov originally intended the play as a comedy (indeed, the title page of the work refers to it as such), and in letters noted that it is even more like a farce. When he saw the original Moscow Art Theatre production directed by Konstantin Stanislavski, he was horrified to find that the director had moulded the play into a tragedy. Ever since that time, productions have had to struggle with this dual nature of the play (and of Chekhov's works in general.)
Ranevskaya's failure to address problems facing her estate and family mean that she eventually loses almost everything and her fate can be seen as a criticism of those people who are unwilling to adapt to the new Russia. Her petulent refusal to accept the truth of her past, in both life and love, makes her one of the stage's most compelling heroines, a woman who sacrifices everything she has - her past, her youth, her looks, her fortune and her family's and her own happiness - for love (not ironically, the name Lyubov in Russian loosely translates to "love.") The speeches by the student Trofimov, attacking intellectuals were later seen as early manifestations of Bolshevik ideas and his lines were often censored by the Tsarist officials. Cherry trees themselves are often seen as symbols of sadness or regret at the passing away of certain situation or of the times in general. This symbolism is particularly common in the Sakura (cherry blossoms) of Japanese culture.
Another idea, while the Marxist view of the play is certainly more popular, is that The Cherry Orchard was Chekhov's last hurrah; a tribute to himself if you will. Many of the characters in the play harken back to his earlier works and are based on people he knew in his own life. It should also be noted that his boyhood house was bought and torn down by a wealthy man that his mother had considered a friend. The breaking guitar string in acts 2 and 4 herald back to his earliest works. Finally the classic "loaded gun" that appears in many of Chekhov's plays appears here, but this is his only play in which a gun is shown but not fired.
The playwright's wife Olga Knipper played Madame Ranevskaya in the original Moscow Art Theatre production, as well as in the 300th production of the play by the theatre in 1943.
A 1934 production at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London directed by Tyrone Guthrie and translated by Hubert Butler was among the first English-language productions of the play.
A television version featuring Helen Hayes as Ranevskaya, E.G. Marshall as Lophakin and Susan Strasberg as Anya, directed by Daniel Petrie, was broadcast as part of the Play of the Week television series in 1959.
A production starring Irene Worth as Ranevskaya and Meryl Streep as Varya, directed by Andre Serban and featuring set and costumes by Santo Loquasto, opened at Lincoln Center Theatre in 1977.
A production directed by Peter Hall, translated by Michael Frayn (Noises Off) and starring Dorothy Tutin as Ranevskaya, Albert Finney as Lopakhin, Ben Kingsley as Trofimov and Ralph Richardson as Firs, appeared at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1978 to nearly universal acclaim.
In 1981, renowned director Peter Brook mounted a production in French with an international cast including Brook's wife Natasha Parry as Ranevskaya, Niels Arestrup as Lophakin and Michael Piccoli as Gayev. The production was remounted at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 1988 after tours through Africa and the Middle East.
A film version starring Charlotte Rampling as Ranevskaya, Alan Bates as Gayev and Owen Teale as Lophakin, directed by Michael Cacoyannis, appeared in 1999.
A new production of the play starring Annette Bening as Ranevskaya and Alfred Molina as Lophakin, translated by Martin Sherman (Bent) and directed by Sean Mathias (Indiscretions) opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, CA in February 2006.