Composing his last play while ill, Anton Chekhov insisted that The Cherry Orchard was a comedy; Stanislavsky, who directed the first production and played the part of Leonid Gaev, brother of Lyubov Ranevsky, told the celebrated playwright that “it is definitely not a comedy . . . but a tragedy.” At any rate, the play is not a Neil Simon comedy like The Sunshine Boys, nor is it a tragedy like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Shakespeare’s King Lear. Had Chekhov magically had a sophisticated critical literary terminology at his fingertips, perhaps he would have cheerfully employed the expression “problem play” or “dark comedy” terms used to describe Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. To a certain extent Chekhov would have relented to labeling The Cherry Orchard a “tragicomedy.” However, viewers and readers of the play would still tend to endorse Chekhov’s original view about his play.
The loss of a family’s homestead and the resulting eviction of an aristocratic family may be considered the theme of the play. The central female character in the play is a woman, Madame Ranevsky, who lost her husband and her seven-year old son, Grisha, six years prior to the action of the play and who lives entirely in the past by sentimentally and nostalgically clinging to the cherry orchard. Her brother, Gayev, too, is passionately attached to the orchard because it has the aura of prestige and is immortalized by having been mentioned in the encyclopedia. And the eighty-seven-year-old senile servant, Firs, who tenaciously served the aristocratic family, cannot reconcile to the new beginning, a new society that is already on the horizon. Actually the play concludes with an empty stage and Firs muttering: “They’ve fogotten about me. . . . Life’s gone by, it’s as if I’ve never lived” (Translated by Stephen Mulrine [London: Nick Hern Books], 88 89). He is the one who “makes the cherry orchard an inviolable aesthetic symbol of the traditional order” (Irina Kirk, Anton Chekhov [Boston: Twayne Publishers], 151).
[Editor’s Note: However, in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production (among others) of The Cherry Orchard, even Firs is interpreted as hopeful and able to move on.]
In the simple image of the cherry orchard, Chekhov meaningfully recognized a symbol of a complex and complicated problem—the multi-faceted change that Russia was on the verge of undergoing, one that was quivering on the horizon. It was the decay of one epoch and the gradual rise of a new one, represented by the disappearance of Firs, forgotten by the family he has served for decades; the departure of Madame Ranevsky from her homestead; and the purchase of the estate (to convert it into commercial property) by the bourgeois Yermolay Lopakhin, a merchant whose father had once been a serf on Madame Ranevsky’s estate.
"I’ve bought the land on which my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed into the kitchen,” declared Lopakhin with newly-acquired courage, self-confidence, and authority. “Everything’s to be as I want it. Come on, here comes the new landlord, the owner of the cherry orchard!” (69-70).
The multi-dimensional change is manifested in the economic, social, and cultural facets. The old tradition of the feudal landowning class symbolically represented by Madame Ranevsky is now replaced by the active, aggressive, self-made merchant Lopakhin, who will transform the glorious cherry orchard into commercial property covered with summer cottages to be rented out. Despite her sentimental and romantic fascination with her childhood home and nursery and her parting lyrical valedictories--“Good-bye, dear house, goodbye, old grandfather. The winter will pass, and then it will be spring, but you won’t be here, they’ll have pulled you down” (78-79)--Ranevsky tenderly detects happiness in her seventeen-year-old daughter, Anya, when the teenager responds: “We’re beginning a new life, Mama” (79). The billiards-playing and candy-munching brother, Gayev, also finally recognizes that “everything’s fine now. We were all so anxious and upset before the sale of the orchard, but afterwards, when the business was settled once and for all, we were able to relax, we even cheered up a bit” (79). Ranevsky, who was initially adamant and couldn’t imagine her life without the cherry orchard, is now reconciled and endorses her brother’s assessment of the inevitable sale of the estate: “Yes. My nerves are better, that’s true. I’m sleeping well now. . . . It’s time we were going” (79).
Surely there can’t be tragic element in a situation that seems to herald good life. Only the old servant, Firs, who grew up with “generals, and barons and admirals at our dances” (62) will be left to his normal natural life to come to an end in isolation. Undoubtedly natural extinction does not necessarily lead to tragic experience.
The innumerable references to time in the play further reinforce the theme of passage from one epoch that is dying to one that is rising. Another expression that is used like a refrain is “understand.” Those who understand the inevitability of change will not fight it; they recognize it. It is only after the cherry orchard is sold that Madame Ranevsky understands!
Time will not stand still. The young daughter, Anya, bids “goodbye, house! Goodbye, old life” (87). The perennial student, Peter Trofimov, responds with: “And hello, new life!” (87). And toward the end, Madame Ranevsky pathetically parts with these wistful expressions: “Oh, my dearest darling, wonderful cherry orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness, goodbye! Goodbye!” (88).
Neither the readers nor the audience would detect any tragic intensity in this farewell. The Cherry Orchard, a “play of nostalgic regret” (Beverly Hahn, Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977], 14), delineates impressionistically and wistfully a social/cultural order that was once and projects a new economic and social order that is beginning to take full shape. Francis Fergusson asserts that the play “may be briefly described as a realistic ensemble pathos: the characters all suffer the passing of the estate in different ways, thus adumbrating this change at a deeper and more generally significant level than that of any individual’s experience” (“The Cherry Orchard: A Theatre-Poem of the Suffering of Change,” in Norton Critical edition of Anton Chekhov’s Plays, trans. and ed. by Eugene K. Bristow [New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1977], 383).
Vladimir Navokov confessed that it is Chekhov’s works which he would take on a trip to another planet!