"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 10, 2014

‘The Cherry Orchard’–The Problem Of Tragicomedy

I have the same difficulty with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard as I do with Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V. All are serious plays – Chekhov writes of the rise and fall of an aristocratic Russian family within the context of dramatic social change; and Shakespeare tells the story of two kings, father and son, who are constantly at war to defend their kingdoms, dismiss all false claims to accession, and  establish hegemony over France and warring English factions.

All four plays (Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, and The Cherry Orchard) have comic figures. Falstaff is considered by many, especially the critic Harold Bloom, to be one of Shakespeare’s most inspired characters – earthy, witty, and mischievous.  Falstaff and his bawdy friends at the Boar’s Head tavern are the counterpoints to kings and courtiers.  Falstaff takes nothing seriously, sees war and battle as a waste of time and effort and the feuds of family and political factions nonsensical.  Life is short, he says, and should be enjoyed.  He cheats, lies, drinks and steals.  He is a reprobate and with none of the moral rectitude of Henry and his family.

Yepikhodov, Firs, Dunyasha, Pishchik, Yasha, and Gayev are similarly comic figures. They are without the wit and intelligence of Falstaff.  Yepikhodov is a ‘nincompoop’; Gayev is a buffoon who pops caramels and is obsessed with billiards; Firs, the servant, is Laurel to Gayev’s Hardy; Yasha is a master of malapropisms; Dunyasha is a clueless peasant who surprisingly finds herself in an aristocratic household; and Pishchik is a clueless bumbler. 

Neither Falstaff nor the comic characters of The Cherry Orchard advance the plot, and have been included by the playwrights to provide perspective and counterpoint.  In Shakespeare’s case, Falstaff and his friends are there to amuse the audience in the pit as well as to provide comic relief to an otherwise unremittingly serious series of plays.

Touchstone (As You Like It), The Gravediggers (Hamlet), Grumio (Taming of the Shrew), Launcelot Gobbio (The Merchant of Venice), and others gave the audience a chance to pause, laugh, and catch their breath; but their antics and low comedy were not inconsistent with the theme of the plays.  The gravediggers, for example, gave their own crude, funny, but apt views of life death which balanced the highly refined, overthought and worried contemplations of Hamlet. The drunken boasting and petty greed of Trinculo and Stephano in The Tempest reflect and deflate the quarrels and power struggles of Prospero and the other noblemen.  Touchstone, the fool in As You Like It offers witty comments about all the other characters in the play – again serving to mock and put in ironic perspective their self-serving ambitions and concerns.

Chekhov’s characters in The Cherry Orchard have none of the substance, wit, or insight of Shakespeare’s.  They may have been designed by the playwright to provide comic relief, but they often get in the way.  They are far more superficial than Falstaff, Touchstone, or Launcelot Gobbio, and lack their wit and wisdom.

On the other hand, Chekov famously said, “The truth about life is ironical”; and if looked at through this lens his minor characters do offer comic counterpoint and some social commentary.  The story of Mme. Ranevsky is indeed tragic.  Not only is she unaware of the social tensions preceding the coming Revolution (Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard, his last play, less than fifteen years before 1917) and the progressive decay of the aristocracy; but her personal life is fractured and unhappy. There is indeed an irony in the antics of Gayev, Firs, Yepikhodov, and Pishchik in the face of the personal tragedy of Mme. Ranevsky, the end of an aristocratic family, and the beginning of the end of a social class.

Chekhov held little sympathy for the Russian aristocracy.  His grandparents were serfs and his father was a shopkeeper (like Lopakhin in the play), so his portrayal of Gayev’s incompetence and complete cluelessness are most definitely satirical references.  Dunyasha, the maid, has come from the provinces to serve the well-born and reflects on how her hands have become pale and delicate just as she has, having lost her roots to the peasantry and the land.  Yet she is too ignorant to understand the social upheaval of which she is a part.

One of the two main characters in the play, the scholar Trofimov, provides the intellectual and philosophical context for the tragedy of Mme. Ranevsky and her family.  He, like Vershinin in Three Sisters, is Chekov’s alter ego. He speaks presciently about the dissolute aristocracy, the loss of the value of work and moral fiber:

The human race progresses, perfecting its powers. Everything that is unattainable now will some day be near at hand and comprehensible, but we must work, we must help with all our strength those who seek to know what fate will bring. Meanwhile in Russia only a very few of us work. The vast majority of those intellectuals whom I know seek for nothing, do nothing, and are at present incapable of hard work…

The vast majority of us, ninety-nine out of a hundred, live like savages, fighting and cursing at the slightest opportunity, eating filthily, sleeping in the dirt, in stuffiness, with fleas, stinks, smells, moral filth, and so on. . . And it's obvious that all our nice talk is only carried on to distract ourselves and others. Tell me, where are those crèches we hear so much of? and where are those reading-rooms? People only write novels about them; they don't really exist. Only dirt, vulgarity, and Asiatic plagues really exist. ... I'm afraid, and I don't at all like serious faces; I don't like serious conversations. Let's be quiet sooner.

At the same time Trofimov is self-absorbed and self-important, and he is teased for being all talk and no action.  He pompously tells Anya that he is “above love” – that his intellectual pursuits allow no time for frivolity.  Chekov is having his way with the intelligentsia while at the same time airing his own grievances. Trofimov is an excellent example of Chekhov’s ironic truth.  Trofimov correctly criticizes the aristocracy, but within the context of the personal tragedy of Mme. Ranevsky, he is a windy Cassandra. When taken together Trofimov, Yepikhodov, Gayev, Pishchik, Dunyasha, Firs, and even Mme. Ranevsky are indeed characters in a comedy, not a tragedy.

Chekhov conceived of The Cherry Orchard as a comedy, but his collaborator and director, Stanislavsky thought otherwise.  After a Stanislavsky production at the Moscow Arts Theatre, Chekhov howled that the director had ruined his play, taken all comedy out of it and turned it into a long bore.

Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary and friend of Chekhov understood what the playwright was getting at.  “The whole tragedy of futility is that it never succeeds in achieving tragedy”, she said.  All of Chekhov’s plays are about futility, inaction, lassitude in the face of impending change. In Three Sisters Tuzenbach and Vershinin speak eloquently about time, history, and human nature.  The sisters themselves long for Moscow, but remain in their small provincial town working in mind-numbing jobs or suffering in bad marriages.  At the end of the play, the officers are transferred and the sisters go back to their ordinary life.  The brewing excitement at the beginning of the play dissolves into inaction by the end.

Trofimov and Mme. Ranevsky are not completely comic characters, however. Trofimov is a radical intellectual who has deliberately chosen an ascetic life and eschewed the privileges and ease of his class.  He is critical and acerbic and despite his often longwinded soliloquies, is speaking from a position of principle.  He is the only character who speaks of the cherry orchard with pathos and gravity.  When he looks at it, he does not see the idyll of Mme. Ranevsky’s youth.  He sees the dead faces of the serfs (slaves) who died in the indentured service of her forbearers; and believes that only through the dignity of work can his generation atone for the past.

Mme. Ranevsky, some critics have suggested, let her estate be sold not because of a Hamlet-like indecision or vacillation, but as a determined, deliberate erasure of what she considered was an irrevocable past.  Her future, for better or worse, was with her exploitive and indifferent lover in Paris.  He is an albatross around my neck, she says, but I need him.  Her acceptance of herself, her weaknesses, and her desires, are positive steps, not futile ones.

The play ends as all comedies end – with everyone happy and resolved.  Although one always suspects that the happy couples of Shakespeare’s Comedies will get divorced soon after the celebratory wedding ceremony, all’s well that ends well; and The Cherry Orchard ends in the same way.  Mme. Ranevsky goes off to Paris to her lover, having finally understood herself and her future.  Trofimov proclaims proudly, “I am a free man”, happily awaiting the new dawn of Russia.  Gayev has a job at the bank, and the rest of the household goes back to business.

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