Comedy in a New Mood




Comedy in a New Mood







Chapter 5


A Case in Point:  The Cherry Orchard



[N.B.:  This document uses the word "comic" to mean "of or pertaining to comedy."  In more recent documents, Grawe uses the word "comedic" for that concept, in order to distinguish between comedy (formal comedy) and humor, the humorous, or the funny (comic).]  


From Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood

Chapter 13



Even in the earliest planning stage of The Cherry Orchard, months before he began to set any dialogue down on paper, Anton Chekhov had decided that he would write “a four-act vaudeville or comedy for the Moscow Art Theatre.”[1] In the following months, Chekhov’s idea of the play changed so much that he was forced to admit, “I myself don’t understand what it is really like or what form it is likely to assume, for it changes every day.”[2]  Yet, his idea of it as comedy remained fixed.  Nine months after admitting his own confusion about the play, Chekhov wrote his producer, Nemirovich-Danchenko:  “Don’t worry.  It was difficult, very difficult to write the second act, but I think it came off all right.  I shall call the play a comedy.”[3]  And, in the same month, in the act of revising the play, he wrote his wife, “The last act will be merry and frivolous.  In fact, the whole play will be merry and frivolous . . . .”[4] 



Despite Chekhov’s unwavering sense of The Cherry Orchard as comedy, his producers, Nemirovich-Danchenko and Alexeyev Stanislavski could never see it as such.  Chekhov’s wife, Olga Knipper, a leading actress in the Moscow Art Theatre, reported:  “the production of The Cherry Orchard was difficult, almost agonizing, I might say.  The producers and the author could not understand each other and could not come to an agreement.”[5]  Checkhov’s own comments were more strident, but to the same purpose:

Nemirovich-Danchenko and Alexeyev positively see in my play something I have not written, and I am ready to bet anything you like that neither or them has ever read my play through carefully.

and again,

Take my Cherry Orchard.  Is it my Cherry Orchard?  With the exception of two or three parts nothing in it is mine.  I am describing life, ordinary life, and not blank despondency.  They either make me into a cry-baby or into a bore.  They invent something about me out of their own heads, anything they like, something I never thought or dreamed about.[6]



In the years since the 1903 debut of The Cherry Orchard, this genre controversy has not subsided nor has any real critical consensus come into being.  David Magarshack, for example, in his production-oriented study of Chekhov and his plays, Chekhov the Dramatist, sticks close to Chekhov’s own position.  The Cherry Orchard is comedy, says Magarshack, because it is full of ludicrous characters conforming to Aristotle’s definition of comic characters as those “of a lower type who are not bad in themselves but whose faults possess something ludicrous in them.”  Not only are the characters ludicrous, but they are also involved in ludicrous acts which do not have the earth-shaking seriousness of tragedy.[7]  Robert Brustein,[8] on the other hand, sees all Chekhov’s later works as characteristically melodramatic, and in particular The Cherry Orchard with its melodramatic pattern, he says, of conflict between Lopakhin, the nouveau riche former serf, and his victims and erstwhile patrons, the Gayevs.

The Cherry Orchard, then, seems always to have been a problem play.  In this chapter we shall assert that the problems of the play are best solved by calling it a sombre comedy.  For, as sombre comedy, The Cherry Orchard remains the basically comic play Chekhov believed it to be while yet embodying a darker tone which Nemirovic-Danchenko and Stanislavski could never overlook.



As we have said, comedy is patterned action proving the viability of the race.  At first glance, it might seem that The Cherry Orchard is moving in just the opposite direction.  The action of the play, after all, proves that Madame Ranevsky is incompetent to preserve any money that is put into her hands; that Gayev is a sentimental fool, incapable of listening to reason or sense, living in a mental daze of lost billiard shots and irrelevant family history; that Trofimov and Anya, the rather grotesque young lovers of this “comedy,” are utterly fantastic in their belief in ideals beyond love and in a future always approaching but never realized.  All of these characters seem to display, not the qualities of survival, but those of self-destruction.  Each is, as Firs puts it, a nedotyopa, a “good-for-nothing,” “idiot,” or “duffer.”

Yet, these characters do survive.  They are not ultimately cast down, but rather look forward to a new life.  And, all of them are contrasted with Varya and Lopakhin, who find themselves at the end of the play unable to come together and unsure of their future.

Madame Ranevsky, Gayev, Trofimov, and Anya—these survive and seem, at the final curtain, totally independent creatures, freed from any financial interests or concerns and free simply to exist.  How they will exist, in the sense of where the money or the next meal will come from, is a question beyond the scope or interest of the play; the play’s own interest is to prove their psychological survival in the face of their disintegrating family estate, and that is does quite well.



The challenge to the Gayevs’ psychological survival is symbolized by the cherry orchard.  Through centuries, it has been the creation of the Gayev family; it has been their home, their sustenance, their inheritance, and ultimately their significance.  They have come to the point where they consider their psychological identity bound to it and to its continuance.  Its loss looms, at the opening of the play, as the destruction of the family itself.

As the curtain rises, the family is reassembling at the family estate for what appears to be a last stand against disintegration and the loss of the estate.  Lyubov, Madame Ranevsky, has been prevailed upon to leaver her dissipated, ruined life in Paris and to return home.  Home and the Russian countryside are presented as the ultimate values and realities that shore up her waning self-esteem and will to continue.

With this reunion, we have a typical background for traditional melodramatic comedy.  The standard plot should proceed towards a dramatic auction scene and the sudden deus ex machina entrance of some fairy god-mother to make things work out.  Chekhov, in fact, lays all the groundwork for such an eventuality, even to the point of having Anya go to her great-aunt, the countess, for help.



But fairy-tale endings are for the simplest and most optimistic comedy, comedy that has nothing more to say or believe than that things have to turn out right in the end. Chekhov was never interested in such simple faith.  Above all, he considered himself a realist, and the reality he sought to portray was that people’s lives are ordinary and unexceptional.  So Chekhov does not make use of the fairy-tale ending he has made way for, though he does concoct a deus ex machina salvation for the Gayevs’ neighbor, Pishchik.  Pishchik’s good fortune dramatically demonstrates that the contrasting survival of the Gayevs is more than a matter of money and more than a matter of luck.

In Act III, the cherry orchard is sold.  And ironically, it is sold to Lopakhin, whose sole care has been to save the estate for the Gayevs.  Up to the last moment, Lopakhin has no thought of profiting by the Gayevs’ misfortune.  Lyubov treated Lopakhin with kindness and humanity when he was a child, and now a mixture of gratitude for her kindness and a serf’s instinctive will to serve, and thus to be part of, his master’s family compels Lopakhin to do everything in his power to preserve the estate for the Gayevs.  Only at the auction itself, when a fellow merchant’s first bid is greater than the Gayevs’ total resources, does Lopakhin enter the bidding on his own account.



At the close of Act III, when Lopakhin returns to announce his acquisition, a small comedy has been completed in which the practical virtues of Lopakhin, joined with his basic humanity and openhandedness, triumph over the impractical squanderings of the Gayevs. It is a comedy of class struggle (though the struggle is much more submerged than Brustein suggest), the son of serfs rising to inherit the work of his fathers by defeating a corrupt aristocracy.  It is easy to see how this basic structure would be interpreted by Stanislavski, the aristocrat, as tragedy, and it is easy to agree with Brustein that up to this point The Cherry Orchard is melodramatic as well as comic.  But Brustein seems to forget that the play does not end with Act III, and it is only in Act IV that the patterned action centering on the Gayevs is complete.  At the end of Act III, no virtual future has been created.  Lopakhin has bought the estate, but what will he do with it?  Lyubov collapses, but what will happen to her and her family after that?  What happens to Varya?  These questions all await resolution in Act IV, a resolution which also firmly grounds the play in sombre comedy.

In Act IV, the selling of the cherry orchard proves to be not the disaster that seemed to loom at the opening, but rather an inconsequential fact.  Lyubov, who came home distraught, weary, unable to sleep, is now rested.  In fact, everything has turned out so “well” that Gayev can say “cheerfully”:



Yes, indeed, every thing is fine now.  Before the sale of the cherry orchard, we all were troubled, distressed, and then when the question was settled definitely, irrevocably, we all calmed down and were even cheerful—I’m a bank official.  I am a financier now—Yellow ball into the side pocket, anyway, Lyuba, you look better, no doubt about that (Italics mine.)

And Lyubov can answer:

Yes.  My nerves are better, that’s true.  I sleep well.  carry out my things, Yasha, it’s time.[9]

How has this disaster been averted?  How has the Gayev family proved itself to be above its monetary fortune and beyond its own incompetence?  Chekhov stands in a long modern tradition including a great deal of Ibsen, O’Neill, and Anouilh, in building a play whose protagonists survive not because of their practical virtues or their self-discovery, but because of their supreme ability to avoid reality entirely.  Chekhov’s characters survive because they are capable of changing the meaning of catastrophic events like the selling of the cherry orchard into complete inconsequence.



But why does it take four acts for the Gayevs to assert the inconsequence of selling the cherry orchard?  After all, don’t they simply switch from saying that the cherry orchard means everything to saying that it means nothing at all? No, it is not that simple.  There is a right way and a wrong way to switch the  meaning of objective reality, and for the first three acts the Gayevs learn that they can not switch that meaning precisely as they would like to. Throughout these acts, they desire to wish away the world they have created.  They wish to inhabit a dream world in which crisis never leads to consequences and in which all things work out in some “theatrical” manner.

Practical obligations and realities, symbolized by Lopakhin, refuse to be so easily redefined.  Though Lyubov tells him that he is talking nonsense and knows nothing about the whole subject, Lopakhin will not be silent about his plan to save the cherry orchard.  And, when the debt hanging over the estate will not vanish, Lyubov switches from her attempt to create a fairy-tale out of her life to an attempt to make it staged tragedy.  She begins to fabricate a tragic tale in her mind to shelter her from the obvious reality:  “I keep expecting something to happen, like the house caving in on us.”



But just as Lopakhin will not be silent simply because he disquiets the Gayevs, so too the world is not about to oblige Lyubov with a tragic finale which demands no decision on her part.  All of the Gayevs have a tremendous facility for self-delusion, but they are trying throughout the early acts of the play to make their self-delusion work on objective financial reality which refuses to accept their delusions.

Anya is the first of the Gayevs to make self-delusion work, but only at the expense of giving up the past and any real effort to influence the objective course of the world.

Anya has fallen in love with Trofimov, whose unique quality is that he lives in a perfect world of ideals and words.  By a neat extension of radical rhetoric, Trofimov persuades Anya, in the second act, to give up the cherry orchard and her family’s past for a glorious, if hopelessly vague, future.

All Russia is our orchard.  The earth is immense and beautiful, and on it are many wonderful places.  Just think, Anya; your grandfather, great grandfather, and all our ancestors were slave owners, in possession of living souls, and can you doubt that from every cherry in the orchard, from every leaf, from every trunk, human beings are looking at you, . . . .  We are at least two hundred years behind the times, . . .   Why, it is quite clear that to begin to live in the present we must first atone for our past, must be done with it; and we can atone for it only through suffering, only through uncommon, incessant labor.[10]



And Anya, totally convinced of this great future (toward which no one save Lopakhin might truly be said to be moving with “uncommon, incessant labor”) replies significantly:  “How well you said that.”  What is important is not a pragmatic program for the future, like Lopakhin’s plan for saving the cherry orchard or his three-thousand-acre planting of poppies; what is important is a grand, if impractical and irrelevant, vision of words, something one can look forward to without looking back at the sad state of the practical present and the irrevocable past, both of whish refuse to accommodate themselves to verbal redefinition.

By Act IV, the other Gayevs have learned Anya’s lesson; they have built their self-delusions in a subjective verbal realm where they cannot be challenged by objective reality.  As Gayev says, “everything is all right now.  Before the cherry orchard was sold we were all worried and miserable”—but now, with the selling of the cherry orchard, the Gayevs are freed from any of the encumbrances of an objective world.  They are free to express their dreams, and it is their impossible dreams which sustain them.  Gayev dreams he will be a successful banker.  Trofimov dreams of a bright new day for all Russia.  And, most obviously deluded, Anya and Lyubov plan for a happier, totally improbable reconstruction of the family:



Anya:  You’ll come back soon, Mama, soon . . . won’t you?  I’ll study hard and pass my high-school examinations, and then I can work and help you. We’ll read all sorts of books together, Mama . . . . Won’t we?  We’ll read in the autumn evenings, we’ll read lots of books, and a new and wonderful world will open up before us . . . Mama, come back . . . .

Lyubov:  I’ll come back, my precious.[11]

The Gayevs, then, have learned to build a self-deluding future and to conceal or even to eradicate the catastrophe of their past through verbal agreement with one another.  But that is only half of what is required for their survival.  The Gayevs, after all, would have drifted, in fact were drifting into self-delusions right from the beginning of the play.  They are held back partly by practical reality and partly by Lopakhin who insists upon “saving” them from themselves.  The cherry orchard and its practical demands finally take care of themselves.  And, with the cherry orchard gone, Lopakhin is neutralized:  He has no further reason to force himself or his ideas upon the Gayevs.  In this sense, Lopakhin is isolated from the Gayevs’ society and becomes something analogous to a comic villain.  As in The Iceman Cometh, the undeluded character stands in the way of a societal reconciliation that ensures survival through delusion.  Both plays must, therefore, move toward the isolation of their well-meaning “villains”—Lopakhin and Hickey—in order to demonstrate the viability of their deluded societies.



The pattern of The Cherry Orchard is, then, despite superficial appearances, a pattern of survival.  The Gayevs survive despite a complete lack of practical talent because they have a most human talent of being self-deluded.  True, such talent demands the complicity of a whole society for its effectiveness, but throughout the play the Gayevs move toward a collusive distortion of reality, jettisoning the mundane responsibilities which would deter them and silencing their opposition.  The survival talents the Gayevs display may not strike us as healthy, but they are survival talents.

The fact that these talents do not strike us as healthy, of course, is what moves us from the realm of comedy with its survival of sympathetic characters to sombre comedy with its survival at continuing cost.  While everything we have said thus far puts us in agreement with Magarshack that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy, such a statement is an incomplete explanation of the play.  The survival of the Gayevs, while proved by their ability to overcome the loss of the cherry orchard, is obviously costly, and even more important, the pattern that proves their survival simultaneously proves that the costs of that survival are real, severe, and continuous throughout the virtual future envisioned by the play.



Had the Gayevs’ survival been shown to be a matter of some practical talents overcoming obstacles set up to impede them or a matter of some providence intervening on their behalf, The Cherry Orchard might have been pure comedy.  But the Gayevs’ survival is, instead, a result of self-deception, a self-deception which must be continually enforced in order to avoid a catastrophic recognition of reality.  To maintain that self-deception a continual price of anxiety and effort is required, a price of giving up the real securities symbolized by the cherry orchard, a price of jettisoning the objective world and with it the comradeship of the Gayevs’ old life and the faithful stewardship of those like Firs who cannot make the transition with them.  And self-deception entails the continuing grotesqueness of character which clings to all the Gayevs.  Above all, since self-deception requires the complicity of the whole society, it demands a continuing price of alienation from everyone like Lopakhin, men of practical affairs who have no time for illusions.

In short, the self-deceiving survival envisioned for the Gayevs in the virtual future of The Cherry Orchard is attained only through the most strenuous, continuing effort, and even then, such survival is subject to repeated challenges from the practical world or from well-meaning friends, challenges which can only be overcome after painful struggle.  If the patterned action of The Cherry Orchard demonstrates the Gayevs’ survival, it also assures us that in the future beyond the final curtain further humiliations will be added to the loss of the cherry orchard. Gayev is about to become a banker, no doubt a banker as careless of other people’s money as he has been of his own.  Lyubov is already spending her aunt’s money, opening the family to more financial distress, and is planning  to return to her lover in Paris who will either die or will recover, only to throw her over when she is no longer of use to him. Trofimov and Anya are about to go off to find the revolution, a revolution they cannot lead with their childish platitudes and their over-idealism which refuses all the real values of life and asserts, “We are above love.”  The darkened future of sombre comedy grows and develops throughout The Cherry Orchard until, at the final curtain, the survival of every sympathetic figure is tempered by grotesqueness, self-ignorance, and frustration.


*  *  *

Presumably, Chekhov’s reasons for identifying The Cherry Orchard as a comedy were not those argued above.  From his correspondence, we know he thought of the play as light and often farcical in tone.  In all probability, his inability to see the despondent aspects of the play, so obvious to Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavski, was largely due to his concentration on the comic conventions and techniques which pervade the entire play.

The most obvious comic device at work in The Cherry Orchard is its use of comic stock figures.  Traditionally, the stock characters of comedy fall into two groups, which we might label “laughable figures” and “legitimately comic figures.”  Laughable figures have obvious faults which pose threats to their own security and to the security of those around them.  They are embodied challenges to man’s survival, ludicrously inept or inefficient.  While such figures are normally meant to survive, they do so only after exaggerated effort, and thus they fit both Bergson’s and Freud’s definitions of laughable character.  Legitimately comic stock characters, on the other hand, are those whose basic personality and history show some analogous design to the design of comedy itself.  For example, one of the simplest comic patterns is a repeating cycle of challenge and recovery in which sympathetic figures are never at rest nor are they ever seriously threatened by the challenges confronting them.  Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Punch and Judy, Falstaff—all of these characters in one way or another embody the same pattern and can be seen as comedy reduced to character study.



The Cherry Orchard we find both these stock patterns.  The ultimately comic figure in the play, drawn from the same stock type as Punch and Judy, is Yepikhodov.  Like Punch, Yepikhodov is a pawn of fortune, and like him, he is a miniature comedy in himself, temperamentally fated to the recurrent blows of fortune which he is resilient enough never to feel seriously.  Yepikhodov, as he never fails to point out, has something unfortunate happen to him every day.  Yet, though he talks of suicide, he really has no intention of being deterred by his misfortunes; he merely laughs and goes on with his own, rather arbitrary purposes.  Like Touchstone in As You Like It, Yepikodov’s romantic purposes are likely only to bring further troubles, but his continued existence and purpose prove that such further misfortunes as winning Dunyasha will not impair his vitality.

If Yepikodov is a stock comic figure, Trofimov is a stock laughable figure, or rather a combination of laughable figures:  the stock pedant and stock idealist.  The laughable pendant, of course, has been a stock figure of comedy since Greek and Roman times, coming down through the centuries to become the absent-minded professor and mad scientist of our own day.  What the pedant, the absent-minded professor, and the mad scientist all have in common besides their academic background is a complete divorce from common sense and reality.  As such, they are all laughable figures, ordained to threaten repeatedly their own safety and the safety of those around them.



The pedant or mad scholar is often an idealist as well.  His commitment to academic ideals, for example, is responsible for his practical absent-mindedness or his insane conclusions derive from too-complete adherence to abstract consistency. But idealism is not simply an attribute of the comic pedant.  It is in itself one of the great butts of comic laugher.  And, no wonder this is so, for comedy is primarily a genre of practical virtues among which idealism is either little esteemed or positively discouraged as a threat to expediency.  Thus, we find that, running alongside a history of comic pendants, there is a tradition of laughable idealists, including most misanthropes, puritans, and ideologues.

Trofimov’s idealism and pedantry, then, lead to the same conclusion:  he is a man unfit for the practical affairs of the world who, nevertheless, has the audacity to believe he can lead the world into a revolutionary utopia as vague and unreal as the idealistic slogans he is forever spouting, slogans like “We are above love,” and “I am in the vanguard of the future.”  Trofimov is certainly a sympathetic character, as are some of his ideals, but his actions, his miserable condition, his lack of understanding both of himself and of practical affairs undercut his ideals and our sympathy and make him a focus for our laughter.



Yepikhodov is a legitimately comic figure, an incarnation of the comic pattern, and yet he is also somewhat laughable, an inept figure bringing troubles on himself.  Trofimov is a laughable figure, yet also legitimately comic to some extent, for his idealism is a means of comic survival as we have said above.  This blending of a laughable and a legitimately comic figure is a single character is a normal, though not a necessary occurrence in comedy.  In The Cherry Orchard, the figure who most obviously combines the two basic stock patterns is Lopakhin, whom Chekhov considered the crucial role in the play.  Lopakhin is an obvious comic victor, having risen from serf to lord of the manor through his own wit, common sense, and business acumen.  His life is a comedy in and of itself.  But, like most bourgeois comic victors since Simon Eyre, Lopakhin is also laughable; he is a big, gangling eccentric who always talks too loud, swings his arms about quite ridiculously, walks too fast and with too big steps.  He is a hopeless sentimentalist in his own way as well: while he can think up the plan for saving the estate, he never thinks to profit by his masters’ misfortunes; while he becomes the lord of the Gayev manor, he cannot bring himself to break down the barrier separating him from Varya, Lyubov’s step-daughter and therefore, an unreachable member of “true society.”



Stock characters are typical of most comedy and most sombre comedy because both are interested in types of survival and types of threats to survival.  Comic character doesn’t mean much if it is absolutely unique.  To prove anything about man’s survival, comedy is almost forced to draw generalized types of humanity.  For the same reasons, in comedy and sombre comedy there is a tendency to build a whole play around a very few stock types repeated in several characters.  In The Cherry Orchard, Trofimov, Yepikhodov, and Lopakhin are all centers around which similar characters are created.  As we have already said, it is ultimately Trofimov’s life style which the Gayevs adopt as a means of avoiding reality.  All of them—Anya, Gayev, Lyubov—dwell with Trofimov in a fantastic world that thrives on its alienation from reality.  Like Trofimov, all of them are ridiculous in the context of even the most practical affairs.  Dunyasha and Varya, on the other hand, are progressively more realistic variants of Yepikhodov’s basic type:  both see themselves as pawns in some universal plan which they are powerless to influence.  While far less obviously comic than Yepikhodov, both live from moment to moment and depend on a resilience much like Yepikhodov’s to carry on.  Yasha and Charlotta—and even to some extent Firs—follow Lopakhin’s pattern:  members of the lower class, deprived of opportunity by circumstances, they nevertheless make their way though the world with a great deal of self-assurance (bordering on eccentricity) and with few serious setbacks, thanks to their quick wits and general talent.



This tendency in The Cherry Orchard to build a whole, interacting society from a few basic comic patterns was probably another reason for Chekhov’s confidence that his play was comedy.  The Cherry Orchard is very basically concerned, as we have said, with society’s role in comic survival as have been so many of our greatest comedies from As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Bourgeois Gentleman, and The Way of the World down to the present time. Like so many of these comedies, The Cherry Orchard moves toward a single, harmonious society from an original situation of tension, misunderstanding, conflict, and threatened disintegration.  Like many of these comedies, The Cherry Orchard relies on the marriage of a young couple as the symbol of that final societal reconciliation.  It also relies, just as ironically, on the isolation of “villains” (Lopakhin and Varya) who threaten that reconciliation and prove themselves unfit for the type of survival toward which the play moves.

While we have so far been speaking of elements in The Cherry Orchard which are both comic and sombre comic, there are also elements within the play which are new to theatre and precedents for sombre comedians, particularly of the more pessimistic school.  These elements can perhaps be best discussed as means for creating what we have called in Chapter 12 a balked or stuttered rhythm atypical of traditional comic rhythms.



Traditional comedy has several different, but related rhythms.  All of them are relatively uncomplex compared to the rhythms of The Cherry Orchard; all build toward a final climax occurring almost simultaneously with the final curtain; and all of them prepare the audience or “build” for almost every major effect:  there is little or no attempt to surprise the audience by a shift in the rhythm of the play.  One of these rhythms is the rhythm of steadily increasing suspense and steadily increasing complexity of situation leading to a very rapid, often lucky, reversal of the situation, simplification, and denouement, all of which happen close to simultaneously. Such, for example, is the rhythm of The Comedy of Errors, Goldoni’s Mistress of the Inn, and a great deal of farce.  Another rhythm typical of traditional comedy is that of a series of analogous incidents, each of which poses a challenge for the hero or butt and each of which is successively overcome.  It is this comic rhythm which is so strikingly imitated in The Skin of Our Teeth

But The Cherry Orchard deliberately avoids these rhythms and the many comic techniques used to create them.  Instead, it creates what we have been forced to call a balked or stuttered rhythm characterized by an abhorrence of consistently-built anticipation, suspense, or foreshadowing, by an action which refuses to move in a single direction, by anti-climax, and by a not-completely decisive denouement.



In traditional comedy, few elements are more important in building rhythm than the patterning of “laughs.”  Laughs are often the pacing element of the play.  The action builds toward each successive laugh, and heightened use of laughs anticipates and announces the major points in the action leading to a final denouement and climax.  The laughs also build by becoming progressively broader, more physical and less subtle.  The interval between laughs shortens, and all these techniques prepare the audience well in advance for any significant shifts in the action.  Contrastingly, in The Cherry Orchard the laughs come at very irregular intervals, almost spasmodically.  There is a definite tendency not to prepare for laugh lines, so that they often pass before the audience is fully aware of the humor.  Where in traditional comedy the humor is likely to become progressively more physical, in The Cherry Orchard such humor normally occurs off-stage and is only reported, thereby losing most of its graphic effect and its pacing function simultaneously, for example when Yepikhodov breaks a billiard cue in Act III.  And finally, where jokes in traditional comedy normally lead up to important moments in the play, in The Cherry Orchard many of the broadest jokes occur just after important moments, thereby diminishing the significance of the preceding action and their own laughableness and crating a sense of anti-climax.  Yepikhodov’s misfortune with the billiard cue, Trofimov’s falling down stairs, and Varya’s hitting Lopakhin with a cue are all examples from Act III of jokes which follow immediately on the heels of tense moments on stage, dissolving them without displacing them, and leaving a sense of loss and lack of direction in the action of the play.



Beyond his use of jokes and humor, Chekhov’s greatest effort to defeat the traditional rhythms of comedy comes in his manipulation of plotting techniques.  Traditional comedy often has sub-plots, particularly when it has some pretensions to being social comedy.  But such sub-plots normally have a very clearly-defined subsidiary relationship to the main action, as for example in Twelfth Night, the Malvolio-Aguecheek complications and even Olivia’s romantic affairs are obviously secondary to the courtship of Viola and the Duke.  In The Cherry Orchard, as opposed to traditional societal comedy, the many subplots are not clearly ordered.  In fact, their ordering is so vague that it is possible to reverse the relationship of the Gayevs and Lopakhin and to see the play as centered around Lopakhin’s triumph over his erstwhile masters.  At the end of the play, the various subplots do not work out together or even close to one another as they normally do in traditional comedy. Instead, they work themselves out, almost painfully, throughout the fourth act.



We might point to a second aspect of Chekhov’s handling of plotting devices as well, as part of his attempt to create a balked rhythm.  This second aspect is what Magarshack has called the “indirect action” techniques of the play.  While traditional comedy prefers to have as much of its action as possible occur on stage as a way of keeping up the pace of the play, Magarshack notes that in all of his later comedies, Chekhov prefers to have a great deal of the most important action occur off-stage, to be reported later on, often at disconcerting points where it breaks normal comic rhythms.  Nowhere is this device more effective than in Act III of The Cherry Orchard.  In Acts I and II, the play seems to be building naturally toward an auction scene.  But, instead of giving us that scene in Act III, Chekhov complicates the rhythm of his play by keeping us from the obvious action.  In its place we are given a banquet which any audience would associate with the climactic scenes of traditional comedy.  In The Cherry Orchard, however, the party does not build toward a final resolution.  It is continually interrupted by Lyubov’s fits of depression and is kept from reaching any climax by the repeated question, “What is taking them so long” at the auction?  At the end of the act, Lopakhin comes in to announce the important action which has been deliberately kept from occupying the center stage, and the announcement that he has bought the estate disintegrates, rather than climaxes the festivities.



Finally in our discussion of the new rhythms of The Cherry Orchard we recognize the anti-climactic quality of all the elements in Act IV.  Coming as it does after the extremely tense and chaotically vibrant third act, Act IV is all anti-climax.  Lopakhin’s announcement at the end of Act III does not quickly untangle the situation, nor does it climax the play.  Act IV is built on a very complex double rhythm with the urgency of the repeated phrases “It’s almost time to go” establishing one cadence, while another, contradictory, almost lugubrious cadence is being established by the slow working out of the complications of the first three acts. The net effect is one of ambivalence and irony perfectly correlated to the ambiguous celebration of life at continuing cost which lies at the heart of The Cherry Orchard and all sombre comedy.

In our brief attempt to apply the theory of sombre comedy to a specific work, we have found that much of our discussion is simply in terms of the play’s comic aspects, which in this case explains the playwright’s sense of his play as comedy in the face of equally sensitive directors who saw only the despondent qualities of the play.  We have also seen exemplified the sombre comic tendency to take the most time-worn conventions of comedy and to transform them into what seems to be completely original and unique theatrical experience.  And we have seen and examined in one particular manifestation what is perhaps Chekhov’s greatest contribution to modern theatre and to later sombre comedy, the balked rhythms so atypical of all traditional light comedy.



As we have said before, applying a genre designation to any play is not necessarily the most important single statement we can make about that work.  There are other ways of looking at The Cherry Orchard—in the perspective of the historical changes that were overtaking Russia at the turn of the century, for example—which may quite easily be more enlightening for the contemporary English-speaking playgoer. Our genre designation may, however, be important to the director, actor, or student of the theatre trying to resolve the differences between Chekhov and Stanislavski and between various critical interpretations of the play down to the present decade.  It may also call some attention to Chekhov’s careful attempt to build the play’s whole society from a very few character types.  And it may suggest ways of handling the most difficult and central roles in the play, roles like Lopakhin’s which seem inconsistently written from the perspective of most other genres.




[1] Quoted in Magarshack, p. 264.


[2] Quoted in Magarshack, p. 264.


[3] Quoted in Magarshack, p. 267.


[4] Quoted in Magarshack, p. 267.


[5] Quoted in Magarshack, p. 14.


[6] Quoted in Magarshack, p. 14.


[7] Magarshack, pp. 272 ff.


[8] See his introduction to Chekhov:  The Major Plays (New York:  New American Library, 1964), p. ix.


[9] Rpt. Best Plays by Chekhov, trans Stark Young (New York:  Random House, 1956), p. 288.


[10] Ibid., pp. 263-264.


[11] Ibid., p. 289.





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