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The Cherry Orchard | Context

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Chekhov and Realism

Chekhov's short stories and plays, like the work of Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) in Norway and George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) in England, are part of the larger artistic movement of realism. Realism steered clear of the melodramas that filled 19th-century theaters. Melodramas featured heightened emotions and sensational subjects presented in stylized, or unrealistic, ways. Chekov's plays, like other works of realism, aimed to represent people and their problems more authentically and naturally. This emphasis on realism also changed how actors performed. Acting more closely imitated real life: stylized gestures and exclamations were replaced by more natural movement and conversational dialogue.

Unlike Ibsen and Shaw, who were overt social reformers, Chekhov wrote about social interactions without a blatant political agenda, a practice for which he was sometimes criticized. Chekhov's approach to realism was considered new and often puzzling because his works depicted what was real without offering an ideal vision of the future or a strident critique of the present. Rather with the objective eye of a trained scientist, Chekhov let reality comment on itself. In The Cherry Orchard, for instance, he presents the struggle between the old aristocracy and the new, practical middle class through the characters of Lopakhin and Lyubov.

Chekov's plays also lack the traditional dramatic arc of conflict, climax, and resolution. Some plotlines simply peter out or come to nothing, while some of the most dramatic events occur offstage before the plays even begin. There is no central hero or villain. Chekov focuses instead on presenting simple actions of everyday life interwoven with matters of life and death. For Chekhov this tension between everyday existence and the approach of catastrophe might be the most realistic aspect of all.

The Moscow Art Theatre

Chekhov created a new style of drama, but it was not a success until there was a new kind of theater to produce it. Because Chekhov's plays are based in realism, they are filled with small, understated moments rather than broad, sweeping actions. There is lots of talking punctuated by lots of silence. Plotlines may result in no change at all rather than providing a traditional climax. It's easy to understand why theater companies accustomed to plot-driven stories with wildly dramatic characters would be at a loss for how best to present Chekhov's work.

A play without a traditional protagonist, mounting action, or a strong resolution, Chekov's The Seagull was a radical departure for the Russian stage. The first production of the play in 1896 was a complete failure. Its baffling new form was made worse by a weak production. The audience was vocal in its displeasure, and Chekhov was devastated. He vowed never to write for the stage again.

He changed his mind, however, two years later when a new theater company asked to revive the play. The Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) was founded in 1898 by instructors of dramatic art Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938) and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943). The MAT aimed to create a more realistic style of theatrical production centered on in-depth study of the play and a more detailed and organized approach to rehearsals, a less stylized and more natural approach to performance. Rather than featuring stars in its productions, the company used an ensemble, or a revolving group of actors.

The MAT was as radical in its conception of production and performance as Chekhov was in his approach to playwriting. The subtlety of Chekhov's action and nuance of his character development were well suited to an acting and production philosophy that was based on the idea that less is more: less superficial bombast and more attention to realistic motivations and actions.

Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko sensed that The Seagull was material that would allow them to put their theories into practice. Chekhov sensed that their approach might produce a better outcome for his play this time around. Both sides were right. In 1898 Chekhov's The Seagull became the MAT's fifth production. It was the theater's, and Chekhov's, first major stage success. Chekhov wrote two more major plays, Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904), which were both produced by the MAT.

Stanislavsky would go on to develop his famous method theory of acting. Hallmarks of his approach include careful study of the character's psychological state, an understanding of a character's motivation, and an actor's ability to connect emotionally to a character's past. Although Stanislavsky himself often performed in MAT productions of Chekhov's plays, Chekhov often thought that the acting was still not natural enough. He intensely disliked Stanislavsky's interpretation of The Cherry Orchard, for example, and thought the actors too sad and tearful. In spite of Chekhov's displeasure, the Stanislavsky method influenced actors and performance theory around the world for decades and is still used in some form by most actors today.

Changing Social Classes

Class relations frame the story of The Cherry Orchard. Long a feudal society built on the labor of serfs, or peasants owned by wealthy landowners, Russia began to see a shift in these relations. The "emancipation" to which Firs, the liberated but loyal serf in the play, refers is the Emancipation Manifesto issued in 1861 that abolished serfdom in Russia.

Like most Russians, Emperor Czar Alexander II saw Russia's backwardness as a contributing factor in the country's defeat in the Crimean War of 1856. Thus he focused on land reform and ending the serf system as a step toward modernization. Alexander II's Emancipation Manifesto freed the serfs, but they paid a heavy price.

The peasants were released from servitude and were offered a path toward land ownership. But they were generally offered the poorest land in smaller amounts than they had had when they were serfs. The taxes and payments on the land were also burdensome for the peasants. Due to these circumstances, many of the newly independent peasant class were unhappy with their change in status.

The serfs had been free for 40 years by the time Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard. Firs expresses a sentiment held by many when the serfs were liberated: "I was already head footman when the Emancipation came. At that time I wouldn't consent to my freedom, I stayed with the masters." Russia's history of class struggle—between the peasants and the landowners and between the middle class and the aristocracy—underpins Chekhov's play.

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