The Cherry Orchard | Study Guide

Anton Chekhov

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The Cherry Orchard | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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The Cherry Orchard opened at the Moscow Art Theatre in January 1904, just six months before the death of Russian author Anton Chekhov. Partly inspired by events in Chekhov's own life, the play tells the story of an aristocratic Russian woman who returns to her family estate—with its large, beautiful cherry orchard—just before it is auctioned off because of the family's financial difficulties. The play dramatizes the socioeconomic landscape in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, exploring themes such as the rise of the middle class, the abolition of serfdom, and the decline of the aristocracy.

Chekhov's final play, The Cherry Orchard was a tremendous success in Moscow, and it was soon performed in many other cities across Russia and the world. It is now frequently regarded as one of Chekhov's best plays, alongside The Seagull, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya.

1. The Cherry Orchard may have been partly inspired by an event in Chekhov's adolescence.

When Chekhov was 16, his mother went into debt after being swindled by some contractors she had hired to build a house. Her former lodger offered to help her, but then he went behind her back to buy the house for himself. One Chekhov biographer, Ronald Hingley, argues that the lodger may have "supplied the future author with a theme, the loss of a family home, which was to inspire his play The Cherry Orchard a quarter of a century later."

2. Chekhov developed a love of nature in his childhood.

The beauty and destruction of nature are recurring themes in many of Chekhov's works, including The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov's interest in nature and ecology stems from his childhood. He grew up in Taganrog, a small port city in southern Russia. The natural features of Taganrog, according to one biographer, "left the imprint of the south in Chekhov's work: the recurrent imagery of steppe, sea and cherry trees...Chekhov's view of nature as an Eden uncorrupted by man dates from his childhood experience."

3. Chekhov wrote only a line or two a day of The Cherry Orchard.

Writing The Cherry Orchard while physically ill and depressed, Chekhov only managed to write a line or two a day. He was disheartened at times and wrote that "I am beginning to lose heart. It seems to me that I have outlived my time as a writer, and that every sentence I write seems to serve no purpose." He finally finished the play and sent it to the Moscow Art Theatre in October 1903. He wrote to his wife: "I did not write in one sitting, but over a long, very long time, and so it will probably seem somehow drawn out...Darling, how hard it was for me to write the play!"

4. Chekhov suffered from tuberculosis while writing The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov had been afflicted with tuberculosis since his youth, but it hit him particularly hard during the writing of The Cherry Orchard. While he worked, he was "interrupted by bouts of coughing, diarrhea, an inability to eat, and depression." He died of tuberculosis in July 1904, only six months after The Cherry Orchard was first performed at the Moscow Art Theatre.

5. Chekhov kept the details of The Cherry Orchard a secret as he was writing it.

Chekhov shared little about his work with those closest to him. By the summer of 1902, neither his family nor the Moscow Art Theatre knew anything about the play—not even the title. When he finally shared the play's title with his wife, he whispered it to her, as if to guard his secret.

6. Chekhov's wife played Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard.

Olga Leonardovna Knipper-Chekhova, who married Anton Chekhov in 1901, starred in the original Moscow Arts Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard in January 1904. Chekhov died later that year, but Knipper-Chekhova continued a successful acting career with the Moscow Art Theatre for several more decades. She played the role of Madame Ranevskaya again in 1943 when the theater celebrated the play's 300th performance.

7. Chekhov intended The Cherry Orchard to be a comedy, but the director had ideas of his own.

Director Konstantin Stanislavski interpreted the play as a tragedy and took away many of the comedic elements of Chekhov's script in the play's first production in 1904. Chekhov immensely disliked Stanislavski's version, claiming that his play had been ruined. He complained in a letter:

Anya, I fear, should not have any sort of tearful tone...Not once does my Anya cry, nowhere do I speak of a tearful tone, in the second act there are tears in their eyes, but the tone is happy, lively. Why did you speak in your telegram about so many tears in my play? Where are they?...Often you will find the words 'through tears,' but I am describing only the expression on their faces, not tears. And in the second act there is no graveyard.

8. Some critics have noted Marxist themes in The Cherry Orchard.

According to one critic the character Trofimov is used as a mouthpiece for socialist ideas. Trofimov is sympathetic toward former serfs and criticizes the ruling class for being rude to servants and treating peasants "like animals." He also equates the character Lopakhin—a former peasant who becomes part of the bourgeoisie—with "the beast of prey, which devours everything that crosses its path."

9. Chekhov violates his own writing advice in The Cherry Orchard.

There is a dramatic principle known as "Chekhov's gun," which comes from a piece of writing advice Chekhov gave to other writers. Chekhov advised against extraneous detail:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it...If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.

Yet, in The Cherry Orchard, a minor character brandishes a revolver and boasts, "I always carry a revolver on me." But he never fires it. According to Chekhov himself, "There's not a single pistol-shot in the whole play."

10. Chekhov planted a cherry orchard of his own.

When Chekhov lived on a country estate near Moscow, he became interested in gardening and planted a cherry orchard. After he later relocated to Yalta, a seaside city on the Crimean Peninsula, he was upset to learn that the new owner of his former estate had cut down most of his cherry orchard.

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