Sunday, February 3, 2013

Guest Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD by Anton Chekhov

book cover Original Publication Date: 1904

Genre: play

Topics: society, class

Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (

Having absolutely no familiarity with Chekhov (except for his namesake Chekov in Star Trek), I was curious to read some of his work. I am not that familiar with reading plays – I love to attend good ones locally, but I have found that reading a play and watching a play can be two very different experiences.

So – trawled around the ‘net for a while and decided on “The Cherry Orchard” as my first foray into his work. Having finished it, I am not quite sure what has made this work so famous. It seemed pretty ordinary to me (although I do expect to get harpooned by avid fans when I say this). What is the big deal about this?

The play is set in Russia (naturally, as Chekhov was Russian), and focuses on a family of the aristocracy and the return of the matriarch after having lived overseas for quite some time. Essentially, the family estate (which includes a large and famous cherry orchard) is faced with foreclosure due to unpaid debts and they have to decide what to do with this: do they sell the orchard and their grounds to another family? Do they sell it to a real estate developer (equivalent) and see it sectioned off into holiday cottages and the orchard dug up?

cherry orchard scene
Scene from first production of The Cherry Orchard at Moscow Art Theater.

So, as a reader, it would seem appropriate to expect some kind of settlement by the end of the play, but this is not to be. I am very open to Po-Mo endings, Po-Mo anything really, but this particular version just struck me as pointless – absolutely nothing happens. There are endless conversations about what various people think should happen, but after all that build-up, there is nada. As mentioned before, I am not a reader who necessarily needs a story to have the ending all wrapped up and in a pretty bow, but at least make it have a point in some way. (Unless I am missing something?)

There are some obvious themes throughout the story -- the changing roles of class in Russian society, the theme of identity (and changing identity) -- which were interesting when you link them back to what was happening to Chekhov personally: his family ended up in poverty and having to sell their own house to cover costs, Chekhov himself refurbished a house later in his life (complete with orchard and pond) upon which he lavished care and in the words of his brother, “look[ed] after… as though they were his children,” the play has a physician and Chekhov was a physician etc…

Chekhov died of TB just after this play came out, and one apocryphal anecdote has it that his body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway care for fresh oysters…

In further researching this, it was noted in numerous sources that most producers are not sure how to show the play – is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy? And I think that here is the crux of the whole problem – because the play does not commit itself to one or the other, I wonder that it becomes less than either.

As mentioned in the introduction, I am not a Chekhov expert by any means, not am I an experienced dramatist or reader of plays, so it might well be that I am missing something vital here in my interpretation of The Cherry Orchard. Can anyone enlighten me?

Download The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov at Project Gutenberg|Librivox