Posted by: zhiv | March 22, 2009

Chekhov7: The Cherry Orchard: A Play about Nothing

So this is another first impressions piece. I wasn’t as focused or fired up reading TCO as I was reading Uncle Vanya, but I did a better job and the play seemed more accessible than Three Sisters. I’d like to catch up and figure out the timing and response to TCO as late Chekhov, but again, it’s part of the fun around here to record some doofus stuff off the top of my head as I go along.

First off, and probably it’s because my reading effort wasn’t especially stellar, I wasn’t so deeply moved by the play, and wasn’t very responsive to its obvious poignancy. I wasn’t as detached (and confused) as I was reading Three Sisters, but it didn’t generate the same level of feeling, of revelation and emotional intensity, of “the soul gaining an astonishing sense of freedom,” (Woolf) as I did in reading Vanya or when I read and saw The Seagull in 2007. But that’s probably just me. CRC (Chekhov Reading Club) charter member Older Igor had a different experience, and I’ll always take every opportunity to mention that he’s playing at a much higher level, as he’s breezing through the plays and stories in his native Russian. His response was classic, sent under the heading “Model Homes are now open!”:

Cherry Orchard Estates. Distinctive river-front summer retreats. I want to sob, but then I realize that I live in a subdivision myself.

As for my own gateway to this play, the easiest way in is to remember that this is a blog about nothing, and it’s always simplest to keep track of “nothing” as it appears and functions in any text at hand. TCO is full of nothings, it’s about nothing, nothing happens, and it’s about both stasis and change and the refined and attenuated practice of the Core Philosophy (“Do Nothing”) by the 19th century gentry.

After reading Gooseberries and remembering The Seagull, it’s interesting to note Chekhov’s use of the objective correlative here, which is more significant than bitter berries or a dead bird. The cherry orchard itself, objective correlative par excellence, is notably artificial, gnerated and husbanded by a refined clss of men (although this is never firmly established, but is there any chance that it’s a natural, wild cherry orchard? I don’t think so.) It is unspeakably beautiful, shimmering and ethereal in the imagination, the perfect marriage of man and nature in its beauty. And so too, Chekhov seems to say, is the class and its manners that created and nurtured it. But with the end of the century and new social movements very much in progress, its time is up. I’ll mention here that the objective correlative started making sense to me because Richard Yates was obsessed with it, and I’m still not sure that I’ve got it quite right. Whatever the emotional connection between objects/symbols and the story and characters might best be called, Chekhov seems to use it repeatedly with his flawless touch, and I’d like to pin it down a bit better. But I digress.

I’m always on the lookout for “nothings,” which are inevitably pregnant and meaningful, and there are plenty of them here. When you have a cast of characters who have done nothing for their entire lives, it tends to come up, and the way that Chekhov walks the line between bourgeois stasis and paralysis and his “just do it,” “stay busy and fight off the despair” mode is amazing stuff. The issue goes to the heart of my interests and concerns, and the riches are definitely here to be found in this play, all sorts of wonderful nuggets strewn about with the master’s great artistry. Another thing I look for (try it some time!) is direct statements about self-deception, which I think I wrote about most clearly in a follow-up post on Silas Lapham. That provides a nice segue, but first I’ll mention that there was at least one crystal clear mention of self-deception here that I have to dig out.

So, segue: WD Howells, the author of Silas Lapham, led the way in introducing the Russian novelists and writers to American readers, as Turgenev’s move to Paris and publication in the west started things off. After reading Uncle Vanya I turned for some reason to Virginia Woolf, who was writing at the height of a Russian craze that was in part generated by the 16 volume translation of Chekhov by Constance Garnett, and the whole world of the transmission and reception of these texts to the English Language audience is the type of thing that interests me. Introducing her essay on Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Woolf starts off by talking about the ascendence, necessity, and omnipresence of the Russian novelists. But 50 years earlier Howells, in his role of novelist-critic and realist, first wrote about Turgenev and was a pioneer, with the novels of what Chekhov called “the holy sixties” appearing on his watch. So I am extremely curious to delve into the basics of this transmission–and I think I know where to start looking–, but my question at the moment is just how aware of Howells himself was Chekhov? What I guess I’m looking for are the antecedents of Lopakhin, the successful businessman who is the son of a serf, who buys the cherry orchard at auction, fails to step up and marry Varya, and who gives the order to cut down the orchard at the conclusion. Lopakhin is a rather straightforward man of business, and I’m sure there are all sorts of models for him, but as the story was taking shape he did remind me vaguely of Silas Lapahm, although only in a vague way. But then a most curious thing occurs at the midpoint of the final act, something of an odd afterthought or coda, a final glimmer of Chekhov’s comic intentions before the final focus on loss and the end of a world. Pischik runs in and describes “a most extraordinary incident”:

Some Englishmen arrived at my place and found some kind of white clay in the ground…
(He gives away money and chatters on a bit.)
I leased them the land with the clay in it for twenty-four years… and now, please excuse me, I’ve no more time…

And so TCO ends, rather oddly and ironically, with one of its lesser characters receiving a temporary stay in the financial endgame that serves as the crux of the play. And my immediate question was whether this bit about the clay and the Englishmen (“What sort of Englishmen?” someone asks) isn’t a nod at Howells and Silas Lapham, where the whole story is started, and Lapham makes his way as a man of business and forerunner of Lopakhin, because he lives on land in Vermont that has clay that’s useful for creating “mineral paint.” Just a minor question, and I suppose my larger note is that Howells makes a nice companion to Chekhov in a midlife reading project.

They aren’t really “first impression” items, but I want to mention that I spent some time quickly going through Patrick Miller’s Chekhov in the Hesperus Brief Lives series, a relatively recent little volume that is concise and quite good, and it’s a bit clearer as a reference tool than Janet Malcolm’s book, which seems rather impressionistic now as I go back to it–but it was critical to getting started, and there’s still a lot of good stuff there. Reading the major plays has been an odd and unexpected turn, all started by our friend going to see Uncle Vanya in NYC. What it does now, on a practical level, is that it throws the door on criticism and commentary wide open, as a whole lot of the action is focused on the “major plays” and a few of the most well-known stories. As I was going through Miller’s small volume it seemed as if there were more texts, stories and plays, that I knew rather than those I didn’t know, even if that’s not actually true–there’s still a long way to go, but we might be past the first full stage of Chekhov exposure and reference at this point.

And you know, obviously, that it doesn’t take much to get me reading biography and criticism. I’ve been haphazardly glancing around as I’ve been going along, but getting through TCO now, I feel like it’s possible to dig in a bit further. So I want to note that this week, after finishing the play last weekend (but before finishing writing this up), I read what thus far has been the clearest and most luminous piece of criticism of Chekhov that I’ve encountered thus far, “Chekhov at Large,” by Boris Eichenbaum. This relatively brief essay, written in 1944 at the 40th anniversary of Chekhov’s death, does a fantastic job of making clear the sources and progress of Chekhov’s antecedents, realism and technique, placing it in his medical training and scientific bent and showing how it was gradually enlarged to contain a broader world view. I’ll mention it again and quote from it as I jot down some thoughts on doctors and literature, which seems to be a pervasive issue in the reading I’ve been doing for awhile now, as I’ll try to follow that thread in my next post.

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