Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" Really is a Comedy
Anton Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard "a comedy in four acts." Of course he called The Seagull a comedy, too, even though one of the main characters commits suicide at the end. I think The Cherry Orchard really is a comedy however. It's a comedy in two senses of the word, the classical and modern senses.
It's a comedy in the classical sense that, even though things look bad for a while, they all work out in the end. Some of Shakespeare's comedies are not very funny, for example Measure for Measure, in which a corrupt judge demands relations with a novice nun in order to save her brother's life. But it's a comedy because no one dies and the characters who've tried to do what's right finally get justice. A callous fate doesn't get to wipe everybody out in a classical comedy.
No one dies tragically in The Cherry Orchard, either, although Firs, the ancient servant, dies peacefully in the home that he loves. The owners of the cherry orchard and the rest of the estate, the generous Mrs. Ranevsky and her brother Gayev, are faced with having the property sold to pay their debts. They cling to happy memories of their childhood home, and hatch all kinds of plans to save it. "Oh, my orchard!" Mrs. Ranevsky cries, "after the dark autumns and the cold winters, you're young again, full of happiness!" But once they know the property is gone for good, they soon reconcile themselves to the idea. Mrs. Ranevsky returns to Paris to take care of her hapless lover, and Gayev quickly secures a job at a bank.
Mrs. Ranevsky and Gayev even pass up the chance to save the estate by selling it for summer cottages. It's a plan proposed by their friend Lopakhin, who will even loan them the money to clear the land. Lopakhin is a wealthy businessman whose father was a serf under Mrs. Ranevsky's father. But the brother and sister refuse even to consider the scheme. "Villas and villa residents--it's so vulgar, excuse me." Mrs. Ranevsky says.
So Lopakhin ends up buying the estate at auction. How times have changed. Lopakhin can't help pointing it out, although he's a kind man. "I've bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren't even allowed in the kitchen," he declares triumphantly.
And, although Mrs. Ranevsky and Gayev mourn the loss of their childhood home with all its beauty and happy memories, they know its time is gone. Former serfs have become rich by commerce. The children of past gentry must now get by as best they can. Mrs. Ranevsky asks her daughter, "Are you very pleased? You are, aren't you?" and Anya answers, "Oh, yes, I am. This is the start of a new life, Mother." Gayev adds, "It's quite true, everything's all right now."
The Cherry Orchard is also a comedy in the modern sense that it's funny. It's full of wonderful, wacky Chekhov characters. There's Yepikhodov the clerk who complanins constantly, always adding, "not that I complain." There's Pischik, a neighbor, who has a great penchant for borrowing money and swallows a whole bottle of Mrs. Ranevsky's pills as a joke. "I've swallowed the lot!" he laughs. There's Yasha, the servant who fancies himself educated, and pronounces that the old servant Firs has a case of "anno domini."
Best of all there's Gayev, a good-natured man who loves to make speeches as much as everyone else hates to hear them. He congratulates a bookcase on being a hundred years old, and "educating us up to ideals of goodness and to the knowledge of a common consciousness." Later he begins, "Nature, glorious nature, glowing with everlasting radiance, so beautiful, so cold--" His nieces quickly cut him off, saying, "Uncle, you're doing it again!"
The Cherry Orchard is about how hard it can be to accept changes. It's also about how resilient people can be in the face of change. And, although a thread of sadness runs through the play, its characters are drawn with Chekhov's gentle humor. It gives us an optimistic view of humanity, which is a good thing for a comedy to do. We're left with the comforting thought that everything really is going to be all right.
Picture from publicdomainpictures.net
Anton Chekhov Five Plays, Oxford World's Classics, Oxford University Press 1977