Thursday, April 14, 2011

Anton Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard

I am writing to see if you have anything on your blog about "The Cherry Orchard?" I have a directing proposal coming up on that play and since you are and always will be the Chekhov expert, I thought I'd go right to the source to brush up a little.

The area that springs to mind is remembering that this play is a comedy and treating it as such - without diminishing what is a tragedy (or at least a melodrama) for those who are loosing their way of life. The moments when things break. When the characters are facing true crises - how to balance that with the comedy (and hopefully creating truly revelatory moments; good god I sound like a director).

I remember you saying in acting class that we didn't know how lucky we were to having the time to work on plays as we did - so I tried to take it all the more seriously. Then I got out of college and found out how true it was... then I got over it but not I'm starting to slip back into a yearning for more time to deeply delve into all these great stories.

I'm grateful for the chance to spend with this script again.

When I was directing Three Sisters at NU, a visiting scholar watched a rehearsal and afterwards said to me, "Oh, you're going for melodrama. May I suggest comedy? For example, Vershinin could have oversized epaulets and big shiny medals--so we'd know he’s a fool. Go for the farce. Chekhov would love it."
I was pretty sure that Chekhov wouldn't love it. (Though I'm pretty sure he would have loved the character of the visiting scholar.)
Chekhov's comedy comes from a juxtaposition of what characters are capable of--or at least passionate about--and something opposite in their makeup: Commanding the classroom or the theatre, Alvina Krause was Yoda and Gandalf and Mad Madam Mim; standing in front of the salad bar at a local restaurant, empty plate in hand, she was a perplexed and overwhelmed child.
Lopakhin the peasant who has become a wealthy businessman buys a new suit to wear for Lubov's return—How does it fit? What color is it? What's the comedy?
Gaev makes an impassioned speech to the bookcase and then, blushing, pops a piece of hardtack into his mouth--or mimes a really great billiards shot. (When my father found himself in such a moment of public embarrassment, he would mime a putt with his imaginary golf club and then walk out of the room.)
Fiers is so old he can barely stand upright, but he's going to walk all the way out to the Act II spot just to make sure that Gaev is wearing his coat and scarf.
And how old is Gaev? As Fiers makes him put on his overcoat, what does Gaev do that says "child"? What's the comedy?
Gaev and Lubov escape into their childhood—but productions that put huge lollipops in their hands miss the comic point, and the source of the comedy. Not to mention the drama.
Yes, there are farcical moments. Dunyasha mimics a young lady's (Anya's?) mannerisms—but when Yasha kisses her earlobe, she shrieks and drops a coffee cup.
And poor Epihodoff--no matter what he does, it leads to disaster. (He sits down. An arrest as he realizes there was a puddle of spilled coffee on the chair. Beat. Slow turn of the head right to his audience. A look that says 'Awful things always happen to me'.)  And in preparation for the moment when he can no longer face life, he carries a revolver.
Always ask: What is the source of the comedy? What is the human behavior source of the comedy?
What’s the source of the comedy in the scene with Trofimov and Anya that ends Act II? It’s a moonlight night. The two young people are left alone on the stage. What would happen in any other play?
Why is it funny that Gaev says he might get a job in a bank? What does he do as he says this that shows the incongruity and points up the comedy?
What's the comedy of the dance party atmosphere of Act III? Be specific.
Behind it all is an entire class of people who have squandered family wealth their generation didn't earn; who are heading for the cliff and who are unwilling and perhaps unable to take any practical action to prevent themselves from going over.
It's funny and heartbreaking at the same time.


  1. David,

    Thanks... brings up several interesting images for me. I like the idea of Alvina Krause in class as "Yoda and Gandolf and Mad Madam Mim; (then) standing in front of the salad bar at a local restaurant, empty plate in hand, she was a perplexed and overwhelmed child."

    Makes me wonder how much of Anne's teaching was an aborted imitation of her own teacher. Or how much of my own behavior can be seen as an imitation of my Father, for instance? So could we not agree there's comedy in our human inclination not to be ourselves, but to mimic and imitate until we find our own way? And how humorous when we never seem to find our own way? The idea being Chekhov might be better served if I think "folly" instead of farce.

    Also, I'm intrigued by the idea that Chekhov is offering a glimpse at a postmodern sensibility that has not yet registered fully at the beginning of a postmodern society. How funny can people and situations become when it's apparent nothing is as it was or functions that way anymore, yet no one can really identify what should be next? Answer: scan corporate media.

    Well, my Northwestern education continues. Thanks again.


  2. I know that everything doesn't need to be hierarchized, but The Cherry Orchard has always been, head and shoulders and head again, my favorite of Chekhov's plays. And it seems to me to be the one and only one that hasn't a single longeur (yes, I know, David, if they're acted correctly there shouldn't even *be* any longeurs, but I still find patches of, especially The Seagull, very very very slow going).

    And it seems to me to inspire especially fine work from actors and directors. I can still vividly see in my mind moments of the Andrei Serban production at Lincoln Center, and that was more than 30 years ago. And then I think of Brian Dennehy's bearlike Lopakhin in the Peter Brook production at BAM. And then, and then....

    What precisely is it aboutthe play, do you think, that's so magical. I often marvel at how eccentric its construction is, how, despite its dire plot points, it seems to be almost plotless. If you know what I mean....

    Anyway, there's probably no other play I like to mull on more, and I think I'm about due to see another great production, if someone will only produce it.

    Perhaps the Dunyasha from the Serban/Irene Worth production is ready to play Mme. R?

  3. David,
    My production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD opens next week, and I am both pleased and proud to say it owes a lot to your being Yoda to me. I can honestly admit that in every scene you mention above, I have hit the nail on the head (thanks to you and many others) as pertains to the comedy. I like the term 'folly' Conley uses above--there are moments that crack me up every time I see them as well as moments that break my heart. When I listen for the play, this is clearly the way Chekhov wants it to go.

  4. what an impact you have had. well done.