”Think, Anya – your grandfather, your great-grandfather, all your ancestors owned slaves, living souls. Can you hear their voices? Don’t you feel human beings looking at you from every tree in the orchard? To have owned human souls has perverted you all – your ancestors and you who are alive now, so that your mother, your uncle, and even you don’t realize it, but you’re living in debt, at the expense of those who were your slaves”.
Anton Chekhov’s final play, “The Cherry Orchard” premiered at the Moscow Art Theater in January, 1904. Chekhov died the following summer. Yet his last work, and indeed the last years of his life, was inextricably entwined with the failed revolution that swept Russia the year after his death. No literary work, neither contemporary nor retrospective, has captured the zeitgeist of this era in Russian history more perceptively than “The Cherry Orchard.”
When Chekhov began writing the play at his new home in Yalta in the spring of 1903, he was under mounting pressure from Moscow Art Theater founders Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko to produce a new work for the coming season. Earlier that year, Chekhov had vaguely promised them a “vaudeville or comedy,” offering little if any detail. Stanislavsky was not convinced, concerned that the new play would prove to be “something impossible on the weirdness and vulgarity of life. I only fear that instead of a farce again we shall have
a great big tragedy”.
The seeds of the play had been germinating for some time. In the fall of 1901, Chekhov had first mentioned to Stanislavsky an orchard as the setting for a play, and he suggested the title to his sister Masha the following year, after receiving news that the new owner of the Chekhovs’ estate in Melikhovo had chopped down the orchard of cherry trees Anton had planted. By early 1903, Chekhov was firmly established at the MAT as its leading playwright and literary star. He had married the company’s lead actress Olga Knipper in May, 1901, and had enjoyed considerable success and acclaim with three previous stagings of his work under Stanislavsky’s direction.
The formation of the Moscow Art Theater undeniably changed the course of Chekhov’s life as a playwright, and with it the course of modern theater. Following the abject failure of “The Seagull” in St. Petersburg in October, 1896, Chekhov vowed never to write for the stage again. Opening night there had “caused a scandal in the auditorium, the worst anyone could then recall in Russian theatre”. Chekhov’s sister Masha recounted some years later that when Anton met her at the train station the following morning, he was incensed. “The actors don’t know their parts. They understand nothing. The acting is horrible. The play will flop. You shouldn’t have come”. A contemporary review dismissed “The Seagull” as “… a boring, drawn-out thing that embitters the listener… This isn’t a play. There is nothing theatrical in it… The auditorium expected something great and got a bad, boring piece… Chekhov is not playwright. The sooner he forgets the stage, the better…”. Chekhov walked out of the next performance and into the freezing St. Petersburg night, vowing never to subject himself to that kind of humiliation again.
A letter from Nemirovich-Danchenko in the spring of 1898 began to change that, and in so doing, began a process that would lead to a successful re-staging of “The Seagull” in Moscow, followed by “The Three Sisters”, and, ultimately, “The Cherry Orchard.” “Of contemporary Russian authors I have decided to cultivate only the most talented and still poorly understood,” Nemirovich-Danchenko wrote to Anton on April 25. “… ‘The Seagull’… enthralls me and I will stake anything you like that these hidden dramas and tragedies in every character of the play, given a skillful… production without banalities, can enthrall the auditorium, too.” Nemirovich-Danchenko concluded rather proudly that, “Our theatre is beginning to arouse the strong indignation of the Imperial theatres. They understand we are making war on routine, clichés, recognized geniuses, and so on…”.
Despite his feeling that trying to write for the theater following the St. Petersburg debacle was like “eating cabbage soup from which a cockroach had just been removed,” Chekhov paid his first call on the Moscow company during a September rehearsal of “The Seagull”, which featured MAT star Olga Knipper as Irina. Shortly thereafter, Chekhov wrote:”Nemirovich and Stanislavsky have a very interesting theatre. Pretty actresses. If I’d have stayed a bit longer, I’d have lost my head”.
As Chekhov began wrestling with “The Cherry Orchard” at his new estate in the Crimea, internecine warfare was breaking out in the theater up in Moscow. In early 1903, MAT began to split into two factions: one side, led by fiery actress, Knipper nemesis and later, Gorky’s mistress Maria Andreeva, agitated for an ideological shift to accommodate the rising tide of revolutionary dramas. Others, including Nemirovich-Danchenko and Knipper, fought to maintain MAT’s growing reputation for theater of strong literary value. On March 3, a “row erupted” at the theater, with company member Savva Morozov accusing the “capitalist conservatism” of Nemirovich-Danchenko as the certain downfall of the theater. Agitprop theater, with Chekhov’s friend Maxim Gorky at its forefront, had become an increasingly viable and popular form of activist entertainment as the Russian working class began to squirm under the oppressive thumb of Czar Nicholas II in the late 1890s. Thrust into power by the sudden demise of his father, Alexander III in October 1894, Nicholas began his reign not exactly bubbling over with confidence. “What am I going to do?” he wailed to a cousin on the eve of his coronation. “I am not prepared to be a Czar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling”. Those may have been the most honest words the new Czar ever wrote or spoke, the Czar actively sought out “bureaucratic outsiders and moral outcasts” – the infamous Rasputin among them – who could divert his attentions from the tiring business of state. Others in his inner circle were not as coy in their assessments of the Czar’s character and leadership abilities. “Unfortunate man!” exclaimed the Czar’s Interior Minister’s wife in late 1904. “A type of feeble degenerat[e], it was beaten into his head that he must be firm, and there is nothing worse than a weak person wanting to be firm”. Nicholas’ reign was doomed from its beginning. Chekhov’s publisher friend Alexei Suvorin was among those who attended the coronation festivities in Moscow a year and a half after Nicholas had assumed power. Viewing stands had been quickly erected, and to assure filling them, officials promised a half million complementary gifts – a tin cup and a “coronation sausage” – plus the chance to win a silver watch, one for each grandstand. In response, more than 700,000 commoners descended upon Moscow. Scaffolding collapsed, killing more than 2000 attendees.
“Corpses were being carted all day,” Suvorin reported from the aftermath. “… There were lots of children… I haven’t seen any gentry. It’s just workmen and artisans lying there… what bastards these police officials are, every one of them, and these bureaucrats”. A week later, Chekhov joined Suvorin at the site of the tragedy. “The graves stilled smelled,” Suvorin noted in his diary. “A beggar told us the coffins were put on top of each other in three layers. The crosses are about four feet apart.” Chekhov, noted Suvorin, said little about it at the time, but upon returning home wrote nothing for two weeks. Callous behavior by the Russian government towards its citizens was certainly nothing new. The Imperial position towards its charges had become increasingly reactionary since the Great Reforms of the 1860s had led to the Counter Reforms of 1889-92. Nicholas’ father, Alexander III, was the architect of the Counter Reform movement. Alexander was convinced the reforms of the 1860s – including the emancipation of the serfs – had “gone too far in that they had outpaced Russia’s historical development and artificially injected foreign ideas and theories of government, including… ideals… of individual autonomy.”
Alexander championed the Counter Reforms as a “necessary corrective” for Russia to regain its true social structure and national destiny. Nicholas, for his part, dismissed as “senseless dreams” a people’s coalition request for a modicum of civil liberties, including a petition for freedom of the press which Chekhov signed, an action which brought him under surveillance for a time by the Czar’s secret police. Besides squashing the “senseless dreams” of its people, another key component to realizing the Empire’s “national destiny” was imperialist expansion into other nations, a cause championed with apparent fervent zeal by Nicholas’ wife, Alexandra. With the Czarina admonishing her reluctant husband to be “firm, strong, assertive and to let others know with whom they [are] dealing,” and with the ambitious Minister of Finance Sergei Witte and the reviled Minister of Internal Affairs V. K. Pleve plotting its course, an ill-prepared Russia in late 1903 squared off with an “insolent” Japan over the conquest of Manchuria and Korea. The showdown exploded suddenly into war with Japan’s surprise attack on Russia’s Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur on January 27, 1904, setting into motion a chain of events that would lead to Revolution the following year. Temporarily swept up in a wave of national jingoism and militaristic fervor, the Russian public had hardly been in the mood to embrace “The Cherry Orchard” at its premiere at the Moscow Art Theater ten days earlier. The New Times dismissed not only the play, but the playwright as well. “Chekhov is not just a weak playwright, but an almost weird one, rather banal and monotonous”.
Terminally ill by this time, Chekhov shocked the company when he appeared at the theater on opening night after his protracted, self-imposed “exile” in Yalta. A stunned Stanislavsky said later it was like seeing “a living corpse.” Serious health problems had plagued Chekhov since early adulthood; his latent tuberculosis worsened considerably after his arduous expedition to the Island of Sakhalin in 1890. Chekhov’s lungs were diagnosed with “irreversible necrosis” Nevertheless, perhaps caught up himself in the war fever sweeping his country, perhaps once again to escape what he perceived as the failure of his play, Chekhov announced he was leaving that summer for the Manchurian front to become a combination physician/war correspondent. None who saw him that night took him seriously. By May, Chekhov was back in Yalta being attended to by Olga with a combination of morphine, opium and heroin. On June 26, from the Badenweiler health resort in her native Germany, where Olga had taken Chekhov in a last-ditch effort to save him, she wrote her sister-in-law Masha, “The doctor says that because his lungs are in such a bad way, his heart is doing double the work it should, and his heart is by no means strong”.
Early on the morning of July 15, 1904, that heart gave out. German medical etiquette at the time dictated that “a doctor at a colleague’s deathbed, when all hope was gone, should offer champagne”. A bottle was brought in. “Anton sat up and loudly proclaimed, ‘Ich sterbe’ (‘I am dying’). He drank, murmured, ‘I haven’t had champagne for a long time,’ lay down on his left side… and died”. Later that same day in St. Petersburg, revolutionary terrorists assassinated the despised Imperial Minister of Internal Affairs Pleve with a homemade bomb.
An elegy for a lost world, estate, and class, “The Cherry Orchard” foretold the events of both 1905 with a prescient clarity most living at the time simply could not see. Death in “The Cherry Orchard,” in an ending that heralds Samuel Beckett, is banal: a senile servant is forgotten in a locked house. The same incongruity between Chekhov’s imagination and his fate that is shown in the owners of the doomed cherry orchard. “Chekhov could hardly walk, noises came from his chest, but he seemed not to notice. He was interested in anything but illness… why are such precious contents locked up in such a frail vessel?”
Chekhov’s remains were locked up in a refrigerated train car marked, “For Oysters” and shipped back to Russia from Germany for burial. Gorky was at the funeral with Chekhov’s sister Masha, and widow Olga. He wrote of that day, “I am so depressed by this funeral… as if I was smeared by sticky, foul-smelling filth… People climbed trees and laughed, broke crosses and swore as they fought for a place. They asked loudly, ‘Which is the wife? And the sister? Look, they’re crying… ‘ [Russian opera singer] Chaliapin burst into tears and cursed: ‘And he lived for these bastards, he worked, taught, argued for them”.