On September 15, 1903, Anton Chekhov wrote a letter to a friend, mentioning his new play The Cherry Orchard:
What’s turned out isn’t a drama, but a comedy, in places even a farce.
Five days later, director Konstantin Stanislavsky, having received a copy of The Cherry Orchard, sent a note to Chekhov about it, declaring:
[The Cherry Orchard] is not a comedy, not a farce, as you wrote; it is a tragedy… I wept like a woman, I tried to control myself, but could not. I can hear you say: “But please, this is a farce.” No, for the ordinary person this is a tragedy.
You can see the problem here. Chekhov saw his plays as comedies, but productions that highlight the farcical elements are often criticized; it is now customary to associate Chekhov with gloom and doom. Chekhov himself despaired of the “realistic” elements put into the stagings of his plays, and wondered what had happened to the humor. The disagreement between Chekhov and Stanislavsky over what it was Chekhov had actually written, and how it should be played, continues to this day. Are these plays tragedies? Or farces?
Reading the scripts as one would a book, one is struck by the humor. Chekhov has an undeniable slapstick quality. People trip and stumble, people’s shoes squeak, they chase each other around rooms, they drop tea trays. They are, in many ways, ridiculous people: eccentric, impractical, obnoxious. They do not realize, until it is too late, that they have made a mess of everything. This is their tragedy. Yet, despite its sad ending, with the family having to leave their home forever, The Cherry Orchard is certainly Chekhov’s funniest full-length play.
Michael Cacoyannis‘ 1999 film The Cherry Orchard, starring Charlotte Rampling as Madame Lyubov Ranyevskaya, strikes an intense balance between the broad comedic and tragic elements, while also underlining the pointed (and prophetic) social commentary in Chekhov’s script. Cacoyannis did the screenplay as well, from his own translation of the original script, and the only major change is that a prologue has been added, showing Lyubov’s final squalid days in Paris, before her 17 year-old-daughter Anya (Tushka Bergen) arrives from Russia, to take her back home.
Lyubov and her brother Gayev (played by Alan Bates) have inherited their gorgeous ancestral home that includes a cherry orchard so huge that “it is mentioned in the encyclopedia” (huffs Gayev with pride). But Lyubov is a spendthrift, and has been living in exile for many years, and Gayev has never worked a day in his life, so the mortgage payments have been ignored, and they are going to lose the home and all the land unless they do something drastic. Lopahin (Owen Teale), a former peasant-boy now stridently middle-class, advises Lyubov and Gayev that they must subdivide the land, cut down the cherry orchard, and sell them as vacation lots. “How vulgar,” sighs Lyubov, who can’t seem to grasp how serious her situation is.
Varya is Lyubov’s adopted daughter (played by the late Katrin Cartlidge), who runs the household with brisk efficiency, and endures the teasing she gets about being in love with Lopahin, something she can barely admit to herself. Servants fill the house (Dunyasha, Yasha, Feers, all adding comic relief) and they continue to perform their duties despite the growing awareness that everything is about to change.
Filmed in Bulgaria, the estate, perched on the edge of a forest, is overrun by vines. The production design and set decoration (by Dionysis Fotopoulos and Ivan Andreyev, respectively) are superb. The house feels lived-in, yet already of an era gone by. Cinematographer Aris Stavrou evokes the in-between world of turn of the century Russia, the house filled with pitch-black shadows against which the character’s faces gleam, like a Caravaggio. Every shot is exquisite, every shot a work of art. The cherry orchard stretches as far as the eye can see.
Charlotte Rampling, as Lyobov, glides about the estate, a broken woman, coming home to rest, only to find that her home is threatened. There is something about Charlotte Rampling that suggests eternal brokenness. She is able to embody, unlike no living actress – except perhaps Gena Rowlands in her heyday, and Isabelle Huppert – life on the edge of sanity, demons and dark fantasies nipping at her heels. Rampling’s eyes here are dark and petrified, yet her voice remains mellifluous, smooth and low. It is a haunting combination. She is divided from herself, and on the run from her memories. Her attachment to the house is visceral: watch how Rampling touches the piano, the bookcase, the drapes, on her return home.
Rampling also shows the silliness of the woman (giving away gold coins, ripping up telegrams, refusing to listen to reason), and, like Chekhov her author, we do not judge her. Yes, she is silly, and yes, her time is up as the dominant force in Russian society, but let us take a moment to mourn what is about to pass. Rampling always manages to bring an atmosphere of emotional danger to anything she does, and here she has never been better. You can feel the death knell of an entire society in her performance.
Alan Bates as the brother Gayev, a man incapable of taking up the patriarchal role, is also excellent, obsessing about billiards, and peppering his useless conversation with pool-cue moves in the imaginary game always going on in his head. Katrin Cartlidge is very touching as the spinster Varya, and Melanie Lynskey (unforgettable in Heavenly Creatures, her debut) is hilarious here as the buxom Dunyasha, a clumsy boy-crazy maid, insisting, all evidence to the contrary, that she is “delicate”, and “frail”.
The Russian Revolution is not twenty years away at the time the story takes place (and unknown by Chekhov at the time of his writing), but with retrospect you can feel the coming class cataclysm: It is in the intellectual pontifications of perpetual student Trofimov (Andrew Howard), in the triumphalism of former peasant Lopahin, who represents the future, in the leering homeless man they come across in the orchard, who does not keep the proper distance between himself and the aristocracy. The ancient butler, Feers (Michael Gough), remembers the emancipation of the serfs, and he chose to stay with his Master. Freedom was terrifying for him.
There’s a chilling moment in Act Two when all of the characters, in the orchard, suddenly hear something in the distance, a noise no one can identify.
LYOBOV: What was that?
LOPAHIN: Can’t tell. Sounds like it could be an echo from a mine shaft. But it must be far away.
GAYEV: Or some kind of bird … like a heron.
TROFIMOV: Or an owl.
LYOBOV: Makes me nervous.
FEERS: It’s like just before the trouble started. They heard an owl screech, and the kettle wouldn’t stop whistling …
GAYEV: Before what trouble?
FEERS: The day we got our freedom back.
LYOBOV: My dears, it’s getting dark; we should be going in.
Here we see Chekhov’s brilliance. Is the sound really an echo from a mineshaft? Or is it a sound from the future signaling the approaching havoc? Cacoyannis’ staging of this famous moment is riveting and theatrical, my favorite moment in the film. The pauses (written into the script) are stretched out, the silence suddenly falling over the group, as they stand, stranded in the middle of their own wilderness. Almost like a dance, the characters wander in that restless pause, slowly and dreamily, listening for something that is no longer there. Rampling’s head cocks upwards, her eyes terrified and alert, like an animal aware that it is in imminent danger, but unable to perceive the predator yet. Cacoyannis has the confidence as a director to let that small moment reverberate, not rushing it, not trying to hide the implications of it.
Moments before Chekhov died of tuberculosis he asked his wife for a glass of champagne. She complied. He made the comment that he was dying, took a sip and said, “I have not had champagne in a very long time!” He died soon thereafter. It seems a fitting end to the author of The Cherry Orchard and all of the other plays: Life is not just tragic, or just comic. Can’t philosophy and intellect exist simultaneously with sentiment and grief? In Chekhov, if you sacrifice one element to favor the others, you miss the point of the plays. Cacoyannis and his excellent cast never make that mistake. The characters, teetering at the abyss of oblivion, desperately grab for nearby objects to slow down their speed of descent. A billiard cue, a tea tray, a glass of champagne … The shadows gather their forces on the edge of the screen, threatening to engulf the whole world.