Tragically Inane: The Cherry Orchard And Six Characters Essay, Research Paper
The deconstruction of the conventions of the theatre in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard predicts the more radical obliteration presented later by Pirandello in Six Characters in Search of an Author. The seed of this attack on convention by Chekhov are the inherent flaws of all the characters in The Cherry Orchard. The lack of any character with which to identify or understand creates a portrait much closer to reality than the staged drama of Ibsen or other playwrights who came before. In recognizing the intrinsic flaws of its characters, we can see how Chekhov shows us that reality is subjective, reality is not simple, linear, or clean, and that the real benefit of theater is to show this inane, subjective reality.
There are essentially three flaws that permeate over the characters of The Cherry Orchard. The obvious first flaw is nostalgia. Madame Ranevsky is obviously the main character in this group, as she is really in charge of her family, and her inability to move on with the present is so striking in comparison with what the audience so desperately wants her to do. To her, everything is in the past – even the present. She can’t get past the days of her childhood or the disasters six years previous. Even when she is forced to face reality – that the orchard has been sold – it seems like an event in the past. It has been inevitable from the beginning, and so even as it happens, the events are old news. A wonderful example of Madame Ranevsky’s nostalgic focus appears as her last substantive line in the play: “One last look… Our dear mother used to walk up and down this room.” Madame Ranevsky sees the past, present, and future as the past only.
Gayef, Simon-Pitschik, and Firs are the other characters that complete this group fixated on the past. Their versions of the past differ slightly, but that is almost all of the difference between their individual versions of the flaw. Essentially, Gayef is a benign, ineffectual man, and so his past is consistent with that. Firs and Pitschik both have an aggravated sense of the beauty of the past. Firs sees being a peasant as a wholly beneficial experience – at least in the past. Pitschik seems generally confused about what is happening and what has happened, while still being obsessively nostalgic.
The reason why this nostalgia can be compared to a tragic flaw is that it causes the characters it afflicts to ignore the reality of the present. In doing so, it seals their fate to what they call tragedy: the loss of the cherry orchard.
The second group of flawed characters exists mainly for themselves. They are vain, and generally naïve. Danyasha is the best example of this vanity. She dresses outside of the peasant class to heighten her own importance. She also gives herself a highly dramatic quality in everything she does. This is best shown right before Madame Ranevsky returns to the house. “I’m going to faint!” she says as she playacts for Lopakhin. She stages her actions for attention and lives off that attention. It is unfair to compare Anya to Dunyasha completely, but so too is Anya’s flaw a form of vanity. She does care about her family, but she only cares to the extent of worry. And yet still she seeks attention and drama in her displays of concern. But the characteristic that overwhelmingly captures Anya is her naïve selfishness. She cares about those who pay her attention and pander to her. Her love for Trophimof comes off as something so horribly artificial, and yet that is exactly what she wants.
Charlotte is the third character in this group of vanity, and she is also a complicated choice. She lives in a shallow world because that is what was created for her. We are not given much by which to examine Charlotte, but what is shown is a girl who occasionally questions life, but mainly lives for the “tricks” of life. Her parents were showmen, and so is she. That is what is expected, and what is real.
The reason why vanity renders Dunyasha, Anya, and Charlotte useless to stop the sale of the orchard is because it makes every issue an issue about “me.” Through whatever happens, the pressing issue on their minds is never the overwhelming problem of the orchard; rather, it’s about men, or dogs, or being noticed. Vanity leads to superficiality, which cannot solve problems of any great importance.
The two characters obsessed with intellectualism (and not actually doing anything for themselves or others) are Trophimof and Ephikhodof. Ephikhodof truly has nothing too insightful to say. His knowledge is limited, and he confuses everyone, including himself, in his pseudo-intellectual speak. “If I labour under a misapprehension, how is it that when I woke up this morning, behold, so to speak, I perceived sitting on my chest a spider of praternatural dimensions, like that?” These broad questions of so-called reality pale in comparison with what is actually happening. The play is riddled with such examples.
The character the foreword note refers to as the only giver of “sanity” is Trophimof. This is an inaccurate description of Trophimof, to say the least. Trophimof is also flawed through his intellectualism. Yes, he is unable to do anything to help the situation, as the note points out, but this is entirely his fault. He is unable to do anything because all he wants to do is analyze. The intellectualism of Trophimof and pseudo-intellectualism of Ephikhodof serves only to render their impact on the present completely ineffectual.
Finally, there are three characters who are not easily classified into the three above groups, but are clearly still flawed themselves. Yasha, although a minor character, is clearly a smart (and devious) man. However, he’s criminal. He doesn’t use his skills to help the family, and so his flaw is a type of vanity, but it’s really that he’s an evil person.
The last two characters are clearly the most interesting in terms of flaws. Barbara and Lopakhin are so similarly flawed. Both come from an “inferior” background – Lopakhin, a peasant, and Barbara, adopted. Neither can escape the past fully, but they are not like Ranevsky and Gayef in this respect. Rather, they are anti-nostalgic; they hate their pasts. But still they obsess about it, and that constitutes one part of their flaw. Both are also anti-vain. They spend their time caring about other people; Lopakhin spends almost the entire play trying to help Madame Ranevsky hold onto her land. Barbara is constantly looking out for her sister and her mother. Finally, both Barbara and Lopakhin are anti-intellectual. They do not dwell on examining anything for too long, especially not behaviors of others. Lopakhin cannot understand why no one else thinks like he does about things. Barbara doesn’t understand how to relate to others to achieve an end. So Barbara and Lopakhin have very similar flaws.
These flaws are essentially the opposite of the flaws of the other characters. So Chekhov is showing us that one can’t be too much of anything. Being too fixated on any specific goal without examining the situation and the people in it creates an atmosphere that does not solve problems. The flaws of the characters clash with each other, and nothing is accomplished.
The flaws of the characters are inherently important to the plot, and understanding the flaws is essential to understanding how Chekhov alters the conventions of the theatre. By presenting a stage filled with many characters, none of which are “right” or clearly the “main character,” The Cherry Orchard shows us the importance of true human interaction. Not only is it ridiculous and inane, but it also is the most important part of the theatre.
The first noticeable ramification of having no main or completely reasonable character is that, to the characters, reality is a subjective, personal experience. No one is carrying this plot like Hedda Gabler carries Ibsen’s play, or Hamlet carries Shakespeare’s. The play is about the conflicting emotions that come into the interactions of humans. Perhaps the best example of this is a conversation between Madame Ranevsky and Lopakhin:
Lopakhin: Excuse me, but in all my life I have never met anybody so frivolous as you two, so crazy and unbusinesslike! I tell you in plain Russian your property is going to be sold, and you don’t seem to understand what I say.
Madame Ranevsky: Well, what are we to do? Tell us what you want us to do.
Lopakhin: Don’t I tell you every day? Every day I say the same thing over and over again… Once you make up your mind about there are to be villas, you can get all the money you want, and you’re saved.
Madame Ranevsky: Villas and villa residents, oh, please… it’s so vulgar!
Madame Ranevsky looks to the past for her reality. We are used to this, it is her flaw. But we can see her viewpoint clearly. It would certainly be nice if things were as pleasant as she sees the past. And this solution that Lopakhin is presenting is clearly uncomfortable. To sell the great emblem of their past, the cherry orchard, would be a travesty. And to live next to people who would live in villas… It’s clearly a distressing future that Madame Ranevsky pictures, and the audience knows how she feels and can sympathize.
But on the other hand, she’s simply ignoring the reality of the present. It’s clear her orchard is going to be destroyed – why not take the pragmatic approach and get money out of it so she can live comfortably? Get the worst over with, and move on. It’s so frustrating that Lopakhin clearly presents what will happen to the orchard, and that Madame Ranevsky rejects this out of hand and ignores the inevitable to continue to ask again and again until, maybe, she gets an answer she wants. The audience can sympathize with the frustration in Lopakhin as he tries to convince Madame Ranevsky.
This inherent contradiction with a clear-cut reality is exactly what Chekhov is trying to achieve in The Cherry Orchard. It predicts the father’s argument in Six Characters in Search of an Author as he tries to convince the director that nothing is truly real. Reality is subjective.
Chekhov is forcing us to see that reality is not a tidy little package where characters enter and exit at exactly the right time. He wants to show human interaction as it is really is. So-called scholars pontificate about nothing, others obsess superficially about themselves, and those who seem to be living fairly logically are extremely narrow-minded when it comes to understanding others.
The final key to understanding how crucially important these inanities of life are to Chekhov’s play is the action of the play. Nothing that happens on stage changes the situation of the characters in it one bit. None of the really important events occur on stage. The selling of the orchard, the chopping down of the orchard; all of it happens offstage. This tells the audience that the important part of The Cherry Orchard (and by extension, plays in general) is the human interaction. The plot means nothing in comparison with the specific traits and flaws given each character. That is what truly makes the play great. It is reality; everyone talks, no one listens, and no one changes.
Chekhov has predated Pirandello in this technique that rips down conventions of the theatre. He paves the way for Pirandello to present Six Characters in Search of an Author. The father merely expresses what the audience knows, at least subconsciously, while watching The Cherry Orchard. The action the audience is forced to recognize in Six Characters is subtly broached in Chekhov’s play. It is discussion, and it is real discussion. People are different, and people are unpredictable. Reality is tragically inane, and that is what the theatre shows best.