Comedy, Tragedy….or Beckett?

The Challenge of The Cherry Orchard


Although it has been over a century since Anton’s Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard opened at the Moscow Art Theatre, the contentious debate that surrounded the first production continues to haunt the play over a hundred years later. Chekhov claimed it was a comedy bordering on vaudevillian farce. Its director, Constantine Stanislavski, on the other hand, considered it a brooding tragedy. This, of course, was not their first disagreement. Chekhov frequently complained that Stanislavski’s heavily naturalistic productions of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters—which tried to mimic the very minutiae of life’s surfaces while depicting the deepest emotions of the characters inner lives—were overly concerned with inessentials like scenic elements depicting charcoal fires burning in the distance. The disagreement over The Cherry Orchard, however, proved the most heated. After suffering through the premiere, Chekhov stormed out of the play, swearing off theatre forever.

            Since that infamous night, theatre artists around the world have continued the debate that sparked so much fury between Chekhov and Stanislavski by mounting productions that, in one way or another, try to answer the century old riddle: how do you stage The Cherry Orchard?           

            Internationally renowned experimental director Peter Brook answered this question head on with his 1988 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, creating a setting that was as minimalist as Stanislavski’s was ornamented. Requiring only a few chairs, a screen, a bookcase, and a couple oriental rugs, his bare bones rendering of the play was more existentialist tragicomedy than brooding realism. His international cast—for which he is famous for working with—created stylized characterizations that owed more to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than Stanislavski’s “Method”.    

            Lin Zhaohua, on the other hand, took the play in a completely different direction, setting his 2004 version—which was staged as part of the National Theatre Company of China’s 2004 centennial celebration of the playwright’s death—in a expressionistic grotto comprised of eight barren trees made of plastic and iron wires set against a stark yellow earth and limestone sky. Although he did emphasize, like Stanislavski, the personal tragedies of the characters, the parallel between the play’s theme—which dramatizes the socioeconomic shift from aristocratic to capitalist dominance—and the current economic changes taking place in China did not escape the attention of theatergoers.     

            Tina Landau’s recent production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, however, took Stanislavski’s realism one step further by experimenting with an environmental approach. From the moment the audience entered the theatre through a hallway composed of white lace, they were made to feel as if they were in the very parlor where the action takes place. With the help of designer Riccardo Hernandez, she even masked the playing area with translucent screens that folded up once the play began, thus metaphorically dissolving the fourth wall separating the audience from the actors.

            When Chekhov stormed out of the premiere of The Cherry Orchard in 1904, he was already deathly ill with tuberculosis. Crushed by Stanislavski’s interpretation, he was certain that come a year after his death, he would be completely forgotten as a writer. Yet, a hundred years after, as this sampling of productions testify, his dramatic vision remains as inspiring as ever. What he produced, in the end, was neither a comedy nor a tragedy, but a “problem play”, which, like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, defies definition, allowing theatre artists to discover layers of meaning that neither Chekhov nor Stanislavski could have ever imagined. Perhaps it’s because of this versatility and elusiveness that many today consider The Cherry Orchard Chekhov’s greatest masterpiece.  


Dan Tarker – Literary  Associate