The Cherry Orchard was written by Anton Chekhov in 1904. It was a play much loved
by the Russian government because it was believed to be what the government, at the time, was preaching, the lower class replacing the ailing upper class. By ailing it is meant that the wealthy upper class was slowly losing out to the increasing lower class. This is seen here when Madame returns penniless to Russia to sell off the last thing she has to her name, the cherry orchard.
However there is more to this play than what the government wanted the populace to take away. Chekhov meant for this to be a comedy and surely it could have been but the humor seems to be lost in translation. Upon reading The Cherry Orchard one may get the impression that it is a tragedy. Truly it is if it is looked at from the point of the rich. Madame has a series of tragedies that befall her in her poor choices in men. But where is the comedy as we know it? Could the comedy be in some of the characters like Trofimov, Epihodov, or Yasha? Perhaps in Charlotta, the governess? Sometimes comedy is obvious like the slapstick of Larry, Moe, and Curly or the Keystone Kops. Sometimes comedy is less obvious like the dark humor of Ophelia's psychological breakdown which is indirectly caused by Hamlet. Can we compare Chekhov's humor to that of Shakespeare? We can compare the humor to any humor we want to. Flannery O'Connor comes to mind in the category of dark humor.
A lot can be said for “lost in translation” and this is not referring to the movie. The
Cherry Orchard was originally written in Russian.
GAEV: The train was two hours late. What do you think of that? Is that the way to do
CHARLOTTA: [To PISHTCHIK.] My dog eats nuts, too.
PISHTCHIK: [Wonderingly.] Fancy that! (2094)
The lines uttered by Charlotta to Pishtchik as they arrive home to the estate seem nonsensical but maybe Chekhov meant for them to be comic relief in a tense situation. Without consulting another translation one cannot be certain if the translation by Constance Garnett is off. However, Ms. Garnett is one of the best translators of Chekhov's work. Perhaps the humor can be translated back into the play by seeing it rather than reading it.
The comedy may also be interpreted by the reader. Each person has their own sense of
humor. Finding no humor in this play even after discussion with other individuals and revealing Chekhov's intent with the dialogue, it still lacks the outright humor most audiences are used to. We need to see this comedy or this play remains a tragedy no matter how we examine the lines.
Madame Ranevsky is a tragic character, if a little melodramatic. She comes into the
nursery in tears. She gives money to a poor man and carries on after in guilt for her household starving yet she gives away money. But is she funny? Perhaps we can find humor in her over large motions and the unawareness of her situation. But wait, could the comedy be in Lopahin and his purchase of the cherry orchard? He does buy the one place that symbolizes repression and poverty to him. However, there could be a bit of humor here:
LOPAHIN: Then you’re going to Moscow now?
TROFIMOV: Yes. I shall see them as far as the town, and to-morrow I shall go on to
LOPAHIN: Yes, I daresay, the professors aren’t giving any lectures, they’re waiting for
TROFIMOV: That’s none of your business. (2122.)
But, it seems more of a snide exchange than humor.
The humor that Chekhov may have intended is that of Madame Ranevsky upon learning
of the identity of the purchaser. She sinks “into a chair and is weeping bitterly” (2120.) No, this still isn’t the humor that the masses look for.
Most read this play as a tragedy because of the lack of obvious comedy. Chekhov is, in
popular opinion, one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. He was good at dark characters and odd and quarky behaviors. He may have had humor somewhere but in The Cherry Orchard, his brand of humor is lost.
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