Godfather of Absurdism

cherry-bowler

I mentioned in a previous post, how I thought Chekhov foreshadowed absurdism. Having now read and watched The Cherry Orchard, I a even more confirmed in that opinion. Among the characters are a maid who thinks she’s a lady, a maladroit clerk, a man who talks as though he’s shooting billiards at random intervals, a governess who does circus tricks, and an aged valet who follows his 60-something charge about as if he were 6.

What’s interesting about this play, however, is that it’s much more clear what the source of the absurdism is: the breakdown of the old Russian class structure. This is a play in which no one knows their place: servants put on airs (without fear of censure), former serfs have become millionaires, old family retainers look on the emancipation as a tragedy, and the youngest generation dreams of revolution.

In fact, the Bolshevik takeover was only 13 years away, and the emancipation of the serfs had happened the previous generation. People like Lopakhin, who once might have served the upper classes, where now competing with them. But despite his millions, he still tries to curry favor and can’t bring himself to propose to Varya, either because she’s too far above him, or he’s simply too ill at ease. The former ruling classes, however, are too incompetent to manage their own estates.

There are some (including Chekhov) who viewed it as a comedy with tragic elements, and those (like Stanislovsky) who saw it exactly the opposite. For me, the text supports Chekhov, though I wouldn’t call it a “farce”, as he did. Madame Ranevskaya has definitely experienced true pain: the loss of her son and the knowledge she’s in a failed relationship. She and Gayev, however, make no real attempt to rescue the estate and it’s orchard. If they had tried and failed, that would have been a tragedy, but they don’t even try. In addition, all of the characters are foolish and absurd at some point, and they’re constantly talking past one another, listening to nothing but their own thoughts.

I watched two BBC productions, one from 1962 and one from 1981. The director of the earlier version, Michael Elliot, takes the comic approach and is more successful in my mind, though Richard Eyre’s adaptation has better production  values and the advantage of being in color. Both have excellent casts, and Judy Dench appears as Anya in 1962 and returns as Mme. Ranevskaya in 1981.

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