http://www.todayinliterature.com

October 24, 2017

Chekhov and The Cherry Orchard

On this day in 1904 Anton Chekhov was interred, some 4000 escorting the casket on a four-mile procession across Moscow. Chekhov had died in a German spa town, his short stay there, like his longer stays in the Crimean resort of Yalta throughout his last years, part of a lifelong battle with the tuberculosis that killed him at the age of forty-four. Most accounts of Chekhov's last months portray him as maintaining his customary wit, work ethic and self-deprecation throughout a swirl of last ditch treatments -- butter diets, Spanish fly compresses, a ban on bathing. "Chekhov could hardly walk, noises came from his chest," said one friend. "But he seemed not to notice. He was interested in anything but illness.... Why are such precious contents locked up in such a frail vessel?"

Maxim Gorky couched similar praise in an outrage over the funeral. "Anton who squirmed at anything vile and vulgar" had been transported from Germany in a refrigerated railcar marked, "For Oysters." Part of the throng of mourners became confused by another funeral, that of an army general, and marched off to the strains of a military band. Among those who made it to the graveyard were many who "climbed trees and laughed, broke crosses and swore as they fought for a place. They asked loudly, 'Which is the wife? And the sister? Look, they're crying...." The family did not arrive until the procession was midway; students guarding the cortege didn't recognize them, and they had to force their way through.

But others have commented that this final scene was entirely Chekhovian, a blend of tragedy and farce at which the master would have chuckled. The Cherry Orchard had opened at the Moscow Art Theater just six months earlier, on his forty-fourth birthday. He wrote it at his Yalta cottage, where a fruit orchard was on one side and a cemetery on the other. He had promised a comedy and continued to describe it so, but Stanislavsky, anxiously awaiting the script in Moscow, doubted it: "I imagine it will be something impossible on the weirdness and vulgarity of life. I only fear that instead of a farce again we shall have a great big tragedy. Even now he thinks Three Sisters a very merry little piece."

Chekhov scholars such as Donald Rayfield, from whose 1997 biography much here is taken, link him to Beckett, Pinter and the other absurdists, and note that in his last hours Chekhov entertained his wife with an improvised story in which diners at a hotel wait for their meal, not knowing that the cook has vanished. Whether the opening night audience was confused by the humor or, on the outbreak of war with Japan, not receptive to "an elegy for a lost world, estate and class," their enthusiasm was muted. Although deathly ill, Chekhov had gone on stage for a birthday tribute at the last intermission; perhaps this was on the audience's mind when the curtain later came down on the old, ill housekeeper locked in the house, and on one of the most famous closing stage directions in modern theater:
    FIERS: . . . Life has gone by, as if I haven't lived at all-[Lying down] I'll lie down awhile-You haven't got any strength, nothing is left, nothing-Ach, you-good-for-nothing-[He lies still.]

    [There is a far-off sound as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away. A stillness falls, broken only by the thud of an axe on a tree, far away in the orchard.]
Chekhov was a doctor; the custom among German and Russian doctors attending a colleague on his deathbed was to order champagne at the very end. Before it arrived, Chekhov sat up and said, in German, "I'm dying." When offered a glass, he drank, said "I haven't had champagne for a long time," lay down on his side and died within seconds.

Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble