Review of the event :
The Cherry Orchard by: Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
Presented by: Dr Mohini Khot
Review by: Sheena Shahani
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov is probably among the many works that Prof. Mohini Khot can talk about in her sleep. It seems that she kept her presentation ready for a rainy day – and on Sunday November 28 – that day dawned, and we, that part of the diaspora who are not fortunate to be among her past and present students, were given a mesmerising treat.
Dr. Khot spoke seamlessly, fluently and flawlessly, as always, on not just the play, accompanying her talk with a ‘skeletal’ set of slides – all the more better for us to just listen to her without distraction and let the surround-soundwaves of her words wash over our ears. She also provided a biographical sketch of the author (1860-1905), one of the greatest Russian writers ever, and the socio-political times prevailing in those 45 years of his short lifetime. Chekhov was born when America abolished slavery and Russia emancipated its serfs. In his lifetime Russia was ruled by three emperors. Chekhov himself was born into a working class family and his early life was a struggle. He was able to pursue two professions, medicine and authorship, and was a humane landlord, doctor and reformer, often waiving overdue rents, treating very ill people for free and writing about the prison conditions in Siberia. Towards the end of his life the notorious Bloody Sunday incident happened, when unarmed marching workers protesting inhumane working conditions were fired at. So the winds of change were already blowing, and even though he did not witness the Russian Revolution, he was able to sense, interpret and probably foretell what was coming. The Cherry Orchard, which is a multi-layered play, echoes the theme of social change soon to sweep not just through Russia, but also Europe, throughout its four acts.
The Cherry Orchard is a contemporaneous play and is spread out over a three-month timeframe. It begins on a frosty May morning in the early 20th century, when the aristocrat Madame Ranevskaya, her daughter Anya, and their attendants return from Paris to the family’s ancestral property in the Russian countryside. A group of friends and family members anxiously await their arrival, in the room which is a nursery, among them Ranevskaya’s brother Gaev, her elder daughter Varva, and her neighbour Lopakhin. Ranevskaya is delighted to be home after five years of self-exile abroad, but is soon given the bad news – unless she finds a way to pay off her accumulated debts before the end of August, the heavily-mortgaged property—and the surrounding land that encloses much of it—will have to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Lopakhin who is seemingly her well-wisher and her good friend in the beginning of the play – as he owes her a debt of kindness – urges Madame to chop down the trees in the cherry orchard, clear the land, divide it up into pockets or sub-plots, and rent these out to upwardly-mobile members of the emerging middle class, as “dacha residents”. This action will not only save her ancestral home, but it will also give her an annuity of Roubles 25,000, which seems like a win-win option.
But Ranevskaya will have none of this: she is obstinate and shuts her ears against selling her estate. As Prof. Khot pointed out, most of the book covers, and theatre – movie posters adapting the Cherry Orchard invariably emphasise the serene cherry blossom trees – they are such a vital presence and a major character. So perhaps we cannot blame Madame for feeling sentimental about her orchard, where she spent her carefree childhood years, and refusing to raze it to the ground.
As the house comes back to life, the maid Dunyasha and the accountant Ephikhodof navigate an awkward romance; the faithful butler Fiers, declining into dotage and senility, who has taken to mumbling incoherently to himself, rejoices in his mistress’s return; Gaev schemes of ways to secure money through borrowing and unofficial avenues; Varva does not want to be a wallflower and wonders whether she will ever get a proposal from Lopakhin, who is supposedly considering to go down on bended knee for several months now; and the shabby scholar Trophimof, who once served as tutor to the deceased Grisha (Madame’s seven-year-old son who drowned some years before), longs privately for the beautiful young Anya. In these vignettes, Chekhov provides a glimpse of those who genuinely care for Madame’s welfare and those who only seek to promote their own interests.
In Act two the house help go for a picnic and we get to hear about their insecurities, troubles, and concerns as they voice them aloud to one another. This is the ‘paperless, undocumented’ class, the working class, who will soon join the ranks of the rising middle class.
It is already August in Act three, and that’s when the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the landed gentry and the labour class in this play, have a status reversal. The nobody becomes a somebody and the somebody becomes a nobody overnight, during the course of a ball. Ranevskaya has arranged a lavish dinner party, complete with a band of musicians and nonstop dancing. She has orchestrated the party to distract from her anxiety—in town, far away, the auction for the cherry orchard is underway, and Gaev and Lopakhin have not yet returned with news of the outcome.
Eventually, Gaev enters the drawing-room, distraught, weeping. Ranevskaya asks him what had happened at the auction, but he is over-wrought, refuses to answer, and heads upstairs to change. Moments later, a gleeful Lopakhin comes into the room; when Ranevskaya asks him whether the cherry orchard was sold, he replies that it was, and when she asks him who bought it, he answers that he himself was the highest bidder. Lopakhin brags about how far he—the son of lowly peasants—has come in the world and looks forward to building a “new life” for the middle classes on the land where the orchard now stands.
In the fourth and final act, the house is bare and packed up; a large pile of luggage sits in the corner of the nursery. Ranevskaya and her family are hurriedly and tearfully preparing to leave. Fiers, meanwhile, has fallen ill, and has been sent to the hospital for treatment, at Madame’s request. As Ranevskaya, Gaev, Anya, and Varva bid goodbye to their home, the sound of axes chopping down the cherry trees rumbles in the distance.
Ranevskaya, in a moment alone with Lopakhin, urges him to at last propose to Varva; he consents. Thrown alone, they awkwardly discuss the weather until Lopakhin is called outside by one of his workers; the proposal never comes, and Varva collapses in tears. Ranevskaya helps Varva compose herself, and sunnily states that it’s time for the entire family to start out on a new journey. Anya and Trophimof bid a happy goodbye to the old house; Ranevskaya and Gaev linger inside a moment longer, bidding their youth and happiness goodbye before locking up and leaving. Looking forward, looking back. After everyone has gone, an ill-looking Fiers emerges from the next room; he is not in the hospital after all; he has been left behind and forgotten. The play ends with a ‘ring out the old, ring in the new’ trope. As Fiers sits on the sofa and laments his wasted life, he lies down and appears to breathe his last, just like the nearby cherry trees are being killed off, one by one.
We the listeners also received a pair of bonus perspectives. The greatest tributes to Dr Khot during this presentation were the contributions of Prof. Prashant Sinha, who was Prof. Khot’s mentor, and Friyana Munshi, who is Prof. Khot’s student. And so…the torch relay continues. May the flame of knowledge always be passed on.