Anton Chekhov's last play, The Cherry Orchard, was first performed in Russia at the Moscow Art Theatre on 30 January, 1904. At its production, just before his death, the author was feted as one of Russia's greatest dramatists. The play describes, through the lives of a group of Russians, the events of social upheaval preceding the Russian Revolution. We are shown not only country life, but Russian life and character in general as the old order gives way to the new, and we see the practical, modern spirit invading the vague, aimless existence so dear to the owners of the cherry orchard. Chekhov uses two important developments in the nineteenth century, the arrival of the railroad in the 1830s and the liberation of Russia's vast population of serfs to drive the play.
The plot of the play revolves around Madame Ranevsky's debt; neither she nor her brother Gayev have money to pay the mortgage on the cherry orchard estate but family pride combined with a spirit of procrastination and a fondness for the cherry orchard prevent them from taking the necessary steps to keep the property. It goes to auction and is bought by Lopakhin, a former serf who has become a wealthy landowner.
Key ideas expressed in The Cherry Orchard include:
Irony – is not only used for comic effect but also to highlight the contradiction of the situations of the characters. The play also has ironic moments, for example in Act II when Madame Ranevsky talks about her weakness with handling money but in the same breath allows Yasha, the most untrustworthy character, to pick up her spilled purse.
Social change – Firs and Trofimov question the utility of the Liberation which allowed for social change, but not for social progress. Firs himself is living proof of the discrepancy as society has changed but his life has not progressed. The play leaves the impression that while change has come, there is more work to be done.
Freedom - The Cherry Orchard deals with the idea of freedom by looking at the way the characters demonstrate the different degrees of freedom. The play suggests that there are two sources that control freedom and the lack thereof: economics, which comes from without, and the control over oneself, which comes from within. For example, Madame Ranevsky has enough assets to control her own destiny but is a slave to her passions – extravagant spending and romantic ideas.
Liberation – the play begins shortly after the Russian Liberation, Firs and Lopakhin are at opposing ends of how liberation affected the serf population. Lopakhin takes advantage of his liberation to make himself independent, whereas Firs remains at the whims of the family he serves.
The Cherry Orchard presents a microcosm of Chekhov's world. You have the ancient serf who yearns for the old regime (Firs); the profligate and ineffectual landowners (Madame Ranevsky, Gayev, Simeonov-Pischik) unable to cope with the changing world; the idealistic but brittle intellectual (Trofimov); and, finally, the New Man (Lopakhin), whose pragmatism and energy allow him to influence events, rather than being crushed by them.
The Cherry Orchard is a critical and philosophical play that criticizes the characters faults with sympathy and a light comic touch delivered in the simple language that made Chekhov's plays so popular and created a fundamentally optimistic piece of work.