The Cherry Orchard was Chekhov's last play, but it was the first that I knew, studying it in my freshman year of college. Over the years I've come across it many times, seeing it twice in production. Chekhov called it a comedy, but it is, of couse, not quite that simple, and has an overwhelming sense of melancholy.
The play is heavy with symbolism, mostly dealing with the past, present and future of Russia. Lyubov, an aristocrat, left her estate in Russia five years earlier, grieving over the drowning death of her son. She returns when the estate is in danger of foreclosure. Her brother, Leonid, a well-meaning but head-in-the-clouds type (he is constantly playing an imaginary game of billiards) is no help. She has her youngest daughter, Anya, in tow, and hopes that she marries a rich man. Her adopted daughter, Varya, who tends to dress like a nun, is the head housekeeper.
Varya is waiting for a proposal from Lopakhin, who was once a serf on Lyubov's estate. He has become quite wealthy, and has a suggestion for her on how to keep her land--lease it out for summer cottages. But this would mean the chopping down of her beloved cherry orchard, which to her represents her lost childhood. But in the grand scheme of things, it represents a way of life that is dying. Leonid scoffs at Lopakhin's suggestion--the cherry orchard is mentioned in the encyclopedia!
Lopakhin represents a certain kind of future for Russia. The serfs were a class of people who were owned as slaves, but were given their freedom in 1861 and allowed to own their own land and make money. But another side of Russia's future is embodied in Trofimov, the tutor, a perpetual student and a proto-Bolshevik. He tells Lopakhin what he thinks of him: "You're a wealthy man, and before long you'll be millionaire; and in so far as a wild beast is necessary because it devours everything in its path and so converts one kind of matter into another, you are necessary also."
Trofimov then has a long speech condemning the upper class, and by 1917 his words would become gospel: "Here in Russia, very few people have started to work. Nearly all the members of the intelligentsia that I know care for nothing, do nothing, and are still incapable of work." He then tells Anya, whom he loves: "The whole world of Russia is our orchard. The earth is great and beautiful and there are many, many wonderful planes on it. Just think, Anya: your grandfather, your great-grandfather, and all your forefathers were serf owners--they owned living souls. Don't you see human beings gazing at you from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every tree-trunk, don't you hear voices? They owned living souls--and it has perverted you all, those who came before you, and you who are living now, so that your mother, your uncle and even you yourself no longer realize that you're living in debt, at other people's expense, at the expense of people you don't admit further than your kitchen."
There are certain parallels to the situation during Reconstruction in the American South that has led directors to set the play there, with black actors playing Lopakhin. It's an easy leap, but not entirely a correct one, as we find out when Lopakhin buys the cherry orchard at auction. No ex-slave, in one generation, could have possibly become rich enough and or had the power to buy the plantation on which he toiled, as the powers that be made sure of that.
The scene in which Lopakhin announces his purchase is my favorite of the play. He is such a great character--a man who knows all of these people, but will always be an outsider. He is told that he should marry Varya, but really he is in lovewith Lyubov, and he does the thing that destroys her. When he finally says that he will propose to Varya he can't do it. Instead, he has the cherry orchard fall to the ax. He tells everyone how he outbid someone else at a ball, and he is drunk, both from cognac and from realizing an impossible dream. But by buying the land he seems to have given up on any sense of personal happiness.
Lyubov and her brother are maddening characters--they are like children, who are repeatedly told that they will lose their land but do nothing to prevent it. Leonid keeps saying he's a man of the 80s (1880s, that is), and Lyubov is happy to allow her servants to dote on her. One of them is Firs, an ancient fellow who, when freed back in '61, thought it was a terrible thing, and refused to accept freedom. He is the last character on stage, left alone when the house is abandoned, the sound of the ax is in the distance. He putters across stage, mumbles, and then dies, with a sound intoning, which Firs said he heard before when the serfs were freed. I love Chekhov's description of it: "Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away."
That's a specific description, but the sound has varied in the productions I've seen. Just recently I watched two on a DVD from the BBC. One was from 1962, with Peggy Ashcroft as Lyubov and John Gielgud as Leonid. Judi Dench was Anya and Ian Holm was Trofimov. The sound in this production, which was very good, was more like a chime. The DVD also had a production from 1981, this time with Dench as Lyubov, and the sound was more like I imagined--a guitar string snapping, perhaps.
This is a beautiful play, full of characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves. If you ever see that a college or local theater group is putting on it, I urge you to see it.