Anton Chekhov on 10th day of April wrote a letter to Olga Knipper, in which he complained about the nature of “The Cherry Orchard” (it was produced as tragedy) in following words:-
“Why is it that in posters and newspaper announcements my play is persistently called a drama? Nemirovich Danchenko and Stanislavsky see in my play something absolutely different from what I have written, and I am willing to stake my word on it that neither of them has once read my play through attentively. Forgive me, but I assure you, it is so.”
Konstantin Stanislavsky in Moscow Art Theater produced “The Cherry Orchard” but it was presented as tragedy instead of comedy. Anton Chekhov showed disagreement on it and called this play a pure comedy.
“The Cherry Orchard” remained a matter of discussion between many critics regarding its genre. They were unsure about its nature. No one defined its exact genre. Critics along with many producers were unaware with the fact that why Anton Chekhov described “The Cherry Orchard” as a comedy rather than tragedy. Despite of the fact that the play fulfilled every requirement of a tragedy as practiced by Shakespeare, it was called a pure farce comedy by the dramatist. Indeed, there were certain elements of comedy in it yet it could never be added in the list of pure comedies. Some of the critics were of the view that “The Cherry Orchard” shares the genre of Shakespeare’s play “The Winter Tale”, which is the combination of both comedy and tragedy. Thus, “The Cherry Orchard” could neither be called a comedy nor a tragedy but combination of both termed as “tragi-comedy”.
Aristotle gave detailed definition of tragedy in his book “Poetics” but he had not discussed comedy in detail. Perhaps, he wanted to write another book on comedy or he had written but it could not survive. Anyhow, a slight definition of comedy can be found in Chapter-V of “Poetics”, in which he said that comedy differed from tragedy in respect of the objects of imitation. Comedy, he said, concentrated on the imitation of actions which were mean and low. He further exemplified that comedy was a mask which was ridiculous and yet did not cause any pain or damage. He preferred comedy which did not harm anyone but created laughter through bitter satire. However satire, he said, must be general instead of specific. Meaning thereby, any specific person or nation should have not been targeted.
If “The Cherry Orchard” is judged in Aristotle’s point of view then definitely it fulfills all the requirements of a true comedy. This play creates humour and also a bitter satire on society. It shows the follies and absurdities. Some of the actions in this play are too much comic. Generally, in modern world, comedy is a drama, presented for the purpose of entertainment, and to create laughter. “The Cherry Orchard”, if viewed from this point of view, is indeed a comedy instead of tragedy as many of the characters create laughter. But can its genre be finalized as comedy?
No, it can’t be. “The Cherry Orchard” fulfills the requirements of a tragedy too. We know that Anton Chekhov has compelled us many years ago not to consider its genre a tragedy but still we have doubts. The solution to clear these doubts is to judge this play in view of Aristotle’s requirements of tragedy as mentioned in “Poetics”?
Aristotle says that tragedy is imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude. Furthermore, by invoking feelings of pity and fear, tragedy effects the Catharsis. These are two major requirements of a tragedy as mentioned by Aristotle; firstly, imitation of serious action and secondly the catharsis of feelings of pity and fear.
“The Cherry Orchard” somehow fulfills the second requirement. On one hand, if it creates laughter then on other hand, it also arouses the feelings of pity and fear. To the extent of first requirement, we can take guidance from Shakespeare. He has written many plays. Some of them are tragedies whereas some are comedies. He ignored many of the requirements of tragedy, mentioned by Aristotle even then his tragedies are successful.
After Shakespeare, tragedies are divided into two main categories: “Aristotelian Tragedy” and “Shakespearean Tragedy”. These two kinds of tragedies are remarkable in English Literature. Shakespeare has given a new concept of tragedy. He has created a new genre called “Tragi-Comedy” in which serious imitation and catharsis of feelings of pity and fear remains there but an additional technique from comedy has been added which is termed as “Comic Relief”. “The Cherry Orchard” has this additional feature of comic relief. Let’s talk in detail about the play.
In the beginning, we see characters are dealing with a serious problem. Ransky’s Estate is going to be auctioned and solution has not yet been found. The family is prosperous. Mrs. Ranevsky along with other characters tries to overpower the problem but she has hamartia. She is still sticked to old culture and rejects Lopakhin’s idea of cutting the cherry orchard. She spends huge amount on luxuries of life. She lends money to his neighbor in spite of knowing that she is in debt. Ultimately, we see that she cannot stop the auction and Lopakhin purchases the estate. Although, there is comic relief in the whole play yet downfall of Ranevsky’s family arouses the feelings of pity and fear. The play starts with prosperity and ends with adversity. Catharsis of these feelings fulfills the second requirement of tragedy.
As far as first requirement is concerned it is about serious imitation of action. Comic relief does not mean that the writer has not imitated a serious action. We find an action in the play that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude. It is certainly there, that’s why it effects the catharsis of feelings of pity and fear.
In one way or the other, the play completes the requirements of a tragedy. If Anton Chekhov says that he has written a comedy instead of tragedy then may be unintentionally he has given this play such ingredients, which are required for a tragedy. Judge this play, either in Aristotle’s point of view or Shakespeare’s point of view, you would find a veiled tragedy. Somehow, Anton Chekhov, in form of “The Cherry Orchard” has written a tragedy in his last days of life. Writer’s reviews about this play can easily be underestimated as it is not a pure comedy. Intentionally or unintentionally, the dramatist has added elements of tragedy in this play, therefore, the same cannot be considered a pure comedy. Nevertheless, if it is required to be put in a genre, then Shakespeare’s “Tragi-Comedy” is best place for it.
- “The Cherry Orchard” is a tragedy despite the fact that Chekhov described it as a comedy. How far would you agree?