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Anton Chekhov firmly believed The Cherry Orchard was a comedy (Hingley, [1904] 1998). Yet had
you been seated in the audience of the MKhAT on 17th January 1904, you might have considered
this play a tragedy. The sound and lighting was stark to create tension, the costume and set realistic,
and pace of some acts sedate. This intensified the atmosphere, and the contextual commentary on an
autocratic Russia, post-Emancipation (Haslam, 2005). Had you been in the audience of The Young
Vic on 13th October 2014, you might have described this play as pure farce. Katie Mitchells modern
costumes, shabby-chic set, addition of nudity and liberal use of slapstick created a riotous and
bawdy atmosphere (The Cherry Orchard, 2014). The presence of a comic element depends not just
on how the plays directed, but on what translation the production is based upon, how the actors
recreate the characters, the context in which the audience engages the drama, and our personal take
on what comedy is. As such, this proposition fails to consider the pluralities inherent in each
concept it contains.

Past critics have established Mrs Ranevsky, her immediate family and their close friends Lophakin
and Tromifov as the major roles (Pitcher 1973; Lucas, 1963). Though Chekhov said otherwise in his
letters, Ill adopt the same classification for this essay (Karlinsky, 1973). Whilst some of his
communication is audible dialogue, many of Chekhovs themes are transmitted through the conflict
within and between the characters (Kataev, 2002). In my opinion, no one character can be
considered less important to this structure.

In this extract Chekhov takes us from Firs nostalgic past, to Anyas immediate present, through to a
myriad of uncertain futures, contrasting desires, and conflicting priorities. His ensemble is cast as
mle of desperate individuals clawing at their singular futures; he expertly builds the tension for

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the plays climax. Mrs Ranevsky has only just begun considering what will happen if the orchard is
sold. She is concerned for Firs, who has neither a plan nor concern for his own future.

She focuses instead on his immediate present:


MRS RANEVSKY: Why do you look like that? Arent you well? You ought to be
in bed, you know.
FIRS: Oh yes. [with amusement.] I go off to bed and then wholl do the serving and
look after everything? Theres only me to run the whole house (Chekhov, 1998, p.
278).
By drawing out the vowel sounds in the first phrase Firs could thicken this sarcasm, and the satire
of Mrs Ranvesky as clueless. Firs is utterly convinced of his indispensability, yet in the end it is
only him in the whole house. Stylan (1978a) shows how this neglect passes judgement on all the
characters. The implicit message is that his loyalty is in vain, as a social system that creates
complex, equivalent dependencies between master and serf is utterly counter-productive. For some
critics (Braun, 2000; Lucas, 1963) Firs is Chekhovs symbol of old Russia, a dying regime that has
no place in the coming industrial age. As Tromifov implores change is coming, and relics like Firs
are best left behind.

Like all the minor characters, Firs could be considered comic or tragic. What is important here, is
whether or not we take a definition of comedy that actively incorporates tragedy, and where irony is
situated between the two. These concepts have been wrought as mutually exclusive, interdependent,
opposite, and parallel, by thinkers throughout time, (Bennett and Royale, 2014; Nelson, 1990 and
Plato, Frye, and Nietzsche cited in Nelson, 1990). It is as though they are so interrelated, that they
can no longer be used as distinct ideas with which to analyse twentieth century plays (Stylan,
1968b). We cannot consider evidence of tragedy or irony, as proof of a contribution over and above

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the comic. The question is whether there are dimensions of this play outside either concept that
these minor characters contribute to.
Though he could never be branded didactic, and thoroughly rejected the idea of literary proselytism,
Chekhovs views on life are woven into his work. They couldnt be obvious, given the level of state
control; but they lie within the fates of even his minor characters (Gottleib, 2000). To ignore their
instrumental contribution is to miss a vital piece of Chekhovs puzzle (Kataev, 2002).

Yasha illustrates this point for us here. He is very concerned for his future. He represents a new
breed of underlings, the smart servants who cheat their masters and lord it over their equals
(Stylan, 1968, p. 90-91). Mrs Ranevsky demands Yasha find the man in the kitchen gossiping about
the auction. He mocks her, and when Mrs Ranevsky demands to know whats funny, he pounces on
the easy target of an offstage Yephikhodov (Chekhov, 1998b). Its a moment of mean verbal comedy
from Yasha, who ironically seeks to escape this uncivilised country [without] morals (Chekhov,
1998b, p. 279). His wish is granted, by a mistress who fails to spot his deviousness. When read as a
warning of westernised, contemptuous, insolent hicks; Yasha is a minor character with a major
message, a symbol for what to avoid (Karlinksy, 1973, p.442). In this sense, his comic contribution
is eclipsed by one that is allegorical.

The heightened tension at the ball continues with pacy dancing on and off stage and the music of
the Jewish band. Mrs Ranevsky has no time left to save her orchard, or Yasha just now, as she is
whisked off by Pischik. His running gag: Ill have a hundred and eighty roubles off you peppers
this serious sense of time running out with verbal comedy (Chekhov, [1904] 1998b, p. 279). But
Pischik is also physically funny; falling asleep during his own dialogue, chasing Charlotte around

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and living in permanent enthral at everything: Extraordinary thing! (Chekhov, [1904] 1998b, p.
273).

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Stylan (1968), feels Pischiks primary contribution is to introduce fatalism. His estate mirrors Mrs
Ranevskys; they have similar money problems and share the inability to act practically, but he is
saved - cest la vie. Though we as readers can reject fatalism, Chekhov uses Pischiks narrative to
root it as firmly in the play as it is in life.

Charlotte is seemingly another purely comic character; every bit the fool in Eyres film adaptation,
seen in harlequin cartwheeling behind the proscenium arch (The Open University, 2005). This
breaks the ominous undertone of doubt and injects some wackiness into the scene. This is common
for Charlotte; are acts are random and funny, but she has no real bearing on the major characters or
plot. Yet, her cross dressing and sleight of hand forces the audience to consider what they are
seeing in this supposedly naturalist theatre piece; where character is deeply dependant on
environment and women are regarded as particularly contained within it (Marsh, 2000, p. 225).
Chekhov uses Charlottes characterisation, not her comedy, to rupture the frame of gender, identity
and normality by forcing the audiences scrutiny. In doing so, they begin to question their own
reality. Charlotte isnt just a fool: her sleight of hand represents Chekhovs own. This could establish
her as the most convincing example of a minor character with a major function outside of comedy shes the trick he placed there for us all.

Chekhov also uses his minor female characters to challenge the male gaze and its obsession with
female beauty, but equally the challenge [is] thrown to female vanity (Marsh, 2000, p. 223).
Dunyasha is the obvious example of this. At worst tragic, at best pathetically comic, she powders
her already heavily powdered face, fans herself coquettishly - and is ultimately forsaken by all.

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Yephikodhovs physical farce encourages schadenfraude, and in this extract; pathos, with the
repetition of Every day something goes wrong (Chekhov, [1904] 1998b, p. 279-280). We laugh
almost exclusively at this character. He is the personification of the gap between objective reality
and subjective reality (Borny, 2006). This theme recurs throughout critical analysis (Kataev, 2002;
Braun 2000; Gottlieb, 2000). The Cherry Orchard is cast as a naturalist elegy on how far away
these two concepts often are. In Yephikhodov, we have the quintessential example of someone
whos reality is eons from his desires (Borny, 2006). As Simple Simon, (or Disasters by the
Dozen, or two and twenty misfortunes) communicates this through verbose, verbal comedy; he is
reliant on translation for a depiction of anything other than a clumsy buffoon (Chekhov, [1904] p.
1998b; Chekhov, [1904] 1995a; Chekhov, [1904] 1923c). Yet he could be much more. Given his
mistress failed to note his useless grip on the purse strings, he lost the orchard. This could be a
prophetic symbol. As Lucas states, just twelve years after this play opened the whole Cherry
Orchard of Tsarist Russia was felled in blood another thing the bureaucracy and ruling classes
failed to foresee (1963, p. 111).

In conclusion, the many plots of The Cherry Orchard create a rhizomic dramatical structure to
which each character is vital. If minor characters exist, the ones discussed here have indeed made a
huge contribution to the varieties of comedy in the play. However, the evidence suggests that
nestled within that comedy, lies a more symbolic, instrumentalist function. In addition to this, minor
characters who make less of a contribution to the comic aspects of the play, seem to retain an
instrumental message in their characterisation and eventual fates. Such characterisation (and
therefore, any contribution) is also determined by translations, director intentionality and audience
subjectivity. For me, their interrogation of social change, naturalist theatre, and women in the
context of nineteenth century Russia is too important to be superseded by their comic function. It is

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the instrumentalist placing of life under a microscope for the audience, that seems to me their main
contribution.
Words: 1,630

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