The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard: The World of the Play


Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard takes place in Russia around 1904, in the midst of one of the country’s greatest social transformations. About four decades earlier, Tsar Alexander II had enacted the Emancipation Reform of 1861, which freed the country’s serfs—who at the time constituted over a third of the Russian population—from their landlords’ ownership. Naturally, the Russian gentry opposed the proclamation, feeling themselves robbed of their labor source and vulnerable to a potential peasant uprising. On the whole, the liberation of the serfs remained relatively peaceful, but without its authority over the servant class, the Russian nobility would see its social status decline to the point of destruction by the turn of the century.

In Chekhov’s play, Ranevskaya and her family belong to this deteriorated gentry class, and their estate, with its famous cherry orchard, stands as a relic of an era several decades earlier when the nobility enjoyed far more privileges and responsibilities. From the legal implementation of full serfdom in 1649 to its abolition in 1861, the Russian emperors trusted the gentry to serve as their eyes and ears throughout the country and prevent any grassroots revolutions against the state. In return for their loyalty, these landlords received exemptions from corporal punishment, personal taxation, and conscription, and they were granted the authority to draft their serfs into the military, collect their poll taxes, and administer local justice. After 1861, however, the gentry forfeited these responsibilities to local village authorities, found themselves unable to handle their own debts, and lost more and more of their land to landowners in other classes. As Russian society took steps toward equality and its middle class grew, the gentry class saw its social supremacy dwindle.

Liberation of Peasants by Boris Kustodiev, 1907

Liberation of Peasants by Boris Kustodiev, 1907

Lopakhin’s pressuring of Ranevskaya and Gaev to sell their estate for the building of summer cottages, then, serves as a microcosm of this seismic shift of the Russian social order. Lopakhin’s father had once been one of the family’s servants, but now, almost half a century after the Emancipation, Lopakhin is a wealthy merchant, and the land on which the cherry orchard stands has become prime real estate for vacation homes for the growing urban population of those merchants and wealthy citizens who, like Lopakhin, may have descended from serfs. Ranevskaya and Gaev face the possibility of being literally overrun by the rising middle class, whom their family once dwarfed in social status. Chekhov has situated Ranevskaya’s cherry orchard at the physical and metaphorical crossroads of social tradition and social progress.

Stephen Karam’s new version of The Cherry Orchard, however, evokes multiple groundbreaking moments in history—not just the decline of the Russian aristocracy, but also a very similar social upheaval that took place across the Atlantic Ocean at just about the same time as Alexander II’s Emancipation: the American Civil War and the abolition of American slavery. Just as the Russian gentry fell from their perch at the top of the social order in the 1860s, so did their American counterparts—Southern plantation owners—find themselves socioeconomically toppled by the end of the nineteenth century.

Before the Civil War, plantation owners ruled the American South. In 1860, at the height of the plantation economy, plantations operated about 33% of all Southern cotton cropland. These planters held extraordinary power in their rural communities—not only did they often exert complete and inhumane control over their slaves, but they also many times would serve as the only available sources of food and other essential goods to the smaller cotton growers who neighbored them. In these ways they ensured that their aristocratic statuses in their plantation homes and their communities remained unchallenged. Enjoying social positions similar to those of feudal lords, these slave-owning planters dictated the politics and social life of the antebellum South.

The Bargain by Nikolai Nerev (Sale of a serf girl)

The Bargain by Nikolai Nerev (Sale of a serf girl)

But in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the institution of slavery was under attack from Northern abolitionists who decried the moral atrocities and economic inefficiencies of the practice. Southern slave-owners, with worries similar to those of the Russian aristocracy, repeatedly protected their legal right to own slaves and, in turn, preserved their economy and their way of life. But when Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency in 1860 after championing the containment of slave territory, the Southern states, more fearful than ever of losing control over their slave economy, seceded from the Union and created the Southern Confederacy. The next year, the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter. In an attempt to destabilize the Confederate war effort, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing all slaves in rebel states. The next year, the Confederacy surrendered to the Union, and in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment made the liberation of all four million slaves in the United States a Constitutional imperative.

After the Civil War, the Southern planter class, similarly to the soon-to-be-dethroned Russian gentry, found its cherished social status slipping from its grasp. As Reconstruction began and ex-slaves abandoned their former captors, the plantation economy collapsed, stripped of its primary source of labor. Once-wealthy planters now struggled for survival as their crops withered. To save themselves, plantation owners would sell off tracts of their land, sometimes to the very people whom they had previously enslaved. At the same time, members of the black community began to hold public office at all levels of government, and black activist leaders took steps to shape the Reconstruction effort themselves. By 1880, plantations as they had at one time existed had all but disappeared. Many of those once-untouchable planters now dispersed to the North or West to find work—their displacement in large part due to those black citizens whose activism and landownership was upending the social order. The era of the all-powerful Southern planter had come to a close.

Cotton plantation on the Mississippi River, 1884

Cotton plantation on the Mississippi River, 1884

The Cherry Orchard may take us specifically back to turn-of-the-century Russia, but those social movements that it dramatizes—the end of institutionalized forced labor, the fall of an aristocracy, the rise of a middle class—transcend time and place. When any social reorganization of such magnitude rocks a country, Chekhov asks, who benefits, and who is left in its wake?


The Cherry Orchard is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Cherry Orchard, Upstage

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The Cherry Orchard: Read, Watch, Listen, Do


Immerse yourself in the world of The Cherry Orchard, with our recommended reading, watching, listening and doing lists.



Anton Chekhov: A LifeA Life
by Donald Rayfield

The Cherry Orchard premiered only six months before Anton Chekhov’s tragic death at the age of 44. From a young age growing up in Taganrog, his life was plagued with familial and financial hardship. After arriving in Moscow in 1879 to study medicine, Chekhov began to write. As an author of nearly six hundred stories, he wrote his first full length play in 1887 and did not stop until his death. Chekhov’s plays focused on everyday life and profoundly altered the trajectory of modern drama. According to Michael Frayn, Donald Rayfield’s Anton Chekhov: A Life is “without question the definitive biography of Chekhov” and provides invaluable insight into the life of one of history’s greatest playwrights.

The HumansThe Humans
by Stephen Karam

The Humans by Stephen Karam opened to critical acclaim Off-Broadway at Roundabout in the fall of 2015, heralded by Charles Isherwood as “the best play of the year”. In The Humans, the Blake family has travelled to New York City for Thanksgiving dinner at their daughter’s Chinatown apartment. Balancing hilarity and heartbreak, Karam’s play exposes their secrets, desires, and ultimately, their deepest human fears. Like Chekhov, Karam’s plays champion ordinary people, making him a clear choice for the adaptor of Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Cherry Orchard.



The SeagullThe Seagull
Screenplay adaptation by Stephen Karam

Stephen Karam’s film adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull is slated to be released in 2017. As Chekhov’s first major play, The Seagull is known for its infamous opening night (Chekhov himself could not watch), but eventually became known as one of his greatest theatrical triumphs. He introduced many themes that he continued to explore throughout his career, including entangled romances, the examination of art, and the everyman’s dissatisfaction with life. The film is directed by Michael Mayer and stars Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Corey Stoll, and Annette Bening.



The original music for Roundabout’s The Cherry Orchard is composed by Nico Muhly, whose works range from orchestral and choral pieces to major motion picture soundtracks, opera, solo albums, and Broadway. Muhly’s music functions practically in the play during the party in Act III, but it is the incidental music he has composed that is most affecting, especially the melody that emerges reminding Ranevskaya of her late son, Grisha.

Hear more original works by Nico Muhly…

“Motion” By Nico Muhly

“Drones in Large Circles” By Nico Muhly

Links to purchase his music can be found here.




"Cherrywatch" at the
Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

As Madame Ranevskaya states in The Cherry Orchard, “in this part of the country, if there’s anything of interest, or even noteworthy, it’s our cherry orchard.” Luckily, you do not have to travel all the way to Russia, or even out of New York City to see the natural wonder she describes. Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s “Cherrywatch” will keep you up to date when the trees begin to bloom in the spring of 2017. Visit their website to learn the best time to visit.


The Cherry Orchard is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, The Cherry Orchard

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The Cherry Orchard: Designer Statements



The music for The Cherry Orchard needs to explode out of the music for the party in Act III, both by practical necessity and to thicken a mystery about the play: Who are these musicians? How do they relate to the servants? How do they comment on — and exist inside and outside — the goings-on in the house? The luxury of live music should, in this case, be in counterpoint to the overall sense of loss that permeates the play. The music is scored for three musicians, mostly onstage: a violinist, who acts as a sort of band leader, a clarinetist, and a percussionist who plays a variety of instruments. While the practical heart of the music is the party, the emotional core comes from a plaintive melody related to Ranevskaya’s dead son, Grisha. This “mourning” music abuts the practical (and perhaps slightly sinister) music that belongs to the house, as well as the somewhat perverted folk idioms that should create a context for the transformation of the estate.


Set Model for The Cherry Orchard

Set Model for The Cherry Orchard

For this production of The Cherry Orchard, I did a lot of visual research of the places and people in pre- Revolution Russia, and of the life and the spaces which the family would have shared and inhabited. Simon Godwin and I then gave ourselves the freedom to depart largely from the naturalistic requirements of domestic life -- walls, doorways -- and instead strove to find an emotional, even fragile and poetic space in which to tell our story. I looked to the natural world for further inspiration -- most importantly to trees. Years of abundance, but also deprivation, are clearly shown in the rings of a tree's life, especially when a particularly majestic one is hewn. Our environment is comprised of wistful and fractured remainders of a more fruitful life and family history constructed upon the hearty, and metaphoric, remainder of a once monumental tree, one that had been in existence for generations. These fragile elements that appear in the space also contribute to our understanding of the shift in location and time of year for each scene and are the fragile ghosts of a more abundant life.


Costume research for The Cherry Orchard

Costume research for The Cherry Orchard

On reading the version of The Cherry Orchard that playwright Stephen Karam has presented to us, I felt that the yellowed quality too often associated with Chekhov translations has been removed, and I was seeing a clear, crisp text that was written not about the past but about the eternal, and, just as it was in 1900, written vitally about our lives today. Director Simon Godwin and I spoke often about how we might create this same sensation for our audience visually, while still honoring the specific and individual humanity that, famously, Chekhov and now Karam have written deeply into each character in the play. And so we stretch and tease history. Our play takes place today, in Russia, but with a definite reference to the past. I began by looking at 2016 fashion with an eye for what I knew of earlier periods, then I looked at fashion and clothing of 1900 and forward which looked appealing and appropriate to today. Once we looked at those visuals together, creating a world to draw from, we realized that each character might pull differently from the past and present on their journey through the play - some hung on to their past dreams, some forcefully injected today onto a sleepy society. We tracked each character’s journey, knowing that the intersections of periods would create meaningful sparks in the story. Always, however, we honor the elemental and individual humanity of Anton Chekhov and his characters. Being asked to help tell the biggest universal social and political themes of the text, while simultaneously describing the intimacy of deeply specific and beloved human characters, is an exhilarating assignment. I have been thrilled to take it on.


The principal objective of my design is to fill the world of The Cherry Orchard with a living light that informs and supports the storytelling, suggests the passage of time and season, and ebbs and flows with the constantly shifting emotional landscape. We experience almost every time of day, and move from  spring to summer, fall and winter  during the course of the evening. These changes will largely be articulated through light: by subtle (and not so subtle) shifts in angle, color, texture and intensity. Each of The Cherry Orchard’s four acts will have a distinct lighting vocabulary and personality. Act One takes place in the cool pre-dawn early morning light, coupled with the warmth of candle and lamplight. Act Two take place in a nearby field: we experience a sense of natural light transitioning from sunset to twilight, and ending in the early evening. Act Three brings us to a candle-lit drawing room in the midst of a party (highlighted by the exaggerated shadows that you might encounter in a painting by Singer- Sargeant or Degas), and Act Four takes place in the cool  and diffuse light of a gray winter. There’s a fantastic marriage of both reality and abstraction in Scott Pask’s scenic design, and I hope to craft the light in a way that reflects this interesting dichotomy. There will be times when the light evokes a sense of poetic realism, and other moments, such as Lopakhin’s announcement that he has bought the orchard, or when Firs finds himself totally alone during the final minutes of the play, that the light will seamlessly shift into a stark and expressionistic landscape. The process of creating the lighting began with a careful study of the script, followed by preparation of a scene-by-scene analysis from a lighting perspective, and a meeting with my collaborators to discuss intention and overall approach. I then developed a list of lighting ideas I would use to bring the world to life, and created technical documents that the electricians referenced when installing the lighting equipment. The actual light “cues” or stage pictures are created during technical rehearsals, and the lighting is shaped and refined during the preview period.


Starting this process, I had (like many) read The Cherry Orchard before. Returning to it now, I was struck by the immediacy of Stephen Karam’s adaptation. The ignorance of impending doom is nothing new. This impulse has driven history over and over. But, it has, right now, current political implications rendering this production extremely relevant. And I must admit, the urge to ignore what is happening around us is tempting, but the need to not do so has tempered my reading of the play. That was on my mind when I started to see the path that Simon, the director, was providing in the setting and composition of the production. The audience gets to thread our way toward the future, being pursued by the past, and hopefully exiting the orchard before the trees start to fall. The music and sound needed to reflect that as well. Nico’s music is balanced between the stately and the frenetic – managing to be both modern and recalling a simpler time for the Ranevsky clan. The most present sound design element of The Cherry Orchard is the baseball bat to the side of the head, the TWACK of the axe starting the literal destruction of the Ranevsky Orchard (and the figurative destruction of a way of life). All during their purposeful ignorance of the impending doom, the pre-echoes of this fateful chop need to be present – if only they had listened. And the phrase that resonates is Lopakhin saying over and over: “I have been telling you…have you not been listening?”


The Cherry Orchard is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Cherry Orchard, Upstage

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