It was Chekhov’s last play before he died from tuberculosis in 1904. The play’s content has links both to Russian society as it changed in the early twentieth century, and to aspects of Chekhov’s personal life.
A central character in the play is Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya, played by Monique Kuijpers in Leiden. She is from an old aristocratic land owning family. Her estate is famous because of the cherry orchard in the play’s title. However, Ranevskaya’s family’s inability to manage the estate drives them to bankruptcy. Chekhov depicts the aristocrats in the play not as evil individuals, but as representatives of a system which is no longer working.
Another main character is the merchant Yermolai Lopakhin, played in Leiden by Wim Bouwens. He is rich, but has serfs as ancestors. Lopakhin claims to help Ranevskaya’s family. However, in the end he takes over their estate, the ex-landowning dynasty has to leave, and the cherry orchard is cut down.
There are hints in the play that the old landowning aristocracy (and the czarist autocracy linked to them) will soon be unable to rule Russia any longer. From the recent rise of the Russian bourgeoisie, represented in the play by Lopakhin, one may hardly expect an equal society; not even an anti-czarist revolution like the Dutch revolt against the king of Spain in the sixteenth century, or like the French revolution. The character Peter Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard represents more radical criticism of Russian society (these lines were often censored from performances in early twentieth century Russia).
Both Ms Ranevskaya and Lopakhin have things in common with Chekhov’s life. Like Lopakhin, Chekhov was of serf peasant ancestry (unlike Lopakhin, more like most people of that background, Chekhov’s family did not become rich). And like Ranevskaya, when Chekhov was young, his family got into financial trouble. Someone claiming to help them betrayed them, and took over their house (a small house, not an estate, without a cherry orchard).
Chekhov was a less directly political writer than his colleague and friend Maxim Gorky. Nevertheless, when the Russian Academy of Literature elected Gorky as a member in 1902, and the czar vetoed that decision, Chekhov resigned from the Academy in protest. A courageous act, because open critics of czarism were often punished harshly. Even in Gorky’s 1901 revolutionary poem The Song of the Stormy Petrel one will look in vain for words like “revolution”, “smash czarism”, “working class”, etc. A stupid czarist censor might read The Stormy Petrel as just a nature poem on a seabird. However, Gorky was arrested for it.
The Leiden Cherry Orchard performance was by Keesen&Co theatre company. The actors’ clothes differed from Chekhov’s times (shorter women’s dresses than then etc.)
Like in a recent performance of Herman Heijermans, a contemporary of Chekhov, some minor roles, like Chekhov’s stationmaster, had been omitted.
Finally, when The Cherry Orchard was played for the first time, Chekhov had a conflict with director Stanislavski. Stanivslavski directed the play as if it were a tragedy, while Chhekhov had intended it to be a comedy. In this, the Leiden performance was closer to Chekhov’s ideas.