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From the NS archive: The Cherry Orchard

24 July 1920: The beautiful, mad drama which I had staged often in the dim recesses of my mind was now hung within a few feet of me, hard, crude, and over-emphatic.

By Virginia Woolf

In this review of a 1920 production of “The Cherry Orchard”, Anton Chekhov’s final play, Virginia Woolf considered what it is to see something played out in front of you that you have often imagined in your mind. This play, a “beautiful, mad drama”, was performed “like a cheap coloured print of the real thing”, Woolf wrote. The play is unlike anything in English literature, whether that means the English are “more advanced, less advanced, or have advanced in an entirely different direction”. At first Woolf was disappointed in the production and its characters, who “were entirely concrete and without sentimentality”. They spoke with an unnatural emphasis. But towards the end of the play’s second act Woolf began to make a compromise between her vision of the play and what she was witnessing onstage. “I felt less and less desire to cavil at the acting in general,” she wrote, and “more and more appreciation” of the performances of individual actors. By the end the play sent her home “feeling like a piano played upon at last”.

Although every member of the audience at the Art Theatre last week had probably read Tchekhov’s The Cherry Orchard several times, a large number of them had, perhaps, never seen it acted before. It was no doubt on this account that as the first act proceeded the readers, now transformed into seers, felt themselves shocked and outraged. The beautiful, mad drama which I had staged often enough in the dim recesses of my mind was now hung within a few feet of me, hard, crude, and over-emphatic, like a cheap coloured print of the real thing. But what right had I to call it the real thing? What did I mean by that? Perhaps something like this.

There is nothing in English literature in the least like The Cherry Orchard. It may be that we are more advanced, less advanced, or have advanced in an entirely different direction. At any rate, the English person who finds himself at dawn in the nursery of Madame Ranevskaia feels out of place, like a foreigner brought up with entirely different traditions. But the traditions are not (this, of course, is a transcript of individual experience) so ingrained in one as to prevent one from shedding them not only without pain but with actual relief and abandonment. True, at the end of a long railway journey one is accustomed to say goodnight and go to bed.

Yet on this occasion, since everything is so strange, the dawn rising and the birds beginning to sing in the cherry-trees, let us gather round the coffee-cups; let us talk about everything in the whole world. We are all in that queer emotional state when thought seems to bubble into words without being spoken. The journey is over and we have reached the end of everything where space seems illimitable and time everlasting. Quite wrongly (since in the production approved by Tchekhov the birds actually sing and the cherries are visible on the trees) I had, on my imaginary stage, tried to give effect to my sense that the human soul is free from all trappings and crossed incessantly by thoughts and emotions which wing their way from here, from there, from the furthest horizons – I had tried to express this by imagining an airy view from the window with ethereal pink cherries and perhaps snow mountains and blue mist behind them.

In the room the characters spoke suddenly whatever came into their heads, and yet always vaguely, as if thinking aloud. There was no “comedy of manners”; one thought scarcely grazed, let alone struck sparks from, another; there was no conflict of individual wills. At the same time the characters were entirely concrete and without sentimentality. Not for an instant did one suppose that Madame Ranevskaia was wrapping up a mystic allusion to something else when she spoke. Her own emotions were quite enough for her. If what was said seemed symbolical, that was because it was profound enough to illumine much more than an incident in the life of one individual. And, finally, though the leap from one thought to another was so wide as to produce a sense of dangerous dislocation, all the separate speeches and characters combined to create a single impression of an overwhelming kind.

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The actors at the Art Theatre destroyed this conception, first, by the unnatural emphasis with which they spoke; next by their determination to make points which brought them into touch with the audience but destroyed their harmony with each other; and, finally, by the consciousness which hung about them of being well-trained English men and women ill at ease in an absurd situation, but determined to make the best of a bad business.

One instance of irrepressible British humour struck me with considerable force. It occurred in the middle of Charlotte’s strange speech in the beginning of the second act. “I have no proper passport. I don’t know how old I am; I always feel I am still young,” she begins. She goes on, “When I grew up I became a governess. But where I come from and who I am, I haven’t a notion. Who my parents were – very likely they weren’t married – I don’t know.”

At the words I have italicised, Dunyasha bounced away from her to the other end of the bench, with an arch humour which drew the laugh it deserved. Miss Helena Millais seemed to be delighted to have this chance of assuring us that she did not believe a word of this morbid nonsense, and that the old jokes still held good in the world of sanity round the corner. But it was Miss Ethel Irving who showed the steadiest sense of what decency requires of a British matron in extremity. How she did it, since she spoke her part accurately, it is difficult to say, but her mere presence upon the stage was enough to suggest that all the comforts and all the decencies of English upper-class life were at hand, so that at any moment her vigil upon the bench might have been appropriately interrupted by a man-servant bearing a silver tray. “The Bishop is in the drawing-room, m’lady.” “Thank you, Parker. Tell his Lordship I will come at once.” In that sort of play, by which I mean a play by Sheridan or Oscar Wilde, both Miss Irving and Miss Millais would charm by their wit, spirit and competent intellectual outfit. Nor, though the quotation I have made scarcely proves it, have we any cause to sneer at English comedy or at the tradition of acting which prevails upon our stage. The only question is whether the same methods are as applicable to The Cherry Orchard as they are to The School for Scandal.

But there are four acts in The Cherry Orchard. How it may have been with the other readers I do not know, but before the second act was over some sort of compromise had been reached between my reader’s version and the actor’s one. Perhaps in reading one had got the whole too vague, too mad, too mystical. Perhaps as they went on the actors forgot how absurd such behaviour would be thought in England. Or perhaps the play itself triumphed over the deficiencies of both parties. At any rate, I felt less and less desire to cavil at the acting in general and more and more appreciation of the acting of Mr Cancellor, Mr Dodd, Mr Pearson and Miss Edith Evans in particular. With every word that Mr Felix Aylmer spoke as Pishchick, one’s own conception of that part plumped itself out like a shrivelled skin miraculously revived.

But the play itself – that was what overwhelmed all obstacles, so that though the walls rocked from floor to ceiling when the door was shut, though the sun sank and rose with the energetic decision of the stage carpenter’s fist, though the scenery suggested an advertisement of the Surrey Hills rather than Russia in her wildness, the atmosphere of the play wrapped us round and shut out everything alien to itself. It is, as a rule, when a critic does not wish to commit himself or to trouble himself that he refers to atmosphere. And, given time, something might be said in greater detail of the causes which produced this atmosphere – the strange dislocated sentences, each so erratic and yet cutting out the shape so firmly, of the realism, of the humour, of the artistic unity. But let the word atmosphere be taken literally to mean that Tchekhov has contrived to shed over us a luminous vapour in which life appears as it is, without veils, transparent and visible to the depths. Long before the play was over we seemed to have sunk below the surface of things and to be feeling our way among submerged but recognisable emotions.

“I have no proper passport. I don’t know how old I am; I always feel I am still young” – how the words go sounding on in one’s mind – how the whole play resounds with such sentences, which reverberate, melt into each other, and pass far away out beyond everything!

In short, if it is permissible to use such vague language, I do not know how better to describe the sensation at the end of The Cherry Orchard, than by saying that it sends one into the street feeling like a piano played upon at last, not in the middle only but all over the keyboard and with the lid left open so that the sound goes on.

This being so, and having felt nothing comparable to it from reading the play, one feels inclined to strike out every word of criticism and to implore Madame Donnet to give and us the chance of seeing play after play, until to sit at home and read plays is an occupation for the afflicted only, and one to be viewed with pity, as we pity blind men spelling out their Shakespeare with their fingers upon sheets of cardboard.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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