Historical Context in The Cherry Orchard
The End of Serfdom: Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861. Having been an economic institution for centuries, the newly freed serfs took some time to carve out a place for themselves in Russian society. Though they received some land, it generally was not enough to live on; unrest was common as was freed serfs’ “renting” land from their previous owners. Landowners, too, felt some negative consequence—they were unable to maintain their previous lifestyle after being forced to sell their lands to former serfs. Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard takes place in this period of uncertainty, where freed serfs and aristocrats are attempting to figure out their new dynamic.
Historical Context Examples in The Cherry Orchard:
Act I 3
"I ate crocodiles...." See in text (Act I)
Eating frogs is considered a stereotype of French cuisine, which is why Pischin asks Madame Ranevsky if she indulged in this food. She makes a more shocking, comic retort here by saying that she “ate crocodiles.” Her retort has the effect of surprising Pischin, but it also was likely shocking to the audience when Chekhov’s play was performed, because eating crocodile is not something many people are familiar with—let alone conceive of doing. Her retort also tells us more about her character: she has exotic and expensive tastes.
"I'm a man of the eighties......" See in text (Act I)
Gaev is referring to the 1880s. In that decade, Russia introduced its first labor legislation aimed at improving worker safety and working conditions. The lives of Russian peasantry also improved with a reform of property taxes and a greater ease of land inheritance.
"It may bring luck...." See in text (Act I)
A common Russian superstition is that accidentally breaking a dish, plate, or glass will bring good luck. Varya is kind and quick to remind the despairing Dunyasha that she shouldn’t cry over the broken saucer, but it’s unclear how much of Dunyasha’s crying is due to Yasha’s having forgotten her.
Act II 5
"Asiatic plagues..." See in text (Act II)
Following an worldwide cholera outbreak from the 1830s–50s, countries in Asia—most significantly China and India, with transmission into Russia in the early 1900s—suffered from bubonic plague, an infectious disease that would eventually kill upwards of twelve million people.
"They call themselves intellectuals, but they use "thou" and "thee" to their servants, they treat the peasants like animals..." See in text (Act II)
Trofimov attempts to provide insight into how “the human race progresses” in this passage. Here he points out the failure of intellectuals to actually do anything of value. By saying that they use “thou” and “thee,” Trofimov makes a distinct point that is present in Russian grammar, but not so much in English. These forms represent archaic English pronouns used to address someone with familiarity. When these were in use, they contrasted with “you,” which was used to address multiple people or show respect to someone of a higher status. In Russian today, as in many languages around the world, the distinction remains. Trofimov is therefore saying that these “so-called” intellectuals will use familiar terms with their servants, but they will not truly treat them as equals.
"Emancipation..." See in text (Act II)
By “Emancipation” Fiers is referring to Tsar Alexander II’s abolishment of serfdom in 1861. Serfdom had been a part of Imperialist Russia for centuries, and for the newly freed serfs and landowners, there were many challenges. The class divisions were strong after Emancipation, and some serfs, like Fiers, preferred to continue in the same line of service for fear of change.
"[Drops the purse, scattering gold coins]..." See in text (Act II)
This stage action likely supports Chekhov’s intent to make this play a comedy. Madame Ranevsky is lamenting the lack of money available for meals while acknowledging her own spending problem. As if to punctuate her reckless spending, her coin purse drops. However, without skilled actors portraying these characters as a comedy, it is easy to read this scene more dramatically—Madame Ranevsky’s comments can easily be seen as deserving of sympathy rather than playful ridicule. Moments like this are good examples of how other productions of The Cherry Orchard have been commissioned as tragedies rather than comedies.
"I went into service when I was quite a little girl..." See in text (Act II)
By “service” Dunyasha means that she became a serf when she was a young girl. Since serfdom has been abolished by this point in the story, she is talking about how different life is for her now. While the abolishment of serfdom did present new opportunities for middle class growth, many former serfs remained in serving roles due to a lack of class mobility and new opportunities.
Act III 2
"if you're in Rome, you must do as Rome does...." See in text (Act III)
The the original Russian, Chekhov does not use this expression, and the original line reads “как говорится, попал в стаю, лай не лай, а хвостом виляй.” The meaning of this expression is essentially the same, however the translator chose to use a more accessible translation for Anglophone audiences. Pischin uses this line to state that while he may not be good at dancing, when one’s in the right place where everyone is doing the same thing, one may as well try and play along.
"the ancient stock of the Simeonov-Pischins was descended from that identical horse that Caligula made a senator... ..." See in text (Act III)
Caligula was the third Roman Emperor who lived from 12–41 CE. He famously loved his horse, Incitatus, so much, that he appointed him to his consul. Pischin uses this historical reference here to connect back to his phrase “I’ve got the strength of a horse.” Pischin comments that his father often joked that his family is so strong because they are descended from Caligula’s beloved horse.