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.
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.
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.
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.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Cherry Orchard, Upstage