The Cherry Orchard

by: Anton Chekhov

Act One [From the beginning of the Act until Anya leaves for bed]

Yasha enters. He is a young servant who has been traveling with Ranevsky ever since she left Russia. Dunyasha recognizes him, but he doesn't recognize her; he calls Dunyasha a "tasty little morsel", and kisses her, causing her to drop a saucer. Yasha goes out, and Varya comes in, and asks what happened. Dunyasha explains that she dropped a saucer; Varya says that in the old days, dropping a saucer was considered good luck. Soon Anya decides to go bed, saying that she is tired from travel.

Analysis

The opening of the play serves several purposes: it first of all sets the focus of the play on memory and the past. We learn that the room we are in is called the "nursery", even though no children reside here. It was the childhood home of Ranevsky and Gayev. Lopakhin immediately mentions that he has not seen Ranevsky for five years and then mentions an incident that occurred between fifteen and twenty years ago, when he was a teenager. When the stage is briefly left empty during Ranevsky's arrival, the first person to return to it is Firs; his traditional servants' clothes and his advanced age both mark him as a figure from the past and associate Ranevsky's return with a return of that past, as his arrival on the stage directly announces hers. And both the main characters to whom we are introduced—Ranevsky and Lopakhin—are also defined by the way they relate to the past, specifically their childhood memories.

Chekhov here gives us both Lopakhin and Ranevsky's important character traits, and establishes their relationship. Lopakhin reveals himself almost immediately to be very self-conscious; he talks about what an "idiot" he is, for falling asleep and not meeting Ranevsky at the station and compares himself to "a bull in a china shop". When he talks about how Ranevksy cleaned his face after his father had beaten him as a child, he pauses after remembering the word "peasant". He then says, as if in argument, that he is now "rich". And after Lopakhin remembers being reminded of his place by Ranevsky, he then reminds Dunyasha of her place as well. All these remarks indicate that the source of Lopakhin's self-consciousness lies in the memories of his brutal, impoverished childhood. But these memories also include Ranevsky's kindness. Ranevsky's arrival, then, seems to create an identity crisis in Lopakhin, between the rich businessman he sees himself as now and the peasant to which Ranevsky was kind; his attachment to her draws him towards a past he no longer identifies himself with.

Ranevsky's first word upon her entrance into the scene is "nursery"; if Lopakhin is trying to distance himself from his past, she is moving towards it. She is full of childish enthusiasm and overstatement, describing the nursery - which she grew up in - as "heavenly". She weeps. She kisses Dunyasha, and says she feels like "a little girl again".

"Lyuba", Ranevsky's first name, means "love" in Russian, and she can be seen as a symbol of kindness. Her kindness, as we have seen however, is double-edged. Her kindness is that of the noblewoman to the peasant, there is some condescension underlying. Anya also tells us that despite of her poverty, Ranevsky insists on eating lavishly and tipping her waiters handsomely. From Varya we learn that after her son Grishka drowned, she "dropped everything and went," because "it was too much for her". This information paints Ranevsky in a more negative light; she is weak and unable to deal with or face reality. She may be fleeing into her memories to avoid facing reality, a reality in which (we already know) she is in debt and has lost two loved ones.

The tone at the play's opening is balanced and ironic. We learn that though it is May and the cherry trees are in bloom, it is frosty and cold outside. It is an image conflicted between the warmth of life and the cold of winter. Similarly, we have two main characters, both presented sympathetically, one of whom is trying to escape the past and the other who is trying to find refuge in it. Chekhov sets up a tragedy; time is flowing towards an end-point, a catastrophe—the sale of the estate. But in Yephikodov, we have "tragedy" taken to an extreme; his misfortunes are so constant and inevitable they are comic, as if Chekhov himself is mocking the play's sense of impending tragedy.