Checkhov, The Cherry Orchard and Climate Change
So, recently had to read The Cherry Orchard for my On Stage Studies Global Modern class and was super traumatized by the ending. I was struck by the imagery of the titular cherry orchard being cut down at the end of the play. I thought how this horrible deed could symbolically mirror the environmental destruction our society is grappling with in 2019. Then I wondered if Anton Chekhov might have actually intended this environmental interpretation. And what I found was that he very likely did.
The play is typically described as a commentary on the rise of the middle class in early 20th century Russia. And I believe that is definitely a significant focus of Chekhov’s writing. But I also imagine that his observations of the changes occurring in Russian society and the central human conflict of the play could be an elucidation of his personal concerns for the natural world if capitalism continues unchecked. In The Cherry Orchard he could be commenting on the link between humanity’s selfishness for prosperity and the destruction of nature. Chekhov himself speaks of this link in a letter stating, “Life on earth is inconceivable without trees. Forests create climate, climate influences peoples’ character, and so on and so forth. There can be neither civilization nor happiness if forests crash down under the axe, if the climate is harsh and severe, if people are also harsh and severe.... What a terrible future!”. He also writes a whole speech about the environment in Uncle Vanya where the character Astrov says, “Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the wild life is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day”.
Obviously, the destruction of the environment was a concern to Chekhov. Couldn’t the destruction of the cherry orchard in this play be a symbolic expression of the destructive consequences of modernity and capitalism on the natural world and even our own humanity? I think it can and it is. Three of the reasons that we are still letting our environment be destroyed in 2019, are the very same reasons that the cherry orchard ends up getting destroyed: blind ignorance, inertia and greed.
If you are reading this, just think "What impact am I having on the natural world? What could I do differently? And why have I not thought about this before?"