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Chopping Up ‘The Cherry Orchard’

The Cherry Orchard

a play by Anton Chekhov, in a translation by Elisaveta Lavrova, directed by Peter Brook

The Shifting Point, 1946–1987

by Peter Brook
Harper and Row/A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, 254 pp., $22.50

With the support of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the British stage director Peter Brook has restored the Majestic Theater on Fulton Street in Brooklyn for two productions, the immense Indian epic The Mahabharata, which has completed its run, and now Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The old theater has not been remade, only stripped bare: there is no stage, no backdrop or curtain or proscenium, only a large space bordered in the back by a brick wall and on each side by four doors that open onto empty small rooms whose walls are covered with crumbling plaster and irregularly painted, as are other parts of the theater, in vivid Pompeian blues and reds. The appearance of the Majestic has been modeled on that of the old unused theater the Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has used since 1974 to present experimental theatrical events in Paris. Brook believes that the spare and ruinous appearance of the theater is less likely to allow the audience to be distracted from the action of the play.

Brook is one of the most imaginative theater directors to have emerged since World War II. He began directing plays while a student at Oxford University in the 1940s, and for his early productions he edited the texts, selected the music, and designed the costumes and sets. In a long career he has displayed a gift for creating disturbing and exciting images and situations on the stage. In his recent collection of pieces and essays on the theater, The Shifting Point, he speaks of the importance of what he calls “the central picture” of a play, from which the meaning of the whole work can be derived. The three people locked forever in a hotel room in No Exit is an image of this kind, he says; so are Mother Courage drawing her cart, Beckett’s people sitting under a tree or living in dustbins or buried in sand. Brook is able to create such images himself. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy world of Titania and Oberon is represented by acrobats on swings; the political and emotional meanings in the film of Lord of the Flies are revealed in close-ups of the pathetic fat boy Piggy. In his production of Genet’s The Screens a pair of colonists sit talking in front of a screen portraying a garden while a group of Arabs creeps up behind them and silently covers the screen with drawings of flames. Although this is called for by Genet’s text, the energy and rapidity with which Brook’s actors scribbled red and yellow chalk across the screen was exciting and distinctive.

Brook created his most celebrated images in his production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, which is set in a lunatic asylum whose mumbling, drooling, dirty inmates, including Sade, act out the main events of the French Revolution. Few who saw it could easily forget the upsetting sounds of balloons rubbed together and of scraped violin strings heard in the background throughout the play. Nor could they forget the distinctive facial expressions of Brook’s actors, or the way he had them stand and move as they told their story in dance, mime, and song while others among them sat masturbating and groaning and making speeches to the audience.

In his later work Brook has questioned the idea of theater itself. He thinks the theater need no longer provide us with spectacles and other forms of “entertainment.” It should instead become a kind of moral laboratory in which a “dynamic relationship” is established between the actors and the audience which results in freeing and expanding the “perception” of both. The theater, he writes, “must get away from creating another world…and must attempt to create a more intense perception at the heart of our own world.” To find a way of doing this has been the aim of many of the theatrical experiments he has undertaken in Paris and elsewhere. Few if any directors have explored so enthusiastically so many different theatrical traditions, not only well-known ones such as those of Brecht and Meyerhold, but also African and Asian and other non-Western ones. Like the French actor and writer Antonin Artaud, who also saw in the theater a form of redemption, he has come to believe that the theater should reject the traditional conventions of writing and staging plays—plot, “characterization,” exposition and development, suspense and timing and “pacing,” even a stage and décor and the primary emphasis upon words to convey character and ideas—that have been thought to be useful or necessary in creating natural situations on the stage.

In fact, Brook says, we do not need these devices to clarify or transmit the meaning of a character or a play any more than a modern painter needs perspective or other conventions of representational painting to “realistically” portray a face or a person. He believes that the actor must strenuously train himself through physical and spiritual exercises, and he has used in his workshops exercises of the kind created by the Polish director Grotowski—in which, for example, the actor forces himself to speak while executing a difficult physical movement like standing on his head, or tries to express a thought or feeling in an unusual way, by yelling, say, or whispering. He thinks the actor must also learn to be flexible and responsive in expressing emotion, and to question his motives for being an actor. And in another view suggestive of Artaud, he seems to want the theater to shock us into confronting our deepest “views” and conflicts and to clarify, and sometimes even subvert and exorcise, them through a kind of communal ritual in which what he calls the “fragmentation of the world” is overcome.

Brook does not clearly explain what he means, and as The Shifting Point reminds us, his enthusiasm for the ideas of visionaries like Artaud is not always lucid or consistent. But part of what he seems to mean is that the “theater event”—the performance of a play, for example—can ideally create a momentary, miniature society composed of actors and audience, each influencing the other, in which both might become better able to expand and to use their spiritual and psychic energies to their benefit, especially in resolving conflicts in their lives. This mystical aim may owe something to the longstanding influence upon Brook not only of Eastern mysticism but especially of the work of the Russian/Armenian thinker Gurdjieff, who emphasized in his philosophy the discovery and development of the spiritual “possibilities” he insisted existed in each of us and whose autobiographical writing, Meetings with Remarkable Men, Brook made into a film some years ago.

Brook has not confined himself to experimental work in the theater. He has directed Chekhov before, and the present production of The Cherry Orchard is based in part on one he created in Paris a few years ago.

The Cherry Orchard concerns the return of a landowning family, consisting of Madame Ranevskaya, her brother Gaev, her daughter Anya and her governess Charlotta, from Europe to their family estate in Russia. There they find Lopakhin—the son and grandson of slaves on the estate and now a prosperous merchant—who informs them that the estate, including its cherry orchard, must be sold if their debts are to be paid off. Chekhov called the play a “comedy in four acts,” and there are a number of scenes in the play that are little more than farce; but no one has ever successfully been able to treat the play as comedy.

At the center of the play is the disintegration of one way of life and its replacement by another. The landowners of czarist Russia are dying off, together with their feudal manners, their dinner parties and country games and picnics. The rising merchant class is pushing them aside, and a new way of life made up of new aspirations, new values, new ethical standards is coming into being. Many values and things of beauty are being destroyed as it gradually replaces the old ways of thinking, but no one can arrest its progress. The idle, ineffective world of the charming Mme. Ranevskaya and Gaev, who are dedicated to refinement and pleasure and try to escape boredom and vulgarity in long afternoon conversations in shaded gardens, must wither away, and when it does it will be supplanted by an ethic of work and thrift and money-making. There is no way to evade the uncomfortable truth that the two ways of life cannot exist at the same time.

The new world belongs to Lopakhin, who buys the estate from Ranevskaya, and who already lives according to a new code of conduct. He must “work,” he says: “I can’t live without work—I don’t know what to do with my hands, they dangle as if they didn’t belong to me.” The old world is represented by Gaev and by Firs, the servant of his childhood, who regards the emancipation of the serfs as a “calamity.” Trofimov, who was the tutor of Ranevskaya’s son, and who has returned to the household after the boy drowned in an accident, is a kind of living illustration of the conflict between the two ways of life, for while, like Lopakhin, he speaks of the need for “work” and for a new pattern of life, he is in fact an “eternal student” and no less an idle talker than Gaev.

Ranevskaya is often portrayed as an alluring, slightly comical sensualist, fluttery and irresponsible, but while she is feckless and self-destructive, she is also the wisest of the characters—kind, honest, generous. She is capable of sympathy for a great range of human feeling and emotion, for she has experienced a great many emotions herself: she has lost a son and squandered her money on a drunken husband and later on a lover who cheated her. When a beggar asks her for money, Lopakhin, the descendant of slaves, pushes him away brutally, but she gives the peasant more than he has asked for. She knows that the speculations on mankind and nature of her brother and Trofimov will solve nothing. She ironically tells the prudish and doctrinaire Trofimov—who, like Turgenev’s Bazarov, loves humanity in the abstract but understands nothing of it in detail—that

you can see the truth, you can tell it from falsehood, but I seem to have lost my eyesight, I see nothing. You settle every great problem so boldly, but tell me, my dear boy, isn’t it because you’re young, because you don’t yet know what one of your problems means in terms of suffering? You look ahead fearlessly, but isn’t it because you don’t see and expect anything dreadful, because life is still hidden from your young eyes?

This, one feels, was Chekhov’s own point of view. He was accused of having no philosophy and of offering no universal “solutions” to the social, political, and other human problems of his time. But one suspects that he had no “philosophy of life” because he knew that none was adequate. We discover ourselves in situations, he seems to say, that are not of our own making, but are the products of social and historical forces that are never within our control. Individual effort can change things, but only unpredictably and sometimes at the cost of great human suffering.

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