Mrs. Ranevsky And The End of Everything
A Short Essay
I’ve been thinking a lot about two things in the past couple of days: Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and the end of the world. I’ve been thinking about the play because I recently saw an adaptation of it at the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney. I’ve been thinking about the end of the world because of the world, and events in the world, and how all that seems to be going.
If you haven’t seen or read it, the main action of The Cherry Orchard revolves around an aristocratic family at the turn of the 20th century, grappling with the fact that their ancestral home, the one with the cherry orchard, is going to be sold out from under them to pay for their family’s insane, multi-generational debts.
The head of this family is Lyuba Ranevsky, a woman with no money, a dead husband, and an abusive con-artist boyfriend with whom she is still in love. In the time that we meet her, she is constantly on the precipice of a full blown mental breakdown, agonised by the impending loss of her home and haunted by the memory of her son, who drowned in the lake by the orchard when he was six. At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that Chekhov wrote this as a comedy1.
The family is offered a way out of total disaster — divide the orchard into leasable plots for holiday homes and use the rents to pay their debt. In this way, they still lose the estate, the world still changes immutably, but total collapse is avoided. At the risk of spoiling The Cherry Orchard, they absolutely do not do this.
Stories about people not wanting to face up to the truth are hardly rare. Sophecles worked out that audiences loved watching people run away from their problems, right off a cliff, and dramatists have been riffing on it ever since. But the very specific kind of denial you see in The Cherry Orchard — a sort of manic and strangely joyous rejection of reality — does make me think a lot about climate change.
And there’s something comforting, I think, about finding a really specific mindset that you thought was unique to your time in an old piece of writing. Maybe it gives us a sense of continuity with everything before us. Maybe it’s because we’re now told, more or less constantly, that we find ourselves in an unprecedented era, with unprecedented problems and an unprecedented way of thinking, and that to see something very specific in a 120 year old play you recognise in yourself or your world makes everything feel just a little more, for want of a better word, precedented. It’s a nice feeling to see that past might not after all be a foreign country, it’s just us in weird hats. In any case, here’s why I’ve been thinking about the very specific kind of denial personified by Lyuba Ranevsky.
The Cherry Orchard is about a lot of things, but a big part of it is denial in the face of looming catastophe. No one in the family, except for the eldest daughter Varya, is able to look reality in the face, and she spends most of the play in a state of Russian-grade depression, unable to do much more than point helplessly at the sky as the world-ending meteor slowly makes its way to earth, while her family dance and argue and reminisce about the old times.
What I think Chekhov has spotted about people — and he really was one of the top guys when it came to spotting things about people — is that there is a very specific kind of problem with which the human brain just refuses to engage. Ranevsky isn’t denying reality because the thought it makes her sad or because it’s something she doesn’t want to have happen, but because to accept that it’s happening would require accepting that the fundamental tenants upon which her entire worldview is built are wrong. You’d have to rewrite the entire thing. We’ve always had the cherry orchard. We’ve always had the planet.
Except these things can change. And we know they can because the people who we rely on to tell us these things are telling us these things. And they’re not only telling us what is happening, they’re telling us exactly what we need to do about it.
LOPAKHIN: I tell you in plain language that your place is up for sale and you can’t even seem to take it in.
RANEVSKY: But what are we to do about it? You tell us that.
LOPAKHIN: I do tell you. I tell you every day. Every day I say the same thing over and over again.
I don’t want to underplay the role of powerful external forces in our reaction to man made climate change. There are multi billion dollar industries with a stake in manipulating the public into positions of lethargy on the looming disaster, but I also don’t think the public would be receptive to this manipulation if we didn’t already have this fundamental inability to actually process existential threats. If anything, the merchants of doubt are just exploiting that vulnerability in our make up.
I don’t think we’re meant to particularly dislike Ranevsky. Like all good comedy, it works because we care — and we care because Chekhov cares, deeply — about the people to whom the horrible thing is happening, even when they’re the cause. Ranevsky is just someone who’s reality shut-off valve is a little more fragile than most. But we all have that point at which our brains encounter a problem so vast it just powers down and plays us a clip of a bear in a little car to keep us sane.
The stakes of The Cherry Orchard is the future of Ranevsky and everyone unfortunate enough to be caught in her blast radius. The stakes of the end of the world are signifcantly larger, but rely on overriding the exact same mental killswitch, and so the upshot of all this is that we’re probably doomed. Then again, Chekhov only a once in a century genius on the human condition, so there’s every chance he’s wrong here.
Whether or not The Cherry Orchard is meant to be funny has been a problem for the play since day dot. When Stanislavski staged its premiere as a po-faced tragedy in the winter of 1904, Chekhov was so pissed off that he died out of spite in the summer of that same year. (note: many historians disagree with my assessment here, citing his “rampant, old time tuberculosis” as the likely cause of death).