Real and Dramatic Spaces: Interpreting Čexov’s Cherry Orchard in Pre-Independence Ireland

Maggie Ivanova, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Ireland’s first encounter with Čexov’s Cherry Orchard took place in June 1919. Presented at the end of the Irish Theatre Company’s 1918-19 season, in George Calderon’s 1909 translation, the play was viewed primarily through Irish lenses: reviewers and audience actively searched for representations of Ireland’s political climate in its themes and characters. The fate of Ranevskaja’s and Gaev’s ancestral estate, thus, was seen parallel to the problems the Anglo-Irish Big House owners experienced at the turn of the century when, due to tenants’ refusal to pay rent, many struggled without much success to keep up their property. Although quite superficial, such similarities may explain to an extent the anti-English sentiments which infiltrated and saturated Dublin’s response to Čexov’s dramatic work. As the boundaries between art and propaganda blurred, Irish force politics and cultural nationalism colored drama reviews quite noticeably. An extreme case of this it is worth mentioning: a notice in the Leader (5 July 1919) called Cherry Orchard an “Anglo-Russian play” marred, one may infer, by the translator’s English origin. What is hard to explain, however, is the fact than only six months after its premiere, when Cherry Orchard was revived at the Irish Theatre, the reception of the play took a somewhat surprising turn towards warm acceptance. Already entangled in the current debates about Irish nationality and cultural identity, new interpretations of Cherry Orchard implicated it also in the debates about the future of Ireland’s national theatre and the direction it should follow: first, whether or not it should create and produce Gaelic- or English-language drama and, second, whether it should be inward-looking, exploring “authentic” native dramatic forms and themes (peasant drama), or outward-looking, welcoming the influence of modern European themes and forms.

In an attempt to investigate the process of hibernicization of Cherry Orchard and its role in shaping an Irish dramatic tradition alternative to that espoused by the Abbey Theatre, this study reconstructs and analyzes the play’s 1919 premiere and its subsequent revival, relying on methodological tools borrowed from Hans Robert Jauss’s aesthetics of reception. For the purposes of this study, I have adapted Jauss’s hermeneutic approach to literary history to include the aesthetic experiences of theatre audiences and theatre practitioners. Adhering to the basic concept in Juass’s argument, that the public is “itself an energy formative of history” and that “the historical life of a literary work is unthinkable without the active participation of its addressees” (164), I examine the relationship between playtext, theatre practitioners, and spectators in their potential capacity of co-authorship in the meaning-making process and in determining the early reception history of Čexov’s Cherry Orchard. I have also been guided by Jauss’s assertion that in its historical life a literary work by no means reveals a “timeless essence,” but, instead, should be viewed as, also in Baxtinian terms, “an orchestration that strikes ever new resonances among its readers and that frees the text from the material of the words and brings it to a contemporary existence” (166). In other words, this study aims to reveal what stands behind the “new resonances” in Cherry Orchard’s reception in Pre-Independence Ireland.